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The Our Father

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

When the apostles asked our Lord to teach them how to pray He gave them what has since come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer. In teaching them Christ was teaching us, and He taught us many things. My plan is not to give a commentary on the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, but rather to reflect in God’s presence on the lessons that this prayer should teach us.

I choose the following lessons:

  • prayer must be taught;

  • we should have sacred time for prayer;

  • there ought to be togetherness in prayer;

  • the God to whom we pray is our Father;

  • we ought to have priorities in our prayer;

  • when we pray vocally we should understand what we are saying;

  • and finally, we should live as we pray.

Teaching How to Pray

When Christ was asked: “Lord, teach us to pray,” this request was the declaration of a profound truth, namely, that prayer must be taught. This means that in God’s ordinary providence we do not precisely know how to pray. We do not know how to pray naturally or spontaneously. We do not know how to pray, I shall not say at all, but well, just naturally. We need grace to know how to pray. We need to pray for the grace to know how to pray. God must be and continually remain our supernatural teacher of prayer so that what the apostles addressed to the Savior as recorded in the Gospels we should often request of Him: “Lord, teach me, teach me how to pray.” Teach me when to pray. Teach me why I should pray. Teach me who I am to pray to. Teach me what I am to pray for. Otherwise, quite frankly, we can waste a lot of useful energy unless we pray as we should.

There is such a thing as praying at all and praying well. To pray well we need grace from God; but we also need help from others. We do not know how to pray, well, spontaneously. We need someone to help us. Of all the things that one human being can teach another, there is no science more important than this one. The most needed pedagogy in the world is the pedagogy of prayer. And yet I think none is more taken for granted or neglected. When the Son of God came down to earth He inspired His disciples to ask Him to teach them. On one single occasion they asked Him, “teach us to pray.” We assume that people just naturally pray. There is nothing more basic for parents to teach their children; for priests, the faithful; for teachers, their students; and for counselors, the most valuable guidance we can give to anyone is to lead them and teach them how to pray.

Sacred Time for Prayer

Christ’s response to being asked: “Lord, teach us to pray” was “When you pray, say…” and He proceeded to give them—that is, us—the Pater Noster. That adverb “when” is precious. It is also very revealing. What was Christ saying? He was in effect saying that there are two kinds of time in our lives. There is what may be called profane time when our main preoccupation is necessarily with creatures; call it secular time. Then there is what may be called sacred time when our main preoccupation is with the Creator.

We cannot physically or psychologically always be preoccupied directly and exclusively with God. That is what heaven is for. There will be no more profane time in heaven. Wonderful! But I do not think that is most people’s problem. For most people, they are so preoccupied with creatures that they have little or no sacred time in their lives. They have little or no time for God. Hence the importance of Christ’s injunction: “When you pray….” Yes, but that “when” does not just happen, we must make it happen. We must create these “whens” in our lives. No one else, not even God, will do it for us.

When we take time out for God, what bursting creaturely generosity, how nice of us, how thoughtful to take some time out—out of what?—for God. When we interrupt our secular pursuits to think of God. When we turn—and it’s a turning—there need be no muscular movement, no locomotion through space, but no turning is more active than when we consciously, deliberately and I recommend even bodily, turn. It is a turning alright, from earth to heaven, from time to eternity, and what we embarrassingly must admit, from ourselves to God. But we must want to do it. Those who want those “whens” have them, those who do not, do not. “When you pray, say….”

Togetherness in Prayer

Our Lord made sure that the Lord’s Prayer was cast in the first person plural. I counted nine in the English version: Our Father; give us; our daily bread; forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; lead us not into temptation; deliver us from evil.

Clearly, Christ wanted to emphasize the importance of prayer together with others. And no less than creating sacred time, which only we can do, so here too there is an element of consciousness and deliberateness about doing anything with others, including prayer. This can be any one of many forms of togetherness. It can be a togetherness of words when we and others say the same physical prayer. It can be a togetherness of time when we pray together because we pray at the same time (and the sacrifice required in adjusting myself to others and they to me is part of the art of communitarian prayer). Togetherness of place—we pray in the same room, chapel or church. Togetherness of purpose—when we pray with the same desires and we know beforehand that we are thus praying for the same intention. Togetherness of faith—we all profess because we share the same belief. Togetherness of vocation—when we speak as persons who are at the same time a new moral person called by God to the same vocation. Togetherness of zeal—when what we pray for and how we pray reflects the fact that we are striving after the same goal in the apostolate and realize how God blesses this togetherness of a zealous community.

God as Our Father

When Christ taught us to say the Lord’s Prayer, He carefully prefixed the word “Our” because when He spoke of His own natural father He always said, “My father.” The disciples did not ask Him: “Lord, tell us how you pray.” No, “teach us to pray.” So “when you pray,” He said, “say ‘Our Father.’”

The Father, therefore, of the Our Father is the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is not only and cannot be only the first Person. It is God and God is Triune. But, then, we ask: Why address God as Father? For the best of reasons; because that is what He is. We are just calling Him by His right name. You see, God is Father in two very different senses as found in the Gospels. He is Father when Christ speaks of His Father, when it is the first Person of the Blessed Trinity; and He is Father in relationship to all creatures, but most especially to the human family. He is then our Father because He made the human race. That is why we are a family! A family has the same parents, except in this case—the same Parent. Remember, when we pray we are speaking to God as members of the same human progeny with a common ancestor who is God.

