The Holy Breath

Salt Lake City Aug 2006

As Latter-day Saints many of us feel confident in our belief in God and our understanding of his attributes. We are often quite adamant, truthfully so, that we believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Redeemer, the Eternal Son of God. These two figures justly receive the majority of our devotions. The Godhead, though, contains another entity, what other Christians call the Holy Spirit and we prefer in its older English translation–the “Holy Ghost.” Many of us are clear that this is the force that draws us God-ward at critical points in our lives. We cherish stories of averted accidents, treacherous paths, falling trees, and the quiet warning voice that keeps us out of harm’s way. In more formally theological moments, we often describe the Holy Ghost as the required witness of the Father and the Son or the patron of our church confirmations. Many of our Christian siblings see the Holy Ghost as the spiritual essence that permeates the Godhead, without a separate existence from the other two.

As I have considered Gordon B. Hinckley’s sermon on the First Article of Faith and the Restored Godhead, I have been drawn to consider the Holy Ghost more carefully, wondering whether there is additional inspiration to be obtained from attending to this junior member of the Latter-day Godhead. I have felt drawn to speak today about breath.

That is, after all, his name. The Hebrew Bible mentions the holy ghost (qodesh ruakh) only twice, though ruakh, ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit,’ ‘breath,’ or ‘wind’ is used hundreds of times in both figurative and literal expressions, and the Spirit of Jehovah is common. This is “the Spirit of God [which] moved upon the face of the waters” in the first Creation account of Genesis. The similar nishamah is the breath of life which God breathes into his first human children in Genesis 2: 7: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” We who love etymology will not be surprised that the root for nishamah is the heavy breathing of a woman in labor, the panting that brings new life to the world.

Gradually the term came to represent many things: the power of a new king, the ecstatic flow of inspiration to charismatic prophets and seers, the life force, God in his unseen but ever-potent reach. The Holy Ghost as such was not emphasized in the Old Testament, though this rich semantic context was maintained. The group of Latter-day Jews at Qumran who left us the Dead Sea Scrolls were once again concerned with the Holy Ghost. With Jesus and the early Christian church, the Holy Spirit is textually omnipresent, now as to hagion pneuma, the Greek term for qodesh ruakh. There is a subject within theology called pneumatology which is devoted entirely to exploring the meaning of Spirit in the New Testament. The entry for Spirit in my Greek Bible Dictionary spans 120 single-spaced pages in an eight-point font. The Christian Bible is filled with the Spirit.

We could speak endlessly about the Holy Spirit, his authority, his mission, his interventions in our lives and the life of the Church. But we ought not to forget that this Ghost begins as a breath, the very breath of life. I want to return to the creation account of Genesis for a moment. The body of the first human, Father Adam, was created from the elements of the earth, arising from the soil that would welcome back his remains in the mortal cycle of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Then God shared his breath with him. In a gasp that would echo through eternity, the mortal child of immortal parents drew in God’s sacred wind.

I am blessed that I have been present at both first and last breaths. I cherish my memory of that initial inflation of my daughters’ lungs, the ghost-like cry as their vocal cords rattled with the first rushes of wind to pass through their mouths. The reddish purple clay of a tiny new body is filled with the motive force and begins to live.

More somberly I have also been present at final breaths. Sometimes they are quiet, just the chest gently moving less and less until it is perfectly still. Other times there is a great battle that appears to take place as the lungs struggle to perform their function. In a familiar sense, we pass from ashes to ashes with the receipt and loss of our breath. That strange phrase from Mark 15: 37 is an apt reminder. “Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost,” or in simpler terms, “he breathed his last.” He expired.

My experience with breath at those mystical moments when sacred thresholds are passed has flavored my understanding of the Holy Ghost. I see him as partaking of the breath of life. He shares this aspect with the Spirit of Christ, to be sure. I relish it in both of them. Just as there are two deaths, there are also two lives. The Spirit fills them both.

Ezekiel’s grand vision of the valley of dry bones is a fraught image for me of these two lives juxtaposed with the two deaths.

“The hand of the LORD was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones, And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry. And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord GOD, thou knowest. Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the LORD. So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them. Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army. Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts. Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves, And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the LORD have spoken it, and performed it, saith the LORD” (Ezekiel 37: 1-14)

Though I love the ancient feel of the King James translation, it is not always clear. Let me offer my interpretation of this vision: Israel is dead, mummified in sin. They cannot be alive because they have lost the Holy Breath. The Prophet calls the sacred winds from God’s presence, and Israel is resurrected to new life in the Promised Land. God’s spirit, His breath can lift us from the grave of sin to life everlasting. Without the Holy Ghost we are a valley of dry bones.

