STLT#123, Spirit of Life

There are some who consider this to be The UU Hymn – it is perhaps the best well known of the insider songs, used throughout the denomination as an invocation, a sung response to joys and concerns, a hymn of meditation, even a song of welcome to membership (in my home congregation, if someone signed the book outside of a membership Sunday ritual, those who were near would gather to speed-sing this to the new member).

I’m not so sure we’re using it right. Carolyn McDade purposely wrote this as a personal prayer. In a 2007 interview in UU World, McDade reflects with contributing editor Kimberly French on the initiating event, a meeting for Central American solidarity:

What she remembers most clearly was the feeling she had. “When I got to Pat’s house, I told her, ‘I feel like a piece of dried cardboard that has lain in the attic for years. Just open wide the door, and I’ll be dust.’ I was tired, not with my community but with the world. She just sat with me, and I loved her for sitting with me.”

McDade then drove to her own home in Newtonville. “I walked through my house in the dark, found my piano, and that was my prayer: May I not drop out. It was not written, but prayed. I knew more than anything that I wanted to continue in faith with the movement.”

And thus, this prayer was written. A request for support, for rest, for renewal, for perspective.

Not, as it happens, a declaration of theology.

Because as a declaration of theology, it stinks. It’s incredibly self-serving, individualistic, narrowly focused. As a prayer, it is clear and focused and perfect for its intention. But it should never have become The Song. For the … oh, who am I kidding, I don’t have any readers who don’t know this one… but here are the lyrics anyway – look at them as though you are reading a statement of belief:

Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.

See what I mean? Great lines, focus on compassion and justice, inclusive name of that which some call God, but it’s all ME ME ME ME. I recall a conversation with fellow Unionite Ranwa Hammamy about this, where we wondered: what happens when you make it a collective prayer?

Spirit of Life, come unto us.
Sing in our hearts all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold us close; wings set us free;
Spirit of Life, come to us, come to us.

Still not a theology, but a beautiful communal prayer, and maybe on the right path …shifting from the individual to the beloved community, a struggle we’ve been having our entire existence (certainly since Emerson shocked the establishment with his commencement speech at Harvard Divinity lo those many years ago).

And maybe praying for us, instead of me, will help us get out of our own way. As Nancy McDonald Ladd described at General Assembly last year, we must stop focusing on the “fake fights we waste our time on,” as others struggle against injustice. Instead, we should be focused on “real struggles and real battles” and not “confined by the smallness of our loving.” She said,

“The world does not need another place where like-minded liberals hang out and fight about who is in charge. … we need to lean into the real fights of our age. … And we cannot do that holy work together unless we are really willing to set aside our own need to win and reach out our hands and seek the deeper understanding that comes with difference.”

Spirit of life, come to us… Come to us.

4 Comments

  1. I really appreciated your reflection on this hymn. I’d never thought about the “me vs us” issue — very thought-provoking! My main problem with the way it has been used in many congregations is in its over-use. As much as I love it, even I can get sick of it when it’s sung every week and becomes rote. However, my biggest bone to pick is when it’s used in connection with taking the offering, ugh… Note: my congregation has begun an evening “singing vespers” practice (similar to taize), where I think it will fit beautifully. 🙂

  2. Huh. Dunno. I like it a whole lot better as a personal prayer than in the “we” version. Spirit comes to us when it comes, and not necessarily at the same time. I think it’s power is exactly as McDade wrote it, a plea for sustenance and strength. Then again, I don’t feel a need for it (or anything else) to be The UU Hymn.

    • Ultimately, that’s where I sit – as a theology, it stinks, and us makes more sense. But as a personal prayer, as intended, it’s just what’s needed, so let’s use it that way.

  3. Pingback: STLT#199, Precious Lord, Take My Hand – Notes from the Far Fringe

Leave a Reply