Listen to sermon here: Breathing the Eternal Breath
1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24)
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Sausalito CA on June 5, 2016.
Two Fridays ago, as most of you know, I got married at Grace cathedral on the indoor prayer labyrinth. It was a perfect, beautiful and overwhelmingly joyous day. And I would never want to do it again. At the rehearsal dinner, a friend who knew that I was in for a whirlwind of emotions asked me, “So how are you planning to keep it together for the next 24 hours?” I took a deep breath and, in a brief moment of lucid self-awareness, I said, “I’m going to remember to breathe.” And indeed it was breathing intentionally that kept me relatively centered throughout the day. The morning of the wedding I carved out time for some breathing meditation. I breathed my way through the hectic San Francisco traffic on the way to Grace. I breathed deeply as I processed down the nave of the cathedral, escorted by both of my parents. And it was breathing intentionally that kept me from basically collapsing in the middle of the ceremony since we foolishly decided to remain standing throughout the whole service; and the homily, although fantastic, was considerably longer than your average Episcopal Church homily. I remembered to breathe during our vows and the exchange of rings and the blessing of the marriage. And the reception, which was held at Tilden Park in Berkeley, invited me to breathe even deeper and enjoy the sweet aroma of the ubiquitous eucalyptus and sequoia trees and take a moment to soak in all the love and joy that beamed from the faces of our beautiful family and friends. And I have been breathing huge sighs of relief ever since, thankful that all went so well (without a hitch). And I want to thank you all for holding Ashley and me in your loving thoughts and prayers. You all helped me breathe deeply and relatively calmly throughout the day.
This morning I want to reflect on the spiritual power of breath, a subject that permeates through today’s readings. In First Kings, the prophet Elijah resuscitates a man who has “no breath left in him” by performing an ancient form of CPR. The Bible says, “He stretched himself upon the child three times.” The Septuagint (the Greek version) says, “He breathed upon the child three times.” Upon receiving her resuscitated son, the widow of Zarephath gives thanks and praise, saying to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth [in your breath] is truth.” The Psalm calls us to praise the LORD as long as we live and have our being, our breath, and reminds us to not trust in earthly rulers who simply return to earth when they “breathe their last.” And clearly resembling the account in First Kings, the Gospel story presents Jesus transmitting his life-giving breath and spirit to another (apparently) deceased son of a widow. And it is by speaking that the son demonstrates that his breath has been renewed and revived by Christ’s healing touch.
Spiritual traditions and teachers have taught us that by paying attention to our breath, we are actually paying attention to God. The Hebrew word for “breath” is “ruach” which is the same word used for “Spirit.” And according to Hebrew scholar Lawrence Kushner, the very name of God in Hebrew represents the sound we make when we breathe. He explains:
The four letters of the Name of God are yod, hay, vav, and hay. They are frequently mispronounced as Yahveh. But in truth they are unutterable. Not because of the holiness they evoke, but because they are all vowels and you cannot pronounce all the vowels at once without risking respiratory injury. This word is the sound of breathing. The holiest Name in the world, the Name of the creator, is the sound of your own breathing.
So by listening to the barely audible noise of our own breathing we are sounding the Name of Being itself. It should be no surprise that “this exercise [of mindful breathing] is universally acknowledged as an easy and effective method for focusing and relaxation.”
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zin, Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts, writes about the health benefits of mindful breathing meditation. He teaches that paying attention to our breath leads to less stress, anxiety, pain and illness and to more health, wellbeing and compassion. He explains that 90% of our energy comes from breathing and that 70% of our body’s toxins are released in breathing. He invites his students to “Taste the breath, smell the breath, drink in the breath, allow yourself to be breathed, to be touched by the air, caressed by the air, to merge with the air in the lungs, across the skin, everywhere the air, everywhere the breath in the body.” Pay attention to “the apex and trough, the apogee and perigee of each full swing of one breath. Feel the breath, ride on the waves of the breath like a leaf.” This exercise helps make us aware and mindful of the God-inspired life breathing through us at each moment, inviting us to move from mindlessness to mindfulness, from death to life, leading us to be grateful and to praise the Lord for each and every moment, each and every breath.
Two of my favorite Anglican priests understand breathing meditation as a form of prayer and of becoming one with God and the whole universe. Poet and priest George Herbert says prayer is “God’s breath” in a person. So by mindfully breathing we are praying to God and praising God and thus fulfilling the most frequent command in all of Scripture, a command that shows up several times in our readings this morning: Praise God! (the most frequent command) Hallelujah!
The other Anglican priest who stressed the power of breathing meditation is one about whom I have always wanted to preach, especially here, because this man used to live in a houseboat in Sausalito. When he was 30 years old, he was ordained an Episcopal priest but because of his profound attraction and commitment to Buddhist teachings, he did not remain in the church very long. Instead he ended up joining the faculty at what was then a new and innovative graduate school called the American Academy of Asian Studies. Today it is called the California Institute of Integral Studies and it is where our bishop is now working on his PhD. The man I am talking about is Alan Watts, who is known today for his many books and recordings that have helped introduce Eastern philosophies to a Western audience. On his radio program and in his lectures, Alan Watts would often provide guided meditations that focused on the breath. He said, “Breathing is important in the practice of meditation because it is the faculty in us that is simultaneously voluntary and involuntary. You can feel that you are breathing, and equally you can feel that it is breathing you. So it is a sort of bridge between the voluntary world and the involuntary world—a place where they are one.” For Alan Watts, focusing on the breath was a way to become one with the universe and one with the divine “love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
Prophets like Elijah and Jesus were able to access this powerful love and transmit it through their breath and thus revive corpses. We are also invited to access this divine love through our breath, which is the Spirit (the ruach) of God flowing within us. So as we read the words of the Creed, as we pray, as we sing (especially as we sing, those who sing especially understand the importance of breath), as we celebrate the Eucharist together, let us remember to breathe and feel God breathing in us. In this way, we not only praise God but we also access the love that breathes new life into death. By praying our breath and breathing our prayer, the eternal Breath and us can become one. Amen.
 Lawrence Kushner, The Book of Words: Talking Spiritual Life, Living Spiritual Talk (Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993), 27.
 Lawrence Kushner, The Book of Words: Talking Spiritual Life, Living Spiritual Talk (Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993), 29.
 Jon Kabat-Zin, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness (New York: Hyperion Books, 2005), 284.
 Alan Watts, What is Zen? (Novato CA: New World Library, 2000), 71.