PRAYER: Breath As Prayer by John O’Donohue

Breath As Prayer by John O'Donohue

From Four Elements: Reflections on Nature

One of the oldest words for God in the Hebrew scriptures is the word “Ruach” which also means breath.  Even in early Greek Stoic philosophy the fundamental concept of Spirit was rendered by the word “Pneuma,” which could also mean air.  In the Buddhist tradition breathing as the art of coming into the presence of the divine was a sacred and liturgical activity.  In the Bible there is the lovely story of Elijah who was waiting for God.  First there came a storm, but God was not in the storm.  Then a wind came, but God was not in the wind.  Finally, a breeze came and God was in the gentle breeze.  This is a lovely recognition of God as breath and tenderness.

One of the most exciting metaphors for the Holy Spirit in the New Testament is that the Holy Spirit is like the wind that blows where it will.  This is a radical insight into a Judaic world that was bowed down under the weight of rampant legalism.  There were hundreds of rules which wearied the conduct of life.  Without this perspective on the society in which Jesus worked, we will fail to appreciate how subversive his vision and presence actually were.  It would be like coming to live in a society run by the ultra right who bring their cold metallic concern to bear on issues.  They have the tendency to rigidify all natural things; they attempt to turn that which is instinctive into that which is deliberate.

One of the terrible deficiencies of most fundamentalism is that the actuality and spontaneity become frozen.  The flow and risk of life get totally managed and programmed into categories.  Jesus, the young stonemason, came into this atrophied territory and deconstructed it from the inside.  He did not undertake this in any deliberate or programmatic way.  But any place he appeared, his presence became a challenge.  In terms of the etymology of the word “crisis,” he forced them to make decisions either for or against him.  For minds caught in this heavy, deadening world of legalism he made a clearance.  The Spirit blows where it will is a kind of hymn to spontaneity.

The Spontaneous is a vital spiritual force.  There could be a new theology written from the perspective of spontaneity.  The spontaneous has a secret kinship with the unknown; like the unknown it lacks predictability and is surprising.  It plays a crucial role in the mysticism of Meister Eckhart.  When the soul comes into full union with God, this is a spontaneous event and can be in no way programmed.  The soul and the spirit live without a why.  At this depth there can be no ideology or program.  The idiom of control does not reach this order of being.  Both spirit and soul have an organic rhythm.  Real holiness consists then in letting oneself be in a wholesome way at this level of affinity.

It is interesting to consider the Trinity from this perspective.  The Father has no origin.  It is the Father who gives birth to the Son; the technical theological term here is “generatio.”  The Father and the Son together give rise to the Holy Spirit.  The technical theological term here is “spiratio.”  This means breathing.  The word in German is Hauchung; this sound captures nicely the flow of breath.  In considering the air as element, it is fascinating that the emergence of the Holy Spirit is an act of breathing by the other two divine persons.  The Holy Spirit is then as far from the hand-clapping image of charismatics as Kilimanjaro is from Caherbeanna.

The Holy Spirit has incredible density and depth to it.  It is the spiritual force that keeps the Trinity together; it holds together the divine tension within the Trinity.  If the Holy Spirit were subtracted from the Trinity it would collapse, Father and Son helplessly falling into one another.  The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of depth and intimacy, the Spirit of belonging and the Spirit of space and distance.

Given this profound and penumbral nature of the Holy Spirit, it is no wonder in the Christian tradition that the Holy Spirit has always been recognized as the side of God that is most immediate to us.

In all sacramental theology the power and presence of God in the soul and community is the active presence of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is never here on a private safari of its own; it always brings the Trinity together with it.  The Holy Spirit is the face of the Trinity as it touches us.  The intimacy of this nearness coheres nicely with breathing as the key divine attribute of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is also the spirit of excitement, the spirit of creativity.  If we look at the Incarnation we find a gnawing question which has to do with the different levels of presence in the Incarnation.  Given that Jesus, the stonemason, was the second person of the Trinity, was the Trinity then redundant above while he was down here in Nazareth?  No.  It is the Holy Spirit who was keeping the connection between our human time and eternal time mediated; so the Holy Spirit played a central role in the presence of the Incarnation.  It is probably also the Holy Spirit who conveys the signature and secret shape of our souls to us.  For it is here that the imprint of every human is to be found, here at the heart of the Trinity.  It is out of this source that the idea of us emerged.  The Holy Spirit is the immediacy and breath of God.  The Holy Spirit is belonging.  And all belonging and connection is an activity of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.


