In a hospital room eight stories high,
which offers a stunning view of a prairie that sprawls for miles, I’m poised over sacred ground. From up above the thunderclouds, the heavy rain falling on the preserve casts a serene blue haze. This room has not been raised for worship, to honor or to celebrate, but instead, to temporarily house the sick and injured, to treat patients with skill and compassion. It will only be sacred for a short time before it is bleached, wiped and mopped clean of any trace of the room’s current occupant. A leather-bound bible is splayed open on a rolling table. A shrine of photos and greeting cards covers the windowsill. Stylized scripture verses are taped to the glass.
I’m here today to play a guitar and sing songs. The patient welcomes me from her hospital bed. Though her enthusiasm has been dimmed by rounds of chemotherapy, she is eager for music and she asks me if I know any gospel songs. I was raised by a Christian minister – I say “Yes,” and I list several church hymns for her to choose from. She chooses one called the Old Rugged Cross about a savior who bears the weight of the sins of the world. When I sing, the meandering notes and lyrics intersect with my own story. As soon as I begin, I am transported to a choir box in a Baptist chapel where I sang as a teenager. Though I no longer practice any religion, I remember the ardor associated with the hymn and the exponential power of communal singing. The memory helps me to find the right voice. I’m repurposing every rendition I can recall of this song to inform the version I’m singing for her, hoping that it provides comfort.
The patient is transfixed by the music. Her floating hands are now half raised with open palms. Her eyes are misty and looking upward through the ceiling as if into the face of God. She is whispering praise and thanks into the air with a beautiful smile. Whether this woman is in some real heavenly presence or reveling in the rhapsody of faith, the effect upon her physical being is undeniable. She is having a cathartic experience in the midst of extreme pain. This reaction to music is common among people of faith. Emotions in the context of spiritual practice are some of the most open and immersive experiences I can remember. I want to respect this space, so I sit silent for the next few moments. When she speaks, she tells me how lovely it is to have someone sing to her, especially in these circumstances. ”You’ll never know how much it means to me,” she says as she regains her composure.
Spiritual catharsis is beautiful and unpredictable. Spirituality is not bound by practical parameters. It is a fluid emotional experience. Belief systems can be applied to any subject matter within the mind of a believer, and in times of adversity, this kind of catharsis can be emotionally disorienting. I want to take the next few steps of the interaction with care. I ask a seemingly banal question considering the depth of emotion she is engulfed in, “Where are you from?” I’m hoping to help her align these powerful feelings with a real, grounded narrative. If she has just ascended to the heights of heavenly bliss, it seems reasonable to drop a GPS pin on her hometown, to help guide her back to our shared, earthly location. Her eyes shift to me and she takes a moment to collect her thoughts. “West Virginia. I lived there for most of my life.” I ask her more about her home and her family. She tells me about her siblings and her children. Her thoughts start to merge with her emotions – I imagine synapses flickering on like fluorescent tubes in a giant warehouse, illuminating a vast inventory of sensory memory. Within this sterile room, we are constructing a sacred space that allows the patient to move beyond the restraining leash of chemotherapy tubing hanging from a hook above her head. She’s running through the fields as a child. Her father is playing old country records in the family room while her mother tends a garden. She is simultaneously here with me telling these stories that were lying dormant, recalling them to life. We have reached a beautiful place somewhere between a promised land and her hometown and I think it might be time for another song. “Almost heaven, West Virginia/ Blue Ridge Mountains Shenandoah River/ Life is old there, older than the trees/ younger than the mountains and blowing like a breeze/ Country road, take me home.” She’s in reverie again, only this time she’s singing and smiling, gazing out over the prairie.
This song prompts even more stories, and as I listen, I quietly compile a playlist of songs to correspond with each one. She tells me about her life in High Springs, Florida – the work and health complications that led to the decision to move to the south, the gradual shift from her initial hesitation to a deep appreciation for the natural beauty of the springs, beaches and wildlife. She says it just took a little bit of time to look around and notice the things that were right in front of her every day. That it was a matter of perspective. She’s tired from the talking and asks me to play another spiritual song. I suggest one called “This is My Father’s World”. She has never heard it before, but she’s open to something new. It is a hymn more commonly associated with the Presbyterian tradition and she’s a Baptist. These hymns tend to be very poetic and liturgical in their musicality. I tell her I like the song because it puts me in a meditative frame of mind. Each stanza focuses on a different little piece of planetary life and paints every part of this beautiful world as one great creation whose life pattern drives them perpetually to their source. “This is my father’s world/ the birds their carols raise/ the morning light/ the lily white/ declare their maker’s praise/ this is my father’s world/ he shines in all that’s fair/ in rustling grass I hear him pass/ he speaks to me everywhere.” She tilts her head back into her pillow with a contented smile and drifts off to sleep. I slow the chord progression and rest here in an arpeggio lullaby, marveling at the innocence of this moment, wondering when was the last time anyone sang her to sleep.
In a few moments I’ll say a silent goodbye and leave her to rest. The heavy rain cloud is upon us now and fills the room with an evening hue. She is bathed in a serene, blue haze, baptized and peaceful.