Spiritual Discipline of Breathing

There’s something about the quiet that gives you the freedom and the ability to hear so much more. When I was recently on a day retreat back at Saint Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan, I was reminded of the power of silence. I say that I was back because it had been a few years since my last visit. When I moved south to Indianapolis, it made a trip north more difficult and less frequent. Even so, from the moment I stepped onto the sacred grounds of the Abbey recently, my soul felt at ease and I immediately entered into the monastic rhythm of prayer and silence.

As I made my way to the chapel on the monastery grounds, I noticed how quiet it was as compared to daily life at home with a three year old or downtown at my church. When I finally settled into the chairs lining the back of the sanctuary, I heard nothing, except for breathing. It wasn’t necessarily my own, as I could hear the brothers breathing deeply as they began to chant the psalter.

Once Terce (the third prayer office of the day) wrapped up and the other monks prepared for Daily Eucharist, silence once again enveloped the space. We broke the silence only to begin the words of the liturgy and as I found my way forward to the altar I once again heard the deep breathing of the brothers as they prepared themselves and their souls to receive the body and the blood.

Thomas Merton, the great spiritual writer and monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, wrote, “Christ himself breathes in me.” Could it be that what I heard was in fact Christ breathing in my fellow brethren? As I heard the deep breathing in the brothers and guests, I noticed myself focusing on my breathing. As easy as spoken prayer, I began to breathe, deeply.

It seems so simple, yet it can be so centering. My wife Candace has been telling for a long time to breathe deeply more often. I recall the time when our son Zechariah was being born and I had to remind her breathe often and deeply. She now reminds me to do the same. I suppose we have both experienced the simply act of breathing as prayer.
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It can be difficult to find time every single day to pray in silence. I found myself taking a few moments at the end of a long day to be in silence, but it can be rare with a three year old at home to find a lengthy time for prayer. What I have learned is that even taking a few moments to breathe deeply can become a moment of centering prayer. There is wisdom in those who teach children to calm themselves by breathing slowly and deeply. It brings calm and peace. It can also become a spiritual discipline as we center our breathing on the name of Jesus or a favorite Scripture passage.

“Prayer is God’s breathing in us,” wrote Fr. Henri Nouwen. Our own breathing can become prayer where God is breathing in us. What I have learned from Merton, Nouwen, and the brothers of Saint Gregory’s is that deep breathing can become our deepest prayers.

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