Christianity is an ancient religion, born during times and in places so far removed from modern culture that a lot of the richness of Christian spirituality remains undiscovered, even by those of us deeply committed to following Christ.
Enter Technology. In the eyes of many people, modern technology—with its constant distraction and instant gratification—is the antithesis of spiritual practice. But the information age has unearthed treasures that would be otherwise unavailable to followers of Christ without the time and resources needed to spend years learning archaic languages and pouring over ancient manuscripts and tomes.
The known history of the world, commentary on thousands of scriptural metaphors, translational and exegetical tools: all of these things and more are available to anyone with an internet connection or access to a public library. And yet, knowing something to be true and having an experience with that truth are two entirely different things. Allow me to demonstrate by passing along some knowledge I gained some time ago using the above-mentioned helpful tools.
The English word “spirit” has its roots in the Latin word, Spiritus, which means “breath, courage, soul.” In the New Testament, the word for spirit is Pneuma, which is also translated as “air, breath, wind.” And in Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, the word for “spirit” is Ruach, and it is synonymous with “wind, breath.”
At this point, it’s important to remember that Christianity, like Judaism before it and Islam after it, is an Eastern religion. In Eastern thought, the world is not as compartmentalized as it is in the West. The world—realities seen and unseen—is interconnected. The wind moves through the world and is breathed in and out sustaining life and spirit. The wind brings breath, breath brings life, and life is spirit. Wind, breath, and spirit are all the same word because they are seen as indistinguishable from each other.
In the Bible, this interplay isn’t a coincidence. It’s not because of translation errors. It isn’t an accident that these words are used interchangeably. It was all done on purpose, with a purpose. But what, exactly, is that purpose? It’s certainly not just so the average Christian can stumble across another person’s commentary and have an “Aha!” moment.
Instead, we are meant to take our newfound knowledge and allow it to transform the way we experience God: in our personal prayer and meditation, in the natural world around us, in our day-to-day interactions, and through the intimate spiritual communities that we call the Church.
To discover the multitude of deeper meaning found in the Bible, we must listen to the sounds of the wind blowing through the tree of life; we must breathe deeply the life-giving exhale of our creator; we must learn to simply “be” in the presence of the permeating spirit of God.
Read the following passage from John’s gospel. It’s taken from when a religious leader named Nicodemus pays a visit to Jesus (in the middle of the night so as to avoid being seen). Nicodemus isn’t sure how to begin the conversation, so he starts with a compliment. “Teacher,” he says, “all of us recognize that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.” Even if you’ve read this story a hundred times, it bears reading again, but with a different focus. Jesus deftly dismantles the rehearsed conversation Nicodemus brings with him by saying:
“No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and pneuma. Humans can reproduce only human life, but pneuma gives birth to pneuma. So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’ Pneuma blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear pneuma but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of pneuma.” (taken from the New Living Translation with transliterations inserted by the author)
“What?” replies Nicodemus. “What does that even mean?” And the followers of Christ have been asking and answering that question for two thousand years. But it matters, not only that we ask this question, not only that we quote answers from our English Bibles, but that we meditate, slowly and deliberately, on the smallest of details.
The Christian scriptures are full of words that, in the original languages, mean above and beyond and so much more than what is capable of being expressed through the use of a single, English word. Let’s read one thing Christ says in the above passage, three times, each time focusing on one of the different ways the word Pneuma can be rendered in English. First, we’ll read it the way it commonly appears in English New Testaments, then we’ll read it differently.
No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.
No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and wind.
No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and breath.
To some, this may seem awkward, but if we hold this saying out in front of us with open hands (as opposed to clenched fists) we can see the picture Christ paints in a fresh way, as a multi-layered work of the Spirit of God, the Wind of God, the Breath of God.
Throughout the rest of this week, I’ll be posting daily meditations that focus on the interplay between wind, breath, and spirit. Follow A Sacred Path on Facebook to join the conversation.