Follow Your Breath

Thomas Merton threw himself into the religious life, but he made it all seem natural—as natural as breathing. “What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe,” he mused in a 1965 essay. Out in the forest, he felt the Word blow through the trees, and he breathed it in, inhaling God with his whole body, soul, and spirit. “My God,” he said, “I pray to you better by breathing. I pray to you better by walking than by talking.”

Once a despairing, faithless university student who’d been converted—much to his own surprise—to a wholehearted Christianity, Thomas traveled to the quiet Kentucky woods to devote himself to a life of contemplation in God and for God. Tom, as he was called by his friends, was ever a man of the physical world who burst with energy, moving in a flow of breathing, striding, and conversing. Some have described him as a man who leaned into paradox: a humble person who enjoyed fame, a Catholic priest fascinated by Zen Buddhism, a solitary mystic who craved company, and a cloistered monk who died far from home. He was also the celebrity author of sixty books and the most popular Catholic writer of the twentieth century.

Thomas Merton’s many readers followed his insights on current politics, culture, poetry, justice, and, most of all, the spiritual life. Tom’s message was simple: each and every one of us is invited to encounter a God who loves, chooses, and visits us. Contemplation of the sacred is not reserved for intensely religious people but is available to all. God is as near as our next inhalation.

In his advice to those longing to experience God, Tom begins with the scriptural admonition to “pray without ceasing.” What does this mean? “It is really quite simple,” Merton explains. “It is just as if Our Lord told us, ‘You must keep on breathing, or else you will die.’ The only difference is this: breathing is instinctive, prayer is not.” Yet prayer is as vital for the life of the soul as breathing is for the life of the body. That is why Merton gives this encouragement from Luke’s Gospel: we “should always pray and not give up” (18:1).

Tom’s descriptions of prayer are embodied as well, evoking ruach, the ancient Hebrew word for spirit, breath, wind: the very breath of God that creates and sustains all things. Since the beginning of humanity, the Old Testament teaches, we who breathe with the ruach of God are blessed to participate in the flowing gift of life.

Drawn to the promise that prayer can be as simple as respiration, as sustaining as oxygen to our lungs, we follow Thomas Merton back into the pine grove, to the simple cinder block hermitage in a forested area of Gethsemani Monastery, where he lived and prayed and wrote his books and letters.

Surrounded by trees, those “all sufficient exclamations of silence,” one can imagine him getting up from a rustic altar, where he’s been praying on his knees, to work, “cutting wood, clearing ground, cutting grass, cooking soup, drinking fruit juice, sweating, washing, making fire, smelling smoke, sweeping, etc. This is religion,” he declares. “The further one gets away from this, the more one sinks in the mud of words and gestures.”

As he went about his daily rounds of work and prayer, Tom the Christian considered the spirituality of his Buddhist friends, Zen monks whose meditative breath practices brought them to contemplate the present moment amidst ordinary life. Despite the doctrinal differences between them, the spiritual brothers aspired to leave human mediators of religion behind, stand still, breathe in, breathe out, and stand on sacred ground.

Tom Merton invites the many of us who dwell in “the mud of words and gestures,” who are baffled by faith but would like to pray, to do this one thing: step outside. “About prayer,” he begins, “have you a garden or somewhere that you can walk in, by yourself? Take half an hour, or fifteen minutes a day and just walk up and down among the flower beds.” Don’t try to think about anything in particular. When distracting thoughts come to you, don’t try to push them out by force but see if you can let your mind relax; you may find that God’s will is revealed to you through those very thoughts. As you walk along, you are, in fact, already praying “because our Lord is with you.” And remember, everywhere and always, to breathe.

Content taken from Wake Up to Wonder by Karen Wright Marsh, ©2023. Used by permission of Brazos Press.