Journey with a prayer

One of the spiritual disciplines that I learned fairly early in my life is an ancient practice sometimes called a breath prayer. There are many forms of this discipline and not all of them are Christian. It is likely that the practice existed before Christianity and at some point Christians adopted the practice. At its core, a breath prayer is simply paying attention to the rhythm of your own breathing. When you pay attention and take care to breathe deeply, you can increase your oxygen levels, calm your anxieties, and clear your mind. I frequently close my eyes and simply pay attention to my breathing. Because breathing is controlled, in part, by your autonomic nervous system you don’t have to be conscious in order to be breathing. I can happen without you thinking about it. However, when you do give your breath your attention, you can exercise some control over the rate of your breathing.

Focusing your attention on your breathing is a form of meditation that has been practiced for millennia. People learned that taking time to simply pay attention to breathing had positive benefits. It is likely that some Christians practiced breath prayers from the very beginnings of the church. However, it is such a natural practice that there isn’t much written in church history about it before about the sixth century. In more modern times it has been associated with the Eastern Church, particularly Greek and Russian Orthodox churches in a specific discipline. In those traditions is is known as the Jesus Prayer or Prayer from the Heart. Practitioners repeat a phase to the rhythm of their breath: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Sometimes this is shortened to “Jesus Christ, have mercy.” Two words for the inhale, two words for the exhale.

The prayer has been used as an example of the advice in the 1st letter to the Thessalonians, “Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

For me, a breath prayer is a way of slowing down my mind when it gets going too quickly. It helps me to focus when a task needs to be accomplished or when I am tired. I find that if I simply take time to breath deeply my thinking becomes more clear.

Nearly 20 years ago, I was burned. The initial treatment for the burn was quite painful as they cleaned my wounds. I used the breath prayer to turn my attention away from the pain. It worked very well for me. The dermatologist I saw for follow-up commented about my “Zen meditation.” I assured him that I didn’t know much about Zen at all, but discussed with him how I was able to think of other things than the pain and how it helped me. After that experience, I began using a similar prayer technique when I found myself becoming agitated for other reasons.

Patience has not been my long suit, and I used to get irritated when I was forced to wait. Places like the waiting rooms in doctor’s offices often led to me thinking about the injustice of one person thinking their time was more valuable than another’s. Why should I have to wait? I learned, however, that if I saw waiting as an opportunity to take a few deep breaths and pray without words, I became calm and relaxed. It was like a tiny vacation in the midst of the stress.

Now I have come to a point where I will learn to use the technique in new and different ways. My life needs to take another change of pace. I don’t intend to become sedentary, but I do intend to shift gears.

Here is my confession. I’ve been a bit of a workaholic. I’ve had such meaningful work that it hasn’t been a chore for me to do it. Even though I know the commandment about Sabbath, I haven’t always observed it in terms of a whole day. When the pandemic became a reality and people were staying home, I didn’t. I went to the office every day. I tried to think of new ways to reach out to the congregation. I made it a priority to build up the community in the ways I could. Although I took time for personal concerns, accompanied my wife to medical procedures, had my own doctor’s appointments, and took time for my family, I did some work at the church every day. I even cheated by going to the office yesterday - a day after my last official day at work. I went in early, dealt with a few details that need to be done, and sat in the sanctuary for prayer for a while.

Today, I will not be going to the office. It is no longer my office. I’ve turned in my keys. And it is the first day since March 16 that I haven’t gone to the office. I didn’t want my ministry to end with a wind-down. I wanted to give my full energy to the job to the end of it. I’m not sure that 92 days without a full day off is a good practice for anyone, but it was my way of saying to myself, “I’m giving my all to this congregation.”

So the pace needs to change. I need to slow down a bit. And I know I’ll ned to use my spiritual disciplines to guide me through this transition. I’ve taken vacations and sabbaticals successfully in the past, so I am starting with a vacation. Susan and I will be traveling with our camper starting tomorrow. We will be taking a trip to see our grandchildren and we are intentionally adding a day to the time in transit. We’ll be staying off grid and keeping distance from others. Outside of fuel stops we shouldn’t need to buy anything during our trip. We plan tot take our time and learn a bit of a new pace.

As the advice has come from friends, “One day at a time.”

For me one day at a time begins with one breath at a time. My prayers go with me.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!