The Lord's Prayer, Thanks Be to Dogs

I've never really liked the Lord's Prayer very much. It seems, I don't know, so spare, not really a prayer at all. Not like the collects that we read in church, nothing like Anselm of Canterbury's far more moving and affective prayers. Prayer should be more meditative, right? Not just a blank asking for bread and forgiveness. And yet, I know that to learn to pray, I need to learn the Lord's Prayer. It is the prayer that Our Lord taught us, after all. There must be something in it.

My scholarly inclination at the moment is to start looking for commentaries. Maybe Luther's, but that's in my office on campus and I'm at home now. There's the Catechism of the Catholic Church right behind me on the cabinet that I'm using here at home as my "desk", purportedly for keeping handy the things that I most want or need to read next (like that book I'm supposed to review, you know). But then I still wouldn't be thinking about what the prayer means to me, and besides, I've read commentaries before and come away just as nonplussed. Everyone else--John Cassian, Thomas Merton, Augustine--seems to know what the prayer means. Surely it is not as empty as it feels for me.

So let's think about it. "Our Father." Okay, lots of people tend to get hung up here, thinking that if we pray to God as a "father," we are saying something implicitly about the inferiority of mothers, but I'm pretty sure that's not what Jesus meant us to think. "Our Father" should mean somebody caring and gentle, not just a power "out there" wanting to lord it over us. It's a hard way to think about God, when you think about it. It's so much easier to have an image (problems there, but leave that aside for the moment) of something more cosmic and grand. Wouldn't you rather pray to the Great Spirit or the Lord of the Night or That-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-conceived? Wouldn't it seem somehow more satisfying than to have to pray, child-like, to one's dad? God, the Really Real, Being: it seems presumptuous--which, of course, is really the point--to be so familiar. And personal. No, I'm still having difficulties here. I can't think of God as a person, although Persons I'm paradoxically okay with--perhaps that's the difficulty. Would I rather be praying to the Trinity? So why just the Father? Why not the Spirit and the Son as well? Ah, but then I'd be back where I started with the Father: refusing to believe or to sense something more intimate in my (our) relationship with God.

And by the way, that "Our": I'm not really sure I want to share God with everybody else. Surely my thoughts and feelings about God are much more, you know, serious and profound than anybody else's could possibly be. "Our." Hmph. Doesn't that make God simply a collective delusion, just like Feuerbach said? Here we are, millions upon millions of us, all trying desperately to believe that our lives have some point, that maybe if we believe hard enough, we will find ourselves in the midst of a story that actually matters (a.k.a. living the myth), when in fact we are just like so many ants, milling about aimlessly on the face of our planet, waiting for some giant to come step on us and crush us. Or Whos out of Whoville, crying to be heard by an elephant that isn't actually there. It's interesting that Horton is an elephant: would we prefer to be praying to Ganesh? But seriously, I find it very hard indeed to believe that others have as much difficulty as I do thinking about God. Either, I imagine, they are simply in communication with Him all the time and I'm the only one left out. Or, I am convinced, my thoughts and feelings are so much more refined and penetrating, there is no way that anyone else could have as powerful a conviction about God as I.

Not doing so well here, am I? I was thinking yesterday in church about dogs and the oft-remarked lexical curiosity that in English "God" is "dog" spelled backwards--or vice versa. Perhaps dogs are, in fact, trying to teach us something about God. Or perhaps it is that God gave us dogs so as to teach us something about Him. Isn't it curious that out of all of the animals with whom we share our planet, only one (and, no, let's not start an argument about cats; cats are different) interacts with us at the level of intimacy that dogs do? I'm with Jared Diamond on this one: human beings may have wanted and even tried to domesticate animals other than the ones that we have (cows, pigs, sheep, goats, horses, chickens, cats, llamas, parrots, rabbits) but the latter list is surprisingly short given the number of animals out there (domesticated badgers or bears, anyone?). Moreover, of all of the animals willing to live with us (by which I mean, capable of living and reproducing in captivity; are elephants domesticated or just individually tamed?), only dogs seem actively to have chosen to do so, in the sense that even "wild" dogs (actually something of an oxymoron) seem to prefer to hang around humans.

Stay with me here, I'm getting to the point. Which is this: why do we put up with dogs anyway? As Stephen Budiansky points out, if we had a houseguest or roommate who behaved as badly--and bossily--as dogs do, we'd kick them out yesterday. Pooping on the floor, waking us up well before dawn, chewing on the furniture, controlling when we come home in the evening and where we go on vacation: dogs make incredible demands on our resources and time, not to mention physical energy. Isn't it amazing we allow them in our lives at all? Okay, so dogs do all sorts of useful things for us like herding sheep and retrieving game and guarding our homes and pulling sleds and sniffing out bad guys, but given that most of us dog owners at the moment have no flocks or sleds and little occasion to be hunting fugitives, you do have to wonder why we still keep them around. We're a little like God, don't you know? Because, if you were God, wouldn't you have kicked us out of the house already?

