Since the Covid pandemic struck one recurring TV image which distresses me deeply is to see a patient connected by tubes and wires, attended by masked people, desperately struggling to breathe. Breath is life! We can live without food and water for a limited time, but not without breath. On emerging into the world the first, vital action of the newly born is breathing, and on leaving the world it is our final bodily action.
In the penultimate verse of his six verse poem how accurate was it for the Christian poet James Montgomery to link breathing to prayer? In his poem (one of our well known hymns) he draws a number of images of prayer – ‘sincere desire’, ‘hidden fire’, ‘a sigh’, ‘a tear’, ‘simplest form of speech’, ‘contrition’ and in the sixth verse writes ‘Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath, the Christian’s native air’, (H&P 557) If his image is accurate it gives a vital significance to what most Christians, even Mother Theresa, have difficulty in maintaining. Spiritual directors, priests, pastors, clergy, scholars, theologians – all specialists in their field – drawing from their knowledge and personal efforts, including failure – offer us what help they can – but many of us struggle to ‘breathe in prayer’.
I have attended many retreats, read numerous books, listened to countless talks, conversed with counsellors, but, for me, as for others, the search and the struggle continues. If only I could find the solution like the brilliant writer Anne Lamott. Using only three words, she summarizes her prayer life in her classic book, ‘Help, Thanks, Wow’; saying that is all she ever needs. Thousands of volumes are at hand covering every aspect of prayer outlining many techniques, but I have yet to find one method recommended as easy and as natural as breathing. The apostle Paul comes the closest when he says ‘Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thes.5:17), which suggests prayer for him must have been as natural as breathing is to us. We don’t have to find time to breathe, or decide to spend the morning breathing. Though we might engage in breathing exercises to improve our vascular quality. We breathe without making a conscious effort – unless we have pneumonia. So are Paul and Montgomery exaggerating?
The simple admission of four people often resounds in my mind, they are, “You can only learn to pray by praying”, “Pray as you can”, “Keep it simple” and the brief confession of a worshipper, “I look at Him. He looks at me!” Prayers offered by others, either extempore or read, or in printed form have often serviced my soul like a ventilator providing me with vital breath’ when I needed it. The image of James Montgomery and the counsel of Paul to pray all the time, or continually clearly indicates prayer is essentially an activity involving more than speaking. However, a real connection with someone may be made non-verbally; but a relationship requires communication.
Maybe the verb love expresses the essential element we are looking for. Jesus so loved God, moment by moment, his life was a prayer. He loves us and prays for us. When we love someone we listen to them, we are are not always engaged in talking, or sharing their company, or thinking of them, or doing something specifically for them or with them, our relationship with them exists, deep, unbroken in the heart. We have a union with them which is part of who we are making communion between us possible and wordless. We have no problem with ‘picturing’ the person we love, but we can get bogged down when we try to ‘’picture’ God. Anne Lamott writes, ‘Let’s just say prayer is communication from our hearts to the great mystery…..to the animating energy of love we are sometimes bold enough to believe in’ then adds, ‘We can say anything to God. It’s all prayer’. As the lungs are to breathing, so a love relationship is to prayer. In love the door to the other is always open.
If you are like me a single word, memory, or incident may suddenly flick the switch and bring the one to mind with who I have a love union connection. Not for a moment would we allow anything to disrupt our love relationship. For Pierre de Chardin his love relationship with God was expressed through his work,’…At the tip of my pen, my spade, my brush, my needle – of my heart and of my thought. By pressing the stroke, the line, or the stitch, on which I am engaged, to its ultimate natural finish, I shall arrive at the ultimate aim toward which my innermost will tends’. God is closer to us and knows us better than any loved one. Slowly, take a deep breath and think of someone you love most. While doing that listen to C. S. Lewis, ‘I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I am helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me’. Now keep breathing – God is in the breath. His door always says “WELCOME!”