So says David the King in Psalm 39. This psalm gives us an image of a man wrestling with God, his relationship with Him burning in his chest. He resolves not to speak, but then must. He asks to know how long he will live, knowing that a “man’s life is but a breath.”
From the story of God forming humanity from the dust of the earth in Genesis 2, wherein he breathed into man “the breath of life”, to the outpouring of the Ruach (Spirit or breath) of God, to the notion that the scripture is literally, “God breathed”, breath holds a profound place in the story of us. Breath keeps us alive, one cycle of inhale/exhale at a time. To think of God breathing, each inhale/exhale birthing worlds, spirits, and truths, is to be reminded of Paul’s idea: “In Him we live and move and have our being.”
I struggle to breathe well when I’m performing. Many people have said it to me over the years…I work too hard. Knowing that breath provides the energy and structure needed for concentrated muscular effort in the performer’s major tools, speaking and singing, for years I have tried to figure out just how breath works. And for years it has eluded me. There is a simplicity to it, a trust that the body already knows how to do what it’s training to do. As I sing and speak on stage, there is constant creative energy pouring through the body, and various body positions create pressure and tension that demands breath.
What’s on my mind is the relationship between muscular effort and breath. The breath is what’s needed if life is to continue, and the muscular strength and direction provides mobility and physical action. This relationship speaks to me of the tension between the Spirit of God (ruach in the Hebrew, pneuma in the Greek), and the exercise of our muscular (both physical and psychic) energy and will. As followers of Christ, we constantly use the language of allowing the Spirit to work through us, or allowing Christ to work through us, knowing that we can’t do this or that that our walk of faith requires. And yet, the muscularity can be applied by none other than ourselves, even as, in faith, we believe the Spirit of God to be providing “the strength” for muscular action we are taking. And we speak of taking control, short-circuiting the work of the Spirit, which seems to me a lot like holding the breath instead of breathing. Obviously, to hold breath is to cut yourself off from the very source of your life. You turn red and pass out when you do it, and as a performer, it’s much the same.
In my current role in Man of La Mancha at Taproot Theatre, I walk a tightrope between the muscular energy I’ve chosen to apply to the character of Don Quixote, and the breath I need to sing the songs. Last night’s performance was an experiment in moving deeper into a release of tension and depending more completely on breath and ease, and there were pluses and minuses as I moved through the play. Again, it reminds me of the daily experiment we go through trying to find the balance of Spirit-life and human-life, which in my mind makes up what Dallas Willard and Richard Foster call “The With-God Life.” My shortcoming as a performer echoes the shortcoming I have in my day-to-day world…I need more breath.
I know David is referring to the brevity of a man’s life when he says “each man’s life is but a breath.” But as I was reading along in Psalm 39 this morning, it just hit me (or did the Living Word speak to me?), reminding me that the breath of life, on multiple levels of literal and metaphoric reality, belongs to God, and that our lives are given to us one breath at a time, each inhale/exhale a small life of its own.
Today, I will breathe…