While the hymn was written as a prayer I don’t think the spirit of life is code for God. I don’t think this hymn is about getting something from a big daddy god in the sky. Our appeal to the spirit is more subtle than that. This reminds me of a story my catholic friend told me about the boy who kept praying to God for a bike. “Dear God, if you give me a bike, I will be good for two weeks”. His mother scolded him that God doesn’t answer prayers like that. So the next day the boy tried harder, “OK God, here’s the deal, if you give that bike I will be good for the entire month”. His mother, once again chided him, “you can’t negotiate with God that way”. A few days later his mother, a very devout catholic noticed that her statue of the Virgin Mary was missing, in its place was a sealed note in her son’s handwriting. Wondering why he would have taken the statue and left a note, she opened it up. It read “Dear God, if you ever want to see your mother again, deliver the bike by 9 pm or else”.
The spirit of life is not a bike or a statue or a god, but a power that is in us and among us.
Last Thursday I walked into a hospital room and I was sure death was waiting. Two nurses stood over Mary holding her hands. I introduced myself and they told me that she was near the end. They had been unable to reach her family, although I knew her son Evan had been with her all night. Marian was barely conscious, one eye staring off into the distance, already leaving her body and seeing the light beckoning beyond. The nurses left and sat down beside her and held her hand as her breathing slowed. She was not anxious or in pain, simply slowing down. I prayed a pray of peace and release, remembering what a Franciscan monk had once to told me about prayer; it’s not praying to God, its praying for God to be present. And then I stroked her head and told her it was ok to go. I told her that Don, her husband who had died five years ago, was waiting for her on the other side, all dapper and handsome. She of course could not answer me. But I went on, recounting her amazing life; one of the first female social workers to work with abused kids in Los Angeles, one of the founders of Toberman Neighborhood Center, which awarded her a lifetime achievement award two years ago for her 40 years of support and fundraising. I spoke the words of honor and release that were hers to hear. I watched her breathing slowing further. 15 seconds, 20 seconds, thirty seconds, and then she stopped. I waited for that last breath in, like the very first she took as a baby 87 years ago, but only her very last exhale remained. The nurse came in, she had been following her on the monitor. “She is gone” she told me. I said “her body is gone, but her spirit lives on”. “Did you know her?” “I was her minister” I said, “she was a real hero, this little lady” and I recounted her work as a social worker, a fundraiser and a mother.
All of that took 13 minutes from the time I walked into the room until her spirit passed over. I had, by luck or fate, arrived just before her departure. Perhaps she needed me to give her permission to leave. I know Evan, her son, was upset at not being there, but this is very normal, especially with the strong of will. We wait until our loved ones are gone to leave our bodies.
I tell you this not to sensationalize a tender moment but to talk about the Spirit of Life, that curious phrase named for our prayer before worship. I believe, as did Carolyn McDade, the author of this little song that the spirit of life, is like the third person of the Trinity, the holy spirit of the divine sent into us at birth, enhanced by grace, and departed at death. I have held the hands and bodies of over a dozen people who have died. And I can always feel the spirit of life passing out of a body. It’s not measurable to the touch but to the soul of those left behind. The Spirit of Life, comes and goes and we are the richer for it.
With Grace and Grit, John