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The Perfect Prayer
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
By every standard of comparison, the most popular prayer in existence is the Our Father. Not only Catholics and Protestants, but Mohammedans and Jews, admire the Lord's Prayer for its intrinsic beauty, and declare it to be the finest expression of Christian spirituality. 1 An interesting sidelight on this popularity is furnished by the numerous polyglot collections of the Our Father which have been published at various times since the invention of printing. The most famous are those of John Chamberlayne in the early eighteenth century (in 150 different languages), and of Padre Hervaz (in 307 dialects and tongues), first published in 1787.
According to St. Augustine, whatever else we say when we pray, if we pray as we should, we are only saying what is already contained in the Lord's Prayer. 2 The recitation of the Our Father has been woven into the fabric of popular devotion since the days of the catacombs; it forms an integral part of the Canonical Hours, and has been so closely associated with the Sacrifice of the Mass that at least one Father of the Church, St. Gregory the Great, has been falsely accused of identifying the formula of consecration with the words of the Pater Noster.
But if the Our Father is the most popular prayer that we have, is it also the most perfect? And if it is perfect, why? Why, in other words, are the ancient Fathers and modern Saints so rhapsodical in their praise of the Lord's Prayer, calling it an epitome of the Gospels, 3 a compendium of the Faith, 4 the hallmark of predestination? 5 Is this rhetoric or is it reason? And if reason, what are the reasons? There are many.
Divine Authorship of the Lord's Prayer
Christ Himself is the Author of the Lord's Prayer, which in itself is its, highest recommendation, since no one under God knows better than Jesus Christ how we ought to pray. "The same Lord who made us," says Cyprian, "also taught us how to pray, so that our petitions will be more easily heard, when we speak to the Father in the words offered to us by his Son. 6 The early Church recognized this divine authority, and therefore prescribed that all the faithful should recite the Lord's Prayer at least three times a day. 7 In the seventh century, the Council of Toledo in one of its Canons decrees that "no Christian worthy of the name should omit the frequent recitation of the Lord's Prayer, which is so highly commended by the Fathers." In the ninth century, the Council of Rheims passed a law forbidding any Catholic, under penalty of sin, "... not to know the Our Father, not to understand its meaning, and not to use it often in his prayers."
Attitude of Rationalists Towards the Prayer
It is significant that rationalists like Harnack have argued that Christ must be more than merely human to have expressed Himself in sentiments like those of the Lord's Prayer. "His words," Harnack says of Christ, "speak to us across the centuries with the freshness of the present. It is here that that profound saying is truly verified: `Speak, that I may see thee.' Sublime indeed, and born of superhuman wisdom and celestial holiness is the teaching of Jesus Christ, and consequently He Himself must be more than a mere man." 8 On the other hand, others like Kohler question whether Christ ever composed the Our Father. It may be only an insertion of later writers, he suggests. But then, along with denying the Lord's Prayer, he wants to deny most of the Gospels, which the worst enemies of Christianity are willing to admit. Some have also asserted that the Christian formula is a plagiarism from Jewish sources. It is true that a superficial resemblance exists between the Lord's Prayer and Hebrew formularies supposedly current about the time of Christ. But the resemblance is more apparent than real, and besides, there is no satisfactory evidence that the Jewish prayers were really in existence in the lifetime of Christ. Orthodox Jews themselves disclaim any radical dependence of the Our Father on Jewish sources. "The Lord's Prayer," writes Felix Levy, "owes much to Jewish thought. Many of its ideas are Jewish and its phraseology closely resembles that uttered by Jewish teachers. But the choice and grouping of the phrases are original, and the whole bears the mark of the special Christian theology. It therefore is a Christian rather than a Jewish prayer." 9
Remarkable Brevity and Scope of the Prayer
The brevity of the Our Father is remarkable, because for the number and sublimity of its petitions it could hardly be any shorter. The special merit of this brevity is that it can be easily memorized. Moreover, as Bellarmine points out, we are thereby reminded that there is no need of much talking when we pray, since we are speaking to God who knows what we need before we ask Him, but that what is necessary is a great devotion and fervor of spirit. 10 St. Peter Canisius found in the Our Father a proof for the infinite wisdom of Christ, who compressed into a few words all the desires and aspirations of the human heart in its intimate converse with God. 11 In the old monastic rules, the lay Brothers who did not understand Latin were enjoined to recite the Lord's Prayer a certain number of times up to a hundred or more a day. To keep a record of these repetitions they made use of pebbles or beads strung on a cord, which was called a Pater Noster. Later on, the name was retained even when such a string of beads was not used to count Our Fathers but Hail Marys, in reciting the decades of the Rosary.
