A few years back, I completed a doctoral project on the topic of prayer (specifically prayers and prayer practices) and our personal temperament. I know, I know – you’re salivating to read it, aren’t you?
The whole thing is on a shelf in my house. Last time we moved it was to prop a door open.
Regardless of the length or readability, the point of the project was to find out whether or not a person’s experience of prayer would change if their prayer practices matched their temperament.
Two key things: first, temperament isn’t the same as personality type. There are other resources that cover this in depth so I won’t do that here. In short, I used something called the Kiersey-Bates Temperament Indicator.
If you are familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Kiersey-Bates indicator makes use of four two-letter combinations that occur within the Myers-Briggs. The roots are far more ancient, but again there isn’t real estate in this post for that discussion.
In my research, I found a book called Prayer and Temperament that matched each Kiersey-Bates temperaments to a particular saint. The NF temperament, my temperament, is attached to St. Augustine.
Personally I’m not sure I agree with that, I don’t identify completely with Augustine, but it creates a starting point for conversation.
The book then gives prayer practices for each temperament type. In one particular prayer practice is where I want to spend some time in this post.
The SP temperament, attached to St. Francis, is typically attached to those who buck the status quo and need frequent change on a regular basis. A person connecting with the SP temperament needs short-term projects in work and life to stay connected and energized.
In my project work, the best prayer practice for the SP is a practice called breath prayers.
A breath prayer is a single line that can be easily memorized, with one phrase prayed on the inhale and another prayed during the exhale. More on this in a moment.
Since I finished the project in 2011, I think I’ve discovered something important about these breath prayers.
Breath prayers are the key spiritual habit for a restless, scattered world.
Just this week, I had four meetings back to back with lunch sandwiched in between. Unexpected phone conversations that take more time than we expect when we say “Hello.” Tech difficulties delay the work on projects. Dinner prep and clean up and then on to our children’s sports practice.
We move from place to place, both physically and mentally, with a pace that is both exhausting and deafening to the senses of our soul.
The breath prayer, however, goes with us.
It doesn’t require any equipment or specific environment. All that is required for us to engage in breath prayer is to remember the line and then breathe.
I believe this grounding, centering practice contains a gift that the restless and scattered human needs for life with God.
As we end this week, I want to give you three breath prayers to carry with you. With each prayer, there’s a bit of clarification on why each is important.
1. Come Holy Spirit, be my guide.Breathe in: “Come Holy Spirit…”
Breathe out: “…be my guide.”
Jesus leaves us with the teaching that the Spirit will “teach and remind” us and “lead us into all truth.” (John 14 & 16). In the course of a day, we are searching for wisdom and energy for the tasks ahead of us. We’d like to do “well” in our life, whatever that means. There are complicated conversations, professional and personal decisions that must be made often with incomplete information.
We don’t know what we don’t know, and yet we need to take a step into that unknown.
This breath prayer encourages us to watch and listen not only with the beautiful mind we’ve been given, but with the grace and wisdom of the Spirit of Jesus living within us.
2. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
Breathe in: “Lord Jesus Christ…”
Breathe out: “…have mercy on me.”
This prayer is a rough version of an ancient prayer called the “hesychast” prayer or the Jesus Prayer. A descendant of Eastern Orthodox prayer practices beginning in the deserts of the 4th Century, this prayer is as powerful as it is simple.
The cry for mercy is to acknowledge both our original blessedness as “very good” created beings (Genesis 1) but also our frailty and propensity for blowing it.
In the breath prayer, we are not wallowing in our failure but claiming the beautiful life of living in the mercy of Jesus.
3. Be still and know that I am God.
Breathe in: “Be still and know…”
Breathe out: “…that I am God.”
This is perhaps my favorite breath prayer. Taken from Psalm 46:10, the gift of this prayer is that it slows things down. The chaos of a day’s expectations can become noise, cacophony, pushing us inward and away from realizing we are all a part of something bigger.
Or the noise overwhelms our senses and we feel that everything is irrevocably out of control. Neither are healthy ways of moving through a day.
The “Be still” breath prayer helps us to find a quiet center to put things back into perspective. With all the chaos, when we remember that God is above everything we experience a “stillness” in us. We can wrap our hands around the words of Hebrews:
“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” (Hebrews 13:6, NRSV)
I encourage you to try out one or two of these breath prayers in the coming days. Find one that fits your mind and breathing, and create a daily practice of returning to that prayer. You can also set a recurring reminder on your phone to come back to your breath prayer during the day.
Or, create your own breath prayer. Take a line of Scripture or a certain question you are wrestling with, and make it part of your breath prayer.
May you find a quiet center in the restlessness of each day. May you remember to breathe, and in the very life-giving breath find the life-giving Divine in whom we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17).