Hymns have played quite a role in my life lately. Perhaps it is more appropriate to say that they have played a role in death.
At the beginning of Holy Week, I got a call that my grandfather was on his deathbed. He would die that day, it was only a matter of hours. While not shocking news, I’d known for months that the end was nearing, when faced with the realization that I was now losing my final grandparent, I had to figure out what to do with myself for the final hours of his life. Living 20 hours away, there was no option to attempt to see him before he passed. I wanted and knew that I should pray for him, so I made my way down to the chapel.
Sitting in the presence of the Lord, I suddenly had a strange problem: simultaneously I had no idea what to say, and yet I was swarmed with thoughts and words I wanted to say to Christ in the Eucharist. I wanted to comfort my grandfather in his last moments, but felt helpless to do much of anything. After a rosary and a Divine Mercy Chaplet, I found myself grappling for another prayer, longing for the comfort of written word, something I wouldn’t have to compose when I could barely compose myself. My own words seemed so small and diminutive in the face of the presence of death, and yet the utter silence of the chapel made me long for
Without being able to explain it, I felt strongly that my grandfather was struggling with dying, that he lacked the peace to let go. I may or may not be right on that and I will never know if I was, but in the moment I thought of my grandmother, who passed away 10 years before. A professional singer with the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard, my grandpa loved to hear her sing. Despite that none of her descendants inherited even half her voice, I suddenly wondered if song would help bring grandpa the peace he needed to pass on.
I grabbed a hymnal and asked God to make my song a prayer for Grandpa, that on some level, Grandpa would know that I was singing to him, for him, singing him into eternal life. So, sing I did. Alone in the chapel, I sang my grandfather through his dying hours. St. Francis of Assisi is famous for his statement that singing is praying twice. How incredibly true, for a flood of grace and peace overwhelmed me in that tiny chapel, and I felt closer to my grandpa than I had in the last five years. I felt some of the greatest peace and tranquility of my life, and I had to believe that the same was granted to my grandfather.
Two weeks later, on our drive back home from his funeral, the car was filled with a depressed silence as my family wrestled with the events of the preceding weeks. Six hours into a 20 hour drive, we put a classical playlist on. Slowly, we began to feel human again, only then realizing how numb and empty we had been. From classical, we moved to hymns and my mom and I sang along with every one. Reveling in the joy of the “alleluias,” we belted out every hymn we could think of, singing along, crying at their beauty, laughing at the tangible relief in the car… healing.
What incredible healing power hymns have. Silenced by pain and evil, struggling to feel human even more so to feel emotions, our entire family had encountered a week so awful we were incapable of making sense of it, speaking of it, healing from it. Yet hymns allowed us to break the silence and to encounter truth, beauty, and goodness at a time when we were incapable of doing so ourselves. Hymns made present to us the all-encompassing mercy and beauty of God’s love, and allowed us to rest our weary souls and rejoice in the Lord. Indeed, by turning to hymns, we communed with Truth, which is the lifeblood of the soul.
If singing is praying twice, then praying hymns is more than simply praying twice. It is that by which we feed our souls, uplift our spirits, encounter the Lord, and in doing so, become whole when broken. Turn to hymns in times of despair, and trust that they will lift your spirits ever upward, “opening to the Son above.”