In the name of Annah the Allmaziful— Some irregular reflections on the Lord’s Prayer

Illustration by Stephen Crowe  
READINGS: Matthew 6:7-15

Thy Kingdom Come by Jacob Trapp (lightly adapted)

O Thou, whose kingdom is within,
may all thy names be hallowed.
May no one of them be turned against the others
to divide those who address thee.

May thy presence be made known to us
in mercy, beauty, love and justice.
May thy kingdom come to be
in the life of all humankind.
May it come with peace, with sharing,
and in a near time.

Give us this day our daily bread,
free from all envy and alienation,
broken and blessed in the sharing.

Keep us from trespass against others,
and from the feeling that others
are trespassing against us.
Forgive us more than we have forgiven.
Deliver us from being tempted by lesser things
to be heedless of the one great thing:
the gift of thyself in us.



In the name of Annah the Allmaziful— Some irregular reflections on  the Lord’s Prayer

As happens now and then (generally every couple of years) over the past few months I've had at least half-a-dozen short, but significant, conversations with some of you about the Lord's Prayer and whether we should continue to use it unchanged, to use a — or a variety of — different versions of it or, of course, whether we should simply and quietly let it go in favour of another prayer to be said corporately.

However, because of all the hidden factors involved in the context of this particular local church the question is, perhaps, way more difficult and less straightforward to address than you might at first think. But, since it's being talked about by a fair few of you quite regularly now it seems appropriate to bring a personal story as well as a couple of other thoughts about the prayer to the table to add to the conversation.

Some ten years ago in connection with my work as a Police Chaplain I had cause to visit a Romanian woman in hospital who, whilst visiting a relative here in the UK was rushed into hospital with what turned out to be a terminal cancer. It had become clear that she was too ill to travel back to Romania and that she only had a few weeks further to live. There was, at the time, no Romanian Orthodox presence in the city and so the woman's daughter had asked me whether, as a chaplain, I would visit her mother to pray with her whilst she briefly returned to Romania for a few days to sort out some important legal and family business. The woman didn't speak any English or French (the only other language I can vaguely manage) and I don’t speak Romanian so, naturally, I could do little more than simply be there, smile and hold her hand. However, there was one prayer we could meaningfully say together, the Lord's Prayer, because its cadences in both languages were sufficiently similar for us to be aware we were, indeed, speaking the same words. This fact I know brought her a great deal of comfort and security and, I have to say, it brought me some real measure of comfort and security too.

I've often had cause to think about this incident over the years and have slowly realised that whilst we were, indeed, saying the same prayer together it cannot be said in any easy or straightforward way that we were really praying the same prayer together. I know this because, from her daughter, I had gathered that the mother held a pretty conventional Romanian Orthodox Christian faith rooted firmly in a literal belief in the contents of the Nicene Creed. I, on the other hand, whilst remaining loyal to the human Jesus and his insistence that, henceforth and forever, whatever one meant by the word God, God was present only in and as one’s neighbour, no longer held — and indeed still no longer hold — any formal Christian metaphysical beliefs at all. When I say the Lord's Prayer I know I don’t really mean what it says on the surface and I'm always-already engaging in instantaneous and fundamental re-interpretation of pretty much every word it contains. I can still say it, I do happily still say it, but I know I don't mean by it what most people might think I mean by it, and I certainly didn't mean what the Romanian woman meant by it. But it has to be admitted that this is an activity which — whilst important and even necessary — can sound in the telling somewhat cold and abstract. Here’s the contemporary Unitarian theologian Jerome A. Stone speaking about the matter:

“I have developed what I call a minimal definition of God for purposes of conversation and common worship, a translation device for communication between various religious voices. “God is the sum total of the ecosystem, community and person empowering and demanding interactions in the  universe.” Another way I have of speaking of God, when I have to, is to say, that God is the world perceived in its value-enhancing and value-attracting aspects” (“Is God Emeritus? The Idea of God Among Religious Naturalists”).

As I’ve just said this (for me, necessary activity) activity can sound a bit cold and abstract (can you imagine me saying any of the above in the actual pastoral situation!). However, it is what I, and perhaps some of you, always have to do when I say the Lord’s Prayer but since this is the truth it's something I think should be acknowledged.

However, it’s not the whole truth because the experience with the dying Romanian woman helped me see (or rather feel) something much warmer, more personal and wholistic, namely, that the primary comfort both the mother and I assuredly gained from, and felt by, saying the prayer together was in its unifying sound. By making the same — or at least similar enough — sound together we were able to connect with each other across cultures, beliefs, generations and geographies in a way that said to us that we were not alone. The sound alone said to each of us that somehow “we are of one body” and we were able to recognise each other as members of that one body. It’s a powerful thing to experience I can assure you. However, recognising this helped me to experience something else that was quite startling, at least to someone like me who has always been concerned with what seem to be the substantive theological meanings of the words I utter.

When I was a teenager I became very enamoured with James Joyce’s astonishing and puzzling book “Finnigans Wake” (as well as John Cage's imaginative use of it in his piece Roaratorio)— a book that I and most other people find impenetrable until they begin to say it out loud, something I took to doing every afternoon after school in the summer term of 1983.

Anyway, some years after my pastoral encounter with that dying Romanian woman I idly pulled “Finnigan’s Wake” off the shelf to read again a few pages. I randomly turned to page 104 and the chapter which begins thus (and beautifully):

“In the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, haloed be her eve, her singtime sung, her rill be run, unhemmed as it is uneven!”

