breathing, spiritually


written by Trevor Olson

This blog is about spiritual ‘breathe’.

The starting point is an observation Richard Rohr, in a book he wrote about Jesus and the 12 steps, made about breathing and addiction. He said in addiction - a condition where a person is consumed with themself - ‘a person will suffocate if she just keeps breathing in.’ (Learning to Breathe Underwater, pg. 109)

I think he’s onto something.

Slow down enough for the next 30 seconds it will take to read this paragraph to think about the simple, awful wonder of breathing. In one beautiful fell-swoop we breathe in life-giving oxygen, nourishing big swaths of our humanity. Then we breathe out leftovers and byproduct to expel the waste and empty ourselves for the next go. The air being breathed in is meant for our lungs and heart – it goes straight to the core. It has a direct shot into the deep;y vulnerable places. 

If we play by the respiration rules, we live. When we buck them, we don’t. Respiration is our sustenance and renewal.

I suspect the same process is at play in our spiritual frame. If Rohr’s right, I imagine it goes something like this. When our spirits inspire we ‘receive’: from people and God, the creation. When we expire we give. The giving and receiving of two people in a relationship being a kind of ‘breathing’ then is the phenomena. The current church favorite of ‘speaking into someone’s life’ gets at this too. God, apparently, sent His breathe – think of it – into Adams nostrils. It was at this moment, and not before or after, Adam was animated. Breathed him right into existence He did. The climax in the creation story is this thing. History, poetry and psychology, similarly, are littered with the stories of people being brought or not brought into existence through the ‘respiration’ of spiritual life.

I suspect life-in-Christ breathing doesn’t just correspond to loveliness of physical breathing, but surpasses it. When the Spirit comes into us, we aren’t just breathing in the remnants of the Image and breathing out our compromised response. The Spirit starts ‘bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.’ So I think the growth of the new creation is, as far as breathing goes, that more and more of what is going in and coming out of us is He Himself. For one thing, our inspiration isn’t just physical anymore. A new person in there being nourished. "It’s His breathe, in our lungs.” His breathe, our lungs. Over time the Christian’s exhale, chemically speaking, becomes more like her inhale, too. We’re not just breathing in life, we have it to send out. In this kind of a circulatory process there is less sin and death, and more grace reigning in righteousness. I bet there’s even a degree to which we are like trees, sucking the fallen world into the domain of the Spirit dwelling within us, and giving out the glory of that one man Jesus Christ.

The necessity of breathe – giving and receiving – and living from the core – from one’s identity – are two conclusions that follow. Richard Rohr finished off his point by saying a person who inhales indefinitely suffocates. We breathe out, then we breathe in. The we breathe out. Again and again and again. We must. At least, physically, we must. There’s no getting around it.

Is spiritual life the same?

Here are a few questions for reflection. What kind of a breather are you? Do you give-give-give. Do you take-take-take. What do you inhale. Love, fear jealousy – there’s a lot out there. What do you exhale. Fruit of the Spirit? Fruit of the body and death? How well do you breathe: at work, at home, at play, at rest. See what you find in the breathalyzer.

What do you think your breathing has done to you and your people? Physicians and PT’s and people who know us well deduce all kinds of fascinating things about us based on the way we breathe. A good measure of our health is known by our breathing alone. What kind of identity and relationship do you form and maintain with your breathe?

And of course: what is the breathe of the person/relationship you and the Lord are longing for?

My encouragement is to mine this Rohrian comment. I really think he’s onto something, not the least of which is the striking relationship between this organizing physical process and spiritual life. It’s great to think about. 'How’s your breathe?’  has for our harried, busied, worried, distraction given us a good insight for physical contemplation/action. May the richness of Richard Rohr’s insight about the similarity in our unseen nature do the same.