A Tribute to Susan Palo Cherwien's Life and Final Release, Living in Wonder

Jun 11, 2024 9:00:00 AM / by David Cherwien

Susan Palo Cherwien authored 123 hymn texts in her 68 years. 102 of them in were published in three collections before her death in December 2021. The most recent release, Living in Wonder, includes 21 hymns not yet published at the time of her death.

Susan did not set out to become a profound author of hymn texts. She believed that the universe (God) provides opportunities along our path through which we evolve into our journey, our calling, and perhaps meaningfulness for our incarnate lives. Her journey demonstrates this.

Susan grew up in the small steel country town of Ashtabula, Ohio. There were bankruptcies and a broken marriage for her parents, who divorced shortly after Susan graduated high school. Susan’s hymns evoke a loving, caring God rather than an angry, punitive one, perhaps influenced by her home life. This thinking was also boosted by discovering Matthew Fox’s book Original Blessing early in her adult life. How could a loving God be angry and punitive?

Her high school had a vibrant music life, which sparked an interest in high-quality music. Her Finnish Lutheran congregation introduced her to a rich repertoire of hymns, which she was encouraged to memorize at a very young age. This memory bank never went away, witnessed well into her adult life as she sang without the aid of the hymnal. Her undergraduate studies brought her to Wittenberg University, where she pursued her love of music and liturgy with a degree in Church Music, with voice as primary instrument as opposed to keyboard such as organ. The junior year of that program brought her to Berlin, Germany, an experience that prompted her to return to Berlin following graduation from Wittenberg to study voice at the Conservatory of Music for six years. At this school she spoke and sang in many languages and had a professional performance schedule as a singer.

After she met her spouse, David Cherwien, in Berlin, Susan and David returned to the states, where her career in singing dried up. Rather than despair, she simply opened a new door by attending Mundelein College for a degree in creativity, spirituality, and the arts when the family moved to Chicago. Wise and deeply spiritual mentor-professors there helped her develop the path of creating hymn texts.

All of these ingredients early in her life set in motion her vocation as a poet of hymns rich with new imagery, metaphor, and intense musicality.

Other ingredients contributed to her unique understanding of God and living as people of God. A voracious reader, she never stopped expanding her thoughts—adding her evolving insights along the way. While not an ardent feminist, she was deeply aware of the imbalance of the images for God and avoided overused images such as “Father” or any male references to God and humanity. While she frequently referred to Christ, rarely does the word “Christ” appear together with a masculine pronoun. She also loved science, and her studies led her to draw connections between God, the evolving universe, and science.

Influenced by Indigenous spirituality, Susan believed in the interconnectedness of all things—especially humans and the earth, understanding the earth as a living, evolving being of which we are a part. There was no separation of human and earth—in fact, they are one and the same. This is reflected in her hymn “Dust, remember you are splendor”—connecting the word human with humus (dirt; dust), or earth in its splendor, rather than the penitential understanding of returning to dust as punishment for sin.

She often used words with multiple meanings, and frequently employed metaphor, as she felt singers could enter a metaphor and find themselves at any point, rather than a theological concept or doctrine.

As an author and witness, I believe Susan’s hymns will live on in the expression of assemblies for years to come.

Topics: Music Ministry, music

David Cherwien

Written by David Cherwien

David Cherwien is Cantor at Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, a position he has held since 2001. He also served as Artistic Director of the National Lutheran Choir from 2002 until 2023. He and Susan Palo Cherwien met in Berlin, Germany, and were married in 1981. They lived in Seattle, Chicago, and Minneapolis until her death in 2021.

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