The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, Who art in heaven
Hallowed be Thy Name;
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. Amen.
A little known fact about me: I am Catholic. Or, I was raised Catholic. The extent to which I still am is open to debate, seeing that I don’t really attend church all that much anymore, and when I do, it tends to be to catch up with people and get a free tea.
Anyway, as a Catholic, I’ve been raised with a few things programmed into the very fibre of my being: superstition, faith, a clear moral compass, guilt, et cetera. And, of course, prayer. Probably before I knew what the words really meant, I could recite, from memory, a whole selection of ancient prayers. Then, as I grew up, I got so used to them that I never really stopped to think about what they really mean. And I mean really really, like objectively, without dogma getting in the way.
So that brings us here. One of the cornerstone prayers of Catholicism is the ‘Our Father’, also known as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, or the prayer that Jesus personally taught to his disciples. Below is a detailed, poetic analysis of the ‘Our Father’. Enjoy.
One of the first things I notice about this text is the fact that it has 10 lines. Innocuous, yes, but important inasfar as 10 is a pretty round number to finish up on. I don’t want to get all Da Vinci Code on you, so I won’t, but the point is that whoever wrote this thing made sure it felt settled and complete. Allegedly, these are words from God Himself, delivered directly to followers of Christ through J man himself. As such, it would be a bad idea to make it a)too long-winded or b)so short that a would be disciple would miss the point. 10 lines is a happy medium – and just long enough for a bewildered child to remember.
It’s worth noting that the lines of this prayer are irregular, but follow a discernable pattern. The first five lines make up one complete sentence, with diminishing line lengths until ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ This gives the prayer a definite sense of movement that rests at the half-way point, which is very easy on the ear and easy to digest. Following this, the remaining five lines are more or less even in length, save the third line: ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us’. Now maybe it’s the superstition talking but it can’t be an accident that this longer line, (which sits prominently in the middle of the prayer’s second half) contains the prayer’s central message – that we should forgive those who do us wrong. Visually, the line is prominent, and when recited, the speaker is forced to linger on it. Subsequently, we linger on the idea of forgiving our enemies, a key tenet of Christian beliefs.
First up, the 1st person collective. By which I mean ‘our’, ‘we’, ‘us’. This prayer is all about a collective identity and our relationship with god, as a group of people. It’s engineered to foster a sense of community and togetherness, with frequent repetitions of 1st person collective pronouns. Useful when you’re trying to establish a dedicated following, or build a church or whatever.
On the flip side, god is referred to in strictly intimate terms. Modern versions of the prayer opt for the more recognisable 2nd person pronouns ‘you’ and ‘your’, but in the original, we get ‘thee’ and ‘thy’. No accident. To use thee/ thy/ thou is simultaneously reverent and intimate, striking an ideal tone for a personal conversation with the Big Man. Whoever wrote this thing, they knew exactly what they were doing in inviting, or encouraging (or forcing?) the speaker to be respectful and close to ‘our father’.
Poetically, there are some devices at play that work towards a calming effect. The rhyming of ‘come’ and ‘done’ is aurally satisfying, reinforced by the repetition of ‘Thy blah blah blah/ Thy blah blah blah’. Elsewhere, we are presented with a soft alliteration in ‘and forgive us our trespasses/
as we forgive those who trespass against us’. The sibilance inherent in this is whispering and soft, contrasting with the harsher consonants and more assertive syllables of the opening four lines.
In all of this, the language is fairly basic. Simple point on that – to appeal to as wide as possible an audience. Let’s move on.
The words of this poem/ prayer are so straightforward that it’s easy to miss the imagery thrown forward, which admittedly is quite subtle. Oppositions are set up by references to ‘earth’ and ‘heaven’, which are described blankly with no superfluous detailing. Some words do create imagery in their connotations however, namely ‘kingdom’, which instantly depicts heaven as some kind of opulent… well, kingdom. Very suggestive, and almost subliminal in that it implies that ‘heaven’, the opposite of ‘earth’, is actually a ‘kingdom’. And who doesn’t want to live in a kingdom?
Returning to ‘form’ for a second (see above), ‘Our Father’ is structurally geared up to create a measured rhythm. The diminishing first five lines allow us to pause after each statement and build up an overall position. The prayer itself read like a manifesto, pledge or promise – one which gradually builds up towards key assertions (thy will be done… daily bread… forgive us our trespasses… deliver us from evil…). The second half of the poem exemplifies this particularly well, with clauses piled atop one another in a way that almost creates fervour/ excitement. Look at the opening words of those lines: ‘and, as, and, but’. Read it and you sound like you’re getting carried away, which, possibly, is the whole point. Religion works best when you throw sense and reason out the window and allow yourself to get lost in rapture, and this prayer –after a very secure opening- allows itself to spiral. The final assertion, ‘but deliver us from evil’ kind of feels like it has been cut short. And somebody at some point evidently thought the same thing, because there’s an extra bit that Catholics usually leave out:
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever.
Now, anything with ‘amen’ in it is almost necessarily serious, and the Lord’s Prayer is no exception. Even as a child I knew that these words were supposed to be serious. There is much gravitas in the even-handed delivery of huge, huge statements (Our Father, Who art in heaven…), the emphatic placing of the adjective ‘Hallowed’ at the start of the second line (which emphasises just how ‘hallowed’ He is) and repetition of key words (‘thy’, ‘forgive’, ‘trespass’).
When you look into it, the Lord’s prayer is a detailing of requests from ‘us’ to ‘Our Father’. It very respectfully acknowledges the position of this deity in the ‘kingdom’ of heaven, before asking for daily bread, forgiveness, and delivery from evil. Fair enough. Beyond this though, the prayer is really about faith. It smacks of a fervent, perhaps even desperate belief in a ‘hallowed’ father who has the power to give us everything we need, forgive us our trespasses and ultimately protect us from evil.
In this the prayer acts as both a plea and a reaffirmation of faith. Reciting it is confirmation that Our Father is a) in heaven b) hallowed and c) able to do all those things we require of him. Kind of needy to be honest, but maybe that’s just the cynic in me. Don’t tell my mum.