The Truth About the Lord's Prayer

A Catholic woman prays before the announcement that Argentinian cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as new Pope in Sao
A Catholic woman prays before the announcement that Argentinian cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as new Pope in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on March 13, 2013. Bergoglio become the first Latin American pontiff after a conclave to elect a leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. AFP PHOTO / Yasuyoshi CHIBA (Photo credit should read YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

I'm not the first person and I certainly won't be the last to point out that the Lord's Prayer is largely in the first-person plural. "Our Father ... give us this day our daily bread ... forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us ... lead us not into temptation." It's as though Jesus was reminding the disciples and us that you really can't pray for yourself by yourself without somehow praying for others. Put it another way: When you pray for yourself, you're also mystically involving everyone else who has needs. We're all in this together.

As an old friend of mine, Elaine St. Johns, once wrote,

There is no way to pray this prayer for one person or one family alone. The minute I consciously addressed "Our Father," I was including my family, friends, strangers, enemies. I was praying for them as well. I realized the universal intent of Christ when he gave the prayer to us. When we pray, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done," we make supplication not only for our own known and unknown needs but also for the needs of his children everywhere.

I have to admit I'm always praying for myself. I can become painfully self-absorbed in prayer, asking God for all those worries that consume me, but then when I turn to "Our Father, who art in heaven..." I end up tuning into something bigger. My mind expands, my heart expands (like that Grinch at Christmas) to include others. Prayer is other-oriented. It'll take your right out of yourself. "Not just the daily bread I need, but something for everyone else as well. Please."

Over the years there have been several scientific studies that attempt to test the effectiveness of prayer. (The best seem to come from Harold Koenig at Duke University.) They have revealed that prayer has quantifiable benefits for a longer, healthier, dare I say happier life.

But the danger of testing prayer scientifically is when someone tries to set up controls. Say, one group of hospital patients gets prayed for and another group does not, researchers looking at the differences between the two groups, comparing them.

First of all, how do they know that the "un-prayed-for" really went without prayers? They might have had secret advocates they didn't know about, let alone that the researchers knew anything about. But finally, as a praying person, how could you honestly say you were going to pray for one group and not another? What kind of prayer would that be? It's "Our Father," not "My Father" or "His Father" or "Her Father."

Prayer can't limit itself to one small universe. It's generous, indiscriminate, compassionate. It knows no bounds.

The Lord's Prayer appears in two places in the Bible. In the book of Luke, Jesus was praying, apparently by himself, and when he had finished one of the disciples asked him, "Lord, teach us how to pray the way John taught his disciples," referring to John the Baptist. Jesus responded, "When you pray, say" and he gave the disciples the familiar words.

But in the book of Matthew, toward the end of that good advice we call the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns the disciples against praying ostentatiously with long empty phrases and lots of words. "Do not be like them," he says, "for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then in this way..." and he gives his followers the Lord's Prayer.

"When you pray, say" and "Pray then in this way." Maybe I'm reading into it, but he seems a little exasperated that he has to point all this out to the disciples. Haven't they been watching? Haven't they been listening? Do they really need words to pray when they've been living with a man who lives his whole life as prayer?

Well, yes, we really do need words to help us. An outline to hang our different concerns and fears on, a guide so that we cover all the basics. It's not very long, it's not the great poetry of the psalms or the passionate expressions of Paul, praying for all those little churches he's visited or intends to visit. Jesus gives us just few words. A few words we can't live without. "Our Father ... give us this day our daily bread ... forgive us our sins..." For all of us together.