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Lord, Teach Us to Pray – Br. James Koester


Br. James Koester

Isaiah 55: 6 – 11
Psalm 34: 15 – 22
Matthew 6: 7 – 15

Several years ago, Brother Robert and I found ourselves in a small, subterranean chapel on top of the Mount of Olives, within sight of the Old City of Jerusalem. The chapel where we were had once been a cave, but over the centuries had been dug out and expanded, and then a newer, larger, modern church had been built over this cave chapel. The floor around the altar was littered with scraps of paper on which people had written their prayers, and then dropped through a grille in the floor of the church above us, down into this smaller cave chapel where Robert and I stood. We were there with Sr Elspeth, an American, who had begun her religious life as a Sister of the Order of Saint Anne here in Arlington, but the deeper she entered the mystery of her vocation, the more she realized that it was to the contemplative life that she was called, and so there she was, a Carmelite sister of the Pater Noster Carmel, showing Brother Robert and me the cave where tradition tells us that Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer.

The cave chapel is not open to the public, and only the Sisters and those whom they invite, have access to the lower chapel, but the moment you enter it, you are aware of a presence. Like many of the holy sites in and around Jerusalem, it is impossible to know if this is in fact the place where Jesus and his disciples prayed, and more importantly if this is where he taught the prayer that has become known to us as The Lord’s Prayer, but none the less, this place has been hallowed by the memory of that occasion, as well as by the prayers of countless people. The walls of the cave are literally steeped in prayer, and it is that which you feel the moment you enter.

Of all the prayers we pray, none is so universal, and so loved, as is The Lord’s Prayer. Wherever we go in the world as Christians, we find others who love and pray this prayer as well. We may be divided by language, and culture, race, and gender, wealth, and education, ecclesiology, and theology, but we are united by this prayer, and by the act of praying it, alone or with others.

For all its familiarity, and the ease with which we say it, The Lord’s Prayer, along with Baptism and the Eucharist, is one of the most radical acts a Christian can do. It is radical, because in the first two words of the prayer, we say something profound about ourselves, and something equally profound about God. Our Father, Jesus teaches us to pray, and those two words speaks volumes.

The prayer does not begin O God, or Almighty and Everlasting God, or O Gracious God, or Holy God. It does not begin with Merciful God, or Blessed Lord. It begins quite simply: Our Father. And with those two words we enter into a relationship. We enter into a relationship with all the people throughout time and space, who have ever said those words, and we enter into a relationship with the One whom we address as Father.

At its essence, the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of belonging and that is what we proclaim in those first two words: Our Father. For in them we proclaim that not only do we belong to God, as God’s beloved children, but that we belong to one another as well. In the words of John’s Gospel: But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.[1] It is through our relationship as the beloved daughters and sons of God, that we are sisters and brothers to one another, and thus have the audacity to say our in union with those near and far, those who are most like us, and those who are most different. In this prayer of belonging we affirm our common identity as God’s children, and we place ourselves in relationship, not only with God, but with one another. And in this age of individualism, being in relationship, especially with people who are not like us, is a radical act indeed.

But we do more. We do more.

As we proclaim our belongingness to God and to one another, we affirm our common need and our responsibility for one another. In the me first culture in which we live, where people declare without an ounce of irony that I alone can fix it; where people don’t know and don’t care about their neighbours; where we are only interested in ourselves, and what we can get for ourselves; we pray: give us, forgive us, save us, deliver us. Nowhere in the prayer do we say me, or I. Instead we pray: us, us, us, us.

In this prayer which Jesus taught us, we come to God, not as self-possessed individuals, confident in our self-worth, and demanding our fair share and more, but as members of a community who know our common need for sustenance, forgiveness, salvation and liberation. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from the evil one.[2] In these words, we pray not simply for ourselves, but for all in their need, and so we take responsibility, not just for our own wellbeing, but the wellbeing of others. The Lord’s Prayer unites us, makes us, and shapes us into a communion, a community, a commonwealth, where none are left out, left behind, or left alone. In this prayer we take responsibility for one another, and in this age of individual self-interest, taking responsibility for the wellbeing of another, especially if they are not like us, is a radical act indeed.

That is what I felt standing with Brother Robert and Sr Elspeth in that cave chapel, where maybe Jesus did, or maybe he didn’t, teach those first disciples The Lord’s Prayer. What was important was not the certainty that this is the place, but the union I felt with thousands, if not millions and billions of people who have said those same words, no matter the language, no matter the place, no matter the time.

What was important was knowing them, no matter how different they are to me, to be my sisters and brothers, not because we were related by blood, but because we were related by the waters of Baptism, and that all of us have the same Father. What was important was knowing that they prayed for me, and cared for me, and were concerned for me each time they said those words, just as I prayed, and cared and was concerned for them. What was important as we said The Lord’s Prayer that day, in that place, was that the echo of other voices, in other places, and other times, praying that same prayer, joined our voices, making our three rather feeble voices the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out:[3] Our Father in heaven!

It is so easy to pray the Lord’s Prayer, as it trips lightly, familiarly, almost unthinkingly off our tongues and out of our mouths, but the reality is otherwise. We should pray it in fear and trembling, conscious that we do so, not as individuals cataloguing our personal, individualistic needs, but as part of a great chorus of believers, stretching across time and space, united as sisters and brothers of one Father, who are asking, not simply for our own needs but also for the needs of those whom we love, and those whom we don’t, those whom we know, and those whom we may never know.

Praying The Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the most radical thing a Christian can do on any given day, because it reminds us who and whose we are, and to whom we belong. It reminds us that we are not a collection of individuals, but the community of the redeemed who, in Father Benson’s words, live like the saints who live… not as separate individuals existing according to the law of their own consciousness; but… [who] have a perfect life as members of one living body, living with one undivided act of life.[4]

What Jesus taught his disciples that day was so much more than a set of words. What he taught them, and continues to teach us if only we will listen, is that not only do we belong to God, but that we belong to one another as well. Because we belong, we live, not for ourselves alone, but to all those to whom we belong: God, our neighbour, and everyone we says with us: Our Father in heaven….

[1] John 1: 12 – 13

[2] BCP 1979, page 364

[3] Revelation 19: 6

[4] Benson, Richard Meux, The Religious Vocation, page 282

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