I’ve been mildly asthmatic since infancy. At points, if I’m honest, it’s been more of a blessing than a curse: at school, for example, I could spend afternoons sitting in a warm library instead of hurling myself around in the cold and the mud.
And it’s a blessing in another way; it serves as a periodic reminder, not of my mortality, but the opposite: my vitality. It forces me to recognise that my life depends absolutely and wonderfully on all sorts of prevailing conditions. In this case, of course, on air. On air and my continuing capacity to breathe it. The gift of life.
Now, I live at the bottom of a hill. These last couple of weeks I’ve been able to walk out of my house and up the hill. It puffs me out; I feel the air’s expanding and contracting inside my chest. I am alive. (These days it’s good to be reminded.)
Under normal circumstances, we take breathing for granted in our daily lives. We take it for granted too in our worship, failing to notice its central role. So much of worship – whether we’re together or alone – is focussed on puff, on the breath. In the Vedic tradition (roughly the Indo-Aryan thought world that would become known as Hinduism) the breathed sound OM is described as the essence of life, of everything that exists.
The mantras in Buddhism are sometmes characterised as breathing meditations. I’ve seen it suggested that the Tetragrammaton – YHWH – the sign for the unnameable God in the Hebrew Bible, can be thought of as an in-breath and an out-breath: Yah … Weh. What a beautiful idea! Every time we breathe we say the secret name of God. Every breath is sacred; every breath a prayer. (Try it; it’s true.)
God breathes into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life (Genesis 2:7). The same God commands Ezekiel to give life to the valley of dry bones in these words:
“Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.Ezekiel 37:9-10
And the Holy Spirit is – in Greek – pneuma. Or breath. It’s where we get such words in English as ‘pneumatic’, or indeed ‘pneumonia’. ‘God is spirit,’ Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well. And pneuma is the word he uses in the Greek. ‘And those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit (ev pneumati) and in truth’ (John 4:24).
And what – actually – are we doing when we’re singing hymns? I hope I’m not offending anyone if I say the words of our hymns are of secondary importance. It’s the breathing together that really counts. A whole roomful of people breathing in unison. (I am longing for the day when we can gather again and sing as one at the tops of our lungs.)
My point is simply this: reminding ourselves of our breath is to remind ourselves of our total dependence. It is to remind ourselves perpetually that our life is gifted to us . I think it’s this that Paul is suggesting when he describes God to the Athenians as ‘Him in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). He’s not actually talking about the sort of God we worship; he’s talking about the sort of creatures we are: creatures entirely dependent on the medium in which we exist. God.
The air we breathe is the perfect analogue for the God we worship, the God on whom we depend for everything.
If Covid 19 is good for anything (and let’s be honest, it probably isn’t) it may serve to make us all a bit ‘asthmatic’, more mindful of our dependence on Him, humbled by our debt to that in which we live and move and have our being.
And I can’t let this reflection pass without taking the opportunity to share with you… Air by The Incredible String Band.
Close your eyes, and… breathe…
breathe into us that Spirit
that moves over the face of the waters,
that speaks through the prophets,
that drives Jesus out in the wilderness.
And in turn, may our every breath be an answering prayer,
in and out, to and fro, given and giving
to You in whom we live and move and have our being.