By Michelle Francl-Donnay
Let everything that lives and that breathes give praise to the Lord. – Ps. 150:6
“Why do you pray?” My 16-year-old son posted this question on Facebook a few weeks ago. His English class was reading “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s powerful reflection on the Holocaust. Early on, Wiesel’s narrator poses this question and Mike used it as the frame for his project on the book.
Mike got an A+ on the assignment (yes, you can talk about God and prayer in public school), posted his video on his blog and is (I think) contemplating less heady questions these days, such as summer vacation. Me? A month after the project was due, I’m still thinking about how to answer his question.
My professorial persona kept trying to turn the question into an answerable one – why should I pray? But that’s not quite the question Mike asked. Why do I pray?
You might as well ask me why I breathe. I breathe so I can sing. I breathe to pause. I breathe, awake or asleep, whether I’m aware of it or not. I have many answers, but no single one that encompasses the whole of the mystery.
Over pizza last week, my friend Lisa and I tugged at the question for a bit. A couple of days later, she offered a forthright and wise question in return, “Why not?” Like Lisa, the psalmist implies we are created to pray. To breathe is to be called to prayer.
Poet Mary Oliver reflects that “Breath [is] our first language.” Though she is writing about metrical poetry, in noting how breath binds us to the rhythms of the world, signals our thoughts and moods, sets a tempo, flows and ebbs, repeats, she might well be writing about prayer.
Centuries earlier, St. Gregory of Nazianzus used the image of the ever present tempo of our breath to vividly underscore St. Paul’s exhortation to pray at all times: “We must remember God more often than we draw breath.”
The Christian tradition draws a yet deeper connection between breathing and prayer. Breathing is more than a model for how to pray. St. Anthony, a fourth century desert monastic, sometimes called the Father of Monasticism, advised his monks to “breathe Christ at all times.” To these men and women of the desert, prayer was not like breathing, it was breathing – prayer was God’s breath in us.
A millennia later, in a commentary on his Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross speaks of prayer as an intimate encounter with God: “this breathing of God in the soul, of the soul in God.” For St. John, this joining of breath was transformative. Just as the physical act of breathing puts flesh on our bones, so God takes flesh in us in prayer.
Why do you pray? Mike had no answers, only questions: Do you pray for peace? For strength, for comfort, for understanding? There are many reasons, each true in any moment. In the end he echoes the desert fathers’ struggles with this particular mystery of our relationship to God and asks, “Or do you just pray?”
Why do I pray? I pray, like I breathe, for many reasons: to sing, to be still, to ask, to thank. But ultimately, I do “just pray” for the same reason I just breathe: to live.
Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy.
Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy.
Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I may love only what is holy.
Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, that I may defend all that is holy.
Guard me, O Holy Spirit, that I myself may always be holy.
– St. Augustine of Hippo
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: email@example.com.