by Lee Edgren
photo by Cindy Steele
We sat in the newly created meditative prayer circle just outside Rick Clayton’s house. Sunlight filtered through the leaves. Now and then a bird had a little to say, but the woods was largely silent.
Rick was kneeling on the ground, planting, when I arrived. He had placed a guitar in one of the chairs in the circle and his Celtic harp in another.
We talked until late morning turned into early afternoon. Finally, he took the harp up and offered to play. As the strings began to vibrate, it seemed that every bird in the neighborhood also offered its song—harp and birds and humans all falling silent together again at the end.
And this, Rick assures me, is how it often is for the people he serves as the full-time Hospice Chaplain for Southern Care Indiana, covering seven counties in southern Indiana.
Although he is The Reverend Richard Clayton, with a long history of conventional ministry behind him, nothing about him now fits into any of the stereotypical images of protestant pastors that I can bring to mind.
In addition to being a minister, he is a rock and roll guy, playing with a band in Indianapolis for 30 years. He leads drumming circles, is a Reiki master, and has a strong belief that excluding people from churches on any grounds is a practice not filled with the holy spirit.
People who have been admitted to hospice care are terminally ill, with a life expectancy of six months or less. Care focuses on comfort, and treatment intended to cure the disease is discontinued. This is where Rick steps in.
An important part of his service to his patients is playing music for them. He plays, not as entertainment, but as a way to ease the transition from life to death. It is a very old tradition, going back to the the ancient Greeks, as well as to the Benedictine monks in Cluny, France, whose chants are still in use today.
“Music patterns our energy. Everything vibrates, from a rock to the highest celestial beings,” Rick notes. “Music is a way of tuning in with particular frequencies and it affects our very being. For example, if you play in the key of C for 10 minutes, the body releases particular endorphins, which lead to more positive and peaceful states.”
Rick Clayton’s work has been described as that of a shaman and a “psychopomp,” defined in Wikipedia as: “Greek for ‘guide of souls’ [Their] responsibility is to escort newly deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife.”
Long before he became a certified practitioner of Music for Healing and Transition and a Reiki practitioner, he served an AIDS hospice in Indianapolis. This is where he first used his harp. The harp and the guitar playing, his intuitive feeling for vibration and energy, his knowledge of essential oils, and his particular spirituality are all dedicated to bringing peace and harmony.
“I am helping to escort the person into that land of rest and peace. Reiki and music are tools that smooth the energy out. I try to bring balance to the body. Reiki is the great equalizer, helping the body process what it needs to be processing. I want people to leave peacefully, maybe even joyfully. Death to me is another kind of birth. To be able to help escort someone through that veil is a tremendous honor and a gift.”
Rick arrived at Harmony Baptist Church at about the same time he became the hospice chaplain, after a member of the search committee dreamed that she should ask Rick to “do a pulpit fill” while the church looked for a new minister. He began with a sermon series on The Sermon on The Mount, continuing this theme through his hiring as permanent pastor and beyond. In all, he gave 36 sermons on The Sermon on The Mount. The congregation turned over a bit, and now Harmony Baptist church is attempting to become a vibrant “church for all people, a church for the rest of us who don’t necessarily feel comfortable or welcome in more traditional churches.
“I believe that we don’t have to have the walls that divide us. They are human constructs. It may be Utopian, but we can still try to live as if compassion and acceptance were possible. It grieves me that doctrines and dogmas divide people. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
He has built a 75-foot labyrinth on church grounds and holds ceremonies there. He and his congregation have established a garden, and a thriving Wednesday evening circle.
Whether it is a dying person reaching toward the light, or a child reaching for a hand, Rick sees that, “there is something beautiful and connecting behind every human reaching for something beyond ourselves. Spirit is not something you can control.
Mystical spiritual formation, labyrinths, and music are tools that help break up the fallow ground and help the spirit move in your life. It’s not something that you can command, but no effort is ever wasted.
“We’re a church that’s learning to play well with others, and it’s a real adventure!”
You can reach Rick at his e-mail account <firstname.lastname@example.org> or on Facebook at Rick Clayton. The Southern Care hospice number is (812) 334-8343 and Harmony Church’s number is (812) 988-4750.