Changing Church: Patrick Michaels, Minister of Music, St. James’s Episcopal Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Author and Composer

Patrick Michaels
Lifetime Partner, Loving Friend
Antiphon:  Lifetime Partner, Loving Friend,
                   Fount of Wisdom, Source and End,
                   She is God, Holy One: Glory!
Look! Behold her dark gracefulness,
moving between worlds with ease—
anywhere she is, her home is!
In her wake the waters roll and part
and slaves are made a people.
Look! Behold her great openness,
seeing and embracing all,
welcoming each new encounter!
In her presence, strangers speak and hear
and learn from one another.
Look! Behold her full radiance,
shining out from depths of love,
blessing the weak and the timid!
In her spirit, wine and bread are shared
and life is given freely.
Look! Behold her hard suffering,
knowing what she cannot say—
eloquence bruised and then broken!
In her silence, sorrow fills the ears;
the world awaits her story.
Look! Behold her quick liveliness,
taking pleasure in all things,
singing and dancing and playing!
In her laughter, joy and peace abound
and health becomes contagious.
Antiphon:  Lifetime Partner, Loving Friend
                   Fount of Wisdom, Source and End,
                   She is God, Holy One: Glory!

This hymn by Patrick Michaels affirms the biblical truth that all human beings are created in the divine image. Imaging God as a dark female contributes to overcoming the racism and sexism that have led to the denial of the sacred image in women and in people of color. He comments: “When we include images of God that are black-positive and dark-positive and when we include images of God that affirm night time as a time of God’s own creation and mystery, we affirm our understanding that all humans are created in the image of God.”

In writing this hymn, Patrick says that he focused on one of his friends. “As a person of color, she impressed me in the way that she could live in different ‘worlds’ and be at home in different settings. This seemed to me to be a spiritual gift, and one which I had never as a white person been required to recognize or name before. I named others of her spiritual gifts in succeeding stanzas. I gained spiritual insight by shifting my focus and staying fixed on the female images for God that I had right in front of me. New language, like ‘her dark gracefulness,’ then became both obvious and necessary to remain true to my task.”

Language and images for God are foundational to our social justice work, Patrick believes. “The imagery that we use for God must affirm our highest dreams and aspirations. God is the source of our freedom and liberation from oppressive structures. God wants us to be free of the prejudice of racial or gender inequalities and the effects of institutionalized racism and sexism and homophobia. These are our common sins, and we name them in community by singing and preaching and praying and by working to eliminate them in our common life. Language for God can set the stage for this work, and remind us that we are all in it together.”

Patrick Michaels grew up in a Roman Catholic family and attended Catholic parochial schools through the eighth grade. “Critical thinking was part of that inheritance, and I continued a time of questioning and discerning which has brought me this far,” he relates. He trained as a classical pianist, earning a music degree from the University of Minnesota. In 1974, he began his career as a musician, serving as music director for the University Episcopal Center at the University of Minnesota. There he met his future spouse, Laurie Rofinot. When she decided to pursue ordination in the Episcopal Church, they moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, so she could attend the Episcopal Divinity School. Patrick began serving as minister of music at St. James’s Episcopal Church in Cambridge and has continued in that position for thirty years. From 2004-2012, he also served as director of chapel music at the Episcopal Divinity School.

When he was working at the University Episcopal Center at the University of Minnesota, Patrick first encountered inclusive language. “I was not entirely receptive to it, as the process of changing language of hymns was messy and entailed more work,” he recalls. “However, I was never against the idea of it, and I learned that change could be done at a grassroots level. When I started reading feminist theology, my eyes were opened to the painful reality that women and men were not treated equally in most arenas in the United States. Mary Daly made a particularly great impression on my thinking. I formed and joined men’s groups to discuss and wrestle with what it means to be a man in this time. I was introduced to new attitudes about church, gender, and sexuality.”

When Patrick and Laurie moved to Cambridge, he continued expanding his thinking. “This was a formative period for me, as I had time to read and reflect on my place in society and the privileges accorded men in this world.”

In the 1970s, Patrick began writing hymn tunes and texts and now sees this creating of new hymns as one of his main ministries. “I love introducing new hymns and songs, often with female imagery for God, to congregations and have had the opportunity to do that in workshops, consultations, and conferences.”

At the 2002 Hymn Society Conference in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I attended Patrick’s workshop entitled “Hymns with Female Imagery for God.” I delighted in the female divine names and images in his hymns that are missing in the majority of traditional and new hymns. At the 2013 Hymn Society Conference in Richmond, Virginia, I reconnected with Patrick and was glad to learn that he is still writing hymns with female divine imagery.

Patrick relates his personal journey to inclusive divine language and imagery. “I discovered that the image of God as Father was empty to me and didn’t carry with it any of the expected associations of fatherhood. This was not because of deficiencies in my own father, but because connections between human and divine had never been made explicit. When I encountered the image of God as Mother, it immediately brought my own mother to my mind, and very slowly, I began to understand the power of language to form our thoughts and feelings. Only then did the image of God as Father begin to take on new meanings for me. I believe that by naming God as Father or Mother or Friend, etc., we allow those actual people in our lives the freedom not to be gods to us—we can expect to have finite, flawed, loving, and forgiving human relationships with them, and not require them to be our saviors—or perfect in any unhealthy way.”

