I still remember memorizing the Our Father as a child in Sunday school.
Whenever I’m on a bumpy plane ride, that familiar prayer of my youth comes to me sooner than any comforting words I could assemble on my own. When it comes down to it, I remember best what is simple and meaningful.
The great (and impish!) Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton was far from a simple man. His many columns, essays, and books are filled with stimulating insights and clever turns-of-phrase. Despite his many words – words used to convey his many complex thoughts – he knew well the longings of the human person:
“Men rush toward complexity,” he quipped, “but they yearn toward simplicity.”
Jesus recognizes this tendency, and encourages his disciples to keep prayer simple:
“In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
“This is how you are to pray:
‘Our Father, who art in heaven…'” (Matthew 6:7 ff)
In writing the first few entries of this blog, I’ve spilled plenty of virtual ink trying to articulate insights from my own prayer. But the fact is, when I let go of the reins and let God take the lead, my prayer is pretty light on words. Sometimes, it’s wordless. Divinely simple.
And guess what? St. Ignatius is a fan of Jesus’ simple approach to prayer. Yes, it’s true that Ignatius wants us to use all our senses and our imagination when we’re praying through the Spiritual Exercises (some of which you can check out at the excellent Exercises page put together by our friends at www.ignatianspirituality.com). Nevertheless, at the end of each exercise, Ignatius asks retreatants not to get lost in wordy complexity before God.
Instead, he suggests that all our thoughts and senses – everything – should yield to that same simple prayer Jesus taught to his disciples, the same one I learned in Sunday school: the Our Father.
Sometimes when my mind is numb and prayer is distracted with the stresses of the day, I just stop the complex thinking cold turkey. I start over by speaking the Our Father slowly and prayerfully. I linger on words and phrases, noting which strike me that day. Simple prayer – the sort that Jesus encourages – reminds us that God knows our needs before we can even ask.