On Prayer, No. 3

After a brief vacation from prayer, it’s time to turn again to the Lord’s Prayer. Last time I reflected on the fact that Jesus seems never to have intended us to repeat the actual words of the Lord’s Prayer, but rather he intended us to adopt his manner of praying. “When you pray, pray like this”. And even in Luke, when he does say, “When you pray say this”, he is responding to the disciples request that he teach them how to pray, not what to pray.

So now let’s look at the Prayer itself. As noted last time, I have consulted seven different translations. Of course they are all, though somewhat different, still the same in substance. I won’t quote them here; you can look them up for yourself if you care to. It will be helpful, though, to have a text here to comment on. Here is my own, slightly paraphrastic, version:

Our Father in Heaven, You whose name is Holy, may your rule become as manifest on earth as it is in heaven. You give us our daily bread; you provide forgiveness and teach us to forgive; you do not us lead into temptation, but rather you deliver us from evil.

Consider the address, “Our Father in Heaven, You whose name is Holy”. To begin with the first part of this address, we need to consider a language issue. Even though the Gospels were written in Greek, Jesus words were Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew. Of course, we do not know what words he may have uttered, but most scholars believe that he usually used the word “Abba” when addressing God.

Now, “Abba” is an intimate and informal form of address. I have even seen it translated as “Daddy”, though that does seem to lead to a rather flippant version of the prayer. I think Jesus’ use of “Abba” tells us that he saw the relationship between us and God to be deeply and ultimately intimate and yet as casual as the loving relationship between us and our fathers, our Abbas, our Daddies. Just as we can rest comfortably and securely in our fathers’ love for us, we can also relax into God’s love. There is no need for strict formalities and ritualistic forms of address. We can simply be ourselves in God’s presence. For, as Jung points out, “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.”

And what about Heaven? Did Jesus think of heaven as a physical place where a physical God and angels lived? Surely not, since that would have been idolatry. So what, then, is heaven? I think he believed that Heaven is a spiritual “place”, a “place” that pervades the physical world and yet is separate from it and so no place at all. This makes God around us and within us and yet unapproachable except as spirit to Spirit.

“Our Father in Heaven”. Those simple four words of invocation are, in some ways the entire prayer. “God who stands to us as loving and gentle as Abba, living within and around us as Spirit to spirit.” We are immediately invited to step beyond our physical lives and into our spiritual lives, beyond ourselves as biological agents and into ourselves as spiritually and morally responsible agents, what I think of as human beings.

Interestingly, Jesus’ address contains a second part: “You whose name is Holy”. What could it mean that God is named “Holy”?

At this point, I need to get personal. I conceive of God as not a thing at all, and therefore cannot be named. The point of naming things is to pick them out from all the other things there are. If God does not appear on the list of things in the universe (“…sealing wax, cabbages, kings, neutrinos, Uncle Harry, Aunt Matilda,….”) then God cannot be named. You can’t pick something out of a list it does not appear on. To name God would be to make of God a thing among other things, and that is the essence of idolatry. In fact, that, I believe, is the wisdom within the prohibition against uttering God’s name.

When Jesus says that God is “named” Holy, then, he is doing something else entirely. He is point a linguistic finger. To be holy is to be whole, unbroken, indissoluble, unmarred. There is no such thing, of course, but God is not a thing. In saying that God is Holy Jesus is moving us still further out of our ordinary, thing-full lives and into the realm of the eternal, the timeless and placeless, into the realm of the spirit. It is in this realm that prayer works.

And now, having entered that spiritual place that is no place, we are ready to pray. The next several sentences have their own issues to contend with. And that will be the subject for my next installment.


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