Breathe on Me
The names change, but the purpose is the same. Sixty odd years ago we called them gas-masks, today they are referred to by the more complicated title, breathing apparatus. The pictures of those wearing over their faces black, ugly coverings, with eyes pieces like goggles and hoses snaking away from the area of mouth and nose are singularly unattractive, if not frightening, who-ever is beneath the mask.
Idly skimming through a magazine the other day, I came across a picture, taken around 1939, of children going to school with a cardboard gas-mask box slung over the shoulder. Some of the older members of the congregation may recall those days, sixty years ago now, when every man, woman and child was issued with a gas-mask which, under threat of prosecution, had to be carried on every journey. To pick up one’s gas-mask before going out was, for a time, as automatic an action as taking an umbrella if rain is forecast.
Today’s newspaper may show a fireman with face protected entering a smoke-logged building to rescue trapped casualties, or a soldier in the desert preparing for an assault through lethal poison gases. For the purpose of the gas mask is to protect against, once more quote from the elaborate phraseology fashionable today, noxious fumes.
All forms of death dealing weapons are repugnant, but there is something especially evil about poison. That the very process of eating, drinking or breathing, processes essential to life, should be the instrument of dealing death to the innocent, is a horrifying, repulsive thought.
Breathing is at the heart of life itself, and fresh air one of the things we take for granted, unless or until it is denied or the air is contaminated. One of the minor pleasures of life is to emerge from some oppressive, stuffy room into the cleaner air outside. The growth of many a seaside resort once depended upon its reputation for fresh air. The quality of the robust air to be found in Blackpool contrasted with the allegedly softer breezes of Southport. The joy to be found in gulping the bracing air of Bridlington or braving the invigorating gales of Scarborough, built up a clientele for many a boarding house or hotel.
Rambling clubs grew up all over the industrial north at the end of the last century, and the beginning of this, as folk welcomed the chance to leave the smoke-laden, contaminating air of the towns and cities to enjoy for a short time the purer, cleaner air of the countryside. That fresh air is the world’s best medicine is an old saw, with more than a grain of truth in it.
I recall as a child travelling with my father through the Marsden tunnel to Huddersfield. There to catch a bus too travel through Brighouse to Bradford to visit my grandmother in Hastings Terrace. As we went through Marsden Tunnel, thick fumes of choking smoke rolled past the tightly closed windows. I can picture the scene now.
Breathing is crucial to life. Unless we breathe, we die. Unless we continue to take in pure air our lives are threatened. But breathing is, to use a colloquialism, a two way process. Not only must we take in the essential fresh air, we need to expel the air contaminated by our bodies, so as to make lungs ready for a continuously renewed supply of new air.
A technique for reviving victims of accident or illness who have temporarily stopped breathing is called the “kiss of life”. A particularly apt description for a method of pumping life-giving air into a victim’s body. A sharing of breath, a sharing of life.
“Breathe on me, breathe of God
Fill me with life anew”
goes one of our well-loved hymns. For if physical life depends on an ability to take in fresh air and expel the poisonous products we generate, so does our spiritual life depend upon inhaling the breath of God, and ridding the mind of the evils we generate within ourselves.
The “kiss of life” seems no less an appropriate description of that which is available to restore our spiritual life than it is for the technique which may revive a physical life. The breath of God can and does fill us with renewed life. In our worship we seek to get out of the stuffy, sometimes stifling atmosphere of everyday living into the bracing air of worship, with awe inspiring views, with vistas of new hope, with panoramic scenes of what might be.
The poisons we create within us are selfishness, our intolerance, our envy, our greed, our pettiness, our deceit. As within the body, poisons left to fester will contaminate the whole, and ultimately destroy that living body, so spiritual poisons – sins if you prefer the old-fashioned term – if not expunged will attack the soul, and blocking the ingress of God’s life-restoring breath.
I started by speaking of gas masks, a temporary protection against life-threatening vapours. The air we breathe to sustain our physical lives may become contaminated. By accident, carelessness or intention, harmful materials or poisonous substances may infect the air around us. So if life is to continue, the air we breathe must be filtered, or otherwise purified, before we may safely draw it in.
But the breath of God needs no filtration plant. There is no necessity to carry the gas mask, for the true breath of God may not be rendered impure. It is there for the taking. It is both life giving and life sustaining. It is not depleted by use, but is ever renewed. It is not difficult to find, nor has it to be expensively purchased.
Like the physical air around us, it is the best medicine in the world. It frees from anxiety and strengthens in adversity.
To shut out all air around us is difficult. It is incredibly hard to create a vacuum, for air strives constantly to enter it. Nature hates a vacuum, it is said. Equally the breath of God is all pervasive. If it is hard to create a physical vacuum, the creation of a spiritual vacuum is impossible. There is no location from which the receptive is unable to breathe the breath of God. The psalmist spoke of God’s omnipresence – even in the depths of the ocean and in the heavens above, he sang, God may be found.
If we hold our breath we cannot breathe. If we literally hold our breath for more than a few moments of time, we die. If we refuse to breathe the breath of God, though we may not die in a physical sense, something of ourselves as human beings will ultimately cease to be. If the poisons we create within ourselves are not exhaled, then the qualities that are broadly spoken of as “Christian” – tolerance, compassion, understanding, charity and the like – may not enter and become a part of our being. We become soulless bodies, intent upon selfish material comforts, with little or no regard for others. We cannot live in the true joy of a fulfilled life.
So our determination and our prayer must be to breathe the breath of God, that we may love those things which God does love, and do those things which God would have us do.
There is increasing concern about the quality of the air, especially within our cities, as more and more pollutants are emitted from traffic and industry. The weather forecasts will these days often refer to air quality. Respiratory conditions and illnesses are commonly diagnosed. It is right the governments should seek to tackle this problem of air pollution lest we blight lives and threaten well-being of our citizens.
But the failure to breath the breathe of God is at least as serious matter for concern. No doubt the two problems are inter-linked. Selfishness pollutes the air. So named road-rage breaks down relationships with others. Indifference to the fate of others, not least for those generations still to come, fuels our behaviour. We leave a legacy for others to endure.
Inhaling and exhaling freely in a spiritual atmosphere is a road to a better world. Such respiratory exercise can enable us to replace selfishness with selflessness, anger with understanding, indifference with compassion, prejudice with tolerance, hand-wringing with support. To cease holding our breath in this, God’s gaseous envelope, will do much to make the world a better place in which to live.
I end with a further quotation from the same hymn,
“Breath on me, Breath of God,
Till I am wholly thine,
Till all this earthly part of me
Glows with thy fire divine.”
C.J. Rosling 10 August 1997
Fulwood 10 August 1997
Hucklow 31 August 1997
Mexborough 15 March 1998
Doncaster 14 June 1998
Bradford 27 February 2000