When I worked with a traveling retreat team, we used to present a skit that began with one of our team members walking onto the stage, kneeling down, making the sign of the cross, and beginning to pray the Lord’s prayer. The only thing is she wouldn’t get very far, as after saying the words Our Father, who art in Heaven, a voice offstage would reply “Yes?” (This was particularly effective if we could use a microphone and a boomy sound system…) The rest of the skit would be a dialogue between the person praying and God about what all the parts of the Our Father actually mean. The most telling line of the whole skit came early on, after she had again said Our Father who art in Heaven and God had answered Here I am… what’s on your mind? She would reply:
I didn’t mean anything by it. I was, you know, just saying my prayers for the day. I always say the Lord’s Prayer. It makes me feel good, kind of like getting a duty done.
The Our Father is one of those prayers – usually one of the first prayers any of us ever learned to pray. It’s one many people Catholic, Christian, and otherwise can recite from memory – and we are often just like the girl in the skit: praying it without giving it a second thought. But there’s much more here. Of all the wrote prayers you might use to begin your conversation with God, the most important is the Our Father. It isn’t important just because it comes from Scripture (most of the Hail Mary is also from the Gospels), nor because it explains something that we believe (the Sign of the Cross does this as well), it is important because it is the answer Jesus gave when His apostles asked Him how they should pray (Matthew 9:6-13, Luke 11:2-4).
Our Father, who art 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.
This prayer can be split into two parts and seven different petitions: three which help us examine the way in which we address God, and the other four which present our needs to Him.
Before we look at the petitions, it is worth reflecting on the one to whom we address this prayer: God the Father. The fact that this prayer is not addressed to unknowable deity, but to our Father says something about how we ought to relate to God. We can call God ‘Father’ “…because Jesus has called us to a close relationship with himself and made us children of God“ (YouCat 515). Amy Welborn takes this a step further, explaining how this prayer begins with the Gospel grouped into two words:
God gives us life and sustains us in love and mercy, and this love binds us to God as children to a father and to one another as brothers and sisters. (The Words We Pray, pg 18)
In those first three petitions looking at the way we address God, we see some notable things. When Scripture speaks of the name of a person, it speaks of much more than just identification: it means the whole nature of a person. We hallow God’s name because we are honoring Him as the holy One, above all others. We pray that His Kingdom would come and His will be done because we both long for the coming of God’s kingdom for the whole world, the place where every tear will be wiped away; and we also want to turn our hearts to the will of God. “We find our happiness… when together we want what God wills. Praying means making room bit by bit for God’s will on this earth” (YouCat 521).
The other petitions are directed towards us and our needs here on earth. When we pray that God would give us our daily bread, in which we are asking for two things. The first is strictly temporal: we acknowledge how dependent we are on the goodness of God for all that we have, and we are to reflect on our responsibility to help those who lack the basic necessities of life. The second is spiritual: a longing for the Eucharist, that spiritual food which is the source and summit of our Christian life.
Next, there is a prayer for mercy – that we would be forgiven just as we forgive others: and this is for our own sake. “If we are not merciful and do not forgive others, God’s mercy will not reach our hearts” (YouCat 524). Unforgiveness traps us, and mercy allows God to handle the demands of justice. We also pray that He would not lead us into temptation “because every day and every hour we are in danger of falling into sin and saying no to God” (YouCat 525). The final petition goes a step further, asking us to be delivered from evil – recognizing that there is an evil in the world devastating in its power – but God is far bigger than this evil.
What we find in this prayer is a starting point for our spiritual journey: turning to God, acknowledging Him for who He is, and asking for His help along the way. Even for those advanced in the spiritual life, this prayer of God’s family can be the object of prayer and reflection, seeing the ways in which we need to further acknowledge that Jesus is Lord or the places we still need His help along the way.
“The Our Father is more than a prayer – it is a path that leads directly into the heart of our Father. The early Christians recited this original prayer of the Church, which is entrusted to every Christian at Baptism, three times a day. We, too, should not let a day pass without trying to recite the Lord’s Prayer with our lips, to take it to heart, and to make it come true in our lives.” -YouCat 514