St. Thomas on the Perfection of the Prayer
The perfection of the Our Father is unique because it comprehends everything which it behooves us to ask of God as either necessary or useful for salvation. Its seven petitions have been variously compared to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, to the seven Sacraments, and to the three theological and four cardinal virtues of the New Law. The arrangement alone, says Bellarmine, is enough to suggest from whence it came. Against the objection that the petitions are not fittingly assigned, St. Thomas answers that: "The authority of Christ who composed the Lord's Prayer is sufficient to forestall any criticism of its makeup." But more than merely fitting, "the structure of the Our Father is perfect. For since prayer is an interpretation of our desires, we should only pray for those things which are proper for us to desire. Now, in the Lord's Prayer what we are asking for from God is everything that we may lawfully ambition. It is, therefore, not only a catalog of petitions but also, and especially, a corrective for the affections. Thus, the first object of our desires is our last end; then, the means to arrive at this end. But our end is God, to whom our affections incline in two ways: the one in desiring the glory of God, the other in wishing to enjoy this divine glory. The first belongs to charity by which we love God in Himself; the second to charity by which we love ourselves in God. So, the first petition, Hallowed be Thy name, asks for the glory of God; and the second, Thy kingdom come, asks that we may come to the enjoyment of this glory.
"Moreover, we are directed to the end of our existence either by something which is essential or by something which is accidental as a means of salvation. However, it can be essential again either directly, according to the merit by which we deserve beatitude because we are obedient to God, and in this sense we ask: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven: or it may be only instrumental although essential because it helps us to merit heaven. And in this respect we say: Give us this day our daily bread, whether we understand this of the Sacramental Bread of the Eucharist, the daily use of which is profitable to salvation, or of the bread of the body, which is symbolic for a sufficiency of food.
"We are also directed to heaven accidentally, by the removal of obstacles that stand in the way. There are three such obstacles to beatitude; (1) sin, which directly excludes a man from the kingdom of God. Therefore we pray: Forgive us our trespasses; (2) temptation, which leads us into sin. Hence our sixth petition: Lead us not into temptation; (3) temporal evils, the consequence of sin, which make the burden of life too heavy. Consequently, our final petition: Deliver us from evil. 12
St. Thomas on the Structure of the Prayer
The structure of the Lord's Prayer, according to St. Thomas, can be schematized as follows, where each successive number represents the corresponding petition.
The end of man may be considered either:
Encomiums of the Saints
The Saints, who of all people ought to know, have been so eloquent on the value of the Lord's Prayer that we are inclined to discredit their statements as pious exaggerations. "It is especially the one prayer, called the Lord's Prayer," says St. Augustine, "which, when prayed by the faithful, may be regarded as a special mark of predilection and a guarantee of perseverance in the grace of God."13 No one understands better than Christ what prayer is most pleasing to God, and of what things we stand in the greatest need. From which Bellarmine argues: "If, as Christ tells us, whatsoever we shall ask the Father in His name He will grant us, what confidence we should have of being heard when we pray to God not only in the name of Christ but in the very words which passed His sacred lips." 14 St. Peter Canisius, always practical, was scandalized to see how carelessly the Our Father is sometimes recited even in religious communities. "We have to be on our guard," he warned his brethren on one occasion, "not to say the Lord's Prayer thoughtlessly through force of habit. I firmly believe that no other act of piety given to us by Christ carries with it a higher degree of approval or is more necessary for us if we are to avoid evil and obtain the blessings destined for us by God."15
St. Teresa of Avila has written extensively on the efficacy of the Lord's Prayer in raising an individual to the heights of sanctity. "I know a person," she writes, "who could never reach further than vocal prayer .... She once came to me very afflicted because she knew not how to practise mental prayer, neither could she contemplate but only pray vocally. I asked her what she did and perceived that, though she limited herself to the Pater Noster, she enjoyed pure contemplation and God raised her even to the prayer of union. 16
The Lord's Prayer has at various times been credited with almost sacramental efficacy. Reference has been made to the misinterpretation of a passage in one of St. Gregory's letters, 17 where the Saint is supposed to have thought that the bread and wine were consecrated in Apostolic times by the recitation of the Our Father alone. This is certainly not the true meaning of the passage. But St. Jerome in his conflict with the Pelagians definitely asserted that Our Lord Himself taught His disciples that every day in the Holy Sacrifice " they should make bold to repeat the Our Father." 18 St. Gregory gave the Pater Noster its present position in the Mass, shortly after the Consecration and before the breaking of the Species. In olden times, the whole congregation used to answer the priest: "Sed libera nos a malo."
