Prayer: “God’s breath in man returning to his birth”

Part 4 in a series: see other parts here.

The second creation story in Genesis features the vivid image of God creating a human (ha’adam) from the dust and breathing into its nostrils the breath of life. Breath becomes one of scripture’s most potent images, as the Hebrew ruach shifts into the Greek pneuma and the Latin spiritus—words that all indicate a complex of meanings including breath, wind, and spirit. Only in that moment of inspiration (“breathing in”) did the first human become a living soul. Our life, lest we forget, consists in this breath, not in bread alone. Prayer, then, is the stuff of very life.

When we pray we return to that primal moment when God first breathed into our nostrils, answering Nicodemus’ question about how a person can be born again. Yes, the Spirit blows where it lists, and our prayers only approach that rebirth imperfectly, never quite aligning as we somehow feel they might—or at least never staying aligned for long. Hence we wander like Odysseus, aching for our return.

If prayer is life, it also gives us a foretaste of death, the time when, in the words of the Preacher, “the breath returns to God who gave it.” We can never quite know whether that undiscovered country brings oblivion or consummation, but prayer can certainly give us both. With the Psalmist we all experience times of feeling that God has forsaken us, that we are alone in the world, and that the grave will bring only darkness. St. Ignatius of Loyola, however, saw spiritual potential in such experiences of desolation, and his younger compatriot, St. John of the Cross, saw the “dark night of the soul” as the experience of being freed from the need for emotional manifestations of spiritual experience, a necessary purgation en route to an encounter with the unknowable God. Even the prayers that feel dead might have some life in them beyond our power to detect.

Swirling in paradoxes, prayer thus partakes of both life and death at the same time. In prayer we leave this world, reaching for the life to come, only to die back into this life with our lungs still full of heaven’s breath, which we, unable to hoard it for long, spill out for the beings around us to inhale. Prayer is therefore never purely an individual endeavor, no matter how cloistered we may be, for something always leaks out to animate the body of Christ. Loving God without loving our neighbor turns out to be a glorious impossibility. We cannot help but re-gift whatever inspiration answers our heavenward whisperings.

Even unuttered prayers cost us breath, the constant in-and-out that stubbornly eludes our conscious awareness. These little cycles of life and death, of receiving and giving, show both the constancy of our dependence on God and our relentless obliviousness to that fact. Every time we give our gift of breath back to God we receive more in return, until the moment of our last expiration. With only so many breaths in a life, surely we can turn only a fraction of them to prayer. If the tally of our failures in this regard staggers the imagination, consider the grace that each moment brings a renewed opportunity to breathe out life toward both God and the world. Each second that passes carries the promise of another birth.


  1. Thanks again. I’m with you–reading and learning and enjoying–at the same time that I recognize in “God’s breath in man” a whole different direction (if I were writing). That difference is a feature, a benefit to me, not any kind of flaw.

  2. Jason K. says:

    I’d love to hear your perspective!

  3. No time to write up something pretty, but my thoughts go to:
    .Breathing prayer (a short phrase, such as the kyrie elieson, with every breath); something of a meditative practice but also a realization of “pray always”; more common in Eastern Christianity but not unknown in Western.
    .The Kyrie itself. “As early as the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great notes that there were differences in the way in which eastern and western churches sang Kyrie. In the eastern churches all sing it at the same time, whereas in the western church the clergy sing it and the people respond.” (Wikipedia, with a citation)
    .Romans 8:26 (NRSV): “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”
    . . . and keep spinning off from there.

  4. Jason K. says:

    Great thoughts, Chris! I personally pray the Kyrie quite a bit, and I love that verse in Romans. I expect it to feature in the next installment, but see also this post from last year.

  5. Kristine says:

    Music for this one:

    Musically, the tempo’s kind of too slow in this rendering, but it’s perfect as an exercise in the extended breath of prayer…

    Even before we call on Your name
    To ask You, O God,
    When we seek for the words to glorify You,
    You hear our prayer;
    Unceasing love, O unceasing love,
    Surpassing all we know.

    Glory to the father,
    and to the Son,
    And to the Holy Spirit.

