The Physicality of Prayer

We don’t just have a body, we are embodied. Christianity itself is centered on embodiment, with the incarnation of God into fully human form at its heart. Our bodies are central to who we are and how we experience this life. It makes sense that our physical selves would be part of how we pray.

It’s easy to get the idea that prayer is something we do in our heads, but sometimes what we need most is to get outside of our heads. Often when we place our bodies in an attitude of prayer, our hearts and minds will follow. Physical practices can help in getting out of our own way, in emptying ourselves enough to receive some spiritual nourishment.

There are many ways of cultivating a prayer life that incorporates the body. Singing, walking, dancing, gardening—practices that involve movement, the senses, or the breath can help us feel close to God when we enter prayer through them.

Praying in a different posture can bring about a fresh experience in prayer. The position of our bodies affects how we think and feel. Craig Dykstra, author of Education and Christian Practices said, “You can know things on your knees that you can’t know sitting in a chair.”

Even a simple gesture can make a difference. Praying with hands extended, palms up, offering to God our problems and ourselves, is a physical manifestation of a spiritual attitude. It helps us remember what we want to do. Praying with hands extended, forming an empty cup, ready to receive what God intends for us, is another way to reinforce the spiritual openness we want to bring.

Solitary physical work can be another opening to prayer. Tending the yard, doing laundry, cooking, even filling the gas tank—all can be an opportunity for prayer. We can offer thanks for the strength to do the work, and ask for the ability to work generously. We can use it as a way of noticing the interconnectedness of our lives, praying for those who will benefit from the work we do as well as those whose work has allowed us to accomplish what we’re doing.

And finally, placing ourselves in a different setting can help us step away from the noise of our lives and enter into prayer. We don’t have to go into the woods, or to the beach, or to a quiet chapel to pray, but it can help. We are affected by our surroundings, and so is our prayer life.

What helps you to feel the presence of the divine?

A Box for Prayers

Thinking back over the week, it’s interesting to recall several conversations about prayer. Not a subject that typically recurs so often. With life moving quickly along from one thing to the next, I didn’t notice this thread weaving through the past few days until I stopped to reflect on what the week has brought.

This is a reason to write a blog, by the way. It helps me pay attention. The blog becomes a box for reflection, and its presence is a constant reminder to place something in it. A box for prayer can work the same way.

To one of these conversations from the week a friend brought a gift she had received—a beautiful handmade wooden box, shaped something like a medium-sized apple. The lid lifts off with a long stem-like handle to reveal a rounded interior, sanded smooth, the grain visible in the dark wood. It has just enough heft to feel solid in the palm of one’s hand.  After living with the gift for a few weeks, she realized that it would be a box for her prayers.

All sorts of prayers can be placed in such a box. Prayers for others can be held there, represented by a name written on a slip of paper. A gift that the day brings, a worry we can’t let go of, a feeling of fear or grief or longing—the concern and gratitude and pleas that color our spiritual life all have a place in a box for prayers.

To give our prayers a tangible expression is a comfort. A similar practice happens on a larger scale in Old Jerusalem where the Wailing Wall, or Western Wall, holds the prayers of visitors who tuck their written words into spaces between the ancient stones. The space is considered holy because of the Jewish tradition that the Divine Presence remains there. More than a million notes are placed there every year. Semi-annually the notes are collected and buried on the Mount of Olives.

Most of us can’t place our prayers in the Wailing Wall, but we can set aside a sacred space of our own. It might feel right to ask a blessing on that space, or it may be enough to let the blessing come from the prayers with which we fill it. They may be in the form of written words, or in a simple nonverbal prayer such as lighting a candle.

A box for prayer might be a metaphorical one as well. It can be a place to visit that feels set apart. It can be a time of day. It can be the experience of sacred writings, or music, or art. It can be a ritual that helps to place us in the presence of the divine. It can be anything that helps us see that we are standing on holy ground.

What have you found that serves as a box for prayer?

Praying the Psalms

Part 3 in a series on Breath Prayers

The Psalms show us that any emotion offered to God is appropriate for prayer. Nothing is off-limits. Psalms express grief, despair, vengefulness, fear, rage, and desolation, as well as thankfulness, hope, faith, trust, celebration, and joy – to name a few. Every aspect of who we are is acceptable to bring to prayer.

Within the vessel of prayer, emotions that might feel overwhelming in another context are held within a relationship with God. We bring our emotions to God, and recognize God’s power to reach us through them. We allow the possibility of being transformed.

There are many ways to pray the Psalms, including finding lines within them that can serve as breath prayers. Many lines of the Psalms are paired, echoing a thought in different words that may suggest a slightly different meaning. Reading them is like looking at a sculpture, taking a step left or right, then looking again from a slightly different angle. Sometimes the shift in perspective shows something we didn’t see before.

