Several years ago, I found myself in a small, subterranean chapel within sight of the Old City of Jerusalem. It had once been a cave. At some point, a modern church was built over it. The floor was littered with scraps of paper. On them people had written prayers, and then dropped them through a grille in the floor of the upper church, onto the floor of this cave chapel, where I stood with Sr. Elspeth. Elspeth was an American. She had begun her religious life as a sister of the Order of Saint Anne, here in Arlington, Massachusetts. The deeper she entered the mystery of her vocation, the more she realized it was to the contemplative life she was called. So, there she was, a Carmelite nun of the Pater Noster Carmel, showing me the cave where, tradition says, Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer.
Like many of the holy sites in Jerusalem, it is impossible to know if this is the place where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. Nonetheless, this place has been hallowed by the memory of that occasion, as well as by the prayers of countless believers. Like our Monastery Chapel, the walls of that cave are soaked in prayer. You feel it the moment you enter.
Of all the prayers we pray, none is so universal, so loved as the Lord’s Prayer. Wherever we go as Christians, we find others who love and pray this prayer. We may be divided by language, culture, race, gender, economics, education, ecclesiology, or theology, but we are united by this prayer and by praying it.
For all its familiarity, the Lord’s Prayer is one of the most radical acts a Christian can do. It is radical, because from the first two words, we say something profound about ourselves and about God.
The prayer begins not with Almighty and Everlasting God, or Holy God. It does not begin with Merciful God, or Blessed Lord. It begins quite simply: Our Father. With those two words, we enter a relationship with all the people throughout time and space, who have ever said them, and we enter a relationship with the One whom we call Father.
At its heart, the Lord’s Prayer is about belonging. That is what we proclaim whenever we say: Our Father. In those words, we proclaim that we belong to God.
And in praying this prayer, we proclaim that we belong to one another. It is through our relationship as the beloved daughters and sons of God that we are sisters and brothers to one another. Thus, we have the audacity to say “Our,” in union with those near and far, those like us and those different from us. In this prayer of belonging, we affirm our common identity as God’s children, and we place ourselves in relationship, with God and one another. In this age of individualism, being in relationship – especially with people who are not like us – is a radical act.
And we do more.
As we proclaim our belongingness to God and to one another, we affirm our common need and responsibility for one another. As the prayer progresses, we pray: give us, forgive us, save us, deliver us. Nowhere do we say me or I. Instead, we pray, us, us, us, us.
In this prayer, we come to God not as individuals, demanding our share, 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. In those words, we pray for all in need, and we take responsibility, not just for our own well-being, but for the well-being 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 an age of self-interest, taking responsibility for the well-being of another, especially if they are not like us, is a radical act.
That is what I felt standing in that cave chapel. What was important was the union I felt with thousands, if not billions of Christians who have said those same words, no matter the language, the place, or the time.
No matter how different, they are my sisters and brothers, related not by blood, but by the waters of Baptism, and we all have the same Father.
In that prayer, they prayed for, cared for, and were concerned for me, just as I prayed for, cared for, and was concerned for them.
What I heard as Elspeth and I prayed together, was not just the familiar words, but also the echo of other voices, in other places, and other times, which joined our voices, making Elspeth’s and my two rather feeble voices into the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out: Our Father in heaven!
It’s easy to pray the Lord’s Prayer. It trips lightly off our tongues.
In fact, we should pray it with fear and trembling, not as individuals cataloging our personal 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 for our own needs, but for the needs of those we love and those we don’t, those we know and those whom we may never know.
Praying the Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the most radical thing a Christian can do. It reminds us who 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 the words of SSJE’s founder, Father Benson, “live like the saints not as separate individuals…but…as members of one living body.”
We belong. And with this prayer, we remember that we live, not for ourselves, but for all those to whom we belong – God, our neighbor, and everyone who has ever said those words: Our Father in heaven…