In line for a roller coaster at an amusement park is an odd place for a spiritual experience.
But there I was at Pittsburgh’s Kennywood Park, hot and dirty on a summer day. I was working as a caregiver for a woman with mild intellectual disabilities, and she was standing behind me. As we moved slowly through the line, I felt someone blowing on me from a close distance, a distinct, direct long puff of air between my shoulder blades, just below the back of my neck. It happened twice before I asked her about it.
“Are you blowing on me?” I asked, laughing at my own strange question.
“No,” she said, looking at me a little oddly.
It happened again and I asked again, getting the same answer. I’ve never known her to be a prankster, but I pressed to see if maybe she was turning into one.
“Are you messing with me?” I asked with a laugh.
“No,” she said. “Why would I do that?”
It made for a bit of humor, but I thought little of it. Until about a month later, when I heard a radio interview with 17-year-old Florida oboist David Norville.
“It started back in seventh grade . . . we were rehearsing in this cabin,” Norville said. “I remember thinking, is the air conditioner on, is there a fan?”
It turned out that neither existed.
“Every time I play and I experience some kind of emotional connection or revelation while listening to the music, I feel a breeze on my forehead,” he said. “And it’s so relieving and it makes me feel so happy and fulfilled.”
Boom! The kid was explaining the same phenomenon I experienced just weeks before, for the first time in my life!
If this young person hadn’t named it, I would have quickly forgotten it happened and never felt blessed by that strange moment. I had that wind at my back mentioned in that traditional Irish blessing, and yet I didn’t know it.
It reminded me of a story from the Old Testament book of Samuel. The book’s namesake wakes up in the middle of the night, hearing his name called. He thinks it’s his friend playing a prank, so he turns over and goes back to sleep. It isn’t until the third time this happens that he realizes, with his friend’s help, that it is the voice of God calling him.
Back on the radio segment with the teenage oboist, the interviewer attributed the experience to the “zephyr,” or “spirit.” Zephyr is the Greek term for a breeze originating in the west, considered less destructive than the eastern wind. Another word that could apply to my experience is pneuma, Greek for breath, spirit, or soul.
I don’t see myself as a New Age Catholic, though others might disagree. In many ways, I’m a blue-collar, practical sort, especially inspired by the Catholic Worker tradition. A person needs a hand across the street, and you help them: That’s how to practice and experience religion. You go to church to remind yourself to keep getting off your lazy butt to persist in such daily acts. I practice contemplative centering prayer, but there is even a pragmatism in that—I like the feeling of groundedness, peace, and focus it affords. Often my spirituality, embarrassingly, seems formulaic: “Do this, get that.”
But this experience reminds me not to miss out on the mystical and that I am not controlling the show. I don’t mean to suggest we should judge our faith by such moments, such delightful morsels on the journey. But we could get a boost from that awareness of all the special moments and sensations that we likely miss because we don’t have a teenager’s newness of experience.
Why did my breeze happen then and there? I can’t know for sure. I even wonder if God snickers at my attempt to understand the moment I didn’t even fully recognize at the time. But I’ll give it a shot. A few moments after the breeze, my ride partner got upset and we had to exit the ride prematurely. We had a disagreement about the best option to keep our purses safe (whether to leave them unsecured in a box at the ride’s entrance or keep them strapped to our bodies). This triggered greater upset over which coaster car we’d ride in. I was able to facilitate a low-stress departure and offer encouragement that next time we’ll plan better and actually go on the ride. Looking back, that breath on my back and the laughter we’d shared over its origin could have helped with that calm.
I walked away from that day patting myself on the back for a job well done with my fellow rider. Looking back with a new awareness of the spirit, I feel I wasn’t on my own in my efforts. The more meaningful pat on the back may very well have been from God—playful, light, and cool as a breeze.
Often in my work with people with disabilities, as well as in every other facet of my life, I go through times of dryness, of burden, of “woe is me.” Lately the news of violence has taken its toll, on me as on others. It knocks the wind out of our sails. And yet hearing the interview with the oboist makes me realize that the mystical may not be so out of reach. I have to believe that when we do those things we do best, when we help someone on the amusement park ride or play a musical instrument, that God breathes on us, through us, in us to push us further than we could go alone.
Image: Matt McK on Unsplash