Just last year, the priests of the Diocese of Providence came together for a “Priest Study Day” at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick. Archbishop Dolan, from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, was our presenter and he began by mentioning a book he had been reading on depression.
The author of that book had reached a point in her life where she felt completely helpless against the paralyzing power of that debilitating disease. The only thing that she felt she was able to do was simply to breathe in and breathe out. That’s it.
And yet, as basic as it may seem, that was the beginning of a brand new start for her life. Returning to that most fundamental element of human existence—breathing in and breathing out—was enough for her to begin that journey out of the darkness of depression and to move ahead towards healing and hope.
The point that Archbishop Dolan went on to make is that we sometimes need to get that basic in our own spiritual lives. When things seem difficult and complex, when we are struggling to find God in our daily lives, sometimes the most helpful thing we can do is to stop and breathe, recognizing the life of grace and the life of God within us.
Now, I know that this sounds a bit like pop-psychology, but actually it’s one of the most fundamental, biblical truths regarding the human person. Think about the Book of Genesis and the creation of Adam. We are told that:
The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
God did not simply give life to us. He breathed life into us. We are made in the image and likeness of God, living beings who have the breath of God living within us. We have the power to be creative as God is creative. We have the power to live freely even as God Himself is free. Life is an amazing gift.
But with that power and with that gift comes tremendous responsibility. There are consequences to the choices and the decisions that we make. Our freedom is one of the things that make us most like God, but we know that it can also be used to turn us further away from Him.
That possibility, that reality, is what we call sin, and all of us have experienced it. In his 1984 document Reconciliation and Penance, Pope John Paul II describes the reality of sin in this way:
Man also knows, through painful experience, that by a conscious and free act of his will he can change course and go in a direction opposed to God’s will, separating himself from God (aversion a Deo), rejecting loving communion with Him, detaching himself from the life principle which God is and consequently choosing death.
—Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, # 17
In other words, that life which God breathes into the nostrils of Adam is something that can be extinguished within us. This is not the fault of God. He is the one who gave us life and breath to begin with. When we detach ourselves “from the life principle that God is,” the fault belongs to us.
The entire history of humanity, from the Garden of Eden to the present day, can be summarized as a series of breathing exercises. Either we have allowed the breath of God to flow through our spiritual lives, through our culture and the world we live in, or we have not. We are constantly in the process of accepting or rejecting the breath of life that God gives us.
The most dramatic example of this is found in the person of Christ Himself. He who came to bring us life and the fullness of God’s mercy is Himself rejected and crucified.
And yet at the very heart of that mystery of the death of Christ on the cross is the mystery of our own salvation. It is for our redemption and the forgiveness of our sins that Christ—with great love and boundless mercy—goes to the cross; He dies for each one of us. And with that event comes the fullest expression of the forgiveness, love and mercy of God.
That is why Christ walks into the place where the disciples are in today’s Gospel—standing before the very people who had used their freedom to turn away from Him just days before—and He announces to them: “Peace be with you.” That is why He shows them His hands and His side, revealing the very wounds that healed them, and each of us, from sin.
And then He does one of the most beautiful and strangest things recorded in the Gospels: He breathes on them! St. John describes that scene:
He said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them.
He breathed on them. The same God who breathed into Adam the breath of life now breathes on the disciples and says to them:
“Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
God’s passion, His desire and purpose for every one of us, is to receive the breath of life anew, to be immersed in the mercy of Christ and His forgiveness flowing from the cross. But we must be willing to receive that mercy. We must be willing to breathe it in and breathe it out it in everything we say and do, at the very core of our being.
This can and should happen in all of the moments of our daily lives as people of faith. But the pre-eminent place where the mercy of God is received and where we are given the grace and strength to live out that mercy is through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Reconciliation is not an extra in the spiritual life. It “is the ordinary way of obtaining forgiveness” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, #31) for the sins we have committed. It is the sacrament Christ begins when he breathes on the disciples in St. John’s Gospel, and says to them: Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained (John 20:23).
Pope John Paul II calls that passage from St. John “one of the most awe inspiring innovations in the Gospel” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, #29). It is God’ s way of breathing new life into the souls of His people, into the life of the Church, and into the world we live in.
As we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday this day, the incredible mercy that God is constantly breathing out into His Church, let us take the opportunity to be more attentive to our own breathing:
Have we made ourselves available to the mercy of God by a sincere recognition of our own sins and the need for forgiveness?
Have we, in turn, lived in a way that proclaims and manifests that same mercy which we have received from God?
Breathing in and breathing out: the most basic activities of human life. Just as our bodies cannot live without air, even so, our souls cannot truly live without breathing in and breathing out the mercy of God.
Sunday, April 23, 2006
Divine Mercy-Breathing in and breathing out
(Divine Mercy Sunday-Year B;This homily was given 23 April, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read John 20:19-31)