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Breathing Patterns, Part 1: Inhale

Tom Sturch


 Oh, I am out of breath in this fond chase. The more my prayer, the lesser is my grace.

~ Helena, A Midsummer Night's Dream

Breath and heartbeat are gifts we fail to value chasing the enchantments of our professional lives. My most recent awareness of this fact occurred on a week's vacation to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Flights of stairs and sprints between concourses at DFW reminded how out of shape I am. But on arrival in the mountains I woke to true enchantment, at once breathless and inspired. I was at the Glen Workshop West. Glen West is an annual gathering of artists, writers, musicians, photographers, film makers and poets for encouragement, craft and fellowship. It is held on the campus of St John's College, which sits on the western slopes of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. On Monday morning a few new friends and I drove down the narrow, circuitous roads into Santa Fe for coffee, setting a pattern for the week.

Up the mountain. Down the mountain.

It was Joe's idea to go and I was a willing traveler –both of us from the east coast where morning starts hours earlier. He was my bunk-mate in Polyhymnia, the dorm we slept in, and sometimes couldn't sleep in, for a week. Small metal beds, unfitted sheets, coyotes, wee-hour voices in the courtyard, and, one of the nights, all the smoke alarms at once. My heart was located an hour later fibrillating inside the North Face bag in my closet.

Over coffee, we were two and three and four depending on which day it was: theologians, professors, doctors and questioners. Our conversations were often about contemplation as a means of encountering God beyond our intellectual notions, to sharpen our imagination, intuition and sensorial abilities as sources of inspiration and energy, and to gain new directions for work in the world. “I'm learning that it starts with an awareness of breathing,”Joe said.

Inhale. Exhale.

A dozen years ago Joe attended a photography workshop at Kanuga with his first real camera, a Nikon D100 (a gift from his wife) and he was changed. He now talks about his life as “pre-Kanuga”and “post-Kanuga.”In those mountains, his workshop instructor first corrected any self-concept of expertise by sending the class out for several shots and then saying, “Delete the images.”It was a necessary measure in order to see with new eyes. Joe's ability to see beyond the apparent would change to a way “of looking at a thing until you no longer know its name.”One might say, to submit to its essence, or to see its light.

Pre-Kanuga. Post-Kanuga.

We worshiped each day with the whole group. As it happened, Wednesday was The Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ. Father Richard Rohr, our chaplain, led our mass. The disciples, he said, would see differently —the Son of Man brightly reconciling the Law and the Prophets, the Father foreshadowing our own adoption as his human children. When Jesus is baptized in the Jordan valley, God says (in the iambic music of the King James Version), “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” At the mountaintop transfiguration, when Jesus is revealed as divine, God says it again, adding, “Hear ye him.”And changed, inspired, they walked down the mountain into vocation.

Author/actor Ben Crystal says of the poetic rhythms of Shakespeare's iambic pentameter, “[It] is the rhythm of our English language and of our bodies –a line of that poetry has the same rhythm as our heartbeat. A line of iambic pentameter fills the human lung perfectly, so it’s the rhythm of speech.”

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

           ~ William Shakespeare, Sonnet XVIII

Our hearts beating in the space of a breath, inexorably linked in the body they serve. Must we climb mountains for inspiration? In what valley do you hear your call?