Return to Our Senses – Learning to Breathe the Jesus Prayer

Elijah fed by raven

Elijah fed by raven

The following post is the second in a series that is excerpted from my upcoming book Return to Our Senses, which will be available in mid November.

The Jesus Prayer

It was the Desert Fathers and Mothers who withdrew into the Egyptian desert about three centuries after Christ to pray and meditate on God’s word, who really developed breath prayers as a spiritual discipline. Evidently they would often sit outside their cells weaving baskets and contemplating Christ’s presence in quiet solitude meditating on short, one breath prayers. They breathed in God’s word slowly and deeply, reverently repeating the prayer over and over, letting it permeate their minds and descend into their hearts. Sometimes they would breathe their prayer before going to sleep at night, repeating it until it lodged deep in their souls. When they woke in the morning the prayer was still on their lips.

Many scholars believe that the Desert Fathers and Mothers picked up one of the most common prayers of the Psalmist: “Lord, have mercy” and developed it into a breath prayer that later became known as the Jesus Prayer. Sometimes it is expanded as “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. For more information visit Soul Shepherding 

Not surprisingly, many of us continue to find breathing prayers provide wonderfully enriching ways to deepen our intimacy with God. Some breathing prayers, like the name YHWH and the Jesus prayer, are simple exercises in breathing in and out that calm our spirits and center our attention on the God who is life and love. They usually involve the use of a simple word or phrase from scripture. Here is one example of a well used breath prayer that draws from Psalm 23. Breathe in slowly and deeply as you whisper or think: “The Lord is my Shepherd…” Hold your breath and your consciousness of God’s presence… And then exhale as you whisper or think: “…I shall not want.”

Other breathing prayers are more complex. They can be used to remind us of the incredible transformation that God has initiated and will one day bring to completion in all of us. Other breathing prayers remind us of our commitment to see God’s world transformed into a place peace and abundance for all. Still other breathing prayers can draw us into that intimate place of communion with a God who loves us more deeply than we can ever imagine.

Expand Your Breathing Practices

Over the last few years I have composed a number of breathing prayers that move beyond the simple calming and centering of the Jesus prayer. Some, like this next prayer are wonderful reminders for me of the characteristics of the God’s whose breath I inhale. At the same time they encourage me, as I exhale, to expel from myself all that is not of God.

Breathing prayers are not about emptying ourselves so that we feel a void inside. They are about renewing our minds by saturating ourselves with the presence of God. I like to imagine that the outward breath creates a new space for God to fill. The inward breath draws something new of God’s character into me. As I breathe this prayer I visualize myself breathing in a little more of God and who God intends me to be and letting go of some of what is not of God.

Breathe out empty yourself: of hate, of fear, of anxiety,

Breathe in fill yourself with love, with life, with mercy.

Breathe out empty yourself of busyness, of selfishness of greed,

Breathe in fill yourself with peace, with joy, with hope.

Breathe out empty yourself of idolatry, of self worship, of false gods,

Breathe in fill yourself with God, with Christ, with the Holy Spirit.

Breathing prayers can also form an important foundation for our engagement in the pain and suffering of God’s world. I wrote the following prayer to remind myself that breath cannot be held to oneself. We must breathe it back out into the world.  I am called to be both a contemplative and an activist and I as I take notice of my breathing I am reminded constantly of that.

Obviously this is a very different understanding of the outward breath than I described above. This double meaning is very much in keeping with the physical act of breathing out however. We breathe out to expel toxic substances from your body, cleansing and renewing our blood. That outgoing breath can also be a source of life to others however. Mouth to mouth resuscitation depends on this. That breath which cleanses and renews our bodies, holds something of the life giving presence of God which goes back out into the world to renew the life of others.

This post is excepted from my new book Return to Our Senses which is now available through Mustard Seed Associates at a pre-publication discounted price of $15.