We have a text from the Gospel of Luke today in which Jesus talks about prayer. First of all, he tells his disciples to address God as Father and gives them the prayer we know today as the Lord’s Prayer. The version of this prayer we are given in Luke is slightly shorter than the one given in Matthew where he includes the additional line ‘Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Almost universally throughout the Church, whether it be Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, the slightly fuller version given by Matthew is used in the liturgy and in personal prayer. In some Protestant and Byzantine Churches, however, a doxology is added: ‘For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.’ We tend not to add this to the Our Father in the Catholic Tradition because it is not included in the actual text of the Gospel, although since 1970 it has been included as a separate item in the liturgy directly after the Our Father.
The Our Father is, of course, the archetypal prayer of Christians; it was given to us directly by Jesus and it forms the basis on which all other Christian prayer is modelled.
A little bit of controversy has been introduced lately concerning the words ‘Lead us not into temptation.’ Some people suggest that it is not possible that God could actually lead us into temptation and so have sought to amend the text. The English-speaking world has resisted this innovation but a slight change in wording has recently been introduced to the Italian translation of the mass.
The Italians now say, ‘do not abandon us to temptation.’ According to me there is little difference between these two texts and I believe the controversy is just a storm in a teacup. Actually, though, I think that innovations like this should generally be resisted because the text has been handed down to us in its present form for many centuries and I don’t think we should change texts that we learnt off by heart in childhood with the intention that they remain with us for the rest of their lives.
For example take the Confiteor in the Latin Mass, which for centuries was the unchanging liturgy of the Church, there it is rendered ‘I confess to almighty God, to Blessed Mary ever Virgin, to blessed Michael the Archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul and to you brethren that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed.’ This was changed in 1962 to ‘I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.’
Fifty years later I was still hearing old people in the Confessional using the old form of the Confiteor and continuing to invoke blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist and the holy Apostles Peter and Paul. It was something that those people had learned by heart in childhood and it had become such an ingrained part of their daily prayers that they simply couldn’t change it. This is why in the Our Father we still use the word ‘thy’ even though it is completely archaic and fell out of use in the English language as long ago as the Seventeenth Century.
Nevertheless, the Our Father is a prayer treasured by all Christians and all the more so since it was given to us by Jesus with the deliberate intention of drawing us into an ever-closer intimacy with God the Father. The ancient tradition in the Church is that it should be recited by every Christian three times a day: morning, noon and night.
The second half of the Gospel text given to us today is about how Jesus told us not to be hesitant in asking for things from God. This highlights the importance of intercessory prayer. He gives us a parable about the man who in the middle of the night asks his friend if he can borrow a few loaves because a visitor has arrived unexpectedly. He says that if the friend won’t get out of bed straight away he will eventually do so because of the first man’s persistence.
He implies that if God doesn’t give us what we want immediately we should still go on asking for it and eventually it will be granted to us. I’m not sure the best parallel for God is a sleepy neighbour but the point is made that we should not be afraid to be persistent in our prayer.
The lovely lines ‘Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you’ simply underline the point. Of course, sometimes when we persistently ask God for some favour, over a period of time the request gets modified. If, for example, we are praying for healing for a person we know we might start out by asking God for a complete cure, but then with time we might modify this to ask for them to be relieved of unnecessary suffering. Then as more time passes our request might be modified once again asking God to grant them a happy and peaceful death.
One of the reasons we might modify our request is because we understand that in death they will surely find salvation and that this is actually healing at the most profound level, at the level of the soul. Again, we should realise that prayer changes us. The more we pray, the more we deepen our relationship with God and the more we begin to understand the mysteriousness of his ways.
Of course, there is more to prayer than intercession. Christ tells us to ask God for the things that we need but we realise that there are other aspects to a healthy prayer-life. We realise that there needs to be room in prayer for other things like penitence, self-offering, thanksgiving and praise. As we celebrate the mass, we realise that as it unfolds it takes us through many of these types of prayer.
And we also understand that in our life of prayer there needs to be room for silence, for listening. Yes, we listen to God through reflecting on his words in scripture when we realise that his words are not just addressed to the Apostles but also to us today, in our particular circumstances. But more than this, because a person who has deepened their prayer life also realises that God speaks through silences. And we need to learn to treasure those silent moments of prayer and as we go through life we ought to extend them where possible.
If in the first half of our lives we find that in prayer we do most of the talking, then in the second part of our lives we might find that we do most of the listening.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket