Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: A Place of Wholeness: A Program for Youth Exploring Their Own Unitarian Universalist Faith Journeys

Spirit of Life

"Spirit of Life" by Carolyn McDade is one of the most often sung hymns from Singing the Living Tradition. In 2007, Kimberly French interviewed Carolyn McDade about "Spirit of Life" for an article in UU World magazine. This is an excerpt describing the night she wrote the song:

Like much of McDade's music, the genesis of "Spirit of Life" was a very personal one. Late one night in the early 1980s, she was driving her close friend Pat Simon home from one of those meetings. In UU tellings of the story, it has been called a church social-justice meeting, an anti nuclear-power demonstration, and a remembrance of Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco city supervisor who was assassinated in 1978—versions that may work well to make a sermon point. But McDade says it was 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."

The song started as a prayer by a woman who was trying to stay in faith with a larger social justice movement. But "Spirit of Life" slowly grew into a life of its own. The song spread to Unitarian Universalist congregations, and when the Unitarian Universalist Association published Singing the Living Tradition in the early 1990's, "Spirit of Life" was included. It had become an important hymn for Unitarian Universalists.

For many Unitarian Universalists, this hymn is a regular part of coming together. A creative Unitarian Universalist added hand signals. Some churches use "Spirit of Life" as part of their weekly worship ritual—as the chalice lighting or as part of the closing. It has also been sung as a prayer for strength. As hundreds of Unitarian Universalists gathered to prepare for the banner parade at the 2003 Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, a man from Colorado experienced a heart attack in the middle of the crowd. As medical first responders worked to save his life, the others gathered spontaneously broke into singing "Spirit of Life."

"Spirit of Life" began as a prayer by a single woman with no intention of it becoming a hymn for a religious movement. However, that is exactly what happened to it. In the hymn we sing, "Roots hold me close; wings set me free." In this case, the roots are the prayerfulness that is at the center of the song's creation, and the wings are all of us who sing it and spread it throughout our faith community.