Another classic reference to the "sacramental" character of the Lord's Prayer in Patristic literature, this time unquestioned, is found in two works of St. Augustine. "Since we live in the midst of the world," he argues, "where no one can live without sin, the forgiveness of our faults is found not only in the sacred waters of Baptism, but also in the daily repetition of the Lord's Prayer. It is like our daily Baptism." 19
Luther and Calvin and their followers have tried to capitalize on this passage and apply it to their doctrine of justification by faith. If the Lord's Prayer or its equivalent is enough to reconcile the sinner with God, why bother with the Sacrament of Confession? In fact, why worry about sin at all? "Real saints, according to Luther, "must be good lusty sinners, who do not blush to insert in the Our Father the petition: Forgive us our trespasses. 20 But Augustine's real meaning is clear enough from his other writings. The Lord's Prayer is not a substitute for Confession but only an analogous help. By its daily recitation, we are delivered from our daily, venial faults "from those minor infidelities we commit by reason of the weakness of the flesh. 21
The Prayer is Exclusively Christian
The question arises as to whether and to what extent the Lord's Prayer is the exclusive property of the Church. It is, first of all, a Christian prayer. In the fifth petition, for example, we ask to be forgiven our sins in the measure that we have granted pardon to others. "This idea," says a modern Jewish authority, "of asking for forgiveness of God in return for forgiveness of man is foreign to Jewish liturgy. The Lord's Prayer thus adds a new thought, possibly under the influence of the Christian doctrines of atonement and mediation. 22
But is it exclusively a Catholic prayer? In interpreting the petition, Thy kingdom come, the Fathers refer these words, at least inclusively, to the advancement of the Church and the destruction of schism and heresy. Summarizing their teaching, Canisius says: "According to Christ's intention, the Our Father does not belong to unbelievers. This is proved by St. Paul's question: `How can they call upon Him in whom they do not believe'? (Rom., x. 14). Again, this prayer is not for the Jews, as Christ tells us: `Everyone that denies the Son, has not the Father also' (I John, ii. 23.). And finally, it is not for heretics who are proscribed and who lived outside the home of the Church. It is not for those who sunder Christ, who are the enemies of unity and, like branches that are withered, have been cut off from the vine." 23 Strong language, no doubt, but fully justified, not only in the sixteenth century but in the twentieth. Emmet Fox is typical of the Protestant divines whose hatred of ecclesiasticism, as they call it, is so inveterate that even the Lord's Prayer of unity gives them an occasion for attacking the Church. "Jesus foresaw," he explains, "that, as the centuries went by, his simple, primitive teaching would gradually become overlaid with all sorts of external things. He foresaw that men who had never known Him would build up theologies and doctrinal systems, obscuring the direct simplicity of the spiritual message, and actually erecting a wall between God and man. He designed His Prayer in such a way that it would pass safely through those ages without being tampered with. He arranged it with consummate skill, so that it could not be twisted or distorted, or adapted to any man-made system. 24 Incidentally, the author of this diatribe denies the Divinity of Christ in the same book in which he apostrophizes on the Lord's Prayer.
There is more than "primitive teaching" and "direct simplicity" in the Lord's Prayer. It is the unique petition given to us by the Heavenly Lawmaker Himself, that we may not only know what to do but also obtain the fulfillment of all our desires. 25 With St. Augustine, "let us prefer this to all other prayers. 26
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