The Holy Spirit can be tricky, though. So amorphous, so hard to pin down. God’s presence with us, everywhere and always, sure. But many of us wonder at what that means, what that looks like. Flames of fire? Speaking in tongues? Scripture both helps and hinders us to understand.
But then I got to writing my weekly reflection for our diocese on the Sunday readings and Catholic social teaching. And I came across the second reading for this weekend:
Brothers and sisters:
The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness;
for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.
And the one who searches hearts
knows what is the intention of the Spirit,
because he intercedes for the holy ones
according to God’s will.
Of course, I thought. The Spirit as our helper, especially in our weakest moments. The Spirit as our intercessor in our time of need. The Spirit as the one who knows the deep desires of our hearts.
And besides, what speaks to childbirth more than inexpressible groanings?
I was reminded of last Sunday’s second reading from earlier in the Book of Romans. Full of groanings as well:
We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;
and not only that, but we ourselves,
who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,
we also groan within ourselves
as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
Aiding. Groaning. Breathing. Interceding. The rooms where women labor and birth are full of this work. There are doctors and nurses and midwives and doulas who come to our aid. There are friends and family praying for us outside. And there is certainly lots of groaning and breathing, some of it Spirit-filled, some of it pained with demons. But the mix is all swirled together in one sacred space where life passes from one side to the other.
Anyone who’s seen a childbirth scene in the movies or on a medical TV show is familiar with the Lamaze-style breathing that women are always shown panting as they scream (“So unrealistic, all that screaming!” I always hear my mother saying in the back of my mind. “So unhelpful!”) and push out their baby. Then the baby takes in its first breath and picks up where the mother’s scream left off – now a joyful sign that the child is healthy and the lungs are strong. The room heaves a collective sigh of relief. From panting to crying to sighing, the place is full of spirit and breath.
Breathing is indeed an essential part of labor. Whether we practice different techniques for months before the due date or simply rely on our instincts to help hone our breathing through the pain, we can’t birth without focusing on our breath.
Breath is life: pneuma. And breath is Spirit. Starting with the mighty wind that swept across the waters at creation, stories of wind and breath are found throughout Scripture as testimonies to God’s power and presence.
Much meditiative prayer in the Christian tradition (as well as other religions) calls for focusing on one’s breath: to calm the mind and body, to center on God’s holy presence within and without. Centering prayer taught me this in a powerful way. And my own practice of yoga has reminded me how sacred and central breath is: to center us, to strengthen us, to connect us to the Source of Life in the God who first breathed life into our lungs.
Whenever S hears my normal breathing shift to the rhythmic drawing in and pushing out – the technique from all those prenatal yoga classes that has become second nature for getting through the intense Braxton-Hicks contractions of this pregnancy – his eyes light up and he asks with a smile, “yoga breath?” I nod through the breath, and he starts to huff and puff alongside me. A funny but sweet shared breathing, a synchronizing of our systems before he dashes off to build yet another tower of blocks.
So whenever I think of the Holy Spirit, I try to take a moment to breathe deeply. To remember that breath is the very source of my life. To remember that God sustains us minute to minute, body and soul, with the Spirit’s presence.
I’m grateful for an intercessor that groans along with me, that puts into words the prayers that I struggle to utter. I’m grateful for the way the Spirit inspires others to intercede on my behalf. I’m grateful for the strength and reassurance that comes from knowing God is fully present in my time of greatest weakness and pain.
And I’m grateful for that sacred breath that keeps my spirit alive and – God willing – will fill my new baby’s lungs with the first startling, sweet gulp of air. A strong life and Spirit within us both.
Check out the other posts in this series: