Breathing and glory

I sat cross-legged in a striped armchair in a circle of couches, love seats, and rocking chairs in the living room of the biggest Magdalene house. The Relapse Prevention group had just ended and most of the women were outside in the courtyard taking their break between sessions. Now, sitting with Marlena, the other summer intern, I prepared to co-lead our first group meeting together on grounding techniques.

ArmchairsIn preparation for the session, Marlena and I had discussed the experience of feeling overwhelmed or emotionally chaotic. What do we do in our own lives to bring us back to where we are? When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I can lose my sense of presence in the moment and in the world around me. This loss of presence can be particularly acute for people like the women of Magdalene House who have suffered significant trauma. As Serene Jones writes in Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World, people who have histories of trauma can “physically disconnect their minds from their experiences of embodiment,” a phenomenon clinically referred to as dissociation (16).

During the session, the group discussed tools for grounding ourselves in moments where we feel emotionally or mentally chaotic. We talked about breathing exercises; some of us had preconceptions about the idea of using breath as a coping and healing tool. We’ve all heard someone tell us to “just breathe” when we’re upset about something. It sounds absurd that something so small and so bodily could make a difference. But after we led a few breathing exercises, the women spoke of feeling noticeably more relaxed. We discussed other ways to use our five senses to bring us back to the present moment: plant our feet on the ground, take a sip of water, light a candle, focus on an object, listen for ambient noise, and come back to the moment and the world around us.

Jones writes that God’s glory–the beauty, breadth, and depth of God and Her creation–is experienced and encountered both intellectually and with all of our senses. Just as lived theology purports that we can access reflections and insights about God in the world by living, we can learn about and experience God’s glory by being and being attuned to the world around us. As Jones writes, “God’s glory is known incarnationally, in the depths of our bodies, at the point of connection with the most unlikely of all” (121).

This week, I’m reminded of how we must constantly return to the context of individuals living, working, and healing in community. The tools the group shared during our session invited each participant to engage with our surroundings in the present moment. Doing so inevitably means engaging with the people around us. These tools help us to live more peacefully with ourselves and in our community. Community living can be messy. But using our senses and our breath to re-engage in the present, particularly at Magdalene, means re-engaging with a community of survivors at a vast range of phases in their recovery processes. It means re-engaging with glory. In focusing on our own bodies and spirits we are made aware of surrounding bodies and spirits. We recognize the present while we look to the future. In the context of Jones’ understanding of vocation that we are all bodies and lives with a “direction intentionally unfolding in the context of community” (113), combatting dissociation with engagement in glory–as Marlena and I explored with the women of Magdalene–can begin to point us in the direction we are called.

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