A medieval prayer practice changed the Lord's Prayer for me -- and it might for you

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For a long time, the Lord’s Prayer (also known as Our Father) seemed like an old, outdated pair of pants to me. It didn’t really fit anymore.

Pulling an old pair of pants out of my closet, I ask myself: Did I ever think these looked good? Looking at the Lord’s Prayer, I asked myself: Did I ever think “lead us not into temptation” made sense?

When I’m not sure what to wear, when everything else is dirty, when I’m too lazy to think about really getting dressed, there’s that pair of pants. At least I know where it sags, where the holes are. It’s predictable. So long as I don’t pay too much attention – no lingering in the mirror – it might get me through the day.

That’s how it was for me with the Lord’s Prayer for a decade or more. But over the last year, things are changing, and I find myself going back to the Lord’s Prayer – or, rather, I find that it’s surfacing anew within me.

It’s hard to describe how surprising this is, or how welcome. The prayer Jesus taught his disciples has become available in a new way, thanks to its presence in a 1,000-year old device that some friends and I have dubbed the Prayer Wheel.

Life is complex. My work is hard. Relationships are tricky. I need help. Sitting with that recognition has allowed me to acknowledge something I need, and it’s helped me receive the wisdom I hope that I have been given.

The Prayer Wheel is a circular diagram that was originally designed by a nun or monk sometime in the 11th century. The designer placed it on the cover page of an even older manuscript of the four New Testament Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Diagrams such as this one were a feature of medieval Christian culture for several hundred years – circles crammed with scripture, theological concepts, and reminders of Bible stories. In a pre-literate age, these were memorization devices, something you could use to absorb vital spiritual ideas.

“Absorb” is key. For ancient Christians, putting something to memory was a way to internalize concepts. Once internalized, those concepts would not just sit there idly. They would act on people, forming them. Diagrams like the Prayer Wheel were meant to help people digest a bunch of information that could have a lasting, life-shaping effect.

Here’s how it works:

The Prayer Wheel is made of concentric bands. Each band contains a classic scriptural passage or concept. First, the Lord’s Prayer. Second, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, along with a key event from the Christ story. Third, the Beatitudes. Each of these is split into seven individual sections, so that the constituent elements of each band become their own string of words – one Lord’s Prayer phrase, one gift, one event and one Beatitude.

So now each string of words is a path to follow in meditation and prayer. Take the first phrase of the Lord’s Prayer: “Holy is your name.” Instead of going to “Thy kingdom come,” you’d go to the gift: wisdom. You’d ask for wisdom, perhaps pausing to consider just how you need wisdom in your life on any given day.

Then you might meditate on the Christ event – in this case, the Incarnation – and the Beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” The Beatitude is split into its own two sections, so that you cross over the center of the wheel – which is labeled “God” – as you read it.

There’s much to explore here already – poetic associations between the incarnation of Jesus and “children of God,” for instance. Sit with that for a few minutes, and you may find that it opens up all sorts of possibilities for reflection.

But for me, the brilliance of this first path is the combination of “Holy is your name” and the gift of wisdom. Those two concepts have become twinned in my mind.

Now, any time I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I pause here, right at the beginning, and ask for wisdom. Once I ask for it, I realize how much I crave it, how necessary and urgent wisdom is for me, given what I’m facing on any particular day.

Life is complex. My work is hard. Relationships are tricky. I need help. Sitting with that recognition has allowed me to acknowledge something I need, and it’s helped me receive the wisdom I hope that I have been given.

I could say the same about other parts of the Lord’s Prayer. Asking for daily bread has become for me a prayer for fortitude, or strength, and a chance to pray for justice in the world. Take a look at that section of the Prayer Wheel and you will see why.

Praying for forgiveness has me meditating regularly on the resurrection. And so the Lord’s Prayer is now something I pause in more than I get through. If it was a quarter mile track before, now the Lord’s Prayer is like a mountain trail, with offshoots every few steps, where I can wander off the trail. Sometimes, I come back to the main trail, but just as often I keep wandering, delaying the Amen.

The Wheel seems a little complicated at first, I know. But the more you sit with it, the more legible all this becomes. For me, living in our distracted age, the wheel’s initial complexity is one of its most compelling features. It brings everything to a standstill, and calls for deep focus.

In effect, the Prayer Wheel takes major Christian spiritual tools, breaks them down into individual pieces, and uses the pieces to form new paths of prayer and meditation. The result is inspired associations between these disparate elements of scripture – associations that leave us asking new questions, exploring new possibilities and praying new prayers.

By returning us to prayers that have gotten old and gone cold, The Prayer Wheel helps us to encounter them as a fresh new conversation with God.