Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:8).
Breathing and the Spirit
Consciousness of our breathing is the most primal spiritual practice. It delivers us from the imagined future of our worries and the replayed regrets of our past. We arrive in the present moment.
There we find the sounds about us, the shifting moods within us, and the silence of our souls. We discover there a place God already prepared to meet us. So we wait expectantly.
Reverence for breath appears not only in Buddhist meditation teachings but in Eastern Orthodox Christian guidance for contemplative prayer. Moreover, the breath appears at the beginning of scripture as God’s very breath moves over the watery chaos to form a beloved world. That breath continues to move through the sacred stories of the Bible and through those of faith communities and individual souls.
The Rhythm of Retreat and Engagement
Indeed the breath awakens us not only to the present moment but to the whole of our individual and collective stories. For our lives with God follow a rhythm of inhaling and exhaling, of retreat and engagement.
Notice that in the first sentence, I said, “Consciousness of our breathing is the most primal spiritual practice.” We usually breathe without awareness, although breathing invites us every moment to the present should we choose to welcome the sensations. Just so, the rhythm of our breathing rocks us through our days and nights so steadily that we do not notice.
Yet, when we attend to the rhythm of our lives with God over days, years, or decades, we see the inhale of retreat from the world and the exhale of engagement. We see it in Jesus’ life too. As if to just barely notice, Luke inserts this verse between clamorous scenes of Jesus healing a man with leprosy and a paralyzed man: “But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray” (Luke 5:15). Engagement, retreat, and engagement again, over and over.
The Heartbeat of Love
We need retreat for good self-care. But if we retreat only for rest and relaxation, it will disappoint us. We must seek more. Cultivating a loving intention will awaken us to the concurrent rhythm of our lives: our heartbeat.
For from the heart, love springs. Retreat without love is escape. Engagement without love is intrusion. But retreat and engagement, pursued in love, are life-giving.
Lately, I’ve been reading much history and much news. Both hold before me the harshness of life, inhumanity that infects human relations. It tempts me to retreat to heavenly consolation beyond brutality or to a gated fortress where I can forget the world.
Meanwhile, monks and people of quiet discipline retreat, survey the tragic landscape, and pray for us. With similar discipline, unacknowledged saints enter the fray with the same love and find Christ there. The Spirit, inhaling and exhaling, draws most of us to both places. As we follow, we find our heart’s desire.