Our Father is not, according to Jesus, merely our Father. He is our Father “who art in Heaven”. What does that mean?
Getting at the answer to that, in our present culture, is harder than you’d think, not least because Heaven, says C.S. Lewis, is an acquired taste. There are moments, he writes, when he wonders whether we really desire Heaven.
I know how he feels. I grew up as a pagan. That’s not to say I grew up worshipping Apollo or painting myself with woad and running around naked in the woods (a vision to conjure with). Rather it is to say that I grew up unbaptized, almost completely unconnected with the Christian tradition except what I could glean from A Charlie Brown Christmas and the occasional glimpses of The Robe at Easter. I came away with dim impressions of something about Romans, peace on earth, violent death, and that schmaltzy 50s era portrayal of sanctity with choirs of angels and people suddenly gazing off into the distance with a look of profound awe. I knew that Christmas was Jesus’ birthday. I did not know what Easter was about until somewhere in my teens. My grasp of Scripture came from one abortive attempt to read Genesis at age 13 where I started at chapter 1, plowed on through to Genesis 3, gave it up, ruffled the pages of the Bible till I my eyes fell on Revelation, gave that a stab, and then closed the thing with my head spinning.
Modern day Christianity (only tenuously connected in my mind with “Bible stories”) was a vague amalgam of holier-than-thou hypocrites from preachy 70s sitcoms (St. Frank Burns, pray for us!), chilly Lutheran devotional art on the walls of the local rest home, sundry “born again” fellow students in high school whose awkward attempts to “witness to” me just made me feel awkward, and various encounters with scary Christians like Jack Chick, assorted TV screamers, and the drawings of Gustav Dore (Noah’s Flood and Dante in Hell: brrrrrr!). When I was four, I somehow picked up from Sunday school the notion that “You shouldn’t say Jesus’ name”. Once, in high school, I darkened the door of a Catholic Church when a friend asked me to come to Good Friday. I had not one clue what was going on. Bottom line: When I thought of “religion” I didn’t even think about it long enough to dismiss it. It just seemed unconnected to me. And while I suppose I hoped vaguely for something pleasant to happen in an afterlife rather than, say, something like the discovery that H.P. Lovecraft was right, I didn’t give it much thought one way or t’other. “Christian Heaven” seemed mostly boring: white clouds, harps, singing dull “Church songs” you heard being led by school marms on old Westerns. Mostly I felt (and, when left to my natural inclinations unenlightened by revelation, still feel) a foreboding that at death you simply go out like a light and that nothing happens after your final agonies. My normal mood is to veer toward the general suspicion that death, rather than life, is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Not that I have ever been an atheist. Atheists have always struck me as a sort of photo negative of “Scary Christians” like Chick. They have a certitude and a diagrammatic worldview I lack. They are way angry as a rule, arguing in ways which typically said “There is no God” but which felt like “Hell yes, there’s a God and I’m hissing mad at him!”
No, it’s always been death, not life, that seemed idiotic to me. I can easily believe in a meaningful life and being a pagan only whetted that inescapable sense of a world bursting at the seams with hidden meaning. As a pagan, I had a reverence for the Unseen and Unknown. That included God. I had the weird impression growing up that everything I could see around me would, if I could just get around behind it, reveal an entire unseen world. It was as though all creation was a sort of stage set and right on the other side of it was Reality. I remember listening to a Jethro Tull album in the late 70s and feeling the dim sense that the blasphemies and insults Ian Anderson directed against God so flippantly were, not so much wrong as dangerous. Don’t irritate The Power Behind Things.
But, of course, being Unknown, this Unseen Power was also scary and not a God of Love as Christians understood him. The Power behind things might be something more like a Fate than a God: a capricious (and when it turned its gaze on me, malignant) Will or Presence that was setting the universe up as a vast practical joke to be sprung on me when I finally let my guard down, like some hapless schmuck in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Oddly, I didn’t think that was a blasphemous thought. I thought it was a cautious (and dreadful) thought, the thought of a helpless victim and not of a rebellious child. I hoped that the Power wasn’t like that. But something in my Irish makeup tended toward such pessimism and flirtation with despair.
I give you all this boring autobiography because it is the interior life of millions of people around the world who likewise live in a pagan universe haunted by the Unknown God. It is precisely to such minds that the stunning revelation that Our Father is in Heaven is addressed, with the incredible prospect that, so far from living in a horror movie where the hero wakes from the nightmare and finds that his waking reality is worse, the Faith taught us that every fairy tale hope that has ever stirred our hearts might actually, really, truly be realized and that, quite literally, all our wishes might come true.
That hope that there might really be, at the end of all things, what Tolkien called “joy, joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” is what Jesus’ is getting at when he tells us our Father is a heavenly Father. It answers profoundly another element in pagan life that I experienced countless times, forming a sort of leitmotif of my pre-Christian life. It was a thing I kept well under wraps for the simple reason that it was an experience that lies right at the root of who I am and formed the underpinning of every good desire, action and choice I have ever made. But it was an experience so intensely personal to me that I did not talk about it, even with myself. I figured I was, well, crazy and would no more have brought it up in casual conversation than I would have gone for a stroll buck naked in a shopping mall. Indeed, I might still be a pagan had I not made the acquaintance of a Cambridge don named Lewis who had plucked up the courage to say, “You are not alone. I also have experienced, not so much the presence as the absence of that “unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Kahn, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves?”
He called it by various names: Desire, Joy, sehnsucht, the appetite for Heaven. And he wrote about it in words that still bring tears to my eyes, making clear that the seeming lack of desire for Heaven was mere illusion:
There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven but more often if I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we ever desired anything else. You may have noticed to books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that. Again, you stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw — but at the first words of gulf yawns between you, and you realize that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported. Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of — something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop with a clap-clap of water against the boat’s side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and it all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it — tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest — if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself — you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say “Here at last is the thing I was made for.” We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.
Lewis made an instant friend of me because, well, I thought I was the only one! And here he was describing perfectly my deepest interior experience growing up. Only he didn’t just describe it. He made sense of it.
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not mean that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.
This, at long last, made sense both of the longing and of the frustration of what St. John calls “this passing world”. There really is something behind it all. But the something is not a capricious Power or a malicious Joker. It is not an It at all, but a He: the source of all the Beauty and the Ultimate Fulfillment of All Desire. Indeed, precisely the reason creation was a “subjected to frustration” is precisely so that we (who are so prone to doing so) would not batten on it and seek to satisfy ourselves with it. He has arranged all things so that “our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee” as Augustine said.
Of course, mere desire is not a proof of sanctity. It is merely a proof of humanity. But my point is not to illustrate Lewis’ (and still less my) cause for canonization. Rather it is to make clear that, in fact, the hunger for Heaven is indeed a burning fire in our hearts and that Jesus really is addressing something right at the core of our being when he tells us that our Father is in Heaven. It’s not sugary religious talk but a statement of fact about who God really is: everlasting ecstasy, the fulfillment of our deepest longings, the Hope toward which all our little hopes flow as tiny rivulets join larger streams till they pour as a mighty river out into the endless sea of His glory. When Jesus calls us to address Our Father in this way, he models for us (and assists us in emulating himself) in setting our minds, right from the start, on heavenly realities—which are the real story—and taking our distracted hearts and minds off of earthly frippery.
In doing so, he prepares us to do the main thing that prayer is about, which is not “asking for stuff” (though that’s part of it) but is instead speaking forth the praise of His glory in the words “Hallowed be Thy Name”.
Of which, more next week.