Breathing with the Body of Christ

November 29, 2009 | 12 comments

As I mentioned the other day, until recently I didn’t understand what Advent was all about. Actually, I didn’t completely understand what Lent, Easter or Christmas were all about either. The significance of the different seasons of the liturgical year was one of the last things that I researched in my long road from atheism to Catholicism; I had so many other tough concepts to explore that figuring out why Catholics didn’t eat meat on Fridays was the least of my worries.

But I went through the motions anyway.

In 2006, before my husband and I were even certain we were going to convert to Catholicism, I decided to participate in traditional Lenten practices. I’d heard people on the Catholic radio station talking about what they were giving up for Lent, and I decided to give something up too. I didn’t know exactly why I was doing it, but it sounded right on a gut level that it might be a good thing to take a step back from the decadence of modern life for a while, so I gave up something I really enjoyed: wheat/flour products. It was very difficult to pass up goodies like cookies, cakes, pasta, pizza and breads, but I stuck to it for all of Lent.

Giving up so many of my favorite foods for such a long time without a selfish ulterior motive like wanting to lose weight did an interesting thing to my state of mind: it naturally left me thinking about how often I felt entitled to whatever I wanted, and how rebellious I was at the whole concept of sacrifice.

The physical surroundings at the parish church where we were regular visitors only reinforced this mindset. The decorations were sparse, and the priests wore robes that were deep purple, the color of penance. The music was slow-tempo, serious and occasionally somber. There were no festivities on the parish calendar, other than the weekly Friday night fish fry where people got together to eat a meat-free dinner. The entire parish seemed to be in a slower, reflective state.

When the weeks-long Easter season rolled around, it was like a great exhaling to shift gears and begin a time of feasting, lavish decorations and joyous singing. The altar that had been bare for all of Lent was now banked with colorful, fragrant flowers as the choir belted out bright, merry tunes. Once again, even having only a basic awareness of what the Easter season was about, I naturally fell into a celebratory mood. It had been good to take a big step back from it all during Lent, and now it felt equally good to balance that with merriment and celebrations during Easter.

When Advent began later in the year, once again I merely mimicked what I saw other families doing, taking time to talk with the children about nice things we could do to make the baby Jesus happy, or lighting an increasing number of candles as the pre-Christmas weeks wore on. Our church was decorated with some simple green trees — nothing like the lavish decorations we’d see in the 12-day Christmas season that began on Christmas day, but pretty nonetheless. I noticed that they had the one candle lit, and knew that we would not see them all lit until the end of this season.

It wouldn’t be until months later that I really began to internalize the profound truths at the root of these practices, to embrace Advent as a season of waiting, or to have Lent inspire me to awe at the greatest mystery ever seen. For quite a while I was simply, almost blindly drawing close to the great Body of Christ, inhaling when it inhaled, exhaling when it exhaled. And yet these motions began to have a profound effect on my soul, even when I didn’t know the how’s and why’s behind them. It started me thinking in the right direction, regularly breaking me out of the apathetic routines and thought processes of my daily life as I changed my habits to move the with motion of the Church. This “breathing” with the Body of Christ functioned as a sort of CPR to resuscitate me from the spiritually dead state I was in.

Obviously it’s not ideal to go on too long participating in customs that you don’t completely understand, and I certainly have a deeper, more spiritually fulfilling relationship to the liturgical year now that I understand each of its seasons better. But, as another Advent rolls around and I’m reminded of how I once didn’t understand this season at all, I’ve been thinking about how much the soul benefits from participating in the liturgical year, even when a person is just going through the motions. The simple process of clinging to the Body of Christ, breathing in and out along with its gentle rhythms, can be the beginning of the resuscitation process that will lead a suffocating soul back to life.



  1. Lyn

    Thank you so much for your post. You can't know how much it means to have you express it that way, breathing in and out with the body of Christ. I need to get back to that, and offer it to the kids.

  2. Kris

    Glad you are back. Hope you had a nice Thanksgiving. I was in withdrawal without your posts.

  3. Elizabeth Mahlou

    I think there is no end to the learning. I have taught catechism to the first-year confirmation kids for three years now, and every single lesson is a new lesson for me, too!

  4. Erika

    Welcome back!

    I loved your last line: The rhythm of the Church year are such a blessing. Simply to live in them is a healing process, from whatever wounds we carry.

  5. Alhana

    This has been a nice post.

    You made me think of myself because this year I decided to follow Lent practices for a change – I am a Spanish cradle Catholic and I usually don't notice the Church customs because they have become an habit that I sometimes follow and sometimes don't. But this year I decided to 'do it' and gave up something I loved. At the beginning I didn't know why was I doing that but when Easter came I felt different.

    What started as a test ended as a blessing. Of course, I am following Advent practices now and I feel happy.

    Thanks for sharing these bits of your life with us, Jennifer!

  6. Lana

    what a great post!

  7. deb

    I converted to the Catholic Church as part of the journey of marriage.
    While it certainly wasn't required , I was yearning for something that had been missing from the varied and inconsistent faith experience I'd had.
    20 years and 5 children going or gone through the Catholic educations system and learning and relearning to embrace the liturgical calendar still finds me with much to discover.
    I am so blessed to feel like I truly am breathing in and out with the body of Christ and as our children get older and I can take time to be still …. the beauty of it all leaves me in awe. Lighting the first candle is like starting to wander in thin spaces for a bit.

  8. Roxane B. Salonen

    Jen, this post reminded me a little of one I wrote early in the year, about the grace of ritual — even a peck on the cheek to a spouse each morning (I hope you don't mind my sharing here…):

    Very nice reflection on the journey toward Christ.


  9. Dani

    Jen, I have long enjoyed your blog. And being a new Catholic myself, I can relate to many of the things you have posted.

    Last year, Advent sort of came and went. Because I was going through the RCIA, that season came and went and I didn't quite catch on. I thought too that it was a season of waiting and anticipation.

    But what I have figured out this year that it's more of a season of preparation. Waiting would be like sitting at a bustop only to find out after a few hours that the bus doesn't run that day. Preparation would be getting ready by viewing the bus maps and then planning for an alternate route.

    In many ways, what Advent is calling us to do is to PREPARE the way for the Lord. Are you waiting for Him to come or are you preparing for Him to come?

    How you answer will factor into how you celebrate Advent.

    While waiting certainly gives one happy fuzzy feelings, it's preparing yourself through prayer, meditation, honest reflection, purging of the things that disconnect you from the Lord that make the difference.

  10. Anonymous

    This year — for the first time — we are inviting our entire town to view the lifesize Nativity in our sanctuary. No program is planned. Just luminaries lighting the way to the front door. Low lights inside. Chant recordings in the air. And votive candles to light for prayer intentions. We are 'advertising' it around town as a way to just come, sit, look, and breathe.
    The concept came from our Christmas Nativity builders. After the two-day push to build it, we generally just turn off all the other lights in the church, and sit and look at it and breathe quietly together. It's always so lovely for us. This year, we decided to share it with everyone. Even if five people show up to breathe with us, that will be a good beginning for those five.


  11. Karyn

    Thank you for this post. This is the first year our family is celebrating Advent and while I'm excited and have done my "research", I still feel a little fake and awkward because it's a new tradition. Thank you for helping me to realize that the important thing is to just do it – and the blessings will follow.

  12. Philip

    Thank you for your post. I just found your site and have been enjoying it very much.

    I wrote about Advent and a little about it's history and how it came about on my 27 Nov post. I hope you find it helpful.

    God Bless you and your family on your journey. I became Catholic in 1999!


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