the good way

Breath Prayer

Session 1 • Prayer • Activation

Ruth Hayley Barton writes this about the breadth of a life of prayer: “From prayers that are more formal and structured to those that are informal and spontaneous, from prayer with words to prayer that is beyond words, from the most intimate expressions of love expressed privately to God to words spoken in unison by God’s people when they gather, from the eloquent written prayers of the church to breath prayer that is nothing more than a gasp of need or a sign of love or a groan of longing, from the prayers uttered in beautiful cathedrals to prayers offered on the side of a mountain - every breath we take can be a prayer, uniting our heart to God and harnessing the energy of our life to his great purposes.”

A breath prayer is a short simple sentence that can be said in one breath, and prayed throughout the day. You can use a known phrase, such as ‘Come Holy Spirit’, or Lord, have mercy, or you can spend time in un-rushed silence, allowing your own breath prayer to emerge from a place of deep need or longing.

Our own personal breath prayer is discerned in the silence where we learn that the Holy Spirit is our ultimate prayer-guide. Here as we acknowledge and submit to His gentle leadership, we become aware of His movements deep within us forming utterances that are beyond words (Romans 8:26-27), longing to pray through us.

“Words when they do find their way to the surface from these depths carry with them a whole new power and meaning because they are forged in the caldron of our deepest longings for God.” — Ruth Hayley Barton

Begin by spending time quietly in God’s presence. Rest under the loving gaze of God.

As we listen to God in prayer, we may become aware of a word or phrase that comes to the surface. In this type of centring prayer, we don’t ‘think the word up’; rather we discover it by listening under the leading of the Spirit for something to rise up out of our innermost being.

Sometimes the word or phrase that comes will be a child-like recognition of God’s character that feels truest to you in that particular moment or season of life. Other times it could be a phrase from scripture, a word from a song, or a line from some liturgy.

You might simply say the name ‘Jesus’ and focus on Him until a word comes forth. Brennan Manning encourages a simple process of sitting comfortably in silence and as you inhale, quietly whispering the name “abba” and as you exhale, softly saying, “I belong to you.”

You might want to start by acknowledging how you come into God’s presence:

“God, I come to you right now feeling…”

Imagine, Jesus approaching you, like he approached Blind Bartimaeus, and asking, “____, what do you want me to do for you?”

Allow your truest response to emerge from your heart and share this with God. You might want to use the following prompt:

“God, what I desire from you right now is…”

Shape the words until they feel like they fully capture your desire. This will then become the basis for your breath prayer. You can then choose your favorite name or word for God, whatever most aptly captures your experience of God right now - ‘Father, Shepherd, Jesus, Spirit.’

Combine your name for God with the phrase that expresses your longing. Order the words in whatever way makes them easiest to say with the rhythm of your breathing.

Work with this prayer until you have about 6-8 syllables that ‘captures the core of your deepest yearning for wholeness and well being in Christ.’ It should be short enough that it flows easily with the rhythm of your breathing and flows smoothly when you say it out loud.

Once you’ve landed on your breath prayer you can then use it at various intervals throughout your day - when you are waiting in line, if you feel anxious, when you want to turn your attention to God. You can also use this prayer as a gateway to entering your time of silence with God and use it as an anchor when your thoughts wander.

Centring prayer of this type is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer. Rather, it adds depth of meaning to all types of prayer (1 Tim 2:1-3) and facilitates the movement from our heart to more active modes of prayer — verbal, creative, supplications and intercessions.

Once you have developed a breath prayer you can begin to turn to it throughout your day - when you’re washing dishes, riding the subway, walking your dog, pushing your kid on the swings. Simply take a deep breath and turn your attention towards God.

When you feel that this breath prayer no longer captures your deepest longings, you can engage in this process once again.

View other resources for this session