I am a woman of words, mostly writing and reading them, but sometimes speaking them [when someone asks me about the advantages of OneNote for example]. When I spend time with God, it’s much the same: I read, journal and reflect with words.
But when my heart is heavy or sad, I find words are harder to come by. Yet silence can turn into a unsettling vacuum where the accuser can whisper taunts to me. My darker thoughts can lead me astray. I need to fix my eyes on Jesus, and my mind on Jesus. But I struggle to articulate the groanings of my soul.
This situation has led me recently to turn to an ancient Christian spiritual practice known as ‘breath prayer’. It has its roots in the Orthodox tradition, and the most famous is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”. As you breathe in, you pray “Lord Jesus Christ” and as you breathe out, you pray, “have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Rick Warren also encourages the practice in his book, “The Purpose Driven Life”, recommending that people find “a simple phrase that can be repeated to Jesus in one breath: “You are with me.” “I receive your grace.” “I’m depending on you.” “I want to know you.” “I belong to you.” “Help me trust you.” ”
The genesis though is found throughout the New Testament. Jesus advocated keeping prayer simple in Matthew 6: “Do you think you will be heard for all your words? Your heavenly father knows what you need.” Paul recommended, “Pray without ceasing” and in Romans, he talked about how the Holy Spirit intercedes with us when we can’t come up with words.
For me, one of the most important things I need to keep in mind is that breath prayer doesn’t depend on using the right technique; it’s not a magic formula. When I first heard about it I shied away because it seemed mechanical. But breath prayer has reminded me that talking to God doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t require a big mental effort. I don’t need to use a lot of words in order for prayer to be meaningful.
When I stop for a moment and focus on God who created and sustains the universe, my soul settles down. I am finding that as I breathe in the first phrase and breathe out the second, my rhythm becomes like a rocking chair, back and forth, one step, then another. As I listen to the sound of my breathing in and out, I picture breathing in His grace, breathing out my trust in Him.
Eventually, the prayer becomes like a refrain or an echo. Later it may come to mind like a song that catches in my head and returns at odd moments during the day. In this season of busy preparation and celebration, this keeps me aware that God is present with me now. And it makes me wonder: what simple prayer might Mary may have said as she labored to give birth to Jesus?
Take a moment to stop.
Focus as you breathe in and breathe out,
saying the name of Jesus– in a spirit of thanks, or confession, or need, or desire, or adoration.
Later you may want to make a simple prayer from a request or a sentence from Scripture.
Breathe in the first phase and breathe out the second:
I come to You, I find rest for my soul. [Matthew 11:28-30]
I will be still, and know that You are God. [Psalm 46:10]
Jesus, You love me. I remain in Your love. [John 15:9]
I trust in Your unfailing love, my hope is in You. [Psalm 33:1]