by Eric Elnes

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living soul. (Gen. 2:7)

When is the last time you noticed that you are breathing?  It seems strange that something we do 23-26,000 times per day takes place largely outside our conscious awareness. Stranger still is the fact that if we missed a just a few handfuls of those breaths in a row, we could no longer count ourselves as citizens of the earth. Yet unless we suffer from asthma, we’ll probably spend no time today worrying about missing any of these breaths, and little to no time giving thanks for them.

Experts say that if our lungs were opened flat, they would cover the surface of a tennis court.  Through our lungs we process 88. lbs of oxygen to keep us alive each day and process 70% of the body’s waste products. (Another 20% is released through our skin.  Only 10% is flushed down the toilet.)  It is said that from breathing alone, we should be able to acquire 99% of our energy, yet most of us only access 10-20% of that energy.  Perhaps we would do well to become more grateful for our breathing.  Through gratitude we might become more aware, and through greater awareness perhaps we might tap into energy that’s available but never gets used!

In the Old Testament, the words for spirit, soul, and breath are related.  One Hebrew word for “breath,” ruach, is the same as the word for “spirit.”  The Hebrew word for “soul” or “being,” nephesh, can also be translated as “breath.”  Thus, in Genesis 2, God is said to have breathed the breath (nephesh) of life into Adam’s nostrils, and Adam became a living soul/being (nephesh).

This relationship carries forward into the New Testament as well, with the Greek word, pneuma.  You can only tell by the context whether pneuma means spirit or breath.  Even then, it may be unclear.  In the Gospel of John the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples then breathes on them saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” [Gk pneuma]. (John 20:21-22)  But did Jesus say “Receive the Holy Spirit” or “Receive the holy breath“?  If we take the biblical relationship between breath and spirit seriously, the answer to both questions just might be “Yes.”

It has been estimated that all of us regularly breathe in at least a molecule of air that Jesus himself once breathed.  While that molecule of air is no different from any other air molecule, I love how the awareness of that molecule re-engages us with the ancient imagination of the scriptures.  Perhaps our awareness turns receiving Jesus’ holy breath into an openness to receiving the Holy Spirit, which in turn allows the Spirit to be more present in our lives.

Not long ago, Seattle Pacific University professor (and 10/21/12 Darkwood Brew Skype Guest) Jack Levison was having a conversation with his students about who the Holy Spirit is, why the Holy Spirit matters, and how to go about experiencing the Holy Spirit.  The responses of his students were typical of many of us.  One student talked about experiencing the Holy Spirit at a campfire at the end of a week.  Another talked about a special worship service.  One by one without exception, says Levison, every student said they associate the Spirit with exceptional things in their lives’ things that don’t normally happen.  Our basic problem with the Holy Spirit, he argues, is that we need to take it “from the mountain top into our daily lives.”

The great contemplative mystic Thomas Merton was once asked “one too many times”about his life and practices at his hermitage at The Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky.  Tersely Merton responded, “What I wear is pants. What I do is live.  How I pray is breathe.”  Merton’s observation may betray a note of exasperation, but it also reveals wisdom.  For Merton, experiencing the Holy Spirit is not confined to the mountain top.  It is a daily experience.  Even a moment-by-moment experience.  In Merton’s experience, the Holy Spirit is as present and constant as breathing.

If we became more aware of our breath, would we become more aware of God’s actual presence or Holy Spirit in our lives?  Just as we grossly underutilize the physical energy available to us in the air we breathe, making use of only 10-20% of its potential, could there also be a vast, spiritual resource literally right in front of our noses waiting to be tapped?

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