Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphany, with its surrounding bubble of American consumerism, is hard to hold on to.
Come December, I find myself anxiously gripping the Church’s new liturgical year in vain; the harder I hold on, the quicker its meaning sifts through my clenched fists. Though I say I’m going to go deeper in my daily devotional practice, I won’t. Though I vow to embrace winter’s darkness in order to discover the inner divine Light, I don’t. Though I promise to focus on hope-peace-love-joy, it escapes me. Amid the seasonal to-dos of a market-driven culture, I find myself caught up in the world, not the tiny babe in a manger.
And yet, there comes the week between the culmination of Advent in Christmas Day and the New Year, which my mother always referred to as “the holiest time of year.” I never understood her affinity for these seven days. To me, it was depressing: Christmas anticipation was over, another year had gone by in a blink, and winter was settling in.
For Mom, this was her “reflect-on-your-life” week. Jesus had come, and she’d spend the next days pondering what that might mean for the year to come. She wasn’t necessarily parsing any hefty theology, but rather, she enjoyed simply meditating on on “Emmanuel,” God with us.
This week of reflection on her life and the Nativity poised her to approach the New Year as a blank spiritual slate—one that included Jesus with us. Living with her meant that that week also became my life-reflection-week, too. What had happened over the previous year? When and where had I experienced God with me? How did I want to experience God in the coming year?
Last year was my first life-reflection-week since my mother died the August before. Grief was still raw and heavy. My mind raced as the reality of her not being here set in. I didn’t want to think about God with me. I wanted my mother with me.
As 2017 ended, and the 2018 New Year approached, I panicked. How could I flip the calendar over without her? I’d never lived a year without my mother. During life-reflection-week I felt like I was suffocating. I couldn’t sleep; anxiety consumed me.
Yet when I was anxious about anything—the dark, scary movies, school, or rejection—Mom instructed me to breathe.
“Relax your arms down by your side. Inhale through the nose and count silently 1, 2, 3, 4; exhale through the mouth and count silently 4, 3, 2, 1.”
My mom would tell me this during the 1990s, before meditation and mindfulness was hip. She worshipped at the altar of Jesus and mind-body-spirit holistic “gurus” like Dr. Andrew Weil and Tony Robbins. As a nurse, she knew well the physiological benefits of deep breathing.
Last year, in the dark of December at the brink of a new year, during that nearly unbearable reflect-on-your-life hump week, I remembered her former advice to breathe deeply for three minutes per day.
“You can do anything for three minutes,” she would have said, coaching me from heaven’s sidelines.
A few days in, the proverbial calendar “flip” no longer seemed as daunting. I began to understand the draw of these seven days. It was a natural transition from the manger to a new year, where we evaluate the ways we have felt (or haven’t felt) God’s presence and been (or not been) God’s faithful, hospitable, loving people. To do that, we must turn inward because reflection and contemplation can’t nest in clenched fists of anxiety. It arrives—like God—in the openness, the stillness and silence (See 1 Kings 19:12).
Breath meditation, like other methods of meditation (lectio divina, centering, loving-kindness, and devotional), involves listening to God rather than talking to God. I wrote One Breath at a Time because I was mid-grief and learning to breathe again. I needed a clear, accessible guide to holding three minutes of sacred space to experience God’s comforting presence and voice each day. I began one breath at a time.
Here are three easy steps to beginning a Christian meditation practice this New Year:
- Pick a time, location, and number of minutes per day to start. Mom’s reflect-on-your-life week is a great place to begin, as is New Year’s Day.
- Begin with the breath, just as my mom taught me. Inhale, exhale—deeply, smoothly, slowly. Use the breath, given to us by God, to experience God’s presence. Notice what happens. What comes easily? What is challenging? One Breath at a Time contains additional meditation methods (Centering Meditation, Lectio Divina, Loving-Kindness, and Devotional Meditation). Pay attention to what you are drawn to and what is hard.
- If you skip a day or a week, pick up where you left off. Grace yourself. God is accessible 24/7. We merely have to sit back down and be willing to listen, one breath at a time.
As 2018 comes to a close and you welcome 2019, what will you do with your reflect-on-your-life week?
For free meditation resources visit Dana’s website and connect with her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook using the hashtag #OneBreathBook.