But what is prayer, and how does one actually practice it? In simple terms, prayer is communication with God that is carried on through words, thoughts, and images (and also in our actions—another topic for another day!). How one prays is another question, and there is a wise saying that “prayer is the school from which no one graduates.”
While prayer is a profound mystery and may often feel like hard work, I'd like to suggest that our prayer lives can be enriched (and unburdened) by comparing it to breathing. (As a singer, the practice of proper breathing is a regular part of my music practice regimen.) The analogy of prayer to breathing has been suggested for centuries by our brothers in the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches in a prayer exercise known simply as the “Breath Prayer.” It derives this name because the words for breath and Spirit are very similar in the biblical languages. More importantly, the practice of this kind of prayer enables us in a very real—though perhaps mystical—way to experience what St. Paul had in mind when he says the Spirit prays in us (Romans 8:26-27).
The oldest and most practiced breath prayer combines Jesus’ teaching about prayer in Luke 18 with the earliest confession of the church: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The thought behind the “Jesus Prayer” is that as one recites this prayer, the very depth of our being is penetrated, and authentic Christ-like transformation takes place. Here are a few practical suggestions that some have found helpful in easing into this type of prayer:
Begin by asking for help from the Holy Spirit, remembering that it is only by the work of the Spirit that we can proclaim, “Jesus is Lord.” Next, become aware of your breathing for several deep breaths in and out. You might want to quietly give thanks to God for the breath of life, even though you are mostly unaware of this life-giving gift. Silently say the first part of the prayer as you breathe in: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.” Do this several times, imagining that you are breathing in the love, joy, and peace of the Lord Jesus. After this, become aware of your breathing out and as you do so, silently say, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” Imagine all the impurities, fears, sins that you are putting in the way of God's holy presence—and that breathing them out helps to expunge them from your being. (For those who are visually oriented, some suggest that this type of prayer can be enhanced by gazing at a picture of Christ that ‘speaks’ to you.)
The great thing about the Breath Prayer is that you can do it anywhere, anytime, and in any posture. (BTW, where did we get off thinking that the only posture for prayer was bowed heads and closed eyes ...but that is—again—another topic for another time!) As we practice this important exercise, not only will our hearts be refreshed and our spiritual eyes opened, we may find that St. Paul's admonition to “pray at all times in the Spirit” is not impossible but rather a life-giving joy! What a great start to this year’s Lenten Journey! Keep praying! Keep breathing! Have a happy Lent!
JUST a NOTE: By now you may have noticed the changes in our worship space and in the liturgy: no greenery, the liturgical color is the purple of penitence: there are no alleluias, hallelujahs or Gloria. We sing “Praise to you, Lord Jesus, King of endless glory; Savior of the World, Savior of the World for our Gospel Acclamation. Our Eucharistic Acclamations have changed settings; we were singing the Mass of Renewal—now we are singing the Mass of Creation. Our Memorial Acclamation has changed from “When we eat this bread…” to “Save us Savior of the World…” At the Fraction Rite, and for the Lamb of God we will chant the English equivalent to the “Agnus Dei.”
The purpose of liturgical changes by season is to help us be more committed and engaged in what we are doing/saying/singing during the great prayer of the mass—this is another gift of the Church! These changes are so that we may always be conscious, focused, alert and aware as we pray together—never complacent, bored, day dreaming or inattentive. A good challenge for Lent may be to give yourself over completely to our communal prayer—while at home you practice personal prayer, too. Have a happy Lent! May God grant us the grace of open spirits and minds—and changed hearts!