Among the many things I have learned in this practice is that while on one level, hymns are communal, they are in fact highly personal; a song one might love is the very one that another hates with the fire of a thousand suns. Some of my favorites have been met with derision, and some of the hymns on my nope list have been defended so strongly that I have felt like a pariah.
But then there are some pieces that are not only widely beloved but also become useful tools for pastoral care, community building, and spiritual practice – like today’s amazing piece by Sarah Dan Jones.
I asked Sarah Dan if we could chat (and maybe produce a Hymn by Hymn Extra) but her schedule wouldn’t allow for it; she did, however, share some of the background:
I wrote the song just after September 11th. (You can hear the full song here). I was so filled with despair, and I needed to channel that into some hope. When the call came for Singing the Journey, I decided to submit the chorus as a chant. Susan Peck helped me set it (she actually wrote the descant line).
The song has since taken on a life of its own. It was sung at a student vigil after the Virginia Tech shootings (I know that because of an article in the Washington Post that someone brought to my attention. The text was listed, but no attribution).. It has been sung at rallies all over the place – Phoenix GA (and before, when folks were arrested protesting Arpaio). I have given permission for its use at camps, congregations who put together their own “hymnal”, and youth groups. I have had requests from all over North America, and Europe. I have no idea how and where it is being sung, so I have to let that go.
When folks talk to me about it (like when I sing it when visiting out), they range from parents using it to sing their kids to sleep, adults using it in meditation, hospice choirs. Once, a man told me about how he and his husband had purchased two pigmy goats – they were in the back seat being driven to their new home and making all kinds of noises. The men starting singing the chant and the goats calmed down (I often tell that story and note how the chant it multi-species!!).
Yes. Sometimes a song is just timeless. And while the verses of the full song are in some ways specific for its origins (although some days, it seems perfect for the moment), the chorus, which we sing, is timeless.
When I breathe in,
I’ll breathe in peace.
When I breathe out,
I’ll breathe out love.
Breathe in, Breathe out,
Breathe in, Breathe out
I will say this one thing: the rhythm of the drone (Breathe in, breathe out) is not square, and congregations are wont to square it up, which throws the other two parts off and before you know it, the whole song’s gone pear-shaped. It is really important to have strong voices hold that syncopation down and fight against the squaring off… because when it’s done right, it’s simply amazing.
What a gift this piece is – to our movement and beyond.