Sacred Heart Songs for a Sacred Journey
Hearing is the first sense to come in while we’re in the womb. Hearing is also the last sense to go. There’s nothing like singing to someone on his deathbed to remind you of how awesome life is and how small problems really are.
A friend who was working in hospice said to me, “I want to make this man’s passing holy. I can’t seem to find how to do it.” The man was Jewish. I suggested, “I can come over and sing Hebrew chants.”
My friend is a brilliant, former software engineer who now gets paid much less to tutor children and do hospice work. Although his bank account is less well fed these days, his heart and soul are abundantly overflowing and his life is meaningful.
We were on King’s Mountain sitting on a deck facing a yard full of redwood trees discussing a man’s passing. Hard to imagine that less than ten miles away an industrial freeway hummed with fast paced traffic bringing people home from their Silicon Valley jobs. But in the forest, no one is king and no one gets out alive.
I found my Self at the dying man’s bedside a few days later. His eyes were closed and his breathing wasn’t that labored, yet. My friend informed me that Richard hadn’t communicated or even opened his eyes for 24 hours or more. I leaned over and put my hand on his head while I spoke softly to him, “At the end of life, all the stories of life fall away, and all that’s left is Love. So let the stories fall away, Richard. Just watch them fall away.” He seemed to nod slightly.
“Shema Yisrael, Adonoi Eloheynu, Adonoi Echad.” The first line of the most important prayer in Judaism was sung through me with no warning. Richard twitched in response. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” This is the prayer that for devout Jews, is the first thing on their lips at the start of the morning, the last thing on their lips before sleep and the last thing on their lips before death. Richard heard and felt the message of Unity behind this prayer. This time, maybe he heard it as the call home.
The next song was what I had planned to sing first. “Shalom Aleichem” calls in the angels of peace, the angels of song. “Peace to you, angels of God,” begins the comforting melodic chant with Middle Eastern intervals. It ends with, “May you leave in peace,” which suddenly had even greater meaning given the circumstances.
I’ve sung to dying people before. Each time I sing to a person in hospice I feel like I’m doing profound sacred work. It feels like a blessing, a mitzvah, a good deed. My mantra before doing this work is, “The Divine expresses in, through, as and all around me.” Saying this with deep intention gets my little self out of the way so that the very highest and best can happen. It gets me out of judgment of my voice, critical thinking, keeps me centered in the heart, and is my personal ritual before being in service in a way that has been cultivated for years.
Each Hebrew song or chant came back to me, although it had been years since I sang so many all at once. The words and melodies were easily remembered and the placement of the tones was exquisite. I witnessed as the sounds came through me in the most beautiful way imaginable. The heights soared, the mid tones sailed and the low tones resonated with a deep sense of knowing. The minor scales came easily, notes bending like reeds swaying in the wind. This was described by a friend who was a classical musician as, “You sing in quarter tones.”
When I got to the 23rd Psalm, I stopped and said, “You know, there’s a line in this psalm that has another interpretation than the usual translation in English.”
My friend was anxious to hear it. “Do tell. Being raised by a Protestant minister, I heard this psalm often and had huge problems with it,” he shared passionately.
“Thou preparest a table for me in front of mine enemes,” I began.
“That’s exactly the part I have trouble with!” my friend interrupted.
I continued, “Another interpretation is, ‘thou preparest a table before me in front of my sorrows.’ Maybe its interpreted the way it has been because our sorrows are our enemies.” This seemed to satisfy my friend. “Just feel it this time. Don’t think of the words,” I suggested. My friend nodded, closed his eyes and sat quietly while I began, “Mizmor le David. Adonoi ro-eeh, Adonoi ro-ehh, lo ech-sad, lo ech-sad.” which translates to “Psalm of David. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”
With each song the Presence was felt. Richard showed signs of recognition during the melodies that are most popular in North American synagogues. His eyelids would flutter, or his right hand would tremor, or he would grunt, or make some noise. His appreciation was felt, which only deepened my gratitude; gratitude for being called to service; gratitude for being able to serve in such a meaningful, unique way; gratitude for the beauty, love and depth beyond the physical realm coming through my voice.
Sometimes I would hum and the humming would meld into familiar intervals, and then the words would come. “Kadesh, kadesh yameinu, kadesh yameinu, ke-kedem – Make us holy (sanctify us) as is in the days of old.” Richard grunted and sighed deeply. “Maher Ahoov, chi ba mo-ed, ve choneni kimei olam – Hurry Beloved, for the time is near, and have mercy on me for all time.”
Many tunes later, when the time felt right, I placed my hand over Richard’s heart and said, “Richard, remember to let go of the stories of life and let Love prevail.” Richard grunted and fluttered his eyelids to let us know he understood and to thank us for the time we had together.
“Have a good journey home, Richard,” I said. Before I turned to leave, once again the melody came through unexpectedly and we ended where the session began, “Shema Yisrael, Adonoi Eloheynu, Adonoi Echad – Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” I prayed it was the last thing Richard heard.
Although I was the one singing, it felt like Richard gave me a gift. Love sings me and it is a great joy. In the end, I get out of the way and all that’s left is Love.