[The lovely lettering of the opening lines of these words found at the head of this blog is one of Stephen Crowe's illustrations for Finnegans Wake which can be found at his website HERE]

I suddenly realised that I could have said Joyce’s words with the Romanian woman and, she at least (having no English), would have felt the same connection she had felt when I said with her the actual words of the Lord’s Prayer. I should add that I think I, too, would still have been able to feel the same kind of connection because I love the allusive, poetic theological religious-naturalist meaning that seems to me to be present in Joyce’s words. As you now know following my hero, the Roman poet Lucretius, I have a fondness for personifying the divine as mothering Venus and she, to me anyway, is “Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities” and her eves (and mornings for that matter) are to me haloed, her singtimes are sing, her rills are run, unhemmed as they are uneven!

But, since we all here speak English, the words we actually choose to use are always more than just their comforting rhythms. Given this, let’s now say, for argument's sake, that the actual theological content of Joyce’s words are what I really mean when I am saying the Lord’s Prayer.

It is easy to imagine that, although you might agree with me that the rhythm is nice but, for you, God is not best represented by the name “Annah” but “Alba” and that for you “Alba” is not everliving, nor a bringer of plurabilites but, instead, is best thought of as mortal and a bringing of singularity. And anyway, you think, only someone in a wholly deluded state could possibly believe that one could say her eves are haloed, her singtimes are sing, her rills are run, unhemmed as they are uneven! No, no, no! say you.

Here we are getting into what one might call the substantive theological content or meaning of the words in the prayer. Despite this you might still be tempted to think that what we need is a very clear exposition of this theological content or meaning of the prayer that we in a church like this can all agree on. But, twenty years of full-time ministry in the Unitarian & Free Christian context has shown me how deluded that hope is. However, I once vaguely held such a hope and at one time, when I was a convinced Spinozist, I thought that the following version might do the trick. It was written Timothy Sprigge who was a member of the Edinburgh Unitarian congregation, Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the university in the same fine city and, I’m pleased to say, someone who, for a brief period before he died, became a friend and taught me philosophy:

O mysterious but glorious universe of matter and of spirit, of which each of us is but a tiny fragment
May the goodness, which we trust is somehow at the heart of things, increasingly prevail over evil on our little earth.
May we learn to organize our life on earth so that the necessities and worth-while pleasures of human existence are more equally shared, and be ready to make what sacrifices this requires from us.
And may we be tolerant of others and love them, when we can, as we hope to be tolerated and sometimes loved ourselves.
So let us seek our own happiness in ways which help rather than hinder others in seeking theirs, and be the happier ourselves for this,
but let us not repine too much at our own inadequacies but make the best of ourselves as we are, neither envying nor despising others.
And let the human species flourish without excessive exploitation of other species, and in a world in which we can still be refreshed by communion with the non-human.
And let us not fret too much about time realising that everything is eternally there in its own particular place in the eternal consciousness of the universe.

Now here, unlike with Joyce’s poetically allusive “version”, we have here some pretty clear theological meaning (much of which still resonates with me) but it hardly trips of the tongue in a warm and poetically simple and attractive fashion and, because its substantive theological content is so explicit, it doesn’t give a person much wiggle-room for poetic reinterpretation. Unless you are yourself a Spinozist you’re unlikely to be happy saying the prayer week after week!

My basic points can now be summed up.

The Lord’s Prayer is, in terms of its sound a great and genuine connector across, as I said earlier, cultures, beliefs, generations and geographies. It helps us know we belong to a very long-standing religious tradition and belong to it together. Once it's gone a link is broken that cannot be remade. Another important but subtle point is that, as regular attenders of this church know, here in this church I always give people explicit permission not to say the Lord’s Prayer and experience has taught me that this freedom not to say this familiar prayer is another way of connecting people. This is because we can easily forget that the permission not to say it, and to be comfortable about being seen as not saying it can be as important to some people as the permission to say it is important to others.

But, on the other hand, in terms of the apparent substantive theological content of the words of the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer is, as we know, something that doesn’t always or easily sit quite right with many of us today. Its content is often felt to be too unbelievable in a too explicit way. This has to be honestly admitted as well.

So what to do? Introduce a prayer with a similar sound but with only vague, and allusive (if beautiful sounding) meanings — such as Joyce's "prayer" — or introduce a prayer that’s clear but with no (or little) theological wiggle-room in it at all — such as Sprigge's prayer? Neither option seems to me to be quite right or subtle enough for us here.

One option would be to leave the prayer be but to explicitly and openly surround it with regular, ongoing conversation about why we love it, dislike it, say it, don’t say it and to let these all things jumble in together. For example each week we could let someone read a recasting of it and then give people the opportunity to say the Lord’s Prayer as we inherit it, just as we did today using one of my own favourite retakes on the prayer by Jacob Trapp.

But, above all else, the thing I think we need to be acutely aware of as we continue to muse upon the prayer's use and meaning among us is that just as humankind cannot live by bread alone neither can it live by familiar connecting poetic sounds or explicit theological content alone. We need both if we are to have a truly meaningful sense of how and where we belong in the unfolding of human history and to help us determine the current direction and meaning of our ongoing liberal religious journey.

It's a very sophisticated and subtle religious project to be undertaking I know, but it think it's worth the effort of keeping the beneficial and provocative tension alive in our midst. At the very least it will stop us from ever thinking that we've finally got the right form of words to say for all time!