Breathing Under Water

I came across a book several months ago by Richard Rohr, titled Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. The introduction to the book included the following poem by Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ:

Breathing Under Water

I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you;
not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.

A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbors.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance,
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always, the fence of sand our barrier,
always, the sand between.

And then one day,
-and I still don’t know how it happened –
the sea came.
Without warning.

Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbors,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.

Go back and read it out loud. The words give me chills.

I celebrated one year of recovery this week. It means a lot to have made it through an entire year of meetings and step work, mostly because I have a pattern of throwing myself into new endeavors with gusto, only to find my enthusiasm fizzles out after a few weeks. But I’ve stuck to it for a whole year, and although today feels like a bit of a victory for reaching one year of recovery, I know that tomorrow will be one year and one day of recovery.  This is not the end, merely the beginning.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few days about how I got into recovery.  My life was that house in the poem, seemingly strong and sturdy. I was aware of my past, the neighboring sea that stayed far away from my house, but I wasn’t going to be held back because of it. No, I was going to do things differently. The sea would stay in its place, and I would stay in mine and live a perfect, happy life. Sure I made mistakes, but I was certain a year ago that I was okay, that my life was fine and that nothing could shake me.

And then the sea came in, and everything I thought I knew, everything I thought I had…turned out to be a façade. My strong house collapsed and nearly took me with it.

For the last year, I have been submerged, learning how to breathe under water. I have been learning how to tell my stories out loud. I’ve been learning how to identify safe people to hear my stories. I’ve been learning about the difference between powerlessness and helplessness; I am powerless over many things, but I am not as helpless as I believed I was and I can do things. Big things.

I’ve been learning how to live each day without worrying about knowing the end of the story. I have been learning how to have better relationships with people I love, and how to treat them with kindness. I’ve been learning that starts by having a better relationship with myself, and to treat myself with kindness.  I’ve been learning how to tell the truth, no matter how difficult it seems to do it. I’ve been learning that I can make mistakes, but that I am not a mistake.

The poem promises “a coral castle” in exchange for my fragile house. I get to live in a castle! A castle built with love and hope and dreams and the awareness that I am not alone, in my little world or in the greater universe. It’s my new home.

I breathe slowly, deeply…in…and out…and know in my heart that I can do this.  For today, I can live…breathing under water.

Blessed be.

  1. Rexene Reply

    I can relate!!!
    Beautifully written Casey!

  2. John Reply

    Your share parallels my own reaction to this gripping poem which continues to reveal new meaning at each reading. Thank you for your perspective. May you find your awakening on the road ahead.

  3. Liz Reply

    I started rereading RR book today & the poem brought me to tears. I came across your post when looking up more information about the poem. Take care.

  4. Joan Reply

    I just found this post and I am so touched by your words. My cousin is Carol Bialock and she wrote that poem in 1975 when she was living in Chile. She is now 88 years old and I think she has absolutely no idea how many lives she has touched with her poetry. Thank you for this. I am going to be visiting her next month and I will share this with her!
    Joan Grimm

    • Casey O'Leary Reply

      Thank you so much for reaching out, Joan! Please share with your cousin how much her words have helped me and so many others. Her work captures the journey just beautifully!

    • frank buckley, s.j. Reply

      Dear Joan,
      I am a Jesuit priest and clinical psychologist and I agree I do not think she has any idea of the impact of her poem which I believe is better than the book. I used to say mass for the Oakwood sisters and used it in my homily once and she came up to me after mass, tapped me on the shoulder and said that was the first time she ever heard her poem read in public. Wonderful woman!

    • Ray Branstiter Reply

      I worked at one of the leading drug treatment facilities in the United States as a Spiritual Care Professional. I used the poem regularly for the morning meditation and always recommended the Rohr book. The power of the poem drove them to the book that guided them to a spiritual recovery from both their addiction and their understanding of the power of God.

  5. Beth Reply

    I am just starting the book Breathing Under Water and I have fallen in love with this poem. It stirs up emotion in me that is hard to describe. It is so beautifully written. I printed the poem out and continue to read it over and over trying to figure out why it has touched me so deeply…

  6. Dave Reply


    This poem has helped me see my own ego at work. I just finished an online course, but, still working on the poem letting it teach me.

    I’ve spent two months going through the poem translating English into Aramaic and Sanskrit of the Yoga Sutras. Initially, divided poem into four sections: I, WE, IT and YOU. For example, the first word “I” reminded me of Buddha’s question: Who is “I?” And, I BUILDER or I MAKER is “asmita” in the Yoga Sutras. This is the “I-sense” or the mutable Ego. I spent days just contemplating on these two words: I built.

    This poem has me looking very hard at myself and the House I’ve tried to build within the Secret Place within my heart. I fully realize I can only understand this poem from my own level of perceptual purification. Through the dualistic physical eyes of mutable duality. Or, through the Single Eye of Eternal Immutability. Duality brings the effect of fear. Non-dual truth brings the effect of love.

    There is so much more. But one thing I did learn in my research. Coral breathes under water just like human beings.

    Peace, Dave

  7. Kitz Reply

    I first read this poem 4 1/2 years ago when my youngest son’s heroin addiction became known to us. I was heart broken and terrified . This poem was in the opening of Richard Rohr,’s book by the same title. It took me over two years to begin to grasp it’s meaning. The imagery of the approaching sea terrified me as did accepting the reality that had shown up in our lives. It took a few years for me to grasp the meaning, to accept life as it is, to breathe underwater.

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