    Even with darkness sealing us in,
    We breathe Your name,
    And through all the days that follow so fast,
    We trust in You;
    Endless Your grace, O endless Your grace,
    Beyond all mortal dream.

    Both now and forever,
    And unto ages and ages,

  6. The Other Clark says:

    Wow. This is deep, and beautifully written. Seems too “high church” for Mormonism, and yet I find it better feeds my soul than the ordinary homily.

  7. Jason K. says:

    Oh, that’s gorgeous, Kristine. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Definitely too high church as my Mormon family invariably tells me that any prayer that is used in the liturgical communions is vain repetition. Moreover not only does the spirit flee when such are recited but it’s Satan’s plan. Ooooohkaaay…

  9. Kristine says:

    Mormons have plenty of vain repetitions–they’re fine as long as they don’t sound poetic and include phrases like “nourishandstrengthenand

  10. Jason K. says:

    Mormons also believe in transubstantiation: there’s way more hocus pocus in praying that a pan of brownies after a fireside will nourishandstrengthenourbodies than in any “hoc est enim corpus meum.”

    (That has to qualify as some kind of weird Anglo-Catholic Mormon #dadjoke, because I think it’s much funnier than I know it actually is.)

  11. How did you get prayer from breath?

  12. Jason K. says:

    It’s from a poem: Look back at the first post in the series.

  13. When Jesus breathes on the disciples!

  14. Jason K. says:

    There you go!

  15. “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do.” Matthew 6:7 and 3 Nephi 13:7.
    Low church Protestants (including Mormons for this purpose) often attack Roman Catholic or high church practices citing this verse. But what does it mean?

    Making sense of the proscription is complicated by the fact that “vain repetitions” (also “speak not much” or “[do not] babble” or “[do not use] meaningless repetition”) is battalogein (Anglicized Greek) which is found only in that one verse in the Bible and not at all in other secular literature of the day. Also, “as the heathen do” has no particular referent identifying the heathens or their manner of prayer.

    It doesn’t make sense as a prohibition on simple repetition. Consider the numerous counter-examples, including that the proscription in verse 7 is closely followed by the Lord’s prayer with the preface “After this manner therefore pray” (Matthew 6:9 and 3 Nephi 13:9). Consider also the sacrament prayers, Mormon temple practices, and Matthew 26:44 (“And he left them, and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words”).

    Instead, I put emphasis on “vain” (KJV) or “meaningless” (NASB) as what we are not to do. (This is a common but not universal view.) And therefore I think of “nourishandstrengthenanddousthegoodweneed” as a candidate for binning.

  16. духа or such a means both spirit and breath in Russian also. I am a witness of birth as part of my life work, and have thought many times about breath and spirit being relevant to life and non-life. Your writing was very nice, and I fear we lack words in English to really discuss it with meaning.

    THE prayers I make will then be sweet indeed
    If Thou the spirit give by which I pray:
    My unassisted heart is barren clay,
    That of its native self can nothing feed:
    Of good and pious works thou art the seed,
    That quickens only where thou say’st it may:
    Unless Thou show to us thine own true way
    No man can find it: Father! Thou must lead.
    Do Thou, then, breathe those thoughts into my mind
    By which such virtue may in me be bred
    That in thy holy footsteps I may tread;
    The fetters of my tongue do Thou unbind,
    That I may have the power to sing of thee,
    And sound thy praises everlastingly.

    William Wordsworth

  18. Jason K. says:

    Thanks, Star and JR.

  19. “Mormons also believe in transubstantiation…”
    Thanks, Jason. I’m still laughing. I guess I’m “some kind of weird Anglo-Catholic Mormon #dad.” I’d been looking for a category to fit in.

  20. I’m game for much more of that kind of Anglo-Catholic Mormon dad joke!

  21. Jason K. says:

    All y’all are too kind.

  22. jason h-b says:

    “Bible” in Armenian is Աստվածաշունչը (“Astvats a shoonj”) or “God’s Breath.” Armenian translation of the Bible (~400ce, mostly Greek sources), Armenian Orthodoxy and praxis all extremely interesting, Armenia being the first nation state to officially adopt Christianity (301ce).

  23. Jason K. says:

    I love the linguistic and cultural insight that this thread is opening up. Keep it coming!

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