I had a powerful mystical encounter today while I was talking with a friend and later reflecting on our conversation as I walked the prayer labyrinth at Audubon Park. I want to try to relate what I think I received hopefully without too many careless heresies when my words fail to capture the strange wonder that I experienced. The basic realization is this: Christian discipleship is becoming the breath of God. It is living in the complete belovedness of our baptism precisely while we are being crucified with Christ.
It’s hard to explain how these two statements connect in my mind. I just know that while I was talking with my friend today, God put the two images of Jesus being baptized and Jesus on the cross in the mind in such a way that it seemed like a single eternal reality: baptism through crucifixion. And I remembered that Paul says in Romans 6:3 that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” And he says in Galatians 2:20 that he has been “crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me.”
And the image that was in my mind was a synchronized breath cycle. We breathe in what God says to us in our baptism: “You are my beloved child.” And we breathe out what humanity says to God through Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And somehow in that cycle of breath, the more intensively we cry out with Jesus to the Father to come to our rescue, the more deeply we are filled with the Holy Spirit saying, Yes, I am right here, and I love you so much. As the psalm says, “Deep calls unto deep.” What this seems to mean is the more brutal the cross, the deeper the baptism I get to taste, which is the spiritual invincibility that allows Paul to say, “Where oh death is your sting?”
This seems like what Sarah Coakley was writing about in God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay on the Trinity. Coakley wrote something to the effect of prayer being a conversation/dance that occurs between the members of the Trinity that humanity is drawn into, meditating on Paul’s writing about the spirit’s “groans” on our behalf in Romans 8:26-27. When we pray, God the Son is talking through God the Spirit in us to God the Father and vice versa. And this is the basic respiration of all creation. Trinitarian prayer is the breath cycle by which creation cries out in agony, the creator pours out even more love, and the breath draws the two into a perfect dance.
I’m sure I have failed to articulate this in conformity with orthodox Christian doctrine. My main point is that our discipleship is more like the continuous surrender and acceptance of breathing than like the heroic decisions or sacrifices that we perhaps think it ought to be. It is not a perfect wokeness or righteousness that we willpower ourselves into. It is becoming a perfectly open and willing instrument that the source and origin of all things con blow beautiful notes through. It is learning to be played by or spoken by God. And in a sense that’s what play means (yes Gadamer!); I am completely at play when I am completely available to the love/joy/art that creates the universe (a.k.a. God); when I am utterly in-spire-able by the breath that makes all beauty instead of being stuck in the corny scripts of hipster fads that the market generates.
And this realization is happening at the same time that I’m learning on a physical level that the physical breath may actually be my most important source of healing. By practicing how I breathe and doing so with intention and self-compassion, I can feel my body pushing out its anxiety and even feel an energy at work in my intestines cleaning out the ulcerative colitis that recently came back after a miraculous three week respite. Maybe that sounds like the hippie dippie nonsense that I always assumed it was when I heard people talking that way.
I just think there may be something beneficial about understanding the discipleship journey as breath work rather than trying to memorize a bunch of Bible verses or overpower your horniness or talk perfectly about God or something else. And even if you want to use a word like obedience for it, obedience doesn’t look like heroic self-flagellation or standing like a steel wall against the whims of secular culture but rather like the gentle attentiveness of patiently, compassionately receiving the gift of air in our lungs and releasing the air we need to let go. Too many people are hyperventilating all over the Internet when what we need to do is to relax, take a deep breath, and let God love God inside of us.
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