The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.
The summer of 1968, though it mourned the recent assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and shuddered at the murder of Robert F. Kennedy, was a pastoral idyll for a nine-year-old boy who had just moved from an apartment in Manhattan to the lush north shore of Long Island. My mother, concerned about crime and eager for her two children to be able to run and play in wider, greener places than urban parks, had convinced my father to rent a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse on seven acres in Kings Point.
That farmhouse has long since been torn down, and three gleaming modern homes now sit on that plot of land, but in 1968 I could still run out the back door and through a gate in an ancient, spreading grape arbor into fields rampant with blackberry canes. I quickly graduated from climbing the apple tree in our front yard to a huge pine whose close-packed branches enabled me to ascend as high as the roof of the house.
And yet there was trouble in paradise. The heavy, humid air of Long Island, thick with pollen, and the long-haired German shepherd my mother had brought home one day made it difficult for me to breathe. In my memory this was the year when I first learned that I had something with the oddly spelled name “asthma.” I recall trying to pronounce the word phonetically, laboring slowly through the consonants as I labored to take in air. The condition also made me susceptible to bronchitis, which would lay me up in bed for days on end.
In that era the only way to treat asthma at home was fairly brutal. My father showed me a nebulizer made of complex glass tubing; when you squeezed the rubber ball at the bottom it would send air through the thing. He then took a vial of epinephrine—pure adrenaline—and poured a few drops into a part of the nebulizer, explaining that I needed to compress the rubber ball and inhale at the same time, taking the spray into my lungs.
Taking anything into my lungs other than air seemed a violation of some kind, and I might have gagged a few times, but eventually I managed the feat. What came next was even more shocking. The drug dilated the passages in my lungs by forcing my heart to beat at an accelerated rate, causing my chest to thump with a raw, burning sensation.
Nonetheless, the relief it gave was very bliss.
Asthma proved a blessing of sorts because it became a bond with my father, who suffered a more extreme form of the condition. So when I was struggling he would be the one, rather than my mother, to look after me. He was usually so deeply absorbed in his work that the attention he gave me at such times was itself a balm. As I lay in bed, propped up by a mountain of pillows because it made breathing easier, he would read to me from the Bible, especially his favorite passage in the Gospel of John, chapters 14 to 17—what the scholars call the “farewell discourses” of Jesus.
“Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me,” he would begin. “I will not leave you comfortless...the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.”
Sometimes, if my father continued on for a few chapters, I would hear: “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost.”
The image of Jesus breathing on the disciples, which I could never quite picture but which I never doubted, haunted me then as it does now. Perhaps for obvious reasons I’ve always loved the sensation of wind blowing on my face, that extra bit of oxygen coming my way. One of my fondest childhood memories is of leaning out of a speeding taxi-cab window and basking in the rushing air after my parents had taken me to dinner in New York City one balmy summer evening.
As is often the case with physical disabilities, asthma led me into habits of concealment and occasional spasms of shame. When my gym teacher asked me why running the mile took me over seven minutes I mumbled something inaudible and skulked off to a corner of the athletic field. There were times when in my adolescent oblivion I simply forgot to take my inhaler with me—or an asthma attack overwhelmed my ability to complete a football practice.
There have only been a couple of times when asthma made me really afraid, both taking place in water: one when I capsized a canoe in a freezing river and the other when I swam out in the Gulf of Mexico as a storm rolled in and was nearly dragged down in the undertow. As often as I tell myself that I don’t fear death, I find it difficult not to imagine it as a kind of suffocation.
These days my medicine comes in the form of a small plastic disc from which I inhale tiny crystals that often prevent an attack for a whole day—without any burning or thumping in my chest. But while I am grateful for another advance in modern medicine, there is seldom a moment when I am not at least subliminally conscious of breathing—a small buzz of awareness humming within me as my lungs labor on.
Zen Buddhism and other traditions stress the importance of conscious breathing techniques as a form of “mindfulness,” but in one sense I’m already there.
In his novel Breath, the Australian writer Tim Winton tells the story of an adolescent boy growing up in a sleepy mill town near the ocean and the way surfing the huge waves off the coast becomes a form of risk-taking that dances along the edge between epiphany and death by drowning. The book is narrated in the first person retrospectively, after the protagonist in middle age has become an EMT and has taken up the didgeridoo, the playing of which requires circular breathing:
Honking away on my old didj, I think about the one I first saw nestled against the boards in that big hippy house. I hardly knew what it was. Now the wind comes through me in circles, like a memory, one breath, without pause, hot and long. It’s funny, but you never really think much about breathing. Until it’s all you ever think about. I consider the startled look on the faces of my girls in the moments after each of them was born and suctioned and forced to draw air in for the first time. I’ve done the job myself on more than one occasion. Always the same puzzled look, the rude shock of respiration, as though the child’s drawn in a gutful of fire. Yet within a moment or two the whole procedure is normalized, automatic. In a whole lifetime you might rarely give it another thought. Until you have your first asthma attack or come upon some stranger trying to drag air into himself with such effort that the stuff could be as thick and heavy as honey.
That consciousness is what always made me susceptible to those passages in the Bible, such as the Gospel of John, that speak of God’s presence as breath, spirit, wind. In the Hebrew Bible the term ruach ha-kodesh means something like “holy spirit,” though Robert Alter prefers to translate Genesis 1:2 with the more metaphorical “God’s breath hovering over the waters,” noting that the same word elsewhere refers to an eagle “fluttering over its young.” My colleague Jack Levison, in a forthcoming book, writes: “Translations miss out on the drama of the Hebrew. Ezekiel repeats the word, ruach, in order to emphasize that the one and only ruach of God inspires the resurrection of Israel—a resurrection that is at once a personal creation like Adam’s (ruach = breath), a cosmic rush of vitality (ruach = winds), and a promise of national faithfulness (ruach = Spirit).”
So many passages in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures hinge on this metaphor—from the breath that God breathes into the clay that is Adam to that moment when Christ breathes on his disciples, re-creating their humanity. That which is life-giving is also invisible, both within us and outside of us, blowing where it listeth.
The theologian and spiritual writer Hans Urs von Balthasar has written about the Holy Spirit in a manner that speaks to my deepest intuitions about body, soul, and cosmos: The Spirit is breath...and therefore he wishes to breathe only through us, not to present himself to us as an object; he does not wish to be seen but to be the seeing eye of grace in us, and he is little concerned about whether we pray to him, provided that we pray with him,“Abba, Father,” provided that we consent to his unutterable groaning in the depths of our soul. He is the light that cannot be seen except upon the object that is lit up....
Groanings I have known, but with my asthma and my faltering prayer life it would be more accurate to speak, in a comic vein, of the wheezings of the spirit.
There was a time during my high-school years in Massachusetts when being on the basketball team (even as a lowly third-stringer) helped me get into the best aerobic shape of my life. A friend and I would occasionally go running at night in the colder months, when the New England air was piercing and clean.
On one winter evening the normal limitations of our bodies seemed to fall away and we began to run further and faster than we ever had before. My strides felt like the looping arcs traced by an antelope in full flight. The stars overhead, like pinpricks in a curtain blocking a blinding light, bore down on us. Suddenly, many miles into our run, my sarcastic, lapsed-Catholic friend—the friend who used to boast to me about getting to second or third base with girls—turned to me (the naturally religious child) and said: “Let’s say the Lord’s Prayer.”
So there, along a back road in Duxbury, Massachusetts, we two boys loped along under starlight, inspired—taking huge lungfuls of air that seemed to fill every corner of our bodies, pumping adrenaline that was entirely natural, returning glory to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in plumes of air that came from a world without end.