The Hidden and Mysterious Word in the Lord’s Prayer

In the Gospel for today’s Mass the Lord gives us the most familiar prayer of all, the “Lord’s Prayer.” It is a prayer shared by and prized by all Christians. Few if any have not committed to memory. Yet hidden within the Lord’s prayer is a mysterious word that both Greek and Biblical scholars have little agreement over or even a clear understanding of in terms of its precise meaning. I call it “hidden” only because most Christians do not read Greek and are unaware of the difficulties and debate surrounding the word. They simply accept that the most common English translation of the Our Father as undisputed. To them the problem is hidden.

The mysterious word occurs right in the middle of the prayer: τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον (ton arton hēmōn ton epiousion) which is rendered most usually as “give us this day our daily bread.” The problematic word is epiousion. The difficulty is that the word  seems to exist nowhere else in ancient Greek and that no one really knows what it means. Even the Greek Fathers who spoke and wrote Greek as their mother-tongue were unaware of it’s exact meaning. It occurs no where else in the Bible (with the exception of the parallel passage in Luke’s version of the Our Father in Luke 11:3). It appears nowhere in wider Greek literature, whether Christian or Pagan. The early Church Father Origen, a most learned and well read man, thought that Matthew and Luke, or the early Church had “made up” or coined the term.

So, frankly, we are at a loss as to the exact and original meaning of this word!  It’s actually pretty embarrassing when you think of it. Right there in the most memorable text of Christendom is a word whose meaning seems quite uncertain.

Now, to be sure, over the centuries there have been many theories and positions as to what this word is getting at. Let’s look at a  few.

  1. Grammatical Analysis– The Greek word seems to be a compound word from epi+ousios. Now epi means over, above, beyond, in addition to, or some similar superlative. Ousious refers to the substance of something. Hence, to put these words together we have something amounting to supersubstantial, or super-essential.
  2. The Eucharist – Some of the Greek and Latin Fathers thought is clearly referred to the Eucharist and surely not to ordinary food or bread. Origien for example cites how Jesus rebuked the people in John 6 for seeking bread that perishes rather than the Bread which endures unto eternal life which is Jesus’ flesh and which he will give us. (cf Origen On Prayer 27.2) St. Cyprian too, while admitting that “bread”  can be understood simply, goes on to advance that the bread referred to here is more certainly Christ himself in the Eucharist (cf. Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer, 18).
  3. Ordinary and daily bread – St. John Chrysostom however favors a notion that the bread for which we pray is only “bread for today: Just enough for one day….Here Jesus condescends to the infirmity of our nature….[which] does not permit you to go without food….I require necessary food not a complete freedom from natural necessities….It is not for wastefulness or extravagant clothing that we pray, but only for bread and only for bread on a daily basis so as not to worry about tomorrow (Gospel of Matthew Homily 19.5)
  4. Bread for tomorrow – St. Jerome says, The word used by the Hebrews to denote supersubstantial bread is maar. I found that it means “for tomorrow” so that the meaning here is “give us this day our bread for tomorrow” that is, for the future (Commentary on Matthew 1.6.11). Many modern scholars favor this understanding as well.
  5. Supernatural bread – But St.  Jerome also says in the same place: We can also understand supersubstantial bread in another sense as bread that is above all substances and surpasses all creatures (ibid).  In this sense he also seems to see it linked to the Eucharist. When he translated the text into Latin as the Pope had asked him to do he rendered it rather literally: panem nostrum supersubstantialem da nobis hodie (give us today our supersubstantial bread). If you look up the text of Matthew 6:11 in the Douay Rheims Bible you will see the word “supersubstantial” since that English text renders the Vulgate Latin quite literally.
  6. Every good thing necessary for subsistence – The Catechism of the Catholic Church adopts an inclusive approach: Daily” (epiousios) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. Taken in a temporal sense, this word is a pedagogical repetition of “this day,” to confirm us in trust “without reservation.” Taken in the qualitative sense, it signifies what is necessary for life, and more broadly every good thing sufficient for subsistence. Taken literally (epi-ousios: “super-essential”), it refers directly to the Bread of Life, the Body of Christ, the “medicine of immortality,” without which we have no life within us. Finally in this connection, its heavenly meaning is evident: “this day” is the Day of the Lord, the day of the feast of the kingdom, anticipated in the Eucharist that is already the foretaste of the kingdom to come. For this reason it is fitting for the Eucharistic liturgy to be celebrated each day. (CCC # 2837) As such the Catechism attempts no resolution to the problem but simply indicates that several interpretations are possible and non-exclusive to one another.

