The Language of Prayer
Seventeenth Sunday of the Year. Gn 18:20-32; Ps 138:1-3,6-8; Col 2:12-14; Lk 11:1-13
Today’s Gospel includes the famous words of the Our Father, the prayer that Our Lord himself taught his disciples. Now I think we face one slight disadvantage in thinking about the Our Father. The words are so familiar and so simple that it seems there is little more to be said. However, they can teach us a great deal about the nature of Christian prayer, and in today’s short homily I would like to try to identify just a few of these lessons.
Perhaps the most fundamental lesson we can learn from the Our Father is something rather obvious but very easy to overlook: it is the striking fact that when his disciples ask him to teach them to pray, Jesus teaches them to use words. The lesson here can be easy to miss, but I think it is something that we need to be reminded of today. Some modern books of spirituality or meditation imply that prayer is not about words at all. The kind of spirituality that they promote implies that prayer is a matter of emptying the mind, of being vacuous before the transcendent. But at no point does the Bible ever suggest that prayer is a kind of mental void. For us as Christians, prayer is an activity; it is an activity in which one is speaking or listening to God with the desire to be united to God and to do his will. This means that prayer will generally involve words, words either spoken aloud or formed in the mind. Of course, words are not the only aspect of this activity; there is also at times a kind of vision of the mind, and great Christian art can be one way of forming good images in our minds that can be an aids to prayer. However, in this life, while we live by faith rather than by sight, prayer will generally involve words.
A second lesson we can learn is the fact that the words of Christian prayer combine two remarkable qualities. First, the words of the Our Father are simple, so surprisingly simple that it is possible to teach them to a child. But these simple words have a quality of expressing realities beyond any normal power of comprehension. This ‘noble simplicity’ of Christian prayer is something unexpected. Picture the situation in today’s Gospel. Here is God the Son teaching us how to pray to the God the Father; one might expect the revelation of something complex, some secret heavenly code or language. However, Jesus does not do this. Jesus gives us simple, natural words to express supernatural realities. Take, for example, the word ‘Father’. This has a simple, natural meaning, but applied to God it expresses something far beyond the normal grasp of human reason. Although it is possible for human reason to know there is a God, it is not natural for human beings to refer to God as ‘Father’. It is only possible for us because we, who were created by God, have also become adopted children of God through Baptism, living with the hope of seeing God face to face in Heaven. It is for this reason that we have the privilege of saying ‘Our Father’.
So Christian prayer employs simple, natural words to express supernatural realities. However, here we face a problem. We have no direct experience of seeing God or heavenly realities; how, then, it is possible to find the right words for prayer? What words are adequate for realities that we have never seen? Here again today’s Gospel can help us. Jesus teaches us the Our Father; but he also establishes the more general principle that he teaches us to pray. In this Gospel he teaches us the Our Father, but he teaches us many other prayers through the Bible and through the Tradition of the Church. As Catholics, we generally use prayers that have been revealed to us by God, either through Scripture or by the Tradition of the Church. For example, the words of the Hail Mary come almost entirely from the Gospel of Luke and the Council of Ephesus. The words of the Creed come to us from the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople. Every line of the Mass also comes either directly or indirectly from Scripture. For example, the phrase, “from East to West a perfect offering may be made,” comes from the words of the prophet Malachi 1:11, “from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering.” Similarly, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,” comes from the words of the Roman Centurion to Christ in Luke 7:6. Now I think that there is an important principle here. Liturgical prayers are not simply made up by human ingenuity; if they were, they would risk being mere projections of our own concerns and images onto God. By contrast, these prayers – the prayers of the Mass, the Our Father, the Hail Mary and so on have been given to us. They are words that God has provided, and they have power to worship him and to be formed by him beyond our understanding.
So is there a practical lesson from all of this? The Our Father teaches us that we need words to pray, and that we need adequate words, that is, words that God has taught us. Now God has given us a vast wealth of prayers in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. Unfortunately, however, although we teach (hopefully) the Our Father and other simple prayers to children, as we grow up we tend to stop learning prayers ourselves. From my own experience of learning the Psalms (so far, I have managed 35 out of 150) I have now come to realize how much we neglect the faculty of memory today. When we memorize prayers we are not merely storing information: we are imprinting the word of God on our souls. So my final suggestion to you today is very simple: start to memorize prayers from the Bible and the Tradition of the Church. This simple discipline bears extraordinary spiritual fruit in the Christian life.
Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. John the Evangelist, Horsham, 29th July 2007
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