Breathing by Name
Breathing the Name – the Prayer of The Heart
© Maksymilian Nawara OSB
A believer does not have to be convinced of the necessity of prayer. Not only because he has heard it hundreds of times that one needs to pray but because, to greater or lesser extent, he feels that prayer is the basic need of the human heart. One can react to this need occasionally – when “something goes wrong” or “when we feel good”. We can also make a decision that “we want to pray” irrespective of everything. However, frequently, a problem appears. “I want but I don’t know how”. Prayer is often associated with something arduous, difficult and even boring.
Our meeting with God is usually a reflection of our life. We have so many very important things to do in our lives and there is so much to accomplish. In prayer, we would like to do exactly the same. Bearing in mind that “the more the better” we develop new external forms hoping to gain some concrete benefit. What shall we do to avoid repeating new prayers and to make them an integral part of ourselves? This problem pervaded Christians from the very beginning of Christianity and this is why St. Paul in his letter to Thessalonians calls Christians on to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). But what does it mean? Many monks and laypeople could not find the right answer. However, a very concrete “spiritual practice” emerged as the answer.
Reading the Bible (lectio divina) has been the most fundamental spiritual practice of monks. However, it was not “reading” as we understand it today. Nowadays, when we read, we think the words over and search for their meaning. We think that the more we can conceive while reading the better it becomes. For the Deserts Fathers spiritual reading was experiencing the God’s word and staying with it rather than thinking about it. They learnt many fragments of the Bible by heart and they simply recited them and while reciting the Word they let it live inside them. They absorbed the Word just like a sponge absorbs water. Naturally, the fragments became shorter and in time they took the form of short prayer which nowadays we would call ardent acts. In such a way a single-sentence prayer was born. The prayer (one sentence or one word) became a refrain recited throughout a day. It was, though, a mechanical repetition but the prayer of the heart. And it wasn’t about analyzing the Word but rather about being in front of God, a complete concentration on the One – the God only. The hermits searched for such sentences in the Bible which could constitute a prayer in themselves. For instance the words of the Tax Collector “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13) or the ones of the blind beggar from Jericho “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me”. Gradually, the words took the form of Jesus Prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” or just “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”. There were several sentences that were recited. However, in a short time the sentence of Jesus Prayer became the most popular. St. John Cassian, a monk who in the 4th century spent many years at hermitages in Egypt where he learnt the tradition of the one-word prayer from the Desert Fathers and spread it to the monks in the West, summarizes his teachings on meditation as follows: “Let the soul incessantly cling to one short formula until, strengthened by continuous and uninterrupted meditation it casts away rich and extensive thoughts and agrees to poverty limiting itself to one line only (…) In this way our soul will reach the pure prayer where mind does not focus on imagination, does not utter words and does not ponder on the meaning of the words but instead the heart burns with fire filled with inexpressible admiration whereas the spirit is full is insatiable desire” (St. John Cassian. 2002. Rozmowy z Ojcami, Zrodla monastyczne 28, Tyniec, Kraków, pages: 437 and 440 (Collationes Patrum XXVI).
At the same time, St. John Climacus taught: “Let the memory of Jesus be united with your every breath. As just like a drop of water shapes the rock, not by the strength of the strike, but by frequency of falling, the prayer penetrates the heart. A proper body posture is extremely helpful in staying focused on the prayer word, in being present and in constant return to the call beginning again and again”.