So when we have a Greek word that is used no where else and when such important and determinative Fathers struggle to understand it and show forth rather significant disagreement,  we are surely left at a loss. It seems clear that we have something of a mystery.

Reverencing the Mystery – But perhaps the Lord intended that we should ponder this text and see a kind of multiple meaning. Surely it is right that we should pray for our worldly food. Likewise we should pray for all that is needed for subsistence, whether just for today or for tomorrow as well. And surely we should ask for the Bread of Life, the Holy Eucharist which is the necessary Bread that draws us to eternal life and which (Who) is over and above all earthly substances.

So there it is, the hidden and mysterious word in the middle of the Our Father. Most modern translations have settled on the word “daily.”  For the record, the Latin Liturgy also uses the word daily (quotidianum). But in truth no one word can capture what is said here. The Lord has left us a mystery to ponder. I know many of you who read here are learned in Greek, Latin, the Fathers, and scripture scholarship and I am interested in your thoughts. This article is incomplete and has not covered every possible facet of the argument. I leave that you,  all who wish to comment.

The Our Father: More than Words, it is a Structure for the Spiritual life.

Of all prayers, the Our Father is the best known. This is good but it also bespeaks a challenge. For when something is so well known we can say it mindlessly and miss its message. The Our Father is more than words to say. The words are surely precious for they are from the Lord but if the exact words were the only point then surely we would not have different wording  in the Matthean and Lucan versions. Even more essential than the exact words is the teaching and message they convey about what our spiritual life should be.

I want to recommend for your consideration that the Our Father gives us more than words to say. It also gives us a structure for our prayer life, a basic plan for our spiritual life. There seem to be five basic elements set forth in the Lord’s Prayer. I would like to set them forth in what follows after discussing the introduction to the Our Father.

In Matthew’s Gospel the Lord gives the Our Father in the middle section of the Sermon on the Mount. He introduces it with these words:

In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Matt 6:7-8)

Multiplying words? It will be noted that when someone is a stranger we tend to multiply words. This is because we are nervous and so we chatter about the weather, dumb stuff etc. because we cannot bear the silence. But when we know someone well, even extended periods of silence are not uncommon or nerve-wracking.  Further, we instinctively know when we have communicated effectively with those we know. We don’t have to keep repeating our self. This is likely what Jesus had in mind. If God is a stranger we multiply words and doubt we have been understood. We can even be superstitious and think that certain incantations will unlock the Divine will. But when we are in living conscious contact with God we are at peace. We don’t have to nervously chatter and be superstitious, thinking only many words and proper incantations will satisfy.

This does not mean we should not specifically make our needs known or not persist in prayer (which is different than chattering away). Persistence is elsewhere and consistently taught by Jesus as a norm for prayer: Lk 18:1ff; Lk 11:5ff; Mat 7:7.

It does not mean that prayers like the rosary are excluded either. But we must be clear that the repetition of  the rosary is for our sake not God’s. The rhythmic repetition of prayers can facilitate a peaceful atmosphere for prayer. The rosary is like the Gospel on a string where we systematically meditate on the truths of the Gospel. It provides a structure for us, as it were. But it is not to be recited for the purpose of “springing” something from a reluctant God by some form of magic or mechanistic means. It is we who need things like the rosary, not God.

More than Words – This insight is important for what follows because the Lord is not rejecting verbal prayer only to superimpose a new but briefer verbiage. The Our Father is not a new “incantation.” It is rather the description of what ought to be going on in the mind and heart of one who prays. It is not as though Jesus is teaching, “Say only these exact words.” The words are precious but here again Jesus is trying to illustrate a deeper reality in us. He is illustrating by these words what ought to be going on in us interiorly, in our mind and heart as we pray: Here is what the mind and heart of a person of prayer is like. The Lord’s prayer suggests some basic qualities and dispositions of our spiritual life.

