Whenever Jesus gives a warning or a woe it’s good to pay attention. Today we hear a warning attached to a crystal-clear positive practice to follow. It is a rare and precious gift. The treasure of the Lord’s Prayer is so vast that Christians have been plumbing its depths since the very first days. It is a pearl of great price, and yet, in its ubiquity, perhaps it has lost its luster.
For as long as I can remember this prayer has formed the backdrop of my spiritual life. I don’t remember sitting down and learning it systematically. It was just in the atmosphere of the family and church community I inhabited.
And so, it usually takes some conscious effort for me to return to the words, the layers of meaning and desire expressed to revivify otherwise dulled, ambient noise.
I can recall encountering slightly different versions; sometimes we ask forgiveness for trespasses, debts, or sins. Sometimes the correct, or at least familiar word seemed really important and other times I was just happy that we were saying it together. And on some occasions hearing the prayer spoken in the various languages of the hearts of people from all over the world has risen like a beautifully rich fragrance to God.
Monks pray often. But as we learn many times over, quantity or frequency in themselves don’t equal quality or depth. Neither, as Jesus points out here, do length or verbal sophistication in themselves equal substance in the realm of prayer. Even when the phrases are full of meaning, such as those drawn directly from Scripture, it is possible to come to them with absence of mind or heart, and miss the meaning because something in us is missing.
The Christians at Corinth seemed to go weak in the knees for verbal sophistication. In this slightly odd snippet from Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, I hear Paul’s sense of humor and his deep sense of irony. The Corinthians are distractible; they are flirtatious with other teachings, other teachers, and other “gospels” with finer phrases and finer reputations than Paul’s gospel, which can be a bit of a downer. Length and sophistication were these teachers’ specialty: in public prayer, in preaching, and in their long and impressive resumes. Paul was capable of great rhetorical sophistication himself, but the gospel he stewards is, first and foremost, treasure in a clay jar, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). Rather than a super-apostle– a term heavy with irony – Paul is a kind of sub–apostle. He’s a messenger on a distinctly downward trajectory, whose “resume” includes only the most ridiculous, painful, and shameful things he has endured for the sake of the gospel. Rather than marrying up in the world, spiritually speaking, Paul has married down… and down and down. He has wedded himself to a Bridegroom Messiah who makes him look like a loser. And that is his greatest boast.
Clouds and darkness are round about him, * righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne [on earth as in heaven].
Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous * and give thanks to his holy [, hallowed] Name. –Psalm 97: 2, 12
If your prayer life is anything like my own, you will have found that our praying lives are often littered with ever shifting seasons, fresh insights, old wounds that continue to sting, and ever expanding and contracting horizons of the heart. Perhaps, too, you will have found that even the most familiar phenomena can take on new valences and, to our surprise, unveil themselves in a beautiful complexity to which we had previously been blind. The ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ from which our gospel pericope comes this morning, has often been for me a site of this very ‘unraveling of the familiar’—a place where the real limitations of our spiritual vision meet the scandalous, expansive, sometimes terrifying truth at the heart of all things.
For many of us, the words of the Lord’s prayer contain an inestimable, unqualifiable freight. These words—so dear, so familiar, so second-nature—stir the gaze of our hearts toward the One whom Jesus invites us to name “Our Father,” and articulate in six remarkably short petitions some of the deepest content of the “hope that is in us.” And yet, as with anything we live in close proximity to, the very familiarity of these words can sometimes obscure this prayer’s true power to transform us and its radical challenge that seeks to summon us beyond our illusory sense of self-dependence.
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.
Today’s gospel lesson comes from Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. In this sermon, which the gospel writer devotes three chapters, we hear the core of Jesus teaching to his disciples. In yesterday’s lesson we hear Jesus warning about practicing piety before others and then He begins a short discourse on prayer which continues in today’s lesson.
In our prayer and meditation it is possible to compare our first reading, the Second Song of Isaiah (Cant. 10 or MP II) with our Lord’s teaching to his disciples on the prayer we know as “The Lord’s Prayer”. They both are about our prayer response to God concerning the needs of the world and our own needs.
In my spiritual reading I recently came across an analogy along the same lines in the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest, scientist, theologian, and spiritual writer of the last century, in his book, Toward the Future. This was in a chapter on “Reflections on Happiness,” using three different attitudes to life to illustrate differing reactions to words such as those of Isaiah’s Second Song.
Is. 55:6-11/Ps. 34:15-22/Mat. 6:7-15
“Forgive us our sins,” we pray, “as we forgive those who sin against us.” I often tuck in a quick “Lord, have mercy” after those words. Or go off on a tangent like, “actually, God, don’t forgive me the way I forgive others, just forgive me. And help me be a better forgiver.”
In his book, How to Forgive, John Monbourquette ( Cincinnati , OH : St Anthony Messenger Press, 2000) tells the story of a missionary who had dedicated himself, heart and soul, to the evangelization of his adopted people. But not everyone appreciated his methods; some even misrepresented them and spoke disparagingly of him to other people.