Q: Archbishop J, How do we pray?
Jesus’ disciples asked the same question—“Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples” (Lk 11:1). At Confirmations I often ask those who have been confirmed about their prayer life.
Too often it is very undeveloped or their response awkward. Jesus’ disciples had a similar problem. Prayer and discipleship are inseparable. John taught his disciples to pray but Jesus’ disciples did not feel competent about their prayer. So they asked and Jesus taught.
What he taught is a treasure. It is a prayer; it is also our best insight into Jesus’ understanding of God. It is a spirituality. The Fathers of the Church teach that this prayer is the norm or measure for all Christian prayer.
I will use the version we say at Mass.
(a) Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
(b) thy kingdom come,
thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
(c) Give us this day our daily bread,
(d) and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
(e) and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
This is a beautiful direct prayer addressed to God by someone with absolute trust and confidence. This is the first striking thing: it puts the person praying in a very specific disposition, one essential for all Christian prayer.
People divide the prayer in several ways. Without being too technical, I like to see it in two parts (a) and (b); (c) to (e). The first part gets the disposition right, the second asks for what we need. Both parts work together to form the perfect prayer.
God is our Father. These first two words are in themselves a meditation. God is Father. Jesus calls God ‘Abba’, a Loving Father. This is a revolution in spiritual history—unprecedented. He does so in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating blood and tears (Mk 14:36).
The term ‘Abba’ is one of endearment, as when a child speaks to his daddy, entrusting himself into daddy’s arms—throwing caution to the wind and abandoning all self-respect and societal decency; calling God ‘Pops’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Ole Man’, sign of a most familiar and affectionate relationship. Yes, the deepest truth about God that Jesus reveals is that God is your Father. God is both our Father and Jesus’ Father.
The father is the first other with whom we come into contact. We are in mum for nine months and then she feeds us and we are still connected to her. The baby sees mum as an extension of self for many months.
Dad is the first other we encounter. If this other is secure and trustworthy, then we learn to trust otherness. If this other is not trustworthy or absent emotionally or physically, then trusting otherness is extremely difficult.
Yet Jesus calls God ‘Abba’. In doing this he is inviting us all into a healing experience with the ultimate Other, who is trustworthy and secure and both emotionally and physically present.
God is the ground of our being. But God is Father. The first invitation is to a relationship of love, to see God, not as the old man with the long beard and stick, waiting to hit if we mess up, but rather as a loving Father. We are God’s children and God wants the best for us in every area of our life. This is the foundation of Christian prayer. It is all about love.
Love is the key through which we must interpret all of scripture and all of our existence. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him or her and that person in God (1 Jn 4:15). And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
As the evangelist says further: “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus” (1 Jn 4:16–17).
When Isaiah prayed, “Oh, that you would tear the heavens and come down … come down to make your name known to your enemies” (64:1–2), he did not know what he was asking. When Moses asked God: What is your name? (Ex 3:13). Jesus answered the question—God’s name is daddy.
This is the revolution in Christianity: We are not placating an angry god, a whimsical god or a capricious god. We are going into the arms of a loving Father who is always happy to embrace His child. This is the Christian understanding of prayer. Prayer is about love.
There are two commandments: Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself (Lk 10:27). This is why God is our Father. Not just my daddy but our daddy, too. The first word of the prayer creates a second disposition—we are brothers and sisters for we have one Father.
The whole prayer flows from this disposition. The petitions in the prayer for bread, forgiveness and protection flow from our trust in daddy and our participation in the family of God.
This is why the Catholic tradition has a well-established social teaching. If we are brothers and sisters then social justice is an integral part of prayer and of Catholic spirituality. We must treat each other rightly, be fair in all of our dealings and take care of those on the margins of society.
We must protect the poor, the vulnerable, the prisoner, the migrant and refugee. They are our brothers and sisters. We must also protect the earth, our common family home.
To call God ‘Our Father’ has significant implications for how we pray; how we pray has significant implications for how we live. We are members of the family of God.
As St John says: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 Jn 3:1)”
To use the words ‘Our Father’ is to be invited into the mystery of the Body of Christ with Christ as our head and God as Our Father. It is to be initiated into sacred mystery where we begin to understand our interconnectedness. Our identity is connected to everyone else especially the most vulnerable.
I had hoped to do the whole Our Father in one article, but this has not been possible. Let us take our time learning how to pray. It is the most important foundation for discipleship and for achieving the aspiration of our Church—that we will all be missionary disciples.
Key message: God is daddy! Not my daddy but our daddy! We all belong to each other and must care for each other and our common home, the creation.
Action Step: Stay with the words ‘Our Father’ or ‘Daddy’ this week. Ask God to open your mind and heart to receive the grace to call him daddy from all of you, the depth of your being. Ask Daddy for the grace to see others as brothers and sisters.
Scripture passage: Matthew 6:9–13.