Assuredly, the celebration of Lauds and Vespers must never pass by without the prioress or abbot reciting the entire Prayer of Jesus at the end for all to hear, because thorns of contention are likely to spring up. Thus warned by the pledge they make to one another in the very words of this prayer: “Forgive as we forgive” (Matt. 6:12), they may cleanse themselves of this kind of vice. At other celebrations, only the final part of this prayer is said aloud, that all may reply: “But deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13).
In the history of Christianity, the Prayer of Jesus (the Our Father) has been approached in different ways. As a community of people from around the world, when we pray the Our Father together, we use our first language, our mother tongue. In this we listen to the unfamiliar, learning to recognise in it what is similar, both in language and in the rhythm of words as they are said. Our diversity of language becomes a unifier.
In Christian legend there are stories of people, while praying together the Our Father, purposely not saying ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’ (Matt. 6:12). To forgive is a challenge, especially when it involves our own hurt and the ways we judge others in the light of this hurt. This unforgiveness stops us from experiencing the forgiveness of God. It is all too easy for us to name this lack of experience as God not forgiving us at all, and in a sense this lack of forgiveness from God is true, not from intention on God’s part, but in its realisation in us. Rather than face what gets in the way of this realisation of forgiveness in our lives, we can ‘opt out’ of that journey preferring instead to hold on to hurt, resentment, and anger. Sometimes the journey into forgiveness is just too hard.
Christianity teaches that the fullness of forgiveness has already been fully given to us. It is a forgiveness that does not pressure us for its expression; it is divine, enduring, and faithful. Praying the Our Father together is part of a Christian community’s commitment to become this forgiveness. This is why Benedict includes its repetition in community prayer; the Our Father is a daily reminder that growth in forgiveness rather than conflict is the better way, a way consistent with the vision of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
Growing in this forgiveness involves the healing of hurt and the falling away of judgement. Often this process is too hard for us to face. However, in contemplative prayer there is no need to face what is unfaceble. For the meditator, as we say the mantra, Christ, the forgiveness of God, gently and lovingly works in us. In time, all that gets in the way of forgiveness slowly heals and fades. And yes, in time, part of this working may be for us to name events and people that have come between us and the living of life. Maybe we will be moved to seek forgiveness from others, or to offer it. If our seeking and offering are rejected this does not stop us from living into forgiveness; even rejection itself can become a part of our pilgrimage into forgiveness. Nothing is wasted.
On this pilgrimage, Matt. 6:12 takes on a new meaning. Rather than a statement of a lack, it becomes more a statement of fact: ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’. Here forgiveness is a reality that we live into and become a part of. To refuse this pilgrimage is to decline an entry into this forgiveness, a forgiveness we do not create. In this state it is easy to see God’s forgiveness as conditional because it is more an idea and less the experience of divine reality.
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt 6:7-15, NRSV)