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.