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Breathing Lesson #1: Breathe Deeply

May 9, 2011

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on the Third Sunday of Easter, May 8, 2011

The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary
John 20: 19-31           Acts 2: 14a, 22-32

There is an intense intimacy in the story we read today of the Easter encounter in the upper room. Jesus appears among his fearful disciples, although the doors were locked, and he speaks one word to them: shalom; peace be with you. He shows them his body, broken, pierced. And then again he says, shalom, peace. He gives to his disciples a mission, his mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And then he breathes on them, and they receive the Holy Spirit.

The presence of the resurrected Christ among the disciples on the first day of the week brings divine peace, a sense of mission, and the holy spirit of life. What we witness is nothing less than Jesus creating the church, the living, spirit-filled body (or bodies) that will continue his work of sharing the good things of God with the whole world.

But Thomas had not been among them. So a week later, Jesus appears also to Thomas. There is a neat parallel here: the doors again are shut, Jesus appears, peace is offered, his body is given to be touched, and Thomas believes. If in the first encounter we see the creation of the church, in this second story there is a word for us who live distant in time and place from the first century: blessed are those who do not see and yet believe.

But what I am so taken by in this story is the intimacy of bodies, breathing, touching. I am reminded that to be spiritual, we must first take a deep breath, and be in touch with who we are, with who we have been created to be.

A couple of years ago I was given a book by a college student who wanted me to read it. The book had been given to her by an uncle who thought the theme appropriate to a devout and open young woman seeking to find the presence of God in her life. Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger is an enjoyable evenings read, if not for the story then just because it’s Salinger. And it includes one of my favorite images of spirituality.

The story centers around Franny, a first year college student, who is seeking (searching for) a way to pray. She finds it in a manual of prayer called The Way of a Pilgrim, written by an anonymous Russian monk in the 19th century. The monk had encountered the Apostle Paul’s words “Pray in the Spirit at all times” and simply wanted a way to pray without stopping. After wandering throughout Russia, he meets another monk who teaches him what in ancient tradition was called “The Jesus Prayer”. The Jesus Prayer is a simple two phrases “Lord Jesus Christ, Have Mercy on Me” repeated over and over. The anonymous monk is taught to recite this prayer over and over, to match it to the rhythm of his breathing, so that in time, and with great practice, his very act of living and breathing will be prayer, shaping all that he does and every relationship that he has. The first part of Salinger’s book concludes with a highly comical scene in which young Franny, who has been intensely and with great seriousness trying to master this breath prayer (inhaling one phrase, exhaling the other), passing out for lack of oxygen. Intent on the words, she has forgotten how to breathe.

Franny’s spiritual search may be comic in the book, but it illustrates a tendency in religious practice: too often we try first to determine what we ought to do, and then struggle to put it in practice; to learn the truths, techniques, the language of faith, and then apply them to ourselves. But Jonathan Edwards, the New England theologian of the Great Awakening, has written that “Prayer is as natural an expression of faith as breathing is of life.” So what if Franny, instead of trying to master a prayer learned from another, had instead been taught to breath, to attend to the rhythms of her body, to practice the gentle rhythm of in and out, inhale and exhale? Perhaps she would have learned what spirituality is all about, for in Hebrew Scripture the word ruach means both spirit and breath.

When God, in the second chapter of Genesis, first creates human being, God breathes into them, God inspirits them, God inspires them, and they live. During Lent, if you recall, we read Ezekiel’s vision of God breathing life into dry bones, asking the question, “Can these dry bones live?” And the answer was yes, when God breathes. That day we looked forward to this moment when the risen Christ would breathe life into his fearful disciples, and beyond this to Pentecost, when God’s spirit will blow through the church. Biblically speaking, to be spiritual is simply to be breathing. Spirituality is the art of breathing – taking in and sharing out God’s free gift of life. That is not meant to be abstract – but concrete and practical.

Try this:

When you are ready, take a few deep breaths and attend gently to both the inhalation and the exhalation. Place one hand near your nose and mouth so you can feel the breath going in and out . . . in and out. . . . Place your other hand on your chest so you can feel the gentle rise and fall of your lungs. . . . Play with deep and shallow breaths, slow and fast breaths, feeling you lungs expand and contract. . . . Gradually begin to imagine that each breath moves beyond your lungs into your entire body. Follow your breath down into your belly . . . into your legs . . . all the way to your toes. . . . Imagine your breath filling your shoulders . . . flowing down your arms and into your hands and fingertips. . . . Imagine your breath soothing and easing into your neck . . . circulating through your brain . . . massaging the space behind your eyes.

As you feel your breath in every part of your being, breathe a prayer of thanksgiving for the breath of life. . . . Be aware of the abundance of air . . . the ease with which it flows . . . and how little thought you have to give to this life-giving gift. Discover a phrase you can pray to the rhythm of your breathing, such as, “The breath of life; I give thanks.” Stay with your breathing and praying as long as you wish. . . . Then close your prayer any way that seems right. (Jane Vennard, Praying with Body and Soul: A Way to Intimacy with God, Augsburg Fortress, 1998).

