The Healing Nature of Music
by Eleanor Wroath, Saint Michael Choir Member
Back in January, the adult choir (where I sing soprano every week) sang Edward Elgar’s glorious anthem “The Spirit of the Lord” at the 11 o’clock service for the Third Sunday after The Epiphany. This is one of my very favorite pieces and Jonathan and Meg suggested I explain why. My compatriot, Elgar has long been a composer dear to my heart—I am from England and the longer I live away from my homeland the more nostalgic and fond I become as the sweeping and romantic themes found in “Nimrod’ from his Enigma Variations, for example, take me on a virtual journey to green and pleasant lands.
Elgar composed “The Spirit of the Lord” in 1903 as part of his oratorio “The Apostles” Op. 49 for soloists, chorus and orchestra. We are more familiar with this piece as it is often used as a choral anthem. He assembled his own libretto for the work from verses of both the Old and New Testament and in this particular anthem from the books of Isaiah and Luke. I first came across this piece at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, NJ where I also sang in the choir before our move to Dallas. It spoke to me on so many levels – musically, spiritually and most importantly, lyrically as within this scripture I found the kernel of what it means to heal, to reconnect with my faith and to find the comfort in joy and beauty after painful personal loss - represented here, as by so often in the Bible, a garden.
Before we moved to America in 2011, my husband, son and I suffered a tragic loss when our 15 month old daughter and sister, Miranda died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2008. Our world was entirely shattered and as I raged and wept my way through that unfathomably painful first year without her, the only place I felt peaceful and safe was in my garden. I could putter around silently - nurturing, tending, watching things grow. I could be physically active, participate in repetitive, mindful tasks but most of all I reconnected and absorbed my loss at my own pace as I watched my garden bloom and die. Mother Nature’s random cruelty had robbed me of my beautiful daughter but I could be angry with her in a safe, controlled way, whilst recognizing her powerful rhythms could bring beauty, joy and healing back to my life. For example, I remember that first spring without Miranda, I was very resentful of the sun – how dare it be so jolly, yellow, bright, so wretchedly life affirming? I wanted to shrink from it, cover it up with black, grey clouds. Then I saw how my seedlings needed that sun, how they would stretch towards it for sustenance, for warmth, for energy. I let the sun begin to soothe me. Around this time I started regularly going to church again and found comfort and healing in the rituals of communion and of course, in singing the beautiful music and hymns from my Anglican childhood.
Since that time I have become increasingly interested in the role nature can play in a person’s healing process. Significant scientific studies show that connecting with nature through horticulture in a physical and cognitive way can be beneficial to our mental health. This ancient practice is now a relatively new treatment model known as horticultural therapy where clients work towards specific goals using horticultural activities. It is currently used in a wide variation of settings - for example, vocational and rehabilitative programs in federal institutions, therapeutic programs in hospital settings for patients recovering from a brain injury or a stroke and wellness/life enhancement programs in senior living facilities or homeless shelters. I am currently training to be a registered horticultural therapist and it is my dream to run my own bereavement support sessions in a garden setting, to professionalize my personal experience by helping others in deep grief.
In Elgar’s “Spirit of the lord” I see this entire journey represented. Stunning music and text combine to describe horticultural therapy in a nutshell and speak directly to me of being surrounded, comforted and held in the loving presence of God during dark and difficult times whilst providing powerful message of hope for the future symbolized by renewal, regeneration and rebirth as the garden ‘springs forth’ anew.
To give unto them that mourn a garland for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called the trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He might be glorified.
For as the earth bringeth forth her bud, and as the garden that causeth the things that are sown in it to spring forth, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.
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