A breath prayer can use one or both of the paired lines. A single line might be said in one breath, in and out. A pair of lines will probably require two breaths. To learn more about breath prayers, have a look at:

Part 1 of this series, “Breathing a Prayer”

Part 2 of this series, “Simple Prayers that Fit our Lives”

The Psalms hold a lifetime of possibilities for breath prayers. Here are a few lines taken from various Psalms, using the NRSV translation:


The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it,

the world, and those who live in it.  (Psalm 24)


Be still and know that I am God.  (Psalm 46)


Create in me a clean heart, O God.

and put a new and right spirit within me.  (Psalm 51)


You show me the path of life;

in your presence there is fullness of joy.  (Psalm 17)


May God grant you your heart’s desire,

and fulfill all your plans.  (Psalm 20)


O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;

and by night, but find no rest.  (Psalm 22)


How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?  (Psalm 13)


Relieve the troubles of my heart,

and bring me out of my distress.  (Psalm 25)


O my God, do not be far from me.  (Psalm 38)


The LORD is the stronghold of my life,

of whom shall I be afraid?  (Psalm 27)


As a deer longs for flowing streams,

so my soul longs for you, O God. (Psalm 42)


You desire truth in the inward being;

therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.  (Psalm 51)


Cast your burden on the LORD,

and God will sustain you.  (Psalm 55)


In God I trust; I am not afraid.  (Psalm 56)


O LORD, Make haste to help me!  (Psalm 70)


This is the day that the LORD has made;

let us rejoice and be glad in it.  (Psalm 118)


On the day I called, you answered me,

you increased the strength of my soul.  (Psalm 138)


Give heed to my cry,

for I am brought very low.  (Psalm 142)


Teach me the way I should go,

for to you I lift up my soul.  (Psalm 143)


Let everything that breathes praise the LORD!  (Psalm 150)


What are your favorite lines?

Simple Prayers that Fit our Lives

Part 2 in a series on Breath Prayers

It’s unfortunate that so little teaching about breath prayer is offered in today’s church. These prayers fit beautifully into the lives we lead in this time and culture. They’re brief and portable, a manageable doorway into a richer spiritual life. And they help to meet our great need for spiritual respite.

A breath prayer is connected with the body, offering a tangible experience of prayer. The life force that draws breath in and out of us through every moment of our lives, with or without our awareness, tells us something about the presence of God. Similarly, a breath prayer is a reminder of God’s presence.

There are many ways to center our prayers in our breathing, including simply becoming quiet and aware of the flow of the breath. Awareness of the breath is a good place to start in prayer; it helps us to relax. But adding words can help to keep a prayerful focus.

Words for a breath prayer can come from poetry, scripture, or prayers we write ourselves. It claims an attitude toward God, a longing, a request, a need, a hope, a confession—an opening of the heart to the divine. When we adopt a prayer to say in rhythm with our breathing throughout the day, we acknowledge something about ourselves, something about God, and something about that relationship. We allow the prayer to become part of us, to shape our thoughts and our heart.

The words to a breath prayer are brief and simple, like a mantra. It does not voice everything we think, and isn’t made to sum up all that we trust in, or hope for, or seek. It uses pared-down language that suggests more than it states. It points beyond us, toward the divine object of our longing.

For example, part of Psalm 13 reads, “Give light to my eyes.” I love the line and the wealth of meaning it implies. A breath prayer using that line might be, “God of all wisdom, give light to my eyes.”

The words to the prayer are said in rhythm with the breath, a phrase on inhalation and a phrase on exhalation. A single breath, in and out, might complete the prayer; a longer prayer might require two full breaths.

You might find words for a breath prayer written in scripture or penned by spiritual teachers or poets. The possibilities are everywhere. In the next post, I’ll offer more from the Psalms.

What words inspire you?

You might also be interested in Part  1 of this series, Breathing a Prayer, on wordless breath prayers. Or in Part 3, Praying the Psalms.

Breathing a Prayer

Part 1 in a series on Breath Prayers

Breath means life, an association so close that breath itself feels sacred. Watching the gentle rise and fall of a loved one’s chest, smelling the sweet breath of a baby, hearing the labored sound of a struggle to breathe—all are deeply felt experiences.

Breath also holds power. It carries the voice, in speech and song, into the world. A wind instrument filled by the breath becomes an extension of the body, magnifying its expression. We move into life by the strength of our breath.

Breath is an intimate mystery, distinctly personal yet not of our doing. Becoming aware of my breath connects me to what is within and what is beyond. In this way, breathing is connected to prayer. Breath also carries the prayers we voice. So it’s only natural that we have many traditions of praying in rhythm with the breath. The flow of air, in and out, is an ever-present stream of life and energy. Watching it, like observing a flowing river, helps focus and soothe the mind.

A breath prayer can be wordless. One possibility is to breathe in health and well-being, and to let go of dis-ease while breathing out. Another way to pray a wordless breath prayer is to focus on breathing in God’s love and care for me, then breathing out that love and care to the people around me and to all of creation. Both inhale and exhale, receiving and giving love, are essential; they complete each other.

These simple, rhythmic prayers are good to take along into the world. Repetition of a brief prayer that touches the heart can change how I see other people, my circumstances, and myself. It offers calmness in the midst of chaos. It offers some comfort when life is difficult. I can practice a breath prayer when walking or washing dishes, while waiting for a traffic light to change or a computer to reboot.

As I practice a breath prayer, it greets me of its own accord when I become quiet, or sometimes when I most need it. A breath prayer is a reminder that God is present. The prayer, and the presence, are available in every moment.

Is there a wordless prayer that you might want to pray with your breath?

You might also be interested in Part 2, Simple Prayers that Fit our Lives or Part 3, Praying the Psalms.