Breath of the Soul: Sustenance for Daily Strength
Close your eyes, inhale slowly, deeply . . . hold that for a heartbeat then exhale. Steadily. Repeat this three times—eyes closed with breaths full and controlled.
A conscious breath can both calm and invigorate. It is essential for daily rest and action.
In the material world, breathing requires physiological cohesion and internalizing that which is external to the body: oxygen. Among its many functions, breathing allows the body to oxidize available glucose into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which provides energy for muscular contraction (i.e. motion).
The power of breathing is fortified by the discipline of presence: consciously slowing down, shutting out external distractions to focus on each inhalation and exhalation. This not only further develops the cardiovascular system, including the diaphragm, but conditions its control by the neurological system (i.e. the communication of the brain).
When done well, this kind of presence is restful and restorative, which is the root of empowering a person for action. In short, breathing offers a kind of bridge between strengthening and rest. In distance running, for example, as detailed by David Martin and Peter Coe in Better Training for Distance Runners, recovery allows for the regeneration of metabolic function in the working tissues, which makes continued training possible. In this, physiological adaptation occurs, especially when partnered with a periodization of training, allowing for more and larger mitochondria, increased blood volume, greater skeletal muscle protein, and a higher storage of muscle fuels (e.g. glucose). In other words, the adaptation gained from rest allows the body to ultimately work harder and longer.
Restoration is not only about biology, however, but psychology as well. Mental readiness is enhanced by rest: improving motivation for performance, bestowing confidence that preparation has been optimal, and ultimately, giving concentration during competition. Conversely, a lack of rest contributes to weakened potential.
The above biological and psychological framework offers perspective on a spiritual reality. The human body, with its complex mechanics, compelling artistry, and mysterious relationship, is one of the most profound heralds of the wonder of God in creation. It points to the essence of existence, which is harmonious relationship.
Like breathing, relationship is fundamentally about the interplay of action (giving, creating, etc.) and presence—both of which stem from love. After laboring for six days, God set aside the seventh day as a one of rest, of being present, declaring it holy (Genesis 2:2-3). To deny rest is to deny God’s presence, and to deny God’s presence is to deny the central relationship that defines and empowers all others.
Rest begins with receiving the message of Jesus Christ, opening our hearts to God’s love embodied through him, which means listening to his voice and remaining attentive to his work. There are a number of ways to engage the Truth. Yet to harden our hearts, ignoring God’s voice and forgetting what we have witnessed, results in consequences akin to the conclusion declared by God in Psalm 95: “They shall not enter my rest.”
Following the path of Christ is difficult. There are meandering dark valleys and steep rocky ascents; at times our hearts feel as though they will burst from the effort. Navigating them requires significant stamina and community; hence we echo the prayer of the Apostle Paul to one another, “May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11). To reach each mountaintop, “holy and blameless” before God, we are called to continue “in the faith, stable and steadfast,” but we cannot do this on our own. We first need the strength of Christ (Colossians 1:22-23). Without him, we will not succeed.
How are we to find empowering rest in Christ? The air of being present with him is prayer. Prayer is the breath of the soul, both consciously and unconsciously receiving the truest form of life into our inmost being. Alas, sometimes we forget to breathe or try to get by with shallow gasps. Yet, unlike the relationship between oxygen and our physical bodies, God does not wait for us to decide to breathe: “Before they call, I will answer” (Isaiah 65:24). Or as Revelation 3:20 suggests, “It is not our prayer which moves the Lord Jesus. It is Jesus who moves us to pray. . . . Our prayers are always a result of Jesus’ knocking at our hearts’ doors” (O. Hallesby, Prayer). Carlo Carretto adds, “To pray means to wait for the God who comes,” who chooses to do so out of love given freely to us. The breath of the soul is about welcoming an external reality into one’s inner self. In that, we find quiet in God’s love (Zephaniah 3:17b); in that, there is rest, restoration, and empowerment for life.
From Christ, we learn that prayer can become as natural as physical breathing and as central to action. Referencing the Gospels of Mark (1:35, 6:46-47) and Luke (6:12, 9:18, 29, 22:44), Harry Fosdick writes, “[Jesus] preceded the crises of his life and followed his hard and perplexing labors with prayer, and if the solitude of place was lacking, he could withdraw into the solitude of his own soul.” Jesus offers the breadth of prayer as a gift to his disciples: “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:21b-22). As God breathed life into Adam in the Garden of Eden, Jesus ultimately breathes his life into us through the presence of his Holy Spirit.
Relationship with God is about presence. Presence is about prayer, a form of receiving (inhaling) and extending (exhaling) the Holy Spirit’s peace, restoration, and might—in thought and action, first for ourselves, then outwardly to others. Thus, we rise stronger, more prepared and focused for the path ahead. Thus we have a hope of following Christ and sharing his message of meaning and love.
Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.
Passionate about art, outdoor adventure, and world travel, J.D. Grubb has lived chapters in the United States and Europe, and intends to explore every corner of the world. He currently works in northern California as a distance running coach, freelance writer and editor, and recently published his debut novel, There was Music. He was raised in a Protestant-influenced, non-denominational household, and has come to cherish the wisdom of Christian thinkers from every background, West to East.
Image: copyright J.D. Grubb Photography