My first conscious experience of something that felt like holy energy took place one summer when I worked as an intern chaplain in a hospital. In order to visit patients, I used to walk from the chaplain's offices on the second floor up a staircase to oncology on eight and neurology on eleven. As I climbed, I listened in my mind to a song that seemed particularly appropriate to the chaplain's work: "I don't pretend to know what you want, but I offer love," the lyrics sang, followed by a guitar solo that I thought of as "the swirly music." I imagined myself being swirled up by the music into a kind of whirlwind of beautiful, dancing notes.
Sometimes as I climbed I would feel a sudden urge: to visit a patient I hadn't seen in a few days, to stop by the room of someone I'd already visited but whom I suddenly felt needed more attention. I would notice the exact moment when I felt drawn, as if a hand were turning me. The hospital's stairs were like its veins and I was a molecule of oxygen being delivered to wherever it was needed. Sometimes as I entered the room, the patient would say, "I was just thinking about you. I wanted to talk to you," and I would sit down and listen. One man said to me, "I feel joy coming out of you. Do you feel it?" I did feel it, not so much as an emotion, but as a kind of energy that seemed to be radiating out of me. Another man who was facing surgery for a brain tumor told me that he felt like I had taken his pain away with me when I left the room. Tenderness seemed to come pouring out of me towards the patients in a way that didn't happen elsewhere in my life. The tenderness seemed out of proportion to what I was used to feeling. It felt larger than me and the people it was directed towards, as if it wasn't coming out of me, but was a gift from outside myself.
Where was this mysterious energy coming from? Had some combination of circumstances helped me to tap into an energetic source of which I had previously been unaware? By walking up and down the stairs listening to "the swirly music," had I somehow aligned myself with a force that was now moving through me? Where could I go for answers to these questions?
Soon after this experience I learned about the ancient Chinese practice of qigong. Qi (pronounced and sometimes spelled chi) is the Chinese word for life force, the energy that animates all living things. The Taoist system of qigong, which means qi work, makes a distinction between personal qi, the energy in our bodies which gives us life, and universe qi, an energy which is greater than us and connects us to others when we open ourselves to it. The practice of qigong can be used to help us to connect our personal qi with its source, the universe qi.
Qigong offers a wide variety of practices, including meditations and physical exercises which unblock energy channels and allow the personal qi to flow more freely through the body. The practices help to heal the practitioner's physical and emotional ailments and make her more sensitive and receptive to the source of qi, enabling her to heal others. The practitioner guides the qi not only with movement, but also with her intention; she visualizes the qi as she guides it through the channels of her body and stores it in reservoirs in her head, chest, and belly.
In the hospital, I kept wondering if I was full of the Holy Spirit. Is qi the same as the Holy Spirit? The Christian tradition is very clear that the Holy Spirit is a gift that can never be controlled; it "blows where it chooses" (John 3:8). In contrast, my qigong teacher, Master Rong-Er Shen, believes that the qigong master can count on being able to access universe energy every time she attempts it. However, Master Shen also says that the experience of qi will be affected by the beliefs of the individual practitioner. Perhaps even if the Holy Spirit cannot be harnessed, there are practices, such as my stair walking, that can help someone become more receptive to it, more able to hear its voice calling.
If the Holy Spirit bears some relation to qi, perhaps the closest equivalent to qigong within the Christian tradition is prayer. In prayer we hope to use our intentions to influence the world in a positive way and to unite our own intentions with God’s power, not unlike the way in which the qigong practitioner unites her personal qi with the universe energy. Prayer enables us to enter into relationship with God and with others, while the sense of qi allows us to feel our interconnectedness with all beings.
Qigong now forms part of my daily practice. I perform the five routines of soaring crane qigong and a practice called standing meditation, in which I invite the universe energy into my body and allow it to move me in spontaneous ways. Qigong helps me to feel that I am in balance and that I am developing my intuitive faculties. Its emphasis on energy and movement seems to help me to listen to something beyond myself and then to translate this sense of listening into action in the world. Through this practice, I feel that I have developed greater receptivity to the mysterious healing power that I felt blowing through me in the stairwell.