The Gospel reading in today’s Mass brought me back 50 years to my first visit to the Holy Land. In today’s Gospel the Lord teaches his disciples how to pray by giving them the words of the “Our Father”.
On the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old Jerusalem, there is a chapel to mark the place where Our Lord is said to have taught the disciples how to pray. It is called the Pater Noster chapel, Pater Noster being the Latin for Our Father.
The original chapel is thought to have been built on the orders of Saint Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century A.D. That chapel was destroyed in war in the 7th century, and the site remained vacant for several hundred years.
When the Crusaders occupied Jerusalem and the Holy Land in the 11th and 12th centuries, a new chapel was constructed as the Pater Noster chapel. The new chapel was short-lived, and was again destroyed in war as the Crusaders fought the Saracens.
Again the site remained vacant for several hundred years. In the 1800’s the site was purchased by a European noblewoman. She had a chapel built on the site as the place where Our Lord gave the Our Father to his disciples. Along the inside walls of the chapel is a series of 152 plaques in artistic tile work, each plaque with the words of the Our Father in a different language. This is the chapel I visited in 1962.
When Our Lord gave his disciples the words of the Our Father, he introduced them with, “This is how you are to pray” (Matthew 6, 9). This introduction is interpreted in two different ways. The first interpretation understands Our Lord as saying, “This is a model. Make your prayers like this”. The second interpretation understands the introduction to mean, “This is the way you should pray. Pray these very words”. Whether you interpret Our Lord’s words as descriptive or prescriptive, the words of the Our Father are a continual source of spiritual life to the simple and profound alike.
I remember being impressed by an incident Saint Teresa of Avila recorded in her autobiography. One of the lay Sisters came to her in great distress because she could not meditate or contemplate like the other Sisters. Her only way of praying was repeating the Our Father over and over. Saint Teresa questioned her, listened carefully, and came to the conclusion that this lay Sister, unknown to herself, had arrived at mystical prayer simply by the thoughtful repetition of the words of the Our Father.
Another Sister could only begin the Our Father, but never finish. As soon as she reached the word “Father’, she would dissolve into tears, at the very thought that she could call the infinite, eternal Creator her Father.
So it does not seem to matter how you consider Our Lord’s words. It does not seem to matter which of the 152 languages in the Pater Noster chapel you want to follow. It just seems that if you can learn to say the words of the Our Father simply and thoughtfully, they can bring you to a state of mind and heart beyond anything you could have imagined for yourself.
But that is hardly surprising, considering where those words originated.