Going Forth:  On Music as Transformational Prayer

by Chaplain Judith Seicho Fleischman

Note:  This article was published in the September, 2005 volume of “Plain Views:  The Publication of HealthCare Chaplaincy.”  A recent graduate of The HealthCare Chaplaincy’s Pastoral Residency program in New York City, Chaplain Judith Seicho Fleischman is co-coordinator of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, New York Chapter and Social Action Chair of the Village Zendo in New York City. Chaplain Fleischman is also an active member at Congregation Rodeph Sholom.



Earlier this summer, I was privileged to offer pastoral care at a long-term healthcare facility on the verge of closing its doors permanently. I had trained there for eight months but left the facility in the spring when the Pastoral Care Department was closed. I was invited to return three days prior to the closing date to help the staff and a handful of remaining residents cope.

The situation was riddled with conflict energy, and strong emotion. The staffs of the various departments were paralyzed by their impending loss with no effective ways to engage feelings and meaning. The community appeared fractured to me. People who had worked side by side for over thirty years now faced feelings of rage and disappointment, which led to a great sense of isolation, distrust, and marginalization. I wanted to offer a service that was inclusive and co-creative.

We began by singing, “Kumbaya,” which means “Come by here.” Everyone joined in. I then offered a spontaneous prayer, which set the theme of “Going Forth.”

Next, I invited people to share stories that connected to the meaning of having served in this facility. This was met largely with silence. The process of “naming and claiming” the grief was stalled somehow. I realized that people did not feel safe and perhaps their pain was too great to be engaged directly.

I turned again to music, lifting up a tambourine, whose surface was decorated with a healing prayer and a painting of many hands encircling a rose blossom. I said, “Sometimes, words are insufficient. Sometimes, the pain is so great that it needs to be expressed in another way. Sometimes, all we can do is play what is in our hearts.” I then let my hand fall forcefully on the tambourine. A loud and sharp sound reverberated throughout the room. People jolted in their seats. I called attention to the hands painted on the instrument.

I invited each person to play the tambourine and then pass it on. With tears in her eyes, a senior administrator shook the tambourine. She then smiled gently towards the director of nursing and handed her the tambourine. The director shook it as well in her own unique way.

Their leadership served its purpose. Soon, that tambourine was passed throughout the group and played by everyone. We began to sing. For me, this became a transformative form of prayer. As each prayer was expressed and witnessed by the assembled community, healing occurred throughout the room.

The CPE training I received was essential for understanding and skillfully responding to all that was happening that day. My pastoral formation offered me both the structure and the flexibility I needed to continually assess and refine my approach. In particular, I was able to utilize spontaneous prayer as a way to lift up the meaning of the journey for those assembled.

As a chaplain, I am keenly aware that this is what we offer. We open doors. We invite those in need to walk through. Perhaps most poignantly, we let go of any attachment to the outcome. In doing so that day, I connected with the greatest meaning for me: to embody and exchange kindness.