Thursday, October 17, 2013

Words that work within us

A few years ago, I met with Fr. Edward Hays, a Catholic priest and writer from the Kansas City area who was sort of a minor celebrity among some of my mentors and friends. Author of a number of books on spirituality, his writing style is a bit difficult to describe. Some might find him a little off the beaten path. Others might find him the first person to make prayer a deeply moving experience. I found myself simply inspired by his way of speaking of prayer.  One of his comments to me: "Some treat prayer as if it is like calling 9-1-1. Only in case of emergency do we call to God."

Hays shared a variety of other observations, but what I recollect most is his measured pace of talking about prayer. He was not "dispensing advice". Instead, I felt like he reached deep inside himself to give these answers. These remarks were part of a rich life spent in prayer, sort of like receiving a bit of honeycomb, something wonderful that comes only at the end of a very long process.

For Christianity, one such prayer is the one known as the Lord's Prayer, or the Prayer of Jesus. When you pray "God's will be done", when you pray for daily bread, when you ask and give forgiveness, it is not something that will happen magically. It takes learning the Prayer of Jesus and then allowing yourself to be shaped by it. As you pray, the Lord's Prayer becomes confession as well as covenant with God as the words of the prayer work their way down into your bones and the deepest places in your heart.

A word to the wise:  We can become too familiar with the Lord's Prayer, reciting its words in a way that is better described as by rote. It is one thing to have memorized the words.  It is quite another to practice the Prayer in the midst of your life.  Do we find the words connecting our words of our lips with the inner workings of the heart within? The Lord's Prayer points to a way of prayer, a spirituality, if you like, that is lived as much as recited.

For example, in the Reformation era, a Christian was brought before the city authorities in Geneva, accused of being silent when the congregation was to pray the Lord's Prayer.  (Caveat:  Calvin's Geneva was a bit too theocratic for its own good, but I digress...). The citizen admitted he did not pray the Lord's Prayer, as he did not wish to pray the part about "forgiving those who trespass against us". If he did so pray, he knew he must forgive a person who "trespassed against" him, and he was not ready to forgive.  The words of the Lord's Prayer illumine the better way, even as we see ourselves wanting to stick closer to the shadows within our own hearts.

The next time you pray the Lord's Prayer, ponder what words or phrases catch your attention.  Are these words working within us?  Is it time to let the Prayer of Jesus be our own prayer to God as well?

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