You would think after all these years, I would know how to breathe. Due to problems with my back, I have come under the care of chiropractors, physical therapists and massage therapists who have each, at one time or another, told me I breathe poorly. Most of us, due to sitting too much, breathe quite shallowly, maybe half way down our chest, before we exhale. These advisors want me to go deep and stick out my belly button when I breathe, thereby engaging all sorts of muscles and promoting all sorts of healthy stuff.

The first thing Jesus does when he appears to the disciples after the resurrection is breathe on them. What I am discovering is that my relationship to my breathing is a lot like my relationship to God. Breath it seems is both a central metaphor for God and a pathway to God. Let’s see if this metaphor will help us breathe with God more this season.

An Intimate Metaphor

If you think I am overstating the breath metaphor, listen to this: the Psalmist writes it was God’s breath that moved back the seas and exposed dry land. God “breathed life” into Adam and Eve’s nostrils. In a dark hour for Israel, the faith community was likened to a valley of dry bones that God breathed life into. The very word for God in the Old Testament mimics the sound of our breath. (Try it- “Yah” on the way in and “wey” on the way out). In the beginning of John’s Gospel Jesus comes to us on God’s breath as the Word of God. Now Jesus “breathes” on His disciples.

This is intimate language about God. Such language is so valuable to us as we try to balance the ever present images of God the distant King. This is language of love that we know something about. Lovers sometimes kiss like they want to empty the lungs of each other. When my kids were small I would go nose to nose with them as they slept, marveling at the sweetness of their breath. Who hasn’t cuddled another and found themselves matching the other’s breath, in and out. Breath is a great metaphor for God. It is a metaphor of love.

It gets better. We actually experience God like we experience our breath. Like the spark of divine light within us, our breath is a total gift. We did not create it and we cannot control it. Like our relationship with God, most of the time we are unaware of God! It takes some disruption in our breath for us to awaken to it and so often it takes some disruption in our lives for us to be aware of God’s presence.

Shallow spiritual breathing leaves little room for God’s breath. I need to really exhale tired old images of God and of myself to create room. I remember the feeling of my chest expanding when we started a Catholic community where women and men were equal. I finally realized that I was not able to breathe in liturgy where there were distinctions based on sexual orientation. I found I could take a deep breath in a community where authority was from the bottom, not the top, where leaders were elected and accountable. I found I could breathe in a community where doubt is admitted, where questions are honored and theological exploration is prized.

Practice Breathing

But our breath is not only a rich metaphor for God, it is a doorway to God. Tony De Mello tells the story of an explorer who spends many months travelling through the Amazon, mapping the mighty river and studying the wildlife and plants. When he returned the people were eager the hear about all he had discovered, but he found words to be inadequate. How do you explain the sounds at night and the thrill of a new discovery? He gave them the map and told them to experience it for themselves. But the people merely made copies of the map and framed the original and put it in city hall. Then the people named themselves experts, charging others a fee for valuable information about the mighty river.

We could be content with the map of this great metaphor of breath, or we could follow the mystics and also see our breath like a canoe that can takes us deep up our inner river. Those who teach meditation invariably ask us to become conscious of our breath as we begin to open up to the presence of God in and around us. Conscious breathing tends to put us in the present, in the now, and that is where God is! It puts us in touch with that fragile giftedness that is our life. Just as physical deep breathing activates muscles and helps deepen my regular breathing, conscious spiritual breathing activates spiritual muscles so I can navigate my rich inner world.

Is today’s gospel good news for you? I hope so. I hope the intimate metaphor of God’s breath inspires us to do the hard work of making room for God’s breath and canoeing up the River of Life inside.

George von Stamwitz

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community
Liturgy for the 2nd Sunday of Easter
Saturday Evening, April 11, 2015
Focus text – John 20: 19-31 (Jesus Appears Post Resurrection)

Photo by Yozine on