Matt Malone, S.J., is traveling abroad.
Last year, while preparing for childbirth, I often heard about the importance of my breathing, how it would help me to bear the pain of bringing new life into the world. What no one told me was the importance of taking time to catch my breath in the tiring, trying, beautiful months that followed. And so the words of Pope Francis’ Ash Wednesday homily struck me as particularly relevant this year and have stuck with me as the weeks have passed: “Lent is the time to start breathing again.”
Scientists, psychologists and spirituality gurus have pronounced the health benefits of controlled breathing. But Francis’ advice to breathe is not rooted in a desire to lower ones blood pressure (though perhaps it could help) or even to provide quick stress-relief for harried parents. Rather, it aims to provide a deeper sense of peace. It is advice, he says, for all those who “yearn for this breath of life that our Father unceasingly offers us amid the mire of our history.” And who doesn’t feel deep in that mire these days?
Francis’ words compel us to ask ourselves how we might find the inward peace that Christ brings to us and then to share that with the world. He invites us to ask: At a time of real and often stifling division, how can we help to clear the air? How do we say “no to the spiritual asphyxia,” as he puts it? Perhaps we can begin by saying yes to those signs of God’s mercy already at work in our world. Perhaps we can begin by breathing in the hope offered by our neighbors and allowing it to fill our spiritual lungs. Let us breathe in the hope within a church basement in New Jersey packed with neighbors who show up, days after the president’s first executive order on refugees, wondering how to help refugee families coming to this country; of the friend willing to listen; of the Muslim communities who came together to raise funds to help repair vandalized Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, Mo., and in Philadelphia; of those people who look others in the eye and truly see them; of the men and women who wake up and work in the fields and factories to provide for our nation; of those who have been warned and yet persist; of the sisters fighting their way to the Supreme Court; of the saints who would rather not be known as such; of those who march and rally and fight for life, for peace, for the earth, for children, for the dying, for the sick, for equality.
Let us breathe out and blow away those things that would divide us: our dishonesty, our hypocrisy, our anger that festers, our resentment and despair. Let us sit and be quiet for a moment in these holy days of this season of Lent, so as to better discern how to raise our voices for the poor, the lonely, the marginalized, to discern how we might be a breath of fresh air to others.
“It is not the time to rend our garments before the evil all around us, but instead to make room in our life for all the good we are able to do,” Francis reminds us. “It is a time to set aside everything that isolates us, encloses us and paralyzes us.”
In a speech given in December 2016, Valarie Kaur, a Sikh activist and lawyer, made a plea at an evening service following the shooting of a Sikh man in Kent, Wash., who was told, “Go back to your country.” The video of her speech has since gone viral. In it Ms. Kaur compares our messy experiment with democracy to the pains of childbirth: “What if the story of America is one long labor?” she asks. The answer, she argues, is the advice that has been given to expectant mothers for ages: “What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe. And then? Push.... Tonight we will breathe. Tomorrow we will labor in love through love, and your revolutionary love is the magic we will show our children.”
Christ's revolutionary love for us—the cross!—changes everything. Yet knowing that we are loved and that we act in love does not relieve us from all pain. But it can help make it bearable. We know that our God remains with us through our discouragement, our isolation, our disharmony, our despair. As we approach the final days of Lent, we must remember that our journey does not end at Easter. Take a deep breath. We have a way to go. Let us go together.