The day before Ash Wednesday I was having lunch at a delicious burger dive with two good friends when we started talking about Lent and what we would give up during the next 40 days of religious fasting. After one friend suggested we should all stop eating hamburgers, the other friend listed some specific commitments he was making this season of Lent and said there was also something he was going to add on: “I’ll probably do a couple hundred breath prayers every day.”
I was shocked: a couple hundred breath prayers every day! I had known about breath prayers for years, I had adopted some of them in my own life, and taught them to the college students in my classes, but that level of religious devotion was disorienting, and intriguing, but ultimately, inspiring. It set me on a journey that culminated in a new book called, “Pray Like You Breathe: Exploring the Practice of Breath Prayer.”
Breath prayers are short, mostly one-sentence, prayers that believers in God have been praying for centuries. These prayers are often repeated, and they are often aligned with a person’s breathing so that the first half of a sentence is prayed while inhaling and the second half of the sentence is prayed while exhaling. This is difficult to do while speaking audibly, so breath prayers are usually prayed silently, or with the breath, rather than with the voice. They are one way disciples of Jesus have been obeying Jesus’ instructions to “always pray” (Lk. 18:1), and Paul’s command to “pray continually” (2 Thess. 5:17).
While some believe breath prayers began in the repetition of the Psalms, the most famous breath prayer emerged from a combination of several people’s prayers in the Gospels that congealed into the phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This is known as the Jesus Prayer and was practiced for centuries by the Orthodox Christians of Greece and Russia even as other branches of Christianity had mostly neglected to use it.
The book “Pray Like You Breathe,” is a 28-day experience of prayer that borrows the language of Psalms to train in making breath prayers part of our daily routine, like a habit. Each chapter ends with a specific prayer exercise to do individually as well as discussion questions to think about if you’re reading the book with your family, Bible class, or small group. My ultimate desire is for the people who read the book to pray, and to pray “with all kinds of prayers …” (Eph. 6:18). So while there is no specific biblical command to pray using breath prayers, there are commands to pray like we breathe: naturally … out of necessity … sometimes desperately … and without stopping.