The Our Father and the Hail Mary: The Two Pillars of Catholic Prayer
Whole books with titles like A Treasury of Christian Prayer attest to the fact that the Church can dip into vast pools of prayer and come up with any number of prayers that it might set before us for our contemplation.
Some of them, such as the “Prayer of St. Francis,” are very popular and very old indeed. Some of them, such as sundry litanies, are easy to memorize and serve well for both individual and communal prayer. Some of them, such as the “Serenity Prayer” or the “Prayer of Jabez,” are (for a brief time) hugely popular and could be capitalized on by a spiritual marketing campaign, had the Church chosen to do so (thank God the Church is abysmal at and has no interest in “marketing”). Many prayers come from the inspired word of God itself, such as the sundry prayers composed or recorded by Paul or John or the mighty prayers of praise and adoration found in the Psalms or the book of Revelation.
Some of them come from the pens of some of the most eloquent and profound saints who ever lived. Some of them, such as the Tantum Ergo or the Pange Lingua, have long been associated with the adoration of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, and therefore lie very close to what the Church calls the “source and summit” of Catholic faith. Some of them, such as the Memorare or the “Hail, Holy Queen” collect the Church’s Marian devotion into beautiful words of petition that have moved the souls of millions down the years.
And yet, for all that, the Holy Spirit has guided the Church, in its popular piety, to focus on two prayers — the “Our Father” and the “Hail Mary” — as the twin pillars of liturgical worship and popular piety. And this, of course, by the common consensus of common Catholics, since “liturgy,” recall, means “the work of the people.” It is the Spirit speaking through the whole Body of Christ that, in the end, calls to us and speaks through us by these two prayers in particular.
So why these two? Why have no other prayers ever attained the stature of the “Our Father” and the “Hail Mary” in the hearts of ordinary Catholics?
In his great High Priestly prayer offered just a few hours before His arrest and crucifixion, Jesus offers a prayer for His Church that is as profound as it is mysterious and impenetrable. He prays:
I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me. (Jn 17:20-23)
I make no claim to be able to understand very well this dense mystical language — language that strains at the limits of human speech to get across the strange nature of our relationship with God in Christ. How Christ is “in” the Father and the Father is “in” Him, and He in us and we in Him, is beyond my ken.
However, I do think that, though none of us can understand it or describe it, there are times we begin to approach a little taste of the experience of it or something like it, even in our human relationships.
Consider, for instance, the curious way in which even our ordinary human relationships sometimes are made richer by the love of a friend for somebody else. I have known people whom I never would have noticed had they not been loved deeply by somebody to whom I was close. Suddenly, through your friend’s Susan’s eyes and in her heart, you start to “see” her friend Joe, and you begin to appreciate what Susan appreciates about him.
This is particularly true when your friend Susan falls in love. Her soul doth magnify her lover, and her spirit exults in Joe her boyfriend. You start to appreciate how Joe loves her back: the care he takes for her, the joy he takes in her. She is in his heart, and he in hers. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
This happens with other forms of love besides eros (that is, romantic love). Phileos, or friendship, is a form of love that is properly promiscuous in a way eros is not. Although it is possible my friend Susan will teach me to appreciate Joe in a way I had not before, it is absolutely forbidden that I, as their friend, should love Susan or Joe in the way that they love each other. Lover and Beloved are a closed set.
But with friendship, it’s a case of “the more, the merrier.” And this is not to be sneezed at as something inferior to eros: It was, after all, a band of friends whom Our Lord sent out to bring the world to faith in Christ. Their phileos love for one another was the fuel for kindling the deepest fire of all: the agape love of God in the hearts of one another and of their first converts.
Here too, with friendship, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, particularly when the apostles met in council to seek the mind of the Spirit. For, as Jesus promised (Jn 16:13), the Spirit showed up and continued to lead them into all truth as He spoke from the midst of the love in which Christ had placed them: the love of the Blessed Trinity, in which the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father, and the Blessed Trinity is in the Church and the Church in the Trinity. That’s why the Church could dare to say, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28).
