When I was a young 11-13-year-old starting out in high school the local Catholic priest would visit us. The school had its oratory (it’s a Catholic school) where the priest would take us for prayer. He was a young man and you could tell he was of middle-class countryside descent (most Irish Catholic priests are) with massive ears and flat feet that gave him a funny walk. You could tell that the reason he was a priest is that marriage certainly could never have been an option and I in no way mean to insult him.
The Irish comedy show that painted Irish priests as buffoons had been very popular at the time. It was called “Father Ted” and within the program was a priest named “Dougal”. He was a few sandwiches short of a picnic, meaning he wasn’t right in the head. This is how this priest had been viewed by all the boys in school so we nicknamed him “Dougal” and he hated it.
We already didn’t like religion and grew up in households heavily influenced by secularism. Religion had been viewed back in the day as some sort of thing people do to calm down a bit and become more centred but nobody ever took it seriously. The Church was full of compromise as well with the popular new age practices which only made things worse for them as we young lads perceived it as “desperate”. It’s like the terrorist interrogating you tries to offer you a shorter sentence in prison if you give them information. it’s an act of desperation and the clever person being interviewed will automatically spot it right away and maintain his silence.
The same happens in religion. Whenever the Church caves into the popular culture and begins trying to use it to convert the world, the clever kids see right through it. These kids know it’s an act of desperation and pretty much the entire adult generation too. It only serves to reinforce their existing belief that the Church is in decline and is using any and every method the convert them. If the Church maintains its own identity regardless of what the Church think of them the kids may not warm up to them overnight, but they’ll respect them more for it. You can’t tell these old grey-headed hippies from the 1960s who are carrying that coffin to the grave themselves with nobody coming to observe Catholicism being led into the ground. Why? They’re all too busy looking for God in other things and places that’s why. There’s so much confusion out there.
The priest asks all of us to lay down on our backs. Well aware of the sex abuse scandals we all make a joke and say “backs to the ground boys”. This elicits lots of laughter from those present except for the priest who is not amused. The best part is that he was all talk about maintaining one’s peace and lost the head with us himself. It’s so hard to practice what you preach. hahaha.
We all lay on our backs and he directs us to start breathing in through our noses. We are instructed to hold this for a minute and then exhale. Naturally, we all begin to laugh because we think it’s really retarded exercise. At one point he says, “breath in Jesus” and that’s when we really howled with laughter. Apart from feeling lightheaded leaving the oratory that day, we certainly didn’t leave with a deeper sense of a relationship with Christ. It was absolutely useless.
Is breathing of any benefit to us when we pray? Well, you see there’s a difference between breathing and then breathing combined with prayer. Let’s begin with breathing. Breathing exercises are good for the body however pointless they may seem. Breathing increases and circulates oxygen and helps calm the mind from a physical and psychological point of view. Not only this but it’s great to help regulate the bowel and overall improves the movement of the digestive system. Breathing can also serve as a distraction from the pain in the body. I use it when suffering from IBS. Not only does it help redirect my focus from the pain I’m experiencing but it also stops my bowel from contracting and improves the movement of stools.
Then there is breathing combined with prayer. The Early Church fathers used breathing exercises in prayer but it was not altogether encouraged and only under spiritual supervision from a master. Breathing helps a person focus perhaps on the prayer itself and distracts them from wandering or invading thoughts. However, there’s a danger it becomes all about YOU and YOUR peace.
You see, breathing is not necessary for prayer and God doesn’t care for it. Why? Because God is spirit and breathing concerns taking care of the flesh. Breathing is not necessary for prayer only that the prayer is said with the heart. Breathing exercises may help YOU become calmer and at peace but prayer is not about you. When prayer becomes about you then you’ve lost the purpose of prayer.
