We’re nearing the end, now, of our year-long journey through the Catechism! And we are focussing on the need for prayer — the ‘fuel’ of our faith — and how the Our Father should be the pattern for all our prayer. When we learn of the Our Father in the Gospel of Matthew, in middle of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (ch. 6), we hear Jesus say: ‘… And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us. And do not put us to the test, but save us from the evil one.’ Yes, if you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours; but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either (Mt 6:12–15). It is interesting that the one phrase which Jesus reiterates is the one about forgiveness: if we are to expect God to forgive us, then we must be forgiving also of one another.
St Augustine is also well known for repeating again and again, in his homilies and writings, this phrase of Our Lord’s: forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. He too considers it an essential element of our Christian life, and our prayer life: our sorrow for sins, and our willingness also to forgive hurts. He is insistent in his preaching that we cannot begin to live the Christian life if we are unforgiving people, or if we are people who do not seek God’s forgiveness. It is part of being a humble son or daughter of God that we accept our weakness and sinfulness before Him, and that we do something about it; turning to Him again and again for His forgiveness … coupled with our own willingness to forgive those who offend us.
We can connect with these words that Jesus taught us also other moments of His divine teaching. Think of St Peter who asks Our Lord, “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?” — Jesus answers this with a categorical: “Not seven, I tell you, but seventy times seven!” (Mt 18: 21–22). Surely Our Lord indicates here that we are to forgive again and again. Not implying that we should be a doormat, or suffering repeated abuse as such, but being prepared to be forgiving, people defined by a heart that is full of mercy. Jesus follows up that encouragement to St Peter with that parable that you will no doubt recall, the one of ‘the unforgiving servant’ (Mt 18: 23–34). A king forgives his servant a debt that was an unimaginably large sum, let’s say, millions of pounds; but that same servant goes out and is unwilling to let a fellow servant off a paltry sum, just a few pounds, let’s say. The king is outraged … “I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?” These words should strike home to us very forcefully: are we not bound, then, to have pity on our fellow man, just as God has pity on us? Forgive us our trespasses, O Lord, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
I think we would all admit that forgiveness can be hard — both hard to seek forgiveness, to be humble enough to admit our faults, own up to them, confess them; and also hard (sometimes) to be forgiving, accepting another’s sorrow, granting freely that you forgive them, not holding on to a grudge, truly and fully putting their offence behind you. These things are hard … yet are a centre-piece of the true faith. Think of Our Lord Jesus, in His agony on the cross: He summoned the strength of love and mercy to utter those words that pierced the pride and envy that the devil has led us to adopt … He broke the devil’s hold, by saying, “Father, forgive them … they know not what they do.” Jesus forgave those who crucified Him … He will forgive us, too, our sins, but will expect us also to be forgiving as He is. Let us seek forgiveness, and grant forgiveness, in equal measure. Forgive the little sins committed against you, so that you can without hypocrisy seek God’s forgiveness for the greater sins that we (and we as a race) commit. Come to Confession, more often, seek the Lord’s Sacramental (guaranteed) forgivenesss; and do not hold on to grudges, however deeply you have been hurt … Let the Lord’s tender embrace, the love of His own wounded heart, help melt your heart so that you can truly forgive from the heart.
To my mind, then, summing up the lessons learnt from the Our Father so far: the three pillars of our prayer are these: (i) to give thanks and praise; (ii) to ask for what we need; and (iii) to be sorry for our sins. These can easily form the basis for simple night prayers: something to give thanks for; something to ask for; something to say sorry for. That simple model can be adapted to any and every circumstance, can’t it? Old or young, seasoned person of prayer or novice in prayer: we can offer to God, following the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer, our praise, our petition, our sorrow … but not forgetting the demand that through our prayer we must seek to imitate God’s own merciful heart. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy themselves. Forgive us, Lord, our many and grievous trespasses, as we also, with a loving heart, dedicate ourselves, with Your divine assistance, to forgiving those who trespass against us.