Thursday, March 20, 2014

On the Lord's Prayer

Here speaks the aspiring spirit to its Maker. This is the love-song of the Christian world. Few precepts of our Master, I suppose, have been more widely observed than that we are to " pray in this manner." For most of us that day would lack something in which the Lord's Prayer had not been repeated. It fits all circumstances. It is the chant of the saint in his most exultant moments, his refuge and solace when most depressed. The poor sinner, who through walking in the ways of vice has almost lost the power of aspiration and can no longer formulate for himself his better desires, finds in these sacred phrases his appropriate utterance.

Everywhere, indeed, the Prayer is used. And I believe we should be in error if we thought to disparage it by saying that for the most part it is repeated without our being distinctly aware of its meaning. In this I find no blame. It is a diseased and morbid condition of mind that seeks to be persistently conscious. Our home affections would not be the sweeteners of life that they are if we were asking ourselves perpetually "How much do I love these members of my household ?" We preserve sanity best by taking our daily affections as matters of happy course. And just so it is in our ordinary repetitions of the Lord's Prayer. In the common use of it we rise into a sacred atmosphere, where some one holier than we seems to be speaking for us. In its general meaning we partake, but we need not be anxious to search that meaning out.

George Herbert Palmer, The Lord's Prayer, Harvard Theological Review, April 1920


  1. I thought this was going to be E. A. Somerville's long-lost volume at first! But was not disappointed - thank you for posting it.

  2. Thanks, Dominic. As you can guess, I'm rather fascinated by the Lord's Prayer right now. I'm fascinated by all the "unthinking" parts of Christianity-- somehow I feel a reverence before those whose faith and practice is so much more unselfconscious and straighforward than mine. To rarely think about religion and yet to believe seems to me a very strange thing. It also seems very humble and child-like. Also, I've been feeling recently that the most "mechanical" and habitual practices of our religion seem, in a strange way, to be the richest and most meaningful. I certainly would not want to emphasize this too much as it may be theologically dodgy and I don't want to lead anyone astray. It's just a sensation more than anything else.

  3. Yes - don't the 'mechanics' keep us in mind the absoluteness of truth, regardless of (often misleading) feelings and moods? The Mass is the Mass, and the Lord's Prayer the Lord's Prayer, wherever and however its is said or heard, and so the whole faith the whole faith ... Is this what you meant? Of course you can't rely on outward practice, but it goes to show that you can't rely on feelings either.

    That has reminded me of a poem by Elizabeth Jennings - 'At a Mass' - it is the second poem down here (

  4. Exactly! (That's a good poem, by the way. I should probably read more Elizabeth Jennings.)

    That is what I mean, and more besides. Jennings talks about the "simple men lost in simplicities", but the kind of people who practice their religion (apparently) without much reflection on it are not necessarily simple-- they are often extremely intelligent, educated, reflective, restless-- but not when it comes to religion, which they accept in the most matter-of-fact way. It fascinates me. I remember when I was an agnostic wondering how a Jehovah's Witness colleague who was the most streetwise and business-like person I knew, almost, could accept the implausibilities (as I saw it) of her faith. (By the way, I must be the only person alive who actually approached a Jehovah's Witness for reading material about her religion...)

    It's aesthetic too. Sometimes you can be routinely reciting, say, the Lord's Prayer and suddenly you have a poetic reaction to it that you never would have had if you were focusing on it intently. At least, I find this to be true. It's like there's a deeper appreciation of something that lies on the far side of taking it for granted.

  5. Maolsheachlann, thank you for this. Perhaps I am misunderstanding the meaning of this, but if not then I find this very helpful to my prayer life. I often find that I become easily weary of prayer as I am trying to say the prayer while at the same time keep my mind completely focused on each word that is being said and what it means.

    Not that there is anything wrong with actually understanding the prayer and contemplating the meaning of the words, but from now on I think I will keep the contemplating and praying apart so as to make things a bit easier and which I feel will make my prayers a lot better.

  6. Antaine, I am certainly no expert but I would guess that too much concentration, or rather forced concentration, can be a distraction to prayer, as much as anything else. I certainly experience this, to the extent of saying the same prayer over and over again because I didn't say it 'properly' the first time. I do this especially with prayers that are part of penance after confession.

    Of course there is the danger of just mumbling prayers mechanically but I think the writer in this article is saying that this danger can be overstated.

    As I say, I am no expert and I don't think the writer of the paragraph is a Catholic. But what he is saying certainly makes sense to me. 'Routine' is not necessarily deadening.