Holding Up the World

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   September 7, 2023

You’re doing it right now. And not just now, but 25,000 times today. Probably without any awareness unless breathing is made more challenging by respiratory issues. You’re breathing. Inhaling. Exhaling. Over and over.

So why not make of our breath a prayer? No equipment needed except our attention and intention. We can experience the simple practice of praying with the breath, what I like to call breathprayer, every morning as we greet the dawn and every evening as we gratefully drift off to sleep. And any and many times in-between, especially when a pause or a centering is needed or desired.

We know that breath is a sign of life. Our human life cycles testify to its beginnings and endings. Perhaps we have stood among the concerned and eager faces in a delivery room. Listened expectantly and leaned forward as if one body, awaiting the first wail of a newborn. And when that longed-for cry broke through the hush, perhaps we have wanted to bow our heads in worship at the miracle that another breath, another new life, was visible and among us.

Or perhaps we have sat in stillness night after night as the shadows deepened around a sickbed. Whispered prayers of pleading or made promises to God, if only…. Listened intently as the pauses between one labored breath and the next lengthened. Witnessed a final deep sigh as breath, life, departed the body and ended our long vigil of accompaniment. Perhaps we have then wanted to bow our heads in worship, knowing ourselves in the presence of holy mystery.

Inhaling and exhaling, such simple, basic human acts, so easily adapted to our prayer. In the ancient practice of breathprayer, we connect to Ruah, Spirit. We remember Jesus’ appearance to the disciples who had gathered in a locked room after his death. (John 20:19-22) We imagine him looking into those haunted and terrified faces, revealing wounds in his hands and side as proof that he was indeed risen and alive. And we participate in the joy and utter relief in that locked room when Jesus exhaled and breathed peace, Spirit, on his disciples.

In breathprayer, we first pay attention to how our breath is in any given moment. Steady? Anxious? Weary? Rapid? Relaxed? However our breathing may be, the Holy One blesses it. After a few moments of attentiveness to our breathing in and breathing out, we may want to continue praying with the breath alone. Or we may use a line from  Scripture. Or add an intention for the day, such as “Holy One,” (as we breathe in), “breathe through me” (as we breathe out).

Eli DeFaria, Unsplash

I once heard an ancient parable claiming that it is the prayers of the many that hold up the world and keep the earth from disintegrating into ashes. I’m sure the Holy One has something more to do with that! But what I understand as the spiritual core of that statement is that prayer breathed with intentionality is an antidote to attitudes of hatred, racism, indifference, and cruelty that have the potential to burn up and destroy our earth and all who call it home. In contrast, I suspect there are few daily moments more tender or selfless than coming together with no intention other than to hold in love and compassion the known and unspoken needs of our world.

When we enter into breathprayer individually or collectively, we become, with the grace of the Holy One, agents of healing. We create what Judy Cannato called fields of compassion, exhaling tenderness and welcome and a deepening sense of kinship.

So if you are new to breathprayer, I invite you to try it. If you’re a long-time practitioner, thank you. And now I’ll simply stop writing, exhale a blessing to you, and envision all of us breathing closer to fulfillment God’s dream for our beautiful yet wounded world.

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Spend some time noticing how you feel as you inhale and exhale.
After a few minutes, you may wish to add words or an intention to accompany your breath.
Continue inhaling and exhaling this breathprayer for as long as you wish.

Featured Image: Zac Durant, Unsplash

Thank you for returning to my blog, Mining the Now, after my brief hiatus during the month of August. I hope that time was restorative for you as it was for me.

And thank you for holding in prayer the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Immaculata) who were part of a guided retreat I offered August 8-15 at Villa Maria Retreat House, their beautiful new retreat center in Stone Harbor, NJ.

Thank you in advance for remembering specially my niece and Godchild, Lauren Kline, and her husband-to-be, Peter Wilkins, who will be married this weekend, September 9.

And please hold in prayer all who will be part of the next retreat I’ll be leading:
September 15-22:  Guided retreat for the Sisters of Mercy and Associates, Sea Isle City, NJ

Thank you!

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6 thoughts on “Holding Up the World”

  1. A next step suggested by the Dominican Sister who suggested that we identify persons who are compassionate and invite them to join a compassionate community. She spoke on Catholic Women Preach. Marguerite

  2. This was particularly relevant to me today as my husband is struggling with his breath after bypass surgery, and I am unable to be with him due to a viral respiratory illness over the past 3 days. Breath prayer is a blessing, and I thank you for the gentle reminder. Deb Walsh

  3. Welcome back! – and thank YOU for continuing to inspire us with your wonderfully wise and perceptive blog.

  4. Thank you Chris for being a blessing to all of us! God bless you and yours! 🙏🏻🕊💙❤️

  5. I have a deeper understanding of the power of breath and breathing as l have used my breath and breathing to keep me calm as l have come to know the seriousness of my Sister’s recent surgery.

    1. Breathe in the joy and delight and love of the newly weds Chris. And take delight in the beauty of the sea as you breathe in the wonderful smell on the salt air and feel fully alive and at one with the newly weds and the life of the sea.

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