by Ron DelBene
“Can you teach me to pray?"
“I want to begin a discipline of prayer. Can you help?”
When we ask questions like these, we are seekers feeling the hunger of the heart. We wait with expectancy to be told where bread can be found.
Hunger of the Heart
A common problem people share about their spiritual journey is that they have asked for help and instead have found fellow seekers who do not know where the bread is. One person stated in a letter to me, “I have asked so many people to teach me about prayer. Some passed over the question altogether. Some told me it was not in the year’s programming. Some gave me books to read. But no one said, ‘Let me share with you how I pray.’ I began to wonder if any of them did pray.”
Most of us grew up saying prayers, reading prayers, or listening to others praying. Few of us were challenged to be prayer. There is a difference between a person who says prayers and a prayerful person. It is the difference between something we do and someone we are.
Do you know someone who is a prayer? He or she is probably someone who views life in a different way than most—someone who seems to have found a way to be aware of God’s presence in an ongoing way.
We are called as Christian people to be present in each moment in order to experience that God’s time and our time have intersected. We are called to practice the presence of God. It is this for which our hearts yearn.
A simple way of becoming more aware of God’s presence that many people have found helpful is known as the breath prayer. It is a simple prayer of praise and petition, six to eight syllables in length. It derives its name from the Hebrew word ruach, which can mean wind, breath, and spirit. We pray “in the spirit.” And as a fourteenth century writer on prayer states, we should “have memory of God in place of breath” [E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer (trans.) Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart (London, Boston: Faber & Faber, 1951), p. 85].
Our prayer should be as natural as our breath. Just as our breathing is an ongoing experience, so can our prayer be ongoing. In Ephesians 6:18, Paul says that we are to “pray all the time, asking for what [we] need, praying in the Spirit on every possible occasion” (JB). To pray “without ceasing,” “on every possible occasion” means that we are to be aware of what God has done and is doing for us. We can ask for what we need, and we can praise.
Your Breath Prayer
What do you normally call God? How do you address God in your prayer? This is a form of praise. In calling upon the name of the Lord we declare the greatness of God and the nature of our relationship with God. Creator, Lord, Jesus, Shepherd, Spirit—each expresses a different relationship.
If God were right in front of you, calling you by name and asking you, “What do you want?” what would you say? Would you ask for peace? For joy? To feel God’s love? To see the light? Take a moment and reflect. What would you say?
Then join the name you call God and your response to God's question. It may be a short prayer such as “Jesus, let me feel your Spirit, lead me in your light!” “Creator, let me feel your love!” This is your breath prayer.
Begin to say your breath prayer. Say it as much as possible throughout the day. Keep it at a slow pace. Some people say their breath prayer while jogging, swimming, exercising. Some people say their breath prayer while doing dishes, driving in the car, walking down the street. Say it while getting dressed, going to sleep. Say it when you find yourself becoming impatient or upset, while at a stoplight, while waiting in line.
Hesychius, an early fifth century preacher and teacher, wrote to a friend that “ceaseless prayer keeps our mental air free from the dark clouds ... and when the air of the heart is pure, there is nothing to prevent the divine light of Jesus shining in it” [Heyschius of Jerusalem in Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, p. 15.].
From Weavings, September/October 1986. Copyright © 1986 by The Upper Room. Used with permission.
"Thank you for the creative teams [of The Upper Room] who are working together to share the power of prayer around the world. You have collaborated with everyone working from our homes to share the gifts of hope, love, grace, and peace." (Written in response to The Upper Room COVID-19 response efforts). View Jaqui's video contribution to the initiative, helping us create space and time for God in these anxious times.