Prayer as breathing and breathing as prayer

Breathing: necessary, unconscious, continuous, usually an easy activity, we don’t even learn it, we just do it.

Prayer: … err? a learned activity, a conscious effort, we ‘might do it wrong’, we are not sure why we do it or who is ‘listening’ or what effect it has but that doesn’t stop most people praying in some form or other at some time in their lives.

So is there a link? Yes and it’s hugely helpful. I’ve been learning about meditation for several months now and practicing daily. Like prayer, meditation is something you have to do in order to learn, there’s no point just reading about it.

One of the key skills of meditation is learning to focus, or become aware of the simple in and out of your breath and to use this ever present ebb and flow in and out of your lungs as a way of becoming aware of your body, stepping out of your mind’s relentless stream of conscious thoughts, and being still enough to open yourself to ….  to what? Well, secular meditators would say to ‘the blue sky of your own inner quiet being’ (or something like that) but as a Christian I prefer to think of it as stilling my chattering mind in order to become more aware of the God who is already present. I don’t even have to ask, deserve or seek, God is already and always present, usually I’m just not still enough to notice.

A few weeks ago I was with my mum who has dementia and Alzheimers, whenever she sees me we go through the same ‘litany’ of ‘now what was it I was going to say to you when I saw you‘. She ‘footles’ around (I don’t know if that’s a real word) with papers, postcards or scraps of this and that, sifting for the one ‘thing I was going to tell you about’. It is SO impossible for her to either be still or engage in conversation with me, let alone listen that failing anything else to do say she will simply grab her handbag and just explain the contents.

At the end of one such visit I got up to leave and tried to say goodbye. She got up as well but instead of looking at me she just drifted over to the next pile of ‘stuff’ on the sideboard and started all over again:  “now, did I show you this? or this? or this?” The only way to really get her attention was to take hold of her hands or even to cup her face and say ‘look at me’ or ‘listen to me’ or ‘I’m here’ or ‘I’m going’ or ‘I’ll see you tomorrow’.

Frustrating but not unusual or surprising for her condition.

I left the room sighing about it and immediately sensed the Spirit of God saying ‘but Sheila that’s just how you are with me!‘. ‘You come with your agendas, your fears, your lists, your constant distractions, your moans and your million and one trivialities and I feel like grabbing your hands, directing your gaze and saying ‘shut up! Be still, I’m here with you now, isn’t that far better than anything you think you have to say? Whatever you think you have to say, I know it all anyway, just like you know all the well worn and limited lines of conversation available to your mum’.

So that’s why silence in prayer matters. It’s just being with God and being with matters more saying anything.

Youth portraiture by Brooktown Photography

So now when I ‘pray’ often all I do is become aware of my breathing in and breathing out and if I need words I say ‘you are here’ on the in breath and ‘I am here’ on the out breath. After a few breaths I can usually abandon the words and just allow the breath to be the prayer. After 10 minutes of simply being everything else I wanted to talk about often distills itself into very little.

When God gave his name to Moses, he said ‘I AM WHO I AM’ this became YHVH or ‘Yahweh’ a name so sacred it was considered unspeakable (a bit like ‘he who must not be named’ for all the opposite reasons in Harry Potter) in fact many think it wasn’t actually a word that was said at all but rather breathed, its correct pronunciation being an attempt to replicate and imitate the very sound of inhalation and exhalation.

“The one thing we do every moment of our lives is therefore to speak the name of God. This makes it our first word and our last word as we enter and leave the world.”

Richard Rohr The Naked Now

So breathing is prayer and prayer is breathing. Use words if you want to, but don’t let them get in the way of simply being with the God is always present with you.

“For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says do not fear, I will help you” Isaiah 41:13





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