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Sacred Words

Barbara McAfee Posted by Barbara McAfee.

Barbara McAfee is a musician, coach and consultant with over twelve years of experience in organizational change.


“Sacred Words” the song everyone requests whenever I lead a community song circle these days.

“Sacred Words” the song everyone requests whenever I lead a community song circle these days. Created by a California artist who goes by the name Sophia, it is a chant weaves sacred words from five of the great religions of the world into a harmonious whole.

The first part consists of one repeated note using the words from the Buddhist tradition, “Om mani padme hum,” which translates as “the jewel in the heart of the lotus.”

Layered on top of that is a simple melody line using words from the Islamic tradition: “la ilaha illa’llah hu” which translates to “There is no God but God.”

Then two words float above the other two parts. “Shalom” from the Jewish tradition and “shanti” from the Hindu. Both words carry two meanings: “peace” and “greeting.”

Finally words from the Christian tradition — “Gloria in excelsis deo” (“glory to God in the highest” in Latin) – weaves through the entire piece. The tune comes from the well-known Christmas carol “Angels We Have Heard On High.”

I am aware that millions of people around the world have been singing, chanting, and praying these sacred words for ages. At any given moment, millions of people are calling them forth with devotion. As we sing them, we join our voices to theirs with respect and reverence.

Rhythm is an essential part of making this chant work. Without it, the disparate parts collide and the harmony falls away. I’ve come to understand that the common heartbeat underneath all of these traditions is that of the beautiful blue planet we share. The metaphor is a powerful one – our diversity can be beautiful and enriching when we remember that we all belong to this place and to each other.

After we get all of the parts going, I invite the singers to mingle as they sing. Last weekend I led the song with over 60 people at my regular community sing. I chose to stand in the center and close my eyes. Around me I heard the voices of the world joining in one song. Singular voices would float by and then fade back into the whole.

I never direct the ending of this chant. I let the group find its way to closure through the deep listening that the singing requires. We always, always find a good ending together. The long and resonant silence after the last notes fade is the sweetest part of the experience. The song echoes on in the silence among us. The air shimmers. We breathe together. There are tears, lots of tears.

In these troubling times – as in many others — terrible things are done in the name of religion, things that run directly counter to the values of love, generosity, kindness, and justice that all of these traditions share. Through our singing and listening, through our breathing and moving together, we affirm that there is nothing to fight about, that there is room for everyone in the great song of life.

Click here to listen to the chant