Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Breathing Holy

Written by: on October 19, 2020

Words flew through the air like bullets on a battlefield, leaving deep, gaping wounds. Not the best way to begin a Saturday morning. Still, there we were, once again, in an emotionally explosive situation with no real hope in sight. For months, the darkness had been settling in as circumstances with our daughter went from bad to worse. What we thought was “just normal teenage hormones” was more, so much more that the possibility for flight or suicide was high. That morning’s argument ended with me leaving her alone while I went to my son’s soccer game. We both needed space to breathe. Angry tears flowed free all the way to the fields. After regaining my composure, I went and watched the game, but not without the heavy weight of “Will she be ok when I get home?”

It was during this season of life that Oceans was sung almost every Sunday at worship. The more it was sung, the more I thought “What a ridiculous song,” because being pulled down into the dark abyss of faith was not looking so glamorous in my life. Everything in my being was rejecting the darkness that was consuming my daughter, myself, and our family. My arms flailed as I continued to sink. Did I call on God’s name? Yes, but as visualization of the shores of security diminished, my cries were met with deafening silence. I could only imagine that this was how Jonah felt as he sank deep into the stormy waters.

In Not Doing, Renner and D’Souza highlight free-diving specialist, Michael Adams, as a prime example of what it looks like to utilize “psychological flexibility.”[1] In their interview, Adams walks the reader through what it feels like to free-dive into the depths of water. Before he descends, he releases all fear in his body by focusing on the Beatles’ song, “Let it Be.” He then begins his gentle journey down, utilizing the least effort possible. At the 10-meter mark, he simply “hangs” in the in-between, where his body weight and the water’s weight are cancelled. Eventually, he begins to simply fall until he reaches the depth of 40 meters where the ocean hugs him.[2] He calls this place the “liminal space between life and death. A point of balance.”[3] I wonder if Jonah experienced such a state of being during his downward journey?

Science tells us this liminal space between life and death is caused by the “mammalian dive response, the most powerful autonomic reflex known in the human body. This reflex optimizes respiration by preferentially distributing oxygen stores to the heart and brain, allowing divers to stay under water for extended periods of time.”[4] When I read this description, I thought, “That’s what I call breathing holy.”

Somewhere along our three-year season in the dark, silent, oxygen deprived depths, God taught me how to breathe holy. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but I think that it began when I returned home from the morning soccer match. I remember walking to the front door with tears in my eyes, not sure what I would find behind that door. Would my daughter have run away? Or would she be dead in the tub? My heart pounded in my chest. As I exhaled and turned the doorknob, I sensed God whisper, “No matter what you find, you need to know you’ve done your best. I’m with you. I love you.” On my next inhale, I chose to let go “of the perceived security of the shore…and become more open to the opportunities of the current”[5] found in God’s grace. Joseph Campbell notes how it is in this dark mysterious womb of death where internal transformation takes place.[6] This truth is woven throughout the fabric of fable and now into the fabric of me, where the threads of ego intermingle with threads of the Eternal to reveal a tapestry of mysterious wonder.


Photo by Matt Hardy on Unsplash

[1] Diana Renner and Steven D’Souza. Not Doing: The Art of Effortless Action. (London, UK: LID Publishing, Ltd., 2018) 175.

[2] Ibid., 176-177.

[3] Ibid., 177.

[4] Ibid., 177.

[5] Ibid., 178.

[6] Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (Novato, CA: New World Library (3rd ed), 2008), 74.

About the Author

Darcy Hansen

19 responses to “Breathing Holy”

  1. Greg Reich says:

    Powerful! Love the concept of “breathing holy.” Our children have a way of driving us to the depths of the despair and to the pinnacles of joy. For me this process takes place when I get to the end of myself and I cry “Uncle” before God, yielding my will to his. It is in those times I know that it is all up to God. It is in those times I can finally let go and let God.