This is how you are to pray: Our Father in heaven,   hallowed be your name,  your kingdom come,  your will be done,   on earth as in heaven.  Give us today our daily bread; 12 and forgive us our debts,   as we forgive our debtors;  and do not subject us to the final test,   but deliver us from the evil one. (Matt 6:7-13)

Here then is the five-fold description of the basic elements of the Spiritual Life:

1. RELATEOur Father who art in heaven – Here begins true spirituality: Relate to the Father! Relate to him with family intimacy, affection, reverence and love. We are not praying the “the Deity” or the “Godhead.” We are praying to our Father who loves us, who provides for us and who sent his only Son to die for us and save us. When Jesus lives his life in us and His Spirit dwells in us we begin to experience God as our Abba, (Father). As developed in other New Testament texts, the deeper Christian word Abba underlies the prayer. Abba is the family word for the more generic and formal word “father.”  When my Father was alive I did not call him “Father” I called him “Dad.” This is really what the word Abba is getting at. It is the family word for Father. It indicates family ties, intimacy, close bonds. Why the word Abba is not used here in the Our Father  is uncertain. St. Paul develops the theme here:  For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15 ) and here:  And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”(Gal 4:6 ) The first element of the Spiritual life is to RELATE to God as to a Father who loves us and to experience him as Abba.

2. REJOICEhallowed by thy name!  The praise and love of God is the foundation of our lives. He is the giver of every good and perfect gift and to Him our praise is due.        Praise and thanksgiving make us people of hope and joy. It is for this that we were made: We who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of God’s glory. Our prayer life should feature much joyful praise. Take a psalm of praise and pray it joyfully. Take the Gloria of the Mass and pray it with gusto! Rejoice in God, praise his name. Give glory to him who rides above the clouds. This is a refreshing way to pray since we were made to praise God and when we do what we were made to do we experience a kind of satisfaction. The second element of of the spiritual life is a life of vigorous praise: REJOICE!

3. RECEIVE (REFLECT) – your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven  – At the heart of this petition is an openness to God’s will, to his word of instruction, to his plan for us and for this world.  When Jesus lives in us we hunger for God’s word and strive to know his will and have it operative in our life. A basic component of the Spiritual life is receive the word and instruction of God so that his will might be manifest to us and we can obey. We ought to pray the Scriptures (lectio divina). We ought to study the faith through the Catechism or other means. These are ways that we become open to God’s will that his Kingdom might be manifest in our lives. The Third element of the Spiritual life is an openness to to God’s teachings through the Church and Scriptures: RECEIVE!

4. REQUESTGive us today our daily bread – Intercessory prayer is at the heart of the Christian life. Allow bread in this case to be a symbol of all our needs. Our greatest need of course is to be fed by God and thus bread also points to the faithful reception of the Eucharist.  Intercessory prayer is often diminished today by many. But take every opportunity to pray for others. When watching the news or reading the newspaper, pray the news. Much of the news contains many things for which to pray: victims of crime, disaster or war, the jobless, homeless and afflicted. Many are locked in sin and bad behavior, corruption, confusion, bad priorities and the like. Many are away from the sacraments and no longer seek their Eucharistic bread who is Christ. Pray, pray, pray. There are also good things we hear of and we should be grateful and ask that solutions be lasting. This intercessory prayer flows from our love and solidarity with others. We see the world with the compassion of Christ and pray. The fourth element of the spiritual life is to intercede for ourselves and others.

5. REPENTand forgive us our trespasses,   as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  – Sin is understood at two levels here: 1: sin – (lowercase) our personal sins and trespasses, also referred to as our debts. 2. Sin (upper case) – referring to the whole climate of sin, the structures of sin that reinforce and underlie our own sins. Referred to here as evil. An essential element of our spiritual life is that we come to recognize the sins and deep drives of sins in our own life and beg deliverance from them as well as mercy. It is also true that we live in a sin soaked world were the powers and principalities of evil have great influence. We cannot fail to recognize this and pray that it’s power will be curbed. Surely the rosary is a great tool in this regard as Our Lady has promised. Fasting and other forms or prayer are also helpful antidotes.  But in the end we must pray for the Lord’s grace and mercy to end evil in our own lives and that the whole world. The Fifth element of the Spiritual life is to REPENT of evil.

So here then is a structure for our spiritual life contained in the Our Father. Some may use this a structure for daily prayer. Hence if they are going to spend 25 minutes praying they spend about five minutes on each aspect. Others may use this structure for an over all reference for their spiritual life in general. It does not follow that all five need to be done every day without fail, but it does bespeak basic elements that ought to be present in our spiritual life in a regular sort of way.

