Air is the medium of relationship. Air is the medium of sound-waves and thus of language and communication. In our world, air is the universal, connecting link. This ancient observation has been made anew by contemporary poet and song-writer Yoko Ono in this short piece:
it’s sad to think the air is the only thing we share.
No matter how close we get to each other, there is alwavs air between us.
It’s also nice that we share the air. No matter how far apart we are, the air links us.”
In symbolic systems, such as astrology, the element air symbolizes our social and intellectual functions: our relationships, ideas, communication, our ability to make connections. Air is also thought to be the most mobile of the elements as well - water notwithstanding. It is possible to channel and confine water, while air has been until only recently impossible to contain. The movements of air their origins and dynamics, are more mysterious than those of water and while the oceans seem deep, vast and mysterious, they cover only a percentage of the world’s surface while the air envelopes the whole globe.
Traditionally, connections have been made between the element air and intelligence, wisdom, ideas, motion and the power to move, relatedness - especially social relatedness, and the deeper structural strata of reality. Stephen Arroyo writes that,
“The air realm is the world of archetypal ideas behind the veil of the physical world, the cosmic energy actualized into specific patterns of thought. It is associated with the energy which shapes the patterns of things to come.”
During the Middle Ages, before astrology became astronomy, air was thought to carry ‘influences’:
“For the medieval scientist believed the stars and planets were also living bodies and the fate of men were determined by the influences which came from them. The Earth had its atmosphere [too] (a kind of breath which it exhaled from itself.)”
“In accordance with the principles of devolution or mediation directly but heaven’s inflluences do not work upon man directly but by first modifying the air. ‘On man heaven’s influence works not so but that it first imprints the air.’ [wrote Donne]. Disease is caused originally by malefical conjunctions of planets. (Hence) bad influence operates by being literally ‘in the air’. When a medieval doctor could give no cause for the patient’s condition, he attributed it to ‘the influence which is at present in the air.’ From which we today get our word ‘flu’ by way of influenza.
We still use the word ‘influence’ now in reference to social and intellectual relations. (For example, ‘he was influenced by Marxism’ or ‘she is a very influential woman’.) And it is still the case, as Arroyo wrote, that by the combinations and re-combinations of influences and ideas, new possibilities come into being, (and in turn, these new ideas eventually come to be enfleshed). As mysterious and subtle as the movements of air, ‘influences’ are felt. In the Desert Meditation ‘Giving’ is a motion likened to the movement of the wind:
“Giving is motion like the wind, it touches down here and there, it doesn’t tarry or stay; it deposits its gift and moves on.”
Giving is not meant to be a heavy, self-aware, self-important act , but something light and fleeting, unconcerned with thanks, so quick and un-self-conscious that the left hand doesn’t know of what the right hand is doing (Mt. 6:3) Giving of our time and attention like this: a note, phone call, a short visit, even just a smile can mean a lot. “‘For in the dew of little things the heart finds its meaning and is refreshed.’”
Like Fire, Air is also is also a motivating force, enlivening that into which it enters:
“Wind is invisible; it lacks any form that we can discern, it lacks color, texture, interesting details. But it makes everything else come alive! The trees undulate and sway, the grasses bend and swirl round, leaves and bits of twigs and stones scatter and run across the earth. We only know the wind is present by its effects, and because we can feel it.”
According to Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit, the gift of new life - is imaged at Pentecost both as Wind and Fire, and in the Old Testament , as the holy ruach, or ‘breath’ of God. At the creation of the world it hovered over the waters.” (Gen.l:2) And when it was blown into a form of dust, adam became a living being. (Gen.2:7) And in other cultures - e.g. , in Hindu thought - “the element air is (identified with) the life-energy which has been associated with breath, or what the yogis term ‘prana’.”
Wisdom is personified in the Bible (under a female form) in terms of all these qualities associated with the element air: it is mobile and relational , like Wind and Giving ); it is intelligent - the source and ground of the ideas that structure the cosmos, and thus of all knowledge in the world - it is as mobile and penetrating as thought itself; it has enlivening power and is, in fact , the holy source of life itself and is even at the same time, its glory.
