From Secular Sanctity
This is a story about the Our Father. As all stories seem to do, it begins many years ago in happy days. In that time, the Our Father lived a comfortable, religious life. He prayed at rosary wakes and was present at both morning and evening prayers. It seemed that he was a perpetual prayer at the times of confessional penance where he usually appeared in sets of three: “Say three Hail Marys and three Our Fathers.” He was always an important part of every Mass, whether he was recited or sung. His prayer in Latin rang out strong, “Pater noster, qui es in caelis….” Many years ago, he was secure and comfortable, and the Our Father was at peace with his spiritual life. Then came the mid-sixties and its great ground-swell of change. For the past ten years or so, he had begun to experience feelings of doubt about his prayer life. A sense of hollowness and a lack of meaning had become like a shadow that followed him each time he went to pray. Whatever the reason, he now began to pray from a sense of obligation. It was his duty, his responsibility, to pray, but deep within his heart he knew that this could not be a true motive for long. Since at heart he was a deeply spiritual person, he decided that something must be done about his problem with prayer!
He began by reading books on “How to Pray.” He read articles and attended conferences – but without success. He made a 30-day Jesuit-directed retreat. While it was an excellent experience, at the end of the 30 days he felt that he still had his problems. Next, he became a member of a Charismatic Prayer Group. He was baptized in the Spirit and even received the gift of tongues; yet it seemed that his prayer life was incomplete. Since the hollowness remained, he now sought out an Indian Guru and became his devoted disciple. Hours on end he would sit in the lotus position and meditate. He stopped eating meat and learned yoga. While feeling a sense of peacefulness in life, he still felt incomplete whenever he went to prayer.
His search for meaning in prayer expanded as he made a Marriage Encounter and then a Cursillo Weekend. These were all to no purpose, as his prayer life remained as barren as the Sahara. So in frustration, like so many others, he completely abandoned praying and became involved in social reform. He marched with the Farm Workers, with Women’s Rights groups and joined ecologists at sit-ins at nuclear powerplants.
While doing good and feeling needed, his emptiness at prayer was still part of him. After having tried so many different methods, he finally gave up on methods and simply retreated to the Rocky Mountains. There in a lonely cabin he lived for a year in solitude as a hermit.
The year of solitude came to an end and he began his journey on foot down the mountain. He was aware that his problem with prayer, like a shadow, was still with him, and a great sadness filled his heart. Suddenly, a thunderstorm broke overhead and the rain began to descend like a river. Seeking to escape the downfall, he sought shelter in an old mountain cabin. The cabin was perched on a giant rock beside a roaring mountain stream. It was pale grey with age and in the doorway stood an equally aged old man. The cabin and the man’s clothing indicated that he had not found any gold or silver, but his eyes danced with an inner light that revealed he had found a more valuable treasure. The old man welcomed the wet and dripping stranger into his cabin.
The rain-soaked clothing was hanging on the back of a three-legged chair that stood by the wood-burning stove. As he sipped a cup of tea and warmed himself by the stove, the stranger decided that he would share his story of frustration with the old man. He told the old mountain man of his numerous attempts to find a way to pray, his futile attempts at various methods, and even his long years in solitude. At the end of the story, the old man said, “I didn’t catch your name, stranger.” “My name is, ‘Our Father,’ although some call me, ‘The Lord’s Prayer.'” The old man arched his eyebrows like a roller coaster and said, “Why, son, you are prayer. You don’t have to learn how to pray. You simply have to be who you are!”
And he continued, “I am a prospector and my trade is to look for gold. But I have learned that there are many kinds of gold. Things like wisdom and truth, as well as those little pieces of yellow rock, are kinds of gold. For the past thirty years, I have searched for gold in that mountain stream out there, and I have also searched in those.” With that, he pointed to the other end of the cabin. From the floor to the ceiling there were shelves upon shelves of books. There were books of all sizes and shapes. The old man stood up from his chair by the fire and walked over to the book-lined wall. With care he took down a large, leather-bound volume with a faded letter “A” on its binding. He carried the book back to the stove and opened it to a certain page. He handed it to the man and said, “Here read this. Perhaps your problem is not one of method, but rather it is something else.”
As the rain drummed away on the cabin roof, the weary pilgrim of prayer read, “Aphasis: one of the most serious problems of speech resulting from brain damage or inadequate functioning of the nervous system. This illness shows itself in persons who are unable to speak. The person knows the words he wants to say but cannot negotiate them in speech. Such a person is said to be word-deaf. Aphasia as an illness is caused by an injury to the head. This injury can be a blow or a fall, or perhaps a brain tumor or stroke. The illness can also be congenital.” He closed the book and look perplexed as he handed it back again to the old man.
“You are prayer,” said the old prospector. “You are a special and a sacred word of God made flesh. To pronounce your own unique word is to pray the most beautiful, if not holiest, of prayers. You are like the other victims of aphasia. You suffer from the inability to pronounce yourself – to make flesh your own word! Don’t feel bad; it is a worldwide sickness and an ancient disease caused by a “fall.” In you, like all the others, it is congenital and passed on at birth.”
