Lately, I’ve been holding my breath. It’s actually something I inherited from my mother’s side of the family. Many of my female relatives on the Irish side of the clan have this habit of holding our breath when we’re talking—or rather, listening—or concentrating, or thinking. And especially when we’re anxious.
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Stress makes many people turn to comfort food, while others lose their appetite. Some folks chew their nails; some look for relief in the bottom of a cocktail glass; still others lose sleep or sleep too much. Me? I forget to breathe.
When I was a member of a college theater ensemble, our director often focused on the importance of breathing, not only for our physical persons but also for our souls. In the Bible, the Greek word used for “breath,” pneuma, is also used to describe the Spirit—our spirits and the Holy Spirit.
Breathing is, of course, essential to life. The air that moves through our lungs sustains us. But the Spirit also imbues us with eternal life and the true sustenance of our earthly lives.
Before rehearsals or performances, our college theater director would lead us through a series of warm-up exercises, all of them focused on breath. We began by lying flat on our backs with our eyes closed, letting go of all of the physical and emotional tensions we’d brought with us into the room. As we centered ourselves, body and mind, we’d pray the “Jesus Prayer,” silently. It’s a simple yet powerful prayer that comes from the practice of hesychasm, or contemplative prayer, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
It goes like this: (Breathing in) “Jesus Christ.” (Breathing out) “Son of God.” (Breathing in) “Have mercy on me.” (Breathing out) “A sinner.”
Breathing in is acceptance—inhaling the divine grace of God. Breathing out is confession. So we take in the holy name of Jesus Christ, confess that he is the Son of God, accept God’s mercy, and confess that we are, indeed, sinners in need of healing and redemption. The rhythm of the prayer is supposed to make its words as natural as breath, bringing about the “prayer of the heart,” which is what St. Paul describes in his first letter to the church at Thessalonica when he says the faithful should “pray without ceasing.”
Paul wrote his letter to the Thessalonians during nervous times for the young church. Believers in Thessalonica faced intense opposition from Jewish authorities, so much so that Paul himself fled for his safety. The apostle writes his letter to folks who are feeling anxious, worried, insecure, and unsettled. They don’t know what the future holds for their lives, the church, their well-being, their community. Sound familiar?
It is in this context that Paul tells them to “pray without ceasing.” He writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-20:
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.
Paul’s words—pray without ceasing; don’t quench the Spirit—have fresh resonance for me today in the midst of our time, fraught with financial concerns, wars and rumors of wars, cultural dissonance, and political upheavals weighing heavily on our hearts and subconscious. Even as I write this, with the pressure of a deadline hanging over my head, I find myself holding my breath and exhaling with puffed cheeks, as if I’m blowing out the candles on a birthday cake.
Perhaps I’ve quenched the Spirit by acting as if the pressures, anxieties, and concerns that sometimes feel like they have me clutched in their vise-like grip are mine to shoulder alone. They are not. They belong to God, the Breath of Life, our hiding place, our strength in times of sorrow, our loving parent who calls us children and beckons us near for comfort.
May we all breathe deeply and exhale fully the grace and mercy that surrounds us like air.
Cathleen Falsani, web editor for Sojourners, is author of Belieber: Fame, Faith, and the Heart of Justin Bieber.