As I have spent time with this scripture, I have been struck by the extended metaphor of spirit as breath. I hope you’ll humor some exploration of the metaphor, as this view provides new perspectives on a familiar topic. I am struck first and foremost by the unnoticed automaticity of breathing. The healthy are almost never aware of breathing, which is regulated by a variety of unconscious reflexes to allow the body to survive. Not everyone is so fortunate. There is a rare condition, called Ondine’s Curse in honor of the dark magic of an angry German nymph, in which breath is not automatic. Each breath must be consciously willed, like a pushup. Ondine’s curse is that sleep is fatal, as the body does not breathe on its own. Life without the Spirit is grim indeed.

Those of us not cursed by Ondine generally only become aware of breathing when it is threatened. Asthma, pneumonia, ozone from your SUV’s tailpipe, anxiety can all make us aware of our breath. The Spirit can also be with us so quietly that we only notice it when it’s gone.

There is one setting in health when breath becomes evident, though. When we push the body beyond its prior limits, when we train for a race or scale a peak or run against a jogging stroller, we may feel the power of our breath. The Spirit may act similarly: we feel it most when we need it most, when we are stretching our souls beyond their prior capacity.

As taken as I am with this view of the Holy Ghost as a breath of life, we have in the Restoration another, apparently contradictory vision. For members of the Restored Church, the Holy Ghost is not simply spirit. Through Joseph Smith we realize that every member of the Godhead spans the chasm between body and spirit, matter and essence. This emphatic truth must be important to us as it flies in the face of other carefully thought out and prayed over theologies of the Godhead. Why is it that Joseph Smith revealed a Godhead in which even the dynamic force of sacred wind was placed in a body, was made corporeal? In other words, what shall we learn from the fact that spirit is body and vice versa?

From where I stand, this doctrine underscores the potency of the Resurrection. The more I read in the history of the early church, the more convinced I am of the supreme significance of the solution to death that was revealed through Joseph Smith. Where others saw the separation of body and spirit, rejecting the empty shell that would lay in the ground more in memorial than in storage, the Prophet Joseph saw an organic component of the eternal soul. Not just that the resurrected spirit would have some physical component, that we would be able to touch our eternal offspring. But that the resurrected soul would inhabit a version of its original body. This is the promise of the embodied Holy Ghost. The breath of life does not dissipate at death, it moves to a higher realm awaiting the return to the body.

I leave you then with this image of the Holy Ghost as a steward of ghosts, a representative of the potency and persistence of the temporarily disembodied. I thank God for the gift of breath he has given me and for the existence of the Holy Ghost and the promise of an intimate resurrection.


  1. This is beautifully rendered. The idea that we only can feel the greatness of the spirit by stretching ourselves is very compelling imagery. Thank you.

  2. Antonio Parr says:

    The late Mark Heard — the highly esteemed yet little known songwriter — wrote a song about the passing of his father that echoes some of the themes of Sam’s eloquent post. This song — Treasure of the Broken Land — was recorded immediately prior to Mark’s untimely death, and released shortly thereafter. (It was also covered by the great Julie Miller, wife of the equally great Buddy Miller.)

    Treasure of the Broken Land

    I see you now and then in dreams
    Your voice sounds just like it used to
    I know you better than I knew you then
    All I can say is I love you

    I thought our days were commonplace
    Thought they would number in the millions
    Now there’s only the aftertaste
    Of circumstance that can’t pass this way again

    Treasure of the broken land
    Parched earth, give up your captive ones
    Waiting wind of Gabriel
    Blow soon upon the hollow bones

    I saw the city at its tortured worst
    And you were outside the walls there
    You were relieved of a lifelong thirst
    I was dry at the fountain

    I knew that you could see my shame
    But you were eyeless and sparing
    I awoke when you called my name
    I felt the curtain tearing

    Treasure of the broken land
    Parched earth, give up your captive ones
    Waiting wind of Gabriel
    Blow soon upon the hollow bones

    I can melt the clock hands down
    But only in my memory
    Nobody gets the second chance
    To be the friend they meant to be

    I see you now and then in dreams
    Your voice sounds just like it used to
    I believe I will hear it again
    God how I love you

    Treasure of the broken land
    Parched earth, give up your captive ones
    Waiting wind of Gabriel
    Blow soon upon the hollow bones

  3. thanks for the beautiful song lyrics, Antonio.

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