Wednesday, 21 December 2011

"Formed by divine teaching, we dare to say..."

In the new translation of the Roman Missal, the Lord's Prayer is introduced with the words, "At the Saviour's command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say..." The prayer itself is so familiar to us that we often forget that it was given to the disciples in the context of a series of instructions about how to pray it. What is this teaching in which we have been "formed"?

In Matthew 6: 5-15 the Prayer is taught in the context of the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5, 6, and 7), which concerns the various dimensions of the living of the Christian life, beginning with the Beatitudes which form the portrait of the perfect Christian. Immediately before the teaching on prayer, he speaks of the love of enemies and of almsgiving in secret. This leads him naturally to go on: "when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." This is the lead-in to the Lord's Prayer itself (6: 9-15), and it is paralleled by a passage at the end where he speaks of fasting: "when
you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father who is in secret will reward you." He then continues with reference to the nature of the "reward", namely "treasures in heaven" (6: 19-21), adding "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Immediately after that, he adds the instruction about the eye of light ("the eye is the lamp of the body"), the need to serve only one master (6: 24), the need not to be anxious (6: 25-34), and so on. All these teachings are interconnected; they are the unfolding of a single teaching, of a piece with the Lord's Prayer itself. So let us look at this sequence.

1. Almsgiving is the preparation for prayer. Why? Giving to others is the law of love, it is part of the war against greed, it detaches us from material possessions, it makes us rely solely on God – but only if we do it for his sake, without seeking praise or thanks from men. To give away what we have accumulated is to turn our back on the past. In this way it prepares us for prayer, prepares us to be with God alone, makes us "empty" enough to receive treasures from God, prepares us to close the doors.

2. To go into our room and shut the door is to withdraw from the world of the senses, to the interior, our "spirit" which is the apex mentis or "soul of the soul". Since our Father "is in heaven", according to the Prayer, the "secret place" where he is and from which he sees us must be heaven, and our own spirit must be open to it. In John 10: 9, Jesus himself tells us that he is "the door", so it is through him that we enter into God's presence. The door is also the "now", the "present moment" or instant that divides past from future, our one "opportunity"("port" means harbour, entrance, passageway, gate). To enter by this "narrow way" into life (Matt 7: 14) is to defeat the distractions on the two sides of the doorframe, namely our memories of the past (by almsgiving) and our imagination and worries about the future (by fasting).

3. Fasting in a sense follows prayer. Fasting is only made possible by prayer, for we have turned to God for our "bread" and now we can live without material food, or at least we have put material food in its rightful (secondary) place. Otherwise we would be "serving two masters", namely God and our own body. Fasting strengthens our prayer, and extends its effects. Again the "Father who is in secret" is mentioned, but in order to be with him so that he sees us and rewards us we do not once again close the door and go into a private room, but rather anoint our heads (with oil) and wash our faces. In other words we invoke the Holy Spirit (oil), and purify the gaze we turn to the Father, so that our faces are unmarked by the world, and do not reflect worldly concerns that distract us from the presence of God. In particular, in the case of fasting, we refuse to panic at the thought of lacking what we will need to go on living. We "turn our backs on the future".

4. The reward we must seek from God, the "treasure in heaven", is simply the "one thing needful" that is God himself – for God's gift, being perfect, is himself, containing all sweetness, all consolation, all that is good. His gift is the "person-gift", his own nature transformed into gift; that is, the Holy Spirit (as he makes clear in Luke 11: 13, in another version of the giving of the Lord's Prayer which I will comment on later). Where this treasure is, there will our hearts be. To find this treasure is to find our hearts, to find that "heaven" where the Father is, our refuge. "One thing I have asked of the Lord, that I will seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple" (Ps 26[27]: 4).

5. There then follows the teaching that when your eye is "single" (not just "sound" or "pure") your whole body will be full of light. For someone who has withdrawn from the distractions of time, and concentrated on receiving the gift of the Spirit from God, is able to see everything with this noetic light shining from within – in contrast with which the darkness of normal vision seems dark indeed.

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