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May 4, 2020

The story of Peaceful Prayer

The story of Peaceful Prayer

One of the absolute privileges of being a pastoral musician is sharing the ministry of music to comfort the grieving at funeral Masses. What a supreme gift. Truly there is no other art form that touches us and stirs us so profoundly as music. Our soul, our emotions, our memories — and celebrating life, through beauty and prayer — is a close encounter with the Divine. At funerals, I also feel blessed to hear ‘story.’ I love hearing the inside stories and testaments of a life well-lived, getting reminders that ‘it’s not what you do, but how you love,’ that leave the lasting impressions, memories and legacy in our earthly dwelling.

Many years ago, as a young mother and young nurse, I took a job as a home hospice RN. Never before had I worked with the actively dying, and, to be honest, I was scared to my core. But I was surprised, and my heart was cracked open — by the unknown, the suffering, the gratitude, the brokenness, the generosity, the smells, the sorrow, the vulnerability, the laughter, the faith, the trust. Never did I expect to find the Sacred where I was scared, but I did.

A Celtic harp was a surprise Christmas gift from my husband, and I speak from my heart when I say that this gift transformed me and influenced my life path. When I laid the harp near my heart and embraced it to ‘make the strings sing,’ I experienced in an intimate way, the powerful gift that music is. It was the first instrument where I challenged myself to be free of written music and, instead, have my fingers memorize melodies and beloved hymn tunes, while creating my own flourishes and accompaniments that evoke the heart and specialness of the harp.

Our ability to hear and appreciate music starts with the spark of us! The human sense of hearing is the first sense to develop in utero and often stays intact to the very end — even if a patient appears to be unconscious and can’t see or speak or eat. That’s why music can be so healing, comforting and palliative at the end of life.

I started bringing my harp when I visited hospice patients during the time of their vigil, the constant presence of loved ones and family around the bedside when the time of mysterious transition to eternity is drawing near. As the harp strings were plucked, the memories and tears flowed, inspiring tender melodies. The breaths became even. A transcendent peace filled the room — a connection with the Sacred, the Holy. I felt the real presence of God in our midst. And as the last breath of the patient was drawn and silence filled the room, what was initially scary for me felt utterly Sacred, almost surreal. My heart was forever imprinted in those moments where, for me, beauty and God were openly united in music.

Sometimes, I’ve had that transcendent awareness at liturgy as well. When voices and harmony united in community give wings to prayer and praise, I feel the real presence of God. The beauty wakes up my heart, my mind, my senses, to know that this experience is a gift of the Divine and that I’ve been given a little glimpse of the light of eternity.

It was because of an invitation twenty years ago that my pathway in nursing took a turn to enter the world of music ministry (in Campus Ministry at the University of Portland). Looking back, I can say that I needed this job. To be immersed in beauty and prayer, while trying to raise six children, was a spiritual necessity for me. Music has been an incredible gift in my life. I never thought that I would even compose music or be creative in that area. (I really disliked music theory!) But all my life I’ve had the motto that the “Holy Spirit never fails.” And so, I’ve really had to rely (probably more than I should) on the ever-generous Breath of God.

I noticed at funerals that families would request songs of a common repertoire like “On Eagle’s Wings,” “Prayer of St. Francis,” “Be Not Afraid” — songs that strike a chord in the heart and have become beloved, lasting, comforting songs of hope and peace. With my hospice patients in mind, translating these songs on the harp in a peaceful, meditative tempo became the inspiration for Peaceful Prayer: Sacred Melodies of Comfort and Hope, Volume 1 (published by OCP in 2008, Volume 2 in 2014), and I feel through this music that my faith, my ministry, my nursing has united to provide a source of healing, contemplative music that helps people to rest in God’s arms.

In this unprecedented time of pandemic, it’s scary. The real kind of scary that is uncomfortable, fearful and dark, with lots of questions. I can’t just play my harp strings and make it go away. But music transcends anxiety. Music gives wings to prayer. Music floats hope and cradles peace. To my fellow pastoral musicians, I give thanks for your ministry, your stories, your gifts that draw us deeper to the Heart of God. Will you join me in the quest? Let’s find the Sacred when we are scared. In our own brokenness, let’s let the healing Light in, so we can say,

“Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will.” –Psalm 40
Maureen Briare
Maureen Briare

A Portland native, Maureen has been a pastoral musician for many years. She is an alumnus of the University of Portland, having graduated in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Maureen completed her master’s degree in music with an emphasis on liturgical composition in 2004. She plays a variety of instruments and enjoys conducting the chapel choir in music of all traditions, styles and cultures.