Christians have been praying breath prayers for more than 1600 years, but despite its longevity, it is relatively unknown in Protestant and Evangelical circles. It may feel like a foreign practice, even mystical, but I assure you, its sole purpose is cultivating a constant awareness of God’s presence in our lives. It is a way of putting Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 into practice, to “pray without ceasing.”
The Eastern Orthodox Church commonly refers to breath prayer as “prayer of the heart,” because the prayer moves beyond rational, conscious prayer and embeds itself in our hearts. It becomes an unending refrain running in the background of your mind, like a constant soundtrack to your everyday life. It serves as a constant reminder of God’s active presence in our lives.
The history of breath prayer
The practice of breath prayer can be traced back to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, a group who chose to leave society for a community in the desert of Egypt to seek deeper intimacy with God. What we know about their practice of the discipline comes from Saint John Cassian who learned from “the oldest fathers” a form of prayer that led to a “continual recollection of God.”
Saint Cassian encouraged his followers to pray Psalm 70:1, “O God, make speed to save me. O Lord, make haste to help me.” He believed this verse put us in an appropriately humble place before God and can be applied in all situations. In Conferences, he wrote,
We must then ceaselessly and continuously pour forth the prayer of this verse, in adversity that we may be delivered, in prosperity that we may be preserved and not puffed up. Let the thought of this verse, I tell you, be conned over in your breast without ceasing. Whatever work you are doing, or office you are holding, or journey you are going, do not cease to chant this. When you are going to bed, or eating, and in the last necessities of nature, think on this. This thought in your heart may be to you a saving formula, and not only keep you unharmed by all attacks of devils, but also purify you from all faults and earthly stains, and lead you to that invisible and celestial contemplation, and carry you on to that ineffable glow of prayer, of which so few have any experience. Let sleep come upon you still considering this verse, till having been moulded by the constant use of it, you grow accustomed to repeat it even in your sleep. When you wake let it be the first thing to come into your mind, let it anticipate all your waking thoughts, let it when you rise from your bed send you down on your knees, and thence send you forth to all your work and business, and let it follow you about all day long.
This is the earliest recorded description of a practice that had been going on for some time. While the breath prayer based on Psalm 70:1 is likely the earliest, it is not the most well know. Today the Jesus Prayer is prayed around the world throughout the Orthodox Church. It comes from the publican’s prayer in Luke 18:10-14, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The earliest version is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Later versions add “…a sinner” to the end. This prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” is the most common breath prayer.
What is breath prayer?
Breath prayer is a fairly simple discipline. It is the consistent repetition of a brief two-part prayer aloud or silently. There are many breath prayers we can practice. I have mentioned two of the oldest. “O God, make speed to save me. O Lord, make haste to help me.” And “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” You may choose the one made popular by Brennan Manning, “Abba, I belong to you.” Or you can compose your own.
When we practice breath prayer, we pray one of these short prayers over and over in set aside times of prayer and throughout the day. As we continue to pray the prayer, it becomes embedded in our hearts. If we commit to its faithful practice, a breath prayer will become a constant refrain in our lives reminding us of God’s presence and our reliance on him. But this doesn’t come immediately. It takes regular and intentional practice.
Theophan the Recluse described three stages we can expect to experience during a committed practice of breath prayer. The first is prayer of the lips. It is a simple repetition that Theophan calls prayers of “verbal expression and shape.” Here our prayer is still external. The second stage comes when we begin to pray without distraction. Theophan says this is when “the mind is focused upon the words” of the prayer, “speaking them as if they were our own.” Only after experiencing these two does one reach the final stage, the prayer of the heart. At this point the prayer ceases to be something we do and becomes who we are. It is what happens when we come home to prayer, when prayer brings us into the eternal presence of God.
I cannot honestly say I live in Theophan’s third stage. For me, the Jesus Prayer is quite solidly rooted in stage two. More often than not, the prayer is conscious. There are times when the prayer erupts from someplace deep in my heart. Whether in response to something wonderful or something terrible, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” emerges from my subconscious. These moments comfort and encourage me as glimmers of Theophan’s third stage. Despite my lack of time in stage three, breath prayer has been deeply formational. It is one of two disciplines I believe to be directly linked to a deeper awareness of God’s constant presence in my life today.
All breath prayers follow the same pattern. The first part is a name of God. We begin here because God’s name is the place of his presence. Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Holy Father, Jehovah, and Emmanuel are just a few of his names we may use to begin a breath prayer.
The second part of a breath prayer is a scriptural promise. The promise reinforces God’s activity in our lives. Help me, have mercy, save me, or bring peace are a few promises. You can choose a prayer that doesn’t come directly from scripture, but because this is a prayer of the heart, I would encourage you to submit to the guidance of scripture when composing a breath prayer.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Abba Father, make us one.
Lord Jesus, bring peace beyond understanding.
How to practice breath prayer
The discipline of breath prayer begins with a repetition of the prayer over and over in a set aside time. This time is not intended to be a rational prayer. When we pray the Jesus Prayer, we are not trying to understand what mercy is or where we need it in our lives. God may speak to you about these things, and we should welcome it when he does. But the purpose of breath prayer is not to think about or reflect on the words of the prayer. The point is to quietly and simply repeat the prayer and become more grounded in God’s presence.
In your set aside time of prayer, quietly repeat the prayer over and over. You may commit to reciting it a certain number of times. Some suggest you pray the prayer one hundred to five hundred times. Or you can set aside a specific amount of time, five to fifteen minutes. Orthodox Christians wear a prayer rope with thirty-three knots and use it to mark the number of repetitions.
As you begin this practice, choose a time or number that is realistic. It is probably not wise to begin with 20 minutes a day or five hundred repetitions. Start small and build from there. Pray the prayer 100 times or for five minutes. Pray the prayer slowly and reflexively. Don’t rush. You’re not checking a box on your to-do list. You are growing in awareness of God’s presence.
After having a set aside time for reciting the prayer, repeat it throughout the day. You may chose specific times to recall the prayer, at meals, certain intervals in the workday or at the top of the hour. Be open to those times when the prayer instinctively comes to mind. In these moments pause from your day and give the prayer a handful of revolutions. This is where the prayer became real for me. During ordinary time it became more than a few words uttered in a quiet time of prayer, but an honest part of my everyday life.
The most important part of breath prayer is its consistent practice. I asked Frederica Mathewes-Green, author of The Jesus Prayer, if she had any advice for someone beginning to practice breath prayer. Her response was simple. “Make sure you actually do it,” she said. “Keep showing up, and doing the prayer you promised you would do.” It is only consistent practice and the grace of God that moves the prayer from our heads into our hearts and cultivates the constant prayer Paul writes about in 1 Thessalonians 5:17.
This form of prayer is called breath prayer for a couple reasons. Breathing is a natural, unconscious act. When breath prayer moves beyond mere words and takes up residence in our hearts as Theophan’s describes, the prayer becomes as natural and unconscious as breathing. Another reason for the name is a breath prayer is short enough to be prayed in a single breath.
Some suggest connecting the prayer to the rhythm your breathing. You can exhale as you pray the name of the Lord and inhale as you declare his promise. You may recite the entire prayer as you inhale and again as you exhale. It is not necessary to connect the prayer to your breathing in this way, but for some it is a helpful reminder and adds a level of focus to the practice.
Other Breath Prayer Resources
Prayer by Richard Foster
The Jesus Prayer by Frederica Mathewes-Green
The Way of the Pilgrim Anonymous