Here is the Our Father sung in Aramaic, the Language of Jesus:

Priests and the Ministry of Prayer

Tomorrow in my Parish we will have the privilege of hosting the Ordination to the Priesthood of six men in the Josephite Order. The Josephites have historical links to this Parish even though it is now a Diocesan Parish.

Holy Order – As priests we are ordained to Holy Orders. Thus, among the many ways we can understand the ministry of the ordained clergy is that we provide “holy order” by our obedience to the Bishop or Superior and by unifying the faithful under our care to the Bishop and the Church. Nothing is more egregious (and also silly) as a disobedient priest who thereby creates disorder. By our obedient link to the Bishop we help exercise a threefold office of teaching, governing and sanctifying.

Sanctifying Ministry – I would like to mention only very briefly one aspect of the sanctifying ministry of the priest. Surely we sanctify the faithful in a unique way through the celebration of the Sacraments. But another way we do this, a way perhaps more hidden and ordinary, is to pray for our people. The Church both commends us to pray for the faithful under our care and also commands it.

A Ministry of Prayer – How does she command it?  By the obligation to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Breviary. Every day we priests are obligated to pray this somewhat lengthy series of prayers and to earnestly pray for the faithful and in union with the whole Church. The basic series of prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours includes: The Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, Mid Day Prayer, Evening Prayer and Night Prayer. Ideally we should pray it through out the day at each appointed hour. But, due to our busy and often unpredictable schedules many of us pray large sections of it in the morning and another part of it later in the evening.

An image: But you must know that your priests pray for you. As I hold the Breviary in my hands I often imagine I am holding  the faithful of my parish in my very hands. It is my duty and privilege to pray for them, and also for the whole Church.

Someone is praying for you – I want to keep this brief (always a challenge for me) because I simply want you to know that someone is praying for you. Surely my prayers are especially for my parishioners. But you who regularly read this blog are parishioners of mine too. I pray for you each day.

I also wanted to keep this short in hopes that you might see this video which is a very touching way of depicting how priests pray for their people and their people pray for them.

Set Your House in Order! (in four easy steps)

There’s  a Gospel song written back in the 1950’s called “Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb!” It is a warning to be prepared for death. Here are a few of the lyrics:

Every body’s worried ’bout that Atom Bomb. No one seems worried about the Day my Lord shall come! Better set your house in order, He may be coming soon, and He’ll hit like an Atom Bomb when He comes!

Playful yet clear. But what does it mean to set your house in order? If we’re not careful we might come up with a long list of things to which we should attend. A long list might  tend to overwhelm and be difficult to remember. Perhaps this why Scripture gives a clear four-point plan that seems to well describe the Christian life. It is found in Acts 2. Peter has just preached a sermon where he warns his listeners to repent and believe the Good News. He said to them: “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acts 2:40-41). Now they are baptized and in the Church of the Living of God. (Notice too, that the verse does not say they said the “sinners prayer” to be saved, it says they were baptized). And unlike some of our Protestant brethren who hold a kind of “once saved, always saved” mentality, the text does not stop there.   These new disciples now have a life to lead that will help them be ready to meet God, that will help them to set their house in order. And so in the very next verse we read:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)

So here is our “four-point plan” for setting our house in order once we have come to faith. There  are four components listed below, four pillars if you will. Please note that the text says that they devoted themselves to these four pillars of the Christian life. They did not merely do them occasionally, or when they felt like it, or when the time seemed right. They were consistent, they were devoted to this four-fold rule of life. Lets look at each pillar in turn as we consider how to set our house in order:

