Advice from the Saints: The Lord’s Prayer

The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer that “contains the fullness of perfection.”

The ‘Our Father’ is a short formula, a model prayer.  It does not contain requests for riches, or any suggestion of honors sought.  There are no demands for authority or power.  There is no mention of the health of the body nor of temporal life.  The Architect of eternity does not want us to ask for anything fleeting, and it would be an insult to his generosity to neglect the riches of eternal life and ask for something transitory instead.  Such baseness of mind would earn the wrath rather than the favor of the Judge.

The ‘Our Father’ contains all the fullness of perfection, inasmuch as the Lord himself has given it to us, both as a model and also as a precept.  Those who are familiar with this prayer are raised by it to a very lofty condition, namely that ‘prayer of fire’ which very few know by direct experience and which it is impossible to describe.

The ‘prayer of fire’ transcends all human feeling.  There are no longer sounds of the voice nor movements of the tongue nor articulated words.  The soul is completely imbued with divine light.  Human language, always inadequate, is no use any more.  But in the soul is a spring bubbling over, and prayer gushing out from it leaps up to God.  The soul expresses in a single instant many things which could only be described or remembered with difficulty when it has returned to its normal condition.

Our Lord has traced an outline of this mystical state in this formula, the ‘Our Father’ that contains various supplications, and also in the hours he spent alone on the mountain side, and in the silent prayer of his agony in the moment when he even sweated blood through the unique intensity of his unity with the Father.

– St. John Cassian, Conferences 9:24ff

Our Father…

Anyone with a bit of good sense would not make so bold as to call God by the name of Father until he had come to be like him.

It is impossible for God who is goodness in his very being to be father to someone of evil will.  It is impossible for the Holy One to be father of a depraved person.  It is impossible for the Giver of life to have as a child one whose sin has subjected him to death.

So if one of us, in examining himself, discovers that his conscience is covered in mud and needs to be cleansed, he cannot allow himself such familiarity with God.  First he must be purified.

Then why, in this prayer of his, does the Lord Jesus teach us to call God by the name of Father?  I suppose that, in suggesting this word, he is only putting before our eyes the holiest life as the criterion of our behavior.

– St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Lord’s Prayer, 2.

…Who art in heaven…

These words I think have a very deep meaning.  They remind us of the homeland we have abandoned, of the citizenship we have lost.

In the parable of the young man who left his father’s house, went off the rails and was reduced to living with pigs, the Word of God shows us human wretchedness.  That young man did not find his one-time happiness again until he had realized his moral degradation, had looked into his own heart and had pronounced the words of confession.  These words almost agree with the Lord’s Prayer, because the prodigal son says: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you’ [Luke 15:21].

He would not confess himself to be a sinner against heaven if he were not convinced that the homeland he had left at the time of his going astray were not in actual fact heaven.

By this confession of his, he makes himself worthy once again to stand in the presence of his father who runs toward him, embraces him, and kisses him.

The conclusion is this.  To return to heaven there is only one route and that is to admit one’s sinfulness and seek to avoid it.  To make the decision to avoid it is already to be perfecting one’s likeness to God.

– St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Lord’s Prayer, 2.

… hallowed be thy Name.

What is the meaning of the words ‘name’ and ‘hallow’?

‘Name’ denotes the proper and exclusive nature of the being that carries it and indicates the general effect of its qualities.  In human beings these qualities can change, and with them their names too.  Abram came to be called Abraham, Simon became Peter, and Saul’s name was changed to Paul.  By contrast in the case of God who is immutable, who never changes, there is but one name, the ‘I Am’ that was given him in Exodus [3:14].  We all endeavor to reflect on God to understand his nature, but they are few indeed that succeed in sensing his holiness.

Jesus’ prayer teaches us that God is holy.  It helps us to discover the holiness of the Being that creates, provides, judges, chooses and abounds in generosity, welcomes and rejects, rewards and punishes equally.  This is what characterizes the quality that belongs to God, the quality that the Scriptures call by the name of God.

