Breathing

It takes about five decades to get from my son’s school to the El station. If I’m being honest, I usually mumble and I’m often distracted. I’m sure I skip over some beads. I know I don’t match days to mysteries. But I do stick with it. It helps me breathe.

My sainted Irish grandmother taught me countless things, as sainted Irish grandmothers are prone to do. She taught me that I should root for the underdog, and that the world will always break my heart. Most importantly, she taught me how to pray. I’ve come to learn that only a life of prayer can help you make sense of underdogs and broken hearts. (She knew that, of course, but there were some dots I had to connect for myself.)

It probably has something to do with it being November and something to do with my mother now being a grandmother twice over, but I’ve been thinking of Gramzee more than usual lately. While I walk to the station in the morning I usually pause – how can you not? --  on blessedisthefruitofthywomb JESUS. But for the past few days, I’ve lingered an extra beat on nowanatthehourofour DEATH.

The dead don’t breathe, but the living do. Spoken prayers are, among other things, controlled and focused breaths. As I walk my mind wanders, my feet slip, my eyes check for cars and strollers, but my breath stays pretty regular.

The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is not a genie. God is not a god. Our prayers aren't information for God, they're God forming us. And this formation occurs in and through the Spirit who breathes through us. The many and various languages of Christian prayer (cf. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 1.10), all come from the same breath. The unity of Christian prayer is not uniform, it's cruciform. Christ taught his disciples to pray (Lk 11) and he also taught them to make disciples of all the nations (Mt 28:19). The plurality of languages and accents deepen the unity among Christians across places and times.

Tony Domestico is a good friend, and although I don’t know Matthew Sitman personally, I’ve admired his writing since he worked on Andrew Sullivan’s blog.  Tony’s superb post on Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens and Matthew’s excellent post on memoirs have helped me think through my own recent experience of prayer.

Whether it’s interested in history as Pound is or subjective experience as Stevens is, one of the great pleasures of poetry is that in reciting a poem aloud one breathes the same way the poet himself or herself did. Meter and line breaks almost force you to mouth the syllables that came through the poet’s lips. It’s much more sensual than we often realize. Many of the prayers that Christians find in the Scriptures are written in verse. The Psalms fit this category, obviously, but so do sections of Isaiah, the Magnificat, the Hail Mary, and the Our Father. Perhaps – perhaps – these Scriptural sources bridge the subjectivity and imagination of Stevens and the hard surfaces and sharp angles of Pound. (I leave that to Tony, who’s far more qualified to talk about poetry than I am.)

I’m teaching a class on spiritual memoirs in the Spring Quarter at DePaul. Like Matthew, I’m not sure if there’s anything particularly “Catholic” about the form, but one could make a compelling argument that our contemporary notions of selfhood have their roots in the New Testament, especially in Paul, and that all the great spiritual memoirists – from Augustine to Teresa of Avila to Therese of Liseaux – mine these insights. In the class, I plan to teach books by Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Mary Karr, Kaya Oakes, Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith, and Richard Rodriguez. In each of these fine memoirs, the authors talk about learning and relearning (and relearning) how to pray. The talk literally about inspiration, about how they joined their breath with the breath of the Church, about how the Spirit of God went in their ears, through their lungs, and out their mouths.

In Greek and Hebrew the word for spirit is the same word for breath. The breath that hovers over the waters in Genesis 1 is that same breath that Jesus breathes on the disciples after the resurrection (John 20:22). It’s the same breath that raises Jesus from the dead (Rom 8:11), and “intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (Rom 8:26) when we try to pray. (We can’t do much more than try.) The same breath that enlivens me each morning enlivened my grandmother and everyone else who did and does and will share the angel’s words to Mary and Jesus’s teaching to the disciples.

The conspiracy of the “cloud of witnesses.”

Scott D. Moringiello is an an assistant professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, where he teaches courses in Catholic theology and religion and literature. He blogs at dotCommonweal.

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