At Mt St Bernard’s Abbey yesterday, I tried to empty my mind and focus on my breathing in order to enter into contemplative prayer – as usual, without much success! But I did reflect on breath and air.
We cannot see air, and yet it is vital to our world. Air was present before any living creatures were formed. We actually share the same air with all living creatures, including all other people; and it’s basically the same air that people and animals have been breathing for millions of years. We are utterly dependent on it for our existence and continuing life. It is within us and all around us. Breathing in is the first thing we do when we are born – and breathing out, letting go for the last time, is the final thing we do in this physical life. Even plants and trees take in carbon dioxide from the air and give oxygen back into the air.
Like the air he created, God is within us and around us all the time and sustaining us, even when we aren’t aware of him. After all, how often are we aware of the air around us and within us? Most of the time, most of us don’t think about our breathing or really understand how the oxygen in the air sustains us throughout life – but nevertheless, it is a fact of life – and remains true whether we know about it or not. And just as we can’t usually see or feel or touch or smell or hear God, so we can’t usually use our senses to be aware of or discover oxygen – but that doesn’t alter the reality of oxygen (or of God). It is billions of years since life first emerged on our planet, and about two million years since humans first evolved in Africa, and yet it is only in the last three hundred years that scientists have “discovered” oxygen and its vital role in all life. But it seems that humans have always had a sense of God in some way or other.
I have found it helpful to become more aware of God and his life-giving and sustaining presence within and all around me, by becoming aware of my breathing. As I breathe in air, I also breathe God in with every breath.
We can’t hold on to God any more than we can hold onto our breath for more than a minute or two – we have to let go and give it back to the world around us if we are to go on living. Likewise, God is also constantly holding his creation within himself – and letting go and giving himself to the world he created. He made this tangible and explicit when he let go and gave himself to be born as a baby (Luke 2), taking in his first breath of air and later breathing his last on the cross (Mark 15:37).
Even ancient people appreciated the vital link between God and humans, life and breath. For thousands of years, people have been aware of how God is constantly letting go of himself and giving life to his Creation. In Genesis (2:7), it is described in this way: “The LORD God formed a man …… and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” God gave out his own breath to give us life.
John’s Gospel talks about the birth of Jesus in a very different way from the stories told by Luke: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1, 14). The first Biblical account of Creation (in Genesis 1) is full of God speaking words – that is how the act of creation is described, which resonates with what John said. I find it interesting to reflect that words can only be spoken when breathing out, when we let go of the air in our lungs and give it back. It is impossible to speak when taking air into our lungs! It is only as God ‘breathes out’ that he creates and sustains life.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that using one’s breath is a common form of prayer in many religions. The ancient Hebrew (Jewish) “name” for God is YHWH, not actually a word you can say, but a way of inhaling the presence of God. As Richard Rohr explains in The Divine Dance (p205-6): “The word was quite literally unspeakable and unpronounceable by any fervent Jewish believer. It was also unspeakable because it was meant to imitate and replicate the sound of human breathing.”
If you breathe in with your mouth slightly open and without moving your tongue or lips, the gentle sound is that of YH (yah). Likewise, breathing out in the same way whispers the faintest sound of WH (weh).
Richard Rohr continues, “You cannot ever say “God” and know what you are talking about, but you can ‘breathe’ God. In fact, this means the first word you ever ‘spoke’ when you came out of your mother’s body was the sacred Name. Your naked existence gives glory to God by the one thing it has done constantly since birth, which is to take in and give back the breath of life – in equal portions by the way, or you will suffocate. There will be a last breath someday, and it, too, will be the sacred Name….. Whenever you feel the need for greater awareness, joy and presence in your life, stop and hear this Name in your breathing.”
A Sufi Muslim once told Richard Rohr how the original meaning of Allah, the Muslim name for God, comes from the same ancient root as the Hebrew name YHWH. “All” means “The Very” or “The Only”. He explained: “Our name for God is ’The very HA’, pronounced as a strong exhalation.” So we could as well breathe the name ALL (in) and HA (out). Apparently, the Hawaiian word for both God and breath is also HA spoken as an exhalation.
So our breathing of the air around us not only fills us with the very life of God who, unlike us, has no beginning or end, but also connects us with all people and animals that have ever lived. And it doesn’t actually depend on what we know or think or believe. This is awesome.