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  • TRUE STORIES: To breathe together

  • About a week and half back I found myself listening to a new chorale CD of songs by American composer Samuel Barber recorded by Conspirare. The name derives from the Latin “con” and “spirare” and translates “to breathe together.”

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  • About a week and half back I found myself listening to a new chorale CD of songs by American composer Samuel Barber recorded by Conspirare. The name derives from the Latin “con” and “spirare” and translates “to breathe together.”
    Colleague and friend Stella Hastings, who’s on sabbatical from the PSU music department, is in the group. She just returned from concerts in Georgetown and Austin and will be leaving for Normandy and Paris soon.
    Maybe it was that I was having a difficult week, maybe it was the image of breathing together — I don’t know for sure — but in the middle of “Angus Dei” I began to cry (not just cry tears but cry out inside) as I recalled the Angus Dei translation from the Latin I learned as an altar boy: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world have mercy on us.”
    Certainly mercy is what I’d been seeking, for I’d been wrestling with God — the big metaphor for that which is beyond my understanding. Two days before I was on the floor doing yoga at 5 a.m., struggling to let go the monkey mind of anxiety, while in the background our 18-year-old cat, Dr. Dre, who’s deaf and alzheimered with age, yowled every 10 minutes or so — sometimes a guttural shriek of fear; others a bone chilling wail that said someone was removing his claws with pliers.
    Breathe, I told myself … keep doing yoga … breathe.
    Several times during the week I found myself identifying once again with Mother Teresa who, at one point, continued to show up and do her work with the poor despite not knowing if she believed in God any more.
    I know I don’t believe in God. At least not the same God I was taught about at Sacred Heart. Mine’s more the voice of the universe … or something of that nature. A metaphor for the inexpressible.  
    As I think about it, belief is probably the wrong word. Like the mystics, I know there is a God. It’s the representation of God that eludes me. And, sometimes, the connection.
    That’s a lot of the reason I pray; to seek a connection … in love, kindness and compassion. Or as the poet, Rumi says, in longing: “This longing you express is the return message. The grief you cry out from draws you toward union. Your pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup. Listen to the moan of a dog for its master. That whining is the connection.”
    Through it all I’m gifted to have many friends and colleagues at PSU to breathe together with. Students as well. To wit: Friday morning at 8 a.m., in the midst of my stumbling week, a student of mine, Mitch, slumped into my office to say he had been up all night worried about notification that day whether or not he’d gotten into KU medical school. Just hung out for about an hour in the space and went on his way. That afternoon he came gleefully back high-fiving and hugging to share the good news that he made it.
    Page 2 of 2 - Also, my singing pals and residents at Sunset Manor. Later that same Friday morning, after our weekly oldies sing-a-long, I put on James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing” and we started getting funky — singing, laughing and clapping to the music.
    I danced in the middle of the circle and tried out some of my best James Brown moves from 1969 with some residents and staff, singing, “Get up offa’ that thing, ungh. Dance you’re gonna’ feel better. Get up offa that thing. Try to relieve that pressure!”
    Halfway through the song, a resident named Evelyn motioned me over to her wheelchair. “J.T.” she said with an apologetic nod toward her legs, “I would get up offa’ my thing and dance … but I fell a while back and just can’t!”
    Getting back to breathing together, the Franciscan order of the Catholic church believes in something called “the Univocity of all Being.” Univocity, in Latin, means “one voice.” When you speak of God, when you speak of angels, when you speak of humans, when you speak of animals, when you speak of trees, when you speak of fish, when you speak of the earth, you are using the word “Being” univocally, or with one foundational and common meaning.
    As for the Franciscans, I read recently that the order’s founder, St. Francis, used to spend whole nights praying the same prayer: “Who are you, God? And who am I?”
    Evelyn Underhill calls it the almost perfect prayer. When you pray it, the abyss of your own soul and the abyss of the nature of God have opened up, and you are falling into both of them simultaneously.
    I find myself praying it a lot lately — and listening to Conspirare, of course, to help me remember that, when we breathe together, the result is one voice, one song … full of mystery and grace.
    J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and prevention and wellness coordinator at Pittsburg State University. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or jtknoll@swbell.net

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