The Simple Act of Breathing

Today’s post is by Mary van Balen

The liturgical feasts of Pentecost and the Holy Trinity focus my thoughts on the Holy Spirit. Of the biblical accounts of Pentecost, I’m always drawn to John’s, where Jesus appears to the disciples gathered in fear, greets them with “Peace be with you,” and imparts the Spirit to them with his breath. No rushing wind, tongues of fire, or speaking in multiple languages. The Spirit comes in the simple act of breathing. It echoes the creation story, when the spirit or breath of God, the Hebrew word ruah, hovers over the chaos. Or when God breathes life into the first human being.

The ordinariness of breathing reminds me of the Spirit’s constant presence. Where there is breath, there is life. Sometimes we might experience the Spirit’s movement in a dramatic way, but usually not. And like breathing, the Spirit’s presence within us can be overlooked.

How often do you think about your breath during a day? Unless you make the effort to be mindful of breathing in and breathing out, my guess is, like me, you don’t think of it very often. As long as I’m well, I go about my day, taking my breath (like the beats of my heart) for granted.

The Spirit is like breath: Life-giving, always present, Love constantly poured out in us and through us. Expectation may be that the Spirit comes to us. Jesus tells us the Spirit dwells within us. Presence is not so much a coming as it is a recognition of what is already there. Giving ourselves times of quiet prayer when we still our mind, let go (over and over again) of thoughts that pull us in many directions, and simply sit with God in our heart, helps us recognize the amazing gift of God who is not content to love us from a distance but prefers to love us into life from within.

Paul reminds us that the Spirit is given to us not as a personal possession but as Love to flow through us to others: “To each individual, the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” (1 Cor 12,7). The gift is shared most often in ordinary ways.

For example, before I began a recent trip to Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, a friend’s health emergency took me to the hospital, and I provided a place of rest and support in my home to his wife. We may not think of that as the work of the Spirit. It’s just something we do without thinking, right?  But it is the movement of Love and hospitality within flowing out.

The flow of the Spirit goes the other way, too: from outside to in. When I arrived at the Abbey Guest House, I was exhausted. A friend met me at the door and took me out to dinner. We hadn’t seen one another for years and spent dinner and an hour at a local coffee shop catching up. By the time I dropped into bed, my body was aching from hours on planes and a shuttle. I didn’t set an alarm.

When I awoke at 9 am, the aches were gone. Breakfast was ready in the Guest House dining room. I relaxed and watched an orange sun moving higher in the sky. “It’s the smoke from the Canadian wildfires,” another guest told me.

Walking to the monastic retirement center to visit a friend, I relished the cool Minnesota air. Grace, it seemed, was pulsing out of the earth and through my feet. The lake, the Abbey Church, the beautiful trees and plants, everything was alive with Presence, feeding my depleted self.

The prayer of my 97-year-old friend’s life seeped into my soul as we embraced and remembered together. He’s still writing poetry. I found a dark corner in the church on my way back to my room, lit a candle, and sat for 20 minutes in quiet prayer, sinking into the place where the Spirit dwells.

She was present in the gifts of place, of friendship, of prayer, of hospitality, and of quiet. The Christ is always breathing Spirit into me, but I had forgotten.

June 06, 2019 by Mary van Balen 2 Comments
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Steve Bowling
Steve Bowling
4 years ago

Thank you for sharing and allowing me to sit quietly with you in spirit. I am reminded of those times when peace, like a gentle river flowing, has swept over me as the Comforter draws me into the presence of the still moment.

Mary van Balen
4 years ago
Reply to  Steve Bowling

You’re welcome Steve. Thank you for your comment that offers another beautiful image for the Spirit working within us.


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