[This piece is part of a series on praying the Scriptures.]
Breath prayer is a prayer practice that coordinates the rhythmic actions of breathing with the recitation of a passage from Scripture or other petition to God. While Lectio Divina and Ignatian Imagination—other forms of praying the Scriptures—use whole passages of Scripture, the text of a breath prayer is intentionally brief. The repeated refrain is meant to synch with breathing and find cadence with the body’s movement of the lungs as they expand and contract. The prayer might be a psalm fragment, two verses said in tandem, or even a more personal appeal to God. Whereas other forms of Scripture study and prayer might be a way to “eat” and “digest” the biblical text, breath prayer invites us to breathe Scripture.
The practice of breath prayer takes seriously the fullness of the Hebrew word ruach, meaning wind, breath, or spirit. The goal of this form of prayer is to integrate our interior selves with our exterior actions through our breathing. In breathing, we take in the breath of the Spirit of God, even as we inhabit an atmosphere that is filled with God’s presence. One idea behind breath prayer is that prayer can become as natural as breathing. There are folks who claim that it is possible for breath prayer to be unbidden—a natural, autonomic response in which we enjoy communication with God.
With practice, breath prayer can be an on-ramp to praying without ceasing. I’ve found my students deeply appreciate the opportunity to become aware of God by paying attention to their breathing. Mindful breathing can be both invigorating and soothing as we become aware of the created bodies God has formed for us to inhabit. Breath prayer allows for the opportunity to become aware of the natural ebb and flow of breath as air is breathed in and out, as well as of those pauses that happen at the moment when the lungs are most full and when they are emptied. Those natural pauses are referred to as still points. In the Christian spiritual tradition, those still points are identified as God’s fullness. It is a point of rest, reminiscent of Augustine’s words that our hearts are restless till they find rest in God.
Like any other time of contemplating Scripture, begin by setting aside time to pray and choosing your text. Choose something short and simple, easily repeated, so that it can coordinate with your breathing. I encourage my students to find something between five and seven syllables to start with. It might be something that addresses God such as, “O Lord, you are my shepherd” (Ps 23:1), or that reminds you of God’s greatness: “Be still, and know that that you are God” (Ps 45:11). Or, it can even be the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.”
To begin your time of prayer, take a moment to settle yourselves comfortably, yet still be attentive. Good posture is important. Breathing should be a slow, natural, rhythmic action involving the entire torso. Too often in life, as well as in prayer, we take shallow breaths, not using our diaphragm to its fullest advantage. You may want to close your eyes as you begin to inhabit this internal space and time for prayer and communion with God.
Take a few deep breaths, pulling your diaphragm down, allowing your ribcage to expand, inhaling air into your lungs to its fullest capacity. Likewise, on your exhale, breathe out as much as you can. The more you breathe out, the more you can breathe in. Allow the intake of oxygen, the freshness of new breath, to fill your self with God’s Spirit as you recite your breath prayer.
Continue to take slow, regular, deep breaths, praying as you go. Rest with God during the still points.
Initially, I encourage my students to practice breath prayer for a sustained, uninterrupted period, ten or more minutes. Setting a timer on your phone or watch can help if regular, rhythmic breathing invites drowsiness! Breath prayer need not be very long, however. It can be practiced sitting at a traffic light, stepping onto an elevator, or getting settled in a chair before an important meeting. Ending breath prayer is really a matter of being aware of your surroundings and allowing the Spirit to release you from your dedicated time of prayer.
Following a time of breath prayer, you may notice that the presence of the Spirit is still with you though, in a different way as you breathe—a companion of sorts, prompting you from time to time in your breathing. As you move on with your day, seek to carry any moments of calm awareness you experienced in breath prayer with you. Remember, God is with you and his presence seeks to fill and inhabit you just as air does in your breathing.