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Prayer, The Soul’s Breath
Once a Week
Ole Hallesby, a 20th century Norwegian Lutheran pastor, observed that
“From time immemorial prayer has been spoken of as the breath of the soul. And the figure is an excellent one indeed.”
Why is that?
Hallesby continues: prayer is
“the organ by which we receive Christ into our parched and withered hearts…As air enters quietly when we breathe and does its normal work in our lungs, so Jesus enters quietly into our hearts and does his blessed work there.”
That is a beautiful image, and a glorious truth: Jesus enters in as easily as our lungs draw breath.
Breath is also an excellent figure for prayer because, just as breath itself signifies the simultaneous operation of the active and passive modes, so prayer is where our action and God’s action meet (see last week’s newsletter). That is why I believe in combining the neurophysiological power of breathing with the spiritual (pneumatic!) power of prayer.
Or consider this figure: corporate prayers are the lungs of Christ’s body on earth, breathing in his presence by the Spirit and breathing out praise in the obedience of faith.
Can you think of additional reasons why so many followers of Jesus throughout history, in different traditions and locations, have viewed prayer as the soul’s breath? Here are a handful (ok, more than a handful) of ways Christians have expressed this throughout history:
Quotes from Various Authors
“In Thee I breathe a little, when I pour out my soul by myself in the voice of joy and praise, the sound of him that keeps holy-day.” African bishop Augustine of Hippo
“The sun cannot shine without light; nor can the heart be cleansed of the stain of destructive thoughts without invoking in prayer the name of Jesus. This being the case, we should use that name as we do our own breath.” Eastern Orthodox monk Hesychios of Sinai
“This [breathing] is a certain faculty which God will there give the soul in the communication of the Holy Spirit, Who, like one breathing, raises the soul by His divine aspiration, informs it, strengthens it, so that it too may breathe in God with the same aspiration of love which the Father breathes with the Son, and the Son with the Father, which is the Holy Spirit Himself, Who is breathed into the soul in the Father and the Son in that transformation so as to unite it to Himself.” Carmelite friar John of the Cross.
"To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing." German reformer Martin Luther
“Prayer is the breathing of the Spirit of God.” Puritan pastor Sampson Tounesend
“Prayer is the vital breath of our spiritual life unto God.” Puritan theologian John Owen
“All successful prayer is from the breathing of the Spirit of God, when he inspires and indites, when he directs the heart as to matter, and governs the tongue as to utterance. God graciously hears the sighs of his own Spirit formed in us.” Puritan pastor Samuel Lee
“Pray'r's the first breath put forth in crying then / When, through sad pangs, poor souls are born agen.” Puritan pastor/poet Faithful Teate
“Our prayers…the breathings of the heart.” Puritan pastor/hymn writer Isaac Watts
“Prayer and thanks are like the double motion of the lungs; the air that is drawn in by prayer is breathed forth again by thanks." Anonymous, quoted by Scottish theologian P.T. Forsyth
“Faith is to the soul what life is to the body. Prayer is to faith what breath is to the body.” Anglican bishop J.C. Ryle
“As we breathe without ceasing, so must we pray without ceasing. As there is no attainment in life, of health, or of strength, or of muscular vigor which can place a man beyond the necessity of breathing, so no condition of spiritual growth or advance in grace will allow a man to dispense with prayer.” English baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon
“To be a Christian and to pray are one and the same thing; it is a matter that cannot be left to our caprice. It is a need, a kind of breathing necessary to life.” Swiss theologian Karl Barth.
“Prayer is, as it were, a breathing in of the Holy Spirit, and God so pours His Holy Spirit into the life of the prayerful that they become “living souls.” They will never die, for the Holy Spirit pours Himself by means of prayer into their spiritual lungs, and fills their spirits with health and vigour and everlasting life.” Indian missionary Sadhu Sundar Singh
“My God, I pray better to you by breathing. I pray better to you by walking than talking.” Trappist monk Thomas Merton.
How else might you express this connection between prayer and breathing? And how might this shape your own prayer life, and the spiritual direction given to those you shepherd?