Evensong Meets Healing Sound
In the spring of 2017, a group of talented musicians asked if they could use our Brooklyn church, All Saints, Park Slope, as a venue for their regular sound bath sessions. I was vaguely aware of this meditative practice that harnesses the healing potential of sound using various instruments and the human voice. It was clear that the group’s intention to offer healing and hope in a loving environment matched the goals of our parish, and a partnership was born.
Bathed in sound
One Sunday evening, as people arrived at the steps of our historic church building, yoga mats in hand, I decided to join in and experience the sound bath session too. We settled in, laying on the floor and staring up at the 19th century barrel-vaulted ceiling, as the strange-looking instruments the musicians had brought began to flood the church’s sacred space. A sense of deep calm washed over me, and I could feel the sound waves in my gut. Koshi chimes opened the session with a gentle tinkle, but gave way to cleansing whoosh of the rain drum. After that, tuning forks punctuated a brief silence with sharp twinkles. One musician even created a barreling dissonance by playing the two lowest organ pedals simultaneously. The sound caused my mind and my body to relax, and in all this, I was made plainly aware of God’s presence. The experience reminded me of the joyful euphony described in Psalm 150: “praise him with lyre and harp…praise him with strings and pipe.” I left feeling lighter, more focused and closer to God.
Episcopal liturgy bathes us in sound. Think of how your heart swells at the opening chords of the processional or how a Good Friday hymn can make you fight back tears. After a few months of sound baths at the church, I wanted to see if it was possible to marry the beauty of these new sounds I was hearing with the healing words of Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer. That’s how All Saints’ Church became home to Sound Bath Evensong.
Evening Prayer sings a new song
The concept of Sound Bath Evensong is simple. The liturgy is Rite II Evening Prayer, just as it would be in a traditional choral Evensong, but instead of organ and choir, each musical element is associated with a sound chosen by the sound bath musicians. In a typical service, the Koshi chimes become the prelude, the rain drum accompanies the psalm, and tuning forks punctuate the words of the Magnificat. In place of an anthem, a percussionist unlocks the pungent reverberations of the gong in extended meditative solo. We closely follow the rubrics of the prayer book and read the lessons assigned for the day, using the sturdy backbone of our traditional liturgy to hold the healing power of the sound.
But as much as the sound bath transforms our usual experience of worship, the values of our faith have transformed the sound bath experience. A typical secular sound bath takes place in a yoga studio or other venue, and attendees pay a small fee to enter. Sound Bath Evensong on the other hand, is free and open to everyone, just like any other church service. As a result, many more people in our church’s urban setting are able to benefit from the healing action of the liturgy. Seniors on fixed incomes and residents of our neighborhood women’s shelter have become regular attendees. People who have the means to do so are encouraged to leave an offering for our neighborhood soup kitchen, and we’re proud to have raised thousands of dollars for the most vulnerable in our community through the Sound Bath Evensong program.
Perhaps because Sound Bath Evensong is a unique experience both for churchgoers and those who don’t usually attend church, it can have a surprising effect on many who attend. It’s not uncommon to look out into the congregation and see tears flowing down the face of a newcomer. One attendee who hadn’t been to church in years said he felt a profound sense of holiness open up within him. Another said it started her on a path of healing after a childhood spent in an abusive religious institution. Once, as I was standing at the door following the service, a woman who had just moved to the neighborhood said, “I can’t believe I live so close to something so extraordinary.” We’re fortunate to have caught the attention of many inside and outside the Church — including the Associated Press, which posted a beautiful video story on the service in March 2020.
Inviting strangers and friends into the love of Christ
I’ve noticed over the years that Episcopalians often get excited about novel programs and models of ministry, which is only natural given the demographic challenges we face. For us at All Saints’, Sound Bath Evensong is just one small part of our overall attitude toward evangelism and growth, not a reinvention of the wheel.
From 2011 to 2020, our ASA increased from 50 to 135. God forbid we ever treat a precious human soul as a mere number, but I do think these statistics illustrate the grace the Holy Spirit has given our community to transform lives by the power of the Gospel. We have done this not by creating new tricks or sacrificing our faith in Jesus Christ, but rather by opening ourselves up to the overwhelming potential of the tradition we have inherited and by being intentional about sharing it with those who might not have found us otherwise. Sound Bath Evensong is just one expression of the most important component of church growth – inviting strangers and friends into the love of Christ.
If you’re interested in exploring a Sound Bath liturgy program, we’d love to talk to you! As with any music-based liturgy, the most important step is collaborating with musicians who understand and respect the mission of the church and are willing to work with you. Church folk also have to understand and respect the musicians’ aesthetic perspective and appreciate that this work is their spiritual vocation. We are fortunate to work currently with Alex Beckmann, whose calming demeanor is a gift to all of us at the church. There’s so much talent, empathy and love in the sound bath community, and a partnership with a musician or musicians can be a healing event in and of itself for both parties. My hope is that every church would be as blessed as ours has been in this sonic ministry of healing.
The Rev. Steven Paulikas is rector of All Saints’ Church in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
Archived Sound Bath Evensong Services at All Saints’:
Image: The Rev. Steven Paulikas with sound bath musicians Alex Beckmann and Pamela Martinez at All Saints’ Church. Photo credit All Saints’ Church
- Finding Our Voices by Ana Hernandez, Vestry Papers, November 2012
- Four Steps to a Public Health Ministry by Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs, Vestry Papers, November 2018
- The Quiet Center: Cultivating Inner Peace in Unsettling Times an ECF webinar presented by Rebecca Roberts, April 1, 2020
- O Come, Let Us Hum to the Lord by Jemonde Taylor, Vestry Papers, July 2021