Ignatian prayer is not one kind of prayer; in fact, Ignatius recommends a variety of ways to pray, along with the better-known imaginative prayer. For example, Ignatius recommends conversational prayer with Jesus in the course of our days, the Examen, or a colloquy with a figure such as Mary after a longer time of imaginative prayer. Another form of prayer that Ignatius names is what is sometimes called the “Third Method of Prayer,” not because it is third in importance after others, but simply because he was giving some organizational structure to different ways of praying in the Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius writes:
The Third Method of Prayer is that with each breath in or out, one has to pray mentally, saying one word of the Our Father, or of another prayer which is being recited: so that only one word be said between one breath and another, and while the time from one breath to another lasts, let attention be given chiefly to the meaning of such word, or to the person to whom he recites it, or to his own baseness, or to the difference from such great height to his own so great lowness. (SE 258, Mullan translation)
Here, Ignatius suggests a way to pray using the rhythm of our own breath: mentally saying a structured prayer such as the Our Father or Hail Mary and reciting only one word per breath. He offers different objects of our attention during these individual breaths. Perhaps we notice the word and its resonances, as in the practice of lectio divina. Maybe we concentrate on God as we pray the Our Father and let all our attention be on God. Or perhaps we admire God’s goodness and humble ourselves by simply noticing our own smallness and God’s greatness for a moment, over and over again.
Why might Ignatius have suggested such a method of praying? There are probably many ways to answer this question, but here are a few observations.
- Breathing with our breath is incarnational and reminds us that our bodies as well as our minds can be part of our prayer. If God created us body and soul, then we can pray as much with the movement of the body as with the movement of our intellects or emotions.
- This method of prayer slows us down and helps us to be centered. I find that in the midst of my very busy days, using my breath to slow down helps me to be more attentive to God in prayer.
- Allowing some space between words creates space for God to enter. Perhaps as I pray the word “earth” when praying the Our Father, I feel a sense of delight in the beauty of God’s creation. That delight and admiration of the beauty of the natural world is itself a gift from God, one that I may not have been as receptive to experiencing if I were hurrying my way through prayer.
- Praying with the breath can be done very simply, with no words at all except loving attention on God’s self. Praying with words can give me good practice in learning how to pray wordlessly, just as spending time talking with a friend might pave the way for beautiful wordless moments shared in the pure silence of presence.
- Prayer is relationship, and this form of prayer reminds us that the heart of any relationship is mutual loving attention. When I pray with the simple movement of my own breath and body, and offer it to God, and allow God to respond to those heartfelt offerings, I am offering God my attention and being receptive to God’s loving attention to me. What more than loving, tender attention could any of us want from a friendship, except the faithful and enduring love we discover in God?