After last week’s sermon stressing Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing,” (and the reminder that God is closer than “the Cloud!”) I got an email from friends who started to pray before and after using their smart phones for email or texts, etc. I added the thought of praying for the person involved with each message. Philip Yancey comments:
“Prayer consists of Attention,” wrote Simone Weil. “It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.” How do we pray “ without ceasing ” in Paul’s phrase? Our minds have the potential to attend to more than one thing at once, and I have found it possible to give God attention even while doing something else: to pray simultaneously as other activities are going on. I simply try to direct Godward the inner dialogue that is taking place all the time . To pray without ceasing taps into the mind’s multitasking ability. (Philip Yancey, Prayer)
A more focused use of the constant Jesus Prayer or other “prayer of one breath” is summarized by Richard Foster in his book on prayer:
The idea has its roots in the Psalms, where a repeated phrase reminds us of an entire Psalm, for example, “O LORD, you have searched me and known me” (Ps. 139:1). As a result, the concept arose of a short, simple prayer of petition that can be spoken in one breath, hence the name “breath prayer.” Gregory of Sinai says, “One’s love of God should run before breathing.”4 The most famous of the breath prayers is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
As you can tell, this prayer is derived from Jesus’ parable on self-righteousness, in which the tax collector beat his chest and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). It came together in its present form and was used extensively in the sixth century and then was revived in the Eastern Church in the fourteenth century. In the nineteenth century an anonymous Russian peasant tells the moving story of his search to pray without ceasing in The Way of a Pilgrim. Once he learned the Jesus Prayer, he prayed it continuously until the prayer moved from his mind into his heart and finally throughout his whole body—becoming so internalized that it was present with him at all times, whether he was awake or asleep.
This particular book has had an influence upon Christians far beyond the borders of the Eastern Church. But the Jesus Prayer is only one example. It is also possible to discover your own individual breath prayer. One evening some years ago I was out jogging, when a dozen or more breath prayers poured forth from my lips. Here are a few of those prayers that came tumbling out that summer evening: “O Lord, baptize me with love”; “Teach me gentleness, Father”; “Jesus, let me receive your grace”; “Gracious Master, remove my fear”; “Reveal my sin, O Holy Spirit”; “Lord Jesus, help me feel loved.” Notice the brevity of each of the prayers—seldom more than seven or eight syllables. Also, note the sense of nearness and intimacy: God is addressed in a close, personal way. See too how the person praying expresses dependence, docility, trust—the opposite of self-reliance. Then notice that the prayers are all requests. This is self-focused prayer in the sense that we are asking something to be done in us or to us. But it is not self-centered prayer, for the requests of breath prayer are seasoned reflections on the will and ways of God.
Again, I recommend The Jesus Prayer, by F.M. Green for more detail on this “prayer of the heart.” See my earlier posts also.