Prayer would seem to be a very simple thing, a straightforward concept that the devout and the atheistic alike easily understand. “Please God, do this for me, make that right, fix this problem.” Yet the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve come to believe that the beating heart of prayer is actually something far simpler that I ever comprehended as a young person, loaded as I was with the ideas and traditions to which I happened to be exposed. And it is the simplicity on the far side of complexity (as per Oliver Wendell Holmes) that is most to be desired.
Some of what seems to me to be great and ultimately simple wisdom on the nature of prayer is below from Abraham Joshua Heschel:
The true source of prayer […] is not an emotion but an insight. It is the insight into the mystery of reality, the sense of the ineffable, that enables us to pray. As long as we refuse to take notice of what is beyond our sight, beyond our reason; as long as we are blind to the mystery of being, the way to prayer is closed to us. If the rise of the sun is but a daily routine of nature, there is no reason to say, In mercy Thou givest light the the earth and to those that dwell on it … every day constantly. If bread is nothing but flour moistened, kneaded, baked and then brought forth from the oven, it is meaningless to say, Blessed art Thou … who bringest forth bread from the earth.
The way to prayer leads through acts of wonder and radical amazement. The illusion of total intelligibility, the indifference to the mystery that is everywhere, the foolishness of ultimate self-reliance are serious obstacles on the way. It is in moments of our being faced with the mystery of living and dying, of knowing and not-knowing, of love and the inability of love—that we pray, that we address ourselves to Him who is beyond the mystery.
Many people came out of church this morning having heard the gospel reading from Luke where Jesus gives his disciples “The Lord’s Prayer.” The same scene is there with slightly different wording in Matthew (chapter six) and the following is from William Tyndale’s 1534 rendering in Englishof those verses (for which achievement, it must be noted, he was burned at the stake):
And when ye pray, babble not much, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard, for their much babbling’s sake. Be ye not like them therefore. For your father knoweth whereof ye have need, before ye ask of him. After this manner therefore pray ye.
O our father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Let thy kingdom come. Thy will be fulfilled, as well in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, even as we forgive our trespassers. And lead us not into temptation: but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power, and the glory for ever. Amen.
In Latin, “Our Father” is “Pater Noster,” and as such has been given many musical settings over the centuries. For my part, I always think of Ysabella Brave in this context. She was a YouTube sensation a few years back, but some bad breaks and ill health hampered what looked like a promising career in pop-music. She originally became known for her spirited karaoke versions of various standards, and also recorded some energetic pop-tunes of her own, but I always thought her greatest work was the beautiful and loving musical treatment she provided for the “Pater Noster.” Embedded below (and may God bless her).