Breath and straight back
Breathing is something so natural that we do not really pay much attention to it. However, it is true that every one of us took their first breath some time ago and entered this world being given life from God. Each time we take a breath we are given life again. At the end of our earthly wondering, we will take our last breath and then give our life back to God. It can thus be said that the life is the breath. The “Name” in Judeo-Christian tradition means “presence”. To know someone by his name is to now his essence. This is why Moses asked for God’s name. This is also why the name in various parts of the Holy Scriptures is mysterious and the second commandment says: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”. Therefore, let the memory of the name of Jesus be present in every breath. Each time we breathe in we are given the breath of life. We stand in the presence of God. We receive. When we breathe in we give to the Lord everything that there is in Him; we simply say: “have mercy on me”. Looking at the particular wording of the Jesus prayer we might say that the monologue prayer consists of two parts: breathing in (invocation) - “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” and breathing out (confession) – “have mercy on me (sinner)”. However, this is not everything. If you sit in a cosy armchair or on a comfortable chair it is difficult to stay alert and we frequently end up dreaming or having a nap. Yet, for the Desert Fathers, prayer (proseuche) and attention (prosoche) are inseparable. Sitting still with your back straight, on a chair without a backrest, a prayer stool or a meditation cushion, helps stay alert. So we sit down and gently connect the prayer with breathing continuously returning to the present moment through reciting a prayer word. Soon, thoughts appear. We experience them soon after meditation starts. Our mind starts wondering in thousands of different directions and we follow. We travel back in time or to the future. We are like the disciples on their way Emmaus. They talk about what happened and what will happen and because they are not present in the given moment they fail to recognize Jesus walking with them. Once we notice that during our prayer we think about what we have seen or heard or we start making plans for our future or the future of someone else or we just simply wait for the prayer to finish we should gently return to our prayer word. We should not search for deep intellectual illuminations or for something extraordinary. The centre of everything is Jesus – in fact He is everything – the Only One always and fully Present.
Simplicity and poverty
The prayer word is like an anchor which moors us in the present moment. God is in the present moment. He does not have future or past. He is here, now and He wants to be with us here and now. The more often we return to our prayer word the longer we stay alert and focused. It is similar to a drop falling on a stone. This type of meditation is a simple prayer in which what matters is the presence of a man in the One who simply is. Our consent to “poverty” in terms of prayer words, recommended by the Desert fathers, may become the sign of readiness to give control over our lives to God. Each one of us may say: “O Lord you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up” (Psalm 139:1-2). When we constantly return to our prayer word we let go of our plans, fantasies, ideas, our time and we give our life to God. Second after second. Properly practiced Christian meditation leads to the situation in which “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30).
Meditation for everyone
Christian meditation understood in this way is the simplest form of contemplative prayer introducing a meditating person into a state of staying in front of God without thoughts or images. Catechism of the Catholic Church calls it after St. John of the Cross “the prayer of silent love” stressing that in this type of prayer “words are not of discursive character but are rather like sparks starting the fire of love” (Catechism of the Catholic Church n. 2117). The tradition of Christian meditation, practiced for over two thousand years mostly in monasteries and convents, was adopted after the Second Vatican Council by numerous secular prayer movements. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church “On some Aspects of Christian Meditation” pointed that “Many Christians today have a keen desire to learn how to experience a deeper and authentic prayer life despite the not inconsiderable difficulties which modern culture places in the way of the need for silence, recollection and meditation. The interest which in recent years has been awakened also among some Christians by forms of meditation associated with some eastern religions and their particular methods of prayer is a significant sign of this need for spiritual recollection and a deep contact with the divine mystery”. In order to satisfy this need, the Centre of Christian Meditation at the Benedictine Monastery in Lubin was established 20 years ago (see: www.lubin-medytacje.pl). Every month, three-day meditation sessions are organized for approximately 30 people. The participants remain silent and share their time between Liturgy of the Hours with the monks, about 5 hours of meditation daily and 2 hours of physical work. The experiences of group meditations at the monastery in Lubiń gave rise to the Lubińska Community of Christian Meditation which comprises meditation groups from all over Poland which now practice regular silent prayer in various cities in the country. Additionally, both in Poland and in other countries there is the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM), a monastery without walls, led by Fr. Laurence Freeman OSB.
St. Basil the Great wrote: “Seek for God and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart”. There are many ways to meet God – Jesus Prayer is only one of them. The key to discover one’s own way is to realise which type of prayer we are called to practice. I am deeply convinced that Lord calls us not only to pray but to pray in a specific way. Some find their way in charismatic movements, some in rosary, contemplation or meditation described in this article. If you want to pray and you are constantly searching for your way Christian meditation might be the answer. If you have already discovered your prayer – persevere! “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans”. (Romans 8:26). He is the One who gives us the gift of incessant prayer. We should “merely” persevere in it.
Fr. Maksymilian Nawara OSB leads the Centre of Christian Meditation at the Benedictine Monastery in Lubin (Poland)