Therefore in the Scriptures we read: ‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain’ [Exodus 20:7] and again: ‘May my teaching drop as the rain, my speech distill as the dew, as the gentle rain upon the tender grass, and as the showers upon the herb, for I will proclaim the name of the Lord’ [Deuteronomy 32:2].

Anyone who prays ought therefore to ask that the name of God may be hallowed, as is said also in the Psalms: ‘let us exalt his name together’ [34:3].  The Psalmist hopes that we may arrive, in harmony of spirit, at a true understanding of the nature of God.

– Origen, On Prayer, 24:1.

Thy kingdom come.

‘The kingdom of God is within us,’ that is, on our lips and in our hearts [Luke 17:21].  Therefore anyone who prays that the kingdom of God may not delay its coming is praying that it may be consolidated, extended, and reach its fullness within him.  Our Lord in fact dwells in all holy people who recognize God as their king and obey his spiritual laws.  The Father is present in the perfect soul and Christ reigns together with the Father, according to his own actual word ‘If someone loves me… we will come to him and make our home with him’ [John 14:23].

The kingdom will not reach its fullness in each of us until wisdom and the other virtues are perfected in us.  Perfection is reached at the end of a journey, so we ought to be ‘forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead’ [Philippians 3:13].

In other words, on the one hand the believer is a tireless traveler and on the other hand the kingdom of God will reach its completion in us only when the words of the Apostle are fulfilled: ‘When he has subjected all things, Christ will deliver up the kingdom to the Father, that God may be all in all’ [1 Corinthians 15:24-28].

Let us subdue our members to produce the fruits of the Spirit.  Then the Lord will walk with us as in a spiritual paradise.  He alone will reign in us, together with Christ.  And we shall already possess the benefits of the new birth and of the resurrection.

– Origen, On Prayer, 25.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

We who are praying are still on earth ourselves.  And since we reckon that all the inhabitants of heaven fulfill the will of God in heaven, it comes naturally to us to ask that we too on earth should succeed in fulfilling the divine will.  That will come about, logically, if we do nothing outside that will.

When we have perfectly accomplished it, although we are still remaining on earth we shall be like the heavenly beings and will bear equally with them the image of the heavenly Being [1 Corinthians 15:49].

In the end we shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.  Those who come to take our place on earth will ask that they too may become like us who are then in heaven.

In addition it is recorded that our Lord after his resurrection said to the eleven Apostles: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ [Matthew 28:18].  Jesus claimed in short to have received authority on earth equal to that which he has in heaven.  The things of heaven, at the beginning, have been illuminated by the Word.  And at the end of time, thanks to the authority granted to the Son of God, the things of earth will be like those of heaven which is already perfect.

So then it is clear that Christ is calling his disciples to work faithfully with him by means of their prayers.  That all earthly events may come to be transformed by the authority that Christ has received both in heaven and on earth, this ought to be our prayer.

– Origen, On Prayer, 26.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Bread represents life, and bread is easy to get.  Moreover, nature herself gives us something to put on it to make it more tasty.  The best thing to eat with bread is the peace of a good conscience.  Then the bread is eaten with gusto, because it is being eaten in holiness of life.

But if you want to experience the taste of bread otherwise than in symbolic description, in the physical sense in fact, you have hunger to eat it with.  Therefore, first of all, don’t eat too much: you would lose your appetite for a long time.  And then, let your dinner be preceded by sweat.  ‘In the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread,’ is the first commandment mentioned in the Scriptures [Genesis 3:19].

The Lord’s Prayer speaks of ‘daily’ bread.  In saying that, let us remember that the life in which we ought to be interested is ‘daily’ life.  We can, each of us, only call the present time our own.  Why should we worry ourselves by thinking about the future?

