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Our daily remedy

30 November 2012

James Steven writes the first of a four-part series of articles on the Lord's Prayer

"SAY this prayer three times each day." This, the earliest known mention of the Lord's Prayer outside the New Testament, is found in the Didache. This short manual of Christian instruction is probably Syrian in origin, dating from the late first or early second century and addressing a fledgling church.

The Didache devotes a few sentences to the practice of prayer, urging Christians to pray differently from their Jewish neighbours. Pray the Lord's Prayer "as the Lord commanded in his Gospel", it begins. The text of the Our Father follows, and the instruction concludes with the arresting imperative about saying the prayer three times a day.

This marks a seminal moment in the development of Christian prayer. In embryonic form, here is the practice of daily prayer, which was to evolve and be hugely influential in the development of Christianity - in the cloister, the cathedral, the parish church, and a wide range of domestic contexts.

Most Christians in the Western world now find themselves caught between ideals (of which daily prayer is one) and relentless harassment by a way of life that is complex and hungry for our time. Perhaps never before were so many people juggling daily commitments that stretch human capacity to manage so many things simul­taneously.

Technological advance, heralded as a time-saver, has become one of the chief accelerators of daily life. The email, while enhancing ease of contact, has also raised our expecta­tions of the speed at which business can be done. Smartphones allow us to access the web, thereby becoming a portable means by which we can receive and send messages anywhere and any time.

The simplicity and directness of the Didache's instruction takes on the character of ancient remedial wisdom for our time. In com­mending the Lord's Prayer, it offers a strategy for a spiritual navigation of the day with a single prayer. Once the prayer is learnt, we have only to decide when we might pause to pray.

The pattern of thrice each day resonates with the natural rhythms of morning, afternoon, and evening. Many mark the transitions between these periods with eating, revealing our bodily dependence on physical nourishment. This corresponds with the advice of nutritionists that a healthy diet will consist of a meal once every four to five hours. Turn­ing to prayer at such times is a way of harnessing our natural body-clock to the service of spirituality.

Praying the Lord's Prayer, we reassert our most fundamental relationship with God, our Father, and make it a rhythmic recalib­ration of our experience of time.

Marking time with prayer can also be linked with daily journeys and their rhythms of departure and expectation. These "in-between" times bring to focus our thoughts about what has passed, and the events that lie ahead of us. They may be times dominated by a celebration of achievement, or an awareness of the precariousness of our grip on events.

The request at the heart of the Lord's Prayer, "Give us today our daily bread," converts anxiety about our lack of readiness for daily challenges into receptivity and trust, and a confidence in what lies to hand, by God's gift.

A quick web search for help in frenetic times reveals a business guru championing "six steps for when you are doing too many things at once". The Didache gives us one step, three times a day. We could do worse than to try it.

The Revd Dr James Steven is Director of Liturgy and Worship at Sarum College.

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