Monasteries of the Heart

Monks in Our Midst: Nancy Small on the Breath of God carrying us forward

Oblate and MOH member Nancy Small is a spiritual director, hospice chaplain, writer and justice-seeker. Her writing has appeared in numerous faith-based publications including America Magazine and National Catholic Reporter. She lives in Worcester, MA with her husband.

Carry Us, O Breath of God

My pandemic search for spiritual grounding led me to the Christian mystics. Their wisdom has sustained me through turbulent times before. This time Hildegard of Bingen’s words about being “a feather on the breath of God” captured my attention.

This image came to Hildegard when she saw a king pick up a feather from the ground and command it to fly. She recognized that the feather flew “not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along.” Hildegard was able to discern that the feather moved not by its own devices or because of the king’s command. Rather, it was God’s holy breath that caused it to fly. She identified that same breath at work in her own life when she said, “Thus am I a feather on the breath of God.”

I’m drawn to the feather’s movement in Hildegard’s image because we are living in a time of spiritual churning. Winds of change caused by the pandemic, political rancor, and social unrest are tossing us to and fro. The pace of it all sets my soul to spinning. I want to move through my days like that feather borne on God’s breath. But more often than not I feel tumbled about by gale force winds.

In these times of so much uncertainty, I want the clarity that Hildegard had. Somehow she knew it was God’s breath that caused the feather to fly. Her image speaks of the importance of discerning God’s presence amidst the powers at work within us and around us. But how can we distinguish this sacred breath when so much is in flux? Is it God or some other power that is moving us? Or could our feathers be caught up in whirlwinds of our own making?

As I reflect on Hildegard’s image I’m reminded of ruah, the feminine Hebrew word defined as breath, wind and spirit of God. Ruah is the breath that stirred over the face of the deep at the dawn of creation. She is the breath that gave life to human beings fashioned by God from clay. Ruah is the strong wind that parted the Red Sea to create a path of deliverance for a people oppressed. When Ezekiel prophesied before a pile of dry bones, it is the breath of ruah that raised them up to new life.  

 “In the Hebrew Scriptures,” writes Elizabeth Johnson in She Who Is, “ruah’s activities include creating new life, working to sustain it in myriad ways, renewing what has been damaged, grieving over destruction, teaching people to be wise, and inspiring critique and enthusiasm...” [1]

This is how we recognize the breath of ruah. She is the resurrecting breath of the spirit sent forth to renew the face of the earth. She makes herself known through life-giving, liberating movement. 

Ruah is the breath we need to grace this moment in history. Her breath can carry my feather and yours through the tumult of these times into a future as yet unknown.


[1] Johnson, Elizabeth. She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York, NY; Crossroad, 1992, p. 83.



Reflection questions: 

  • Nancy Small writes, “we are living in a time of spiritual churning.” However, amidst this unrest, she looks to Hildegard, who viewed herself as “a feather on the breath of God.” How are you channeling grace and spirit in these uncertain times? 
  • Ruah is the feminine Hebrew word defined as breath, wind and spirit of God. Elizabeth Johnson writes that ruah creates new life. How do you see new life and possibility of ruah alive in this moment? 

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