“God is the guide of Wisdom, since God directs the sages.
We are indeed in God’s hand, we ourselves and our words,
with all our understanding, too, and technical knowledge.
It was God who taught me the structure of the world,
and the properties of the elements,
the beginning, end and middle of the times,
the alternation of the solstices and the succession of the seasons,
the revolution of the year and the positions of the stars,
the natures of animals, the instincts of wild beasts,
the powers of spirits, and the mental processes of men,
the varieties of plants and the medical properties of roots,
all that is hidden, all that is plain
I have come to know,
instructed by Wisdom who designed them all.
“For within her is a spirit intelligent, holy,
unique, manifold, subtle,
active, incisive, unsullied,
lucid, invulnerable, benevolent , sharp,
irresistible, beneficent, loving to humankind,
steadfast, dependable, unperturbed,
almighty, all -surveying,
penetrating, all-intelligent, pure
and most subtle spirits;
for Wisdom is quicker than any motion;
she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things.
“She is a breath of the power of God,
pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty;
hence nothing impure can find a way into her.
She is a reflection of the eternal light,
untarnisfied mirror of God’s active power,
image of his goodness.
“Although alone, she can do all;
herself unchanging, she makes all things new.
In each generation she passes into holy souls,
she makes them friends of God and prophets;
for God Loves only the one who lives with Wisdom.
She is indeed more splendid than the sun,
she outshines all the constellations;
compared with light, she takes first place,
for light must yield to night,
but over Wisdom evil can never triumph.
She deploys her strength from one end of the earth to the other,
ordering all things for good.” (Wisdom 7:15, 8:l JB)
Layer upon layer of intimation and association with Air and Wind permeates this lovely poem: its mobility, its relationality, its intelligence and wisdom, its enlivening power and freedom. But in this paper, the associations I particularly wish to make are those that will be meaningful to the grieving person.
The grieving person, especially the one suffering from prolonged grief, may find herself immobilized by the increased fearfulness and tendency toward social isolation common in incomplete grieving. Paradoxically, “our unacknowledged fear of death can cause us to stop living in an effort to avoid death. When we are grieving we often want to quit , and to quit relating to people. As she moves into Tatelbaum’s Phase 3, ‘Re-organization’, the griever needs to open up to new possibilities and activities, to new friends and ideas - perhaps she may need to become educated about grief itself. She needs to move beyond the self-protection needed by grief and to become mobile again - relating to people, participating in new activities, opening to new possibilities. Figuratively speaking, she needs to open the windows and let fresh breezes blow through her dwelling.
This is sometimes difficult to do without a feeling of guilty disloyalty toward the deceased, or perhaps without habitual thoughts and feelings of fearfulness rising up to obstruct her path. According to Judy Tatelbaum, the single biggest unrecognized emotional component in grief is fear. She writes that “fear of the loss of other loved ones (or of our own lives) is common after we suffer (a) loss. She writes of a former client, “Helen had a chronic fear of traveling. She was afraid to leave her house and did so only to attend her twice-weekly clinic appointments for therapy. She refused to travel by car, so she would walk the many blocks to the clinic. To me, the most significant thing in Helen’s background was that she had been on an exciting automobile trip throughout the United States when her mother unexpectedly died. Helen was consumed with guilt and regret that she had been travelling and having fun when her mother may have needed her. The root of Helen’s travel phobia is obvious. She decided unconsciously as a protection against further disasters in her life and as a punishment for herself, she would never travel again.”
