From the book, "St. George and the Dragon and the Quest for the Holy Grail" by Edward Hays
This is a story about the Our Father. As all stories seem to, it begins many years ago in happy days. In that time the Our Father lived a comfortable religious life. He prayed at rosary wakes and was present at both morning and evening prayers. It seemed that he was a perpetual prayer at the time of confessional penance where he usually appeared in sets of three: "Say three Hail Marys and three Our Fathers." He was always an important part of every Mass, whether he was recited or sung. His prayer in Latin rang out strongly, "Pater noster, qui es in caelis…" Secure and comfortable, the Our Father was at peace with his spiritual life. Then came the mid-sixties and its great groundswell of change. During these years he began to experience feelings of doubt about this prayer life. A sense of hollowness and a lack of meaning became like a shadow that followed him each time he went to pray. Whatever the reason, he now began to pray from a sense of obligation. It was his responsibility to pray, but deep within his heart he knew that this could not be a true motive for long. Since at heart he was deeply spiritual, he decided that he must do something about his problem with prayer!
He began by reading books on how to pray. He read articles and attended conferences – but without success. He made a thirty-day Jesuit-directed retreat. While it was an excellent experience, at the end of the thirty days he felt that he still had his problem. Next, he became a member of a Charismatic prayer group. He was baptized in the Spirit and even received the gift of tongues, yet it seemed that his prayer life was incomplete. Since the hollowness remained, he now sought out an Indian guru and became a devoted disciple. Hours on end he would sit in the lotus position and meditate. He stopped eating meat and learned yoga. While feeling a sense of peacefulness in life, he still felt incomplete whenever he went to prayer.
His search for meaning in prayer expanded as he made Marriage Encounter and Cursillo weekends. These also were to no purpose, and his prayer life remained as barren as the Sahara. So in frustration, like so many others, he completely abandoned praying and became involved in social reform. He marched with the Farm Workers, with Women’s Rights groups and joined ecologists at sit-ins at nuclear power plants. While doing good and feeling needed, his emptiness at prayer was still part of him. After having tried so many different methods, he finally gave them all up and simply retreated to the Rocky Mountains. There he lived for a year as a solitary hermit in a lonely cabin.
The year of solitude came to an end, and he began his journey on foot down the mountain. He was aware that his problem with prayer, like a shadow, was still with him, and a great sadness filled his heart. Suddenly, a thunderstorm broke overhead, and the rain began to descend like a river. Seeking to escape the downpour, he sought shelter in an old mountain cabin. The cabin was perched on a giant rock beside a roaring mountain stream. It was pale grey with age and in the doorway stood an equally aged man. The cabin and the man’s clothing indicated that he had not found any gold or silver, but his eyes danced with an inner light that revealed he had found a more valuable treasure. The old man welcomed the drenched stranger into his cabin.
The traveler hung his soaked clothing on the back of a chair that stood by the wood-burning stove, and wrapped himself in a blanket. As he sipped a cup of tea and warmed himself, he decided he would share his story of frustration with the old man. He spoke of his numerous attempts to find a way to pray, his futile trials of various methods and his long months in solitude. At the end of the story, the old man said, "I didn’t catch your name, stranger."
"My name is ‘Our Father,’ although some call me ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’ "
The old man arched his eyebrows like a roller coaster and said, "Why, son, you are prayer. You don’t have to learn how to pray. You simply have to be who you are!"
And he continued, "I’m a prospector and my trade is to look for gold. But I’ve learned that there are many kinds of gold. Things like wisdom and truth, as well as those little pieces of yellow rock, are kinds of gold. For the past thirty years I’ve searched for gold in that mountain stream out there, and I’ve also searched in those." He pointed to the other end of the cabin. From the floor to the ceiling there were shelves upon shelves of books. There were books of all sizes and shapes. The old man stood up from this chair by the fire and walked over to the book-lined wall. With care he took down a large leather-bound volume with a faded letter "A" on its binding. He carried the book back to the stove and opened it to a certain page. He handed it to the man and said, "Here, read this, Perhaps your problem is not one of method, but something else altogether."
As the rain drummed away on the cabin roof, the weary pilgrim of prayer read, "Aphasia: one of the most serious problems of speech resulting from brain damage or inadequate functioning of the nervous system. This illness shows itself in persons who are unable to speak. The person knows the words he wants to say but cannot negotiate them in speech. Such a person is said to be word-deaf. Aphasia as an illness is caused by an injury to the head. This injury can be a blow or a fall, or perhaps a brain tumor or stroke. The illness can also be congenital." Perplexed, he closed the book and handed it back to the old man.
