Inhale, Exhale – Ulysess Cabayao, SJ


John 20:19-23 (Solemnity of the Pentecost)

One way to think about the Pentecost is to think about how we breathe. One of the biblical metaphors for the Spirit is breath—it is known as ר֫וּחַ (ruach) in Hebrew, πνεῦμα (pneuma) in Greek, and spiritus in Latin. The association of breath with spirit is not unique to the Scriptures. The anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor wrote, “The act of breathing, so characteristic of the higher animals during life, and coinciding so closely with life in its departure, has been repeatedly and naturally identified with the life or soul itself.”[1] Breath-Spirit, as life principle, is a widespread notion found in many cultures. For instance, it is known as waug by the Noongar people of Western Australia, julio by indigenous Nicaraguans, nawa by the Javanese, and meni by the Gahuku Gama of New Guinea. There must be something worth learning from this ubiquitous metaphor.

There are two breath gestures in our readings that we can explore for our reflections.

In the Gospel, Jesus breathes on the disciples. This act, which prefigures the Pentecost, is reminiscent of this creative act from Genesis: “the Lord God…blew into his [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”[2] In the same way that God’s breath initiates life, the Breath-Spirit that the disciples received from Jesus revitalizes them. What comes out of this gesture is an image of the Spirit as infusing new life into what God has already created. The Holy Spirit continues to refresh creation. Our psalm today repeatedly affirms, “Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.”[3] Something as instinctive as breathing serves as a reminder of this constant and continuing process of renewal. In the book of Isaiah, God says “See, I am doing something new!”.[4] In the book of Revelation, God proclaims again, “Behold, I make all things new.”[5] This theme of newness pervades the sacred text. The Jesuit poet Gerald Manley Hopkins melodiously expresses this leitmotif, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” This could well be one of the things that the Holy Spirit reveals about life. Life is always being renewed, though we might sometimes feel drained and weary of it. There is an adage in Latin that goes, Dum spiro, spero. While I breathe, I hope. Spiro is derived from the root word spir, which means “breath”, and which incidentally, forms the root of spiritus as well. Each breath thus offers a new chance. Each breath is a new lease on life.

It’s interesting how the way we breathe can be a metaphor for the kind of life we lead. Are we breathing normally or are we finding it difficult to breathe? Some of us might be living frantic lives where we always end up huffing and puffing. Others might be constantly feeling frustrated and despondent because of family and work, that we keep on heaving one deep sigh after another. Some might feel like they can’t breathe anymore because they are stuck in manipulative and abusive relationships. It could be worth asking: What would our breathing tell us about how we are living our lives? More pressingly, which part of my life right now needs a breath of fresh air?

It is said that the Holy Spirit blows where it wills.[6] I would venture further in saying that it blows where it is needed, with its intensity depending on how it is needed. We sometimes speak of finding out what the Holy Spirit is telling us, as if the Holy Spirit were inflexibly demanding us to do this or that. But the Spirit is unpredictable; Jesus explains to Nicodemus that “you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”[7] The early Church Father, Irenaeus of Lyon, describes the Holy Spirit as “qui nos aptaret Deo,” one who adjusts us to God.[8] It is hard to pin down the Spirit because in order to adjust us to God, it also adjusts to the unique temperaments and histories of each person. In the same way that our respiration adapts to our current physiological state, the Breath-Spirit, likewise, adapts to our spiritual condition.

The other breath gesture, which is not explicitly stated in the Gospel, but is something that we can reasonably infer, foreshadows the Pentecost event as well. After the crucifixion, imagine the disciples awaiting their fate with bated breath, as they locked themselves in a room for fear of the Jews. A creak or the shuffling of feet must have instantly shushed them. “Hold your breath,” they must have whispered to each other.

Let us recall the instances that prompt us to hold our breath. Holding one’s breath begins as an instinctive response. Part of what scientists call the mammalian dive reflex is the response of infants as soon as they are submerged underwater. What occurs is the spontaneous closing of the windpipe by the vocal chords to prevent water from filling the lungs. That reflex, however, starts to decrease by the age of six months and eventually disappears after the first year. One could say that holding our breath begins as an act of self-preservation.

We seem to carry this self-preserving response as we grow older. I went in for my annual flu shot last Friday. As the nurse, held up the syringe. I looked away and held my breath in suspense. “Try to relax,” the nurse said. I bit my finger to divert my attention from the impending pain. “Mas masakit pa ang kagat ng langgam,” I reminded myself. As I felt the “ant bite”, I started to exhale. It was over.

Suspense and all its accompanying emotions of fear, anxiety, and excitement tend to restrain us from breathing normally. Suspense makes us hold our breath in anticipation of what we think can happen, and in uncertainty of how and when that is exactly going to happen. When you’re older, there’s a deliberateness to holding one’s breath. We seem to do it when we anticipate what we perceive to be threats to our well-being—pain, rejection, failure, loss, suffering, and death.

How often we hold our breath may tell something of our disposition towards life. Some of us might always be afraid of taking risks, of being embarrassed, of failing, or of being criticized, that it’s a strange feat how we manage to breathe at all. Some of us might take a life stance that loves too cautiously and too suspiciously that we end up voluntarily suffocating ourselves with jealousy, resentment, and hatred. Living in fear can choke the life out of us. We can end up locking our doors from the inside and throwing the keys out. Shutting everything out may shield us from outside threats, but keeping it securely and indefinitely shut can turn our bastions into prisons.

Pentecost reminds us of how easy it is to fall back on our timid and timorous selves. It confronts our desire for the security and safety of the palpable and the foreseeable. On the other hand, Pentecost opens us up to what it means to be in-spiro (“breathe into”)—to be inspired by the Spirit that breathes life into us. What does that mean for us? First, it means being emboldened to talk about the marvels of God, as in the case of the disciples during Pentecost. Second, it means receiving the grace to forgive and be forgiven, as Jesus promises in the Gospels. And lastly, it means living without fear and trusting in the peace that God gives.

To those of us who go through life barely breathing, think about it, wouldn’t these things—talking freely about our faith, being able to forgive and be forgiven, and living without fear—help us breathe well?

So, inhale, exhale. We have always been sharing in what God breathes.


[1] Taylor, EB 1873, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom, Bradbury, Agnew & Co., London.
[2] Genesis 2:7 (NAB)
[3] Response derived from Psalm 103:1
[4] Isaiah 43:19 (NAB)
[5] Revelation 21:5
[6] John 3:8 (NAB)
[7] ibid.
[8] Chapter 17, sec. 2 from The Third Book of St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, Against Heresies.

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