Our church was commemorating Earth Day yesterday, so we had lots of things in the sermon and prayers about how bad we've been as a species, soiling our home and killing off other species while nevertheless taking dismal care of our own. It really makes you wonder that God hasn't sent another Flood; wouldn't you, if you were God? And yet, for reasons that would make no sense if we weren't also dog-owners (or parents), we're still here, not kicked out of the house after all. Well, why not? God created us and put us here on His planet. Perhaps He wanted us here. Perhaps He is willing to put up with our pooping in our rivers and tearing up the landscape and making noise all the time with our weapons and other machines because, wonder of wonders, He loves us, just as we love our dogs. And why? Could it be because we make Him happy when we sing for him and say thanks when we eat? See, this is the real problem I always have thinking about God: why on earth (literally) would He (given that we understand Him as our Creator) make us in the first place if we are such pests? What benefit could He possibly get from having us inhabiting his creation? Could it have anything to do with the same reason that we love our dogs, because it makes us happy to have other creatures with whom to share our home?

I'm looking at the Catechism now, and it seems to be emphasizing something rather different (no dogs, alas). About how presumptuous it is for us to dare to pray to God as "father" and how it is only because the Father has revealed Himself to us through the Son and the Spirit that we know we have been permitted this familiar form of address. So I'm still struggling here. The prayer would seem, indeed, to promise an intimacy while at the same time collectivizing it; if I pray to God along with everyone else who says this prayer, is He really my Father at all, or just "ours"? I have, as I have noted before, a very hard time believing that God actually cares about me. Humanity, fine, I can see that, sort of. There's an almost logical reason for God to have created animals capable of thinking about Him and, therefore, paying attention to and praising Him. But me in particular? Really, you've got to be kidding. God doesn't need me; He certainly doesn't need me to spend all of my time praying to Him, not with all the other children that He has. I'll just sit in the corner over here, trying not to make Him mad at me.

I wish that I could be more like my puppy Joy in relation to God. Wouldn't it be wonderful to bound into church on a Sunday, wagging my tail and wriggling with excitement at greeting Our Lord? Is it that I don't trust Him? But why not? Has He ever done anything not to earn my trust? I have food and shelter and places to walk. How is it that I feel nothing of His love for me, His longing to have me beside Him throughout the day, His willingness to put up with my biting and leaving my bones all over the house just so as to have me with Him? Joy has more faith than I do. I've known God for years now and I still don't trust Him; she just met me a few months ago, and yet here she is, right by my side (actually, crashed out on the floor a few feet away, but more often than not she'll be under my chair). No, I'm not saying she prays to me (who wouldn't want to be a doggy goddess?); just that her relationship with me is clearly meant to teach me something about my relationship to God. If she can understand me enough to trust me, why can't I understand God enough to trust Him? Am I really so bad at reading His cues?

It is churlish, undoglike, not to give thanks to God for all of the blessings He has given us. I know that that is what the first part of the prayer is meant to be about. But I just can't get past the salutation, particularly the "our." "Our Father": not mine. "Our Father": but why doesn't He seem to care about me? "Our Father": okay, it does seem a little bit sexist, but "Our Parent" really isn't any better. Why not "Our Joy" or "Our Bliss" or "Our Love"? Why, after all, not something more abstract? I'm pretty sure that this is the problem that many people have today with quote-unquote "the Christian God." And yet, here is this prayer, right at the center of our collective and personal prayer, insisting that we think of God as a person, refusing to let us hedge our bets with talk of the Unknowable Beyond. It's another thing that I like about my dog: she is so well-defined, there, in a body, that breathes, poops and moves. And yet, she is more than a body because she is alive. Which is where the mystery inevitably begins and ends: somehow, we are here on this planet, breathing, pooping, moving--and thinking. And one of the things that we seem doomed to want to think about is God. Why on earth should that be, unless He wanted us here?

Comments

  1. I read your blog frequently, but I have never commented before--at least, I don't think I have. However, this post made me want to write to you. I have lovely memories of my Dad teaching me the Lord's Prayer, literally sitting on his knee, probably when I was about 4 or 5. In part because I do have a close relationship with my earthly father, I have always treasured the opening of the Lord's Prayer.

    However, I also adore this version, from the New Zealand Prayerbook. If you don't already know it, you might like it as well.

    Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,

    Source of all that is and that shall be,

    Father and Mother of us all,

    Loving God, in whom is heaven:

    The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!

    The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!

    Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!

    Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.

    With the bread we need for today, feed us.

    In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.

    In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.

    From trials too great to endure, spare us.

    From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

    For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and for ever.

    Amen

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  2. This is lovely, thank you! I am hoping to work through the Lord's Prayer over the next several days, and this version gives me a great deal to think about.

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  3. Being an atheist badger (and thus, undomesticated by deity) I look at "why do we put up with dogs?" from an evolutionary perspective. Dogs conferred enough of a selective advantage, through their obedience and service, that they shaped our behavior by influencing which human genes (and behaviors, and culture) were passed on. But don't get too sentimental--Michael Polan makes the same argument about corn manipulating our evolution.

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  4. But of course: God works in mysterious ways, including sending us these evolutionary parasites to help shape us to His will. ; )

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F.B.

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