Our post for today, a contribution to the Lord Teach Us To Pray series, comes from Lynne Baab. She is the author of several books on Christian spiritual practices. This post is excerpted from her upcoming book, Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation, which will be released in September from Westminster John Knox Press. Lynne is a Presbyterian minister who teaches pastoral theology in Dunedin, New Zealand. On her website you can find articles she’s written about spiritual practices, as well as information about her books.
Because of its simplicity, breath prayer is a great way to start when introducing a group to contemplative prayer, and breath prayer is a great way for an individual to slow down and remember God’s presence in the midst of everyday life. I know a family that engages in breath prayer at the beginning of their Sabbath day, and if the parents forget to make time for it, the kids remind them. I’ve used breath prayer in many different small group settings and occasionally in worship services as well, and most people take to it easily.
One way to engage in breath prayer is to imagine breathing out all our concerns and worries into God’s presence, while breathing in God’s love and care. At the Areopagus in Athens, the Apostle Paul said about God, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 28). If God’s presence and love surround us, then it is not a stretch to imagine exhaling our troubles into God’s presence and inhaling God’s love and care with each breath.
When I engage in this kind of breath prayer, I focus on one concern or one person in need as I breathe out. As I feel the air leaving my lungs, I picture myself relinquishing that concern or person into God’s care. Then I breathe in, imagining God’s love filling the empty space where the concern or worry was located inside me.
Sometimes the concern is so great that I spend several breaths on the same issue or person, always relinquishing the concern into God’s hands as I breathe out, and always imagining God’s love coming into me as I breathe in. Sometimes I simply name all my family members as I engage in breath prayer, saying one name silently with each breath out, knowing that God is aware of that person’s needs even more than I could be.
Another form of breath prayer uses the ancient prayer called the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer is based loosely on the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 8:9-14 in which the tax collector says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (verse 13). One phrase of the Jesus prayer is prayed on each breath, with the breaths providing a rhythm for the prayer.
In groups, I have used a white board to list the favorite names for Jesus that the group members suggest, such as Prince of Peace, Bread of Life, Light of the World and True Vine. I suggest to the group that they pick one of those names and adapt the Jesus prayer to that name, along these lines:
Lord Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace, have mercy on me. I need your peace.
Lord Jesus Christ, Bread of life, have mercy on me, feed me.
Lord Jesus Christ, Light of the World, have mercy on me, shine your light in me.
Lord Jesus Christ, True Vine, have mercy on me, help me abide in you.
Then we spend some time as a group praying the new prayer silently in harmony with our breathing.
Breath prayer works well as a first stage of prayer for many other kinds of contemplative or intercessory group prayer. It provides a good introduction to guided meditations. So simple and non-threatening, breath prayer helps people relax and feel competent about silent prayer when they might feel a bit unsure about engaging in quiet contemplative prayer in a group.
Breath prayer engages the physical body and helps us experience God’s presence in our bodies and in the physical world, integrating the physical and spiritual parts of our lives. Focusing on our breath slows down our breathing, which has the effect of slowing down all bodily functions, a way to experience peace from the One who gives us breath and longs to give us peace.
Breath prayer also reminds us of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God in our lives. When leading breath prayer with a group, any of these connections can be highlighted for the group, helping them to deepen their experience.