Breath Prayer


Breath Prayer


My friend, Amanda Hansen, graciously agreed to contribute this post to my blog. Amanda is a gifted pastor, chaplain, and writer whose sensitivity and compassion toward people brings peace to the middle of any circumstance. I am honored to have her story here and hope you are transformed by the breath prayer.

Breath prayer is an ancient Christian contemplative prayer practice linked to the rhythms of breathing [1]. It is usually prayed silently—with each breath in, calling on a name or image of God—with each breath out, expressing a simple, God-given desire. Its beauty is its simplicity. Breath prayer allows us to connect with God throughout the course of our day; it can be helpful to refocus one’s attention in the slow times, or to ground oneself in chaotic or stressful moments. 

I first became familiar with breath prayer in college. I enrolled in a course on Discipleship and Spiritual Transformation and was exposed to all sorts of spiritual practices in a crash-course effort to equip me for life and ministry. At the time, I found contemplative practices interesting, but I could not find the impetus to integrate them into my life. They seemed to have value for other, more spiritual people—mystics and monastics—but I wasn’t sure of their relevance to me. I tucked them away into my mental filing cabinet and went on my merry way.

Over the last several years, I have become more and more drawn to contemplative spiritual practices as a way to connect with God and open myself up to the fullness of life. Contemplative spirituality is non-dualistic and utterly practical—it is not disconnected from real life. Especially in hectic seasons, these practices have become a breath of fresh air—simple, grounding practices that remind me of who I am and who God is. 

Though contemplative practices such as the prayer of examen and lectio divina entered my daily life through slow exploration, breath prayer became important to me by abrupt necessity. 

Last spring, I began working as a hospital chaplain. This work has been even more meaningful than I anticipated, but it has also been arduous. As a chaplain, I regularly encounter painful experiences in the lives of my patients and walk through grief and trauma alongside them and their families. 

Early on, my supervisor advised me to find ways to center myself and reconnect with God when things got tough. At first, I was unsure what sorts of practices would be helpful—though at that point, the concept of centering myself in the midst of others’ pain and grief was still mere theory. This quickly changed when I began working 24-hour on-call shifts and responding to patient crises:

When I began to spend my Saturdays with a family who was grappling with the terminal diagnosis and declining health of their adult daughter, breath prayer was the only thing simple enough, familiar enough, near enough for me to dig up out of my mental filing cabinet in a moment of need. 

Lord have mercy, 
Christ have mercy, 
Lord have mercy.

When I was walking down the hallway in the Emergency Room to be with a grieving wife and her two teenage daughters, whose dad had unexpectedly died on Father’s Day.

Lord have mercy, 
Christ have mercy, 
Lord have mercy.

When I prepared to enter the room of a man who had attempted suicide.

Lord have mercy, 
Christ have mercy, 
Lord have mercy.

Breath prayer became a lifeline that tethered me to God in the darkest moments and reminded me that God is with me. God is with them. God is with all of us. 

Practicing breath prayer is simple:

1.     Choose a name or image of God that is meaningful to you (this will be your in-breath)
2.     Choose a simple, God-given desire or prayer that resonates most closely with your heart (this will be your out-breath)
3.     Pray this short phrase in keeping with your breath—in and out—throughout your day

(You may need to compose several breath prayers before you reach one that fits; give yourself space to contemplate your prayer and adjust it as needed.)

Pay attention to the times in your day when your breathing is rushed or shallow, and you sense yourself needing to reconnect with God. In those moments, return to your breath prayer.  

Pay attention to the times in your day when your breathing is slow and quiet, and you sense yourself feeling gratitude. In those moments, return to your breath prayer.

Examples of breath prayers include:

·     Breathe in “Abba,” breathe out, “I belong to you.”
·     Breathe in “Lord,” breathe out, “here I am.”
·     Breathe in “Jesus,” breathe out, “have mercy on me.”
·     Breathe in “Holy Wisdom,” breathe out, “guide me.”

In the words of Brother Lawrence, “Think often of God, by day, by night, in your business and even in your diversions. God is always near you and with you; leave God not alone."

 Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God