I’m interested in things that appear to be communication but which in practice communicate almost nothing. Here is a good example. During my years at primary (5-11 years) school, we had to say “the Lord’s Prayer” almost every day, as part of the vaguely um-Christian ethos that tends to be around in such schools; therefore, I spent a few hours with this text each year. I am sure that the teachers thought that we were getting something from this, and that we knew what it meant. Here is what I got out of it:
Our Father, which art in heaven
Bizarrely, given the misunderstandings below, I think I basically understood this, despite the obscurity of the grammatical construct “which art in” and the use of “Father” for “God”.
hallowed be thy name
I had no idea what this meant. If pressed, I might have thought that “hallowed” was “hollowed” but where I would have taken this thought I don’t know.
Thy kingdom come,
No idea what this meant.
Thy will be done
I didn’t really understand the basic idea that a prayer was “talking to God”. I thought that this was some kind of “God’s voice” making some vague threat, interpreting “will be done” dialectically as “will be told off”. I thought that this meant something like “you’ll be in trouble with God if you don’t behave”. I had no idea that the word “will” was anything other than the verb.
On earth, as it is in heaven.
I had some vague idea that this meant that earth is more-or-less the same as heaven.
Give us this day, our daily bread
I didn’t get the synecdoche of “daily bread” as representing food, and thought that this was a well-meaning but obscure concern on behalf of God.
and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us
I only knew the word “trespass” from “no trespassing” signs. Whenever we got to this pair of lines, a particular mind’s eye image of a “no trespassing” sign in the fog came to mind (I can still picture this to this day). I thought that it was basically about not walking on land that I wasn’t meant to, and not being too bothered if people took a short-cut across our garden. I remember thinking that this was a pretty obscure topic to occupy two whole lines of what I was told was the most important prayer in Christianity.
and lead us not into temptation
Don’t really remember how I interpreted this, if at all.
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever,
I kinda understood this—but, it was always said with a kind of upward, crescendoey sweep, and I think I felt it was more of a sound-gesture than anything meaningful.
I remember being told as a very little kid that we say “amen” at the end of prayers as an abbreviation of “all men”, i.e. we are saying something like “and this is something that all men (people) should believe”. I have no idea to this day whether that is true, but it sounds a bit hokey to me (I’ll look this up in a minute).
So, there we are. About two lines fully understood, several others grievously misinterpreted. I don’t think that this constant rote-repetition of this helped me to get any closer to God—indeed, it probably set in my mind the idea that God was some obscurantist who was obsessed with bread and walking across other people’s gardens. But, I do remember it word-for-word, even to this day!