We’re halfway through our 40 Days to Pray contemplative prayer series and nearly halfway through the season of Lent.
How are things going so far? It’s amazing that even though we’re devoting a week to each practice, moving through at this pace can feel like a whirlwind. Such is the nature of contemplative prayer—it takes time to sink in, time to savor, and time to transform. But that time is worth it, because it brings us to the time of the present/presence and the time beyond time known as kairos where heaven is near and Sacred Encounter is around every corner.
HOW TO PRACTICE BREATH PRAYER
Though not a well-known practice, Breath Prayer is shaped by the action most essential to our lives: our very breath. It is our first action on the day we are born and our final act on the day that we die. Breath plays a central role in Scripture, too, from the very beginning in which God breathes life into human form and throughout the text, which Paul describes in 2 Timothy as “God-breathed.” Even the words for “spirit” in Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma)—the two languages in which the Bible was originally written—can also mean “breath.” It seems breath is not only essential to our physical existence but our spiritual nourishment, too.
The Breath Prayer that we know today originated with the Desert Mothers and Fathers as a way to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Considered foundational to contemplation and a way to cultivate silence and attention, the Desert Mothers and Fathers would take a short excerpt of Scripture, breathing in with the first part of the text and breathing out with the next, repeating this pattern for extended periods of time. While any text would do, the most common Scripture used for Breath Prayer became “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” echoing the petition made by the tax collector in Luke 18:13.
Over time the text and the prayer that accompanies it became known as the “Jesus Prayer” or “Prayer of the Heart” in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, shortening to “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” or even simply “Jesus, mercy.” Breath Prayer, too, began to expand beyond the use of Scriptures, becoming a way to invoke the name of God and ask for help in just a few short words.
With the scientific knowledge we have today on mindfulness and the effectiveness of deep breathing on the body, mind, and soul, it’s no wonder that this form of prayer gently but surely transformed those who practiced it. Science tells us that our brains are constantly transforming and are shaped by what we focus on. For example, while anxiety begets anxiety, focusing on peace can lead to a sense of peace. We also know that deep breathing directly impacts the part of the brain where stress dwells, encouraging our nervous system to slow down and eventually melt into the present moment.
When we combine the positive reinforcement of the mind through a meditative phrase with the deep breathing that relaxes the body and centers the soul, we become less reactive and more receptive to the presence of God in us and in the world. Breath Prayer is indeed a holistic practice for body, mind, and soul, and as it clears the path for you to abide in Christ (the very union of the spiritual and the physical) it also makes space within for Christ to dwell in you. As you cultivate your practice you’ll likely find that even when your prayer has finished, the effects of the prayer will remain, your sense of God’s presence as close to you as your very breath.
HOW TO PRACTICE BREATH PRAYER
Breath Prayer is as informal as they come, requiring only a simple phrase and the breath you carry with you every moment throughout the day. While it is undoubtedly valuable when practiced in silence and solitude for an extended period of time (scientists say that 12 minutes of deep breathing each day is enough to transform the mind—set a soothing timer using the Insight Timer app), it can also be practiced during everyday tasks, such as washing the dishes or commuting to work, allowing even the most mundane moments of the day to be whitewashed with the Sacred.
- Choose a phrase. It can be a verse from the Bible or a line of praise and petition (one common formula is a name for God followed by your desire, such as “Spirit, peace”). You could also use the inward breath to name what you would like to receive and the outward breath to state what you would like to release. (Guideposts offers some simple phrases echoing Scripture here, as does RethinkChurch.)
- Breathe in and out, with the first part of your prayer coming to mind on the inward breath and the latter half connecting with the outward breath.
- Continue your prayer for a set period of time or until you feel you have reached a sense of inner stillness as you dwell in the presence of God.
Learn more about connecting the body with spiritual practice in Christine Valters Paintner’s new book, The Wisdom of the Body.