O breath of life, come sweeping through us
Source: Singing the Faith: 391
Words: Elizabeth Ann Head (Bessie Porter Head)
Music: “Spiritus vitae” by Mary Jane Hammond
Ideas for use
The structure of the three verses of this hymn suggests the possibility of reversing the more common crescendo towards a final, triumphant conclusion.
In Elizabeth Head’s description, the Holy Spirit is experienced first as a powerful force to be reckoned with (cf. the dramatic Pentecost events described in Acts 2). She invites it to “come sweeping through us” and, in verse 2, to “come, bend us, break us”. This, she implies, is what it takes for the Church to be transformed into the kind of body of people that God requires. We need to be cleansed (v.1) and to confess our reliance on God (v.2). But verse 3 suggests a hushing of the fierce wind as we sing of the “breath of love” breathing within us.
Try singing this hymn with a loud, powerful opening, and gradually lowering the volume towards the prayerful final line: “revive your Church in every part”.
Not much is known about Elizabeth (“Bessie”) Ann Head (1850 – 1936). She is said to have been born, variously, in Norfolk or in Belfast and she was for a time secretary of the YWCA in Swansea. She worked in the mission field in South Africa and, in 1907 at the age of 57, she married Albert Alfred Head. Both evangelical Anglicans, they were also members of the annual Keswick Convention. “O breath of life” was included in a collection of her verses, Heavenly Places and other Messages (1920).
The original version of the hymn has five verses and the first verse reads a little differently to the version in Singing the Faith:
O Breath of Life, come sweeping through us,
Revive your church with life and power;
O Breath of Life, come, heal, renew us,
Prepare our hearts to meet this hour.
Verses 2 and 3 (also included in Singing the Faith) describe the Holy Spirit as “wind of God” and “breath of love”. The original version then goes on to invoke the “Heart of Christ, once broken for us” and concludes with this final verse:
Revive us, God! Is zeal abating
While harvest fields are vast and white?
Revive us, God, the world is waiting,
Help us go forth to spread the light.