You might imagine you know the opening line of the Lord’s prayer; and you do, in a way.
‘Our father in heaven,’ as the modern version has it.
But Jesus spoke in Aramaic, of course, and as Neil Douglas-Klotz observes, a single word in Aramaic can often mean several different things.
So Shema, which appears in the opening line, can mean light, sound, name or atmosphere.
And when the root word shem becomes modified, its meanings may expand further.
So the word shem-aya can be translated as heaven…the ending implying something whose effects extend without limit.
But there are other possibilities in the Aramaic apart from heaven, and Douglas-Klotz poetically re-imagines the line, drawing on some of these.
‘O thou, the one from whom breath enters being in all radiant forms.’
Or, ‘O parent of the universe, from your deep interior comes the next wave of shining life.’
Or, ‘O fruitful, nurturing life-giver! Your sound rings everywhere throughout the cosmos!’
‘Our father in heaven’ is succinct, and is to be applauded for that.
But it lacks the rich nuances of the Aramaic, which would have been heard by the original listeners.
It isn’t that our English translations are wrong; they’re just limited. They can’t hold the spiritual possibilities of the original Aramaic which Jesus taught in – even for one line of the Lord’s Prayer.
‘Metaphorically,’ says Douglas-Klotz, ‘they are like fruit juice that has been strained trough a very fine filter and heated, leaving all the valuable vitamins, minerals, trace elements and pulp behind.’
I am struck by the way Greek divides reality in a way that Aramaic doesn’t.
So in Greek, we have mind, body and spirit, each separated out. On one level, this helps analysis, which much of western life is built upon.
But on another level, it fragments a unity with some savagery and, in so doing, becomes a falsehood.
In Aramaic, for instance, one preposition must describe both my relationship within, (my emotional life, my subconscious) and among (as in my exterior social community.)
This has profound (and exhilarating) implications.
Inner health and outer relationship become one. The mystical and the prophetic cease to be two different callings, and become one calling – two aspects of the same ripeness of spirit.
With the help of the Aramaic, we have the contemplative prophet, which, in Healthy Land, is the only type of contemplative or prophet there can be.
As I listen to my own life, this melting of what I sense as artificial compartments feels more truthful. Everything relates.
So we notice that language both serves, and doesn’t serve, on our journey. Sometimes, even in scripture, it is the victory of theological organisation over life and possibility.
There is certainly a gospel beneath the gospels, that we need to breathe into… one more poetic, less defined, less organised, more true.
(This and more is explored in the book, ‘The Hidden Gospel’ by Neil Douglas-Klotz.)