I feel quite embarrassed to admit that for a long time I was not disquieted by the Lord’s Prayer. But, mercifully, this is now changing. The more I now reflect on its significance and discipline, the more troubled I get about saying this prayer. But that does not mean that I can give up on it. It means, principally, that I have to struggle to be worthy of saying the prayer. The good thing is that the prayer itself is my aid in this struggle. I pray through the struggle to be able to pray aright the prayer that Jesus has taught us in order that we may pray aright.
“But, it is your mistake,” you could tell me, “that you subject this Prayer of prayers to your puny brain. The prayer Jesus has taught us is to be said, not to be anatomized, as frogs are on the resection table. Who is man that he may cut up the skin and sinews, and lay bare the soul, of the Lord’s prayer?”
To that I’d reply: “If I don’t understand what I repeat, I will be doing no more than praying mechanically. God hasn’t made human beings like machines. The very purpose of spirituality is that we become more than machines. Also, if I don’t understand the meaning of what I say by way of prayer, do I pray at all? I’d only be babbling like a parrot, making sounds it does not understand.”
If I may take my readers into confidence at this point, I would also say this in the form of an aside: “It’s great to be able to say the Lord’s Prayer ‘seekingly,’ you know? Didn’t Jesus say, “seek and you will find”? We are to seek even in prayer. Prayer is a form of seeking God. To seek God is also to seek our own best self. We are truly ourselves only in and through God. That’s why we need to pray!”
So, the Lord’s prayer begins with our need to remind ourselves of – for we are too apt to forget it – who we are. Who we are, is understood best in terms of who God is. He is our ‘Father in heaven.’ This means, in the main, four things to me – God is “our” father. He is not only ‘my’ father but also yours. He is also the Father or my neighbour, if we recall the duty to ‘love the neighbour as ourselves.’ So, ‘fraternity’ – to use the term highlighted by the French Revolution (1789) – is basic to my spirituality. I cannot be a child of God – which is as good as saying, I cannot be a human being – if I am incapable of fraternity, or a sense of kinship with my fellow human beings. Jesus’ teaching that we ‘should love our enemies’ is subsumed in this. If we acknowledge God as ‘our’ Father in heaven, it is impossible to harbour the aberrations of enmity. It is incomprehensible to me how Christendom could have spilt so much blood in the name of Christianity, through centuries of sectarian wars and persecutions, even as the Lord’s Prayer was being said routinely.
The Lord’s Prayer, I beg to submit, runs counter to denominationalism. Christian unity is subsumed in God being “our” Father. We can be hypocritical. We also can be prayerful. But what we should not be is to be hypocritical and prayerful at the same time. It was this that Jesus denounced most. As Christians we are divided into a thousand alienated fragments by the same Lord, the same Word, the same Spirit. If this is not hypocritical, what is?
Secondly, God is our “Father” in heaven. He is not an abstraction. God has a nature. There is no ‘nature’ without attributes. An attributes-less nature is a contradiction in terms. St John says that God is love. So, we can know and abide in God only through love. Jesus says He is the truth. So, to abide in Jesus is to dwell in truth. Or, it is not to have an existence except in truth as our abode. To be members of the Kingdom of God is to seek God’s justice; for God is justice. Jesus came to set us free; so, God is supreme freedom. We cannot address God as our ‘Father’ – of be the children of God – if we compromise on these attributes. To claim God as our Father and yet to be in untruth, injustice, hatred, etc., is to mock God. We are expected to ‘honour’ our earthly parents in the way we conduct ourselves. How much more in the case of our Father in Heaven!
Thirdly, our identity is compacted of two contrary facets: we are on the earth, but God is in heaven. So, our spirituality should be such that it links heaven and earth. This explains our duty to make the will of God prevail ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ The fact that God is in heaven does not mean that His face is turned away from our earthly existence. It means, primarily, that God will not be a party to our partisan and parochial agendas and advocacies. The Lord’s Prayer is, in that sense, a reminder that we need to rise above the pettiness that we, otherwise, flaunt as religious fervour. We exist on the earth, but we have a destiny that transcends it. This truth is critical even for the health and sustainability of the earth. Spirituality is instinct with the discipline to transcend the limits of the visible and the manifest, and to live in the present in light of the past and the world to come.
Fourthly, to pray “Our Father who art in heaven…” is also recognize that we have a ‘Fatherland,’ even as we have a motherland. A Christian, unlike a Muslim, is not without a clear sense of duty by his motherland. The universality of the biblical faith does not render the particularities of our discrete lives insignificant. This is clearly implied in the Incarnation. The Word, becoming flesh, ‘dwelt in our midst full of grace and truth.’ This ‘dwelling’ in the midst of people is a necessary complement to the Word becoming flesh. Without it, the Word becoming flesh would remain a glorious, cosmic event irrelevant to the human condition.
But as children of God we are also required to transcend the aberrations of immediacy and secular parochialism called jingoism. This is implied in our identity as the children of God. Universality – and the freedom from malignant jingoism it entails – is basic to our spiritual self-understanding as Christians.
When I think of Jesus Christ, what strikes me with delightful astonishment is the quality and depth of His thinking. How would He be the Teacher of teachers, if He were mere mental roughage?
History teaches us that to abdicate the duty to think is to invite unfreedom. If we don’t think, and think deep, we lose the ability to understand issues and the spirit of our times aright. This makes us depend on others. All forms of dependence are inimical to freedom. The refusal to think, besides, keeps us poor and immature in our understanding. This weakens our will. We become diffident and dependent, which is a terrible combination. The very purpose of prayer is to deliver us from this pathetic state and to equip us with the spiritual light to live life in all its fullness.
For that, it is not only necessary to say the right prayer, but also to say it aright. Jesus meant as much when He said, “Watch and pray!” It could as well be put, “Think and pray!”