  1. The Apostles Teaching– This first pillar of the Christian life is fascinating not only for what  it says but also what it does not say. When we think of the “Apostles’ Teaching” we first think of the four Gospels and the the New Testament Epistles. And these would surely be true components of the Apostles’ teaching for a modern Christian. But notice that the text does not say that they devoted themselves to Scripture, but rather to the Apostles’  Teaching. For a Catholic,  the Apostolic Teaching consists not only in the New Testament Scriptures but also the Sacred Tradition which comes to us from the Apostles and which has been understood and articulated by the living Magisterium of the Church. The Protestants would largely interpret this first pillar as an exhortation to  read our Bible every day and base our lives on it. This is a true understanding but only partial .  The early Christians as you recall did not have the New Testament in final form from day one and could not have lived this text in such as way. The Bible as we now have it was not yet completed edited or canonized.  Yet they had received the Apostolic teaching through having it preached to them by the Apostles and their deputed representatives, the bishops, priests and deacons. St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter  (2 Thess 2:15). Therefore the Catholic application of this first pillar is truer and fuller wherein we are devoted to the Apostles teaching not in Scripture alone but also in Sacred Tradition as passed down and interpreted by the living magisterium of the Church. To live this first pillar with devotion means to set our house in order by carefully and diligently studying what the apostles handed on to us. We do this by the daily and devoted reading of Scripture and/or the diligent study of the faith through the Catechism or other approved manuals. We should make it a daily habit that we are reading scripture and studying the faith, attempting to grow in our knowledge of what God has revealed through his prophets and apostles and then basing our life on what we learn and repenting of what is not in line with the revealed truth.  Pillar number 1 is being devoted to the Apostles teaching.
  2. The  Fellowship – the word fellowship may be a little weak here as a translation of the Greek: τῇ κοινωνίᾳ (te koinonia). The more theological or sacred way of translating this word is probably ” a communion.” It would seem that members of a bowling league could have fellowship but the sacred gathering of the faithful in the reality called the “ekklesia” or “Church”  is better termed a “communion.” or in Latin “communio.” It is  a gathering into one of the members of Christ’s Body the Church, a communion also of Christ with his Bride the Church. The early Christians, according to this text devoted themselves to this communal gathering. Hence the second pillar of the Christian life whereby we are helped to get our house in order is “fellowship,”  or better, “communio.”   The Commandment is clear: Keep holy the Sabbath.  It doesn’t make sense to think that we can disregard one of the Ten Commandments and then claim our house is  in order. Some argue that this commandment does not say explicitly that we should be in Church on Sunday. But Leviticus 23:3 says regarding this Commandment, “You shall do no work and you shall keep sacred assembly, it is the Sabbath of the Lord.” Sacred assembly means “Church” it is the fellowship, the koinonia, the communio. No way around it. God expects us to be in his house on our Sabbath which is Sunday. The Book of Hebrews also says, “And let us not neglect to meet together regularly and to encourage one another, all the more since the Day draws near.”  See here how the Last “Day” and being prepared for it is linked to “meeting together regularly.”  So the second pillar of the Christian life is to get our house in order by getting to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day. In the Mass we both encourage others and are encouraged by them. We also receive instruction in the Word of God by the anointed and deputed ministers of that Word, the bishops, priests and deacons. We also fulfill the third pillar to which we now turn our attention
  3. The Breaking of the Bread – The phrase “the breaking of the bread” in the New Testament usually meant the reception of Holy Communion, or the Eucharist. The worthy receptionof Holy communion is directly connected to having our House in Order for there ae wonderful promises made to those who are faithful in this regard. Jesus makes a promise in John 6:40  that Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I will raise him up on the last day. That’s quite a promise in terms of being ready! Jesus is saying that frequent reception of the Eucharist is essential preparation for the Last Day. Jesus also warns us not to stay away from “the breaking of the bread” or Holy communion: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in you (Jn 6:53). Without Holy Communion we’re not going to make it. Gotta receive regularly to be ready! We cannot claim that our house is in order i we willfully stay away from Holy Communion. By extension we must allow this reference to one sacrament (Holy Communion) to be a reference to all the Sacraments.  Clearly a Catholic approach to this third pillar of preparation would include bein baptized and confirmed. It would include weekly reception of Holy Communion, regular confession, anointing of the sick when necessary, and, where possible, the reception of Holy Matrimony or Holy Orders. The Sacraments are our spiritual medicine. We have a bad condition called concupiscence (a string inclination to sin). It is like spiritual high blood pressure or diabetes. Hence we have to take our medicine and be properly nourished. The sacraments, as our medicine help us to avoid dying from our sinful condition. So the Third pillar of the Christian life is to get our house in order by receiving Holy Communion worthily every Sunday and the other Sacraments at proper times.
  4. Prayer– This final pillar requires more of us than just saying our prayers in some sort of ritual sense. The Greek word here is προσευχαῖς (Proseuchais) and is best translated just as we have it here: “Prayers”  However the Greek root  proseuche is from pros = toward or immediately before + euchomai= to pray or vow.  But the prefix pros would convey the sense of being immediately before Him and hence the ideas of adoration, devotion, and worship are included. So prayer is understood more than just verbally uttering or saying one’s prayers. What is called for is worshipful, attentive and adoring prayer. Prayer is experiencing God’s presence. Jesus says of prayer that it is necessary for us lest we fall: Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation  (Matt 26:41). Hence the fourth pillar is prayer whereby we putt our house in order through regular, worshipful, attentive and adoring prayer of God which serves as a kind of medicine lest we fall deeply into temptation.

