History of Hymns: "When Memory Fades"
By Donté Ford and C. Michael Hawn
|Dr. Mary Louise (Mel) Bringle|
When memory fades and recognition falters,
when eyes we love grow dim, and minds, confused,
speak to our souls of love that never alters;
speak to our hearts by pain and fear abused.
O God of life and healing peace, empower us
with patient courage, by your graced infused.*
Life yields many circumstances we cannot avoid. As mortals, our bodies grow frail, and our mental capacities may diminish over the years. What does one do in these instances? Mary Louise Bringle (b. 1953) wrote “When Memory Fades” for a friend whose mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Bringle’s sensitivity to this passage in life’s journey and attentiveness to the needs of the world has contributed to her recognition as one of the leading hymn writers in the English language today.
Dr. Mary Louise (Mel) Bringle is a professor at Brevard College, Brevard, North Carolina, where she teaches philosophy and religious studies. She received her Ph.D. from Emory University and attends Trinity Presbyterian Church, where she is an elder. She is also a recent president of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada and served as the chair of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song, the group responsible for the most recent Presbyterian (PCUSA) hymnal, Glory to God (2013).
Inspired by a lecture from Candler theologian Roberta Bondi, Mel Bringle wrote a series of “hymns for heretics“ to enliven her classroom teaching. As a teacher of early church history, Dr. Bringle developed hymns to help her students learn the early theological stances and debates that existed prior to the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.).
of Christ the Living Whole,
akin to human beings,
with body, mind, and soul.
Yet, though He seems so like us,
one question yet remains:
Can Christ be fully human
with Logos for His brains? (Text set to AURELIA)
This creativity and desire to engage her students launched her vocation as a Christian feminist hymn writer.
Categorized in Glory to God under “Living and Dying in Christ,” “When Memory Fades” is a hymn that touches on life, both mortal and spiritual. Written specifically for the tune FINLANDIA, the stirring theme from the orchestral work of the same name by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), its rhythmic and melodic solemnity are well suited to the honesty of hesitation and hope in the words.
This hymn text, prompting one to acknowledge the frailty and inadequacies of our earthly vessels, looks to God, who is the source of all life. Dr. Bringle guides the singer through emotions of petition, grieving, and gratitude. Rather than asking for healing, she is concerned about remembering and declaring who God is in the midst of this situation.
Professor Bringle draws heavily upon Scripture, especially referencing the psalms and the epistles. Stanzas one and two address the experience of pain. The second half of each stanza addresses God. “O God of Life and healing peace” (stanza one) suggests Psalm 36:9, where God is declared the giver or fountain of life. The last line of stanza one “with patient courage” strongly echoes the sentiments of Psalm 31, “Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen your heart” (KJV) .The text leading into line four of stanza one petitions God to “empower us,” and concludes with strength gained through God’s “grace infused.” Second Corinthians 12:9 declares that “my [God’s] grace is sufficient.” Encouraged by Paul to “fight the good fight,” the servant is comforted by the psalmist’s words, “The Lord is my strength.”
Stanza two of “When Memory Fades” speaks of God’s will as a mystery still being completed by God’s servants. “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end” (Jeremiah 29:11, KJV). While it is unknown to the servants, Jeremiah assures the servant that God knows our every need. The calm assurance of the God who will sustain us concludes stanza two:
We grieve their waning, yet rejoice, believing
your arms unwearied, shall uphold us still.
The poet begins the final stanza by declaring the eternal nature of God’s love and ends with the declamatory statement “deathless life is won!” Hebrews 6:10 reminds us of the following, “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love” (KJV). Because in Christ we are freed from sin (Romans 8), we can receive the gift of eternal life (Romans 6:23); even when strength and memory fail us, we cannot lose this promise.
One of the most significant gifts of this text is how the hymn writer gives dignity and theological meaning to God’s “aging servant.” In spite of the present situation, God’s “goodness lives unfading,” a statement in antithesis to fading memories in the first line of stanza one. Present suffering becomes more bearable and gains perspective when we draw upon memories of the past and hopes for future resolution. Then the poet, in a richly reverberant phrase, seizes on a central thought that places into context the condition of one suffering from loss of memory and dignity: “no valued deed will ever be undone.”
From a broader theological perspective, this hymn may be seen as Trinitarian. In stanza one, the author makes a direct reference to God (“O God of Life”), asking for the empowerment of grace. Stanza two speaks of the aging process, an incarnated bodily progression. That process includes becoming weak and tired. The phrase, “Your arms, unwearied, shall uphold us still,” suggests an image of Christ on the cross. The final stanza addresses the third member of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit.
This hymn was first published in the author’s collection, Joy and Wonder. Love and Longing: 75 Hymn Texts (Chicago: GIA Publishing, Inc., 2002). A second collection of her hymns, In Wind and Wonder, was published in 2007. In addition to finding their way into recent hymnals, Dr. Bringle’s hymns are increasingly chosen for a variety of anthem settings. She is also known for her translations of other poet’s texts, making them accessible to English-speaking congregations. For a discussion of her theology of hymn writing, see http://www.eewc.com/Articles/songs-unsung/. Mel Bringle is truly a twenty-first century hymn writer.
*© 2002 GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Donté Ford is a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, where he studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.
C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.