Praying the Lord’s Prayer … Meaningfully

Jackie and community at prayer

The Lord’s Prayer might be the most important Christian prayer ever written.

Given to us by Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer shows us both how to pray and what to pray for. It shows us how to live our lives.

From the first word to the last, each is rich with meaning nearly 2,000 years after it was first spoken.

Theologians surmise the Lord’s Prayer must have come as a surprise to the disciples. Raised on the psalms and formal religious ceremonies of the Old Testament, they might have expected elaborate preparation and formal, lengthy recitation when they asked Jesus to teach them how to pray.

But Jesus responded with simplicity, intimacy and without fanfare, with the confidence of a child petitioning a loving parent. He prayed to Abba, which in his native tongue of Aramaic meant Daddy.

He said:
In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them.

Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This is how you are to pray:

Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:7-13)

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name

“Jesus taught us that prayer is relational,” Sister Mary Core, OSB, says.

“He didn’t list rules to follow. He taught us how to talk to God. He said, Our Father – Our Daddy, and you can’t get any more personal than that.”

Sister Rosemary Becker, OSB, points out that calling God Father does not mean that God is masculine.

“God is beyond the categories of gender,” she says. “None of our descriptions of God are adequate. God, who is ‘in heaven,’ whose name is holy, cannot be fully known by us.”

Sr. Mary suggests we change the words to fit our needs.

“We need to pray however we can best relate to our Creator,” she says. “To put the prayer into our own words is good. Praise and converse with our Father or our Mother or our Creator who is in heaven.”

The concept of God as parent was new to the disciples, however common it is to us today.

“Jesus invited us to draw near to God, despite the fact that God is ‘in heaven,’” Sr. Rosemary says. “We have a filial relationship with God, who sees us as daughters and sons. We can approach God with confidence through God’s only Son, Jesus Christ.”

Precisely so, notes author and theologian George Martin in his book, Praying with Jesus.

“Were Jesus not the Son of God, his claim of intimacy with the Father would have been blasphemous,” Martin writes. “No mere man, certainly, could take it upon himself to address God as ‘Abba’ – to approach the Creator of the universe with the same familiarity a small child has with his or her parents. … Jesus could authorize his followers to address God as Father because his mission was to make them sons and daughters of God.”

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven

The call to obedience – to God’s will and not our own – mirrors Christ’s own behavior and mission on earth. He not only models the right relationship with God, he tells us to pray for it for ourselves.

“We are to trust ourselves to God,” Sr. Mary says. “We are to ask to do God’s will.”

Sometimes using the parent-child model can help us understand why. Parents usually possess the experience and vision to guide their offspring into capable adulthood. When the children disobey – say, they go to the park after dark – they put themselves at risk.

In other words, we are children who must ask for help to do our Creator’s will, that we might be kept safe and sound. In the larger context, we are participants in the creation of heaven on earth, and the path to that eventuality is obedience to God’s will.

“Jesus often said that God’s power would renew all creation,” Sr. Rosemary adds. “God’s kingdom will be marked by peace and justice. The kingdom is already present in our midst, though not yet revealed.”

Give us this day our daily bread

With this petition, we move from the transcendent concerns of the Divine to the human concerns of life on earth.

“We ask God to give us what we need,” Sr. Mary says. “We ask for our daily bread, enough to eat. Metaphorically, we ask for that which nourishes us, body, mind and soul. We seek to be nourished by what we need: no more. We do not ask for excess.”

Community is a theme that runs throughout the prayer that is prayed in the first person plural. Give us this day our daily bread.

“The need for bread is an individual matter, but the satisfaction of that need cannot be an individual effort; it must be that of a community,” Fr. Leonardo Boff says in his book, The Lord’s Prayer. “Thus we do not pray ‘my Father,’ but ‘our Father.’ … We have a Father who belongs to all of us, because he is our Father; we are all his offspring, and thus we are all brothers and sisters. Mere personal satisfaction of hunger without considering the others would be a breach of fellowship. …

“Bread calls us to a collective conversion. This condition must be fulfilled if our prayer is not to be vain and pharisaical. The gospel forbids me to ask only for myself, disregarding the needs of others known by me. Only our bread is God’s bread.”

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us

A Chinese proverb says, “The one who opts for revenge should dig two graves,” and mounds of contemporary research corroborate its wisdom.

Those who nurse their anger experience impaired health and limited joy; in fact, it might be said that they live in a hell of their own making.

Need proof? Visit the web sites of many major research hospitals and universities.

Forgiveness is the cornerstone of Christianity, radical both in its simplicity and complexity. Without it, we are doomed.

“Forgiveness is never going to be easy,” writes Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, in her book, Dead Man Walking. “Each day it must be prayed for and struggled for and won.”

She was referring, specifically, to the forgiveness granted by the father of a murdered child to his child’s murderer. Jesus never promised it would be easy.

It’s not easy to forgive, no matter the debt, or trespass, or sin. Yet we are commanded to pray for God’s forgiveness as we forgive others.

“Our asking for forgiveness in prayer is linked to our forgiving those who are in need of forgiveness from us,” Martin writes. “Granting forgiveness is a freeing experience. It frees the other person to relate to us in friendship again; it frees us from the frustration and hostility we may have been carrying around inside ourselves.”

It restores us to right relationship with God.

“If we desire to be one with God, if we want God’s kingdom here on earth, we have to forgive,” Sr. Mary says.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil

Could God – would God – do the opposite? Might God lead us into temptation?

“It’s our choice to travel down the wrong path,” Sr. Mary says.

“God won’t lead us there. We must ask for the graces we need to see temptation for what it is. Evil is not a swamp monster. It’s a sneaky little thing that produces ill will or judgment against someone. It’s selfishness. If you find yourself saying I need, I want, I, I, I, beware! You will create a mighty small world of only yourself.”

As we end the prayer, it is fitting to recall the use of the third person, as spoken by Jesus: proof of our sister and brotherhood with Him as well as with one another.

“Jesus … invited us to support each other in prayer,” Fr. Boff writes. “He promised his special presence when we gather in his name to pray; he promised a special power to our prayers when we come together… .”

Which is how the Church prays around the globe every day.

“We pray the Lord’s Prayer at every Mass, in every Rosary and during every Lauds, Noonday Prayer and Vespers,” Sr. Helen Carey, OSB, says. “Lately, I have come to pray it more slowly, so I can ponder its meaning.”

Sr. Mary agrees. “I would urge people to really pray and not just say the Lord’s Prayer,” she says.

“When we slow down enough to really think about what we’re saying, the intimacy and power of the words in the prayer take on a depth of meaning that often escapes us when we simply rattle through the prayer from memory.”

Jesus gave us our heavenly parent as the loving One we share with him. He gave us the prayer to pray and within it, the way to live. As the final word says, may it be so. Amen.

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