"When leaders in various fields ask me for advice, my response is always the same: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. It is the only way for individuals, families and societies to grow, the only way for the life of peoples to progress, along with the culture of encounter, a culture in which all have something good to give and all can receive something good in return. Others always have something to give me, if we know how to approach them in a spirit of openness and without prejudice. I call this attitude of openness and availability without prejudice, social humility, and it is this that favours dialogue. Only in this way can understanding grow between cultures and religions, mutual esteem without needless preconceptions, respectful of the rights of everyone. Today, either we stand together with the culture of dialogue and encounter, or we all lose, we all lose; from here we can take the right road that makes the journey fruitful and secure." (Pope Francis, Address to leading members of Brazilian society, Saturday July 27 2013, reported online by Official Vatican Network.)

Breathing into Contemplation

Michael Whelan SM

JMichaelWhelanIn the Book of Genesis we read: "then the LORD God formed man (adam) from the dust of the ground (adamah), and breathed into his nostrils the breath (nâshamah) of life; and the man (adam) became a living being (nephesh)". (2:7) (In Hebrew thought, there is no "body" distinct from "soul". Nephesh means literally "a being animated by the breath of life".)

The "breath of God" is also referred to by the Hebrew word ruah and is generally translated as "spirit" – see for example Genesis 6:3, Psalm 104:30 and Job 33:4. Ruah – meaning either wind or breath – is generally used in both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures when speaking of the Spirit of God. In Greek the word becomes pneuma and in Latin spiritus.

In the Gospel of John we read: "(Jesus) breathed on (the disciples) and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit'". (20:22)

We breathe because of God's breathing.

My breathing – typically – has a quiet, persistent rhythm to it. When it ceases, my life ends, when I exert myself or become agitated, the rhythm quickens, when I rest or sleep, the rhythm slows down. My breathing is a constant reminder to me of who I am – one breathed into existence by the breath of God. God's very loving and creating Presence is in my breathing – if I care to pay attention.

Two exercises

Exercise One

Find a quiet place where you can sit and be still for a couple of minutes. Sit more or less symmetrically – feet flat on the ground, hands apart in lap or on thighs, back and neck gently straight.

Become conscious of the muscles in your face. Gently and deliberately let those muscles relax. Let go of any frowning, the tightness around eyes or mouth. Feel the muscles become limp.

Then, become conscious of your outward breathing. Feel each out-breath, hear each out-breath. Do not try to breath! Just let the breathing absorb your entire attention. Count off 10 out-breaths in this way.

Now become aware of that "space" at the end of each out-breath. There is stillness, peace there. Gently wait there a little longer than you normally would if you were not conscious of your breathing. Feel what it is like to be in that stillness and peace. It is potentially a contemplative "space" where you are present to the Presence. Wait there for a moment after each of 10 out-breaths. Yield to it. Savour it.

It may help if you picture, in your mind's eye, the end of your nose while you are doing this. As always with contemplation, concentration is an issue. Holding the image of your nose can stop the restless mind from intruding.

Exercise Two

Follow the procedure as for Exercise One but this time add some words. For example, you might take Psalm 46:10 – "Be still and know that I am God" – and gently say that verse in three phases on three successive out-breaths, waiting in that "contemplative space" for a moment each time. Thus: First out-breath accompanies the words "Be still", second out-breath, "and know", third out-breath, "that I am God". This combining of words and out-breath and waiting in the "contemplative space" can be done once or twice or as many times as you care to do it.

When you are distracted, gently focus again on the out-breaths, then the "contemplative space" at the end of each out-breath. Sometimes it might help to go back to the beginning of Exercise One and gently work your way through to picking up the rhythm of the words with the breathing again.