Sunday, February 28, 2010

We Got Rhythm

Someone posted a comment over the weekend asking me to talk about the cadence (or rhythm) in which we say the Our Father. If each of us were to stop for a second and just imagine that prayer being said in church, I bet a lot of us would "hear" it something like this --
Our Father (pause),
who art in Heaven (pause),
hallowed be thy name (longer pause).
Thy kingdom come (pause);
thy will be done (pause)
on earth as it is in heaven (longer pause).
Give us this day (slight pause)
our daily bread (pause);
and forgive us our trespasses (pause)
as we forgive those (slight pause)
who trespass against us (longer pause).
And lead us not into temptation (pause),
but deliver us from evil (longer pause).

Now, those pauses have a lot to do with punctuation. Commas and semicolons get a pause, periods get a longer pause.

But you'll also note, there are places without punctuation where we still pause. For instance, "Give us this day (slight pause) our daily bread" presents one petition, yet we split it into two parts. Why? On some level, it's like my 6-year-old nephew said to me the other day: "That's just the way I roll."

Its origins probably also have something to do with our intuitive sense of poetry and rhythm. "Give us this day" and "our daily bread" each has two beats, as do a number of the other lines, so saying them as though they're separate ideas "sounds" right. "Thy kingdom come" and "thy will be done " likewise have the same meter, and so we say them in rhythm, even though the latter line actually belongs with "on earth as it is in heaven."

The danger, of course, of saying these lines this way is that the rhythm could obscure the meaning of what we're trying to say. It becomes sing-song, baby talk.

(OK, so actually, that's not baby talk, it's a different language sung by a cute toddler. But you get the idea.)

But is that the way we experience it? Clearly, each of us has to answer that for ourselves. Personally, I look around the church at that moment and see most people with their hands out in supplication or holding those of their family members around them, their eyes closed or turned up. And as we say the prayer, even with their silly nursery rhyme rhythm, it sure seems like we're all really speaking together directly to God. It might be the only time like that in the whole Mass, in fact.

I know for me it's always sort of a moment of clarity -- like, Lord, if we could boil all my desires down to their essence everything I've been thinking or worrying about during this Mass, and leave out all the unnecessary stuff, these words would be it. And if I could be exactly the person I want to be, no more trappings or ego or fear, just me, well the me at that moment, arms out and praying for openness to the kingdom, that's him.