Gretchen E. Ziegenhals: Singing the life-giving song of exhalation

Female divers off the coast of Korea often hold their breath for several minutes at a time. When they emerge for air, they first exhale, emitting a distinctive cry, and then breathe in. Image from LisaSee.com/Financial Times

Korean sea divers exhale before they inhale, modeling a crucial pattern for sustaining the Christian life: exhaling for rest before inhaling for work.

The haenyeo -- female divers who have been harvesting seafood off the coast of Korea since the 17th century -- know the importance of exhaling before inhaling.

In her recent novel “The Island of Sea Women,” Lisa See introduces us to the life of the courageous haenyeo through the all-female diving collectives of remote Jeju Island and protagonist Young-sook. In this culture, while the men stay home to care for the children, the women spend their days diving. Sometimes 20 meters under the icy ocean waters, they hold their breath for several minutes at a time while searching for abalone, conch or octopus.

When the divers finally emerge for air, they first exhale, each emitting a distinctive cry, or sumbisori -- a high-pitched, rhythmic whistle to expel carbon dioxide from the lungs. A deep intake of breath follows.

The chief diver of a collective listens for each sumbisori as the women -- grandmothers, mothers and young teens -- pop up all around the diving area. The chief knows each diver’s sound and waits anxiously for the full complement of sumbisori to confirm that every diver is safe and rested before resubmerging. In concert, the exhalations make a kind of music, a song of safety, life and rest.

Young-sook’s mother, the chief of her diving collective, tells her daughter, “I’m responsible for every woman’s safe return to shore. I listen for the sumbisori of all women in our collective. Together our sumbisori create a song of the air and wind on Jeju. Our sumbisori is the innermost sound of the world. It connects us to the future and the past. Our sumbisori allows us first to serve our parents and then our children.”

I recently shared this powerful image at a program for Christian institutional leaders in their 30s and early 40s. These leaders have increasingly intense roles in complex institutions, often have working partners and maybe children, and want to stay physically fit, civically minded and spiritually whole.

What might a restorative breath sound like for these leaders? Who is the “chief” listening intently for their exhalations?

The practice of taking Sabbath is deeply theological. Candler School of Theology Old Testament scholar Ryan Bonfiglio describes Sabbath as a part of our very identity as created beings, created in the image of God. The Sabbath, Bonfiglio says, is the first thing God calls holy -- not people, not creation, but Sabbath.

Ceasing work in our culture may seem inefficient, but efficiency is not a fruit of the Spirit, Bonfiglio says. Christian leaders may do well to practice “the holiness of inefficiency,” what Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel called “a sanctuary in time.”

The chiefs of the diving collectives do this by teaching their divers from an early age not only how to breathe in to begin the work but how (and when and how often) to breathe out. That exhalation in community -- a life-sustaining song, as Young-sook’s mother describes it -- equips the women to serve.

For those of us who supervise other leaders, how do we teach the importance of coming up for air? Do we model how to set boundaries, to stay home when we are sick, to use our vacation days, to prioritize spiritual practices like prayer, a walk or centering breaths?

And for those who are bivocational or multivocational, like so many Christian leaders today, how do we learn to make room for exhaling before inhaling life-giving breath? When one task stops but another, overlapping task starts, how do we structure time for the breath in between? And how do we ensure that others in our communities or on the margins are not holding their breath until they pass out?

Traditions of breath prayer can help us practice and teach life-giving breath and praying without ceasing amid Christian vocational life. Many Christians practice yoga as a way of “returning to the breath.” When we are mindful of the God who in Genesis 2:7 breathed life into the dust of the ground to create humans, we understand our every breath in and out as bound inextricably with who we are as created beings and how we are to serve and love our neighbors as ourselves.

If we do not emerge and help others emerge from the deep waters for sumbisori, then we are betraying the very breath that is the gift of life from God. We are meant to inhale for the work and then exhale for our rest before inhaling again. This is the crucial rhythm of the Christian vocational life.

For whose sumbisori are we listening this week or this summer? To whom can we “give” Sabbath? What music does our community’s collective sumbisori make? Is it music that mourns? That soothes? That celebrates?