Like many of you, no doubt, my sisters and I were taught to pray by our parents who said our bedtime intercessions with us when tucking us in. We learned to say by rote “Now I lay me down to sleep…” and the Lord’s Prayer, and to sing “Jesus, tender shepherd, hear us.” I don’t remember a time before the practice of saying nightly prayers, sometimes kneeling at the bedside, other, colder nights bundled under extra blankets with Yeller, my Labrador Retriever, at my side for warmth.
As a result of learning those prayers before I could read, I began my spiritual formation believing God’s last name to be Hallowell. The Hallowells were friends of our family; their daughter, Sarah, was a classmate of one of my younger sisters. “Hallowell be thy name.” I was caught somewhere between the modest pride of knowing personally the divine family and dismay that God was not a Hollingsworth.
Learning prayers by rote, there was a fixed sequence to the names recited in our general intercessions, beginning with my parents, then my four sisters and me in chronological order, our nanny and the other women who cared for us, our grandparents and various other relatives, and of course the dogs. “God bless Mummy and Daddy, Carrie, Markie, Louie, Annie, and Jennie” and so forth. I can still recite the whole list.
Because they were said night after night for years, and continued to be long after I learned the meaning of hallowed and that God’s surname was in fact Almighty (and sometimes damnit), there was a rhythm to their repetition and a sing-song quality to their recitation. This was true of the prayers that were actually poems or hymn texts, as well as those that were prose. Certain words or names received emphasis, not because of their relative import, but to keep the cadence going. For example, in the second sentence of the Lord’s Prayer, emphasis fell on the words kingdom, will, earth, and heaven. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
For the first three decades of my life, that was the way I prayed the prayer Jesus taught us. In my early thirties, however, shortly after facing addiction and with nowhere left to turn but to God, an interesting thing happened in my prayer. I noticed that the way I recited the Lord’s Prayer had changed. An unconscious, spiritual shift had occurred. The emphasis had relocated from the nouns to the possessive pronouns. The focus had moved from the possession to the possessor. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
My recitation of the Lord’s Prayer had revealed my own plea of personal surrender. Your will, God, not mine. In an entirely unexpected way, it echoed Jesus’ prayer of surrender on the Mount of Olives, following the Last Supper. “Not my will but thine be done.” It manifested the deep yearning we all share, and for which Jesus prays on our behalf, that we might give ourselves fully to the God who loves each of us more than anything in all creation. That, of course, is the mystery of God’s love, that at the same time God loves each of us more than anything else. The divine economy of love is not a zero-sum game.
During this season of Lent, you may find it helpful to pay attention to the pronouns, possessive and otherwise, in our prayers, both the prayers we say together and the ones we utter in the quiet confidence of our own hearts. As we once again make the journey with Jesus back to Jerusalem and, finally, through the events of Holy Week to the Mount of Olives and on to Golgotha, the place of the skull, you may find both challenge and comfort in the many prayers and scriptural passages that lead us to join in Jesus’ sacrifice, particularly when we are attentive to the pronouns that both differentiate us from God and, at the same time, draw us deeper into God’s heart. Perhaps even familiar passages, like this from I Chronicles 29, will take on new or deeper meaning. “Yours, O Lord is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty: for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is yours.” Even my own will, when I am yours. Non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam. Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory. (Psalm 115:1)
The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr.
Bishop of Ohio