Church of Our Saviour

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COS Reads: Holding On and Letting Go, Reviews of Books by Peter Manseau and Jennifer L. Hollis

In this season of All Saints and All Souls, when we contemplate the lives of saints and of loved ones no longer bodily with us, it seems fitting to review two books about the dead and the dying.

Holding on to a Past Life
First, a serious, compassionate, and often hilarious religious study and lively travelogue, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead. Ten years ago author Peter Manseau shuffled along in a very long line in an Italian basilica in Padua to see La lingua del Santo, the shriveled tongue of St. Anthony, which, legend had it, had been found “whole, pink, and healthy after the body it had spoken for had gone to dust.” Manseau writes, “the weirdness of waiting in line with the citizens of the world to view an extravagantly displayed piece of human flesh has never left me.” Thus began his growing interest in exploring why body parts of saints and other holy folks from throughout the world have been both repulsive and fascinating, physical and mystical, not only in medieval times but even today.

For centuries in Europe pilgrims have commonly waited hours to see the blackened child-sized finger of St. John the Baptist in Florence, the breast milk of the Virgin Mary (once in churches all over Europe, so that John Calvin sarcastically wrote “Had Mary been a cow all her life, she could not have produced such a quantity”) or the creepily upright body of St. Catherine, sitting on display in a church in Bologna. The divvying up of the bodies of saints, the trading and transporting them around Christendom, the fakes and forgeries (four heads of John the Baptist at one time?!), the dealers and thieves, the sales of keepsakes, tours, and pilgrimages became big business and caused big problems. The economics and policing of the relic business helped trigger the Reformation and its “domino effects of schisms within schisms” that eventually divided Europe, sending splinter groups, like the ones we now call the Pilgrims, off to new lands.

The power of relics for believers is not just ancient history. A French forensic chemist is now testing a shred of burnt bone and other substances in remains claimed to be St. Joan of Arc’s. And when Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, as an act of private devotion he closed himself in his Vatican apartment with the heart of the patron saint of priests, St. Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, a famous counselor and confessor. Vianney’s heart, recently brought from France, was a personal symbol for the new pope to be a reader of the hearts of his flock. To this day, every Catholic church contains a relic, but relics are not just for Catholics. Bits of the Buddha’s hair travel around the world; Manseau saw them on reverential display in a yoga center in California. The beard hair and cloak of the Prophet Mohammed are preserved in a heavily guarded Afghanistan shrine. Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s demand in 1996 to enter the shrine and his taking the Prophet’s cloak and wearing it before a crowd shocked much of the Muslim world—as a message of wordly versus otherwordly control. And lest you think the secular world is immune from the appeal of relics, consider the draw that the hair and toenails of Elvis Presley have for some devotees. Gross or great? You decide.

Are relics worthy of reverence as sources of miraculous healings or prayers answered? or are they silly symbols of idolatry? Viewing the ultrasound pictures of the bones of his not-yet-of-this-world first child, Manseau was surprised to suddenly recall viewing St. Anthony’s tongue a decade earlier. He pondered, “People are drawn to relics, I realized, because they make explicit what we all know in our own bones: that bodies tell stories; that the transformation offered by faith is not just about, as the Gospels put it, the ‘word made flesh,’ but the flesh made word. Behind the glass of every reliquary is a life story told in still frame. That was what I saw on the ultrasound screen as well. . . . I looked . . . at the fragile lines that represented the bones of my daughter, the frame of all she will be and know. These bones, I thought, these bones are where belief begins.”

Letting Go of This Life
Though not all of us will become saints whose bodies may be revered, we can be sure that we all will die. As Jennifer Hollis reminds us in Music at the End of Life: Easing the Pain and Preparing the Passage, if we are fortunate to have time to prepare, dying need not be extremely scary or stressful. In particular, music can physically and emotionally help ease the way for the dying and their families as they move to their next state of existence.

Hollis, president of the Music-Thanatology Association International (and COS member), has written a profoundly beautiful and personal book about spiritual journey, vocation, and ministry to those nearing the end of life in this world. Far more than an account of her own personal path, however, Hollis’s book offers a fascinating history of the emerging field of music-thanatology. The field was founded just forty years ago but has origins in medieval times, when monks at the monastery at Cluny would sing psalms or chant prayers for a dying brother, members of the community never leaving his side until his death. She describes what training is like for today’s aspiring music-thanatologists (“First, build a harp!”—though other instruments or none at all may be used), examines the spiritual and emotional demands on practitioners (who may have never witnessed a person’s death), and provides great insights into the challenges of incorporating spiritual care through music into the entrenched traditions and routines of hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices. She notes how music-thanatologists differ from music therapists or therapeutic musicians. She also includes research on the palliative effects of music-thanatology on a patient’s physical condition—reducing pain and agitation and easing respiration, even in the comatose.

The heart of this book for me were the many unforgettable stories about the effects of music vigils on families and the dying. Music vigils have healed family rifts, enabled families members to approach the topic of withdrawing life support, and created space for their grieving—and also, surprisingly, their laughter—at the time of their loved one’s death. Likening music-thanatologists to spiritual midwives, Hollis’s stories also show how music vigils change staff members’ attitudes at care-giving facilities. As one chaplain said, “When I . . . have done patient care following a vigil, it’s really amazing. It’s like the groundwork has been laid for just an awesome conversation. Really honest conversation.” One music-thanatologist believes it can change the medical “culture”: “What we noticed is that when we started bringing music-thanatology into the patient rooms, all of a sudden, the nurses would say things like, ‘Would you leave the doors cracked while you’re playing?’ . . . they wanted to be part of that care that was just offered. So it started to change the conversation. It started to change where medicine had no goals around being with people who were dying. All of a sudden [the nurses and social workers] started talking about making them more comfortable . . . We noticed that rather than avoiding the care, they wanted to be a part of something that they perceived as tender, loving, and beautiful. [It] fulfilled a deeper need they had, as healers.”

Hollis, an accomplished harpist who ministers at Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Massachusetts, writes, “I am called make this small offering, with my homemade harp, and my own voice, and as much love and compassion as I can offer.

“People often ask how I can be a music-thanatologist. My answer is that the other side of grief is love—a deeply human, beautiful, striking, everyday love. The privilege of being present with dying patients has offered me insight into mystery—the mystery of loving family and friends, the brevity of life, and the courage ordinary people demonstrate every day. It is true that I witness a tremendous amount of grief at the bedside. But I also witness the love people have for one another and their tender struggle to express it in words, gestures, stories, or simply a look. It is pure grace to be invited into the presence of this love—a man stroking his brother’s forehead, a granddaughter whispering stories to her grandmother, an elderly man gazing at his wife of 50 years, friends gathered around a bed, holding hands.”

When the time comes, may we all be so lucky to have someone like Jennifer Hollis or another music-thanatologist helping us let go of our life here, gently and lovingly.

Available at Robbins Library in Arlington Center: Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead, by Peter Manseau (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2009), and Music at the End of Life: Easing the Pain and Preparing the Passage, by Jennifer L. Hollis (Santa Barbara: Praeger/ABC-CLIO LLC, 2010)


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