"You are prayer," said the old prospector "You are a special and sacred word of God made flesh. To pronounce your own unique word is to pray the most beautiful and holiest of prayers. You are like the other victims of aphasia. You suffer from the inability to pronounce yourself – to make your own word flesh! Don’t feel bad; it is a worldwide sickness and an ancient disease caused by a ‘fall’. In you, like all the others, it was passed on at birth."
The old man rose from his chair, poured his guest another cup of tea and continued, "The first world of God made flesh was creation. God said ‘sun’ and it became flesh – real. And so on with the moon, stars, trees, and flowers: they became living prayers. Then God thought a most beautiful thought. God spoke the word and the word became flesh – Adam and Eve. They became God’s first human prayers made flesh. But then there came this ‘fall’, the original injury that has been passed down from generation to generation. People became unable to pronounce their own word. They were – and they are – word-deaf.
"God doesn’t create things; God only creates prayers. Men, women, bugs, grass, birds and flowers are created prayers of God. Each is an inspiration of God made flesh or feather or fin. To learn how to pray is not to learn new and poetic words. To learn to pray is to learn to pronounce your own sacred word – to speak yourself! To learn to pray is not to learn a method. It is to know who you are and to be who you are supposed to be. For example, Jesus was a prayerful man not because he prayed but because he was a prayer! Jesus was true to the Word that came from his Father, the Word that was himself. In being faithful to who he was supposed to be, he found a cure for the ancient sickness of aphasia. That cure lies in speech therapy – in being true to his word and to your word. Remember, he said, ‘Anyone who loves me will be true to my word.’ "
There was silence in the old cabin as the traveler thought about what the old man had said. Finally he spoke, "I understand, I think, but how do I cure myself of this aphasia?"
The old man twisted his white beard in his fingertips and said, "First, you must learn to be quiet both outside and inside. There is so much shouting today and so much noise that folks cannot hear their own unique words. Everybody seems to be shouting who you should be so loudly that it is difficult to hear your own special word. A million star-years ago, God whispered a sacred and unique word in every soul. It continues to vibrate, but oh, so softly – so softly! There fore your speech therapy must begin with the therapy of no speech, of silence. For only if you are quiet will you hear the word that resounds within you. You must find quiet places and learn how to be quiet within if you wish to hear your special word.
"The next part of your therapy is learning how to pronounce the word once you hear it. That is the difficult part of the cure, being true to your special personality. You can begin by being grateful for yourself. You must be deeply thankful that you exist and know that the earth is made more beautiful by your presence. This part of the cure is most important. You must see yourself as you are. Everything about the original you is perfect. God does not have bad ideas!"
The old man leaned closer to his guest. His voice was filled with enthusiasm. "What I mean, stranger, is that you must be able to see everything about you as good – your shyness, your intelligence, your creativity, your physical size, the tone of your voice, the shape of your nose and even your baldness. There must be no apologies or regrets. You must not wish to be that word or this word, but totally accept and be grateful for that unique word of God which is flesh in you! This is a most important part of the cure, for unless you can begin to embrace and be thankful for your own word, you can never be true to it. You will keep desiring to be some other word."
Again, there was silence in the small cabin. Outside, the rain seemed to have stopped, but the grey clouds hung low over the treetops and thunder rumbled on the other side of the mountain. The old prospector rocked slowly in his chair as he watched the face of his guest. Once again the old man began to speak, "If you wish to be true to your word, you will have to be strong. Otherwise you will betray it in the face of the threats and pressures of society. To be true to ourselves and what we should be is perhaps the ultimate responsibility we each bear in life. If God has entrusted you with a creative and unique gift and if it is God’s will that you be that special word, then you must summon all the power you have to keep from being forced into the common mold. Speak your own word clearly and with dignity. That is what it means to submit to the will of God. To do God’s will and to pronounce your own special word, your own special self, is pure prayer. That is how we ‘pray always,’ day and night.
"Once you know these things, not with your head but with your heart, you can read any book and it will be a holy book. You can sing any song and it will be a sacred song. For when you are true to your special word, what Jesus said, will be true in your life – that he and the Father will come and make their dwelling place with you, always! Then you don’t simply go to church, you ARE Church! Then you don’t just receive the sacraments, you ARE Sacrament!"
With those words the old man grew silent. He closed his eyes and rocked gently in his chair. The rain had stopped, and now the sun fell in yellow ribbons between the dripping branches of the pine trees. The guest rose and began to put on his dried clothing. For a long time he stood before the tall Victorian mirror that hung by the cabin door. He stood in silence looking at himself in the old milk-edged mirror for minutes – or maybe it was for hours. A profound sense of peace and communion with God came upon him. It was a peace that was never to leave him again. Still in front of the old mirror, he began to speak with conviction and profound prayerfulness: "Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. They kingdom come, thy will be done…"