The old man rose from his chair and poured his guest another cup of tea and continued, “The first word of God made flesh was creation. God said, ‘sun,’ and it became flesh – real. And so on with moon, stars, trees, flowers; they became living prayers. Then God thought a most beautiful thought. God spoke the word and the word became flesh – Adam and Eve. They became God’s first human prayers made flesh. But then there came this ‘fall,’ this original injury that has been passed down from generation to generation. People became unable to pronounce their own word. They were and they are – word-deaf.
“God doesn’t create things; God only creates prayers. Men, women, bugs, grass, birds, and flowers are created prayers of God. All of them, each of them, are inspirations of God made flesh or feather or fin. To learn how to pray is not to learn new and poetic words. To learn how to pray is to learn how to pronounce your own sacred word – to speak yourself! To learn to pray is not to learn some method. It is to know who you are and to be who you are supposed to be. For example, Jesus was a prayerful man, not because he prayed prayers which he did, but because he was a prayer! Jesus was true to the Word that came from his Father, the Word that was himself. In being faithful to who he was supposed to be, he found a cure for the ancient sickness of aphasia. That cure lies in speech therapy and in being true to his word and to your word. Remember, he said, ‘Anyone who loves me will be true to my word.'”
There was silence in the old cabin as the stranger thought about what had been said by the old man. Finally he spoke: “I understand, I think, but how do I cure myself of this aphasia?” The old man twisted his white beard in his fingertips and said, “First, you must learn to be quiet both outside and inside. There is so much shouting today and so much noise that folks cannot hear their own special unique words. Everybody seems to be shouting who you should be so loudly that it is difficult to hear for yourself your own special word. A million star-years ago, God whispered in the soul of everyone a sacred and unique word. It continues to vibrate, but oh so softly, so softly! Therefore, your speech therapy must begin with the therapy of no speech – of silence. For only if you are quiet will you hear your own word that resounds within you. You must find quiet places and learn how to be quiet within if you wish to hear your special word.
“The next part of your therapy is learning how to pronounce the word once you hear it. That is the difficult part of the cure, being true to your special personality. You can begin by being grateful for yourself. You must be deeply thankful that you exist, that the Earth is more beautiful, simply by your presence. This part of the cure is most important. You must see yourself as you are – beautiful and good. Everything about the original you is to be seen as good. God does not have bad ideas!”
At this point the old man was leaning closer to his guest. His voice was filled with enthusiasm. “What I mean, stranger, is that you must be able to see everything about you as good – your shyness, your intelligence, your creativity, your physical size, the tone of your voice, the shape of your nose, and even your baldness. There must be no apologies or regrets. You must not wish to be that word or this word, but rather totally accept and be grateful for that unique word of God which is flesh in you! This is a most important part of the cure, for unless you can begin to embrace and be thankful for the word of God made flesh in you, you can never be true to it. You will engage in that destructive wishing of desiring to some other word.”
Again, there was silence in the small cabin. Outside the rain seemed to have stopped, but they grey clouds hung low over the tree tops and thunder rumbled on the other side of the mountain. The old prospector rocked back and forth slowly in his old chair as he watched the face of his guest. Once again, the old man began to speak, “But if you wish to be true to your word, you will have to be strong. Otherwise you will betray your word in the face of the threats and pressures of society. To be true to yourself and who you are supposed to be is perhaps the ultimate responsibility we each have to bear in life. If God has entrusted us with a creative and unique gift and if it is God’s will that we be that special word, then we must summon all the power we have to not be forced into some common mold. Speak your own word loudly and with dignity. That is what it means to submit to the will of God. To do the ‘Will of God’ and to pronounce your own special word, your own special self, is pure prayer. It is also how we pray always, day and night.
“Once you know these things that I have spoken, know them not with your head but with your heart. Then you can read any book and it will be a holy book. Then you can sing any song and it will be a sacred song. For when you are true to your special word and when you are also true to his word, then what Jesus said will be true in your life – that he and the Father will come and make their dwelling place with you, always! Then you don’t go to church, you are Church. Then you don’t receive the sacraments, you are Sacrament!”
Having said that, the old, white-bearded man was silent. He closed his eyes and rocked silently in his chair. The rain had stopped and now the sun in yellow ribbons fell between the dripping branches of the green pine trees. The guest rose and began to put on his dried clothing. For a long time he stood before the tall Victorian mirror that hung by the cabin door. He stood there in silence looking at himself in that old milk-edged mirror for minutes, or maybe it was for hours. He had no way of knowing how long he had stood there. A profound sense of peace and an abiding sense of communion with God came upon him. It was a peace that was never to leave him again. Still standing in front of the old mirror, he began to speak with conviction and profound prayerfulness: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done.”