We all breathe the same air.  Air is the  medium of interflow between all people.  It is also the medium of interflow between personal and nature.  All plants breathe in the air; in this way the plant kingdom absorbs the ethos and the atmosphere of the planet.  There is spirit in air.

I remember as a child that whenever my father left home he always paused at the door and inhaled a last deep breath before he went out.  No one ever commented on this; nor was it ever explained.  But it was as if he wanted to inhale some of the spirit of the family before he left us.  It is for me a poignant image of leavetaking, the fragility and contingency of love.


One of the loveliest words in the English language is the word “inspiration.”  It signifies again the creative breath.  It also has to do with spontaneity, with the arrival of the unexpected image or idea in the mind.  Inspiration is the flash of connecting light that suddenly comes from elsewhere and illuminates.

There are certain people who work very committedly, who slog meticulously toward their goal, but without one stitch of inspiration.

Then there are inspired people who never get a line on their gift.  They lack the patience and discipline to bring the possibilities within their gift to form.  The ideal is when these two extremes come into balance in the life of the artist.


Prayer has to do with breathing.  The way we were taught to pray was almost exclusively cerebral.  We confined our prayer to inside the shell of the cranium.  It is conceivable that one can have thousands of holy thoughts and holy words about God within one’s mind and yet be totally away from God.  Sometimes people pray the prayers that they have learned.  Because these prayers are so often said by rote, the heavy ideology and perceptions that are hidden in their phrases are seldom noticed.

Prayer makes a clearance.  It is the liberation of God from our hungers, needs, and images.  Prayer allows God to be God.  And prayer also allows our secret selves to be themselves.  This is a recommendation that Meister Eckhart makes again and again: be who you are.  This is one of the great spiritual duties.  It touches the fundamental crux of our identity.  So many of us are so dragged away from the identity that we are; we are dragged out to all kinds of externality.  We are chasing the wind and missing ourselves.  A great spiritual axiom is: sit down, slow down, and try to be who you are.  If a person could be who they were, they would retain an inner coherence, regardless of the turbulence around them.

To pray is to come into presence.  It is about leaving the heavy emotional, cognitive, and ideological baggage outside the door.  When you sit down and come into the presence it is then that you are most your self.  This presence is the nearest thing to us.

While the great dramatic searches for God in new methods and modes of spirituality are admirable, one wonders how necessary they are.  Simply by being still and silent, by coming into the stillness of your own heart, you will find the God that is waiting there within you for your arrival home.

In being your self completely, you clear the clutter and accretions that have formed around your emotions, spirit, and mind.  In being your self, your original essence can approach the place it came from, that is, God.

Maybe this is the ground for the union of which the mystics speak.  God would no doubt love to unite with you as you are now; but there are some protrusions in his way, he cannot therefore embrace you completely.  Prayer is about clearance.  Prayer is attention and gathering.  You attempt to free your self for this natural and primal union with God the Source.

Real attention is difficult. I remember hearing a spiritual teacher tell how he went off to the Orient to learn how to meditate.  He found an exceptionally good teacher.  For months and months he practiced meditation every day.  The intention was to increase and intensify the quality of his attention.  Each evening he would meet his teacher.  He would report on his meditation.  It was usually the uneventful accounts of losing concentration and then regaining it.

One day, however, was really special.   He heard a bird singing.  In his meditative stillness the birdsong was an incredible sound, it went through his body and his senses.  He came back eagerly to report to his spiritual master.

The master listened carefully to his pupil’s account and to its meditative detail.  Then he asked: did you hear the song on the inward or on the outward breath?  The man was unable to answer.  He could not remember.  Despite what he considered to be a great act of attention, he had not really listened with total attention.

One of the oldest meditation exercises is a simple breathing exercise.  The morning is a good time to do this.  You simply breathe the light into you.  You imagine a bright light over your head.  Then visually, using your breath, you bring that light slowly down through your body.  Through your head, neck, shoulders, stomach, legs, and out through your feet.  You can imagine a refreshing light.  This will fill your body with a sense of lightness.  When you breathe out slowly, imagine that you are breathing out the darkness.  Clods of heavy charcoal sadness can leave your soul on the outward breath.

One should not go out into a new day without first grounding, stilling, and centering oneself in the light.

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