When meeting someone important, there is always one question that precedes every conversation: how do I address this person? Is it Your Highness, Your Excellency, Mr. President, simply Sir or Ma’am?
It’s not an idle question. The importance of the person in question creates a dissymmetry, something like an inequality. To disrespect this dissymmetry and inequality would be to disrespect their importance and position. A title and mode of address enable us to establish a relationship without pretending an imaginary equality, establishing a foundation to meet and converse with those greater than us without trepidation. Without that foundation, there can be no true encounter or relationship.
When I was a novice, I would visit the Little Sisters of the Poor at one of their assisted living homes, and would regularly talk to a retired bishop there. That was the first bishop I had frequent conversations with, and yet I never knew how to address him. He himself was unclear. As for my fellow novices and me, we were, as novices tend to be, clueless. And, in the end, I never really got to know this bishop well. Without a way to speak to him respectfully and at the same time straightforwardly, our conversations were painfully superficial.
So we should be incredibly grateful that God has taught us how to address him: our Father. There is no greater inequality than between creature and Creator. There is no greater intimacy than between God and his living temples. Intimacy and inequality are brought together in the single word, Father.
Not only has God given us his title, he has given us a sure way to converse with him in the prayer that Christ himself taught us. “Pray then, like this: Our Father” (Matt. 6:9). Call him Father, ask that his will be done, beg for your daily needs, petition for forgiveness and promise to forgive others, pray for deliverance from temptation and evil.
We recite this prayer often. It is on our lips almost every time we pray, as it should be. But “familiarity breeds contempt,” and we can forget that these words are a tremendous gift. So when you recite them, remember that through them we know how to address God and that he is not a stranger. He is our Father.
Image: Georges Rouget, Saint Louis médiateur entre le roi d’Angleterre et ses barons (public domain, PD-1923)