As Christians over the centuries have sought to follow the biblical injunction to “pray without ceasing,” they developed breath prayers as a fundamental expression of Unceasing Prayer. This has its roots in the Psalms, where a repeated phrase reminds us of an entire Psalm (Psalm 136). As a result the concept arose of a short, simple prayer of petition that can be spoken in one breath, hence the name “breath prayer.”
The most famous of the breath prayers is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer is adapted from Luke 18:13, 39. It came together in its present form and was used extensively in the sixth century. In the fourteenth century it was revived in the Eastern Orthodox Church. This style of prayer is memorialized in a book called The Way of the Pilgrim. The prayer is usually formatted around the words: ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’ but can be lengthened to ’Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’ or shortened to ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’. The form of the breath prayer is not the critical piece. The critical component with the Jesus Prayer, as with any prayer, is the intention and focus one brings to the prayer and to the subject of the prayer, namely God. It was believed that the breath prayer started as a prayer of the lips then became a prayer of the mind, and overtime and extended practice, it becomes a prayer of the heart. It was believed that the prayer could become such an internalized part of the individual that each beat of their heart would be praying the Jesus prayer.
As you begin to practice the Jesus prayer choose a form that you are comfortable with. I use the form: ‘Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me’. I use this one because I know a song that goes with it that makes it easy for me to enter into the words, even as they enter into me.
The idea is that as you pray this prayer you are focusing on each word and allowing each word to sink deeply into your mind and heart so that the prayer becomes a place of connection with God, a means of centering on the person of Christ, a way of reminding you of your need for Christ, so that you may more fully live from that place of connection with Christ and dependence on Christ
Once you get comfortable with the concept of the Jesus Prayer I would invite you to create you own breath prayer, if you are so inclined.
The Jesus Prayer is only one example. It is possible to discover your own individual breath prayer. Here are a few: “Faithful Father”; O Gracious God, Teach me gentleness, ”; “Jesus, let me be a channel of your grace”; “Loving Lord”; “Creator God, remove my fear”; “Reveal my sin, O God of Mercy”: “Lord Jesus, help me feel your love”; “My Guide, My Comfort, My God, My All”; “Emmanuel, help me to sense your presence”; “Blessed Savior”; “Abba”; “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, Savior”.
Notice the brevity of each of the above prayers – seldom more than seven or eight syllables. Also, note the sense of nearness and intimacy: God is addressed in a close, personal way. See too how the pray expresses dependence, trust, submission, yielded-ness – the opposite of self-reliance.
One writer has stated that one’s personal breath prayer is discovered more than created. So if you decide to create your own breath prayer begin by asking God to help guide and direct you through this process.
Here is one way you can begin to discover your breath prayer:
1. Find a quiet place and sit silently in God’s loving presence paying attention to God. As you sit in God’s presence allow these questions to gently surface within you: What is it that attracts you, draws you to God? What is a name or attribute of God that fuels your love for God? Do not rush this process. Once a name and/or attribute surfaces, use this name and/or attribute to address God in your breath prayer.
2. As you continue to sit in God’s loving presence, imagine Jesus coming to you and asking you, “What do you want?” Do not rush to answer this, but sit with Jesus’ question to you. What do you really want? Maybe a single word will surface in your mind and heart: love, joy, peace, hope, faith, endurance... Perhaps a phrase: “to know your love, to walk in your way, to be free, to know your sufferings, the power of your resurrection….
Steps one and two may not happen on the same day. The idea is not to push to make something happen, but to rest and trust in God and allow these things to organically arise within you.
3. Once you have finished steps one and two connect the names/attributes of God (step 1) with the word/phrases (step 2) in a way that feels natural and comfortable to you.
4. Finally write out your breath prayer.
5. Now begin to pray your breath prayer, allowing God and yourself the freedom to tweak the prayer over the next few days until you have it broken in and it feels comfortable like an old pair of jeans or shoes. Begin praying your breath prayer as often as possible letting God plant it deep in your mind and heart.
Adele Ahlberg Calhoun commenting on the breath prayer writes: “To practice the breath prayer, ponder the nearness of God. Settle deeply into the truth that Christ is in you.”
And Theophan the Recluse wrote: “Accustom yourself to walk in the presence of God…To preserve this remembrance, choose a few short prayers…and repeat them often with appropriate thoughts and feelings.”
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