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Learning to Breathe (Issue 32)

By Jeremy Harris (Grace Collective Auckland)

Prayer is a beautiful thing. When we pray we’re participating in Jesus’ relationship with the Father through the Holy Spirit. We enter the Triune dance between Father, Son and Spirit of God through Jesus who is our Great High Priest, sitting at the right hand of the Father and making a way for humanity to come back to a relationship with God.

There’s so much going on in a conversation with God that we don’t always have the capacity to acknowledge it all at once, but I want to remind us of two elements in this transcendent and yet very grounded practice at the heart of our faith. Spirituality and mission are intrinsically connected, and for today’s cold, anxious and groaning world, the slowness, silence and solitude of the contemplative spiritual practices of the monastics is good news.

Resting in a busy world

I’m an anxious person. The first thought I have as I wake up is worry. I’m not alone in this. There’s a well-known and often ignored trend of growing mental illness in New Zealand. Ever increasing demands – whether financial, work related or self-imposed – are getting to the fabric of our hearts and damaging our souls. We have leaders who spread suspicion towards the most vulnerable in our world and anxiety about what refugees might do if we let them in. Meanwhile thousands displaced by war, violence and climate change are desperately anxious for a place to stay and food that’s regular. Anxious war-lords hoard wealth and fight for power at the expense of their own people, and single parents working three-jobs worry about what will happen to their kids if they can’t keep living off adrenaline from one thing to the next. The world is oftentimes an anxious place.

When I wake up, I’m often cold now days too. I’m flatting in a kind of accidental community of friends in an old uninsulated villa in Central Auckland. But as with my anxiety, the cold is reflective of the world we live in. It’s a reminder of the experience of the homeless on Queen Street who are passed by and given the cold shoulder by the public. It’s a reminder of the empty seats on the bus next to each of us just so that we don’t have to talk to someone we don’t know. It’s a reminder of the concrete floors of garages that families inhabit, or the winter winds beginning to blow against vans of homeless families in South Auckland. It is reminiscent of the colder winters and conversely the hotter summers of climate change, and likewise the West’s ignorance of the rising sea on Pacific Islands.

And like most of you, when I wake up I’m groaning – particularly on Mondays. But unlike my superficial groan of “not todaaaay,” the earth we’re slowly eating away at is crying out from deep within its belly. Our fast paced, over-consumptive and unsustainable life-styles are slowly but surely causing the rocks to cry out how glorious God is… and how fallen we’ve become.

Our world is moving at a pace faster than ever before, the earth’s resources are being used quicker than it can sustain, and we’re drawing borders between ourselves more than ever – whether national borders, picket fences, gated communities or smart phones. The earth is crying out for a spirituality that warms it, that slows it, that gives it solace and rest. We’re in desperate need of rest for our souls. But even though the Creator of the universe took time away to pray when he took on flesh, we are continuing to live like we don’t need to.

But the gift of the monastic traditions is a spirituality that speaks missionally right to the heart of the human condition: it offers community, connection with God by the Spirit through Jesus and his Body, and provides a stillness and slowness that our ever-accelerating world craves like the groaning of the earth.

Learning to breathe

Mother Teresa said that breathing is to the body what prayer is to the soul. Bill McKibben, the author and climate activist, says that when he feels down, the only healing is action. They are both right. We need both spirituality and mission. It’s the ancient art of breathing. Monastic spirituality offers a vehicle for these two to come together.

Two days before any march, Martin Luther King Jr would gather with others to pray. When the Waihopai Three were on trial for getting in the way of government sanctioned violence, they made a camp in a Wellington park and prayed all night for their enemies and the victims of war. They were joined by street kids and security guards, who later returned without uniform to keep praying with the kids. Nuns have prayerfully broken into a nuclear weapons facility and literally beat weapons of war into ploughshares with hammers. John the Baptist retreated and ended up being followed by his community to receive baptism. And Jesus died on the cross crying the words of a Psalm, and through it saved the world.

Mission. Spirituality. They go hand in hand. And the world is crying out from deep within itself for a spirituality that spills out of church walls to offer healing.

Before I leave each morning I sit with a copy of the Book of Common Prayer and the Scriptures, and with a friend or by myself, I sit in silence and pray the Jesus Prayer. I follow the words of those gone before me, prayed around the world and throughout history. I’m sent out by God into the world to participate in his Missio Dei. My anxieties are more and more stilled by the Word of God, and my heart is strangely warmed by his presence.

The world is over-stimulated and over-entertained. We don’t need more parties to help us forget all that we have to do. We need more stillness in the presence of God, like those silent times looking into the eyes of a loved one, to find happiness and rest once again.

My prayer is that we rediscover the ancient art of breathing. Spirituality and mission are intrinsically connected, and for today’s cold, anxious, groaning world, the slowness, silence and solitude of the contemplative spiritual practices of the monastics is good news.

For discussion

How does the pace of today’s world affect you?

Have you typically been stronger when it comes to ‘breathing in’ (spirituality) or ‘breathing out’ (mission)? How might you create more of a balance between the two?

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Exploring today's missional issues from a variety of angles, each edition of the Intermission magazine will equip you and your group to engage with God in your community and beyond. To signup to receive the Intermission in the post, email office@nzcms.org.nz. Intermission articles can also be found online at nzcms.org.nz/intermission.

3 thoughts on “Learning to Breathe (Issue 32)

  1. Beautifully put, Thank you. ‘Breathing’ like this makes all ‘the stuff of the day’ have usefulness for the Kingdom of God.

    1. Please feel free to pass them on! Or else we’d be happy to post you some more copies of the print magazine version.

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