We sit in a circle, listening to stories, singing songs, and reciting the words of the liturgy. It's the last gathering of our weekend at the spring retreat for our church community.
At my feet and to my right sits a young man with eyes that sparkle and a half-smile on his face. At his feet lays a black lab named Charlie, who brings a calming and soothing presence to his companion who happens to be profoundly autistic.
His hands are busy, brushing over and over his i-pad; zooming in and out and changing color. Deliberate motions and changes that are done with intention and purpose. He is leaning back on his mom's legs. Every so often she leans down to reassuringly rub his shoulders or kiss the top of his head. He is over 6 feet, but he needs his mom to be close. Every so often, his low voice, sounding more and more like that of a man, repeats the same word, over and over, while using his fingers to tap his chest in tandem....
"Breathe. Breathe. Breathe."
He looks up at his mom and she says, "yes, breathe", and so he does.
In a few minutes, he repeats the word and the tapping again, and then again. On it goes as the morning goes, and his voice saying the word, together with the sound of his fingers tapping his chest take up residence in my memory. I can hear him now, as I sit at my keyboard, in the quiet of a house that sleeps.
When the bread comes around, I break off a piece and place it in his hands, and he takes it.
"The body of Christ, broken for you."
The wine comes next, and I help tip it back for him as he takes a generous gulp.
"The blood of Christ, shed for you."
His eyes hardly leave his i-pad as his images zoom in and out, and the tap tap tap of his fingers on his chest begin again as he repeats the word. "Breathe. Breathe. Breathe."
It's like a soundtrack that doesn't stop, and as it's repeated over and over again, most people don't even hear it.
And in the midst of all of the words of the weekend, spoken, shared, and sung, it's that one word from his mouth that stays with me. I can't shake it, because it has gone to my core.
When his anxiety rises, he tells himself to breathe. He taps his chest to remind him, to make a physical action to connect the dots and get his body to fall into step with the word his voice knows so well.
When my anxiety rises, I don't usually breathe. My fists clench, my shoulders rise, my chest tightens. How much better would it be to just breathe? To connect with the rising tension, inhale, and exhale the tightness and discomfort that wants to take up space where it doesn't belong...
So this week I will remember the word, and the voice that spoke it.
The tap, tap tap of fingers on a chest that has learned to breathe.