Life-Giving Breath

The Early Holiday Liturgy helps a med school resident hear God's voice

As I arrived at Memorial Church late at night to play in the orchestra for the Early Holiday Liturgy, I was worrying about breath and air.

Caring for children in the Pediatric ICU and Pulmonary service as part of my Pediatric residency training, I had spent the previous several weeks focusing obsessively on breath and air. I endlessly adjusted ventilators in hopes of delivering just the right breaths to children’s failing lungs. I returned to patients’ bedsides again and again for “respiratory checks,” like a new mother frantically waking throughout the night to make sure her baby is still breathing. As a new doctor, my patients’ breaths are a cause for constant worry. Even my prayers on those days were breathless ones: whispered in hurried moments as I ran from one task to the next.

With that mindset still lingering, I arrived at the church, got out my flute, and began warming up. Soon, my muscles relaxed as my mind focused in on my own breath. The act of playing transformed my breaths from frantic and worried to measured and calm. The breaths that entered my flute were there for me to inhabit, to take heightened notice of, and to be at peace with. The music I played, while very far from perfect, was full of joy and praise. And as the liturgy began, my own breath joined the sounds of the other musicians and the congregation, who were all there for the same purpose: to hold sacred that moment to celebrate Jesus’ birth.

I am fortunate to find an abundance of meaning in what I am called to do every day: both at work as a pediatrician in training and in my personal life as a mother, wife, daughter, and friend. However, the mental and emotional balancing act that these roles require can make it difficult to find space to hear God’s voice. By contrast, playing an instrument forces me to focus my mind so completely on the physical—breath, fingers, ears—that it removes me from the immediate worries of the day. It allows me to be thoughtful and to listen, creating a mental space that lends itself to meditation and prayer.

In this way, participating in the music for mass, particularly the Early Holiday Liturgy, has strengthened my prayer life and has challenged me to open up parts of my mind and heart that I don’t use any other part of my life. Beyond that, it has given me an opportunity to be more involved in my community, and a way to model for my daughter the variety of ways one can praise God. I hope to teach her by example that even in a world where pressures, anxieties, and responsibilities can seem overwhelming, it is a priority to have something in life that brings us more closely into the presence of God.

Jennifer DeCoste-Lopez, MD is a recent graduate of Stanford School of Medicine (class of 2015) and is currently second-year Pediatrics resident at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.