We were so excited to get to chat with Fr. John Gavin, SJ about his newest book, Mysteries of the Lord’s Prayer: Wisdom from the Early Church. Fr. Gavin is an associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.
Q: When did you first realize that you wanted to investigate the history and theology of the Lord’s Prayer?
A: As a novice in the Society of Jesus, I began to pray the Office of Readings, which offers a rich selection from the writings of the Fathers of the Church. In those writings, I discovered portions of St. Augustine’s “Letter to Proba,” which includes his interpretation of the Our Father, and parts of St. Cyprian’s “On Prayer.” These Fathers opened my eyes to a new way of reading the Scriptures and responding to Jesus’ words, “Pray like this.”
Years later, when I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Maximus the Confessor, I read his commentary on the Our Father and, to understand that work better, I went back to Gregory of Nyssa’s “Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer.” From there, one Father led to another! Origen, Tertullian, Jerome . . . Each author offered new perspectives and new challenges. Through their eyes, the Our Father became “strange,” that is, it ceased to be the words I said by rote daily but became a font of mysteries that drew me deeper into the Mystery of the Trinity.
Q: One of the central goals of Mysteries of the Lord’s Prayer is to demonstrate how Patristic interpretations of the Our Father are just as striking today as they were millennia ago. How did you navigate digging into these theological heavyweights while staying accessible to a non-academic audience?
A: While the Fathers of the Church were indeed “heavyweights” through the heft of their theological insights, they were not academics or professional scholars in our modern sense. The Fathers were, above all, pastors and teachers, that is, they preached God’s Word as the source of God’s presence and teachings for their community. Thus, while understanding them at times may require some knowledge of the theological controversies and philosophical movements of their day, very often even a modern Christian can dive into their writings and discover great wisdom.
In writing this book, I therefore sought to convey some of their most fruitful insights to a modern audience, while also encouraging people to engage the Fathers on their own. These men responded to the spiritual and theological questions of their day—questions that remain present in the hearts of modern Christians. My hope was to recover the Fathers’ wonder and joy before the Word of God and to inspire Christians to share in that same wonder and joy. Reading and praying with heavyweights will make us all stronger in the faith!
Q: Most of us become so accustomed to the words of the Lord’s Prayer that we recite the words with little thought. How has learning about the Our Father changed the way you pray it? Has it changed the way you approach other oft-repeated prayers?
A: As I noted above, reading the Our Father with the Fathers made the prayer “strange,” that is, the prayer became an extraordinary gateway to contemplation. My approach to reading the prayer through a series of “aporiai,” or “mysteries,” reveals just some of the generally overlooked puzzles that the sacred words contain. For instance, the word “Father” alone leads us deeper into the Scriptures to discover God’s loving Fatherhood, the gift of our divine adoption, and the many responses to our gift of being “sons and daughters of God.” The Fathers show us that just one word can inspire multiple interpretations and spiritual insights! Now when I pray the Our Father, I remain more attentive to the prayer’s words, form, and connections to other parts of the Scriptures.
I think the Fathers’ approach can certainly be applied to a prayer like the Hail Mary, which is also deeply rooted in the Scriptures. One need only return to the infancy narratives in Luke’s Gospel to discover questions surrounding the words that appear in the first part of the prayer. From there, those questions should lead one to prayerful reflection, since the Fathers understood such mysteries to be “stop signs,” places where one must pause and dialogue with the Lord.
Q: What is another prayer that holds a special place in your heart, intellectually or spiritually, and why?
A: I would have to name two prayers associated with St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus: “The Anima Christi” and “The Suscipe.” The former prayer is a series of simple petitions in Christ’s name that request a deeper union with Jesus in this life and for eternity. The latter is a beautiful offering of the self to the loving Creator. It is a wonderful prayer to make before and after mass, since it echoes Christ’s self-offering to the Father for our sake:
“Take Lord, and receive, all my liberty, my memory, understanding, my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast give all to me. To thee, O Lord, I return it. All is thine, dispose of it wholly according to thy will. Give me thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.”