The Our Father
by Father Reginald Martin, O.P.
The Perfect Prayer
In his Account of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, Saint Matthew records the
Fifty-Four (54) Words that we call either "The Our Father" or
"The Lord's Prayer" (Matthew 6:9-13). Composed as it is of the
Savior's Own Words, this Prayer demands our attention, and Sets the Example for all other
Saint Thomas Aquinas writes at some length on Prayer in the Summa Theologica. When he
considers the "Lord's Prayer", he quotes Saint Augustine, who remarks,
"If we Pray Rightly and Fittingly, we can say nothing else but what is contained in this Prayer of Our
Lord" (II-II, 83.9). Saint Thomas teaches that our
Prayer can only express a Desire for something Good, and since
the "Our Father" consists of Jesus' Own Words, we have
Our Savior's own Guarantee that we are seeking everything we may Properly Desire when we offer this
But Saint Thomas says we should also look at the 'Way' the "Our Father" is
Structured. The 'Order' of the Petitions gives us the 'Order' in which we ought to Desire the Good Things
that God offers us. The "Lord's Prayer", thus, not only
teaches us What to Pray for, but teaches us the way we ought to ask for the things we desire.
Before we consider the words of "The Our Father" in some depth, let us first consider some
General Observations on Prayer.
The Ends and Means of Prayer
When we Pray we do not ask God to bend
His Will so that it corresponds to ours. Rather, we ask for a
Clearer Understanding of His Love, which gives us the confidence to approach
Him in Prayer, and which reveals His Will for us. The
first thing we must desire is God, so the "Our Father"
begins by praising God's Glory, and then asks that we may share it.
As the Prayer continues, we ask God to give us what we need to Help
us come to His Everlasting Life, and we ask Him to remove the
Obstacles that prevent us from devoting ourselves whole-heartedly to His Will.
The Five Conditions of Prayer:
- Confidence -
Throne of Grace
Scripture is filled with Admonitions that encourage us to approach God with Trust.
"Let us go with confidence to the Throne of Grace" (Hebrews 4:16),
"let him ask in Faith, with no doubting" (James 1:6), and when we say the words of
the Our Father during the Mass, the Celebrant invites us to
"Pray with Confidence".
The words of the "Our Father" are Jesus' own words,
and we Pray them because they are the words Jesus Commanded us
to use. Simply knowing that we are following Jesus' Instructions should provide Assurance that
God will hear us. But the Privilege of using Jesus' own words is
an additional Sign of His Friendship. One of the Church's early
Theologians, Saint Cyprian, remarked, "to plead with the Lord in His own
Words betokens the Prayer
of an Intimate and Devoted Friend".
- Rectitude - and
- Order -
Saint John Damascene, another of the Church's early Theologians, taught,
"to pray is to ask fitting things of God". This may seem obvious, but we need only consider
some of our requests to realize that Praying Rightly is a more Challenging Task than it appears.
Saint Paul noted the Necessity of the Holy Spirit's Assistance in our
Prayers, "for we do not know how to pray as we ought" (Romans 8:26), and
Saint James reminds us that we often Pray for what we Want, not necessarily what we Need.
"You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it
on your Passions" (James 4:2, 3).
To use Our Savior's Words is to Pray with the Confidence that
we are asking God for the Gifts proper to
His Children. And because the "Lord's Prayer" asks first for
God's Will to be done, and only then for what will Satisfy our Physical Needs, we have the additional Confidence that we are
Praying in the manner Jesus desires when
He Commands, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and His Justice, and all these things shall be added
unto you" (Matthew 6:33).
- Devotion -
The Dictionary defines Devotion as "Religious Ardor or Zeal; Ardent attachment or Affection".
This definition reminds us that our Prayer should be characterized by 'Depth' rather than 'Length'.
Jesus introduces the "Lord's Prayer" by warning
His Disciples not to "heap up Empty Phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think
they will be heard for their many words" (Matthew 6:7). Saint Augustine repeats this Admonition,
"Beware of Praying with many words: it is Fervent Attention that secures a Hearing".
Saint John Chrysostom makes a similar point. He notes that Scripture commands us to "be Constant
in Prayer" (Romans 12:13), and makes a helpful distinction between the 'Length' of our
Prayer and the 'Devotion' with which we should Pray.
He seems to me to Command ... that neither should we make our Prayers Long; Long, I mean, not in Time, but
in the Number and Length of the things mentioned ... Perseverance ... in the same requests is our duty.
Saint Thomas asserts that 'Devotion' arises from Charity, which is our Friendship for
God. God's Love enables us to Love
Him in return, and then to Love Creation as God
Loves it. In the "Lord's Prayer" we express our
Love for God by calling Him
"Father"; at the same time, we express our Love for
God's Creation by asking Him to "Forgive
our Trespasses", i.e., the Offenses we have committed against others by not
Loving them as we should.
- Humility -
Jesus contrasted the Example of the Pharisee's Prayer
to that of a Sinner, and concluded His Parable with the words,
"every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted"
(Luke 18:14). The Sinner in this story won Jesus' Praise
for the Simplicity of his Prayer, "God, be merciful to me, a
sinner". In the "Lord's Prayer" we likewise express our Utter Dependence
on God's Mercy, and we do so in the Simplest possible Terms.
The Benefits of Prayer:
Remedy for Evil
The Scripture contains many examples of Prayer's ability to
Cleanse Sinners from the Punishment due
their Sinful Actions. Perhaps the most compelling of these examples is that of the so-called
"Good" Thief, who
begs Jesus for Mercy, and whom
Jesus assures that he will share
His Life in Heaven. But Prayer is also a
Protection against Falling into Sin, as Saint James Counsels,
when he writes, "Is any one of you in trouble, let him Pray" (James 5:13).
