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.


  1. Consider setting a timer for 20 minutes. If you are a beginner, even 5 minutes is enough.
  2. Find a comfortable sitting posture with a straight spine. Your eyes may be closed or have a soft focus in front of you.
  3. Take several deep breaths. When you inhale, fill your belly, then your rib cage, and then your chest like a balloon. When you exhale, empty your chest, then rib cage, then belly.
  4. Allow your breathing to return to normal. For the remainder of the practice, you will simply observe your breath, noticing the sensation and sound of the air entering and exiting your nostrils.
  5. Counting is one way to keep your focus on the breath: inhale (one), exhale (two); inhale (three), exhale (four); and so on, until ten. When you reach ten, return to one. Whenever your mind wanders, or if you lose count, simply return to one. (There is no prize for reaching “ten,” so don’t be hard on yourself if you find yourself returning to “one” repeatedly. Because it is the nature of the mind to jump around, it will need gentle reminders to attend to the breath.)

For Reflection

  1. The elements connect human bodies to all parts of creation. Have you ever considered the elements as part of the image of God in you? Is this a challenging idea for you? Why or why not?
  2. Many people cannot breathe well because of poor air quality. Health suffers where land and water are polluted. How might meditating on the elements shape attitudes and policies toward the material world?

Further Resources

  • Irigaray, Luce. Between East and West: From Singularity to Community. Trans. Stephen Pluháček. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
  • McFague, Sallie. The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.
  • Timoner, Rachel. Breath of Life: God as Spirit in Judaism. Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2011.
  • Voss Roberts, Michelle. Body Parts: A Theological Anthropology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017, chapter 7.

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) 

A Practice of the Elemental Body: Breath