Pope Francis’s words of wisdom on Christian hope compiled in the book, On Hope, speak almost prophetically to our times:
Christian hope…is very important, because hope never disappoints. Optimism disappoints, but hope does not. We have such need in these times that can appear dark, in which we sometimes feel disoriented by the evil and violence that surround us, by the distress of so many of our brothers and sisters. We need hope. We feel disoriented and even rather discouraged, because we are powerless and it seems this darkness will never end. We must not let hope abandon us, because God, with his love, walks with us.
We do need hope! We need hope as we witness the distress of our brothers and sisters who are suffering with the virus. We need hope as we are barraged by stories about the pandemic and its economic toll. We need the hope that these days of social distancing—these days that seem to blend one into the other—will not last forever. We need hope that we will be able to return to our routines and some semblance of life as we knew it.
I have noticed that as I encounter the endless onslaught of sad and distressing stories, I hold my breath. Perhaps it is the uncertainly of it all, or maybe I’m holding my breath and waiting to hear something good. Or perhaps, as one friend put it, “I’m holding my breath and waiting for the other shoe to drop.” As I talk with friends, I hear the widespread feeling that despite our best efforts to social distance, cover our faces, and sanitize, we don’t have a lot of control. Facing an invisible threat on a global scale causes anxiety. And so, we hold our breath.
As long as we are well, though, there is one thing that we do have control over: our breath. Well, the ancient Hebrews would argue that we don’t even have control over that, because our breath is breathed into us by God. Their word for breath, ruah, also means “spirit” as well as, “air in motion: sometimes the wind; at other times breath or vitality and life-giving power” (Boadt, Reading the Old Testament). Jesuit Anthony de Mello, in his book, Sadhana: A Way to God, speaks further of the ruah: “If a man lived, it was because God kept putting his breath, his ‘spirit’ into this man. It was the presence of this Spirit of God that kept the man alive.” The ruah, then, was God’s continuous breath within the individual, God’s continuous gift of life.
So, while we may not control the breath that God breathes into us, we at least can control our awareness of our breath, and this will affect our spirit as well. De Mello offers an exercise that I have found particularly helpful in these stressful times when I observe myself holding my breath.
A bit of preparation will help us get the most out of this exercise. Go to a quiet place in your house or outside in nature. Sit upright, and plant your feet firmly on the ground. Feel the ground beneath your feet. Imagine that your feet are rooted to the ground. You are stable and grounded.
While still remaining in an upright posture, relax your body, slowly, from head to toe. Now, very slowly, breathe in deeply through your nose, and then breathe slowly out through your mouth.
Now begin de Mello’s contemplation:
While you breathe in, be conscious of God’s Spirit coming into you…Fill your lungs with the divine energy he brings with him…
While you breathe out, imagine you are breathing out all your impurities…your fears…your negative feelings…
Imagine you see your whole body becoming radiant and alive through this process of breathing in God’s life-giving Spirit and breathing out all your impurities… (Sadhana: A Way to God)
For these days, I add:
Breathe in compassion for yourself—and others.
Breathe out any anxieties you have about your health and your loved ones’ health.
Breathe in God’s peace.
Breathe out any concerns you have right now over your finances.
Breathe in God’s assurance that these times will pass.
Breathe out whatever is causing you fear or anxiety right now.
Breathe in God’s promise of new life; breathe in hope.