The chaos is so loud.
- This fall has brought photos from the West Coast of ash-covered cars and ruby skylines belonging in a Margret Atwood novel;
- An unprecedented number of tropical storms have threatened the Southeast, destruction accentuating displacement;
- Kentucky said that the officers who killed Breonna Taylor did not commit a crime;
- More than 1.27 million people have died of COVID-19 with no end in sight;
- An election full of vitriol, coded language, and attempts to undermine our country’s electoral system has broadened the gap between left and right.
This is Our World
This is our world. Natural disasters, the pandemics of coronavirus and systematic racism, and tribal politics combine, churn, and froth. The turmoil in their wake is smothering. I feel the tumult crescendo; I see the horizon darkening; and it’s all I can do to breathe. Yet, I am learning, to breathe is a sacred thing.
According to the creation narrative in Genesis 2, we have the Lord’s breath in our lungs. Job and the psalms reflect this miracle proclaiming “The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life,” and “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of God’s mouth” (Job 33:4, Ps. 33:6).
Even the formation of the Jewish name for God requires breath sounds. “I Am who I am,” the Divine name supplied to Moses at the burning bush, comes from the Hebrew root hayah or “to be” (Ex. 3:14). God is. This name for God, AHYH, can be pronounced EH-YH. To speak it, one must inhale to make the sound “eh” and exhale to make the sound “yh.”
The same can be said of YHWH, the most sacred name for God, which is provided to Moses in the next verse. This means that any mammal on earth begins and ends their lives proclaiming the name of the God who is. We are because we belong to I Am.
Science has also proven the sacred power of breath. Research shows that deep, slow breaths – roughly six per minute – maximize ventilation, reduce waste, and stimulate our Vagus nerve, which is connected to our parasympathetic nervous system. The counterpart of our sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system helps us relax.
While the sympathetic “stress” system releases norepinephrine to elevate our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, the parasympathetic system, stimulated through deep breathing and our Vagus nerve, releases the soothing chemical acetylcholine. A study in Japan has shown that we can trigger this reaction in as little as six breaths.
So, if God’s breath is in our lungs, if God formed our bodies so that we can calm ourselves by slowly saying the name of God in our breath, can our breath open the door to a new type of communion with our Creator? Can our breath be a pathway to express our pain? I can’t help but believe so.
God with Us: Emmanuel
Our God is one who creates space in suffering. Scriptures demonstrate this for us in all of their God-breathed, contextual stories of God and God’s people. The psalms express every possible human emotion in prayer. The whole arc of Scripture from Exodus to the cross to the new Church demonstrate that God not only hears our cries but comes to live our pain alongside us.
For our God isn’t just an impassive receptacle. But our God knows, still, what it means to experience these emotions. God with us: Emmanuel. The Incarnation solidified forever that our God is not a remote, Divine being but the one who came to us, put on flesh, that we may know the Lord and the Lord may know us.
So, why can’t breathing – intentional, quiet, set-apart breathing – be a way to connect with God here and now, to bring our inexpressible, wordless anger, sadness, numbness, and even joy to God?
In a few short months, I will be able to list a degree after my name that says I will be a master of the divine – master of the divine, how absurd. I’ve learned how to read ancient scriptures in their native tongues, the systematic theological nit-picking over communion, how to preach, and how to listen. But I’ll tell you a secret: What I know, not because of seminary but because of God’s grace, is that God is with us.
Today. Tomorrow. Forever.
I can’t explain, theologically, why natural disasters wreck certain homes or families, why people of color in America are ostracized, hunted, and hated, why COVID has robbed the breath of so many. But I can say, with certainty, that God was with those consumed by fire on the West Coast. God was with Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Daniel Prude, and so many others when their breath was taken from them. God was in the hospital room with the isolated, intubated COVID patient.
God was with them. God is with us. For this reason, I breathe my anger. I breathe my lament. I breathe my joys, too. And in the silence of my breath, I listen for YHWH knowing that the Great I am, Emmanuel, is closer than my very breath.
In my breath, I find my resistance.
Rose Schrott is a third-year Master of Divinity student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. A child of Pittsburgh, she is interested in the intersection between writing, spiritual formation, and theology. On any given day, you will find her reading, writing, or cuddling her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Copper.