The Lord's Prayer Across Cultures: Every Comforting, Ever Convicting
Mark R. Elliott
Editor’s Note: Originally delivered in Beeson Divinity School Chapel, Samford University, Birmingham, AL, 1 April 2003, and at the Euro-Asian Accrediting Association conference, Kiilov, Ukraine, 16 October 2003. The concluding portion will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report.
Never have so few words meant so much to so many. And never have so few words prompted so many pages of commentary. From the first Christian century to the present, and from one end of the globe to the other, it has generated a library’s worth of reading. Some claim church fathers addressed the Lord’s Prayer earlier, and with more frequency, than any other topic. We also have Catholic commentary from Thomas Aquinas, Cardinal Wyszynski, Simone Weil, and Leonardo Boff. Many Protestant reformers, including Jan Hus, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, have added their reflections as well. Every generation discovers the Lord’s Prayer anew, such that one bibliography on the prayer runs to 608 pages; and an Internet search today can easily produce over a thousand titles. The Web site of the Convent of the Pater Noster provides texts of the prayer in 1,221 languages.
Who Prays It?
But more important than who has written about or translated the Lord’s Prayer is who has prayed it. And the answer is believers of many tongues, down through the ages, in all possible circumstances. German theologian Helmut Thielicke stressed that the Lord’s Prayer sends no one away empty-handed. “It can be spoken at the cradle and the grave. It can rise from the altars of great cathedrals and from the dark hovels of those who ‘eat their bread with tears.’ It can be prayed at weddings and on the gallows. And the fact is, that it has been prayed in all these places.”1
A Distillation of Christian Theology
These many uses of the Lord’s Prayer suggest a way that we can appreciate its cross-cultural dimensions. First of all, from the church fathers to the present, the Lord’s Prayer has been recognized worldwide as perhaps the most compact distillation of Christian theology. In the third century Tertullian called it a “compendium of the whole gospel.” In the twelfth century Thomas Aquinas called it “the perfect prayer.”2 And in the twenty-first century Russian Christian economist and educator Alexander Zaichenko calls it an “abstract” of the gospel, while Bulgarian pastor and educator Nik Nedelchev simply notes “it contains everything an individual needs when worshipping the Lord.”
In the fall of 2002 I asked Christian friends around the world the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer in their context. In their responses I learned that many congregations recite it every Sunday, including Mennonites in Zaporozhe, Ukraine; Pentecostals in St. Petersburg; Baptists in Romania; and Methodists and Congregationalists in Bulgaria. In Baptist churches in Ukraine, Poland, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic the Lord’s Prayer is used in worship, but not typically on a weekly basis. The same is true in Nazarene churches in Russia. Use of the Lord’s Prayer in Evangelical churches in rural Ukraine is seen as a counter to the Orthodox accusation that Baptists are a cult. In contrast, in Croatia not reciting the Lord’s Prayer weekly in worship is reported to be a reaction against its stylized, liturgical use in the Catholic Church.
The Tie That Binds Across Confessional Lines
Nevertheless, despite charges and countercharges of its neglect or its misuse, the Lord’s Prayer is what Christians of all confessions and all continents and all centuries have in common. It’s what we share as a tie that can bind our hearts in Christian love. Romanian Evangelical theologian Emil Bartos calls the Lord’s Prayer “a common ground in spirituality between Evangelicals and Orthodox. All Orthodox know this prayer and give a lot of respect in reciting it. At the funeral service, it does not matter if you are Orthodox or Evangelical, you join the entire congregation in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.” Russian Baptist layman Alexander Zaichenko shared that many Orthodox, sad to say, will not pray together with Evangelicals, with the one exception of the Lord’s Prayer: “So during conferences and public meetings, when Orthodox clergy find themselves among representatives of other churches, the only way to preserve, if not unity, at least ‘spiritual courtesy,’ is the Lord’s Prayer.”
A Saving Grace for Rote Memorization
One misuse of the Lord’s Prayer, many would argue, is its employment in such a repetitive fashion that it becomes a “dry ritual,” “empty words,” a mindless mantra. Yet oddly enough, there can be a saving grace for even rote memorization of the Lord’s Prayer. Alexander Zaichenko notes that an understanding of the Lord’s Prayer as a repetitive exercise is so deeply rooted in Russian culture that even Communism could not root it out. He gives two examples: (1) special elevators imported by the Soviets from the West are called Paternosters (from the Latin “Our Father”). Yet no Russians, past or present, recognize that this strange foreign phrase derives from the parallel between a chain of elevator compartments and a chain or repetition of the “Our Father” prayer; (2) “In modern Russian, some sayings from the Bible became proverbial.” Zaichenko notes, for example, “We have a saying, ‘to learn as Our Father,’ meaning to learn by heart or memorize very well. I remember,” he recalls, “how a professor of Marxist-Leninist philosophy in my university instructed us students, ‘Comrades, you must memorize the work of Lenin, as Our Father.’”
A Prayer in Case of Emergency
Unfortunately, the Lord’s Prayer as a prayer of last resort is a sign of the modern era’s pervasive secularism. Czech theologian Jan Lochman tells the story of the captain of a sinking ship who cries out, “The only thing to do is to pray.” The ship’s chaplain replies, “Are things that bad?” Too often we moderns resort to the Lord’s Prayer only in cases of emergency. But even in an emergency, if the Lord’s Prayer is resurrected from a person’s deep subconscious, who would want to begrudge its heartfelt use? And the world is full of examples, not only of foxhole religionists, but of devout believers in distress leaning on the Lord’s Prayer.
A Prayer “To Whom It May Concern”
Mary Raber, a Christian Church missionary secunded to the Mennonite Central Committee, shared the case of a Russian soldier in great misery. He was delivered from harm’s way after repeating the Lord’s Prayer nightly, “not really knowing what he was praying, or to whom, but wanting help…. He would lie on his back in bed and whisper the prayer into the air…. What impresses me about the story,” Mary Raber says, “is the graciousness of God who hears and answers prayer, even when it’s addressed ‘To Whom It May Concern.’”
So we see that in moments of great distress and in our great yearnings for meaning in life, the Holy Spirit can use the Lord’s Prayer to bring His children to faith. Mary Raber also recalls her conversation with a certain Anna Ivanovna, now in her 70s, a nurse-midwife, and a very active volunteer with the Zaporozhye Chapter of the Christian Medical Association. “She was reminiscing about her childhood and told me that her grandmother taught her the Lord’s Prayer and said that she should recite it if she was ever in trouble. She recited it throughout her life, retaining certain words from Old Church Slavonic, not ever quite knowing what she was saying, or to whom, merely knowing that it was somehow ‘powerful.’ She became a believer after Ukrainian independence. I’ve heard other stories along the same lines: … the Lord’s Prayer… passed along in whispers to a grandchild in Soviet times. Often, if people ‘knew’ anything about God [under Communism] it was the Lord’s Prayer.”
Mark Elliott is director of the Global Center, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, AL, and editor of the East-West Church and Ministry Report.
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© 2004 East-West Church and Ministry Report