For his hymn “The Holy Spirit Came to Me,” Patrick says he drew from relationships. “I decided to write each stanza which describes the Holy Spirit by focusing on a particular woman in my life—mother, teacher, friend, spouse—and seeing what I could say about God based on who that person was to me. This allowed me to think ‘outside the box’ in a very natural and simple way.” Here are the lyrics of this hymn:

The Holy Spirit came to me—
she fed and clothed me, worked and played;
she showed me how to look and see
the world, and not to be afraid.
The Holy Spirit came to me—
she taught me music of the soul,
and showed how time and sound and touch
combine to make a radiant whole.
The Holy Spirit came to me—
and soon became a trusted friend;
though springs and winters come and go,
her constant love will never end.
The Holy Spirit came to me—
she loved me as I was, but said
she loved me more, and sought to bring
to life the me I’d left for dead.
The Holy Spirit came to me—
she knew my worth and saw my need;
she lifted lids, she opened doors,
we swept the house and planted seeds.
The Holy Spirit comes to me
in every time, on every side;
wherever I may turn, she is
already there: my friend, my guide.

Our imagery for Deity influences our relationships with one another, Patrick believes. “The words we use are a tool which we use to step closer to people or away from them. Using female imagery for the Divine is one way to step closer to others because it affirms our communal ability to discern and judge for ourselves what is life-giving and what we have in common. This is as equally valuable for men as for women and children.”

Patrick also comments on the value of multifaith and multicultural language and imagery in hymnody. “When we sing from many diverse traditions, we affirm our belief that God created all of us and loves us with all the things that give us life. Language inclusive of these images allows us to remember that God is greater than any one tradition, and that God delights in the diversity of all creation.” On the website of his church is this description of the music at the church: “Music serves as a significant expression of our praise to God and our ministry to one another. Alongside traditional church hymnody, we incorporate music from several different traditions into our worship service. In the last year, we surveyed several Christian hymn traditions: Asian, Hispanic, Celtic, and African. We draw upon the diverse cultural history and original material of our parishioners.”

Expansive language and imagery for Deity are important for people of all ages, Patrick asserts. “Children are comfortable with expansive language for God, as their world is expanding every day as they grow and mature. It makes sense to them that God is beyond any language, but that language can help us learn about God. If adults want to continue to grow and mature, then expansive language for God will help them grow and stretch. Adults need to remind themselves that their childhood understandings of God will not be sufficient for continued growth and spiritual maturity and that the new experiences they have as adults will require new understandings of who God is. We refer to this when we say ‘the living God.’”

When people are not open to expansive language for Deity, Patrick responds with biblical education and personal stories. “Some people are resistant to female images of Divinity. Showing them biblical passages that use female images for God is the simplest way to educate them. They can absorb the parts of tradition that they have neglected and have a new relationship with scripture—which can open them to see other things in new ways too. I have found that telling my story, sharing my insights, and leaving room for others to speak is the most rewarding experience of my church membership. We have had Hymn Sings of pieces with female images for God. I assembled ten or fifteen songs, and we sang through each piece together and then broke into small groups of two or three and shared our reactions to the piece. This was very successful. Most interesting to me was that many people had never been given an opportunity to share their feelings and thoughts about hymn texts and tunes ever! The female images for God became only one aspect of people’s reactions. They commented on a wide range of other material as well. This exercise brought people closer to each other; there was no need to persuade or convince each other about anything, so everyone’s voice was heard and respected.”

The creative ministry of Patrick demonstrates his belief in the power of music to transform individuals and the church. “Music is one of the best ways to revive people, bring them together, and educate them. Singing songs engages the senses and the mind. New theology is most easily taught and absorbed through musical and poetical forms. I consider the musical repertoire of the congregation to be an essential and ongoing project in the work of liberation. And the choice of that repertoire is the church musician’s biggest challenge and greatest reward. Fortunately for us in the U.S., wonderful music is accessible to most of us who are looking for ways to nurture and challenge our congregations. Resources abound at both the local and global levels. Musical connections to others are waiting to be made, and insights about how to work together are abundant.”

Patrick Michaels contributes to liberating music resources through his prolific work as a hymn writer. Some of his hymns are published in hymnals with worldwide audiences. One of these hymns is “Who Comes from God? (Sophia)” to a familiar tune often used with the traditional Catholic hymn “Hail, Holy Queen Enthroned Above.” Here are Patrick’s new lyrics:

Who comes from God, as Word and Breath?
            Holy Wisdom.
Who holds the keys to life and death?
            Mighty Wisdom.
Crafter and Creator too,
Eldest, she makes all things new;
she ordains what God will do,
Wisest One, Radiant One,
            Welcome, Great Sophia!
Who lifts her voice for all to hear?
            Joyful Wisdom.
Who shapes a thought and makes it clear?
            Truthful Wisdom.
Teacher, drawing out our best,
magnifies what we invest,
names our truth, directs our quest,
Wisest One, Radiant One,
            Welcome, Great Sophia!
Whom should we seek with all our heart?
            Loving Wisdom.
Who, once revealed, will not depart?
            Faithful Wisdom.
Partner, Counselor, Comforter,
love has found none lovelier,
life is gladness lived with her,
Wisest One, Radiant One,
            Welcome, Great Sophia!

© 1989 Hope Publishing Company


One thought on “Changing Church: Patrick Michaels, Minister of Music, St. James’s Episcopal Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Author and Composer

  1. Dear Patrick,

    I’m working on the Companion for All Creation Sings, the supplement to the ELCA’s ELW. What can you tell me–what should I know–about “Breathe on Us, Breath of God”? And could you supply your birth date with day, month, and year, where you were born, where you studied with degrees and years, and anything else you’d like to be there? I’ll edit it and send it back to you to check.

    Paul Westermeyer

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