One of the prayers we learn early on is the “Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father.” We recite it so frequently, and usually so rapidly, that we sometimes don’t pay much attention to the words that we are actually saying. I know it is easy for me to get distracted and think about what I have to do next, or some other random thought, as I pray. Even when standing up at the altar, leading the “Our Father” at Mass and facing all the people, I can easily be distracted by the people I see in the congregation. I think about this one I want to ask to do something, or this person I need to call, or that person who I don’t like, etc. So if you are anything like me, it is good occasionally to stop and pay attention to the actual words we pray.
The “Our Father” is full of pronouns. However, the words “I,” “me,” and “mine” never appear in the prayer. That alone makes it different from much of our speech.
The first emphasis in the prayer is GOD. “YOUR kingdom come, YOUR will be done.” The primary emphasis is not on us, but on God. And the second emphasis is on US as a collective group. We do not pray “give me this day my daily bread” but “give US OUR daily bread.” I think that is very different for asking for MY daily bread. When we pray for us to receive our daily bread, we are praying not only for what we need but also for what our brothers and sisters and neighbors and everyone needs. To truly pray this means we are committing ourselves to work that none of our brothers and sisters–that is all humanity–goes hungry. If we say these words in prayer, but then do nothing to feed the hungry people of the world, our prayer is meaningless and empty. Our words have “traction” and meaning only if we act on them, and to pray “give US this day OUR daily bread” means we are pledging ourselves to help all in need.
Likewise, we pray “and forgive US OUR trespasses as WE forgive those who trespass against US.” To pray this way, it seems to me, means that we are not concerned solely, nor even primarily, with our own personal transgressions. The personal failings we have need to be addressed and forgiven, but this prayer teaches us to recognize our collective hardness of heart and our sin as a community. We sin in perpetuating racism and homophobia, by permitting the conditions that promote the scandal of mass shootings, of the epidemic of opioid addiction, of huge disparities in the distribution of the world’s goods, of allowing the sick and elderly to be abandoned and forgotten. How well do WE forgive those who trespass against us, not only as an individual person, but as a parish, a race, a nation, a Church? That is something to ponder.
The prayer concludes: “And lead US not into temptation, but deliver US from evil. AMEN.” We do not pray for individual deliverance and protection, but for communal protection. Again, to pray this way means we are committing ourselves to protect and deliver others, if they be the unborn, the elderly, the poor, the disabled, the unfortunate. Only if we do this do our words have any credibility and meaning.
I find the “Our Father” a radical and challenging prayer. I think it is meant to be so. And I hope that you find it a challenge to pray too.