Breathe in, slowly now, as you read through this post.
As I sat down on my green carpet rug to write this, I realized it was the first time I felt my breath extend all the way to my belly all day.
In the past two weeks, as I have fluttered between social gatherings to writing applications to studying Spanish, I went through my days without careful awareness of my breath. I would notice constriction in my lungs at the time I went to bed, feeling as if I had run a marathon. In the mornings, I would sit in quiet for between five and seven minutes while waiting for my tea to boil, as per my usual practice. But even that small amount of time to breathe took a lot of discipline for me – I could have been checking my e-mail, or calling my mom, or doing yoga…
But in ever-increasing moments, time has slowed down as the weather has cooled. Daylight savings time is almost to its end and I feel the fall chill settling into my bones. I am incredibly grateful for my dearest friends encouraging me to breathe – in slow walks, tea, and adventures. On Monday, I went to a concert with a few of my most loving and musical friends to celebrate a new decade of Kathryn’s life. We stood in a crowd of young hipster folk and listened to music for over three hours, breathing in the vibration of the bass and singing with all our might. I savored having nothing to do but just enjoy the moment – and listen to beautiful songs like “Let’s Be Still” by the Head and the Heart.
You can get lost in the music for hours, honey,
You can get lost in a room.
We can play music for hours and hours
But the sun’ll still be coming up soon
The world’s just spinning
A little too fast
If things don’t slow down soon we might not last.
So just for the moment, let’s be still.
I experience stillness in glimpses, when my eye catches the glistening leaf falling from a tree or I hug a friend for what feels like a little longer than eternity. I long for the moments when nothing exists but what is – right here, and now. Perfect contentment.
Why is it so difficult to slow down and just breathe? Most often, I use activity as a tool for distracting myself. If I’m feeling anxious, my first response is to do something – make a list, eat a cheese stick, go for a run – rather than sit with my emotion. Other times, I use activity as a way to make myself feel competitive with the rest of the world. College is a busy time – if I’m not busy, am I doing something wrong? Missing out? Falling behind on something other than sleep? I still remember when a professor told us during orientation week, “Welcome to four sleepless years.”
It’s no surprise that college campuses are laboratories for work-induced stress. We live in a society addicted to work and productivity; our lives become enslaved to time. With the omnipresence of technology, we take on an identity of achievement. We complete as many tasks as we can in the shortest amount of time possible. We also translate this principle to our bodies: how much energy can we expend on a treadmill in ten minutes or less? Related to the Earth, how much oil can we extract in the easiest possible manner, despite environmental repercussions? With our relationships, how many text messages can we send or Facebook friends can we make in a microsecond?
Perhaps, in my life, I am most longing for a practice of slowing down on a consistent basis. The ritual of the Sabbath has spoken to me ever since I left home and no longer had a built in time for family dinner or time at the breakfast table. Over fall break, I learned about the Sabbath in the Jewish tradition. Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the Sabbath as a “sanctuary in time” that restores us to the essence of stillness. During the Sabbath, the most traditional practice is to turn off your electricity, gather for a long dinner over candlelight, pray as a family, and enjoy simple moments of beauty together.
Sabbath is not only a weekly ritual, but a way of agricultural life. This Friday, i went to the Davidson Farm with a group of elementary school children and we saw several fallow rows of beautiful soil. “Why are there no plants here?” the kids questioned, noticing an absence of leafy greens. The farm manager, Theresa, explained that the previous crops had “eaten” all the good nutrients from the soil. The soil needed time – a Sabbath breath – before it could be plowed again.
The Earth works according to kairos, the cyclical nature of time when life happens in its own time. When we plant in harmony with the Earth’s cycles, agriculture teaches us patience. Wise farmers let crops grow in their own direction, let the rain fall in its own cycle, and let the field rest with Sabbath time. If fields are kin to our hearts, then we also are called to be patient with ourselves and live within kairos. We learn to be patient with seasons for relationships and seasons for solitude, seasons for work and rest, seasons for harvesting good fruit and planting for the future. As we transition between each phase, we need the space of Sabbath time to grieve loss, create compost, and embrace new beginnings. We need a full exhale and inhale in order to keep growing.
At this time in my life, I am learning to wait. Wait for the Lord is a commonly repeated prayer in Christianity, and only recently have I realized that this wisdom is essential to experiencing serenity. To let go of our anxious ways, we wait for wounds to heal, dreams to come to fruition, and connections to form in harmony with the seasons of the Universe. Waiting for God to act, we sacrifice our own activity-driven agendas. We bear God’s promise for redemption with patience, being still in the quiet of our hearts.
As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience. – Luke 8:15
My favorite word in Spanish is the verb esperar: a word that means both to hope and to wait. Having patience, we allow God’s goodness to work within us. Our hearts are no longer enchained by anxiety about results, but liberated to enjoy what is already growing. We release the tension to just let love happen. The seed of enlightenment blossoms when we bring our breath’s attention to this very moment.
Breathe, slowly now, in and out. The Divine is planting your heart with seeds unseen to the visible eye. May your breath give you space to cry and to laugh, to feed your soul, to let your fields be fallow and sustain your growth.
I leave you with a prayer attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero. Peace be with you for your week!
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw