By now you have hopefully seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but if not, here’s the obligatory spoiler warning (a small, insignificant to the story, kind of spoiler). There’s a character in Rogue One who piqued my interest for his quirky expression of faith in the force: Chirrut. A former temple guardian now blind and marginalized relic, Chirrut frequently chants the phrase, “I’m one with the force and the force is with me,” throughout the movie. When he chants, he repeats the phrase quickly and with great focus and intensity. The other characters scoff and seem to have pity on Chirrut for expressing his faith in a dead religion, yet he continues nonetheless.
What I find intriguing about Chirrut’s expression of faith is the similarity it holds with my own. Almost a decade ago, a wise friend encouraged me to look into and consider practicing breath prayers. At the time I had no idea what that meant, only that it sounded Catholic and mystical, but being curious I began some research. Breath prayers are simple in practice and in theory. In theory, breath prayers are one short refrain, sometimes even a single word, repeated silently or audibly, to the rhythm of your breath. Most scholars agree that breath prayers go back to at least the sixth century, and the practice seems to originate in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. A popular example that has been adapted over the years is, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In practice, breath prayers are to be said, again, either silently or audibly, on many occasions, including but not limited to the following: while facing temptation, during moments of anxiety, when your mind is wandering or blank, during dedicated time of meditation, when you are a silent participant in a group prayer and find yourself at odds with the words being spoken or simply unengaged, and, most importantly, anytime you can squeeze it in really.
I also discovered that most practitioners of breath prayers will tell you that they pray in this fashion in an attempt to closer live Paul’s admonition in 1 Thess 5:17 to “pray without ceasing.” The task of praying without ceasing would be daunting and tedious if the onus was upon us to come up with a 24/7 monologue to God, so long ago Christians adapted prayer practices of silence to listen for God’s voice and peace, prayer liturgies to be practiced as set times, and breath prayers to be said simply and frequently.
That’s the theory, and helpful as it hopefully is, perhaps my own experience with the practice can clarify a few things. When I first started practicing breath prayers, it was awful. The practice lacked focus as my mind often trailed off like a distracted puppy on a walk in a new neighborhood. I quickly became bored with the prayer and would move on to other “more meaningful” practices or prayers. And, frankly, I just didn’t really see the point.
I cannot tell you why, for it is yet a mystery to me, but I continued to practice breath prayers, until one day as I was in a dentist’s chair, the dentist had to repeat a question twice because I was not paying attention to him. Without knowing it, I had been in deep, calm, and unforced focus on my breath prayer. Over the coming weeks I began to notice that, out of habit, my mind–perhaps more aptly, my soul–would lose itself in breath prayers while I was between tasks, walking from place to place, standing in line at the grocery store, filling my tank with gas, and going to sleep at night. Habitually and without effort, breath prayers had become ingrained in my very core.
I built on that habit the following years and found breath prayers useful in calming my anger, silencing potentially harmful opinions, taming my tongue, focusing my mind away from temptations, and spending restful and calming time with God. Today, I have been praying breath prayers like Chirrut did in Rogue One for almost a decade, and I am better because of it. Nothing magical or mystical happens. I’m not striving for any zen or nirvana. I’m still a Christian, really. But breath prayers help me to focus my mind on God in those moments between times when I’m focused on God. It is a habitual practice of prayer that connects me to God even when I am not actively seeking connection with God. For that I am grateful.
I encourage you, brothers and sisters, to do your own research on breath prayers, find one that resonates with you, and practice it for a time. Do not give up quickly; it took me years to come to terms with this spiritual discipline. And though I cannot guarantee that the practice will be meaningful to you, it is my prayer that it will. Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us, all sinners. Amen.