Before COVID-19 I was living my life unaware of my nothingness. As if I were the center. As if I made things happen. As if my efforts would make a difference. As if there was something in me to fix. A world to improve. Holiness to develop.
Breathing peace was about finding calm. Inner stillness. Making me more me, a better me.
But after one month of sheltering inside our convent as everyone else does the same, I realize that breathing peace is about accepting everything that is, as it is. About being okay with the pain. The uncertainty. The not-knowing what the new-normal will be. About not resisting unpleasantness. About not judging what is happening. Rejecting it. Refusing it. Resisting it.
Breathing peace is about breathing fire. It is to have the courage to take in the evil that surrounds me and is within me.
As Simone Weil stated in her First and Last Notebooks, the way to make use of pain, sorrow, disappointment, when almost the entire soul is crying out with one great refusal to receive what is transpiring, is to consent that this should be as it is until our death, even forever. She describes how when we do this the physically sentient part of our soul is split in two. The soul is divided by a “two-edged sword.” A deeper more intentionally grounded decisiveness appears which is free to soar above the sorrow, no longer chained by resistance, no longer captive to a wrestling match with what cannot be changed.
As the poet Rilke has written: “Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
Here is a simple practice to help you do something that is so contrary to the way we normally run from pain and hunger after pleasure.
Breathing in, breathing in your own evil, sickness, disappointment, not measuring-up, anxiety, disordered passions, thoughts and feelings. Imagine all this as darkness or a lost homeless child. Feel sympathy for yourself, sweet affection, loving kindness, gratitude.
Breathing out, bless the darkness with Jesus: “The Lord’s peace be with you.”
You can do this exercise when you find yourself anxious and you don’t know why, when you’re in a situation and you feel out of control, when you are afraid of the future or threatened in the present or regretful about the past.
You can do this exercise for your family, the world, the Church, all those suffering from COVID-19, all the health care workers who are putting their lives at risk, all those who are dying. Breathe in all their fear, all their love, all their worry… Bless them with the peace of Christ.
Do the same for events in the past: people, losses, abuse, the consequences of decisions made by you or others. Do it for everything you reject about your life, appearance, character, health, opportunities, personality, holiness. Do it also for everything that overwhelms you, for the way you feel irrelevant, uncertain, bewildered, fearful of dying, of death, of disappearing.
I love Nan Merrill’s paraphrase of Psalm 40 found in her book Psalms for Praying:
In your mercy, O Beloved deliver me!
O Love, make haste to help me!
Let my fears be put to rest,
fears that separate me from You.
Let all that keeps me from love,
from peace and gratitude,
be transformed within me. (page 78)
I have learned this month that there is nothing to fix, everything to love. Even in this pandemic when the world’s order is now turned to dust, there is everything to love, to be grateful for. Because Jesus is here. There is mystery in all that is happening, a mystery that is beyond the mind’s comprehension. Breathing peace is breathing the fire of choosing what is good for all, for the whole, before I claim what is good for me. Mystery is about putting God first. The other first. About remaining in silent wonder at what is being brought about before our very eyes. Yes. Let all that keeps me from this wonder be transformed within me that I might truly be de-centered, and re-centered around God’s glory in whatever way he desires that to be manifested in my blessedly insignificant life.