Breathe in Mercy

by Dr. Jean Neely

The Psalmist writes, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

That’s easy enough to say, but so difficult to trust when we face crises that cause us to unravel. With the bewildering impact of the current pandemic, we’re all confronting a new reality and a crisis of global proportions, the likes of which most of us have not seen in our lifetime. Here we are in this strange world, where wildly “beautiful and terrible things” are happening.

If you’re anything like me, you’re in a mess of chaotic emotions right now. A lot of us are afraid, distracted, panicked, or agitated. Those of us who aren’t too frightened by the virus itself might be stressed out by the sudden changes we’re having to make in our work and daily lives.

I’ve always been an intense feeler and over-thinker. I tend to be easily shaken when things get stressful or overwhelming. This inner frenzy of big feelings that many of us are facing right now is familiar territory for me. I’ve spent the past ten years intentionally learning to tame the inner chaos to bearable levels, and over time, I’ve acquired some tools to better manage my big emotions. 

When I was invited to write this piece, I thought it might be a good place to share some of what has helped me. So here are some practices and perspectives I’ve found to be helpful when my inner earth shakes and the waters of my being roar and foam.

Practice breathing

Remember to breathe—really breathe. Deep breaths. Taking just a couple minutes to practice deep breathing can calm our hearts and reset our minds and bodies.

Part of the invitation right now is the same as the invitation of every day, to attend to our breath—to center down and center in. From that centered stillness, we’ll be better equipped to get through the present moment, and to love God, self, and neighbor as best we can with what we have.

Proceed breath by breath. Give yourself grace and breathing room to adapt to the new realities. If it’s too overwhelming to think about the whole day, think about the next hour. What could you do that you feel up to doing with this hour? What might you even enjoy doing? If all that is still too much, turn your attention to only the present. 

Step into the sacred pause

The pace of work in academia is intense and the amount potentially unlimited. But for many of us, it’s also often the case that we have some freedom and control over how much work we will do, what kind of work we take on, and how we carry out that work.

I wonder if this moment might hold an invitation to all of us to allow ourselves a minute of holy pause. In her poem, “Pandemic,” Lynn Ungar suggests we consider this “as the Jews consider the Sabbath— / the most sacred of times.”

I would like us to choose this moment to slow down to a human pace and exercise discernment; to choose only the work that is most necessary and really ours to do. It’s okay to say no to everything else, regardless of what others might think.

Pause to make a cup of tea. Schedule an online teatime with the friend who makes everything feel a bit better. If you are cloistered with loved ones, take this time to deeply appreciate and enjoy them. Reach out for prayer if you need it. Offer to chat with and pray for others. 

Practice radical acceptance

Over the years, I’ve learned the freeing power of practicing radical acceptance. I’ve realized that feelings of distress amplify when I hold tightly to rigid expectations and demands—and I have so many!—of myself, other people, of life, and the universe. My inner impulse is to break into fits of despair or rage when things don’t live up to my high ideals and hopes.

For the sake of those closest to me, and out of need to make my days more livable, I’ve had to practice letting go, to exercise more compassion and grace towards myself and others.

Can we let go of our perfectionism and performance obsessions and practice being more flexible with ourselves and the currents of life? As we finish out our academic terms, we can give ourselves room for things to not go well. Conditions are not ideal. We might not cover everything we hoped to cover. Perhaps we need to settle for the bare essentials that we’d like our students to learn. If even that doesn’t happen, it’s okay.

Rather than stress too much about how our course plans are being thrown out the window, or how poor of a replacement last-minute online teaching will be, we could try on a posture of radical acceptance toward what is real, in and around us. 

This is part of the challenge of our moment—radical acceptance of our new realities. God is still our refuge and still very present when all goes awry—regardless of how we feel about it.

 We might have something to learn from the monastics in this regard. For the past few years, as part of my preparation for Lent, I’ve gone on a silent retreat at a local Benedictine monastery. At the monastery, I don’t see the monks isolating themselves in order to escape from the “real world.” What I sense is a profound inner hospitality toward all of reality, a peaceful acceptance of the darkness and mystery in which we walk, along with openness to every stranger. There’s a deep and palpable feeling of welcome at the abbey. You can sense their commitment to receive “all guests as Christ.”

This open acceptance—towards ourselves, towards others, and towards these new circumstances we’re faced with—might help us to experience more peace in the challenging months to come.

Embrace the way of the pilgrim

On my most recent retreat at the monastery for this season of Lent, I happened to pick up a little book by Christine Valters Paintner called The Soul of a Pilgrim. Paintner invites us to tend to our “inner pilgrim” and our “inner monk,” to embrace the uncertain, wandering way. There’s an invitation to travel lightly, to venture out on the uncharted path that reveals itself in the walking. 

In this current season, I sense a call to step into the uncertainty, like those who “set their hearts on pilgrimage.” I sense a call to a greater letting go, of some of my possessions, my unhelpful habits, and my need for control—over my life, my environment, and other people. It’s not a demanding order from on high but a gentle welcome into deeper freedom.

Embracing the way of the pilgrim doesn’t mean that all will feel peaceful and calm on some idyllic path through bright meadows. It means carrying on in the journey, whatever state we’re in—blisters and all—with whatever terrain, weather, and companions we encounter.

When I was younger, I experienced spiritual and emotional distress as I constantly berated myself for being how I was—moody, anxious, and depressive. I always felt that God must also be exasperated with how persistently I struggled with depression.

An important, healing shift happened for me once I was able to practice more acceptance toward myself and my conditions, thanks to help from family and friends, and especially my wise Aunt Miyoung.

On multiple occasions when I was falling apart and ranting about how useless I was for still being depressed, my aunt would suggest that I stop insisting that I had to get over depression. She would ask, what if I thought of depression as a sort of companion, since my reality was that it was with me and might stay with me for a while? Could I imagine Jesus sitting with me in the depression, rather than scolding me for being depressed?

The more I’ve been able to hope in God’s greater mercy and receive depression as a companion along my way, the more I seem to be released from its tight hold on me.

In this emotionally charged time, we needn’t add to our distress by insisting that we be something other than who we are. We can practice greeting our whole selves and our paths with openness, understanding Jesus is with us.

If we’re willing to let go of our old maps and agendas, we might see more of the beauty and grace that spring up along the path as it unfolds before us.

Stay Connected Even While Apart

I know that for my own mental and physical health, I have to get moving every single day. I also need to connect with close friends, even if it’s just on a Facebook message thread or a quick chat by phone. 

So for these times of mandatory social distancing, I’ve decided to combine some of my health routine with social connecting. I plan to take a walk outside for at least 30 minutes every single day, as weather permits. For each different day of the week, I'll meet with a different friend for our weekly phone-walk: Beth for Monday walks, Szu for Tuesday walks, and so on. That way, my friends and I will be able to look forward to our weekly constitutional and chat together, even while we're miles apart.

Remember that we are held in mercy

In another book I read recently, I found a breath prayer that I’ve made my mantra for this season. I offer my simplified version of it here.

            Breathe in: Held in mercy. 
            Breathe out: Held in love. 

It may be hard to believe in moments like this, but that is what we are. Held in mercy. Held in powerful, everlasting love. 

As we practice holding things loosely, and try to hold ourselves and each other more tenderly in our hearts through these troubled times, we can trust that Christ, the One who holds all things together, is the One whose loving arms still hold us all. 

Dr. Jean Neely specializes in Modernist literature and currently teaches writing at Azusa Pacific University. We appreciate Jean sharing her thoughts with us during this time.