In my own life, in dealing with similar fears, I was much helped by meditation on images of ind and its freedom and motion, especially in association with the images of divine wisdom and intelligence found in the Wisdom reading above. I found this reading both comforting and supportive. Since I associated tbe wind with the Holy Spirit and a loving God, I trusted the wind to have its own wisdom and ways; I trusted the wind to buoy me up and ‘blow through me (or blow me along with it!) at a velocity I could tolerate. Also, I practiced ‘breathing prayer’ again at this time, and tried to cultivate an attitude of receptivity to the ‘influences’ of my new friends and their ideas, and to the conditions and possibilities of a new life. It was, indeed, as if with every breath I were breathing in new life on every level: physical intellectual and spiritual. Soon after these images and practices began in my life, I returned to school, thus immersing myself in a ‘realm of Air’; new ideas, new social milieu, new possibilities.
While at the beginning of this ‘new life’, I, like many other people emerging from grief, felt very empty: I was in the great empty spaces, in the poverty, of the desert. Air is transparent, simple and formless thus it is an apt image for ‘poverty of spirit’, for an open receptive attitude to life. Elol LeClerc writes of Francis’ image of wind and air:
“‘All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all the weather’s moods, by which you cherish all that you have made.’
“The wind,which Francis welcmes in all its manifestations, is here directly associated with God’s work as Creator (as in the Genesis and Wisdom passages cited above. Brothcr Wind is seen as the Creator’s fellow-worker, the One who cherishes, that is supports, strengthens, and invigorates other creatures echo(ing ) great biblical images, for example: If you take away their breath, they perish and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.’ (Ps.104: 29-30)
“To our astonishment , we find no adjectives used of the wind! While all the other cosmic elements in the Canticle are given detailed description, the wind is left by itself. The image is as bare as it could be. And yet that impression is mistaken, because Brother Wind is praised in all his manifestations: 'Air, and fair and stormy, all the weather’s moods. All its moods!”
When we have experienced a major loss, it is hard to believe that God is ‘cherishing’ us in these buffeting winds. When someone or something we have loved vanishes as if by a gust of wind, it is hard to accept that divine wisdom is aptly imaged by the mobility of air.
It is hard to accept the freedom and detachment that are part of the nature of Air. In John’s gospel, Jesus savs to Nicodemus, ‘The wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) Leclerc writes of the freedom and detachment of St. Francis:
“All its moods! In fact, for (Francis) there is no ( such ) thing as bad weather any longer. His brotherly feeling for the wind springs from an interior detachment and openness of soul that a man (sic) reaches only after much striving. Francis was a man of the open air there has never been a more receptive soul than St. Francis. The context of the wind is a world open and exposed and swept by a force that will not let you rest and carries you further and further, a force that refuses to be fettered and overturns every dividing wall and every barrier. The wind blows where it will; and one never knows for sure whence the wind is coming and whither it is going. If a person is to find such an environment congenial and have brotherly feelings for it, or even, just to experience it in imagination, he must be greatly detached and open to inner newness, to the great inpirations and to profound changes. He must be poor ‘like the flowers along the railway line. So generously poor in the mad wind of journeys.’ He must be both poor and free.”
Leclerc goes on to add:
“Not everyone can be a friend of the wind, and there are few who can say and fully mean it: ‘Brother Wind!’. (Yet) we can say that the poetic celebration of the wind in all its manifestations shows a soul aspiring to open itself to Being in its entirety and to all its inspirations.”
Freedom, movement , newness, possibilities, ideas, change, and hidden wisdom are the messages of the wind - not very welcome to one who is grieving, or at times, to any of us.
Yet there is a complex totality of life and future possibility that is always beckoning us forward beckoning us to participate more fully - Christians image this totality as the Holy Spirit, the mind and breath of God. The acceptance of the message of the wind marks the final stage of emergence from grief. Judy Tatelbaum writes,
“After several months, when the reality of death has sunk in more deeply , our needs and the tempo of our lives begins to change. We are entering a new phase of grieving, the reorganization period. We tend to react in a different manner during this next stage. If we have been withdrawn we may now be ready to resume a more active social life. It may now he harder to just sit around. We may feel more urgency to fill the gap the loss ha mede in our lives. We may need more fulfill activity, more involvement in life. A significant change at this time is that we are more drawn to our own future. We begin to reinvest ourselves in life. Now we want to get involved in creating our life ahead.”