From Cluny to Vezelay to Mt. Angel

The founding of the Vox Clamantis Praxis deepens and expands the work of both prescriptive music and music-thanatology. Though most of our work is in hospitals, hospices, churches and private homes, we also maintain a very modest, quiet building which has been designed to serve as a model for a second slightly larger clinic which will be built on a small acreage nearby. Our first effort is as if a single precious pearl. Unlike a hospital, we will receive one person at a time, and while here, all attention is devoted to them. The interior is like a sanctuary, beautiful and without technological clutter, and the bed is situated so that the evening stars and the steeple of the church’s bell tower are both clearly visible. In Mt. Angel, that bell tower is important culturally and spiritually, for it sounds by the hour and sanctifies time for the many who pray the Divine Office or other prayers throughout the day. At least five strong currents contributed to the inspiration to establish a free-standing clinic for the delivery of prescriptive music. I will describe those elements chronologically, because they unfolded slowly, over time, in meaningful progression, and gained strength and poignancy as I gained increasing professional and personal experience with both illness and health, and as I watched how serious illness has become increasingly institutionalized and medicalized.

Photo: Lynn Johnson
Our friend Cherri Newton, from the graduating Class of 1994. She is the first amongst our own ranks to make her transitus, 10/5/1997.

When I was studying Benedictine documents of monastic medicine (1985-1987), especially the 11th century monastic customaries of Cluny written by the scribes Bernard and Ulrich, I was struck by the importance inherently present in a confluence of elements that did not appear to be simply architectural or utilitarian. The placement of the chapel, the scriptorium (and library), and the infirmary were all in relative proximity. Somehow, for me, what emerged was a strong meditative trinitarian image: the Altar, the Book (the vessel of the Living Word) and the Bed of vulnerability and transformation were visually, theologically, spiritually, emotionally and medically linked and mutually fructifying. That observation and cultural value had more or less hovered in my consciousness for years, in the same way that embers at the hearth can be easily overlooked but are none-the-less waiting for breath. Eucharist (Thanksgiving), Body and Book – an implicit unity found in monastic medicine, and I have sought evermore to unite the three in end-of-life supportive care.

Much later, (1993) I was able to make a spiritual pilgrimage to the French cathedral town of Vézelay, which included several mornings of prayer with the reception of the holy eucharist. One day, when I left the church and walked back into the sunlight, the blessings of time and place were very full, and I walked without map, goal or schedule. Sometimes, through participation and grace, it is as if we waken from a fog to find ourselves in the holy condition of inner-emptiness, or kenosis. We are emptied out of distraction, self-will and much which is transitory. We are listening, open, ready and available to the Holy Spirit. That is when we become like fresh fields, ready for the Sower. Every sense impression then comes to us as if a spiritual seed that will root and flower for a far greater good than a mere personal idea. That is the moment when the prototype appeared. I had already been so impressed with the strength and tenderness of the entire village, but there was more to come. Immediately adjacent to the cathedral steps stood a series of narrow stone buildings. Each had a long rectangular garden entrance with stone fences covered in moss and lichen. Each section was discretely marked with a small brass plate only a few inches in height and width: Dr. So-and-So, Cardiologist – Dr. So-and-So, Oncologist – Dr. So-and So, Internal Medicine, etc. It was quiet, and without bustle, and the picture of beautiful modesty.

The physician’s receiving rooms were human scale, like homes. Surely they also had staff privileges at the hospital, but their receiving rooms and clinics so close the steps of the cathedral were human scale and positioned close to the altar. The imprint and intent of the human hand was palpable even in the garden, which made room for small, wild, volunteer growing things. Then and there, in that Vézelay moment, the embers from the first Cluniac impression that had been residing in my heart all those years burst into something like radiant heat. I understood how and why those contemporary French physicians had receiving rooms in complete proximity to the cathedral and to the altar where the eucharist is celebrated. This is the place to which most pilgrims, seeking strength, journey on foot, and more so, why our Cluniac elders had arranged life and death in a similar manner. Patients thus placed could see, feel, hear, touch, and sense all that occurred in the sacraments, only steps away, gaining strength for the journey. Body and altar were linked.

I needed very little nudging for the rest. Today, the Vox Clamantis Praxis is offered locally in Mt. Angel and nationally, by special arrangement, as we travel. Either way, our practice today echoes something of that Vézelay experience and is only steps away from the village church in Mt. Angel.

Last updated Tuesday, 25-Feb-2014