Breath prayer is a short petition, repeated in the space of one inhalation-exhalation cycle, that acknowledges the natures of both the Lord and the petitioner.
Breath prayer is an ancient form that arose in the fourth century among church fathers, such as Gregory of Nyssa, as a way to contemplation and as a way to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). Today, we are familiar with immediate breath prayers like Anne Lamott’s “Help me, help me, help me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”1 Indeed most breath prayers are short petitions that acknowledge who the Lord is and who the petitioner is.2 They often repeat, following the rhythm of inhaling and exhaling, and the goal is to so fix them in the mind that they become as involuntary and as vital as breathing. The most famous of these is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Ps 51:1; Matt 15:22; Luke 18:13).
After the Great Schism of 1054, this prayer continued in the Eastern branch of the church as a path to stillness. Not until the nineteenth century did the Jesus Prayer emerge again in the Western world. Among others, Father Sophrony the Archimandrite (1893–1938) brought the practice with him from Russia when he founded a monastery in Britain.3 Growing up in an Orthodox family, Sophrony had learned to pray for an hour at a time without tiring. However with the onset of the Russian Revolution, he rejected the Christian approach to God and sought instead an abstract Absolute through painting and yoga. He immigrated to Paris in 1921. One night as he wandered the streets, feeling spiritually void, he remembered the phrase “I am that I am” (Exod 3:14) and reawakened to the living, eternal God. His realization led him to confess that God cannot be pinned down by rational processes or by imagination. Instead the deep love within us responds to the infinite Love that is the divine. We humans are not closed containers; we are dynamic creatures, shaped by relationship with God.
Sophrony wanted to learn how to grow in this union with God, so he entered the monastery at Mount Athos. There he met Saint Silouan, an illiterate peasant monk. Watching the man, he could see the profound experience of God that Silouan practiced in spite of his simplicity. “If you are minded to pray in your heart and are not able,” Silouan told him, “repeat the words of your prayer with your lips and keep your mind on the words you are saying. . . . In time the Lord will give you interior prayer without distraction, and you will pray with ease.”4 Sophrony became Silouan’s scribe until the saint’s death in 1938, and eventually moved to Essex, establishing a community that continues to reflect Silouan’s habits of communion with God, including meditation through the repetition of breath prayers.
Most religions practice some form of meditation, and its physiological impact is documented by science. The difference between mantras like “om” and breath prayer is that as believers we direct prayer to the God we trust, rather than opening ourselves to an abstract other or even seeking self. We recognize the “zone” that meditation achieves because it is similar to what happens when we sit in front of the TV, or scrub a dirty floor, or play a rote video game. With the repetitious work of breath prayer, however, we discipline the frenetic upper layers of the mind to continually return to Jesus, while allowing deeper thoughts and feelings to rise to the surface, be recognized, and be yielded to him.
Sophrony reminds us that “the way to the Father lies uniquely through the Son, only-begotten and consubstantial [one] with the Father” (John 3:16; 10:30).5 Jesus mediates our union with God because he is one with God already, and we can rest in the promise that he shares this union with us as we seek him (17:20–21). “He alone, ‘knows the Father’ with complete knowledge, and ‘no man cometh unto the Father, but by the Son’” (14:6). This knowledge, Sophrony says, “is acquired through prayer of the mind united with the heart, and our whole being given over to God.”6
When we seek communion with the Trinity using breath prayer, the prayer functions as a still place of peace. Awareness of our relationship with God grows like a bubble, expanding outward as we pass through our chaotic world. Instead of the chaos invading our spirits, breath prayer offers the protection of peace (Phil 4:7). For those of us who, like Sophrony, tend to induce self-forgetfulness through yoga, art, or—in our modern day—the internet, breath prayer helps release stress to Jesus instead of merely escaping it. It engages the body instead of placating it, so that turmoil is stilled and we are renewed for action in the world.
For those of us who are attuned to our environments, perhaps even ruled by social circumstances, breath prayer can help us stay connected to God. As a regular daily practice, the prayer keeps us humble and reminds us that we are loved, regardless of how others respond. Because it articulates who God is and who we are, it helps us maintain perspective and equips us to minister to others from a power that transcends our own (Heb 13:20–21).
1Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor, 1999), 82.
2Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 123.
3The following story and instructions are influenced by Brother Ramon and Simon Barrington-Ward, Praying the Jesus Prayer Together (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2004), 39–41, 55–58, 118–29.
4Staretz Silouan, Wisdom from Mount Athos: The Writings of Staretz Silouan 1866–1938 (ed. Archimandrite Sophrony; trans. Rosemary Edmonds; London: Mowbrays, 1974), 83.
5Archimandrite Sophrony, foreword to Wisdom from Mount Athos: The Writings of Staretz Silouan 1866–1938, by Staretz Silouan (ed. Archimandrite Sophrony; trans. Rosemary Edmonds; London: Mowbrays, 1974), 6.