By Marjean Bailey When I was young, I was taught that prayer was "talking with God" and that there were two kinds of prayer: praise and petition. I was not quite sure what praise was, but guessed that it was taken care of with words like, "Thank you God for this fine day" (even though when I was young I did not think every day was a fine day). Petition, on the other hand, seemed to be not so much talking with God as telling God what to do and what I wanted.
Although I tried at various times to build a prayer life, I could not maintain this practice for more than a few weeks. I got very tired of my list of wishes and wondered if God tired of them as well. I was yearning for something more, but did not know what it was. Listening to long, pastoral prayers seemed very pious but did not make me feel any closer to God.
What seemed to make prayer so hard for me was that God was external, so removed. I believed that God was good and I was not. I wanted desperately to be good but, try as I might, I could not get past the feeling that I first had to prove myself. Deep down, I believed I didn't do very well with prayer because something was wrong with me.
We in Western Christianity have focused so exclusively on our sinful nature that we have created a barrier to closeness with a loving God, removing us from ourselves and all of creation. I began to have a new understanding of prayer when I learned about the biblical admonition to "pray without ceasing." This phrase was adopted by a group of church fathers in the first centuries A.D. who wanted to be in an attitude of prayer as they lived out their lives in faithful work and service. This took the form of a "breath prayer": "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner." Since we were already steeped in notions of our sinfulness, this prayer would not work for me and I was encouraged to find a "breath prayer" of my own, a mantra that came from the depths of my being and included my name for God. I would start with praise, saying, "I know that you are there in the vastness of the universe and I am happy," and then I would make a short statement about the deepest desire of my heart, a petition. I repeated this in sitting meditation and as many times during the day as I could remember: while waiting in traffic, brushing my teeth, at the supermarket, at the ring of the telephone. This prayer soon became as close to me as my breathing and has been a very precious part of my understanding and experience of prayer.
A few times, this prayer of my heart slipped down into my being and I found myself in the presence of the beauty of holiness that transcends all words, emotions, and feelings. However, even the God with whom I was connecting in this way seemed external to me. I had not yet let go of some control over the connection between myself and my self, between my mind and my soul, between my breathing and my breath. During this time, I found it very hard to pray for friends who needed help, for parishioners, and for places in the world that were in turmoil and war. I prayed the words, but something was missing.
Once when the prophet Elijah was very frightened and wanted to run away from everything—his calling, his mission, and his truth—it was revealed to him that what he was looking for was not to be found in wind, earthquake, or fire, but in the "gentle voice of stillness." When I discovered that mindfulness and prayer meant breathing deeply in the silence that existed as much within me as without, I began a whole new journey in prayer. As I deepened my practice, I discovered that to breathe in and "relax my body and my mind" meant that in the silence of my breathing, everything was filled with newness, with breath.
The Hebrew word for breath comes from the same word as wind and spirit. The wind of God was the Spirit that was breathed into the clay when humankind was created. For Christians, the Christ Spirit is breathed into each one at baptism. So when breathing out, "I smile for joy," it is not because I do not still have to work with my angers, griefs, and fears, but because the more deeply I breathe Christ Spirit into every cell of my being, the more surely there is a container for everything else.
Prayer is practice in breathing, mindful that it is the very essence of spirit, God, Christ, Buddha; of the stars, the seas, the trees, the pure being of me, the silence that is everything. As I breathe into every aspect of my being—body, intellect and feeling—then can come words, images, and actions. This way, when I want to ask for something—the healing of a friend's illness, the pain of a colleague's failure, the joy of a newborn infant, the word that might transform hate into understanding—it is more real. I can often find the patience to wait for the better word, the clearer action, and the kinder deed because it comes out of practice that is prayer. The spoken words come from a deeper place within that is also, paradoxically, the universal spirit without. The angers, griefs, and fears are still there, but they have a home in which to be held and transformed in our daily life. Then, daily life too becomes a prayer and a practice, and leads me back to breathing and silence.
Reverend Marjean Bailey is the Vicar of The Mission Parish of St. Peter, an Episcopal Church in Londonderry, New Hampshire. She has attended Thay's retreats for the past ten years and sits with a small group in Londonderry.