Over the past several months, I have been reading up on the Lord’s Prayer. Basically what I have been doing is reading homilies written by ancient and contemporary fathers (and in a couple of cases, mothers) of the Church. As I read, I found it impossible to take notes because, on the one hand, I didn’t know what I was looking for, and on the other hand, just about everything seemed notable. Consequently, after about six months of reading, I had very few notes and a mind full of ideas and connections related to the Lord’s prayer. In the next few posts, I’m going to try to write down for you some of the ideas about the Lord’s prayer that I found most useful along with the connections that I formed regarding them. Embarrassingly, I admit, I will give you very few, maybe no, references. I will merely do my best to share my thoughts about the Lord’s Prayer. Nothing I say is original, though everything I say passes through the lens of my own mind and thus is my responsibility. In other words, if I say something useful to you, thank God. If I say something that confuses you, forget it; for I may indeed be the one who is confused.
When we begin to think about the Lord’s prayer, the first thing we have to consider is its context. That is, where does the prayer come from? The Lord’s prayer is found in both Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospel. And while the wording of the prayer is different in the two Gospels, it is Matthew’s version of the prayer that has become the one that we are taught in Church to pray (in both the Orthodox tradition and in the various western Christian traditions).
In Luke’s Gospel (ch.11), Jesus’ disciples ask Him to teach them to pray, and Jesus tells them, “When you pray, say” ; and then he begins the prayer. Luke’s version of the prayer is shorter than Matthew’s version. I will not numerate the differences, if you are interested, you can look it up yourself—in fact, I suggest that you look it up and study it yourself. Luke’s version is shorter and in a couple of places the wording is different, but obviously it is a version of the exact same prayer we find in Matthew (ch. 6).
Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is found in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. The prayer is, according to some, the hight point, or focal point of the sermon. And just as in Luke, Jesus is addressing his disciples. We read at the beginning of the sermon that when Jesus had gone up onto a mountain, his disciples came to Him and He taught them. In both Luke and Matthew’s account of the Lord’s Prayer, we see that the Lord’s prayer is a prayer for the disciples of Jesus. It is not a prayer for the masses of people, it is a prayer for disciples, serious followers of Jesus. In the early Church this is emphasized by the fact that catechumens were not even taught the words of the Our Father until a few days before their baptism. It was considered a secret prayer, a prayer only to be said by those baptized into the eucharistic community.
I think this point is significant. When I was a little boy, my devout Roman Catholic grandmother taught me to kneel beside my bed every night before I went to bed and say the Lord’s Prayer. I think if I had faithfully done that throughout my childhood and teenage years, I would have been spared a great deal of grief. The Prayer may have taught me to pray. However, as it is with many things, familiarity bred contempt, and as I memorized the prayer and could rip it off in almost five seconds without a thought, I ceased to say the prayer. And as a consequence, by in large, I ceased to pray. The Lord’s Prayer, like any prayer, can easily become vain and thus, as it is said, a vain repetition.
Vain, however does not mean “proud” or “stuck on one’s self” as many people assume—indeed as many people use the word today. In the Bible, vain means empty, void of meaning. Any prayer that is said without appropriate attention to the meaning of the words is a vain prayer. By the way, this does not only apply to written prayers that one might memorize. Spontaneous prayers can be just as vain when, for example, the person who prays them is thinking about the others who are listening or when the prayer attempts manipulates God to give them what they want (as in the “preach a prayers” that young people despise so much when they are coming from their parents or youth pastors, or the “name it and claim it” prayer method so popular on T.V.).
Our Lord did not give his disciples this prayer so that they would repeat it in an empty way. Rather, He gave them this prayer so that in praying it with attention, they might learn how to pray. In learning for what they should pray, his disciples learn who they are in relation to the Father and they learn what is important, what is worth praying for. In fact, it is the context of the Sermon of the mount that teaches us exactly what we are not to pray for, what we are not to seek in prayer either using the words of the Lord’s Prayer or words we make up spontaneously. “Take no thought for tomorrow,” Jesus tells His disciples. “Don’t worry about what you will eat, what you will wear for all these things the Gentiles [unbelievers] seek after.” You might ask then, if we are not to pray about our food and clothing or about what we might need tomorrow, then what do we pray for. Jesus tells us: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all of these things will be added to you.”
Our heavenly Father already knows we need food and clothing and shelter. He already knows the circumstances of our life and the things we are afraid of, the things that we are afraid will or won’t happen. Our Father already knows. So if the Father already knows, what do we pray for? Well, that’s what the Lord’s Prayer teaches us. It teaches us what we are to pray for.
Now before I conclude this introductory essay, I want to say that we have not sinned if we do pray for such mundane things as next month’s rent money and shoes for our children to begin school in. Our love and care for others and, we must also admit, our lack of faith, often create a situation in which our minds are so full of care regarding what the Gentiles seek, regarding the cares and needs of this life, that we cannot begin to pray, not really pray, until we have gotten these cares off our chest.
When I began going to a monastery for regular visits, I did my best to participate in the full cycle of prayers with the brothers. And part of their cycle of prayer was to spend one hour in our cells saying the Jesus Prayer. During my first several visits, I considered myself blessed if I could make fifteen minutes before I had to pick up a book or just collapsed back into bed. But with repeated visits, I got so that I could say the Prayer for the whole hour. But once I was able to do this, and began paying closer attention to what was going on inside me while I said the Prayer, I began to realize that for the first two or three days of any visit to the monastery, although the words coming out of my mouth were the Jesus Prayer, and although I was trying to think about the words, at some very deep level, the real content of my prayer was the cares and concerns of the people I love.
I asked Father Abbot about this experience and he assured me that it was normal. I was carrying all of these people in my heart and by saying the Prayer, I was opening my heart and giving all of these people and their needs and cares over to God. He suggested that as a person or need or care came to my mind as I was saying the Prayer, I was simply to “lift it up and offer it to God.” I wasn’t to think about it or elaborate on it or explain it to God. I was to simply let the thought go in the presence of the One who knows more and loves more than I. I shouldn’t fight it or be concerned about it. He told me that eventually, with practice, I would come to a quiet place were even the words of the Prayer would cease. Then I should just remain in that silence as long as possible. (Some other time, maybe, we can talk more about the Jesus prayer. I already feel foolish for saying as much as I have being such a beginner myself, still struggling with the beginning stages).
Nevertheless, my point is that when we start to pray, we often have a long experience of what I like to call pre-prayer. Pre-prayer is letting go. Pre-prayer is offering to God all of the people and cares and worries of this life so that I can really begin to pray. For us beginners, this is a necessary part of getting ready to pray. For some of us, perhaps, and during certain busy seasons of our lives, this pre-prayer may be all we know of prayer. And that is fine. To begin to pray, even to want to begin to pray is to already pray. God hears the longings of our hearts. But the Lord’s Prayer is not about what I am calling pre-prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is what Jesus Himself has to teach us about prayer itself. And when you look at the Lord’s Prayer for what it actually teaches us to pray, I must admit, it is quite intimidating. But as in all things spiritual, I am of the opinion that it is safer to humble ourselves and ask the Lord to teach us what is too high for us to easily understand than it is to try to find ways to bring the mystery of His Kingdom down to our level.
And so, Lord willing, for the next few blog posts, I will look into what the Lord’s Prayer actually says, striving with all of my might not to bring it down to my level, but rather together with you, to revel in what is too high for me.