I sang a recorded mass for Pentecost, the first mass at which I’d ministered in months. In choosing the music, I considered all of my favorite Holy Spirit songs, but kept one on the shelf: O Breathe on Me, O Breath of God. In a time of pandemic, we’re keeping our breaths to ourselves, or trying to, and it seemed that that song might sound a bit clunky and out of place this year.
I went out on a run today and was mindful of my breath, scanning in all directions so as not to expose anyone to the cloud of air around me. As a music minister and preschool music teacher, I’m mindful that for the first time in my life, my singing may be potentially harmful to the people around me, carrying droplets further than a spoken voice could. The idea of unknowingly infecting a member of my church or school community is unthinkable to me, and I’m anxious for more testing and safeguards to allow me to safely sing as I once did.
In yoga and in therapy, I’ve learned breathing techniques that I routinely employ to help combat anxiety. I’ve often heard a yoga teacher remind the class to “return to our breath” to find our stillness and center, and I observe the efficacy of this practice in and out of class as my mind stops its churning and my racing pulse slows.
Breath is at the center of each person, literally fueling us and everything we do; it’s a sign of our health, the engine for our voices, the supply of oxygen for our blood. When my mother was ill with emphysema and cancer, her oxygen saturation level was checked constantly. Breathing treatments and medications helped her to maintain her breath, but it was a constant source of worry and an ever-present indicator of how she was faring. To this day, I remember raising my eyes to the box on her hospital monitor to read and re-read that number over and over again, and I can still see the portable O2 meter on her finger.
I know well the feeling of shortness of breath, and how scary it can be. I’ve watched with horror at how COVID-19 patients are sometimes placed in prone positions to give them a better chance at lung recovery and yet how so many die gasping for breath, alone. The loss of breath is a violent, terrifying death.
So, when the video surfaced of George Floyd dying under the knee of a police officer, begging for his breath, I couldn’t watch. I couldn’t watch him call out for his mother, couldn’t hear his groaning voice fading away, or the rising tearful voices around him pleading for mercy. I couldn’t watch George’s body fail under the casual weight of a man with his hands in his pockets. Our bodies don’t give up the fight to breathe easily and I know George’s body didn’t surrender easily. The loss of breath is a violent, terrifying death.
Following the murder of George Floyd, each one of us who woke up today with air in our lungs has choices to make. Today, more voices are rising. In this precarious time of pandemic and racial inequity, it’s clear that whether and how we use our breath and our voice matters. In the church, in government, on social media, in conversation, we can use our breath to speak against systemic injustice, to bring care and concern, and to bring about the kind of church and country we profess. And we can pray to God in this season of Pentecost, that He will breathe on us once again, giving us the wisdom, strength and courage to become the people He created us to be. To raise up something new from all that is so badly broken with the power of His breath. Come quickly, Lord. Our country is holding its breath and longing for what’s on the other side. Amen, let it be.
O Breathe on me, O Breath of God
Fill me with life anew
That I may love the things you love
And do what you would do