Have Catholics been praying the Our Father all wrong?
Our Father-Mother God, all-harmonious,
According to Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, so begins the prayer that Jesus taught us. Not only was Ms. Eddy’s use of “Father-Mother” well ahead of 19th-century gender politics, but, well, what can one say about “Adorable”? It is adorable. It gives me new affection for the First Church of Christ, Scientist half a block from where my family goes to Mass.
The practice in which Ms. Eddy was participating here was not unique to her, nor to those similarly outside the fold of Christian orthodoxy. Rewriting the Our Father, it turns out, is an ancient devotion, practiced by the likes of Teresa of Ávila, Francis de Sales and numerous luminaries of the early church.
Francis of Assisi anticipated Ms. Eddy by seven centuries:
Who are in heaven:
In the angels and the saints,
enlightening them to know, for You, Lord, are light;
inflaming them to love, for You, Lord, are love;
dwelling in them and filling them with happiness,
for You, Lord, are Supreme Good, the Eternal Good,
from Whom all good comes
without Whom there is no good.
These are romantic verses. But there is a rationalist current to this business as well—scientific brains trying to wrap themselves around the God they struggle to understand. Benjamin Franklin composed a version of the prayer for himself, and the 20th-century inventor and architect Buckminster Fuller elaborated on the Our Father in over 700 words like these:
You, Dear God,
are the totally loving intellect
wherefore Your absolutely courageous
and ruthless self-testing
alone can and does absolutely guarantee
of the integrity
of eternally regenerative Universe
With respect to the kingdom coming, Fuller continues:
and all occurs
in optimum efficiency.
Verses like these represent a lineage and a genre, a longstanding urge. At the outset of the book The Lord’s Prayer, an excellent history on the subject, the Anglican bishop Kenneth W. Stevenson stresses that the prayer, “so far from being fixed in stone, is a living text.” Alongside its various interpretations and textual variants, Bishop Stevenson traces the practice of what he calls “paraphrase.” It is a word that I don’t think quite captures the creative, devotional activity in question.
Far from a gloss, a summary or a shorthand rewrite, to remake the central prayer of all Christianity is both audacious and intimate—claiming to know the mind of Jesus better than the official translators, perhaps, or accepting the Son of God’s invitation to approach his Father with what is most immediately on one’s heart.
This genre asks, that is: How creative does God really want us to be? What does God really want to hear from us?
Some Protestants refer to the Our Father as the Model Prayer—not a static text but always and only a starting point. They contrast this to the “vain repetitions” of Catholics, reciting the same formula again and again in our rosaries and Masses. The Our Father is something we learn, memorize and pass on to the next generation, for lifelong use in private contemplation and collective recitation. We “dare” only to say it the same way each time, as the Mass reminds us, “at the Savior’s command.”
Have we been getting the prayer of Jesus all wrong?
‘An Epitome of the Whole Gospel’
The North African theologian Tertullian is the first of the early Christian writers whose ruminations on the Our Father survive. His book On Prayer begins with an examination of the prayer, phrase by phrase, introducing it as “an epitome of the whole Gospel” and a model for all other prayer. Writing in Latin around the year 200, he already felt at liberty to adjust the biblical wording here and there—for instance, reversing the order of God’s “kingdom” and “will.” The fact of translation does not explain it; the Didache, a treatise from about a century earlier, made its own tweaks, despite being written in the same Greek as the Gospels.
Perhaps the willingness to modify, and even rewrite, begins from the original settings of the prayer. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Our Father appears in two different but unmistakably similar forms. Jesus presents them not as liturgy in the Temple or a synagogue but as teachings, as instructions. “This is how you are to pray,” he prefaces the prayer in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. In Luke, “in a certain place,” Jesus was praying when a disciple comes and asks him how. Matthew has “your will be done,” and a few other flourishes that Luke lacks. Either the discrepancy is due to a game of scribal telephone, or it is because Jesus himself didn’t say his own prayer exactly the same way twice. The point of the teaching was less the words than the gist.
To remake the central prayer of all Christianity is both audacious and intimate.
