What if we were to pray as follows:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
Deliver us from evil
Lead us not into temptation
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us
And give us this day our daily bread.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Thy kingdom come,
And hallowed be thy name.
It is of course the Lord’s Prayer recited upside down. Although we continue to recite the prayer in the order in which Jesus taught it, perhaps if we are to be honest the real ordering of our desires and so the order in which we actually pray to God is as I have just presented it: the Lord’s Prayer but upside down.
The thought came to me over the weekend when I was looking through some things written by Vincent McNabb about prayer. He speaks about the centrality of the Lord’s Prayer, its frequent use in the Divine Office, and the fact that it encapsulates not only every request that we might want to make to God but also the order in which those requests should be made. St Thomas, in a lovely phrase that I’m sure I’ve quoted for you before, says that prayer is desiderii interpres, the interpreter of desire. The human heart desires and prayer, oratio, is the articulation of its desires. The words of prayer on our lips give form to the desires in our hearts, Thomas says.
What McNabb adds to this is that in reciting the Lord’s Prayer we learn not only what we ought to pray for but also the order in which we ought to pray for it. So it is not just an interpreter of our desire but also a teacher of our desire, a school in which we learn the right ordering of human desires. If it is, as we call it, the Lord’s Prayer, then perhaps it is only Our Lord who can sincerely say it in the order in which nevertheless we continue to say it. Jesus is the one whose heart is, without qualification and without reserve, placed at the disposal of the Father’s will. He is the one whose life is simply and completely about giving glory to God’s name. He is the one whose life is simply identified with the coming of God’s kingdom.
If we look at our own poor efforts at prayer we will very quickly see, I think, that we do say the Lord’s Prayer but more or less upside down. All the desires are there but their order still requires attention and it is why we must pray constantly as St Paul tells us. Let us have a look and see if what I’m saying is not true.
Deliver us from evil. This will be our first petition in the upside down Lord’s Prayer. It is true, is it not, that we turn to prayer and often return to prayer when we hit trouble. The presence of evil is the strongest incentive in getting people to pray. Famous cartoons show lines of City bankers queuing up to pray where there is talk of war or a stock market crash. There were no atheists in the trenches, people said at the time of the First World War, and it is difficult to imagine somebody who would not pray in some way in an aeroplane whose engines have begun to sound peculiar. When our backs are to the wall, whether through illness, failure, sin, loneliness, or some other evil that has come upon us, we will pray.
Lead us not into temptation. We may like a challenge but there will always be limits to what we can bear. The evil now is not on top of us but something threatening but, in such circumstances, we will want God’s help. For the time ahead, for the homily to be given, for the class we have to give, for the meeting that is coming up. There may be moral or physical dangers in some of the things we are called to do and it is natural to ask God’s help with them. There is nothing wrong with that. It is a legitimate desire that we might do things well with God’s help and not be put, too much, to the test.
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Was it one of the Monty Python films that has God appearing and lamenting the fact that people are always moaning to him about their sins? ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m fed up with people telling me they’re sorry. Why can’t someone say they’re not sorry?’ It may not be exactly in those words, and it is a bit irreverent, but it might help us to see something. Another desire that sends us to our knees is the desire for forgiveness when we have sinned but it may be that we are often thinking more about ourselves than we are about God even in asking for forgiveness. And it may be that we forget that this petition, like the great commandment, is in two parts. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Just as our relationship of love with God cannot be understood without reference to our love of neighbour (and of enemies) likewise our participation in the forgiveness of God cannot be separated from our willingness to forgive others – at least to be aware of our need to be reconciled with our brother first before presenting our gift at the altar.
And give us this day our daily bread. There is nothing wrong with this one either. Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened to you. There is a venerable tradition from Tugwell and McCabe back through Victor White and Vincent McNabb that not only does not despise the prayer of petition but actually gives it an honoured place. We are to develop the kind of relationship with God in which we will feel comfortable, as a child with its parents, telling God what we need and asking him to grant it to us. We pray for the needs of the world and of the Church, for the protection of travellers, the comfort of mourners, food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, peace for the oppressed, the healing of the sick, the comfort of the dying, to pass an exam, to see a person again. These are all legitimate desires and appropriately brought to God in prayer.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Now this marks a change in our desire for it is the first one in which we begin to think of what God might want. The four petitions we have made up to now are all about ourselves and about our needs. The interest in God that we show in them is a genuine interest in God but it does not go beyond an interest in what God can do for us: delivering us from evil, protecting us from temptation, forgiving us our sins, giving us what we need. Here, for the first time in this upside down Lord’s Prayer, we show a real interest in the desire of the other party to this relationship of prayer. Perhaps God wants something. Perhaps God has a will about things, on earth as in heaven. Well we believe He does, don’t we, and so it ought to be part of our desire not only to want the things we want God to give us, but also to want the things that God wants to give us.
Tby kingdom come strengthens this desire. Something new is opening up, for we are no longer simply saying, ‘Hey God, isn’t this cool? I’ve found a place for you in my world. I see reasons (when many do not) for including you in my way of living’. Now we are beginning to realise that it is not so much a question of us finding a place for God in our world as of God having found a place for us in His kingdom. This looks like a relationship that is becoming mature and growing into something stronger than before, where the desire of the one who is praying is becoming aligned with the desire of the one to whom he is praying. I am beginning to want what God wants. But we are not to think that this transition can be made easily. The place where it is most dramatically presented is in Gethsemane where Jesus utters his own prayer upside down: ‘Father, remove this cup from me (deliver me from evil, lead me not into temptation), yet not what I will but what thou wilt (thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, thy kingdom come)’.
And hallowed be thy name. In our upside down Lord’s Prayer this is the final petition. This is the climax of our desire, not something for ourselves but something for the Other who through prayer we come to know and love. May His name be held holy. The high priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17 may be taken as a commentary on this petition. ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee. I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work which thou gavest me to do. I have manifested thy name to the men whom thou gavest me out of the world’ – and so on. A few chapters earlier, in what seems like John’s transfiguration scene, Jesus uses a phrase very close to what Matthew and Luke give us in the Our Father: ‘Jesus said, ‘Father, glorify thy name’. Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it and I will glorify it again’‘ (John 12).
What if that were to become the fundamental desire of our lives, the desire that controls all the others, that in everything and no matter what God’s name be glorified? Perhaps the whole point of our perseverance in prayer is that we might, some day, be able to say the Lord’s Prayer right way up, our desire for the glory of God’s name having become in fact our fundamental desire. In the meantime it is a salutary exercise, more rewarding than any yoga position, to say the Lord’s Prayer upside down and I recommend that you all have a go at it. There is much to be learned about our desires and what we can honestly say we want from God. Jesus, the only Son from the Father, can say this prayer right way up and so he taught it to his disciples. But this reflection may help us to realise that the disciples were asking for more than a formula of words when, having seen him at it, they asked Jesus to teach them how to pray.