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  • Writer's pictureThe Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

The Breath of the World | November 5, 2023 Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton

Listen more often to things rather than beings. Hear the fire's voice, Hear the voice of water. In the wind hear the sobbing of the trees, It is our forefathers breathing. The dead are not gone forever. They are in the paling shadows, And in the darkening shadows. The dead are not beneath the ground, They are in the rustling tree, In the murmuring wood, In the flowing water, In the still water, In the lonely place, in the crowd: The dead are not dead. Listen more often to things rather than beings. Hear the fire's voice, Hear the voice of water. In the wind hear the sobbing of the trees. It is the breathing of our forefathers, Who are not gone, not beneath the ground, Not dead. The dead are not gone for ever. They are in a woman's breast, A child's crying, a glowing ember. The dead are not beneath the earth, They are in the flickering fire, In the weeping plant, the groaning rock, The wooded place, the home. The dead are not dead. Listen more often to things rather than beings. Hear the fire's voice, Hear the voice of water. In the wind hear the sobbing of the trees. It is the breathing of our forefathers.

The opening words are from Birago Diop, Senegalese poet and recorder of traditional folktales and legends of the Wolof people. It is interesting to note that Diop was also a veterinarian. His words were adapted and so exquisitely put to music by Sweet Honey In the Rock. I have meditated often on these words…the idea that the dead are not under the earth…rather they are all around usan idea that comes to the fore at this time of year when we celebrate All Saints/All Souls days, as well as the Day of the Dead. Diop says that we must listen for the fire’s voice, the voice of water, the sobbing of the trees, the breathing of our forefathers (and mothers). He includes everything…wind, water, fireas well as trees and humans. For Diop, this breathing is a unity, a whole…perhaps an ecosystem. There is no separation between even the living and the dead.

This idea has the power…the potential, I think, to heal our relationship with the earth, and maybe even our relationships with each other. Could this include hope for reversing the devastation of climate change? Could it stem the tide of violence, hatred and war that is overtaking humanity? If we are able to see ourselves as part of everything else, we may be able to find a way toward healing our earth and healing our species. We are deeply in need of this idea…the idea that we are all on the same earth and what happens to one is happening to another. There are no boundaries in the lungs. We each breathe the breath of the world…we are being breathed by the world. Emanuele Coccia, an Italian philosopher writes in his book, The Life of Plants:

To inhale is to allow the world to come into us - the world is in us - and to exhale is to project ourselves into the world that we are.

He is saying that plants are the originators of the air we breathe and that this “Breath of the World” is what connects us. In another book he went so far as to say:

In the beginning we were all the same living creature, sharing the same body and the same experience. And things haven’t changed so much since then…of course it shifts, it transforms. But the life of each living being does not begin with its own birth: it is far older than that.

Coccia is echoing Diop’s sentiments…that this breath is what connects everything…everything in the world…the plants and the animals, the microbes and the human, the Israelis and the Palestinians, even the living and the dead. He is saying that we should not take our lives so personally…they are not wholly our own.

This is a difficult, yet essential realization…one that countless spiritual teachers throughout history have stressed.

Listen to Thich Nhat Hanh:

Being rock, being gas, being mist, being Mind,

being the mesons traveling among galaxies with the speed of light, you have come here my beloved one…

you have manifested yourself as trees, as grass, as butterflies,

as single-celled beings, and as chrysanthemums;

but the eyes with which you looked at me this morning

tell me you have never died.

You never died…no, even in death we are part of this world…as food for others…as food for thought for our loved ones. The air that we breathed is going on to nourish the trees and in turn our surviving brothers and sisters, both human and otherwise.

Another spiritual teacher, Howard Thurman spoke of our common origins, our relation to the sun, the moon and stars as part of the great universe. He also told some profound stories about this common ground in the book, The Search For Common Ground. In the chapter, The Search in the Common Consciousness he describes several relationships between different species he had witnessed in his life. In one between a rattlesnake and a little girl he writes:

When I was a small boy I went across the meadow to visit with one of my chums. I was running around the house when I heard a voice, which came from a knock on the windowpane. I looked up to see my friend’s father standing in the room. As soon as he caught my attention he motioned for me to turn around and come into the house through the front door. When I entered the room he pointed through an open window. There I saw his baby girl, less than a year old, sitting in the sand playing with a rattlesnake. It was an amazing and deeply frightening experience to watch…I was sent back into the yard to stand guard to keep anyone from coming around the house to frighten them. For if their harmony were broken by sudden disharmony created by noise or sudden movement, there would have been violence on earth.

Of course, I don’t think we can miss the lesson that might be embedded in this story when we consider the current violence on earth as well as to the earth. We have lost our trust in our relatedness and indeed in our ability to communicate with each other playfully and harmoniously. Thurman also tells the story of how his rose bushes were not doing well and he went out each night to express orally his concern for their well-being, even to the point of gently patting the branches. He was not sure, but it thought he noticed an improvement in terms of growth and blossom.

Another spiritual teacher, Krishna in the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita states:

They live in wisdom who see themselves in all and all in them.

And the Buddha said:

When you look at a leaf or a raindrop, meditate on the conditions, near and distant, that contributed to the presence of that leaf or raindrop. Know that the world is woven of interconnected threads. This is because that is. This is not because that is not. This is born because that is born. This dies because that dies.

We are connected…through space and time…through the power of our breath, breathing each other…through the power of our loving communications. How can we jeopardize the beauty of this moment by becoming violence on earth…killing our brothers and sisters…both of our own species and plant and other animal species?

I’d like to leave us with the words from a more contemporary teacher, Lauryn Hill. She sings:

Everything is everything What is meant to be, will be After winter, must come spring Change, it comes eventually….

Sometimes it seems We'll touch that dream But things come slow or not at all And the ones on top, won't make it stop So convinced that they might fall Let's love ourselves and we can't fail To make a better situation Tomorrow, our seeds will grow All we need is dedication…. Let me tell ya that

Everything is everything After winter, must come spring Change, it comes eventually

Indeed Lauryn, the ones on top, won’t make it stop. Instead, we each have to dedicate ourselves to that dream…the dream that is propelled by the breath of the world. May we heed this breath…the breath of interconnection and of wholeness…of compassion and love that says everything is everything…we are one of another.

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