Praying Authentically

Book cover
The Prayer That Jesus Taught Usby By Michael H. CrosbyOrbis Books. 208p $19 (paper)

Michael Crosby is widely appreciated for his many gifts as a lecturer and author in the area of biblical spirituality. He invariably brings to his audiences both clarity and commitment. The clarity flows not only from his rhetorical prowess but from his considerable mastery of spirituality, especially as it involves issues of social justice. His commitment, I believe, comes out of his immersion in Capuchin-Franciscan spirituality and his personal piety. The Prayer That Jesus Taught Us is the most recent demonstration of his gifts.

In the preface, Crosby tells us that in 1977 he published Thy Will be Done: Praying the Our Father as Subversive Activity. The new work is not an updating of the earlier book, but rather a deeper probe of the first [Matthew’s] Gospel and the environment that gave rise to it. While focusing on the Our Father, Crosby uses the whole of the Gospel to assess the Matthean Jesus and his intention when he taught his disciples to pray. From his study of Jesus’ prayer (within the social context of Matthew’s Gospel), Crosby offers us four insights that he believes are relevant today. First, we cannot pray authentically without being committed to a spirituality and lifestyle that aims at the transformation of society. Second, the secrecy called for in Matthew was a matter of communal survival, not personal piety. Third, we understand Matthew (and Jesus’ prayer) only if we understand its worldview because this Gospel’s portrait of Jesus aims at influencing the church of Matthew’s day. Fourth, because Jesus’ method of prayer was countercultural, our praying is authentic to the degree that it is countercultural.

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Simple? Yes, as simple as the Gospel message itself. Simplistic? Only if we view the Lord’s Prayer as a private religious exercise (even when recited publicly) or if our praying it is so routinized that we no longer feel its existential bite. Feminists of a certain age will remember Gloria Steinem’s popularizing of the click that signified a consciousness-raising insight. In the 1960’s, clicks occurred spontaneouslyand with mind-jarring forcewhenever circumstances let us glimpse the sexism hiding beneath the ordinary. Similarly, the 180-plus pages of Crosby’s text produce spiritual clicks galore. Clearly he aims to raise our consciousness about the (dis)harmony potentially present between the meaning of this prayer and the content of our lives. Let me share with you a few examples.

In the chapter explicating Hallowed be your name, Crosby says that these words do not call us to honor or praise God’s name. Rather, the expression is a technical term of Matthew’s time, whose meaning is to give witness to God at the risk of one’s own life. Through multiple examples, Crosby, like a patient teacher, reveals the implications and applications of such lived-prayer, cautioning us about its power. In his own words, To make God’s name holy on earth as it is in heaven may take us into boardrooms and shareholder meetings as well as into the inner chambers of curias and councils. However, when we do [become involved], we may incur their justice’ in forms of rejection and even being called communist,’ unpatriotic, or disloyal to the Holy Father.

After showing how Jesus attempted to change his society through spiritual means, Crosby argues that God’s kingdom will come when the church prioritize[s] mobility and mission over structures and maintenance, the formation of sojourning communities over the construction of sacred compounds. Similarly, the chapter on God’s forgiving us as we forgive others reminds us of our societal obligations. Under Crosby’s sharp and compassionate analyses, we see more clearly the world in bondage to H.I.V., white slavery, sweatshops and financial indebtedness that exceeds repayment capabilities. We are likewise encouraged to respond.

Michael Crosby is a prophet. He is also a pragmatist. His words sting, but their venom is therapeutic. He exposes our hypocrisy but insists that God’s love sufficesif we pray as Jesus taught us.

Who is the audience for this book? Certainly it would be useful for personal reflection. I would also recommend it for college classes in spirituality or New Testament studies. But it might best be read collectively by small groups in parish settings. Then, perhaps over several weeks or months, the group could read assigned chapters carefully and prayerfully, in preparation for discussions to discern their meaning for the community they hold dear. This way of using his book seems to be what the author intends. For near the end, Crosby argues for the creation of new communities of like-minded folks who will support one another in their efforts to transform society. Crosby believes this is possiblethrough the grace of God. The prayer that Jesus taught challenges us both to believe and to act.

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