So this curious interpenetration of love — the Beloved in the Lover and the Lover in the Beloved — is seen in the lower forms of love such as eros and phileos, but it reaches its zenith in agape: the love who is God. And the place agape finds its welcome in this world is in the heart and womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary — who is, as St. Ambrose points out, the type of the Church. Where, in our own small ways, we glimpse it in Joe and Susan and the way they look at each other, or in the curious way that a group of friends is somehow more than can be accounted for by each member alone, we see something different — something properly transcendent and supernatural in the utterly unique relationship between Mary and her Son the God Man. Human language can only gesticulate and point. Every attempt at a metaphor or figure of speech only reveals that human language is inadequate to the task.
And so, though the Tradition makes use of imagery from eros to speak of Christ the Last Adam and Mary the New Eve, or Christ the Bridegroom and His Bride the Church, it is also ringed round with massive artillery to make clear that the language of marriage used to describe the relationship of Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride the Church is only an image and not the reality. Christianity never devolves into a sex cult (as paganism so often did), in which copulation becomes the central rite of union with the deity, because it starkly forbids us from mistaking the mere image of heavenly ecstasy that is sex for the reality who is God. Sex, while sacramental, is enshrined in the privacy of the bridal chamber after the sacrament of Marriage; it is not made the central focus of the Mass or performed on the altar in debauched fertility rites, as was common in the paganism of Jesus’ own time.
For the same reason, the virginity of Christ and Mary is emphasized at every turn, and their utter holiness and purity mark Christianity off from a Dionysian cult from the very start. Indeed, the approach of the Church strikes the perceptive balance: Marriage is a great good (it is a sacrament, after all), but virginity is even better. And it is better precisely because it is an image of eschatological fulfillment when earthly good is swallowed up in heavenly ecstasy and “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mt 22:30).
Likewise, the language of friendship is sometimes used to describe our relationship with Christ. Jesus Himself tells us, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15). And so, by an astonishing gift of grace, we are granted a curious sort of equality with God (for that is what friendship implies). Yet we cannot presume upon that friendship, nor mistake our relationship with Christ for merely earthly forms of phileos, anymore than we can regard Jesus as a mere mortal bridegroom. He is our friend, and we are His. But we are not buddies, chums, or homies. The imagery of friendship, like the imagery of eros, is not to be confused with the reality of the agape who is God.
In all this, the “Our Father” and the “Hail Mary” keep us on an even keel and remind us that at the heart of the faith is the heart — or, more precisely, the two hearts of God and His Bride. Jesus, of course, has a heart that beats as one with the Father’s heart. Indeed, He is the heart of the Father. And Jesus’ humanity is at one with the Father, God in Him and He in the Father. But though the focal point of Christian faith is the heart of God revealed in Christ Jesus, it is not the totality, just as the totality of a wheel cannot be the hub alone.
What I mean is this: Christianity is about salvation. Jesus’ very name means “the Lord is Salvation.” But though the heart of God is Jesus, Jesus is not the one being saved: We are. So our hearts must enter into the picture as well. Our heart must be in Jesus’ heart, and He in ours, or however great and worthy of glory, laud, and honor Jesus is, nobody is being saved by Him.
That is why the “Hail Mary” is constantly paired with the “Our Father” in the Church’s devotional life, especially in the rosary. For it is not enough that Jesus triumph over death and ascend to Heaven. If nobody goes with Him, the whole exercise was a pointless waste of time. In the “Hail Mary,” we are perpetually reminded that the human heart Jesus took with Him to Heaven bore within it the heart of the human being who loved Him more than anybody else — and that she followed her heart all the way to Heaven. We are given the glad news that we can do the same — as many already have — if we will but place our heart in theirs and join in their love for one another.
In Jesus, who is the Heart of the Father, and Mary, who gave Jesus both His human heart and her own heart as well, we find our salvation in the way that Mother Teresa found her own when she summed up all Catholic devotion to the Two Hearts by saying, “Love Jesus as Mary loves Jesus, and love Mary as Jesus loves Mary.”