One of many Native American flutes Mary Miller has in her collection. (Catholic Herald photo by Mike Rudzinski)

Mary Miller thought the world would always be silent after she lost her hearing. But at a festival in Iowa one weekend, the Appleton resident was stunned when a soft, hypnotic sound came wafting along with the hot summer wind. It was the sound of a Native American flute playing nearby, and since that day, it is one of the few sounds she can hear without a hearing aid. Today, Miller holds annual flute-making workshops at the St. Anthony Spirituality Center, Marathon, in the Superior Diocese, to share her talents.

“This has helped me a lot; a lot of prayers and a lot of tears have been put into making the flute,” said Miller.

On the weekend of Dec. 13-14, Miller, her granddaughter and helper Melissa Hansen, and eight others sanded, drilled, glued, stained and finished their Native American art. Using pre-made kits, participants decorated each flute to become a tool of meditation and prayer. Miller said the flute is often used in hospitals as a relaxation and healing tool because of its calming effect.

“The flute is an instrument of prayer; it’s part of reflection or meditation,” said Capuchin Fr. Tom Zelinski. “It reminds me of singing, we should sing to praise God.”

Fr. Zelinski sees the flute as a religious instrument and said programs such as flute making open the retreat center to the general public, adding that several participants were not Catholic.

The retreats not only help keep the center open, but also expose non-Catholics to the faith.

“We hope they pick up something about our Christian and Franciscan spirit,” said Fr. Zelinski. “Maybe an experience like this will open people up.”

Miller, whose husband was Native American, has made more than 50 flutes and runs retreats and plays in the community. Melissa Hansen, 20, made her first flute at the retreat with her grandmother. She said they both attend pow wows in South Dakota where their Native American family lives.

Charlotte Boehmer, a member of St. Agnes, Callon, in the La Crosse Diocese, has been the director of religious education at a few parishes. She has been attending retreats at St. Anthony for 30 years and said she has recently begun playing the flute. Boehmer uses the flute for prayer and says it teaches the musician to pray, be still, meditate and find peace.

“In ministry I have always been drawn to relating the divine to people in a hands-on way,” said Boehmer.

Retreat information

For information on retreats at the St. Anthony Spirituality Center, Marathon, call (715) 443-2236 or visit their Web site.

Boehmer said she is attracted to Native American spirituality because it reverences the earth, something she sees lacking in modern culture. Karen Younk of Holy Family Parish in the Diocese of Green Bay regularly participates in silent retreats at St. Anthony. She said she had never thought about the spiritual part of playing, but wanted to learn more about the technique and styles of playing.

Miller often plays for children and at hospitals, and believes there are physical and psychological effects upon listeners. She sees her ability to hear and play the flute as a gift to share with others.

“If someone calls and asks me to play the flute, I have to go,” said Miller. “It was a gift and I need to do it.”

Most of their day was taken up by repetitive sanding and gluing, waiting for stain to dry and spending countless hours in mundane tasks. Despite the physical and mental rigors of meticulously preparing a musical instrument, the retreatants seemed relaxed and relieved to have time away from their busy lives. As they sanded the wood again and again, they joked with each other about life, but mostly they laughed about getting away.

The cost of the annual Native American flute-making retreat was $175, including the flute kit, meals and lodging.