The Object we Desire
The Gospel is filled with Assurances that our Prayers will be answered.
Jesus tells His Disciples, "whatever you ask for in Prayer,
believe that you will receive it and you will" (Mark 11:24). Experience, however, teaches that
God does not always give us what we ask for. The reason, Saint Thomas suggests, is that we do not ask for what is useful
to our Salvation, and Saint Augustine reminds us that God
may not grant a request "so as to bestow something preferable".
Friendship with God
The Virtue of Justice is the Habit of giving each person what he deserves. Because
God is Infinitely Greater than we are, we may not think of Justice in
our dealings with God. However, our Acts of Worship are nothing more than
God deserves. Prayer is an expression of our Willingness to offer
God an acceptable Gift; at the same time, Prayer expresses our Confidence, Trust, and Love. Therefore,
Prayer enables us to grow in the Affection we show God, and equips us better
to receive God's Love in return.
To call God "Father", as we do in the
Lord's Prayer, expresses a Relation between God and us. Saint
Augustine wrote, " ... by that appellation ... love is stirred up - for what ought to be dearer to
sons than a father?"
Moreover, we call God "Father" because
He Created us - and created us in a special way: in His Image
and Likeness. This is a Privilege not granted the rest of Earthly Creation, and it admits us to an intimacy with
God that He did not give His other Earthly Creatures.
We also call God "Father" because - like a Human Parent -
He guides our Actions. The rest of Earthly Creation follows God's Will
without Choice or Thought; God allows us to Choose to serve Him,
Men and Angels, including Satan, were created by God in His Image and Likeness.
Because of this we are all called to Act like God. Satan and his followers abused their Freedom and chose not to Act like God.
Finally, we call God "Father" because
He has made us His Children. This may seem no more than common
sense, but we must consider what it means to be God's Child. A child is not simply a small
person; as a Legal Entity, a child enjoys certain rights, including the Right of Inheritance. To call God
"Father" acknowledges the Greatness of God's Love for
us, and expresses the confidence that we are Legitimate Heirs to His Kingdom, a Privilege not
granted to Slaves, Clients, or Hired Hands.
Every word of our Prayer is important, and Saint John Chrysostom reminds us that
"by saying not 'my Father', which art in Heaven, but 'our Father'", the
"Lord's Prayer" creates a Bond among God's Children,
in which an individual "nowhere [looks] to his own, but everywhere to his Neighbor's Good".
This point must not be underestimated: to offer the "Lord's Prayer" worthily we implicitly
acknowledge both an Equality among all People, and a Willingness to be reconciled to our Neighbor - even our
Enemies. Chrysostom writes,
... by this, He at once takes away Hatred, and quells Pride, and casts out Envy, and brings in the mother
of all good things, even Charity, and exterminates the inequality of human things, and show how far the equality reaches between the
king and the poor man ... in those things which are greatest and most indispensable we are all of us fellows ... For to all hath He
given one Nobility, having vouchsafed to be called the Father of all alike.
We do not know how the words of the "Lord's Prayer" struck those who heard
Jesus' great Sermon on the Mount, but we may imagine how startling the Saints' reflections on
Our Lord's Words must have sounded to their contemporaries. Saint Augustine warns,
Here ... is an admonition to the rich and those of noble birth ... when they have become Christians they
should not comport themselves proudly towards the poor ... since together with them they call God "Our Father", - an
expression which they cannot truly and piously use, unless they recognize that they themselves are Brethren.
Our World no longer admits the Rigid Class Distinctions that characterized life in Augustine's or Chrysostom's day, but
we do not have to look far to discern Ethnic Tensions in our Society, or very real signs of
Inequality and Hostility among groups of individuals. Saint
Augustine reminds us that each of us stands equally Poor and
Unworthy before God Whom we call Our Father -
"a relationship which can be brought about by no expenditure of ours, but solely by God's Goodwill".
Our Radical Equality before God challenges us to look beyond the differences that divide us, and to
embrace one another in the common Poverty of Spirit that Unites us before the Immensity of God.
Our Rights and Obligations
God gives us the Privilege of addressing Him as
"Father", a Title that expresses His Concern,
Compassion, and Love for us. We may profitably inquire what God asks in return from the individuals
He has thus Blessed.
A Fourfold Debt:
- Honor -
We are commanded to Honor our Human Parents, and we must show our
Father in Heaven the same Honor. This means giving
God the Praise due Him, and by living as Beings created in
His Likeness. Our Growth in Virtue, our practice of the
Works of Mercy, our growing closer to God in
Prayer are the common means by which we pay Our Father this
Honor He deserves.
- Imitation - and
- Obedience -
As children we were all taught, "beauty is as beauty does". If we are created in
God's Image, we not only Look like
God, we ought to Act as He does. Saint Paul
urges the Ephesians, "Be ye Imitators of God as most dear children and walk in Love"
(Ephesians 5: 1).
Here we must remember that imitating God is an Active Process. Mercy
is not simply Sorrow for another, but Sorrow coupled with some
Action to relieve another's Distress.
God showed us the Greatest Mercy by taking on our Human Nature; we must employ this same
Human Nature to establish - to whatever extent we can - God's Kingdom on Earth. We achieve this Goal
as Jesus did, by being made, as Jesus was,
"Obedient to the Father unto death" (Philippians 2:8).
- Patience -
"My son, reject not the correction of the Lord ... for whom the Lord loves, He chastens"
(Proverbs 3:11). God's Plans are often obscure, and we frequently chafe under the delay that
accompanies God's Answer to our Prayers. The final way we manifest
the intimacy of our Relation with God is to abandon our own notion of what we need and when we
should expect it. To wait is never easy; to wait in Hope is to experience Complete Trust in
God's Providential Love.