All week I have been haunted by a hymn we would sing during communion when I was young. I don’t think I have heard it in over fifteen years because it is neither in the Presbyterian nor Methodist hymnals. Since the last time I was a regular worshipper in the Episcopal church was before I had a driver’s license, I know it has been a very long while. As I walk around camp, I find myself singing this setting of the sixth chapter of John, part of his discourse on the Last Super which also happens to be the gospel text for this Sunday. Jesus’ words, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me shall never be hungry and whoever believes in me shall never be thirsty,” triggered my memory, and the song came flooding back as if I had been singing it all along.
Sister Suzanne Toolan wrote both the words and the tune for “I am the Bread of Life” sometime in the early 1970s. Since then, it has been translated into over twenty different languages and included in a variety of hymnals Catholic and Protestant alike. While there is not much about her available on the internet, one website mentioned that she is an active participant in the Taize community in France and its sweeping missions of ecumenism. I was unaware of theTaize movement until my university chapel started a weekly Taize prayer service. One Tuesday, I was asked to lead the singing. Not really knowing what it would entail, I agreed. It was never easy for me to say, “No.” I convinced my best friend and her boyfriend that they should come with me, in case there was no one else in attendance. The service started off fine, but when I started chanting in Latin, my invited guests started to snicker. I have never been able to contain my laughter, particularly during church when I am desperately trying to maintain composure, so things devolved quickly. The service was not quite a complete disaster, but they never asked us to come back.
While the Taize community follows tenants of monastic tradition, over the last sixty years it has drawn Christians from all over the world to come and sing, worship, and better understand Christ’s message. It is the music that has originated from this community which has reached to the furthest corners of the world. Most Taize songs are simple and easy to pick up through listening to one or two verses. Their lyrics also have coherent theological foundation in church tradition spanning centuries, and the words whether in Latin, Spanish, English, or some other language, point to the fulfillment of God’s kingdom, a place and time where both God’s love and peace will reign. I am not surprised that my theme song from this week would have some connection, however distant, to the Taize community and its message of eternal life.
Music has a unique way of linking us viscerally to our past, to people and memories which bring us back to a moment in our history, often one that has been buried and even forgotten. Singing the refrain of “I am the bread of Life” over and over throughout these days has helped me revisit my childhood church sanctuary and even relive the motions of communion, my solemn procession to the communion rail, folding my hands in the shape of the cross and waiting for our priest to place a round wafer on my palm, sipping wine with a straight face, even though it tasted so sour, and walking quietly back to my seat, trying to pray instead of look around at all the people who were silently doing the same thing as me.
When I sing this hymn I see flashes of church mothers and fathers who nurtured me from infancy, who taught me through word and deed what following Jesus might look like in my own life. Many of them have died, including my own grandmother, but when I sing this song, I can’t help but feel their presence as near as it felt when I knelt upon the prayer bench beside one or the other, first learning to sing and pray. The words of this hymn remind me of what I have known all along but what I have too easily forgotten in the midst of the grief and loss I have experienced.
In one of the hymn’s final verses, Toolan weaves a few more of Jesus’ words proclaiming, “I am the resurrection. I am the life. They who believe in me, even if they die, they shall live forever.” I think these are the words that have stuck with me most. It’s not just that I am in Afghanistan and reminded often of how fragile life is, particularly when I am invited to attend another memorial ceremony for a fallen US service member. But, no matter where we are, life seems to flow too quickly, and in the process, take all of us away with it. The reality of our finitude grows stronger every day. Yet, singing about God’s promises, even when I wasn’t sure what the words really meant, has helped me to find a faith which withstands even the sting of death. In many ways, I know that I am still finding it. Perhaps, this is why I keep singing.