Whereas some more recent scholars like Bishop Stevenson emphasize the Our Father’s continuities with Jewish prayer, Tertullian stressed the differences. Jews avoid uttering the name of God out of awe, sticking instead to “Lord” and “Our God,” Adonai and Eloheinu. Jesus seems to head in exactly the opposite direction: “Abba,” which sounds in context more like “dad” or “papa” than father—more intimate than a name. For Tertullian, the prayer signifies the new opening to God that becomes possible for believers in Christ. God is remote no longer. Mary Baker Eddy’s word “adorable”—even in its modern, colloquial sense, which is surely more informal than she meant it—seems right.
Early sources suggest the Our Father was a personal prayer; the Didache recommends praying it three times daily. But the prayer appears there also in formal liturgy, associated with both baptism and the Eucharist. It became a fixture of what Christians did together. By the Middle Ages it had found its familiar place in the eucharistic prayers, and an extended commentary on the prayer became part of the Roman catechism. Meanwhile, it was mumbled in private breaths as part of the rosary—surely subject to adjustments, intentional and otherwise, now lost to history. For Dante, the proud in purgatory recite their own version of the prayer on repeat, a version that seems to combine Fuller’s rationalism and Eddy’s affection:
Our Father, You who dwell within the heavens—
but are not circumscribed by them—out of
Your greater love for Your first works above,
praised be Your name and Your omnipotence,
by every creature, just as it is seemly
to offer thanks to Your sweet effluence.
The Reformation brought both stability and tumult to the text. Martin Luther and John Calvin treated the biblical prayer as a guide more than as a formula, and their liturgies proscribed the prayer in paraphrase. The radical reformers outright avoided praying the biblical version, for fear that the words might become stale and inauthentic.
With the Reformation also came vernacular translations and the printing press, circulating established versions of the prayer that became intimately familiar and hard to shake. The Our Father that is said today in U.S. Catholic churches, of course, is not the one found in Catholic Bibles; it derives from the translations of Reformers like William Tyndale—we get “trespasses” from him, for instance. He had to complete his translation in exile, and copies smuggled back to England were liable to be burned.
Tyndale also composed an extended rewriting of the prayer in the form of dialogue, between God and “The Sinner.” The exchange goes like this:
God: For My name through you and by your means is blasphemed, railed upon and evil spoken of.
The Sinner: Yet be Thou a merciful father, and deal not with us according to our deservings, neither judge us by the rigorousness of Thy will, but give us grace that we may so live that Thy holy name may be hallowed and sanctified in us.
And so on, at length. Despite the creativity of this rendition, it is his contribution to the standard liturgical prayer that has become far better known.
The poetry of those mnemonic and familiar words, etched in print and tradition, are hard to change. No less an authority than Pope Francis has suggested that “lead us not into temptation” should be more like “do not let us fall.” He is correct, and translations of the Bible now tend to reflect this, but good luck changing how people pray. Even when the Vatican adjusted the English translation of the Mass in 2011, they left the Our Father alone. Who cares if it comes from Protestants like Tyndale, whom our co-religionists burned at the stake? It is now what we know best.
Translations are not the same as reinventing the prayer in paraphrase, but they involve a similar task of interpretation. To translate runs the risk of misunderstanding, yet translations keep the prayer alive, forcing with each new version a reappraisal of the meaning. The words swell with new possibilities the farther they travel from their linguistic and cultural origins in the eastern Mediterranean.
Consider this English re-translation of a Cherokee rendition:
Our father heaven dweller,
Glorified will be your name.
You are God let it be known,
Here on earth let it be as you think it.
“Art in heaven” or “heaven dweller”? “Thy will be done” or “as you think it”? So close, and yet the difference between them holds a tension that keeps the words alive. Stretch a string between them, pluck it, and hear a meaning that neither version has on its own. As Jesus himself seems to have done, saying the Model Prayer differently each time might be part of the model. If this is true, all Christians are called to make the prayer their own.
Making the Prayer Ours
Before I prayed, I learned this prayer. In the dark, when I was little and going to bed, my mother taught it to me over a series of nights. I don’t know how many. The Lord’s Prayer, she called it, like many Protestants do. I am not sure if she prayed it herself; she had grown up in a church-going family but by then her spirit was elsewhere. This was the one part of her religious upbringing she wanted me to have.
What does God really want to hear from us?
Later, when I started church-going myself, I learned to pray that same prayer, which I already knew by heart in the most metaphorical sense, as well as the literal one. The Our Father, I learned to call it, as Roman Catholics do—Paternoster, in Latin. Each night now, decades later, I recite the same thing with my children. When they hear it begin in church, they know what to do. “That’s our prayer!”
