“Music approaches the sacred through the wordless avenues of the heart.” Carrie Newcomer
Music is not central to my life, words and images are the way I connect with myself, others, and the greater whole. At the same time, music has given me gifts I needed when I needed them most.
Several years ago, on the path to ministry, I had to complete a Clinical Pastoral Education unit, learning chaplaincy in a hospital setting. I was very anxious about doing this placement. Hospitals make me nervous and the unit was run by a nun who was reputed to be a tough cookie. Everyday I would have to talk to strangers.
Rumours swirled about how the unit was difficult and intense, we were to expect tears and drama. I am a low key kind of person and happy to leave the drama to the Stratford Festival. This was the one part of my ministry education that I was dreading.
There were seven of us in the unit. Two Lutherans, an Anglican, a Baptist, a Catholic priest and a Pentecostal. And me. Two of them felt that hospital chaplaincy was their calling, one was doing an advanced unit, the others were excited to be there and seemed like naturals. I compared myself constantly and came up short. Their words, their presence, their attitude, even their clothes, all seemed more appropriate to the work.
The first couple of weeks were spent in an on-going anxiety. I tried to take care of myself. I spent time with friends. I walked the dog. I ate chocolate.
As part of the unit, we went to the seminary once a week for a class. I could sit in my favourite seat by the window which got the morning sun. These were good days. But my anxiety, despite my awareness of it, and my attempts to calm it, still stood tall.
In the third week, in the class at the seminary, a fellow student was giving a presentation. This being a seminary, she asked us to begin with a hymn and handed out copies of the music. It was Come and Find the Quiet Centre, which I knew and loved, as the first verse was sung weekly as the lead in to meditation at First Unitarian Toronto.
I sat in my favourite spot, sunshine pouring in the window, surrounded by beautiful voices, singing a beloved and familiar hymn. “Be at peace and simply be.” I could feel the anxiety dissolve away in sunshine and song.
I had found that quiet centre and I knew then that whatever happened at the hospital, I could handle it. I was okay just as I was. I, with all my strengths and weaknesses, was capable of this work.
It was a moment of supreme peace that kept me healthy for the rest of the summer. While there were tears and drama at the hospital, I handled it. The nun wasn’t such a tough cookie, after all. And while I still had my share of anxious moments, the experience in the classroom had shifted something. It allowed me to find the solid place to stand inside of myself. I stopped measuring myself against everyone else. I stopped assuming I was the only one struggling. I was able to hold onto that core of calm even as I sat with pain and illness and death.
The song and the sun allowed my heart to open up and let go of the anxiety I was protecting myself with. And letting go that protection allowed me to be present for the patients, to truly sit and be with them in their struggles. Compassion could enter the space once filled with worry.
Music can connect us to ourselves, to one another, to the greater whole. Music and the spiritual are entwined. This month, we explore how music shapes our spirits and our lives.
We’ll be singing the first verse of Come and Find the Quiet Centre this month for our gathering song. Here’s a sweet rendition from a high school in Alaska.