How do we start to pray? I was just thinking of the first time that question was asked and of the answer that was given. I cannot do better than repeat it because Christ answered by giving his disciples the Our Father. In the Lord’s Prayer, Christ gave us the pattern of all prayer. The first two words, Our Father, sum up the rest of the prayer and are the key to understanding the basic context and direction of all Christian prayer. Our trouble is that familiarity has anesthetized our minds, dulled our intellects so that the depth of meaning with which these words are charged simply passes us by.
How to Pray the Our Father
Take the word ‘Our’, the one word which sums up the whole context of all prayer. Prayer lifts us up out of ourselves and gradually draws us more deeply into Christ, and in Him, we are drawn into the total community of mankind. The Gospel is the story of what happens to a person who totally exposes themselves to the power of uncreated love. The Resurrection shows the inevitable consequences of this process in the life of Christ. It also makes it quite clear that what happened to him will happen to all who are prepared to follow him, to do what he did. Resurrection means that the person who continually opens him or herself to love, come what may, will, in the end, be possessed by it. As this process reaches its climax, we will be lifted out of ourselves into a new mode of being altogether. We can see this happening to Christ at the end of the Gospel story. The Resurrection pinpoints the moment in time when Christ is so possessed by love that he is raised up outside of time into a new form of existence, beyond all the laws and limitations of the space-and-time world to which we belong, and into which he was born.
Before the Resurrection Jesus was subject to all the restrictions that bind the rest of us. He too could only be in one place at any given moment. Contact with him, therefore, was necessarily limited to where he happened to be, how long he was going to stay there and how many others wanted to see him. Once love had lifted him out of the world of space and time, however, he was freed from all those limiting laws and restrictions. In the eternal dimension, he could be present to countless numbers of people at any given moment, because he could be present to them, not from the outside, but from the inside, through love. Now he was not just the Man for all Seasons, but the man for all times, for all ages, for all generations simultaneously. This is why he is sometimes called the Eternal Contemporary. And since Christ can come into contact with everyone through love, then everyone can contact each other in him. Just as the spokes of a wheel automatically come closer to one another as they draw nearer to the centre, so everyone automatically comes closer to one another as they draw nearer to Christ. The world of the eternal dimension, or the Kingdom of love, is the only place where genuine community really exists.
We Pray Together with All Humankind
When we say Our Father, then, we do not mean that we pray with Christ and in him, but also that we pray together with all humankind who are alive in him, with the whole community living or dead, because in him there is no death. We pray with Mary too, with Peter and Paul, with Francis and Dominic. We pray with loved ones now dead, who have been reborn in Christ. Prayer opens us to the world where space and time have no meaning; our prayer can reach out and unite us with other Christians now languishing in the prisons of the world for the Faith we can so easily take for granted. It can enable us to bring strength and comfort to an innocent victim of some vicious regime, who is about to be tortured at this moment.
Christians suffering in China risked imprisonment to smuggle a tape recording out of their country. The tape consisted of an impassioned appeal for prayers from the Chinese Christians to their brothers in the West. Suffering always makes people of deep faith more sensitive to the extraordinary power of prayer. You may be alone in your own room, or in a deserted church, but when you begin to pray you enter into the whole community of all who live and love in Christ. Through prayer we can reach out to others, share our faith and love with them, and receive their strength in return. The Church made an enclosed Carmelite nun, St Thérèse of Lisieux patroness of the Missions, to emphasize that the prayer of love transcends all boundaries, even the boundaries of space and time.
The Mystical Body of Christ
I always think this is rather a clumsy phrase, and it has the added disadvantage of being a religious cliché that has been emptied of meaning through overuse. But the reality expressed by that traditional phrase is central to all prayer. It expresses the fundamental context in which all prayer begins, grows, and is completed. All who allow themselves to be possessed by love will be swept up out of themselves, to be more deeply immersed into the life of the resurrected man, Jesus, through whom they will meet each other on a level that they never imagined possible.
This is why the first word of the Lord’s Prayer is OUR. There is no place for the self-conscious I. It is OUR Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be thy Name; thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give US this day OUR daily bread, and forgive US OUR trespasses, as WE forgive those who trespass against US; and lead US not into temptation but deliver US from evil. The whole Christian prayer tradition follows this pattern of prayer and is exemplified perfectly in the Liturgy of the Church. There is no such thing as private prayer for Christians, although they may be praying in solitary confinement. The context of prayer is so important both theologically and psychologically that we ought to begin prayer by mentally reminding ourselves of the all-embracing world into which we enter; of the vast community of believers with whom we are identifying ourselves, in Christ.
A Community that Transcends the Barriers of Space and Time
The whole point of prayer is that it takes believers out of themselves into another world where they no longer live for themselves but for others, in a community that transcends the barriers of space and time. They are invited into a wholly new environment where they will gradually forget their own petty self-centered world, as they learn to live with and for all who are alive in Christ. In other words, do not just say, Lord, I am a sinner, help me; say, “Lord, we are sinners, help us. Do not just say, Lord, teach me to pray; say, Lord, teach us to pray. And do not just say, Lord, I praise you. Say, Lord, we praise you. For you are praying with the whole body of believers who are alive in Christ and not just by yourself, and you are praying for all humankind, not just for yourself.
Should we never use the word ‘I’?
There are times when we have to think of ourselves, put ourselves under a microscope, and even pray in the first person. I’ll come back to this later, but as a general rule our prayer should place us in the brotherhood of Christ.’
‘Our FATHER. Yes, the first word puts us in the right context; the second points us in the right direction. The Gospels show how it is the Holy Spirit who progressively invades and fires the human personality of Jesus until he is eventually set ablaze with the love that raises him irrevocably into the Father, and to all Eternity. It is the flame of the Holy Spirit who radiates between the Father and the Son that can reach out to us also, to fire us with the identical love that will enable us all to be drawn into the community of their life and love.
These themes can be read in Wisdom from the Western Isles – The making of a Mystic