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      Greg, I agree with you to a point. But I actually think God invites us to not just “Let go, let God,” but rather to participate with God as we learn to navigate the darkness. There’s a poem by John Blase that I absolutely love. It’s called The Bravest Thing. It carried me through the darkest of days. I’ll share it here as an example of the invitation God extended and continues to extend to me:
      the bravest thing
      By John Blase | October 29, 2013 | 15
      maybe the bravest thing
      is opening your eyes in the
      morning and placing your
      two feet on the cold floor and
      rising up against the gravity
      of the night. maybe that’s the
      brave thing from which all other
      bravery flows, the brave to
      seek ye first. maybe that’s the
      single thing God requires of you,
      the spiritual discipline that takes
      all your will to muster. Swallow
      down the fear, my child, and face
      the dawning day for what the
      surface of the world needs most
      of all is bravery skipping and
      you, yes you are the stone.

      • Greg Reich says:

        Please note: “letting go, letting God” in no way negates my responsibility to join in the journey and be part the solution. It is a recognition of my inability and a willingness to do things God’s way, following His lead in a walk of obedience.

        • Darcy Hansen says:

          Agreed. Apologies for my unclear response. I didn’t mean to imply I assumed passivity in your response. Often times the term is cliche and feels empty, especially when God’s movements or presence is very difficult to discern. When sitting with others in their darkness, the invitation spoken often needs to be extended in a different way. I think that was my point, and clearly was not stated well. Thanks for clarifying and giving me the chance to do the same.

      • Jer Swigart says:

        What an amazing poem. Thanks for sharing this, Darcy. Could you reflect a bit on how this season of darkness that you navigated informs your work as a Spiritual Director? And, if there are some threads from this that connects to your doctoral work, what are they?

        • Darcy Hansen says:

          Many of the individuals I companion are in various stages of darkness in their lives. Things that were are no more, and it is difficult to see a way forward. It’s difficult to move or breathe when the ground before us can’t be seen. How do we take a step when we aren’t sure where our foot will land, or even if it will land? When the invitation into the mystery of God is the most sure and present reality, we have the choice to say Yes or No. We can fight the darkness or lean into it, get really still and silent, and wait. But the waiting is always active, in that it involves intent to abide, to remain in God’s presence, even when that presence is no longer perceived.

          The poem reminds me to simply get up- do the next thing- and remember to breathe my way through it. It reminds me that others depend on my willingness to say Yes, and that I am not alone; if I forget to breathe, others are there to remind me to do that simplest of acts.

          That dance between the Holy, community, and ourselves is woven throughout the death experiences of life. We see it in the life of Christ, and if we are paying attention, we can see it in our lives as well. It’s the invitation to live in our skin, in the presence of others, to breath and trust that the Divine is there to carry us along, even if that means just putting our feet on the ground each day.

  2. John McLarty says:

    Once when we were searching for a new worship leader in my previous church, we had several weeks where candidates for the position were invited to guest-lead- a try-out of sorts. We had to institute a “No Oceans” policy because each candidate wanted to use it in their worship sets! But seriously, your post went into the deep and scary waters of absolute trust- holding the tension loosely and respecting what is not yours to control. I feel like this post alone could be a whole section in the graduate-level course on the Theology of Death you’re creating. What’s the corresponding assignment that comes with this lesson?

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      Such a great question. I’d love to have the students remember a time when darkness and unknowing consumed. In that time, how did they feel? In what ways were their senses engaged? What words would they have wanted to sing or have sung over them? Write those, be it a song, psalm, spoken word- specific for their circumstance- what do they think God would have sung over them in their time of distress and despair?

      So often our contemporary worship songs are predictable and filled with platitudes. I have a friend who is a worship leader and she said she knows when in each song people will raise their hands in praise. The music is crafted to create a specific response. It makes sense your applicants would pick Oceans- it has a very powerful effect and elicits predictable responses from the congregation. Leading with that song would have made applicants look really good.

      I’ve spoken with many people who cannot even go to church during times of deep grief because the songs and sermons are hollow. How do we give space for honest lament, not just once or twice a year, but on a consistent basis?

