II originally wrote this piece for the Denver Post’s online religion page, but only a shortened version was published. I republish it here, as the first post on my new blogsite, since it strikes me as a good way to begin a series of reflections on religion and politics.
I suspect I’m not alone in thinking that the years ahead will be tough, perhaps terrible and tragic. Let’s hope not. Indeed, we need to find ways to counter the fear mongering that was the path to power for Trump’s election. Yet we can’t hide our minds in the sand or allow spirits to drift into dreams, perhaps especially religious dreams.
On the political stage, I’m hoping that groups stirring with anger about Trump & Co. will move towards some united front or fronts. That’s long been a dream of the left, but rarely an embodied reality. Yet I realize others will have quite different, even quite contrary political hopes for the coming years. Even so, I hope we may still find ways to seek common goods despite deep divides.
Here, though, I don’t want to speak about politics but about prayer. And I’ll use Jesus’ prayer to “Our Father” as my example.
Though I am someone who tries to pray, I write here as a professor, in the way I would talk about prayer in the classroom. Not bullying, trying not to sermonize, but discussing and inviting thoughtful response.
In a class I would explore the persistence of prayer practices across all religious traditions and the presence of prayer even today in secular song and poetry. I would also explore doubts about prayer, the abuses of prayer (to support injustice or as a form of escapism), and the difficulty (acknowledged by all masters) of finding authentic forms of prayer.
So here are a few comments on the much analyzed and regularly repeated Christian prayer that virtually all scholars trace back to Jesus’ Jewish preaching.
Catholics say this prayer together at every Mass. The priest leads with the words “Our Father” and the standing congregation joins in immediately…“who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come…” and on through “give us this day our daily bread…forgive us as we forgive…deliver us from evil.” These days the congregation typically joins the priest in the concluding refrain: “for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory…” And in many congregations folks join hands with their neighbors for this prayer which then leads to a “kiss of peace,” a greeting or handshake with other participants before the sharing of communion bread and wine.
It’s a prayer common to and important for all Christians, one shared without hesitation in settings where Christians of different traditions pray together. Many Christians say the prayer privately, often daily or at particular times of need or gratitude. For Catholics it was (and for some remains) a central part of the tradition of “praying the rosary” – using prayer beads to meditate on the stages of the life of Christ, a practice that goes back to Medieval times and may have been influenced by the Muslim practice of using a string of beads to pray, as Buddhists also do.
These days I’ve come to think that at Mass the priest should pause after intoning the words “Our Father” to allow each of the congregants to think about the name of God we are about to praise (“Hallowed be they name”) – to think about the many important ways we name God, and to call to mind and heart that name or names which most expresses an individual’s faith and need.
Because of Jesus the name “Father” remains central for Christian tradition. Despite its seeming (and too often actual) support for patriarchy, it’s clear that “Father” was Jesus’ way of relating in family terms with the God his own Jewish tradition (and many other traditions) thought must finally remain un-namable. Yet the constant Christian (and Hindu, and even Jewish) way of dealing with God’s un-nameability is both to practice reverent silence and also to use many names as a way of avoiding an idolatrous fixation on just one name or one set of names. For that, I’m not alone in thinking, is what has happened over millennia with overuse of exclusively male names like Lord or Father or Master or King.
Personally, I find accompany (in thought and whisper) the address to “Our Father” with an equally legitimate address to “Holy Mother” (a name with pagan roots re-appropriated by feminist imagination) and to “Great Spirit” (a powerful name I first learned from Native Americans).
Yet finally, especially when dark fates threaten, the particular name we Christians use at the start of this prayer is less important than its concluding affirmation that the kingdom and the power and the glory are God’s – however little we, like Job, understand how that kingdom and power and glory may prevail against the furies of fate.
Sure, it’s possible that all prayer is just comforting illusion. That’s part of what it means to understand that prayer is a matter of faith and honest conviction. Yet I’d also note that the arrogant or fear-filled assertion of the power and glory of our nationalism is this culture’s prevailing and comforting illusion.
So Christians continue to believe and pray with Jesus that God’s kingdom is present and coming, that She Who Is holds the whole world in her hands, that Our Father will forgive, and the Great Spirit will deliver us from evil. Note especially that last petition – not that there will be no evil, perhaps even terrible evil and much death, but that the power and glory of the Spirit-Mother-Father will somehow see us through into good.
I think there is much to ponder in Jesus’ prayer, and in broadly analogous forms of prayer in other forms of faith and practice, religious as well as secular.
I do not mean thereby to reduce all faiths and forms of prayer to one vague “spiritual” thing. There are significant differences between faiths (religious or secular) that must be respected and yes, at times, opposed.* Yet as Pope Francis and leaders of other religions have affirmed, there are also fundamental similarities.
Recent Popes have invited leaders of different faiths to pray together, each in their own way, in the Italian city of Assisi. They gather there in memory of St. Francis, that great man of prayer and interfaith cooperation during a previous period of severe warfare between Christian and Muslim empires. And recently Pope Francis joined with New Yorkers of different faiths in a beautiful prayer service at the 9/11 Memorial. (Check it out if you’ve never seen it: http://www.popefrancisvisit.com/schedule/multi-religious-service-at-911-memorial-and-museum-and-world-trade-center/.)
For all such people, prayer is not an escape. Rather it is an intentional way of living in and with the realities of our world. It is a form of living that is important in itself, regardless of hoped for practical or political effects. Yet it may also nurture efforts for justice and peace. It could contribute to the uniting of fronts against injustice in the dark years ahead. It might even lead to cooperative efforts across deep divides.
*A personal footnote: I’ve long hated the fanatical cry “Allahu Akbar” heard on television footage. Yet it recently occurred to me that that warrior’s cry (which simply means “God is Great”) may well be much the same as the (typically whispered) prayers of our soldiers and police facing death. “Allahu Akbar” could, in other words, be less an expression of fanaticism than an honest prayer in the face of death. Of course, I don’t really know this, but understanding that cry as a simple prayer helps me to humanize these enemies (even as I still see them as enemies). It be their recognition that the real kingdom and power and glory is God’s, not ours.