It’s O.K to look for peace in your life, but peace does not come from being selfish. Peace through prayer is a grace given by the Lord no matter the conditional state you’re in for prayer. By this I mean to say that simply sitting in a quiet circle with a group of people breathing and believing you’re inhaling Jesus is not peace. It feels physically nice but without proper spiritual direction, one can mistake this peace for Gods peace and become deluded. A person can easily fall into the trap of believing that chasing these aesthetic pleasures is something spiritually advancing and peaceful and it isn’t. It’s all of the flesh and maybe medically beneficial to the body but not the soul. It certainly doesn’t give glory to the Lord or can be considered prayer.
To gain true peace a soul must abandon the sought after pleasures of the flesh that meditation brings. It is this they’re addicted to not Christ and so the pursuit of these prayer groups that practice these things is selfishness. By understanding these things through time we learn that prayer is not selfish time but a moment of selflessness where we give up all that nonsense and simply pray from the heart to the Lord. To Sacrifice all that mechanical nonsense and simply speak to the Lord as you would a dear brother is what true prayer is like.
After a while peace of soul arrives because the person is no longer focused upon one’s desires but that of the Lords. Jesus says, “Come follow me” not “Go follow your hearts desires” for many have done that and ended up deluded. No, breathing can not generate peace. It can be aesthetically pleasing because it brings calm to the body but if you’re not careful you’ll mistake this for peace. Why do you mistake it for peace? Because you’ve been stupefied by the culture around you and by the limitations of your existing worldly spirit.
I heard one monk say that the spiritual life is mostly about the battle. There are moments of peace but for the most part, it’s a struggle. Yeah, he’s right. But true peace can be found to the point where one does not even feel the struggle. The peace of soul, if with the help of Christ he maintains it, can mean he lives his heaven on earth. But this is not for me and you but the spiritual giants who spend their whole lives dedicated to that practice.
“I have now abandoned this breathing and try to pray from the heart but still no peace comes.” That’s because you’re praying with the sole intent of getting peace. hahaha. See? You’re still selfish and the complaint you’re not getting any peace out of it is proof of that. You couldn’t care less about Jesus you only delude yourself into thinking that you do.
When we pray it must be selfless. Prayer from a dispassionate soul who has torn the veil of his old self in half is always more pleasing to the Lord than that of a person who pursues his own will. I do not speak to you as one who has mastered this. I don’t speak to you as someone who is a spiritual master I’m far from it. I don’t dare to presume to teach either but someone has to say it. Someone has to give you some sort of nudge in the right direction.
Remember that breathing is good for the body and the psychological state of the mind. It helps anxiety and from a medical point of view is beneficial. It may help some focus on their prayer but it is not necessary for the salvation of one’s soul and can become a hindrance to true prayer. There is a danger of treating prayer as “me” time rather than “The Lord” Time.
Before I end this article I’ll tell you a short story that illustrates my point of how prayer and the pursuit of ones own peace can be more important than Christ. I had gone to adoration in a local Dominican Catholic Church. There had been a few in the room at the time. A young boy in his early 20s strolls in and he’s high on drugs. Whether or not he’s medicated or they’re recreational drugs I don’t know. He sits down and is quietly mumbling to himself with his knees jerking up and down in an impatient manner.
His noise and mumbling are. . . pay attention to these next few words now. . . “disturbing the peace of the others in the room”. A woman gets up and tells him he’s going to have to leave the adoration room. There you have it. Christ himself entered the room that day and gave everyone there adoring Him the opportunity to turn around and adore him yet again in this person. And what did they do? They told Jesus to leave because he’s disturbing their “selfish” time. hahaha. They were not there for Jesus but themselves hahaha. “My quiet time. . .” haha. “Excuse me but you are disturbing MYYYYY quiet time.”
Be careful that your breathing exercises and quiet time do not become more important than Christ Himself. Be careful that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist does not become more important than Jesus Himself. All too often we can ideologize the faith and pursue our peace and will. In the end, they (our peace and will) become like false idols we worship and forget about the Lord altogether. We falsely believe we are in the presence of God when we are merely in the presence of the self. Don’t fall into that trap.