Praying a breath prayer is just what it sounds like. To pray as you follow your breath – using words – connects the body to the sacred. And praying a breath prayer can open the way to a deeper contemplative practice.
Inhaling and exhaling is one of those things that the body does for us without requiring any thought or effort on our part. To follow that natural rhythm is to settle into the groundedness of one’s being and to open oneself to sacred presence, which is always available but not always in our awareness.
Breath prayers have two movements – a word or phrase that matches each breath in and another word or phrase that corresponds with each breath out.
One of the most widely known breath prayers is the “Jesus Prayer.” The full prayer is a phrase that follows one’s breath in and out: “Jesus Christ, Beloved of God, have mercy on me.” The first phrase is an address to God and is said while breathing in: “Jesus Christ, Beloved of God.” And the second phrase is a plea for God’s grace or mercy or help. In this case “have mercy on me (a sinner).” This prayer is grounded the plea of a blind man calling out to Jesus, and the more ancient prayers of the psalms and lamentations of the Hebrew Bible.
The Jesus prayer is shortened to “Lord, have mercy” and repeated often in worship. A breath prayer can be as simple as the two-word phrase “deep peace.” It can even be a single word with two syllables like “stillness.”
This form of prayer is always available to us, literally as close as our breathing. It has sustained many saints and ordinary Christians through everyday life as well as through difficult and demanding times.
The way to begin is to choose a phrase (or create one), then repeat the phrase silently and prayerfully with each breath in and out. With practice over time, you will not have to think consciously about repeating the prayer. It will come more easily as you breathe and move through your day.
You can take a moment to choose a word or phrase for a breath prayer. On a piece of paper or note-taking program on your phone or computer, start on the left and write or type a name for God, or an image of the divine that is meaningful for you. On the right side write or type your greatest need of God. Here are a few other possibilities to try:
Breath of life . . . breathe through me
God of Healing . . . give us your peace
Beloved Spirit . . . restore my heart
God, our Mother and Father . . . guide us through this time
If you decide to give this prayer a chance, start by allowing yourself five to ten minutes simply to repeat the prayer – early in your day. Then whenever you find yourself waiting (traffic lights, grocery lines, etc.) instead of checking your email or facebook, repeat the prayer. Over time praying is this way can change your body and mind.
Lord, have mercy.