Breath. It’s something most of us take for granted. In. Out. In. Out. The average human breathes between 18,000 and 30,000 times a day. Yet we don’t notice is most of the time. Air enters us. Air leaves us. It sustains us, and only when it’s absent do we notice just how necessary it is for sustaining life.
My class on pneumatology (the study of the Holy Spirit) this semester has me reading The Spirit of Life by Jürgen Moltmann. According to this most poignant author, the Spirit in a sense is God’s breath—God breathing into creation, into us. It wasn’t until I connected this idea with my experience of yoga that I realized just how powerful it is.
The Holy Spirit is the person of the Godhead who does “a new thing” according to my professor and other authors we’ve read this semester. As I think about my time on the yoga mat, I’m reminded that, at the end of each and every practice, our final pose is the fetal position, meant to remind us that who we are at the end of practice is different from who we were at the beginning. Our bodies are different. Our muscles have changed and taken on new strength and vitality. Most of all, our breath is not the same as it was before. Throughout most of yoga, we’re encouraged to build and develop our ujjayi breath, our breath of fire, formed in the back of the mouth, making the sound of an ocean breaking against the shore. What better way to envision God’s Spirit and the way she works in us and in the world.
God’s Spirit crashes against the shores of creation and leaves them changed. The water is different with every wave. The shore is transformed by each and every riptide and crash. God’s Spirit is always leaving creation, leaving people, different from who they were before they encountered her. Creation’s heartbeat quickens and slows with each movement of God’s ruach, God’s breath. We’re metamorphosed to an infinite degree when we allow ourselves to be moldable, shape-able, changeable sand that can be directly influenced by the Spirit. But this is a matter of choice. We don’t have to be changed.
Our other option is to become impenetrable concrete breakers against which the waves of the Spirit crash. While that hardened outer shell will erode over time, the transformation that takes place is not as drastic, not as life-giving as if we allow ourselves to be more pliable, more engaged by God’s breath.
Recently, I felt myself faced with this choice after I read the following by Moltmann:
Love of our neighbor presupposes love of ourselves. We cannot love other people if we do not love ourselves. But we cannot love ourselves if we do not want to be ourselves, but want to be someone else. ‘Self’-less love in the literal sense is no love at all, for it has no subject. Self-love is the strength to love our neighbor. Self-love is the foundation for a free life.
I read this the other night after I’d returned home from my retreat, after I’d read a portion of Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love where he writes:
A part of you was left behind very early in your life: the part that never felt completely received… You complain that it is hard for you to pray, to experience the love of Jesus. But Jesus dwells in your fearful, never fully received self. When you befriend your true self and discover that it is good and beautiful, you will see Jesus there. Where you are most human, most yourself, weakest, there Jesus lives. Bringing your fearful self home is bringing Jesus home.
These were the waves of God’s Spirit coming at the shores of my heart at breakneck speed. I still feel them charging at me. I’m still in a place where I must decide how to engage God’s breath. I must decide whether to let God breathe new life into me, washing over me, changing me, or to deny God the chance to transform me into a better, more whole version of myself. I have to decide whether or not I want to love myself as God does, see myself through God’s eyes, value myself according to God’s standard.
Each of us faces different waves, different onslaughts of God’s sometimes violent breath. Likewise, we each must decide how and to what extent we are willing to let the waves of God’s Spirit crash against us, stripping away the sand and the debris, ridding us of the dross that hides our true beauty. For me, in all honesty, my sexuality is the part of me where my fearful self abides and lives. Yes, my husband knows this. Now you do as well. This is not an odd occurrence for queer people of faith raised in theologically conservative environments. In fact, based on a number of conversations I’ve had with others, it’s par for the course.
Like us, like creation, God never stops breathing. God’s Spirit is always flowing out from God and back to God. Always connected to God. Always engaged with us. Sometimes we hesitate to embrace God’s life-breath. We close the mouths of our spirits, cutting ourselves off from the air we so desperately need in order to move beyond merely surviving into living abundantly, living wholly. When we cut ourselves off from the Breath of Life, we die. At least some part of us does. Oxygen deprived, it shuts down, withers, and retreats, hardened, untouchable. It does not have to stay this way, though. It does not have to die. It can come back to life. It can be reawakened.
All it takes is a breath…
MICHAEL OVERMAN is a seminarian at Garrett-Evangelical in Evanston, IL. As a self-admitted “old soul”, Michael is more than comfortable asking the tough questions and not having immediate answers. Michael is passionate about all things interfaith, challenging the religious status quo — and baking whenever possible. A graduate from Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL with a BA in psychology, Michael believes Emma Thompson in Angels in America when she says, “In the new century, I think we will all be insane.” Find Michael on Twitter @irishremix8406 or catch up on his blog at www.FindingTheBalance.net.