Lent with Herbert Day 3: ‘God’s breath in Man’

Continuing, with our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, the third phrase in Herbert’s Prayer is ‘God’s breath in man returning to his birth’.

This line invites us into a very early tradition of prayer and meditation rooted in a reflection on the image of breath and breathing in the Bible. To understand this line we need first to remember that Hebrew, Greek and Latin all use a single word to mean both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’. ‘God’s breath in man’ evokes that primal image in Genesis of God breathing the breath of life into humanity, the moment of our wakening as living beings, a moment of tender closeness to our Maker. But after that inspiration comes the equally decisive moment of expiration. We have to trace our history through fall and alienation pain and sin and death at last to the foot of the cross where a Second Adam, one in whom also the whole of humanity is bound and involved, stretches out his arms to embrace the pain of the world and breathes back to God that gift of life:

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last (Luke 23:46)Then we must look beyond the cross, to the resurrection and the new breath of life that comes with the sending of the Holy Spirit. John’s account consciously parallels the first gift of the breath of life in Genesis:

And when he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’(John 20:22)

Contained in the pattern of our breathing is the whole story of our salvation. For a Christian in prayer, the very act of breathing can become a return to our birth, a receiving of original life from the breath of God, as we breath in with Adam in the garden of our beginnings, an offering of all that needs letting go and redeeming, as we breath out with Christ on the cross; a glad acceptance of new life in the Holy spirit as we breath in again receiving our life and commission afresh from the risen Lord

Here is the poem I wrote in response to the phrase, incorporating some of these thoughts. as always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the Play button

God’s breath in man returning to his birth


Breathe in and in that breathing be created,

Wake from the dust, be conscious, and inhale,

Fresh from the Word and Light of God, delighted,

You find you have become a living soul.

But soon you must breathe out. What’s to be done?

Who will be with you then? And will you dare

To trust the breath of life back to the one

Who breathed it into you? Christ comes to share

Your letting go; you hear him sigh and say

Father into your hands receive my spirit

And find that he has opened up the way

For you as well. He takes your breath to bear it

Deep into heaven with him in his death,

That you might be reborn with every breath.



Filed under imagination, Poems

10 responses to “Lent with Herbert Day 3: ‘God’s breath in Man’

  1. Bethan Scotford

    Thank you for your comments ,and especially, thanks for the sonnet. There is a slow undercurrent of slow breathing in the sonnet, as we read and reflect upon the moments of our making and unmaking -inhaling and exhaling so silently and slowly.
    How strange it is that the ‘big moments’ of our existence, are experienced as ‘small’ moments; birth and death are such mysteries – birth centred on the first urgent intake of breath; and death – treading small and quiet steps near us as our last small breath exhales.
    The final six and a half lines – ‘Christ comes to share your letting go……..
    are deeply meaningful and consoling; I sat beside my husband during the last night of his life; I experienced that delicate, easing away of his life as his breathing became light and gentle and almost imperceptible. The silence was palpable, time was suspended and eternity filled the room. It seemed imossible to grasp the truth and reality of the moment, that the end of his life had finally arrived; His life ended softly with a small sigh, but it happened so tenderly.

    • malcolmguite

      Thank you so much for this tender and moving comment. I experienced something similar when I was with my father when he breathed his last. But even if we cannot be with our beloved when that happens we know that Christ is with them, to ease their passage and welcome them

      • Evangeline Magee DeMaster

        Such an incredibly helpful sonnet!! Would you consider publishing a book of these sonnets based on Herbert’s poem along with your commentaries on them? I love the combination: your sonnets and your opening them out to us! And Bethan, your “The silence was palpable, time was suspended and eternity filled the room.” could Not say it better! Thanks, to you both. I have for years, since my first experiencing of it, been attracted–not morbidly–to that moment when Time and Eternity meet!

      • malcolmguite

        Thanks Evangeline. I’ve published these sonnets in my new book After Prayer, though without commentary. My hope is that my comments in these posts can be used alongside the book M

    • Judith King

      Bethan what a poignant moment for you and your late husband, brimming over with tenderness indeed and generosity. Thank you for telling us about this and it offers further depth to Malcolm’s lovely reflection today.

  2. Judith King

    Thank you Malcolm -lovely, grounded and very welcome reflection and loved your own Sonnet – there is so much beauty and ordinariness and mystery in it.

  3. Anne Roberts

    I have spent time with most of the sonnets based on Herbert’s phrases and made some notes but it is delightful now to have your comments as well. Thank so much. I hope you won’t mind if I print them out and keep them with the book.

  4. Pingback: Prayer and ‘After Prayer’, a Hypertext | Malcolm Guite

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