MUSIC: Unacknowledged Healing by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

Unacknowledged Healing by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

I once read a brief article that featured a photograph and explanation of “clinicorgans.”  These were small, portable pipe organs that were “particularly valuable in orthopedic treatment of hand and forearm injuries, as well as in restoring muscular activities following certain types of hand surgery.  The organ was primarily intended for orthopedic and psychiatric use in veterans’ hospitals.”  The article reminded me of what an important role music can play in healing.  In this case, the instruments were built so the keyboard could be placed in the patient’s lap, and “the weight of the keys was adjustable.”

The image of the organ as an instrument of healing awakened in me memories of coming to church fragmented and exhausted, sometimes from grief, sometimes from tragedies that overtook friends, sometimes from the brutal atrocities committed by warring nations and races, sometimes from the sheer intractability of the world’s urgent problems.  Then the organ began to play.  Sometimes it was a soft, slow, piece on a flutey stop; sometimes it was something big and brash.  But whatever it was, it was a sound that could transfigure light in the darkness in my soul.  It gathered the fragments of my being into a pattern of resilience, renewed energy, and hope.  It was a healing every bit as palpable as regaining the use of a muscle by playing a clinicorgan.

My story is not unique.  Scores of people have shared similar experiences with me when I have led workshops on music and worship and when I have taught courses on the theology and practice of church music.  They recall these stories with thankfulness for the musicians whose art had restored their equanimity of soul.  I often ask them if they told the musician what had happened, and the answer – with a few exceptions – was no.  I do not believe this is for lack of gratitude or even generosity.  I think the explanation is more complex.  The healing that sometimes comes through music goes so deep that to name it is to acknowledge just how vulnerable the human creature is, just how exposed a soul feels about such matters.

As a preacher I am familiar with this phenomenon.  Over several decades of preaching, I have now and then received a note or a card about a sermon years after I preached it.  The note often includes some qualifying explanation in which the person says, “At the time, I was too moved to speak to you,” or, “I felt so tender about this I did  not want to go up to you right away.”  But now, years later, the remembrance of it is still in the person, and she or he feels secure enough to signal from their soul to mine what happened.  I used to have a colleague in pastoral care, James Ashbrook, who called such notes “periodic reinforcement.”  He said, “Every now and then someone waves a flag to you: yes, I received, yes, I heard, yes, it meant the world to me.”  But then for a long, long stretch, no flag is waved, and you wonder: does what I am doing really matter?  Ashbrook said to me: “For everyone who waves a flag, who lets you know your work matters, there are many, many more for whom it matters just as much, though you will never hear from them.”  I believe that is as true about music-making as preaching.

So every time you perform music – be it for a religious community or concert venue – trust that there are fragmented people listening with their hearts as well as their ears, and your artistry will bring restoration to them.  Some soul will overflow with gratitude for your playing or singing.  I hope that at least now and then you might hear back from them, but even if you do not, keep playing, keep singing.

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