So here are four basic pillars of preparation for the day of Judgment. Follow them and even if Jesus “hits like an atom bomb” you’ll look up and be ready and know that your redemption is at hand.

Enjoy this video. Observe in it all the readiness preparations for the nuclear bombs that some of us who are older may remember. In a way all the preparations you see in the video are a little silly since diving under a desk wouldn’t  help much if an atom bomb really hit! But the preparations I have mentioned above ARE helpful since God gives them to us. If the people in this video we’re getting ready with measures that probably wouldn’t help much, how much more so for us who DO stand a chance since God himself instructs us!  Set your house in order!

What Little Children Can Teach Us About Prayer.

When it comes to our struggle in  prayer there are some things that we need to unlearn. For too many private prayer is often a formal, even stuffy affair that drips of boredom and unnecessary formality and has lots of rules. Perhaps we learned some of our lessons too well. And yet many of the youngest children have not learned these lessons and they seem to pray with great ease. They are unassuming and will say almost anything to God. It is true that children may have a lot to learn about public and liturgical prayer, but when it comes to personal and private prayer they have much to teach us. Perhaps a parable is in order:

A young girl received her First Holy Communion and, when she returned to her pew, she was noticed by her parents to be in rather deep prayer. After Mass they asked her, “What were you praying about after your First Communion?” “Well,” she said, “I prayed for you, mommy and daddy, and my (dumb) brother too! And then I sang Jesus a song and told him my favorite ghost story.”

So informal, so conversational, so unassuming, so real. And yet it is the way little children pray. But over the years it seems we drift away from this honest simplicity and layer on lots of “shoulds and oughts.”  Perhaps we over learn or over apply some of the lessons we learn about human interactions. I remember as a child that a neighbor woman took up a goofy hair style. And so I said to my mother in a voice that might be overheard, “Mom, why does that lady have Goofy hair?” “Shhhh….” she said, “Don’t say that, you might hurt her feelings.”  She later admitted to me that the hair WAS goofy but explained that there are many things we shouldn’t say. We should keep certain things to our self.

This sort of lesson is an important one to learn and has its place. But like any lesson it can be over applied. The fact is that many today remain silent when they should speak out by way of fraternal correction. There are times when we need to be honest and clear. So too in our personal prayer with God.

Early in my priesthood a woman came to me and spoke quite frankly and vividly about her anger and disappointment with God who had made her suffer loss. “Have you talked to God about this?” I asked. “Oh no! Father,” she said with her hands in the air, “You’re not supposed to talk to God like this.” And she smiled as these words left her mouth because she knew they were silly. I smiled too and said, “He already knows doesn’t he….So you know what your prayer needs to be about. Now talk to him just like you talked to me.”

The Book of Psalms is the prayerbook that God entrusted to Israel. In it is enshrined every human emotion, thought and experience. There is joy, exultation, praise and serenity. But there is also anger, fear, disappointment and even hatred. It’s all in God’s official prayer book. And thus God teaches that the whole range of experience, thought and emotion is the stuff of prayer. It is precisely these things that God wants  to engage us on.

Little children seem to know this instinctively. They pray about what is going on, what interests them and they do so plainly and without a lot of formality. Even the bad stuff is out there. I have a brief but clear memory of my prayer life as a little child. I must have been about 5 or 6 and there was a Sacred Heart statue on the dresser. I would see that statue and start talking to God in the freest way and God would speak to me, simply and in a way a child could understand. But it was very real. And then the memory shuts off. It is just a small window into my early childhood, one of the few, and it was filled with God. Since my late 20s I have strived to find my way back to that simple and profound experience of the presence of God in prayer. So simple, yet so real. Somewhere along the line it faded. Perhaps I had over learned the lesson that there are just things you’re not supposed to say and the conversation became strained and unreal and ultimately assumed the “irrelevance” that many today claim of  their prayers.

