by Eric Elnes
Do you have a hard time praying to God for longer than a few moments? Do you wonder what to say, or how to listen? You may be comforted to know that even great spiritual leaders like the apostle Paul and Thomas Merton found prayer difficult. Unlike most people, however, Paul (and Merton) understood that, given time and constant practice, what we put into prayer is vastly exceeded by what we receive from it. They also knew that we don’t have to consciously be aware of what we’re saying, or hearing back, to receive benefits from prayer. What was that Woody Allen line? Eighty percent of success in life is just showing up.
Let’s imagine taking this principle seriously with prayer: that eighty percent of our “success” in prayer (that is, connecting with God in a way that transforms our life), is just showing up. This would imply that transformative prayer isn’t about words you use, or the scriptures you’ve memorized, or even the degree of saintliness you have attained. Eighty percent is just showing up each day, willing to take the time to connect.
As Paul says:
The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)
If you read my last post, you may be wondering if you can replace the word “Spirit” for “breath” here. In fact, you can! Listen to how the passage sounds if you translate Paul’s word, pneuma as “breath”:
The breath helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very breath intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the breath, because the breath intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.Â (Romans 8:26-27)
I’m not suggesting that Paul really meant “breath” instead of “Spirit.” But it is clear is that in Paul’s understanding, breath and spirit (with a small “s” or a capital one) are fundamentally related. So what Paul might say is that when you pray, it’s okay just to let your breath do the talking. In fact, it’s a very good thing to just show up and breathe. Just try inviting God’s Holy Spirit into you as you inhale. When you exhale, simply allow your breath to carry your joys and concerns, your hopes and fears back to God. Allow your breath to convey whatever you cannot put into words. Praying with our breath isn’t the only way to pray to God, but it’s a significant one. For many who pray for an extended time each day, paying close attention to breath is a helpful, even vital, part of what they do.
At Countryside Community Church, we do a simple exercise each Sunday at the beginning of worship where we simply invite people to take a deep breath in, let it out slowly, and in so doing, clear away whatever obstacles they may have brought with them to experiencing the Presence of God. Some people say that single breath is what they show up for. They’ve found it to be a place they can count on where God regularly shows up.