Praying with the rhythm of breath
The rediscovery of ancient spiritual practices in the postmodern church has revived interest in the “Jesus Prayer” or “Prayer of the Heart.” Many 21st-century Christians have found in this simple method of prayer a discipline that can lead beyond words to silent contemplation of God's loving presence.
First practiced by the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) in the fifth century, the Jesus Prayer spread rapidly in the Eastern churches. The Jesus Prayer is often called a “breath prayer” because repetition of a sacred text is coordinated with the body's natural rhythm of breathing, a practice that slows the metabolism and helps to focus the mind and heart. “Let the memory of Jesus combine with your breathing,” wrote St. John Climacus in the sixth century, “then you will know the profit of silence.” As a “technique,” breath prayer superficially resembles meditative practices in Buddhism, Islam and other religions, but the Jesus Prayer is uniquely Christian because it centers on Jesus Christ as Savior.
The words most often associated with the Prayer of the Heart are based on the Christian confession that “Jesus Christ is Lord” and the prayer of the tax collector in Luke 18:13: "But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”
The most common formula is
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, * have mercy on me, a sinner.
The text can be simplified to
Jesus, Son of God, * have mercy on me.
Or simplified further to
Jesus * mercy.
In its earliest development, monks would repeat this prayer for mercy with the aid of a knotted rope: each knot represented one repetition of the prayer. Called komboskini (“string with knots”) in Greek or chotki in Slavonic, prayer ropes are gaining popularity not only in Eastern churches but also among Protestants and Roman Catholics.
Prayer ropes usually are available with 10, 33, 50 or 100 knots. An alternative is a string of beads, often of wood but sometimes of quartz or other materials. Like a Roman Catholic rosary, a chotki is usually attached to a cross.
Christians who follow this ancient tradition obviously may adapt it in any way they find useful or meaningful. Here are some suggestions:
Find a quiet space where you can sit or kneel in an attitude of attentive relaxation. Holding the cross in your left hand, make the sign of the cross with your right and say:
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the name of God: the holy and life-giving Trinity. Amen.
Still holding the cross, spend some time in silence to settle your thoughts, then, remembering that God is present in this moment, ask for God's blessing on your time of prayer. Use any words that come to mind, or any prayer for inspiration. Examples:
Let the words of my mouth,
and the meditation of my heart
be always acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
I bind unto myself today
the strong name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One, and One in Three.
[Repeated three times]
Holy and Mighty,
Holy and Immortal,
have mercy on me.
O most merciful Redeemer,
Friend and Brother,
may I know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
follow you more nearly,
day by day. Amen.
to you all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from you no secrets are hid.
Cleanse the thoughts of my heart,
that I may perfectly love you,
and worthily praise your holy name,
through Christ, the Lord. Amen.
As a daily reminder of your covenant in Baptism, recite the Apostles' Creed.
On the first set of knots (or beads), say the Jesus Prayer slowly and meditatively, holding each knot between your thumb and forefinger as you do so. Coordinate your breathing with the prayer: breathing in slowly while you silently recite the first half of the prayer, then, after a pause, breathing out on the second half.
Remember that as you coordinate the prayer with your breathing, the rhythm of breath should be natural and relaxed, not self-conscious or forced.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ,
have mercy on me.
If you prefer to pray out loud, breath in slowly between each half of the text.
Any other short prayer or brief text from scripture can be repeated in the same way. For example:
The grace of the Lord Jesus *
be with all the saints.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; *
everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, *
and God abides in them.
After the first set of knots or beads, you may pause briefly for another prayer, or simply continue on to the next set. You may continue as long as you like: one traditional practice is to repeat the prayer 100 times. Some chotkis include at intervals a small cross or a bead of a different color, material or size: these “stoppers” can either be ignored as you continue to pray or used for an alternative acclamation or prayer.
When you are ready to conclude, return to the cross and give thanks, either in your own words, or in the words of Scripture, or from some other source. Examples:
The Lord’s Prayer
May the peace of God,
which is beyond human understanding,
keep my heart and mind safe
in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Now, Lord, let your servant go in peace:
your word has been fulfilled. Amen.
May the God of hope
fill me with all joy and peace in believing,
so that, by the power of the Holy Spirit,
I may abound in hope. Amen.
May the blessing of God the Almighty,
the holy and life-giving Trinity,
be upon me today (tonight)
and on all who need God’s care. Amen.
St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary
Prayer Beads Supplier
Written by Andy Lang
Publishing, Identity and Communication Team
United Church of Christ
Art by Dr. He Qi