A Song and the Terminally Ill

Weekend Fisher at Heart, Mind, Soul, and Strength has in the last week been running a series on spiritual resources for the terminally ill and their caregivers. Now, where I’m placed in my life’s journey has not found me interacting closely with the terminally ill. However, it so happens that this Sunday afternoon our choir visited a terminally ill member of our congregation who is (had been) a member of the choir. I hadn’t gotten to know at all over the past year so we haven’t been visiting until now. But … to the point.

As our final song, our choir sang St. Simeon’s prayer (in the west the Nunc Dimittis) :

Νυν απολύεις τον δούλον σου, Δέσποτα, κατά το ρήμα σου εν ειρήνη,
ότι είδον οι οφθαλμοί μου το σωτήριόν σου,
ο ητοίμασας κατά πρόσωπον πάντων των λαών,
φως εις αποκάλυψιν εθνών και δόξαν λαού σου Ισραήλ.

or more usefully

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

This is a song well known in Orthodox liturgy as it is part of the Great Vespers service, which in the States is sung every Saturday night.

On the drive home, we were discussing in our family whether this was appropriate to sing in the presence of the dying. I think it is, for that is the precise context of St. Simeon’s urge to speak these words. He has now seen the Christ child and is, as an elderly and likely infirm man … ready to depart … life. The common usage of this song is at the end of a service, and often “now let thy servant depart” is taken as to depart from this place of worship and return to secular life. However, that is now what was meant in the original context. So in that regard, as a song for the dying … it both is appropriate and may provide some comfort.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One comment

  1. Anne says:

    I definitely think songs are “in bounds” for the dying. My grandmother, on her deathbed, sang a song or two herself.

    The hesitancy we feel about singing in the presence of the dying is the entirely right precaution to make sure we’re in step with the dying person’s wish. The emotional rollercoaster of dying is not easy, and a misstep could easily come across as heartless, out of touch, and insensitive rather than supportive and comforting. So I guess my two cents’ would be that we take our agenda from them when it comes to music, rather than coming with our own musical agenda. It may be, in their mind, a time for silence … or for Amazing Grace, or the Nunc Dimittis … or the favorite setting of Psalm 23 … I even heard of a ministry (I heard this a good few years ago) where there are harpists who come play peaceful music to accompany people in their deaths.

    All the best to you and your parish holding the hands of the dying. A bittersweet and holy time.

    Take care & God bless
    Anne / WF