C. S. Lewis’ last sermon (since he was a layman he said he was “comparing notes”) was titled “A Slip of the Tongue.” He reflects on an experience of his in prayer:
Not long ago when I was using the collect for the fourth Sunday after Trinity in my private prayers I found that I had made a slip of the tongue. I had meant to pray that I might so pass through things temporal that I finally lost not the things eternal; I found I had prayed so to pass through things eternal that I finally lost not the things temporal.
Recently something similar happened to me. It was during Vespers, and we were praying the Lord’s Prayer. I said, “. . . Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, and lead us not into temptation . . .” Of course, I didn’t get all the way through because, when you are praying with a choir full of brothers and you make a mistake, it stands out. It only took me a few seconds to realize what I had forgotten: “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Why had I left out this part of the petition? Was the slip significant? At least I had meditation material for the next morning.
Now I don’t mean to be Freudian about this, but it does seem telling that I unconsciously left out that particular part of the prayer. Why? Well, it is the only part of the prayer that actually asks me to do something. All the other petitions ask something of God—for his kingdom to come, for his will to be done, for our deliverance of evil, etc. Even the first part of the petition I abridged is in this vein: “forgive us out trespasses.”
Yet the utter gratuity of God’s forgiveness is vitiated, so it might seem, by the second part of the petition: “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” St. Thomas minces no words about this in his Explanation of the Lord’s Prayer: “If you do not forgive, you shall not be forgiven.” If there is any part of the prayer I would like to leave off, this is certainly the part!
And yet, by focusing in this way on what is demanded of me, I can miss some important things. First, the Catechism teaches us that this condition (“If you do not forgive, you shall not be forgiven”) is not meant to scare or terrify us. Rather, it is meant to deepen our prayer:
It is impossible to keep the Lord’s commandment by imitating the divine model from the outside; there has to be a vital participation, coming from the depths of the heart, in the holiness and the mercy and the love of our God. Only the Spirit by whom we live can make ‘ours’ the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. (CCC 2842)
In other words, the condition laid upon the forgiveness of our sins is not so much a quid pro quo as an essential aspect of the development of our life in Christ. By forgiving others, we are more and more conformed to Christ. We might say that the practice of forgiveness does not earn us forgiveness, but rather perfects the forgiveness we already experience in Christ as members of his body. If it is an obligation, it is a joyous one, even if difficult at times, because it allows the forgiveness of Christ to work through and change our lives.
But what about when it is difficult to forgive? Is there good news for the weak-willed, the mere human beings among us? St. Thomas asks whether the one who does not intend to forgive his neighbor actually lies in the midst of his prayer. It seems this would be the case, but St. Thomas answers in the negative. Such a person, he says, does not lie “because he prays not in his own person, but in that of the Church which is not deceived, and therefore the petition itself is in the plural.” We do not pray the Lord’s Prayer alone, but with the Church and with Christ. This goodly company will make up for our weakness.
In short, we must guard against a solipsistic view of prayer. Prayer, especially the Lord’s Prayer, is never only about me. As we learn from the Catechism and St. Thomas, this prayer is about Jesus Christ and his Church, about growing in conformity with him and in communion with his members. And, slight as my “slip of the tongue” may seem, these are things that none of us would do well to repress.