A beam of sunlight shines through a window in the bell tower of Trinity Church Wall Street

Holding still makes resting in God possible

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.

“Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale” by Dan Albergotti

“Belly of the whale” is, as you know, a reference to the story of the prophet Jonah attempting to run away from God’s plan for his life — and meeting up with consequences in the form of a great fish. And it could also be a reference to a stage in the archetypal hero’s journey — the hard part — somewhere between setting out courageously and crossing the threshold to interior growth, to new understanding. 

One could say that “belly of the whale” describes our shared experience of lockdown during the early days of the pandemic, in which we found ourselves fearful and helpless in varying degrees, with no alternatives but to wait, to isolate, and to cope with the limits to our lifestyles, not to mention our freedom. Or it could describe the current state of discordant politics, rising violence, humanitarian and environmental crises, any of which may provoke a sense of fear and helplessness.

The poet considers a list of alternatives to fear and helplessness in such a place. Simple things like counting ribs, getting some work done, taking some measurements, dreaming, and listening for a rescue may lack gravity, but they do not involve resistance. In other words, these suggestions point to the wisdom of being present in the moment, of simply being with what is.

This is where Albergotti’s poem intersects with my spiritual journey. One of the gifts from my studies in Buddhism and practice of contemplative prayer and mindfulness has been the revelation of how much suffering we can cause ourselves just by how we relate to reality.

Here’s what I mean by that. A comic strip, with only two scenes, spells it out simply: In the first scene, there is a person encountering rain, saying It’s raining. I don’t like rain. I wish it wasn’t raining. My day would be better if it wasn’t raining. My day is ruined. Every day is like this. It’s always like this. Why does it always rain when all I want is for it to be sunny? And in the second scene, by comparison, another person in the rain comments: It’s raining.

Only now, in my sixth decade, do I realize that acceptance of reality as it is and acceptance of myself as I am — without resistance or critique or commentary or kvetching or ruminating — is actually a matter of choice! It’s a matter of training the mind and heart with intentionality, with acceptance, with equanimity, and with trust in God’s design. (I once saw a photo of a Buddhist monk smiling placidly as he watched a mosquito borrowing blood from his forearm. That’s the picture that comes to mind for me when I think about being with reality as it is.)

Only now, in my sixth decade, do I realize that acceptance of reality as it is and acceptance of myself as I am — without resistance or critique or commentary or kvetching or ruminating — is actually a matter of choice!

I often hear people say they can’t meditate because their brains are too active and cannot be slowed down, let alone emptied. But this is a misunderstanding of mindfulness. This is why in guided meditation we practice observing our thoughts and feelings. We practice holding them in compassion, allowing them to fill us up and pass through, instead of either identifying with them or forcing them out. Ongoing practice creates the possibility of responding to challenges in daily life with greater skill and equanimity.

When I think of myself in the belly of the whale — and we will each have such times in our lives — I like to imagine myself breathing calmly and practicing the Presence of God in the dark, amid the foul smells, the debris, and the feeling that all is lost… 

At the end of the day, I think I have more to offer the world if I don’t begin from a place of aversion to reality as it is. It frees up the energy I would otherwise use to hold down or to push away difficult feelings and opens up a space for something new to emerge.

Even for Jonah, all was not lost, though he didn’t know what God had in store for him. For those of us who find ourselves exhausted as we seem to move from crisis to crisis, from reactivity to reactivity, it is important to practice a pause, a sacred pause, in which to make a choice about how to respond in love. This is a skill worth cultivating.

It is a privilege for me to offer weekly guided meditations for Trinity staff, for contemplative poetry practitioners, and on retreats because part of me knows that we were never taught how to hold still, how to hold the tension, how to tread “water in the still night sea,” as the poet puts it — during the “belly of the whale” times of our lives. Holding still makes resting in God possible.

I don’t fully understand the poet’s intent behind his varied list of options for what to do in the belly of the whale, but I think he gives a hint in the line, “be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope, where you can rest and wait.” “Thankful” may be a stretch — but resting and waiting seem to be conditions for placing ourselves in the presence of God, conditions for placing our lives in God’s hands.

Blessings and peace,


Dr. Kathy Bozzuti-Jones is Trinity’s Associate Director, Spiritual Practices, Retreats, and Pilgrimage. Reach out to share your thoughts or say hello.

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