One of the many things I love about the Lord’s Prayer, the subject of today’s gospel (Matthew 6. 7–15), is the fact that it reminds us that we are all poor, all equally undeserving of God’s love and care. It is He, and He alone, who gives us everything. When we pray, it is because He has first poured prayer into our hearts. When we do anything at all, it is because He has given us both mind and body with which to think and act. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we are mere robots, programmed by some super intelligence to perform certain tasks in a way determined for us by another. On the contrary, we have been given free will. We have been enabled to choose for ourselves. That leads to a paradox. We stand before God with empty hands, the undeserving poor, yet, at the same time, we are blessed with a freedom the poor of this world do not know, the freedom to choose. We are both rich and poor at the same time. How we use our riches, and how we use our poverty, is up to us.
Today’s feast of St Ignatius of Antioch is one I have written about many times, but I don’t think I have ever really thought about it in the context of today’s reading from the Rule of St Benedict, RB 13. 12–14, which gives the reasons for ending the offices of Lauds and Vespers with the Lord’s Prayer said or sung out loud.
Benedict was clear-eyed about community life and knows how often we offend one another. However, we make a solemn pledge in the Lord’s Prayer to forgive one another, and Benedict insists that we remind ourselves of this covenant of forgiveness frequently and always at the end of the two peak periods of the Divine Office, Lauds and Vespers. It is the superior who is to recite the prayer, not because he is set above the brethren but because he must provide the unity and leadership the community needs. We give our assent by saying Libera nos a malo – deliver us from evil.
The recitation of the Lord’s Prayer is not a mere matter of routine, the expected ending of a Christian service of worship: it goes to the heart of the monastic enterprise. We seek God in community under a rule and an abbot. That means frank acknowledgement of failure and a readiness to begin again — and allowing others to begin again, too. At the other offices, most of the prayer is said silently, except for the conclusion. For myself, I find in that a reminder that we do not always have to articulate everything, that sometimes forgiveness is better mediated through an accepting silence rather than an attempt to clear up every detail of misunderstanding and hurt.
Ignatius of Antioch left us seven letters which breathe charity and forgiveness. He remarks of the soldiers who guarded him that the better they were treated, the worse they seemed to behave; but that did not stop him trying to treat them well. He met a martyr’s death with courage. ‘I am the wheat of God and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.’ May we too meet the challenge of being transformed by grace as he was. We can start by making the Lord’s Prayer the rhythm of our lives.
When the House of Bishops of the Church of England issued its pastoral letter, Who is my Neighbour? (text here) there was immediate condemnation from those who think the Church — whether Anglican, Catholic or what you will — has no business ‘meddling’ in politics (as though membership of the Church somehow disqualified one from engagement with politics, government, law, morality, etc, etc). Then came the disturbing revelations concerning Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind, and even the most secular of secularists may have wondered, Quis custodit ipsos custodes? Who will ask questions or challenge the assumptions of those in power if not the Church? The ‘greed is good’ mantra is not one Christians or Jews usually espouse, but events of recent years have demonstrated, again and again, that Parliament has been tainted with financial corruption among its members, and that bodes ill for all of us.
It should be said that the allegations against Mr Straw and Sir Malcolm have not yet been proved, and it may be that they have done nothing illegal. Doing nothing illegal or contrary to the rules is not the same as acting honourably or with integrity; and some unfortunate remarks of Sir Malcolm about ‘entitlement’ will have jarred with many. The larger question remains, however. What do we expect from our politicians and how should we react when they don’t seem to be adhering to the standards we expect?
Part of the problem, I suspect, lies in our expectations. We often expect others to act better than we do, on the grounds that they are richer, cleverer, have more opportunities than we do ourselves. That is, of course, envy masquerading as something else. Today’s gospel is Matthew’s account of the giving of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6.7–15). Reading through those phrases I think one is stopped short. What we call ‘integrity’, acting honestly and in accordance with strong moral principles, can only be attained through a sense of the interconnectedness of individuals and — ultimately — our dependence on God. We forgive, and are forgiven; we are fed, and feed others; the holiness of God is the context in which all other texts (words) are uttered.
Today, as we wait to see the outcome of the Straw/Rifkind debacle, we might meditate on the price of integrity. Are we prepared to live as we think others should? And what might that mean for us, in the particular circumstances of our lives? That is not a question from which we should turn away. Indeed, it is a apt one for examining whether our Lent has moved from the theoretical to the practical, from thinking about goodness to trying to be good.