Friday night. I was out on the deck with my grill cooking a steak that Mark, the butcher at Kroger, cut special just for me. I should probably give up eating meat for a lot of reasons, but old habits die hard. As I stood out there, a wonderful, perfect wind came up. The air was fresh, clean and cool. We had just come in from a 10-mile bike ride and my muscles were still too warm. The day had been hot and humid. I had been sweating and my hair hadn’t completely dried. And then came this gorgeous wind whipping around the houses, through the trees and my hair, carrying away the smoke from the grill. It was the kind of air that makes you want to roll out a sleeping bag and spend the night in the back yard. Saturday and Sunday were much the same with cool, clear mornings and air that made me want to be outside breathing.
In the Hebrew Bible, the word for spirit is “ruach” which can mean “wind,” “breath” or “spirit.” “Holy Spirit” in Hebrew is “ruach ha-kodesh.” It is interesting that the word for spirit in the New Testament is “pneúma – properly, spirit (Spirit), wind, or breath.” When God formed Adam in Genesis, God breathed the breath of life into the clay man and he became a living being. In one of his post-resurrection appearances, Jesus breathed on the disciples gathered in that locked door room and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Breathing God’s good air is a big deal.
Air, as an image of the Holy Spirit, is one of the best analogies we have for the incomprehensible concept of spirit. Spirit is every bit as close to us as the air we breathe, and it is as essential to our lives as oxygen. It isn’t an accident that the Bible draws this connection. Breath, Spirit, Wind.
We don’t think much about breathing and taking in air. That’s part of the autonomic nervous system which handles things the body does automatically. We don’t have to think about our hearts to keep them beating and we don’t have to remember to breathe. We don’t think about breathing until something interferes with it, like asthma, pneumonia, COPD or pulmonary fibrosis. A friend just died of pneumonia. His lungs got so bad that there wasn’t enough oxygen for his brain and kidneys to function. Suddenly breath can become the most important thing in the world.
There are other times when we think about breathing. When I’m climbing a hill in Cherokee Park on my bike, I’m thinking of my breathing. I want to get the maximum amount of air in and out of my chest to keep the oxygen flowing to my legs. Runners, swimmers, rowers and walkers all learn to pay attention to their breathing to get the optimum performance from their muscles.
The world’s great contemplative traditions understand breath. Beginners in Buddhism and Yoga learn first to center themselves and focus on their breathing. An important element of the Catholic tradition of saying the Rosary is that it regulates the breath if you do it several times. Part of the reason that Sufi mystics dance is the same reason the bicyclists ride – the vigorous aerobic activity triggers the endorphin dump and a sense of well-being that a bunch of good oxygen brings. Mystics and contemplatives throughout the ages have sensed an intersection of the breath and the Spirit.
Maybe we should be thinking more about the air.
In our world, even the purity of our air is in question. Micro-plastics, acid rain, CO2, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide all pose threats. Major cities are facing shutdowns because the air is no longer safe to breath. Atmospheric CO2 is killing coral reefs and raising the temperature of the planet. Are we facing a future in which we will have to wear respirators to go outside? Mass die-offs of plants and animals, including ourselves? Dead oceans without living fish? Will we wake up in time?
I hope there will always be Friday nights when a cool, fresh wind comes tumbling over the rooftops. I hope that my generation and those who come after me will continue to love the wind and continue to work to keep our air clean and healthy. I hope we all remember that sometimes we need to breathe intentionally to fill our arteries with oxygen and our minds with peace.