God is as close to us as our very breath. Paying attention to our breathing holds us in this moment, right now, in which God wants to speak with us. Christian spirituality has rhythms, just like breathing – its own rhythms of in and out, giving and receiving, intense experience and ordinary living, time together and time in solitude, holding on and letting go. There are rhythms of worship and work, praise and supplication, obedience and resistance, weeping and rejoicing, listening and speaking.

Our health – our physical health and spiritual health – depends on respecting this rhythm. All sorts of problems develop when we hold our breath, when the wind gets knocked out of us, when our capacity to breathe deeply is diminished; and health can only be restored when we have space to breathe again.

Anne Tyler received a Pulitzer Prize in Literature for her 1989 novel Breathing Lessons. Tyler’s book is the story of a single day in the life of Maggie and Ira Moran. It is about their marriage, their children, and the deep grooves of disappointment and failure which characterize all their conversation. It is about their deep need for one another despite their inability to offer one another just enough grace to keep even a simple conversation from becoming an argument. Maggie and Ira seem to hold their breath when they are together, each afraid of what they or the other might either say or do to cause the old resentments to rise up again like bile in their mouths.

As the book begins, our couple is on its way to attend a funeral a few hours north of their home town of Baltimore. There is nothing like a funeral to make us conscious of the passing of time and of the frailty of life. In this case, the funeral is for the husband of a high school classmate who is Maggie’s peer, and who was a few years behind Ira. So the funeral also involves aspects of a class reunion – which means revisiting of the past.

On the way to the funeral Maggie casually notes that they will be passing near Fiona’s house. Fiona is the ex-wife of their high-school-drop-out son Jessie, and the mother of their granddaughter Leroy, who they have not seen in years. Maggie still holds out hope for reconciliation between Jessie and Fiona. Jessie and Fiona consider this meddling. Ira suspects it has been the real reason Maggie insisted on attending the funeral in the first place. The stage is set for a liturgy of pain, as Maggie and Ira play out the predictable, tiresome and inevitable scripts of countless conversations leading nowhere.

But for the attentive reader, each chapter of present plot and reminiscence of the past is characterized by a different kind of breathing. Maggie recalls her wedding night, as she slowly unbuttoned the top button of her negligee, “He had looked directly into her eyes, and it seemed he wasn’t even breathing. She had assumed that would go on forever.” Remembering how she and Ira sang a duet at the wedding of the deceased, she recalls “that breathless flutter high in her chest that foretold stage fright. She had taken a deep, trembly breath, and then Ira had unobtrusively set a hand at the small of her back. That had steadied her. Back in the present, Maggie takes a deep breath before she begins to sing for the funeral.

As readers of the novel, we come to understand and have sympathy for Maggie and Ira as we be conscious of their breathing, just as the couple come to appreciate each other anew as they remember these moments of grace in their relationship. By the end of the novel, little has really changed in the circumstances of their lives: Fiona and Jessie are still estranged; Maggie and Ira are the same characters we met in the opening chapter. But there is also space to breathe a modicum of grace and understanding, an attention and even love for one another that neither we nor they could see on page one. By learning to breathe, literally to experience again the full range of life, its hopes, struggles, disappointments, envies, comforts, there is sympathy and grace again in their relationship. Where before were locked rooms of fear, bitterness, and unhelpful patterns of behavior, they discover grace. Ira and Maggie Moran come to realize that their predictable, common marriage is really quite extraordinary.

The title of the novel appears on page 188. Fiona, the daughter-in-law, is pregnant with Leroy and attending her first Le Ma’s class with Maggie. “Breathing lessons – really,” she says as she drops to the floor with a thud. “Don’t they reckon I must know how to breathe by now?”

During the next several weeks, as we wait for and anticipate the gifts of wind, fire, spirit which characterize the church of Pentecost, we are going to have a series of breathing lessons. So, Lesson 1: breathing is both miraculously natural, taken for granted, yet yields amazing gifts when practiced with intention. Ask a runner, a singer, a pregnant woman. Ask those in pain, those with asthma or allergies, those with diminished capacity due to illness, whose attention to their breathing is required for life. Ask the 19th century author of The Way of a Pilgrim, or Franny, or Maggie, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn; ask the disciples in the upper room who were turned from frightened friends in to bold witnesses when they breathed in deeply the life of the risen Christ.

Next week we will look at breathing as an act of relaxation – particularly the relaxed grace different generations can offer one another in an intergenerational congregation like this one. The following week we will look at breathing as effort, as we discuss how we find words to articulate our faith. The following week we will imagine this building, our sanctuary, as a breathing cathedral, a living prayer for the city of White Plains. And after that we will return to the mission Jesus has given us, to be his witnesses even to ends of the earth.

Only God can breathe renewal into human life; send the Spirit; raise the dead. But we can breathe deeply when god does. This Easter season, God wants to breathe in us. Who know what that will bring about? Take a deep breath, and receive God’s peace.

NEXT WEEK: Breathing Lesson #2: Inhaling the Truth about Ourselves.

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