Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Perils of Prayer

The Lord’s Prayer is perfectly designed for sinners like me. It’s short, and it’s repeated incessantly. I say it at least once a day and have most of my life. Given how short it is and how often one is encouraged to say it, there is a statistical probability that at least once in one’s life one will say it with the attention it deserves. No guarantees, of course, but still the prospects are not hopeless.

Therein lies the problem: saying it with the attention it deserves. We’ve all be aptly warned to beware of what we pray for, and the admonition seems especially pertinent to the Lord’s Prayer. I’m thinking now of the phrase “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

When we pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God, we pray as Christians, for whom the life, death and resurrection of Christ is the story of the (real) world laid before us in the life history of one man. We may not stop to think of it, but the Kingdom of God is something that happens, in every life and in the life of the world, only on the far side of the Cross, for the “Easter” toward which we are being draw is the culmination of the Paschal drama, not an alternative to it.

So, when we pray for the coming of the Kingdom, we are declaring our willingness to pass through whatever Gethsemane and Golgotha might await us, on the far side of which lies the Kingdom. It is in light of this sobering implication that the next verse of the Lord’s Prayer takes on a special meaning. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In heaven, God’s will is accompanied by nothing but sheer joy; while on earth, and for the sinners who inhabit it, God’s will is very often accompanied by dreadful, fearful, recoiling resistance. Even Christ himself asked the Father to let the cup pass before deferring to the heavenly will of his heavenly Father: “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are preparing ourselves for whatever Cross awaits us, and asking for the grace to recognize it as God’s will for us. It is a way of preparing ourselves, or asking God to prepare us, to take up the Cross that is ours to carry, aware that in doing so we will be playing a role in what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls the Theo-Drama of salvation history. Our inability to say Yes to this invitation with the alacrity of Mary or the world-redemptive profundity of Christ is what makes the repetition of the Lord’s Prayer so pertinent to our condition as half-baked but persistent followers of Christ.

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