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Sighs Too Deep


“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  (St Paul, Romans 8: 26)

I needed to sigh.

So up to the mountains I went this past Saturday, and hiked among the huge slabs of sandstone at 4,000 feet on the desert side of the San Gabriel Mountains.  I paused to stand under a scrubby piñon pine tree and listen to the voice of its stubby needles in the cool clear wind.

Last week, while I was teaching a mindfulness meditation class for USC students and staff on Zoom, we got into a discussion after I led the group through a “body scan” meditation, guiding them to attend to any emotions that might be associated with sensations in their bodies.  Several said that their breath was the focal point.  One woman said she found herself sighing in the meditation – and sighing a lot in general.  Others reported the same experience.  Then a graduate student in the class spoke up:  “Isn’t this what’s up for everybody now?  The coronavirus takes away your breath.  George Floyd, as he was dying under the policeman’s knee, cried ‘I can’t breathe!’  And we are all sighing because of the mix of emotions we are feeling!”

Her astute observation reminded me that when the virus started spreading, and the lockdown began, I found myself sighing a lot.  What was happening to the entire human race, all around the planet, was truly breathtaking.  In recent weeks I have noticed that the sighing stopped.  I habituated.

I am habituated to police violence against black people. When the news about George Floyd’s murder came out, I was saddened and disgusted, but my breath was not taken away.  Just another incident in a long series of examples of the lingering scourge of racism in America.

Until I read a Facebook post written by a fellow member of Mt Hollywood Church in Los Angeles.  Hilary’s anguish was palpable.  As a black woman with a son, she was in despair that what happened to George Floyd could happen to her own child.  Her despair broke through my spiritually-insulated, white-privileged soul.  With hers, finally, my sighs were too deep for words.

I’m grateful that Hillary took my breath away.  I’m grateful to belong to a church where the Spirit can blow down the walls that inhibit our vulnerability, as she did for me.

If we’re sighing, we’re not alone.  We’re sighing with the Holy Spirit of divine Love who commiserates with us.  The biblical Greek word for “spirit” is “pneuma”, which also means “breath”.  If we’re sighing, we’re feeling emotion.  And emotion is energy.  Mindfulness practice and contemplative prayer are not about breathing deeply and being relaxed.  They are about paying attention to our experiences and thoughts and emotions and letting them be, even if they’re hard.   And if we know our emotions, we’ll be in touch with their energy, and then we can channel that energy into creative, positive work to relieve the suffering and injustice around us.

Contemplative practice is the very opposite of withdrawal from the world and its struggles.  It is what we do in order to feel again when we’ve become hard-hearted, and to get clarity about how best to direct that power for the good of others.  When I am hard-hearted, when I am complacent, I don’t know how to pray as I ought.  I need help.  Hillary helped.  And so did that piñon tree in the mountains.

Each kind of pine has its own voice in the wind, tuned to the length of its needles.  I stood and listened to the piñon, until divine Love made me sigh once more.


Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: Musings

Follow on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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