Unless they’re letting the gospel go in one ear and out the other, Christians know that The Lord’s Prayer is one of the most important prayers because it came directly from Jesus Christ. (Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4). I grew up as a Catholic myself and we commonly called it the “Our Father.” Having attended mostly Catholic schools, I can assure you that I know a great many prayers by rote but I’ve never really given much thought to it, except for some conflicts in language when I joined the Methodist church.
A friend gave me A Place to Pray: Reflections on The Lord’s Prayer, by Roberta Bondi, which is dedicated to understanding the Lord’s Prayer. It’s not a new book. First published in 1998, it’s been around for over a decade. I must confess I did not even know that there was a time when controversy arose in some churches over the language in The Lord’s Prayer. The book was not at all what I expected it to be.
A Place to Pray is written as a series of letters by Ms. Bondi to a friend involved in a conflict over the prayer’s language in her own church. None of the friend’s letters are in the book. There are only the letters written by the author, each one addressing a line of the prayer. The first chapter, for example, examines the line: “Our Father in Heaven” and the last chapter devotes itself to: “For thine is the kingdom and power and the glory, forever and ever, Amen.” The author explores her own reactions to the prayer throughout her life and how her perception of it changed from her own intensive quest to understand what meaning each line really has in her relationship with God. While some may find the “personal letter” format a little off-putting, I think that most people will find something they can relate to in the book.
When I was a Catholic, we never said the “kingdom, power and glory” part of The Lord’s Prayer. The only explanation I ever got on that was from my mother who said: “That’s the way Protestants say it.” At 9 years old, about all that meant was it was wrong because tolerance for other religions wasn’t exactly something I was learning in Catholic school. I was learning that Catholics were the only ones going to heaven, or at least that was my interpretation.
Roberta Bondi shares her childhood experiences in Sunday School and her own misinterpretations of God, based partly on her Sunday School lessons and also from superimposing her own father on the father image of God. The combination conjured up an arbitrary, unfair God and I know I felt the same way when I was a child. In my mind, all the awful power and might in the universe was God the Father, and all the love and mercy was Jesus.
Far from being a preachy pedagogue (yes – that was what I expected), the author talks about many conflicts in her life. She was also suffering through her best friend’s serious illness at the time she was writing these letters. Roberta Bondi is human to the core, even copping to intensely disliking a book club member, while feeling both justified and guilty about it at the same time. She also touches upon other topics I have questioned in my own life, such as the exchange between God and Satan in the Book of Job.
This book isn’t going to give anyone all the answers to prayer questions, but I don’t think it is meant to. I think it is meant to give you food for thought and open your mind a little to ways of finding meaning in the actual words you are saying when you pray, and it does a fine job of that.
Dr. Roberta C. Bondi is a Professor of Church History (now retired) whose other books include To Pray and To Love: Conversations with the Desert Fathers, Memories of God and In Ordinary Time.