I have made a lot of progress in journey back by unlearning some of the rules I applied. Hearing little children pray has been a great help. It is the littlest ones really who seem to live in that enchanted world of the presence of God. By 5th grade it is fading fast and by 7th grade the flesh has fully manifested and a kind of spiritual dullness seems to overtake most middle school kids. But wow, can little kids pray.  The Book of Psalms says ex ore infantiumfrom the mouth of infants and little children you have perfected praise O Lord unto the exasperation of your enemies. (Psalm 8:2).

Do a little unlearning where required in the prayer department. Though we need to teach kids about the liturgical and public prayer which has its necessary rules, they have much to show us in terms of private prayer; a prayer that is personal, unassuming, about real things and spoken with childlike simplicity and trust. Amen I say to you,  unless you receive the kingdom of God like a little child you shall not enter it.  (Mark 10:15)

This video is about the prayer of children and beautifully illustrates what I am trying to say.

The Universal Prayer

To my mind, one of the most remarkable prayers ever written was one attributed to Pope Clement XI. He was Pope from 1700-1721. The prayer is called “universal”  because of its sweeping themes. Upon completing it one may well ask if anything was left out, and one would have to conclude, likely not!

If you are looking for a prayer to set on your night stand, this is surely one of them. I often pray this prayer when my mind is dull. I admire its beauty and style. It is deeply personal and humble. It is not trite but neither is it stuffy. One of my favorite sections is this:

Let me love you, my Lord and my God,
And see myself as I really am:
A pilgrim in this world,
A Christian called to respect and love
All whose lives I touch,
Those under my authority,
My friends and my enemies

As beautiful and helpful as the Universal Prayer is, it is almost unknown. It is a bit longish to reproduce fully here on the blog page but I have made a PDF you can open, download or print. You can get it here:   THE UNIVERSAL PRAYER

Here also is a video wherein the prayer is recited. Now off to prayer with you!

I’m in the Holy Land this week until November 8th. I have scheduled blogs that will appear each day while I’m away so stay tuned! My participation in the comments however may be a little light since my time with the internet will be sporadic. Comments will be moderated by someone else on the team and I’ll participate when I can. – Msgr Pope.

Admonition and Prayer on the Feast of All Saints

On this Feast of All Saints we commemorate men and women who lived heroically among us. The word “Saint”  comes from the Latin word Sanctus meaning “holy or set apart.” The Saints lived in the world but were not of it. Indeed if we understand the root meaning or “being set apart” we come to understand that an essential part of holiness is to live in distinction from and in contrast to the values of world. It takes great courage to stand apart from what is merely current or popular. More than ever as our world turns very secular we need strength to distinguish ourselves and to summon the world to God’s truth.

This is especially evident in the Church. Pray especially for bishops and priests. As the world continues to grow in hostility to the faith the clergy will need great zeal, conviction and courage. We must speak boldly and clearly and lead the Catholic faithful through difficult times.

Pray also for Catholics who are in public and civil authority. Many of us have been saddened at the poor example of faith that many (not all) Catholic politicians have exhibited. Pray for conversion where necessary and their courage to live their faith publicly and in a way that distinguishes them from non-believers. There are so many Catholics in public life! If they could stand together for the truth of faith and be of one accord with the Church in the moral issues of our day we would be at a far better place.

What we need is holiness in the leaders of the Church and in Catholic Lay Leaders in our world. We need saints. Consider the following admonition from the Book of Wisdom to those in Civil Authority:

Hear, therefore, kings, and understand; learn, you magistrates of the earth’s expanse! Hearken, you who are in power over the multitude and lord it over throngs of peoples! Because authority was given you by the LORD and sovereignty by the Most High, who shall probe your works and scrutinize your counsels! Because, though you were ministers of his kingdom, you judged not rightly, and did not keep the law, nor walk according to the will of God, Terribly and swiftly shall he come against you, because judgment is stern for the exalted- For the lowly may be pardoned out of mercy but the mighty shall be mightily put to the test. For the Lord of all shows no partiality, nor does he fear greatness, Because he himself made the great as well as the small, and he provides for all alike; but for those in power a rigorous scrutiny impends. To you, therefore, O princes, are my words addressed that you may learn wisdom and that you may not sin. For those who keep the holy precepts hallowed shall be found holy, and those learned in them will have ready a response. Desire therefore my words; long for them and you shall be instructed. (Wisdom 6:1-10)

