Breathing Freely in the Spirit
A Reflection for Pentecost
“He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (Jn 20:22). The first thing we learn to do when we are born is how to breathe. It is simply a matter of survival. Throughout our lives we avoid anything that will hinder our breathing. When something blocks or obstructs our throat, our reaction against it is immediate and full of panic. It is a matter of our survival.
God has created us this way: “The LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Gen 2:7). This is also how our Lord chose to communicate the Spirit (at least in a preliminary way) to His Apostles: by the breath of His mouth. Breath comes from within us; it is a sign of life.
We know how to keep ourselves alive by breathing properly, but we must also learn to breathe freely in the Spirit—or, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux says, to “make room” for breathing. What tends to suffocate us is the same thing that kept the Apostles behind locked doors: fear.
Jesus came and removed the fear of the Apostles. His presence was enough to calm their hearts. “The doors were locked,” but “They rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” The disciples were afraid—afraid of being harmed, insecure about the future. Better not let anybody in. This is how we are at times: Jesus stands knocking at our door and we are barricaded on the inside, afraid of something new, different, or unexpected. We’ve had bad experiences and learned our lessons the hard way.
But Jesus passes through the locked door, stands in their midst and solemnly proclaims: “Peace be with you!” Even though the doors are locked, Jesus enters in—and He shows them His hands, feet, and side—the marks of His mercy. Joy, confidence, and peace are restored when we recognize the Lord even while we are experiencing distress and uncertainty.
Do you ever feel trapped by anything? Is something preventing you from breathing freely? Sins of the present, sins of the past? A fear of losing something? An attachment? An oppressive situation? Whatever might make us feel constrained or anxious, we should see it as our part of the general ‘groaning’ of all creation: “We who have the firstfruits of the Spirit also groan within ourselves as we await the redemption of our bodies.”
The Apostles, to be sure, were groaning in their fear and apprehension. What’s coming next? What should we do next? But for them, as for us, what opens the soul to the joy, confidence, and peace that we long for is our willingness to let Christ in--in to our fears and anxieties, in to the things that cause that deep groaning within us. The Spirit that Jesus breathes upon us and into us restores life and hope within us, so that we can face whatever adversities confront us.
What really holds us back in the spiritual life is a lingering fear of surrendering ourselves completely to everything He ordains. “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Our new birth in the Spirit, our baptism by fire, is to submit by faith to all of His movements, all that He ordains, provides, and takes away.
Wholehearted surrender enables us to walk by the Spirit, to follow Him by faith. Because in surrendering we must be prepared to be touched, healed, and changed by persons, events, and circumstances that we might naturally try to avoid, or in any case, that we have not chosen. We cannot allow ourselves to be stopped in our tracks every time something unexpected happens. Nor can we allow ourselves to become sad and discouraged every time we fail in the face of the unexpected. Our lives are too short to spend them contemplating failure and weakness—or to be constantly afraid of what might be coming next.
Rather, we take our frailty for granted and cry out to God the Spirit: Come, Father of the poor; Come, Light of my soul; Come, my Comforter; Come, my Rest; Come, my Healer; Come, my Fire; Come, cleansing Water; Come and visit this needy soul, who does not even know how to pray or what to pray for. Come, Lord God, Holy Spirit, and set my soul on fire! And He will come, and “He will teach you all things,” as Jesus promised.
He will teach us never to feel “forced” by the past, never to be discouraged by present or past failures, but to surrender ourselves yet again to be healed. The Spirit of God is not short on remedies for our failures. This is the “freedom” for which Christ set us free: unbounded trust that he can continually make good what we have made bad, that He can just as easily “renew the face of the earth,” as renew my life. It is for us to surrender ourselves and to trust in the means He provides.