May 2002

The Breath of Life ©

The classic way of verifying if someone is alive is to “see if they’re still breathing”. In many ways, life and breath are synonymous.

While we associate these two words almost instinctively in regards to physical life, when it comes to spiritual life, there are other equally significant associations that must be learned. For instance, we must know something about biblical language to understand that “spirit” and “wind” and “breath” are but one single word: ruah.

This fact helps us to understand the significance of some very foundational events in the epic story of our relationship with God.

From the beginning, life and breath have been one, and that breath has been the breath of God …the creator and sustainer of all forms of life with which we are familiar: The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Again, in the Book of Genesis, we are told that God created humanity and gave it life by breathing on it: The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being. Because of this, it could be written that God created man in his image.

From this, we see that God bestowed upon his treasured creation his own spirit …his own life.

This fact is reaffirmed many times throughout the ancient books of the Old Testament. In the Wisdom of Solomon, for example, we find that the Spirit of God has filled the world. And in Psalm 104, we discover that When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.

Jesus too gave us his own spirit, his own life, indeed his very breath. From the cross, he gave us his spirit by expiring his last breath. He underscored this fact when, on the day of his being restored from human death to eternal life in body as well as in spirit, he breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit”.

Then on the Day of Pentecost, there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind (…) all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit. (…) And the Spirit gave them ability.

With his Resurrection, Jesus …the way, the truth and the life …destroyed the walls that confine us to the illusory life of sin. With the events of Pentecost, his Spirit filled us with the fullness of life to which we are heirs because of our faith in his Resurrection.

While the Holy Spirit’s dramatic descent upon the frightened apostles happened at a particular moment in history, it occurs daily … invisibly. It is by this power that the Lord renews the face of the earth …by breathing life into those who have become lifeless and return to their dust of a spiritless existence.

Our once-a-year celebration of Pentecost is therefore a gifted opportunity to invite the Holy Spirit to enter our lives anew …as the rush of a violent wind … in order to blow away cowardice and complacency, and to fill the vacuum with ability to continue the Lord’s mission in our own surroundings.

To accomplish this mandate, the spirit makes available abilities to the degree that we are humanly able to use them. These include fraternal love, truth, peace and joy as well as faithfulness to God’s word, to his people and to his Church.

Speaking of the descendant of David, filled with the Holy Spirit, who we understand to be Jesus, Isaiah wrote The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. From Paul, we learn that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

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The ancient Jewish festival of Weeks or Pentecost was the biblical harvest festival celebrated fifty days after the Sunday that follows Passover. (Ex. 34:32; Deut. 16:10).

This Jewish feast of Pentecost, on which the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles, commemorated the covenant of Sinai and the gift of the Law to the people of Israel. It is therefore very significant that the descent of the spirit upon the apostles be so timed as to highlight the emergence of a new covenant and the gift of new Life, which Jesus confers upon us through our faith in the fact that he is indeed the way, the truth and the life.

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Following are excerpts from the Letter of the Conference of the Franciscan Family on the occasion of the Jubilee 2000, in the year of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the real secret, which explains the life of Francis, the hidden spring from which flowed every intuition and initiative of his. Re-reading the first biographies of the Saint in this light, one remains impressed by a singular fact: every chapter of these, it can be said, begins with a formula of the type “moved by the Spirit”, or “full of the grace of the Spirit”, or “by divine inspiration” Francis said, went, did … All the great turning-points of his life are attributed to the specific action of the Spirit. It was “under the impulse of the Spirit” that Francis entered San Damiano and received the command “Go, Francis, repair my house”, and it was the same Spirit that gradually revealed to him its meaning and significance. It was again “by the grace of the Holy Spirit” that he later discovered that the Lord had not called him and his companions “only for their salvation, but also for that of many others”. He discovered, in other words, also the apostolic and missionary dimension of his Order.

In his work of “formation” of the other friars, too, he let himself be guided by the Spirit: “The blessed father Francis was being daily filled with the consolation and the grace of the Holy Spirit; and with all vigilance and solicitude he was forming his new sons”.

As has been said by eminent scholars, the movement set in motion by Francis was “the greatest charismatic movement in the history of the Church”. The “charismatic” traits were the novelty, the spontaneity, the immediacy of his action. His discourses were “full of the power of the Holy Spirit”; he invoked the Spirit before he began to preach, and his words poured out in such a way as to make it evident to all that “it was not he who spoke, but the Spirit of the Lord”. Some of his typical gestures are of a clearly charismatic kind. Every time that “he was full of the ardour of the Holy Spirit, to express the exuberant warmth of his heart” he began to speak in French. This was obviously his way of speaking “in tongues”. He did not even shrink at times from asking God to reveal His will to him “at the first opening of the Bible”. All this brings us to understand where is to be found the ultimate explanation of Francis’s “conformity” with Christ: not in a self-imposed program of methodical imitation of Christ in this or that virtue, but in having in himself the Spirit of Christ and the same sentiments which were in Him. His was an imitation of Christ, which was “pneumatic” before it was ascetic.

The Holy Spirit which is the secret of the life of Christ, his “inseparable companion” as St. Basil describes him, who inspires his every action and guides his every step, is also the intimate secret of the life of Francis … And what is said of Francis, must likewise be said of his “little plant” Clare, on whom one day the Holy Spirit was seen to descend under the form of two wings. In fact it is “one and the same Spirit” which has called the brothers and sisters. These have been “espoused with the Holy Spirit” in imitation of Mary, “Spouse of the Holy Spirit” (a title which Francis himself helped to introduce into the language of theology).

Francis was not content with himself living the whole of his life “in the Spirit”, but through his Rule and Admonitions tried to stamp upon the life of all his followers also this great opening to the Spirit. He once proclaimed the Holy Spirit to be “the Minister General of the Order”, regretting the fact that he could not insert this idea into his Rule, because this had already been approved by papal bull. What the friars should desire above all things is to have “the Spirit of God at work within them”. Both those who work with their hands and those who, like Antony, dedicate themselves to study and teaching, should strive “not to extinguish the spirit of holy prayer and devotion”.

The Seraphic Father has also left us very valuable criteria, biblical in tone, for discerning on the one hand when a religious lives according to the Spirit and on the other when he follows the letter and the flesh: “A religious has been killed by the letter when he has no desire to follow the spirit of Sacred Scripture, but wants to know what it says only so that he can explain it to others. On the other hand, those have received life from the spirit of Sacred Scripture who, by their words and example, refer to the most high God, to whom belongs all good, all that they know or wish to know, and do not allow their knowledge to become a source of self-complacency”.

St. Bonaventure, as interpreter of the thought of the Founder, has made of the anointing by the Spirit (“spiritual unction”) the characteristic of the Order.