• Vested Interest

The Right Words

Mary Davenport Davis
September 14, 2015

When I was in eighth grade, the chaplain of the Christian summer camp I went to made us all memorize the Lord’s Prayer in the “contemporary” version—the one on the right side of page 364 in the BCP, rather than the left side. Instead of “art” and “thine” and “trespasses,” we said “is” and “your” and “sins” during worship every day for two weeks. The outrage from us campers was unbelievable. What was this lady doing? This wasn’t the right prayer! It didn’t sound right! It didn’t have the right rhythm to it! We didn’t know where the pauses were supposed to go! This wasn’t the prayer we’d learned as small children, said every night before bed, recited in church with all the other adults. It was all wrong.


I went home from camp knowing the contemporary Lord’s Prayer by heart, but still smoldering. When I complained to my father (an Episcopal priest) about the shocking way we’d been treated, he just laughed. It took me a long time to figure out why.


This summer we’ve been saying the contemporary version of the Lord’s prayer at Trinity. I’m a little more used to liturgical change than I was at twelve, having had the opportunity to worship in a lot of different kinds of communities in the intervening two decades. And I’ve spent the summer rather relishing the slight discomfort that comes from having to use different words when saying something you think you know by heart. It makes you think about what you’re saying, just a little bit; and it makes you think about how much you usually think (or don’t think) about the prayers as you’re saying them. It reminds me, a bit, of waking up in the middle of the night and finding that you’ve slept wrong and your arm has fallen asleep. You look at this thing that’s an intimate part of you, and it no longer feels like yours. You poke it, and feel nothing. You try to lift it and find it hanging floppy and useless from the elbow. And then you shake it until the pins and needles tell you that the blood is flowing, and your body is your own again.


In the same way, saying the Lord’s Prayer differently is hard, both technically and emotionally. You start to say “And lead us not into temptation,” and stumble. “Save us from the time of trial?” How is that the same prayer? How can it be your prayer, the one that’s as much a part of you as your own body? It feels all wrong.


The other thing that’s changed from when I was twelve is that I spent a large percentage of the intervening years studying various ancient languages and thinking about the relationship between words and meaning. For me, the connection between the concept you’re trying to get across (the meaning) and the form in which you embody that concept (the word) is as profound and as mysterious as anything else I know. Have you ever had an idea or a feeling and tried to tell someone about it, only to find that you couldn’t find the exact right words? Have you ever been frustrated by how much less you’re communicating than is in your heart? When I’m translating between two languages I know well, such as Hebrew to English, I feel this frustration all the time. I’m not just trying to match the dictionary definition, but also the nuances, the ideas and emotions evoked, the shades of humor or grief, the contexts in which the word is usually found, the social standing of the people who would use that kind of word in that kind of place. Very, very occasionally I can find a word or phrase in English that corresponds exactly to the Hebrew. Most of the time, as you might imagine, I can’t. It simply isn’t there.


I say this as a roundabout way of pointing out the obvious: the traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer isn’t the “real” version, or the “original.” When Jesus taught us to pray, he taught us in Aramaic; and the words have come down to us in Greek. They’ve been translated into English at different times by a variety of people. There’s been chance after chance for shades of meaning to be lost, and for other shades to enter in. And so perhaps the value of having two versions of the Lord’s Prayer in our prayerbook is the humility it points us toward: we pray the words we know, trusting that God will hear us as we desire to be heard.


And then again, somehow it matters to me that we say the same words, in the same way, every week (and for some of us, every day), for a lifetime. Concepts are mysterious and slippery things. Sometimes words are like a lifeline for me. When I don’t know what to think, what to feel, how to pray exactly right, I can hang onto the words that I know by heart, that are as much a part of me as my own body: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.


At "Vested Interest," church nerd Mary Davenport Davis explores all things liturgy and music at Trinity and beyond. Chime in with comments and questions!