It was 1989, and my husband, our two little girls, and I moved to a town about an hour away from our immediate family. During the months leading up to the move, my spiritual hunger had grown ravenous, so our first priority was to find a Bible-teaching church that had a vibrant women’s group. Guess what they were studying?
For almost two years, I was immersed in the practices of prayer from its elementary concepts to the intercessory doctrines of the ancient church fathers and mothers. God knew I would need it because those two years were the hardest of my life to that point. I compiled an entire file cabinet full of prayer journals describing every aspect of life, work, and home. It was only the intimacy I experienced with God through prayer that kept me from despair in those difficult days. At the end of two years, my husband left teaching and coaching in a high school setting to attend seminary—and suddenly my prayer life tanked. Why? I cried out to the Lord…and my heart never settled on an answer until I read the fourth chapter of Sacred Rhythms.
Prayer Stages in the Spiritual Life
For twenty years now, I’ve been convinced something was desperately wrong with my spiritual condition to rob me of the power and intimacy I felt in those early days of prayer. Only when I read this chapter did I realize my experience falls into a very familiar pattern for the believer and is in fact a call to deeper intimacy with my God.
You’ll find a fuller description of the stages in a believer’s prayer life on pages 63 and 64 in this week’s reading, but here is a brief synopsis in my own words:
- First comes the initial intimacy of the young believer when we speak primarily to God.
- The next stage of intimacy arrives with increased study and reflecting back to Him our growing theological understanding.
- Then comes the eventual dissatisfaction with wordy prayers and intellectual ponderings and a general loss of control of what does or doesn’t happen in our life with God. It’s at this stage that believers (like me) often feel they’re doing something “wrong” because God no longer seems to respond in the same ways He has in the past.
- Finally, we are shocked and a little relieved to realize that we have no idea how to pray as we ought.
Communication or Communion?
Remember my filing cabinet full of prayer journals? The pages are organized with dates and stars and other meaningful symbols. Why? Because that’s how I governed the ratio of prayer requests, praises, and worship. Oh, yes! I needed to be sure I spent enough time worshiping the Lord, thanking Him for answered prayer, and then praying for those on my prayer list.
Is this kind of praying wrong? Absolutely not! But my journals look more like a business ledger than a love letter or a heart-to-heart talk with my Best Friend. I had become so lost in the process of heavenly communication that I’d lost the joy of godly communion.
Invitation to Intimacy
If you find yourself yearning to be alone with God and aware of His presence without structured activity, He is likely beckoning you to deeper intimacy—the kind that “leaves words behind and [lets you] remain with God alone in an act of love.”
This may be entirely new to you. It requires giving ourselves completely to His leading and control. And perhaps the hardest part: intimacy requires our ALL.
The God who loves us is a jealous God. He’s all those wonderful things in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (patient, kind, isn’t self-seeking, not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, etc.), but His love also encompasses all those ferocious things in Song of Solomon:
“…love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away. If one were to give all the wealth of one’s house for love, it would be utterly scorned.” Song of Solomon 8:6-7
It is the love of both 1 Corinthians and Song of Solomon that our God invites us to receive from Him and return to Him through intimate prayer.
He wants us here, now, totally, unconditionally. As long as we continue to reduce prayer to occasional piety we keep running away from the mystery of God’s jealous love…. Looking at prayer as a generous response to a jealous God helps explain why we may have serious reservations about prayer.
Prayer Beyond Words
Sacred Rhythm speaks of a level of intimacy with God in which words become an intrusion. In order to know God in this “being with” way that is fully satisfying, the author challenges us to come to the Lord with “empty hearts and empty hands” because only in our emptiness can we be filled with His fullness.
“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10
“I will wait for the Lord; my whole being waits.” Psalm 130:5
The author suggests a breath prayer, which she describes this way:
“We listen for the prayer that the Holy Spirit is praying deep within us as He moves between the depths of our human experience and the Divine will, interceding for us beyond words.”
A breath prayer isn’t some magic incantation or a mantra to be chanted. It is a powerful, gut-level expression of our Holy-Spirit-directed desire coupled with our name for God that is most precious to us at this time in our lives.
A breath prayer should be no more than 6-8 syllables and should literally flow when you inhale or exhale. One doesn’t “decide” on their breath prayer. We discover it by waiting in God’s presence and listening as He uncovers the deepest longing of our hearts.
Why bother with a breath prayer? After all, it doesn’t replace real prayer, right? Actually, a breath prayer becomes the gateway to our whole prayer life and makes it possible for us to enter a deeper level of intimacy—and to pray without ceasing.
The breath prayer quiets us, leading us into the silence and solitude of our daily time with God. It can also be consciously repeated whenever we’re anxious, joyful, sleepy—basically, anytime of day—until soon it becomes the inner atmosphere of our waking hours, leading us into the habit of praying without ceasing.
My first thought as I enter God’s presence is always, I love you, Lord. But this didn’t meet the two components of a breath prayer described by the author:
- asking God to fulfill my deepest desire
- calling Him by the Name dearest to me
The next prayer that blew across my heart was, Help me love more, Jesus. This addressed my dearest Name and voiced the desire I felt after reading Chapter 1—wanting to experience deeper emotion for God and others—but it didn’t ask God to work supernaturally. In essence, this prayer asked Him to help me do something. So again I returned to listening mode.
The following morning, I sat quietly with Zeke (my puppy) sleeping in my lap. I didn’t plead or recite a list of requests but rather sat quietly before the Lord with one simple question: In my deepest despair, pain, or fatigue, what do I need from You most in that moment, Jesus? The answer came…
Show me Your love, Jesus.
These words rang true in my spirit because years earlier, when He revealed the story of Solomon’s Song of Songs to me, I’d experienced His love so palpably that it literally changed the way I loved Him and others. I’d forgotten that—until He reminded me through this breath prayer.
Your Experience This Week:
Please share you experience of developing your personal breath prayer this week. Did you struggle as I did through several versions? Or perhaps you haven’t settled into a single phrase yet. Don’t worry. Be faithful to practice the discipline in His presence, and the Lord will meet you there.
Remember, the comments below are a place to share our hearts, but we’re not called to “fix” each other. It’s when we encounter God in Scripture that He transforms us.
- Are you so lost in heavenly communication that you’ve lost the joy of godly communion?
- True intimacy with God requires giving ourselves completely to His leading and control.
- Come to God with empty hearts and hands. Only then can we be filled with His fullness.
- A breath prayer becomes our inner atmosphere, eventually causing us to pray without ceasing.
- Did you have an experience this week in which your breath prayer drew you nearer to the Lord at a crucial moment?