Copyright © Michelle Voss Roberts. All rights reserved.
Everyone who breathes air, drinks water, or eats food depends on the elements. The Christian sacramental system incorporates this "elemental body." The waters flow in baptism. The soil produces the bread and wine of the Eucharist. These provide energy to the bodies of participants. In some traditions, the act of blowing air upon a candidate for baptism (insufflation) exorcises, purifies, and consecrates them with the Holy Spirit.
These practices reflect the fact that air, water, energy (fire), and earth are parts of every body. In order to tend the elements, the Christian life can build upon its sacramental foundations to attend to the elements as parts of the image of God in the world. For instance, consider how air is related to the subtle element of touch, to the skin as the organ of touch, and to the capacity to reach out and engage with others. These connect us to all aspects of creation as worthy of attention.
Breathing is perhaps the most immediate, most constant embodiment of these connections.
Breath images God by connecting all parts. This holistic affirmation returns Christians to
conversation with our closest religious neighbors. In the early Hebrew Scriptures, the nefesh
chayah—the living being—is a combination of the elements with the divine breath. Rabbi
Rachel Timoner explains that, for many Jews, this breath constitutes the image of the
imageless God. The most basic, elemental feature of every living moment is an object for
attention and reverence.
Breath is intimately related to attentiveness through our capacity for wonder. In awe, in dread, in astonishment, and in curiosity, the wonderstruck draw sudden breath, and . . . they behold. Breathing, we make space within ourselves for others. When we make space, our senses come alive. Constricted, exclusive, wasteful, and hierarchical spaces transform. Breathing together, there is room for all. The earth begins to speak. Bodies unfold. Breath carries the voices of the exploited and oppressed. With a wondering breath, the privileged pay attention. Fully alive, humanity stretches out into the glory of God.
Breath is God’s intimate gift to us—not only the first breath of the first human being, not only our first breath at the moment of our birth, but all breath, every breath, a moment-by-moment touch from God. . . . With the life breath, God gives us a sensibility, an awareness, a consciousness that makes us in God’s image. (Timoner, 2011: 14-15)