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Abba, Father: Kenneth Stevenson

Abba 001

I have chosen this Saturday’s reading because tomorrow the lectionary is all about the Lord’s Prayer. This book by the late Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Kenneth Stevenson, was published by Canterbury Press in 2000. Unsurprisingly, it is still in print and, if you do not have a copy on your bookshelves I urge you to treat yourself – he manages to be both learned and highly readable, a difficult feat to pull off and by the end I felt I had made a friend whom I was sad not to be able to meet, at least in this life. The book does not lend itself to the sort of rough and ready précis I have attempted on other occasions, so I have chosen one passage I found particularly moving.

 Chapter 3: Learning the Lord’s Prayer

Last night, going to bed alone, I suddenly found myself (I was taking off my waist-coat) reciting the Lord’s Prayer, in a loud, emphatic voice – a thing I had not done for many years – with deep urgency and profound and disturbed emotion. While I went on, I grew more composed; as if it had been empty and craving and were being replenished, my soul grew still; every word had a strange fullness of meaning which astonished and delighted me. It was late; I had sat up reading; I was sleepy; but as I stood in the middle of the floor half undressed saying the prayer over and over, meaning after meaning sprang from it; overcoming me again with joyful surprise; and I realised that simple petition was always universal and always inexhaustible, and day by day sanctified human life.

These words were written by the poet Edwin Muir in his personal diary on the first day of March 1939. He had reached a point of crisis in his life – his wife had been seriously ill, and the storm clouds of European war were looming. Under pressure (and what is wrong with pressure?) he found himself returning to a form of words that he had learnt as a boy; and in his autobiography, he noted that on his way home in dejection that evening, he came across some school children playing marbles, just as he had as a boy

Edwin Muir had a point of reference in his life on which he could draw in that moment of fear, doubt and anxiety. The prayer was already in his bones and suddenly it came to life and the repetitions of the past took on a new meaning. Many of us can identify with that pattern, a pattern of growing up with the prayer, but using it both in private and in public – perhaps realising that more people use it on their own than when gathered for worship! The Edwin Muir model is what many churches have traded on for centuries. The prayer is almost a given part of civilisation and it is there for us to use or come back to, as circumstances allow…

The Lord’s Prayer must not be consumerised (as if it ever could!), so that we seem to ‘learn’ it like ticking the box, then going on to something else. The Lord’s Prayer is a living expression of the Christian faith as something which is both supremely obvious and supremely difficult, easy to repeat in theory, but harder to put into practice – and certainly to be returned to again and again, as Edwin Muir himself learnt. When we recite those words, we are doing so in company with other people for whom the words may well be startlingly fresh. We have the opportunity to share in their newness, for – to use Jordan of Saxony‘s image – we ourselves might become the ignorant rather than the informed user, even though its glistening value is a Christian ‘given’.

The truth of the matter is that we are never going to learn the Lord’s Prayer fully, yet its most inviting linguistic features are its rhythmic style, strong in the original Aramaic, strong in the New Testament Greek, and still strong in the translations into countless tongues that have emerged ever since. There is one particular example of a man for whom the Lord’s Prayer seemed to know no bounds in the learning, and for whom it held a pivotal place in the liturgy. Martin Luther (1483-1546), the great German reformer, inherited from his Augustinian formation a deep love of the Lord’s Prayer, insisting on the promises of Christ as the background to faith itself. He wrote about it frequently, expounding it to different groups, making it central to his liturgy, and even writing a nine-verse metrical version of the prayer, Vater unser in Himmelreich, a melody that has inspired countless organists in the Lutheran tradition, J S Bach included, to improvise and reflect. In his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, he begins his treatment of the prayer thus:

Learn, therefore, that there can be no real prayer without this faith. But do you feel weak and fearful? Your flesh and blood are always putting obstacles in the way of faith, as if you are not worthy enough or ready enough or earnest enough to pray. Or do you doubt that God has heard you, since you are a sinner?

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