From “The Fatherhood of God,” Pastoral Sermons, 8-9 (1939)
“When you pray” (he said to them), “do not use long rigmaroles, like the heathen, who think that the more words they use the more likely they are to gain audience” — and so taught them this, his own prayer, instead. It was the tradition of the Jews that the very name of God was something almost too holy to be mentioned, certainly too holy to be written down, And in accordance with that tradition our Lord would have us, his disciples, begin our prayer with a kind of reverential silence. We do not even address him as God; we tell him instead that the word is too holy a word to be taken on our lips.
What is the meaning of that? Surely he would have us remind ourselves that the presence into which we enter when we pray is one of infinite majesty, to which words can do no justice; all the praises and aspirations we can offer are a kind of profanation; silence is the best tribute we can pay. We have not learned much about prayer until we have learned that an attitude of loving expectancy, of waiting upon greatness, is the first preparation we need. We are to call him our Father, with child-like confidence in his love for us; but, having so addressed him, we are not to plunge straight not the business of petition, as if nothing could possibly be of more importance than the needs which we feel at the moment, as if nothing could possibly interest him except our petty concerns, our importunate anxieties. The citizens of heaven in which he dwells cry “Holy, holy, holy” before him day and night; shall not we do well to tune our voices to that chorus of praise, before we dare to ask him for anything? Hallowed be his name; a hush must fall upon our hearts, a pause must be made un our tumultuous thoughts, before the right atmosphere can be established in which we, creatures of a day, can approach him who dwells in inaccessible light, the sovereign Ruler of Creation.
Our father, who is in heaven, and we, his children, have so little of heaven in our minds! That is the sublime paradox of prayer. He has no need, it does him no good, that human voices should be raised to him at all. His blessedness is such that all our praises, all our love, all our congratulation can add nothing to it; when we worship God, we are like men throwing stones endlessly into an abyss which eternity could not suffice to fill. And yet he invites us to pray to him; he wants us to come to him, not as strangers bringing their petitions to a king, but as children running in to interrupt their father, all begrimed as we are with the dust of the world, and yet as his children, with a right to his audience.
There should be a paradox on our side to match that paradox on his. We should come to him, awe-struck with a consciousness that only grows deeper with the years of the immeasurable gulf that lies between us and him; yet at the same time unhesitatingly, knowing hat he wants us to be there, that he will not turn us away. St. Peter, after the miraculous draught of fishes, clung to our Lord’s feet crying, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8); he bids him depart, but will not let him go.
So we, at the very threshold of our prayer, hang midway between doubt and confidence, doubt of ourselves, and confidence in him. Hallowed be his name — silenced be every thought, stifled be every affection, that is unworthy of his presence; we will stop and take breath, as children do, before we open our hearts to tell him of our needs.
Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was an English Roman Catholic priest, theologian, and fiction writer, one of the most influential figures in mid-twentieth century English Catholicism. Originally an Anglican priest, he was the Roman Catholic chaplain at Oxford for many years, and became a well-known apologist, preacher, and writer of detective fiction. His sermon “The Fatherhood of God” was preached in July 1939.