"Lord, teach us to pray." (Luke 11:1) This request comes from Jesus's disciples after they have observed him praying. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is often depicted at prayer, and he must have prayed often for it to be so noted. And his disciples must have been moved by watching him pray, and the devotion with which he prayed. Lord, teach us to pray! One of the things I hear often in my ministry is that people want to know how to pray, and feel that they do not pray well. St. Paul declares, "We do not know how to pray as we ought." (Rom. 8:26) Which one of us could not approach Jesus with that same petition - Lord, teach us to pray! Is there anything more natural to the Christian life than prayer? And yet, is there anything with which we struggle more? Who dares to say they know how to pray? And yet we muddle through, doing our best. As we pray the rosary, as we pray any prayer, perhaps we should start with that basic prayer of Jesus's disciples - Lord, teach us to pray! And we know how Jesus answered that request - with the Our Father.
How does the Our Father answer the disciple's request? Is Jesus handing on a special set of words, which somehow have mystical power of themselves? Is the Our Father a magic rite, the one key formula to actually praying? If so, does it even work if we say it in English? Why not better the Greek of the Gospels, or even a reconstruction in the Aramaic that Jesus spoke? Will that make the prayer more efficacious? Is it really a matter of words? Why then do we pray the psalms, or the rosary, or the Mass, if the only words Jesus wants us to use are the words of the Our Father? Have we ignored the lessons of prayer from the Master of prayer?
And yet, anyone who has ever prayed the words of the Our Father (and yes, I have done it in the Koine Greek of the Gospels, though not in Aramaic) knows that the words have no power of themselves. How easy it is for the words of that first of prayers to become mere meaningless babble. And this is exactly what Jesus excludes before teaching the Our Father, according to Matthew. We must not think that by heaping up words we will somehow influence God. Prayer is not magic. It is not a matter of the right words. Something else is needed.
Often I have heard this objection to the rosary: it is exactly the babbling, the heaping up of words, which Jesus condemns in the Gospel. And this is often true! But it can be true of any prayer. Any act of our devotion can become meaningless, can become babble, even the Lord's Prayer itself. If we think that our litanies or our rosaries or our speaking in tongues or our simple personal prayers have effect because of the words, we are mistaken. We must strive so to pray that our minds are in harmony with our voices, as St. Benedict teaches. (RB 19:7) Even if we get distracted, even if we lose our place in the words, it is the intention of the heart with which began to pray that is of the utmost importance. Prayer is a matter of the mind and heart more than a matter of the tongue. So, then, what was the Lord teaching us in teaching us the Our Father?
As St. Thomas says, "Prayer is the interpreter of desire." (ST II-II Q. 83 a. 9 ad 2) The words of the Lord's Prayer teach us what should be the desires of our hearts. And these desires should break forth into prayer, which interprets those desires and clothes them with words. "Hallowed be thy Name" - may be your Name be glorified! "Thy kingdom come" - bring about your reign in us and in the world! "Give us this day our daily bread" - Lord, I have various earthly needs; give me what I need to survive and thrive that I might do your will. "Deliver us from evil" - for we cannot save ourselves. The words of the Our Father teach us what things we must desire from God, and in what order we must desire them: "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these will be added to you as well." (Matt. 6:33)
And so we pray the Our Father for the things we should desire; Jesus taught the Our Father to teach us what we should desire, and in what order. And those desires must be the desires of our hearts, whether the words of our lips are "Our Father," "Hail Mary," or whatever else. That is why the Our Fathers are the pillars of the rosary. Every other prayer points to them, and we should be praying for the same things even when our lips use other words. We return again and again to what we must desire. This alone saves the rosary from babble, and makes it true prayer. And only when we desire what the Lord has taught us to desire, and with the level of priority that he has set out for us in this prayer, have we truly learned to pray.
One last note: of all the parts of the Our Father, Jesus singles out one: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Jesus teaches us that God's forgiveness of our sins is tied to our forgiveness of those who have sinned against us (Matt 6:14-15). Jesus had already taught us that before offering sacrifice to God we must be reconciled to our brother (Matt. 5:23-24). We cannot have peace with God if we do not strive to be at peace with others. Often the rosary is depicted as an action of proud spiritual isolationism, a matter of my own individual devotion to God. And yet the very pillars of the repetitions of the Lord's Prayer direct us outward to others, to forgive others, and to seek the forgiveness of others. We must also bind up the wounds of sin, the ugly realities of hunger and sickness and loneliness and despair, of injustice and poverty and ignorance and oppression. We seek God's mercy; God has demanded that we show mercy to others. The rosary, then, not only directs us to God. It forces us, perhaps against our inclinations, to go out to others, to show God's mercy to others, to desire for others also those things that we desire for ourselves, and so both to serve others and to pray for them. The rosary must drive us to service, not isolate us in selfishness. Then, too, we will have learned to pray from the Lord.