Thy will be done.
Those four words have challenged and comforted Barb Tess, a petite baby boomer from Sheboygan, Wis., who lost her firstborn and her husband in the span of 28 months.
As she choked on waves of sorrow, she turned to the Our Father and imagined a future of service. “I prayed that God’s will be done and that my grief experiences could be used to educate and embrace others in their time of sorrow,” Tess told me.
She began blogging about life as a widow — the new house she moved into, the new puppy she bought, the new exercise regime she began — and her reflections became solace for other widowed Catholics.
When she began dating a widower she met online, a soft-spoken dad from Illinois, Tess made a habit of praying the rosary with him. The ancient words provided a steady rhythm for their fragile relationship, knotted by fear and affection and complicated family dynamics.
On her darkest days, when Tess felt short on air and out of words, these two prayers were the way forward: Our Father, Hail Mary.
Indeed, they are the most central prayers in Catholic devotion and the subject of Mark Shea’s fascinating 2012 book “The Heart of Catholic Prayer: Rediscovering the Our Father and the Hail Mary.” In 144 pages, Shea unpacks every phrase in these two prayers. The reader comes away with awe for their intricacy, neatly summarizing the Gospels and gently calling us to holiness.
“I was trying to help people see these prayers again and hear how extraordinary they are,” Shea said. “You can look at the same thing 100 times and not see it and then, suddenly, on the 101st time, you see it.”
I had never considered the interconnection between the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary before my conversation with Shea. The Lord’s Prayer was composed for disciples; the Hail Mary was composed by disciples. The Lord’s Prayer was handed from the top down, presented by Jesus himself, who says in the Gospel of Matthew, “This is how you are to pray.” The Hail Mary, meanwhile, grew from the bottom up, emerging out of popular piety with touchstones from both Gabriel and Elizabeth in the Gospel of Luke.
“It’s a prayer that in many ways is a mirror reflection of the Lord’s Prayer, which makes sense because Mary is sort of a mirror reflection to Jesus,” Shea said.
Protestants may question the function of memorized prayer, but in the wake of tragedy, some days Tess didn’t have words of her own. She found comfort in praying the same words her ancestors had uttered. She even used the same rosary her grandmother had clung to, caressing the beads and recalling a woman who had outlived three of her children.
“My grandmother never once lost faith or blamed God for her misfortune in life but instead found strength through prayer to the Virgin Mary,” Tess said.
Reciting prayer is a natural way of learning, said Shea, who described how his 2-year-old niece was repeating words like “please” and “thank you.” “That’s how we always teach our children. The whole point is not that she will grow up to be a parrot but to be a civilized human being. It starts with parrot talk. So what do we do? We start by saying, ‘Hallowed be thy name,’ which we aren’t thinking at all when we get up in the morning. I’m thinking about me, me, me! What do I want?”
Praise precedes petition, when we ask the Lord to give us our daily bread. And our plea for forgiveness comes with the promise to show others mercy, to keep cobwebs out of our hearts, no matter how gravely we’ve been wronged.
This is how you pray and this is how you live.
Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights.
For reflection: What iconic prayer is your favorite? Why?
State Capitol to the Cathedral of St. Paul