Said one traveler to another:"I have come a great distance to listen to the words of the Teacher, but I find his words quite ordinary.""Don't listen to his words. Listen to his message.""How does one do that?""Take hold of a sentence that he says. Shake it well till all the words drop off. What is left will set your heart on fire."Anthony deMello

When it comes to the spiritual life, few would deny that prayer is an essential discipline. But what, actually, is prayer and how does one practice it? In simple terms, prayer is communication with God that is carried on through words, thoughts, and images. How one prays is another question, for as Lee Anne Payne wisely states, "prayer is the school from which no one graduates."

While prayer is a profound mystery and often feels like hard work, I'd like to suggest that our prayer lives can be enriched (and unburdened) by comparing it to breathing. In fact, this analogy has been suggested for centuries by our brothers in the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches in a prayer exercise known simply as "Breath Prayer." It derives this name because the words for breath and Sprit are very similar in the biblical languages. More importantly, the practice of this kind of prayer enables us in a very real, though perhaps mystical, way to experience what Paul had in mind when he says the Spirit prays in us (Romans 8:26-27).

As Marjorie Thompson points out in her excellent book, "Soul Feast," the oldest and most practiced breath prayer combines Jesus' teaching about prayer in  Luke 18 with the earliest confession of the church:

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

The thought behind the so-called "Jesus Prayer" is that as one recites this prayer, the very depth of our being is penetrated and authentic Christ-like transformation takes place. Here are a few practical suggestions that some have found helpful in easing into this type of prayer.

  • Begin by asking for help from the Holy Spirit, remembering that it is only by the work of the Spirit that we can proclaim, "Jesus is Lord."
  • Next, become aware of your breathing for several deep breaths in and out. You might want to quietly give thanks to God for the breath of life, even though you are mostly unaware of this life-giving gift.
  • Silently say the first part of the prayer as you breathe in: "Lord Jesus Christ."
  • You can do it anywhere, anytime, and in any posture.
  • Do this several times, imagining that you are breathing in the love, joy, and peace of the Lord Jesus.
  • After this, become aware of your breathing out and as you do so, silently say, "Have mercy on me." Imagine all the impurities, fears, sins that you are putting in the way of God's holy presence.
  • For those who are visually oriented, some suggest that this type of prayer can be enhanced by gazing at a picture of Christ like the one to the right — a recreation based upon the shroud of Turin image.

The great thing about Breath Prayer is that you can do it anywhere, anytime, and in any posture. (By the way, where did we get off thinking that the only posture for prayer was bowed heads and closed eyes ... but that is the topic for another time!) As we practice this important exercise, not only will our hearts be refreshed and our spiritual eyes opened, we may find that Paul's admonition to "pray at all times in the Spirit" is not impossible but rather a life-giving joy!

See previous exercises:

Introduction to Exercising the SpiritExercising the Spirit: LectioExercising the Spirit: SilenceExercising the Spirit: Meditation