By Phileena Heuertz and Andrea Bridges

Mindful Silence: On Breath Prayer

As has become a July tradition at The Well, we have the opportunity to share excerpts of a book we enjoyed this year. 

We settled on Mindful Silence: The Heart of Christian Contemplation by Phileena Heuertz because of its invitation to spiritual growth through the practice of contemplative prayer. Her own experience with this practice came after years of Christian work in developing countries, and an inability to reconcile what she witnessed in the world with “what I had learned about God growing up in the Protestant pews of Indiana.” Contemplative prayer became a new way of relationship with God. 

While the work to which you are called might not look like hers, might you resonate with the sense of weight of responsibility, important problems which you are not able to fully solve on your own, and a general exhaustion? This invitation to contemplative prayer offers a way forward when you’re not sure what to make of your faith anymore. 

We hope the introduction to Mindful Silence is meaningful for you too. Come back each Thursday in July for another glimpse into this book!

— Andrea Bridges

Practice: Breath Prayer

by Phileena Heuertz, excerpted from Mindful Silence: The Heart of Christian Contemplation

Christian contemplation hinges on the affirmation that by grace we are partakers in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). The breath prayer, like all contemplative prayer practices, helps us live into that divine nature and be a channel for love and mercy in our world.

Breath prayer is an ancient Christian prayer practice dating back to at least the sixth century. Historically, it is associated with the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, and known as the Jesus Prayer or Prayer of the Heart. Early practitioners would repeat to the rhythm of their breath the phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In time, the prayer was shortened to, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy” or simply, “Jesus, mercy.”

Breath prayer is an example of “praying without ceasing,” as the apostle Paul admonished us to do (1 Thessalonians 5:17), and has the potential to become as natural as breathing. It is intended to be a very short prayer of praise or petition, just six to eight syllables. The words of the prayer can be easily adjusted to your heart’s desire. Praise is expressed by invoking one of the divine names such as Yahweh, God, Jesus, Lord, Father, Mother, Christ, or Spirit on the in-breath. You may prefer another name of adoration. Your request, intention, or praise is composed of the few words following the initial divine invocation and prayed on the out-breath.

Breath prayer is usually recited silently. But some people sing it; others chant it. It’s your prayer; pray it your way. You may use breath prayer on the go or as the method for your daily spiritual practice in stillness. When praying in stillness, repeat the prayer over and over to the rhythm of your breath. Keep your attention on the words of the prayer, like a mantra. If your attention wanders, gently return to the words of the prayer. Eventually, the words may fall away, the mind becomes still, and you are brought into deeper contemplation.

Begin with five minutes and gradually increase the time to fifteen or twenty minutes as you become disciplined with the prayer. You may want to use a timer to free yourself from watching the clock. Afterward, some find it useful to write in a journal their experience with the prayer.

To begin, close your eyes and recall the line “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Be still, calm, peaceful, open to the presence of God.

With your eyes closed, imagine that God is calling you by name. Imagine that God is actually asking, “(Your name), what do you want?” As with the blind man on the road to Jericho (Luke 18:35), Jesus kindly looks you in the eyes and asks, “What do you want from me?”

Give God a simple and direct answer that comes honestly from your heart. Your answer may be one word such as peace or love or help. It may be several words or a phrase such as, “Show me the way,” or “Give me peace.” Whatever your answer, it is the foundation of your breath prayer. Perhaps you simply want to praise God or express gratitude. Your prayer may be something simple like “I adore you,” or “Thank you.”

Select the name that you are most comfortable using to invoke God’s presence. Combine it with your request or praise. This is your prayer.

Breathe in your invocation for God. Breathe out your request or praise.

You may need to compose several prayers before you find one that truly arises from your deepest desire. So, look carefully at your prayer. Does it reflect the heart of your desire? There’s no limit to developing your breath prayer. It may be the same from day to day, or it may change.

Sometimes you may want to reverse the practice. Sit in silence and let the Spirit pray through you. Ask for God to reveal your name and God’s desire for you. Consider Isaiah 62:2: “You will have a new name that YHWH’s mouth will bestow.” This can be a profound experience. You may wind up hearing something like, “Beloved, you are good,” or “Child, rest.” Wait on God and see how you may be renewed.

Sample Breath Prayers

  • Jesus, free me.

  • Lord, show me the way.
  • Holy one, heal me.
  • Jesus, have mercy.
  • Holy Wisdom, guide me.
  • Father/Mother (Abba/Amma), let me feel your presence.

For more information visit Gravity: A Center for Contemplative Activism.

*Taken from Mindful Silence by Phileena Heuertz. Copyright (c) 2018 by Phileena Heuertz. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.


About the Author

Phileena Heuertz is the author of Pilgrimage of a Soul and a founding partner of Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism. For nearly twenty years she and her husband, Chris, codirected an international nonprofit in more than seventy countries, building community among victims of human trafficking, survivors of HIV and AIDS, abandoned children, and child soldiers and war brides.

Spiritual director, yoga instructor, public speaker, retreat guide, and author, Phileena is passionate about spirituality and making the world a better place. She has led contemplative retreats for a number of faith communities, including Word Made Flesh, World Vision International, and Compassion International. In addition, she is sought after as a speaker at universities, seminaries, and conferences such as Q, Catalyst, Urbana, and the Center for Action and Contemplation. Phileena was also named an “Outstanding Alumni” by Asbury University and one of Outreach magazine’s “30 Emerging Influencers Reshaping Leadership.”

Andrea Bridges works in the Graduate College at the University of Illinois. She is a former Editor at The Well and believes words can create connection over space and time. Andrea has an MDiv from Duke Divinity School and lives in Urbana, Illinois with her husband, Matt, three kids, and one dog. You’ll often find her in the garden or cheering at various youth sports.

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