And to the religious leaders of Ezekiel’s day God said:

Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?  You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.  You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost….’Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD : As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock,  therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD : This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. (Ezekiel 38:2-8)

And so on this Feast of All Saints, pray for saints. Saints among the clergy and among civil leaders and politicians. Pray for us to fear God God more than man, to love the truth more passing opinions, and to serve rather than be served. Pray for all in authority because we will be held to a stricter account. God is still looking for saints. Heaven isn”t filled yet. Your prayers are essential. On this feast of All Saints pray for more saints especially among the “leaders of the people.”

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:1-4)

I’m in the Holy Land this week until November 8th. I have scheduled blogs that will appear each day while I’m away so stay tuned! My participation in the comments however may be a little light since my time with the internet will be sporadic. Comments will be moderated by someone else on the team and I’ll participate when I can. – Msgr Pope.

Beyond the Rhetoric: Why Not Mary?

Most of us who are Catholics eventually get asked, “Why do you Catholics worship Mary?” More often than not the question is not a real question it is a rhetorical question. For a few of you who might not know what is meant by the expression “rhetorical question,”  it refers to a “question” whose purpose is not to seek an answer, but, rather, to make a (usually hostile) point. For example the expression “Who do you think you are!?” is in the form of a question but it does not seek an answer. Instead it is meant as a rebuke. And so it usually is when we Catholics get asked the “question” Why do you worship Mary?” we’re usually aware that it is not a sincere question seeking a sincere answer. However, for those cases where an answer really is sought I might propose the following approach:

“Well, of course we don’t worship Mary since that would be a terrible sin. Worship belongs to God alone. We DO honor her though. Afterall, she is Jesus’ mother. But let me ask you a question. Why in your church, do you NOT honor Mary at all? Doesn’t scripture say Every generation will call [Mary] blessed because God who is mighty has done great things for [her]? (Luke 1:48-49) It seems to me that we Catholics are fulfilling scripture but that in your denomination you are not fulfilling or following it. So why don’t you honor her at all? Why don’t you call her blessed as the Bible says?”

Now stop there and wait for an answer. Don’t keep going. Just stop and wait.  Have them answer for a change. We Catholics are always on the defensive, always in answer mode. But we ought to ask a few questions too. And try to avoid a merely rhetorical or hostile tone. Try to allow this question to be genuine, respectful, one meant to provoke thought. It is possible that many Protestants have never been asked this question or pondered an answer. Now it is also possible that your interlocutor will try to change the subject or evade an answer by piling on about Catholics but just repeat the question respectfully and ask for an answer. Remember your point is not to argue, be hostile or win an argument. Your point is to provoke thought and get a real answer. And even if the conversation ends badly or with no answer, you’ve planted a seed, a question that they will ponder even if they don’t admit it. Jesus often asked questions to proke thought and conversion. I will be doing a post on this next week.

A final thought on Mary. Another way to explain out devotion and love for Mary is that we are imitating Jesus. We love, honor, respect and entrust ourselves to her care because Jesus did all these things and we want to be just like Jesus. Consider that the very Son of God, dwelled in Mary’s womb, nursed at her breasts, was held in her arms, sat on her lap and entrusted himself to her care. Our Lord could have chosen to enter our world in other ways. Perhaps He could simply have entered the world as a full grown man. The fact is that He freely chose Mary to be his mother and he was truly her Son. As her son he loved and honored her as any good son must and as her son he entrusted himself to her care. All of this serves to highlight Mary’s dignity and to show us how devotion to her is in perfect imitation of Jesus himself.

What more need we say: Jesus our Lord and God honors and loves Mary, and his very scriptures sing her praises; so too His Angel Gabriel and countless saints. When we honor Mary we imitate the very Son of God and fulfill Holy Scripture. Certainly our Lord is pleased that we love and honor his mother.

Here’s a little viseo I recently put together. The Music is from the Daughters of St Paul, “I Am Thine” from the Handmaiden of the Lord Album: