Breathing: The Way to Pray Without Ceasing

“Then the Lord God formed a person from the dust of the ground and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life, and the person became a living being.”

Genesis 2:7

Our breath is a gift from God. It is what gives us life. It is how we commune with the created world. With each breath we breathe in a little bit of the world around us and it becomes part of our physical body. With every breath we breathe out a little piece of our physical body returns to the great circle of life. When our breath ceases so does our life on this earth. In the biblical tradition, the breath of God is what gives life to the universe. Breath, Spirit, and Wind are all synonymous. To breathe is to be filled with the Spirit and to be given the gift of life. It renews us and sustains us. God breathes in us. It means so very much.

We are made of dust and to dust we shall return, but until that time comes it is the breath which God breathes in us that gives us life. What more tangible presence of God is there to be found than that which animates us and surges up the vital life force within us? 

In the contemplative life the breath is also a great tool. We allow our breath to guide our prayer. By following our breath we simultaneously follow the wisdom of the ephemeral Spirit and our material body. We join our animal nature to our angelic nature and out of that unity springs forth a great well of possibility which flows freely into our lives and the lives of those around us. To follow our breath is to follow the Holy Spirit.

A common form of prayer in the Chrisitan monastic tradition, which comes from the Eastern church, is called the Jesus Prayer. It is incredibly simple. There are a few different versions used but the most common one is “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner.” One breathes in to the words “Lord Jesus Christ” and out to the words “have mercy on me a sinner.” The words are typically said with our inner voice so that the breath may be uninterrupted and so that our inner and outer condition may be united. It is also common to do this in a seated position with the head gently hanging forward and the eyes closed. 

It can be done in many different ways, however. For instance you may do it while washing the dishes with your eyes open, standing at the sink. You may do it on your commute to work. You may do it while walking in the forest – breathing in what the trees breathe out and breathing out what the trees breathe in.

Another form of this prayer comes from John Cassian in his 9th and 10th conferences. In these conferences Cassian recorded the wisdom of Abba Isaac who explains how we can follow the words of the Apostle Paul who taught us to pray without ceasing. If prayer is thought of only as kneeling by your bed asking God to give you things, then this instruction from the Apostle is impossible. So then, what is meant by the instruction?

The answer Abba Isaac gives is that we are to unite our prayer to our breath, since as long as we live we breathe without ceasing. If we can make our breath a prayer then we will always pray without ceasing and we our life itself will become a divine liturgy and a continuous act of praise. The words Isaac recommends are taken from Psalm 69:2 (depending on the numbering system in the bible you’re using) “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.”

This prayer can be used in the same way as the Jesus prayer mentioned above, breathing in the words “O God, come to my assistance” and breathing out the words “O Lord, make haste to help me.” This is the version I use the most. I set aside a time each day to either sit in my chair with my head slumped forward and my eyes closed or to walk in the forest in silence, but I also use it throughout the day when I am waiting for something to happen or making dinner for my family. 

Abba Isaac teaches that this prayer is the best to align to our breath because it is good in every situation. There is never any moment in life when we do not require God’s assistance. Aligning this teaching with our breath is particularly significant because, as I noted above, our breath itself is a divine assistance which gives us life and without which we will perish. So as we breathe in God truly does give us divine assistance. Abba Isaac describes the use of this prayer as such:

“You should write this on the threshold and doors of your mouth, you should place it on the walls of your house and in the recesses of your heart, so that when you prostrate yourself in prayer this may be your chant as you bow down, and when you rise from there and go about all the necessary affairs of life it may be your upraised and constant prayer.”

This prayer not only is appropriate in every situation but it also nurtures and supports our recollection. Abba Isaac goes on to say that when this prayer has become fully integrated into our being that we will come to know the meaning of the psalms before we read them. He refers to this as a recollection as well as an attentiveness. It is simultaneously a return to spiritual wholeness and a healed consciousness which is not swept away by the waves of distraction but is rather rooted in the Holy Spirit who hovered over the waters in the beginning with God. Abba Isaac described it as such:

“Once the mind’s attentiveness has been set ablaze, it is called forth in an unspeakable ecstasy of heart and with an insatiable gladness of spirit, and the mind, having transcended all feelings and visible matter, pours out to its God with unutterable groans and sighs.”

Recollection is a uniting of our fragmented self. It is an attentive awareness which allows us to direct all our inner faculties towards God in praise. Our need for God’s help, the gift of our breath, and the life of prayer all happen without ceasing and when we unite them together in our minds, hearts, and bodies we are submitting to the sacred ebb and flow of the circle of life. We are acknowledging our place within creation and allowing our being to mingle freely with the rest of God’s creatures. We are intertwined with all of creation and our breath is one and the same breath that every other person in the past present and future has breathed, is breathing, or will breathe. It is also the same breath that the trees and animals breathe. There is no greater form of communion than that which God has created us to partake in without ceasing and without choice. We need only recognise it, bless it, and use it to praise our God.

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