- Blue sky with snowy branches in Eagan MN
A number of years ago, I published an article about the “breath prayer” a contemplative nun had taught me. Since then, I have found this way of praying to be such a blessing that I would like to share it with readers once again.
There are many ways of meditating in relation to breathing, but this one is called the breath prayer because it only takes the space of one breath to say it.
In the years since writing that article, I have found I like using the prayer of Jesus on the cross: “Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit” (Luke 23:46). I can connect the first part of the sentence with inhaling and the second part with exhaling. (Do not hyperventilate. Prayer is not about creating “special effects”!)
Over the years, I have developed a simplified version: “Your hands / my spirit.” This short version is like the code talk of lovers: God knows what I mean. Putting myself in God’s hands takes me out of my own self-focus of controlling, fixing, and do-do-doing, so that God can be in charge of the moment.
Some Christians are concerned about using mantras or repetitive prayers, but I do not feel believe that is a problem in this case, unless you are counting up how many times you say the breath prayer and then expecting God to pay you in return for your effort.
At any rate, there is no need to say the breath prayer a million times. After a while, you may find yourself drawn into a quiet space in the presence of God. At that point, by all means, let go of words. You may just feel like a little child resting in the warm glow of the loving arms of God. At that point, who needs words?
For more info, here is the original article from 2003:
“Pray without ceasing,” writes Saint Paul in the First Letter to the Thessalonians (5:17).
“Isn’t that a sweet sentiment?!” I think to myself, somewhat sarcastically. How can the typical Christian pray always, even amidst rambunctious toddlers or ballistic office phones?
It is tempting to shrug our shoulders and leave all that endless praying stuff to the monks. However, I notice that St. Paul was not preaching to cloistered religious folk, but ordinary baptized believers like me.
Over the course of church history, to “pray without ceasing” has come to mean developing an ongoing awareness of God’s loving presence in every moment. Although we need specific “quality time” for prayer each day, we also gratefully recall the divine presence while washing dishes, meeting with a client, or repairing roof shingles.
A Carmelite nun I know (who wishes to remain anonymous) teaches visiting retreatants a way to encourage awareness of God’s presence through a method she calls the “breath prayer.” After forty-seven years as a nun, she has found the breath prayer to be a great help to people both inside and outside the cloister.
The breath prayer, Sister explains, is like the traditional “ejaculatory prayer,” because it is very short and can be used anytime and any place. However, when one prays the breath prayer, the words are said inwardly, slowly, and in unison with one’s breath. One recalls that we depend on breath for life, and it is the Creator who breathed life into us in the very beginning. God is closer to us than even our breath. If we do not breathe, our bodies die, Sister reminds us, and if we do not pray, we die spiritually.
To compose your own breath prayer, Sister suggests first selecting your favorite name for God (Spirit, Abba, etc.). Next, add a short phrase expressing your love or petition. “My God, I love you,” “Shepherd, guide me,” or “Jesus, help me to love like you” are three examples of breath prayers. Pray the first part of your prayer while inhaling and the second part while exhaling. (If you are tense—like me!—let the prayer slow you down. Do not overdo the breathing. Remember, the main point is to gently focus on God’s presence.)
You can also use your favorite Scripture verse, in simplified form, for your breath prayer. For example, the words of Mary, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), can become the breath prayer: “Be / it done.” Jesus’ words, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) becomes the breath prayer “Father / forgive them.”
After choosing your breath prayer, select some mental cues to remind you to pray during your average work day. For example, a teacher prays briefly every time the school bell rings. A dentist prays every time she washes her hands. Use your breath prayer when standing in line, downloading computer files, walking down the street, or even when feeling stressed or angry.
Over time, Sister says, the practice of the breath prayer prepares our hearts for other forms of prayer. Gradually, turning to God inwardly during daily tasks will become more and more natural, as natural as breathing itself.