As with the parable of the Good Samaritan we heard in last week's Gospel, it is all too easy to think that we know this week's passage so well that we don't need to bother with it. The Lord's Prayer, after all, is something most of us have had drilled into us since our earliest years. But we must beware allowing familiarity to lead to contempt.
When I was training for the priesthood, I fondly imagined that parishioners would often come to me asking me how to pray, perhaps because it's not something that just came very naturally to me. In fact, I don't think anyone has asked me even once, which presumably means that everyone is already a master of the art, so I've got nothing to worry about. Hurrah. Anwyay, during these fantasies, I sometimes wondered what book I might recommend to the earnest seeker of ways of prayer. The Spirit of St Francis de Sales, perhaps, with its wonderful discourse on praying even in times of spiritual dryness? Or maybe the Imitation of Christ, or the Cloud of Unknowing, or St Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises?
Well actually, while these are all admirable primers on prayer, today's Gospel shows that it doesn't hurt to get back to basics. And one of the best warnings for us to do just that comes not from the pen of any saint or mystic, but from a quite unexpected spiritual guide: a devil. OK, a fictional devil, created by C.S Lewis: one Screwtape, whom Lewis has write letters to his nephew, Wormwood, a junior devil and novice in the ways of temptation. I've been listening to John Cleese reading them on tape in my car lately, and this week, given today's Gospel, Letter 4 particularly stood out. I couldn't get John Cleese to come in today, sadly, but let me read you an excerpt and you should get the idea. Screwtape is advising his nephew on the 'treatment' of one of his many 'patients:'
"The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether. When the patient is an adult recently re-converted to the Enemy's party, like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised; and what this will actually mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part. One of their poets, Coleridge, has recorded that he did not pray "with moving lips and bended knees" but merely "composed his spirit to love" and indulged "a sense of supplication". That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practised by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy's service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time."
So - what the Devil wants is for us to feel superior about our childhood prayers, above the simple discipline of rote repetition, and better still, for us to leave our brains out of prayer altogether. But prayer is the work of the intellect as much as of the imagination, and certainly more so than the feelings or emotions it may generate in us. And so the prayer which Jesus taught us is worthy of our intellectual attention, worthy of a lifetime chewing over it as we pray it. Think as you pray it, and you can find a different emphasis every time.
For example, how often when we pray "Our Father, who art in Heaven" do we take time to focus our attention on God as our heavenly parent, to give thanks to Him for creating us?
How often when we say His name is hallowed do we think about what that name is - what is the 'name' of the God who responded to Moses only with the words, 'I am who I am?' What does it mean for God to be beyond naming and imagination?
When we ask that God's Kingdom come, what do we mean? Isn't it, in some way, here already among us? What will it be like when the heavenly Kingdom is fully realised on earth, when it not just partially but totally pierces through, so that all things are all in Christ? How fervently are we praying for this to happen - or would we really just rather carry along as we are now, thank you very much?
And then there's the 'daily' bread. The word 'daily' is not used in the Greek of the Bible text, you know. The actual word is 'epiousion,' a word that appears only in the Bible, nowhere else in Greek literature, and means something like 'supersubstantial' or 'beyond substance.' The earliest theologians linked it to that bread which endures to eternal life, the living bread of Jesus' body given to us as a foretaste of the Kingdom. St Jerome, who wrote the greatest translation of the Bible yet produced, thought that it really means not our bread for today, but our bread for tomorrow: that is, for the eternal tomorrow, the end of days, the coming of the Kingdom. “This day” we ask to receive it, and so we do: in the bread of the Eucharist, the body of Our Lord, We get a heavenly foretaste of the future Kingdom, the Kingdom here among us and yet still to come.
The next word in the Lord's Prayer is "and": "and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." So, the forgiveness of sins is linked to the bread we have just asked to receive. And this is connected again with another "and" - "and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil." So, you see, the receiving of the Eucharistic bread, the forgiveness of our sins so that we can forgive those of others, and the ending of temptation to evil are all linked to each other and to the coming of the Kingdom.
So much food for the mind in this little prayer of our childhood! Even if it's the only prayer you know by heart, a little intellectual probing can yield quite a harvest of spiritual fruits.
But if the Lord's Prayer gives us such a feast for the mind, this is only a preparation for the feast of the soul which we are about to receive in the Eucharist: because now, through the offering of bread and wine, and of ourselves as a living sacrifice, we are drawn into that sacrifice which Jesus made on the Cross, to overcome the rule of sin and overthrow the tyranny of the Devil forever. Such a simple child's prayer, such a simple act of blessing and sharing bread and wine: yet as long as we do this, the Screwtapes of the universe tremble.