17th Sunday in Ordinary Time — ‘Lord, Teach Us to Pray’

SCRIPTURES & ART: The example of prayer stimulates more prayer.

Left: James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Lord’s Prayer.” Right: Jacob Herreyns I (1643-1732), “God the Father.”
Left: James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Lord’s Prayer.” Right: Jacob Herreyns I (1643-1732), “God the Father.” (photo: Public Domain)

Jesus was praying. Spurred by his example, one of his disciples asks him to teach them how to do it. John the Baptist had taught his disciples; you teach us.

There’s a lot to unpack in those few events (and in today’s Gospel, which couples the revelation of the Pater Noster (“Our Father”) with a parable and a lesson on persistence in prayer). Let’s unpack.

Jesus was praying. The example of praying is an incentive to prayer. In a world where even Christians not infrequently hang their heads admitting their deficiencies in and even neglect of prayer, the example of prayer leads others. Pope St. John Paul II said he learned more about prayer from watching and being with his retired soldier father — who prayed at home and took him to church and on pilgrimages — than at seminary. 

There’s a reason Father Patrick Peyton used to say “the family that prays together, stays together.” It’s not just the grace — important as that is. The example of prayer stimulates more prayer. Likewise, the absence of the example of prayer multiplies similar spiritual cavities. 

The disciple is positively impressed by Jesus, and wants to learn how to pray. Perhaps he hopes for some “technique,” the “Jesus-of-Nazareth-Approach-to-Prayer.” In giving them the Our Father, Jesus doesn’t so much give a “technique” as a model of attitudes in prayer: praise (“hallowed be thy name”) and petition (“Thy kingdom come,” “Give us,” “Forgive us,” “Lead us not,” “Deliver us”). 

The Our Father covers it all, which is why the Church — in keeping with its tradition — prays it three times a day (at Mass and Morning and Evening Prayer). So, do we make sure to do so even once? All 56 words? 

It was St. Augustine, I think, who said that if anybody really and truly prayed the Our Father in absolute truth and sincerity, his Kingdom would come. Isn’t that what we want?

Jesus taught us to call God “Our Father.” Responding to his disciple’s request, he did not say to call God “Oh Great and Powerful One, Above the Heavens,” although that is true. He told us to address the God who “lives in unapproachable light” as “Father.” “Our Father.”

Consider how that must have struck the disciples, pious Jews who grew up with an awareness of God’s transcendence. God was him upon whom to look was to die, because God is God and we’re not. True, there are elements of God’s immanence and closeness in the Old Testament — the images of Hosea, for example — but the Fatherhood of God in such closeness is not prominent. In many ways, the same is true of Islam.

Had they even knew or thought of pagan conceptions of God — which I am sure they didn’t on that day in Israel, though they probably did as Paul and Barnabas were making converts, they might have noticed that the Zeuses and Apollos and Plutos of the world were not deities interested in humanity (much less its welfare) as in using humans as their playthings in Olympian intrigues. Against that stands a “Father.”

At the heart of the universe is not some absentee God, some unapproachable God, some disinterested deity on a power kick. At the heart of all reality is a “Father,” a Father “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Ephesians 3:15). At the heart of everything is a Person, a loving Father.

What have we lost in our contemporary cultural depreciation of fatherhood? Why do we think that a society in which fathers are absent or sidelined is not going to be dysfunctional?

Jesus never refers to his relationship to the Father and ours in terms of “our.” It’s always “my Father and your Father.” This passage is no exception, because Jesus tells his disciples: “when you pray, you say, ‘Our Father …’”

That’s important, because Jesus is the natural Son of God but, in him, “we are God’s children now” (1 John 3:2). We have been adopted in him (Ephesians 3:20, directly related to the text on all Fatherhood in heaven and earth deriving from God, and Romans 8:15). 

With a message like that, why does Catholicism seem to be huffing and puffing to demonstrate “relevance?”

I’ll not comment on the particular elements of the Our Father — here’s a good commentaryalong with other basic Catholic prayers, in case you want to (re)learn “how to pray.” 

I assume we all hope to reach heaven someday. Prayer is talking to God. The Our Father is 56 words. Add the Hail Mary at 42, and your basic conversation with God comes it at less than 100 words. If you can’t find time for that twice a day, what are you going to find time to talk about for eternity?

Jesus rounds out the Gospel today with a parable on persistence. One neighbor who goes to another to borrow a loaf of bread may find the other unwilling to be inconvenienced. But — as I commented last week — if you have a Martha wheedling and needling at the door, one might yield if not out of friendship then out of persistence. If people do that — if even human fathers gives an egg to a son (or a daughter who needs them for the fish — again, see last week) rather than a stone — then what do you think the Father who is at the heart of all reality will do?

The French poet Charles Péguy had a unique style to his poetry: his religious poems often were written as if God was the speaker. In his poem “I Am Their Father” he speaks paradoxically of the Pater Noster as a “barrier,” a wall Jesus put up between God and man:

He knew very well what he was doing that day, my Son who loved them so.
When He put that barrier between them [man] and me, Our Father who art
in Heaven,
those three or four words.
That barrier which my anger and perhaps my justice will never pass.
Blessed is the man who goes to sleep under the protection of that outpost, the outpost of those three or four words.

Adding it to Night Prayer? Adding Night Prayer?

Today’s Gospel in art is a two-fer, because we have to be “on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth, we have our faithful artistic servant, 19th-century Frenchman James Tissot (1836-1902) with his “Le Pater Noster,” owned by the Brooklyn Museum. Jesus stands as teacher, in pure white (as Tissot — as far as I know — always does, a marker of Christ). His back is to a city (Jerusalem?). Ten disciples are arrayed in almost a complete circle around him. Tissot captures the moment when, having been asked how to pray, they get their instructions. The disciples listen, their hands raised in an orans posture that suggests they are clearly practicing as Jesus instructs them. 

For “in heaven,” we have to go back to 17th-century Flemish painter Jacob Herryns the Elder (1643-1732). What Tissot’s Jesus is teaching “on earth” has a destination. In Herryns’ painting, we see where — or rather Whom — that destination is. The Father, seated on his throne with all symbols of his absolute sovereignty, looks down as if at the prayer ascending to him. The Holy Spirit is on his right, not just filling in the space but because — just as no one can confess Jesus except in the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3), so none of us prays as he ought, “but the Spirit himself intercedes for us” (Romans 8:26). What good we do is inspired by the Holy Spirit, who remind us what Jesus told us (John 14:26). Prayer, no less than any other aspect of the Christian life, is inextricably rooted in the Trinity. That’s why we can add 21 words to our daily prayer diet by starting with the Sign of the Cross, acknowledging the Trinity who is part of our prayers, not just as to whom they are directed but by whom they are made possible. That is why we want to pray the Sign of the Cross reverently and not as if we were flitting summer flies.

Summer is generally a freer and more relaxed time. That is not an excuse to “take a vacation from prayer,” since I fear many people might be on extended leave in that department. Rather, in light of today’s Gospel, let’s use the freer time of summer as a way to recover a habit of prayer. Why not start today, with a prayer taken from the opening of today’s Gospel? “Lord, teach us to pray …”