What are ten things that all Unitarian Universalists need to know about their faith community? Ten things that are distinctive and unique? Each month we’re counting down, from Number 10 all the way down to Number 1, as a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Association, in May 2011.
This month, we’re looking at item number 6, which is the title of not only one of the best loved pieces of liturgy in Unitarian Universalist congregations around the world, but also is a popular name among Unitarian Universalists for the Sacred. Number 6 is “Spirit of Life.”
Listen to what Kimberly French, writing in the UU World, has to say about “Spirit of Life” the hymn: “No other song, no other prayer, no other piece of liturgy is so well known and loved in Unitarian Universalism…. It is our Doxology, or perhaps our ‘Amazing Grace.’ Many congregations sing it every Sunday, or at least enough to know the words by heart. Sermons have been devoted to this one song. A new adult religious education curriculum being field-tested this fall is based on the song. It is sung at weddings and memorial services, around campfires and at demonstrations, at cradles and hospital bedsides. In six short lines “Spirit of Life” touches so much that is central to our faith—compassion, justice, community, freedom, reverence for nature, and the mystery of life.”
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.
Kimberly French is right. For me, there is something about this song that sends shivers up and down my spine. The kind of Unitarian Universalism that matters is the kind that does exactly this sort of thing—gets under your skin, becomes a part of you. “Spirit of Life” does this for us.
In her UU World article, Kimberly French also said this: “[‘Spirit of Life’] finds the common ground held by humanists and theists, pagans and Christians, Buddhists and Jews, gay and straight among us.” I think she’s right about this as well—not just about the song, but also the language in itself. “Spirit of Life” is language that is rich enough to speak to people whatever their personal theology happens to be. It’s theological common ground. For most everyone, if not all, “Spirit of Life” can name those things that bring hope and renewal to us, as well things that inspire wonder, awe, and reverence.
It certainly worked out that way for the writer of the hymn, Carolyn McDade. Kimberly French tells the story of how the song was originally written. “Late one night in the early 1980s, [Carolyn McDade] was driving her close friend Pat Simon home from … a meeting for Central American solidarity, probably at a college. 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.”
For Unitarian Universalists, “Spirit of Life” has become our name for whatever brings hope and renewal to us, whatever inspires wonder, awe, and reverence. Whatever keeps us from dropping out. Whatever keeps us keeping on.
That’s number 6 in our Unitarian Universalist Top Ten countdown!
Rev. Anthony David