Our Lord tells us to pray for today, and so he prevents us from tormenting ourselves about tomorrow.  It is as if he were to say to us: ‘He who gives you this day will also give you what you need for this day.  He it is who makes the sun to rise.  He it is who scatters the darkness of night and reveals to you the rays of the sun.’

– St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Lord’s Prayer, 4.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

The mercy of God is beyond description.  While he is offering us a model prayer he is teaching us a way of life whereby we can be pleasing in his sight.

But that is not all.  In this same prayer he gives us an easy method for attracting an indulgent and merciful judgment on our lives.  He gives us the possibility of ourselves mitigating the sentence hanging over us and of compelling him to pardon us.  What else could he do in the face of our generosity when we ask him to forgive us as we have forgiven our neighbor? *

If we are faithful in this prayer, each of us will ask forgiveness for our own failings after we have forgiven the sins of those who have sinned against us.  I mean those who have sinned against us, not only those who have sinned against our Master.

There is, in fact, in some of us a very bad habit.  We treat our sins against God, however appalling, with gentle indulgence: but when by contrast it is a matter of sins against ourselves, albeit very tiny ones, we exact reparation with ruthless severity.

Anyone who has not forgiven from the bottom of his heart the brother or sister who has done him wrong will only obtain from this prayer his own condemnation, rather than any mercy.  It will be his own action that draws a much more severe judgment on himself, seeing that in effect by these words we are asking God to behave as we have behaved ourselves.

– St. John Cassian, Conferences, 9:22

* I wouldn’t take Cassian strictly at face value here and assume that our actions directly determine God’s actions.  He is a sovereign God and cannot be compelled to any action or conclusion by his creation.  What Cassian, I believe, is pointing out, is that in the context of our relationship with God, he has made certain promises to us, and has placed certain expectations upon us, and in that sense (as he goes on to describe) what we forgive has bearing upon what is forgiven of us.

And lead us not into temptation…

The request “Lead us not into temptation’ raises a difficult problem.  If we pray God not to allow us to be tempted, what opportunity shall we have to give him proof of our steadfastness and fidelity?  For it is written: ‘Blessed is the one who endures temptation and overcomes it’ [James 1:12].

Then what is the meaning of this phrase?  It does not mean: do not allow us to come into temptation.  It means: when we come into temptation, let us not be defeated by it.

This assessment may seem like a contradiction with this line of the Lord’s Prayer, but it makes sense when you consider the next and final line, “deliver us from evil.”

Job was tempted but he did not give way to the temptation.  In fact, he did not accuse the divine Wisdom, he did not go down the road of blasphemy to which the Tempter wanted to attract him.  Abraham was tempted, and Joseph was tempted.  But neither one nor the other yielded to the temptation, because neither of them said ‘yes’ to the Tempter.

So praying the Lord’s Prayer is like saying: ‘Together with the temptation, give us also the strength overcome it’ [1 Corinthians 10:13].

– St. John Cassian, Conferences, 9:23.

…but deliver us from evil.

The Lord’s Prayer has an ending which neatly summarizes the different requests.  We say actually at the end: ‘But deliver us from evil,’ understanding by such an expression everything that the Enemy can devise against us in this world.

One certain conviction we have: that God is a powerful support since he grants his help to anyone who asks for it.  Consequently, when we say: “Deliver us from evil,” there is nothing else left for us to ask.  Invoking the protection of God against evil means asking for everything we need.

This prayer secures us against any kind of machination of the devil and of the world.  Who could be afraid of the world if he has God as his protector?

You see, brothers and sisters, how amazing the Lord’s Prayer is.  it is truly a compendium of all the requests we could possibly make.

Our Lord Jesus Christ who came for all people, for the wise as for the ignorant, without distinction of sex or age, reduces the precepts of salvation to the essential minimum.  He wants even the simplest to be able to understand and remember him.

– St. Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lord’s Prayer


About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about spiritual formation, theology, biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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