Spiritual Practice: Breath Prayer
When my soul has been overcome with anxiety and doing life feels like hanging onto a rope tied between the farmhouse and the barn in the blizzard of the century (did you read your Laura Ingalls Wilder?), and when it feels that just one step away from that line may leave me lost and eventually frozen, I have found a very simple spiritual discipline that has become that lifeline for me.
It’s called the breath prayer.
I have spent many hours ironing in the basement (that being one of the few quiet and nearly private places in a busy household) simply repeating and repeating this prayer. Or, on my morning walk, when all my mind wants to do is take me down all the old fear-filled ruts, this prayer helps me forge a new path, both spiritually and even in my brain, as neuro-research shows. Oftentimes I don’t consciously take-up this prayer, but it begins to pray itself in me and then I notice and join in. Sometimes I wake in the night hearing this prayer within me. Other times when nighttime fears stalk me I reach out for it. For me it has become the prayer for when I cannot pray.
Maybe you’ve heard of the breath prayer before. It’s an ancient way of reminding yourself that you are in God’s loving presence, which is sometimes called “practicing the presence of God.” It’s called a breath prayer because it is so short (usually just 6-8 syllables) that you can pray it rhythmically with the inhalation and exhalation of your breathing. It is also called a breath prayer because of the underlying understanding that the Holy Spirit is the One who gives us the breath of life or who “breathes us,” animating us through the prayer S/he prays within us unceasingly (Romans 8:26-27). A breath prayer seeks to give us a way of participating with the Spirit in that prayer.
This prayer doesn’t come from your mind (where you and I are always seeking control and understanding). Instead it arises from the depths of our desire and our need, our poverty of spirit.
Over the years I have had a number of different breath prayers. The first one was very elemental: Jesus, hold me. I needed security, not the illusions of security that I kept longing for in finances, relationships, positions or things. Later, my prayer became Sovereign God, help me let go. The breath prayer I’ve been praying recently has been Mystery, open me. A common breath prayer comes from blind Bartemaeus, Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
For me, these prayers are always accompanied by an image. When I prayed Jesus, hold me I pictured myself in his embrace, often weeping. When I prayed Sovereign God, help me let go I pictured the hand of God gently and persistently unfurling my fingers from the tight grip they held on a steering wheel. Today as I pray Mystery, open me I see myself unfolding, like a blossom held in the sun’s gaze. Entering into these images has also become an important part of prayer for me. Images may or may not speak as deeply to you as they do to me, but if images are given to you, you are wise to enter into them; they are a gift of the Spirit for your healing.
Here’s how to discover your own breath prayer. These steps are taken from a book entitled The Breath of Life: A Workbook by Ron DelBane.
Sit in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and remind yourself that God loves you and that you are in God’s loving presence. Recall a passage of scripture that puts you in a prayerful frame of mind. Consider “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1) or “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).
With your eyes still closed, imagine that God is calling you by name. Hear God asking you: “(Your name), what do you want?”
Answer God with whatever comes directly from your heart. Your answer might be a single word, such as peace or love or forgiveness. Your answer could instead be a phrase or brief sentence, such as “I want to feel your forgiveness” or “I want to know your love.”
Because the prayer is personal, it naturally rises out of our present concerns….Your response to God’s questions “What do you want?” becomes the heart of your prayer.
Choose your favorite name or image for God. Choices commonly made include God, Jesus, Creator, Teacher, Light, Lord, Spirit, Shepherd.
Combine your name for God with your answer to God’s question “What do you want?” You then have your prayer. For example:
What I Want Name I Call God Possible Prayer
Peace God Let me know your peace, O God.
Love Jesus Jesus, let me feel your love.
Rest Shepherd My Shepherd, let me rest in thee.
Guidance Eternal Light Eternal Light, guide me in your way.
What do you do if several ideas occur? Write down various possibilities and then eliminate and/or combine ideas until you have focused your prayer. You may want many things, but it is possible to narrow wants to those most basic to your well-being. Thus, the question to ask yourself is: What do I want that will make me feel most whole? As you achieve a greater feeling of wholeness, serenity will flow into the many areas of your life.