Comfort the Afflicted: The Gift of the Breath of Life

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By Sister Amy Westphal 

In this year’s Lenten reflection series, seven sisters offer their personal stories and insights on each of the Spiritual Works of Mercy and how acts of mercy can have a profound impact on the lives of our sisters and brothers. Accompanying these reflections are line drawings by Sister Mary Clare Agnew, a contemporary of our founder Catherine McAuley, which illustrate the Sisters of Mercy in ministry in 1830s Ireland. 

During my apostolic year, I ministered in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco, tending to people’s lives in their single room occupancy (SRO) units. When I was invited to accompany a man who struggled with PTSD, schizophrenia and hoarding, I was not sure what I would encounter. John, in his early 70s, lived in an SRO unit for seniors. The 8’x10’ room was filled with plastic tubs containing his belongings, an odor of decomposing food and a host of roaches. An effort six-months prior assisted John with the cleanliness of his space in order to remain living in the complex. When I met John, it was like meeting a new age Gandalf — a tall, thin man with long grey beard and hair. He suffered from voices that distracted most of his daily tasks, including keeping his space tidy. The day I met John, I asked him how I could best assist him. He simply told me that he needed me to distract the voices by listening to his breathing while he decluttered his room. He also asked if I could help with the tidying.  

John would talk to me to interrupt the controlling voices within him, and when they became too much he would stop and note that he was feeling triggered. His breath was rapid, and his responses panicked. I would stand with him in the middle of his room and say, “John, how about we do some breath work together.” He would respond, “Yes, yes, I think that’s what I need.” So, we would pause and breathe slowly, becoming aware of our presence in the moment. Over six months, each time we stopped to breathe John opened his wounds to help me see why he was in the current condition. A man who had experienced war, abuse, homelessness and mental illness desperately reached for any mindfulness practice to help distract and heal the wounds of his past.  

This experience led me to reflect on my own interest in the process of trauma and healing. We have learned over time how the sympathetic nervous system creates the “fight or flight” process. When one’s life enters survival mode, the brain signals the body to respond with increased respiration, thoughts that can become irrational and other body sensations. We have also learned how the parasympathetic nervous system, when slowing the breath, can bring oxygen to the brain and calm this response. Breathwork has been practiced for centuries across cultures and spiritual traditions. 

God intimately created us from dust, breathing the “breath of life” into us (Genesis 2:7). It is the source of our being, or prana. We also witness the return of breath in the death of Jesus as he surrendered his spirit on the cross. This receiving and returning is a cycle of fullness. When we offer our presence to another’s breath, it is a work of mercy. Balm to the wounds carried through life. Comfort to affliction. A moment to give attention to the fullness present already within every living creature. A possibility to transform pain to new life.  

As you journey this Lent, ask yourself what interrupts your breath? How can you return to your natural breath? What support do you need? When are you invited to breathe with another? How do you reverence the sacredness of creation through our communal breathing?