27 January 2008

The Art of Prayer

As I child, school and church were two of the three social frameworks that supported and shaped my life--home or family being the third. To whatever degree I'd integrated a sense of "us and them," one way I understood "them" was in terms of anyone who didn't go to my school or belong to my family.

Where church was concerned, it was a slightly different matter: there were people who went to church and people who didn't; people who were Baptists and people who belonged to some other denomination; people who attended my church and people who attended some other Baptist church; and people within my church who had been baptized and those who hadn't.

And, of course, people who were related to me and attended my church versus people who were not related to me and attended my church.

I don't remember any significant conflicts arising at any of these church-defined borders. My sister and I played piano duets at the Sunday afternoon teas sponsored by Black Baptist and Methodist churches. We entertained "them" frequently and it was always a pleasurable experience.

Through music, I regularly traveled across the lines and into the camps of the Others. I generally had a good time while I was there and escaped unharmed.

I also don't remember denigration of any of the opposing religious camps within the camps to which I belonged. But perhaps I was too young or innocent to notice.

It was much later in life, my early twenties I think, that a friend became a born-again Christian. By that time I'd left my childhood church and begun exploring rituals and creation stories and origins of other faith traditions. The friend was someone I hadn't talked to for several years. She'd been Catholic when we knew each other in high school and wed never talked about religion. But now, she began a feverish proselytizing that made me very uncomfortable. She felt it was urgent that people see the error of their ways and be saved; and this was all she wanted to talk about.

We drifted apart.

Now and then over the years, I've found myself similarly discomfited when confronted by religious fervor. It's been happening more and more since I came to Gulfport and it happened again the other night. I've been thinking about it ever since.

Religious fervor, when accompanied by conflict or negative propaganda about another religion, disturbs me. It feels fundamentally wrong to me but when it happens, I often regret not having a more scholarly, researched comeback to offer. The recent "WWJD" ("What What Jesus Do?") campaign was an encouraging development. Ah, I thought. Surely they'll do the research necessary to live the answer to that question. It was disappointing to witness people in "WWJD" t-shirts doing and saying all manner of things it is difficult to imagine Jesus ever saying or doing.

Or is it a subjective issue, a matter of interpretation? Maybe they sincerely think they're doing what Jesus and/or God would do, based on their understanding of the Bible.

P____ shared a link with me last week. It led to a site advocating the adoption of the Aramaic Lord's Prayer by all Christ-based religions. As a child, I learned the Lord's Prayer this way:

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.
Lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
Forever. Amen.

I don't remember where or when, but some years later I encountered the prayer translated similarly but substituting "debt" for "trespassing."

At the link, I found the Aramaic translation that follows:

Abwoon d'bwashmaya

O Birther! Father-Mother of the Cosmos/ you create all that moves in light.

Nethqadash shmakh

Focus your light within us--make it useful: as the rays of a beacon show the way.

Teytey malkuthakh

Create your reign of unity now--through our firey hearts and willing hands.

Nehwey sebyanach aykanna d'bwashmaya aph b'arha.

Your one desire then acts with ours, as in all light, so in all forms.

Habwlan lachma d'sunqanan yaomana.

Grant what we need each day in bread and insight:

subsistence for the call of growing life.

Washboqlan khaubayn (wakhtahayn)

aykana daph khnan shbwoqan l'khayyabayn.

Loose the cords of mistakes binding us,

as we release the strands we hold of others' guilt.

Wela tahlan l'nesyuna

Don't let us enter forgetfulness

Ela patzan min bisha.

But free us from unripeness

Metol dilakhie malkutha wahayla wateshbukhta l'ahlam almin.

From you is born all ruling will, the power and the life to do,

the song that beautifies all, from age to age it renews.


Truly--power to these statements--

may they be the source from which all my actions grow.

Sealed in trust & faith. Amen.

This version might be more difficult to teach to 5-year-old children but as I imagine the process through which a child's capacity to speak and understand this prayer would increase, the gradual maturing of mind and spirit that the process would permit, I cannot help but smile and hum.

The language of this translation is more poetic, more artistic and, as a result, comes from a deeper spiritual place than either of the other two translations above. Art is the "deeper" place of human existence. (One of the deeper places.) One might think that seeking concrete guidelines for modern living in a prayer full of abstractions and imagistic language would be a futile attempt.

And I would disagree.

The guidelines in this prayer are apprehended spiritually, precisely because they are delivered through poetry. Through art. This kind of learning is integral and durable. It's like the difference between swallowing a pill and swallowing a crushed pill, or eating a steak and eating a tomato, ripe off the vine.

Comprehension of the teaching in the prayer is assured because we grasp it on both intellectual AND spiritual/sensual levels. We can think about it and live (in) it.

In the concreteness of the earlier translations a passive petitioner stands in lead-foot submission and surrender, palms out for bread. Shackled to a chain, waiting to be led to right living. In the Aramaic translation the grateful petitioner remains an active, willing agent, infused with Divine light and energized. The prayer has wings.

It is possible to take flight in the other translations but it requires a pray-er who brings willingness and openness to the invocation. Such willingness and openness is embedded in the Aramaic translation. Making the prayer stimulates the heart to willingness and openness.

I'm going to learn this prayer.


Upcoming discussion The oppressive social dominance of Christianity in the Deep South...


  1. Interesting, I like that translation a lot. Googled Aramaic Lord's Prayer (I suggest everyone should)and found many translations, just like the rest of the bible. The oldest written version is in Greek. So,this translation is from Greek to Aramaic. This version is beautiful artful, and still has some all important mystery.
    In general I feel it best to expose children to comparative religions,
    there is no One way. The Tao that can be spoken , is not the real Tao.

  2. I agree that the broader the banquet table the better as re children. They'll easily appreciate the ineffable nature of the Divine Mystery as they encounter "the Tao that can be spoken is not the real Tao" and other such language and practices. In some traditions, it's only possible to make contact through ritual dances and/or certain psychotropic plants and/or silence... It is this richness and diversity, among other affirmative, edifying experience that gets squashed when belief is is demonstrated through manipulation or other coercion.


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