It is a specific prayer, and it isn’t. It is a prayer that we memorize and recite—it is a thing that is done. When I hear the Tyndale-esque words my mother taught me, I am transported. The sameness matters, maybe more than getting the parts about “trespasses” or “temptation” exactly right. Repetition can be holier than accuracy. And then reinvention can awaken what repetition forgets.
“The disadvantage of paraphrase is that it can become an end in itself,” writes Bishop Stevenson in his history of the prayer. “The advantage is that it can alert the praying Christian to the rich shades of meaning that familiar words can easily disguise.”
Try it. Make this a practice: In different moods, at different times, with different needs, rewrite the prayer. Start with the old Our Father you know and change as many words as you can, keeping the meaning but speaking from your own voice. Allow yourself to speak to God with the many voices you have within you. Stretch the meanings, but then contract them. How far can you take the meaning without breaking it?
One could begin with vernacular maximalism, like this:
Does it still sound like a prayer? Perhaps the shock of excessive familiarity is like what Jesus’ disciples felt when he first taught them to pray. Keep going, jumping to the middle:
As we take things day by day,
help us get by,
and don’t blame us too much—
at least to the extent
we manage not to blame each other
And you could end like this:
A bit of help from you
with all this evil
would go a long way.
In place of the “amen,” a version that appeared in a 1966 America article by Gareth Edwards suggests an alternative conclusion—simply:
Answer our prayer.
O Breathing Life, your Name shines everywhere!
Release a space to plan your Presence here.
Envision your “I Can” now.
The 1971 prayer book from the Free Church of Berkeley doubled down on Jesus’ “Abba,” while introducing an elegant sort of meter for the rest, with Luke-like concision:
Blessed be your working;
Soon be your appearing;
Done be your desiring.
The more I think of it the less I am surprised that Francis of Assisi remade the prayer for himself; I suspect he did so more than once, beyond the one written down for history. He was, after all, someone who liked to build and repair little churches. That kind of playful remaking was how he loved to make his offerings. Like arranging a manger scene a bit differently each year—a practice he also taught—paraphrasing the prayer is a way of dwelling in a creative relationship with God. As Francis puts it in his prayer, expanding the “hallowed be” part:
May knowledge of You become clearer in us
that we may know
the breadth of Your blessings,
the length of Your promises,
the height of Your majesty,
the depth of Your judgments.
To stretch the words of the prayer, Francis suggests here, helps him to further grasp their meaning. The ambiguity of invention brings us toward greater clarity in the end.
Repetition can do these same things too, in its own fashion. When one does not know what else to say, the formula is there. When one is with others, praying together, everyone making it up as they go would turn into cacophony, you need the formula. While rewriting opens the imagination, repetition can guide us into meditation, into a trance of listening, tuning out our minds so as to finally hear the voice of God.
The Our Father that is said today in U.S. Catholic churches, of course, is not the one found in Catholic Bibles.
In his preface to the prayer in Matthew, Jesus warns against too much chatter: “Do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words.” It could be safer just to say what he said.
This prayer somehow has to be everything at once. And perhaps it can be. The liberation theologian Leonardo Boff called the Our Father “the prayer of integral liberation”; it brings together heavenly hope and earthly suffering. Can it also tolerate both the rote and the visionary, the familiar and the spontaneous?
From Buckminster Fuller’s rendition again:
Your eternally regenerative scenario Universe
is the minimum complex
of totally intercomplementary
nonsimultaneous, differently frequenced
and differently enduring
of a finite
nonsimultaneously conceptual system
This God includes both the complex and the simple, the finite and infinite, the abstract and the material. If God can be all that, and a prayer must contain all that, then surely we need lots of different ways to pray, even stemming from Jesus’ seemingly simple instructions.
Catholics, that is to say, have not necessarily been praying the Our Father wrongly, but too often we have not been praying it fully, either. While we are busy trying to get it right, we neglect to make it our own and discover its vast permutations.
We can begin to change that by recognizing the Our Father not merely as a prayer but as a genre. We can learn and share with each other this tradition of reinventing it. We can practice paraphrasing for ourselves when we need it, and then go back to the familiar formula when we need that, too. This, as far as I can tell, is how Jesus taught the prayer: as a place to begin, again and again.