International Music Festival
Sermon pre-recorded and broadcast at and from St Asaph Cathedral
13th September 2020
Masks are disconcerting to those who see us wearing them. They conceal. I have failed to recognise people I know quite well. They make it hard to intuit mood, to hear – how much more lip-reading I must do than I ever realised. But they are also hard to wear.
I still haven’t learnt how to wear glasses with a mask and not steam up.
the first time I had to wear a mask for several hours I felt dizzy – perhaps I wasn’t getting enough oxygen.
I have spent much of my adult life teaching people how to breathe. To have good posture, to show them the science lab lungs and explain that its the diaphragm that does the work not the lungs. I have urged people to raise their chins so as not to hamper their breathing, to open their chests out, shoulders back.
And now we do this thing of putting a mask on; deliberately hindering our breathing.
Musicians, and especially singers, know all about breathing and its importance.
For most of us we are usually unaware of our breathing until we have difficulties, a cold, asthma, or find ourselves in a room full of smoke.
But one of my earliest memories is of breathing.
My favourite hymn is Breathe on me breath of God. Since this is a music festival perhaps I will upset a good proportion of you if I tell you my preferred tune. And it is a hymn text set to a remarkable number of different tunes. But for me I will always associate the words with Charles Lockhart’s Carlisle.
I love this text because it reminds me of being a small child. I had fallen in the garden and my knee was bleeding. Running into the house my mother scooped me up and sat down with my on the sofa. As I sobbed my heart out I felt her breathing. Her warm breath on my head and her chest rising and falling. That moment has stayed with me for the whole of my life. Breathe on me breath of God. The breath that mothers me. The breath that brings me back to my true self. The breath that weathers storms external and internal.
Musicians know the importance of breathing.
But breathing is important to us all. It is important because it is literally life-giving. In the book Genesis God breathes into the dust, the earth, to give it life. In Hebrew the ruach the spirit is the wind and breath that bring life to dry bones. In the Greek of the new testament the spirit is pnuema, the breath, the air and for Christians the hagia pneuma the Holy Spirit is God. God who gives life and gifts.
Last summer my mother died and my brother and sister and I sat around her bed in the hospice where she died. Over her final hours we followed her every breath as they became shallower and shallower until finally she just stopped breathing.
Breathe on me breath of God.
learning how to breathe might sound like something we don’t need to do.
I teach breathing as part of teaching Mindfulness or meditation. Mindfulness is very much in fashion these days. But Christians have been practising mindfulness throughout Christian history. One collection of texts in the Russian and Greek Orthodox tradition, the Philokalia teaches the combination of careful breathing with the word of the Jesus Prayer; Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
But words are not necessary. Mindfulness of breathing, just being aware of our breathing wakes us up to awareness of so much more. We live in shadow, in twilight for much of our lives not noticing the miracles that surround us; that are us.
Noticing our breathing. Breathing in and knowing that I am breathing in. Breathing out and knowing that I am breathing out.
Music too can be like that. Taking the very ordinary, sounds. And arranging it in a way that helps us notice them.
I am a great fan of the jazz musician John Coltrane and I love this icon of him that has been painted. Carrying the saxophone with the fire of the Spirit showing in it the words on the scroll are a quote from him:
“God breathes through us so completely so gently we hardly feel it. yet it is our everything.”
Breathing is not just about what we do any more than music is just about what any of us does. Breathing connects us to something larger, something greater than just me.
The poet Don Paterson captures this beautifully in his series of sonnets on Orpheus. here is one called, simply Breath.
Breath, you invisible poem –
pure exchange, sister to silence,
being and its counterbalance,
rhythm wherein I become,
ocean I accumulate
by stealth, by the same slow wave;
thriftiest of seas … Thief
of the whole cosmos! What estates,
what vast space have already poured
through my lungs? The four winds
are like daughters to me.
So do you know me, air, that once sailed
You, that were once the lead and rind
of my every word?
When we breathe we breathe in something that is not us and can recognise that we are dust that breathes. That this little breath that I breathe now is part of the air that inhabits the planet.
It is a sign that we are connected to everything that is.
This is why our pollution of the air is so frightening. We are polluting the stuff of our own lives. We are polluting ourselves.
It is a spiritual issue.
There is a wonderful book by Donald Miller the subtitle is “Non religious thoughts on Christian Spirituality” The book’s title is Blue Like Jazz and some of you may know the famous album by Miles Davis A Kind of Blue. That would probably be the album I would save if the waves took the remainder of my Desert Island choices.
In his introduction to his book Miller writes:
“I NEVER LIKED JAZZ MUSIC BECAUSE JAZZ MUSIC doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way. I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve.”
We live in an unresolved world. We live in unresolved times.
None of us can se ethe way ahead in this pandemic, or even know with certainty that we will be able to gather for this music festival in person next year or the year after.
Living with that unresolvedness is hard. It is stressful and creates anxiety.
But when we breathe we are always letting go. Our out breath matches our in breath. We might be able to hold our breath for a few seconds or even minutes but we can never hold on to our breath.
And as we let the breath go; if we wake up and recognise that God breathes through us, in us, that it it is the breath of God we will find a peace deeper and richer than we have ever guessed, we will breathe the breath of God.
1 Breathe on me, Breath of God,
fill me with life anew,
that I may love the way you love,
and do what you would do.
2 Breathe on me, Breath of God,
until my heart is pure,
until my will is one with yours,
to do and to endure.
3 Breathe on me, Breath of God,
so shall I never die,
but live with you the perfect life
for all eternity.