All the great prayers of the Church have two parts. I would guess you have not noticed. Yet this fact is important.
It’s clear to see in the Our Father. It has two parts, the first of which is focused on the Father, and on matters that pertain to him. “Our Father. . .thy. . .thy. . .thy. . .” The second, in contrast, is focused on us: “Give us. . .us. . .us. . .us.” The prayer does contain seven petitions, as is traditionally said. But this Perfect Prayer is divided into two parts.
So is the Hail Mary. It has a part focused on Mary, with words taken from the greetings of the angel Gabriel and of her kinswoman Elizabeth. These figures, strikingly, teach us that, in addressing a holy person, to first say something about that person’s standing or role. Mary is “full of grace” and “blessed art thou among woman.” Even the second part of the prayer begins by using the title “Mother of God” (theotokos), before asking for one thing only.
Similarly, with the “Angel of God”: we acknowledge him as a guardian, appointed by God out of love, and only then ask for guidance and protection.
We might unconsciously presume that in these prayers we are, as it were, “buttering up” some supernatural being before asking for something. But the Our Father is petitions throughout, and the first three implore something for God, not us! And what the Hail Mary asks for is so slender, in comparison with Mary’s role in the life of any decent Catholic, that it’s as if the prayer asks for almost nothing at all.
Indeed, “pray for us at the hour of our death” is easily viewed as a prayer about something pertaining to God, as if, “continue to assist as co-redeemer in carrying out His work of salvation.” My death is at stake, but no more than anyone else’s.
I began to see the two parts of prayers by reading them in Latin and Greek, and in older translations, where each part is sometimes presented as a single sentence. The most striking example is the Canticle of Zechariah, which perhaps you know from Lauds. The grammarians define a sentence as the expression of a complete thought. If this is so, then Zechariah in his very long prayer expressed just two thoughts. The first is this, in the old Douay-Rheims translation:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, because he hath visited and wrought the redemption of his people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation to us, in the house of David his servant, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets, who are from the beginning: salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us, to perform mercy to our fathers, and to remember his holy testament, the oath, which he swore to Abraham our father, that he would grant to us, that being delivered from the hand of our enemies, we may serve him without fear, in holiness and justice before him, all our days.
This amazing sentence expresses the whole history of God’s covenants with the nation of Israel from Abraham (“our father”) through David (“his servant”) to the present. Zechariah evidently could see it in a single glance and formulate it in a single thought. What kind of man could think that?
Fowler and Fowler, the original editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, decried the transformation in written English from periodic sentences to short, simple sentences – which they attributed to the effects of modern journalism (that is, newspaper writing circa 1900). Under this new way of writing, each sentence was to express a single “fact,” and each “fact” was presumed to be independent of every other “fact.” Modern translations of Zechariah’s canticle, written in this style, present it as a series of bullet points – probably to make it more intelligible for a modern reader. But it becomes less intelligible as a result since we fail to understand it if we do not see it as expressing a single reality.
Clearly, Zechariah was someone who also lived in that past. The covenant history of Israel was something alive for him. His heart was there. And this enables him to have a second thought. The first is about God; the second is about the child:
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest, for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his way, to give knowledge of salvation to his people, unto the remission of their sins, through the bowels of the mercy of our God, in which the Orient from on high hath visited us, to enlighten them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, and to direct our feet into the way of peace.
There is a petition there too for us, for salvation, light, and peace – subtle and not easily noticed.
What do we learn from these two parts of prayers? Part Four of the Catechism, on prayer, introduces that great subject with quotations from St. Thérèse of Lisieux: “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven.” A little later, the Catechism adds, “it is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain. The heart is the dwelling-place where I am.”
We may say: In the first part of a prayer, we should place our hearts with God. People speak of an “act of the presence of God.” Someone in the foolish torpor in which we often live might understand this as a kind of summoning, like rubbing the genie’s lantern. But it is to place ourselves with God through a “surge of the heart,” to be alive with Him in Heaven, in his history, in his saints.
*Image: The Lord’s Prayer (Le Pater Noster) by J.J. Tissot, c.1890 [from The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ (La Vie de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ) Brooklyn Museum]