by The Rev. Hartshorn Murphy
Prayer is the cornerstone of the spiritual life. Among the many forms of prayer is one known as the "breath prayer." People find it useful in their efforts to pray unceasingly.
The breath prayer is a very short prayer of praise and petition. Those who use it feel that it can become as natural as breathing. Just as breathing goes on naturally in the body, prayer can go on naturally in our being. Thus we can understand the origin of the name more completely when we recall that in Hebrew the word ruach has three meanings: "wind," "breath," and "Spirit."
As we look more closely at the breath prayer, we'll see that is a way to have on our lips what is always in our heart. It is an ancient form of prayer, found in writings as early as the second century.
Perhaps the best known breath prayer is called the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." This prayer had its origin within the Christian tradition of the East and can be traced back to the sixth century. At the time, monks and other people who were seeking a deeper relationship with God sought some disciplined form of prayer that they could pray at any time in any place. This brief prayer seemed to gather and compress within it all one needed to believe in order to be saved.
A great deal has been written about the Jesus Prayer. It became popular in the Christian church in the East during the 14th and 19th centuries, especially in Russia and Greece. The traditional form has been abbreviated to "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy" and even "Jesus, mercy." The Jesus Prayer is a breath prayer handed down in set words.
There is a more ancient and personalized approach. The prayer that arises from our individual need clarifies who we are and thus helps us understand our personal relationship with God. Since we are unique, and the Spirit prays within each of us, it seems appropriate that everyone has a special and individual response to God.
In summary, the breath prayer is a short, simple, and ancient form of praise and petition. It is the personal response we make to God once we accept the invitation to draw near.
Discovering Your Breath Prayer
If you would like to discover your personal breath prayer, set aside 10 to 15 minutes when you can be alone in a quiet place. Then sit in a comfortable chair and allow yourself a couple of minutes to let go of busy thoughts. Read a short passage from Scripture to remind yourself that God holds you in a loving presence. Or close your eyes and just recall the line "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10 RSV). Be still, calm, peaceful, open to the presence of God.
With your eyes closed, imagine that God is calling you by name. Imagine that God is actually asking, "(Your name) what do you want?
Give God a simple and direct answer that comes honestly from your heart. Write down the answer. If you have more than one answer, write them down.
Your answer may be one word such as peace or love or help. It may be several words or a phrase such as "feel your presence" or "lead me into life." Whatever your answers, they are the foundation of your breath prayer.
Understand that the breath prayer is one of praise and petition. The praise comes from calling one of the Divine names such as God, Jesus, Lord, Father/Mother, Christ, or Spirit. You may have another name besides these. This praise is combined with a petition. Remember that "Whatever you ask in my name I will do: (John 14:13 JB).
Select the name that you are most comfortable in using to speak with God. Combine it with your written answer to the question God asked you. This is your prayer. You can work on it so you end up with a prayer of six to eight syllables. With the words "God" and "peace" you might pray, "Let me know your peace, O God." With the words "Jesus" and "feel your presence" you might pray, "Jesus, let me feel your presence."
Some people have to write several prayers before they find one which truly arises from their needs. So look carefully at your prayer. Does it reflect the heart of your needs? Is it a genuine answer to God's question. "(your name), what do you want?"
Sample Breath Prayers
- Jesus, let me feel your love.
How to Use Your Prayer
Your prayer should be kept to six to eight syllables in order to create a natural rhythm. Repeat the prayer over in your mind until it seems comfortable. Once you've decided on a prayer that suits you, give it a chance. Repeat it often for a period of one to two days. If the prayer makes you uncomfortable or does not reflect your deepest need, take the time to go through the process again. But once you establish your prayer, use it unchanged for at least 30 days.
Learning to pray this prayer unceasingly does require attention at first. Like any other good habit, it must be practiced. In time, it will be as natural as your breath itself.
Don't worry about coordinating your prayer and your breathing. If you find it helpful, fine, but that is not the purpose, and trying to do so may result in frustration or physical discomfort.
The prayer is not to be forced. Use it naturally saying it as often as possible and under varying circumstances. Pray as you travel to and from work, while shopping, exercising, doing the dishes, going to bed, waiting in line, whenever you find yourself impatient or about to use hurtful language.
The breath prayer is usually said silently within. But some people sing it; others chant it. The point is, it is your prayer; use it your way. The emphasis may change, and, in time, your prayer itself will change. When it does, be assured that the prayer is becoming more and more a part of you. You will also become a more complete person, because God's love will truly be flowing into and through you.
You may also use the breath prayer for a focused time of prayer during a daily spiritual practice. Simply repeat the prayer over and over keeping your attention on the prayer. If your attention wanders, gently return to the prayer. Begin with 5 minutes and gradually increase the time to 15 or 20 minutes as you become practiced with the prayer. You may want to use a timer to free yourself from clock watching. It is useful to write in your journal of your experience with the prayer. This time of focused prayer may combine with other forms of prayer such as intercession or scripture meditation either before or after.
For complete information about this form of prayer, read, The Breath of Life: A Simple Way to Pray by Ron Del Bene, published by Upper Room Books, 1992.
Copyright © 2007 St. Augustine by-the-Sea