  3. John McLarty says:

    Yeah, that’s exactly why we wouldn’t let the candidates use Oceans- they had to show us they how they could lead the congregation in an experience of God, not just manipulate people’s emotions with a powerful song. (For the record, I have nothing against that particular song itself!) But you’re right- the shallow, formulaic version of church that often packs in the crowds comes up way short when the stuff gets real. (I remember Jesus saying something about a house built on sand.) Doing the harder work of setting a strong foundation- which includes the ugly, challenging, unpleasant parts of life that we don’t like to talk about- is actually what makes us better equipped to deal with those difficult times. When faith comes cheap, we pay a greater price later.

  4. Shawn Cramer says:

    From the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb. I made that note in my text, too, Darcy.

    Many of our posts have returned to the concept of breathing. Something about the human experience and the pacing that seems worth investigating it more. With my work, I’m thinking of how inspiration means to “breathe or blow into.”

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      As I consider your words regarding breathing, human, inspiration, and innovation- I wonder if there isn’t more to this, as not just humans breathe, but all of creation breathes. The simple act of respiration binds so much of the world together, infusing cells with needed nutrients and bringing forth life. I wonder how that interconnectedness with creation might inspire your innovation practices? Do you innovate and create just because you can? And at what cost? What is necessary vs. what is desired? Is it possible to innovate back to the basics or do we always have to be “progressing” and “pushing the boundaries”? Just pondering here- no response required.

  5. Jer Swigart says:

    This is beautiful, Darc. Thank you.

    If I asked you, “How do I breath holy?” how would you answer? How would you teach me?

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      That’s a tough question. But I’ll take a stab at it. To use a cliche- I’m not sure if breathing holy is taught as much as it is caught. And even that feels inadequate to say, as for me it’s a process of becoming more than a skill to be achieved. When the breath stops midway due to tightening of muscles due to stress, grief, tears, fear, or even terror- its noticing the obstruction and choosing to release the exhale fully to begin again. If I’m at the end of my rope and exhausted from holding on, it is choosing to release and fall, trusting Grace to be there to hold me. When in the dark depths, its simply closing my eyes, ceasing the struggle, and allowing myself to rest into the current (much like in your your post this week). In these analogies, it’s the actual breathing that is important. So often we forget about the small details of life that help us live. Breathing Holy is choosing to be attentive to that simple reality, trusting God, who gave us breath, is there to impart the Holy within the absolute hard of life. Such Holiness is experienced in the simple, still, and silent. It’s the knowing look from a friend, the quiet whisper of Grace in the thin hours of the night, or the flow of water making its way from river to river to ocean. I suppose in a way breathing holy is awakening to the many ways creation moves and exists within and around us each and every day, and resting in the shalom that accompanies the reality of that interconnectedness. Thank you for asking. I’ll be pondering this more. I’ve never really taken time to put it into words- it was just part of who I have become and continue to become. Does any of this resonate? Maybe you have similar experiences, but call how you learned “to be” something else?

  6. Chris Pollock says:

    Thanks Darcy. Thank you for sharing a story so close to your heart. Means so much. The darkest moments can be the loudest and the most silent. Holy breathing also stood out for me in your post! Holy breathing in the space in between. When there’s some kind of inner ‘other’ resilience (or, alien) that comes to life and sustains us. When everything else can feel dead and gone. Living as a single dad, letting go of my daughter for a week until I will see her again. Some kind of Holy Breathing…I can hear it.

    • Chris Pollock says:

      “This truth is woven throughout the fabric of fable and now into the fabric of me, where the threads of ego intermingle with threads of the Eternal to reveal a tapestry of mysterious wonder.”

      This last sentence I had to read a few times. Totally, rocked my boat. Thank you 🙂

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      I wonder if parenting isn’t the crucible where Holy Breathing begins? God parenting us, we parenting our children? Walking through the hardest of places with kids brings forth both the profane and the profound- but mostly the profound, if we are willing to fully experience it.

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