He is again our Father because He elevated us to membership by grace in His own Trinitarian Family. There is one created family; there is one uncreated “family.” The uncreated “Family”—we have put the word family in quotation marks—is the Holy Trinity. We have become members by grace of what the three Persons are members by their divine nature.

He is our Father because He cares for us in the two profound senses in which any loving father cares. He cares because He loves, and He cares because He provides. And He provides because He loves. And He would not really be loving unless He also provided.

He is our Father because He has made us heirs of heaven to which only the Trinity has a right. We have no claim on entering the household of God. We have become, thanks to the Incarnation, co-heirs with Christ. He is the natural Son, we are the adopted children. But that destiny is still waiting for us. In other words, He not only is our Father now, He will remain our Father for all eternity because then we shall enjoy with Him, and as far as it is possible for creatures, like Him, the beatitude which only the Divine Family of the Triune God has a right to experience.

Priority in Prayer

The Lord’s Prayer is a series of seven petitions. But they are not casually put together—fancy Christ doing anything casually. They represent three kinds of priorities: the priority of grace over nature; the priority of God’s cause over our needs; and the priority of the positive over the negative.

What is the priority of grace over nature? At most two of the seven petitions have to do with temporal, or as we might say, natural blessings: “Give us this day our daily bread,” sounds kind of natural, sort of earthy; and “deliver us from evil,” and we can think of all kinds of temporal and nature evils. Even these two have primarily a spiritual meaning. But all the others, including these two, are Christ’s way of telling us that the main object of our asking should be things of the spirit. First the order of grace and only secondly, or secondarily, things natural or temporal or a nice day tomorrow or relief from whatever pain I may be experiencing—as though pain could not be a grace. So who wants to get rid of a grace? That is the first priority.

The second priority is: God’s cause over our needs. If we look carefully over the seven petitions we find the first three refer directly to God and only then do we come down to our own needs. We are up in heaven, “hallowed be Thy name,” then “give us this day our daily bread.” It is Christ’s own expression of His injunction to seek first the kingdom of God and His justice. How we need to learn this and what a long lifetime it takes, I do not say to master it, but even to suspect that it might be so. Provided we look to God’s interests first, He will always take care of ours. How easy to use those words, how hard to live up to them! If I look to God, God will look after me.

Then the priority of the positive over the negative. The first four petitions are positive. Only the last three are negative and Christ conveniently tucked them underneath. “Forgive

Us”—we need remission of our sins. “Lead us not into temptation,” “deliver us from evil.” There are many object lessons, but at least this one can be mentioned—to stress the positive in prayer. We are all the same, we are equally human. We dread this and we fear that. You cannot imagine the number of things we are praying—how shall I put it—from! “0, Lord, deliver me.” Without excluding that, yet our primary focus in prayer should be praying for, though perforce we are perhaps most conscious of our need of prayer when we are in trouble.

Understanding in Vocal Prayer

Much of our prayer experience is vocal prayer. Vocal prayer properly explained is vocal twice over. It is first of all specified words that are to be said; they are not the spontaneous expressions of the heart. That is vocal prayer. Then although vocal prayer could be said in silence it is also and quite frequently, and when it is communal, always said out loud.

The built-in problem with vocal prayer is routine. The trouble with vocal prayer is that, it may be vocal all right, but it may not be prayer, or can be so mechanical that the lips are used but the heart can be who knows where. Hence the value of knowing what we are saying when we pray vocally. This I consider the single gravest responsibility we have regarding vocal prayer—to know what we are saying. This makes our prayer more what it should be—mental—than merely vocal.

This in turn implies that we periodically meditate on the vocal prayers we recite. There are various methods recommended by the spiritual masters. The essential thing is to take each part of the prayer for separate reflection. So what is wrong with spending an hour on the first two words, “Our Father”? Then beg God even as we reflect to enlighten our minds on the meaning of what we are saying, so that while reflecting we are also asking God; “Lord, what does this mean?” Try to see the prayer as a whole, see how one part is related to another. One of the principal sources of insight in things of the spirit to give us a deeper understanding of God’s mysteries, is the light that one mystery sheds on another. Things that you have never perhaps seen before will be seen once you relate, for example, the first petition, “hallowed be Thy name” with the last one, “deliver us from evil.” You can spend a most interesting three hours in seeing how those two petitions are connected.

It is not, of course, necessary to be actively thinking about the meaning of what we are saying when we are actually praying vocally, but prior meditation will insure that we bring to our lips also our hearts. We shall put into what we are physically pronouncing all that we have learned. What I am saying is that our vocal prayers should always be richer and deeper than just the words we use when we speak. We are to bring all the depth of insight, all the inspiration of soul that by the time we recite the Our Father, the Hail Mary, whatever vocal prayer we have by now perhaps said many thousands of times, all that past, all that depth, all that intensity comes into the words we use when we pray vocally.

Living as We Pray

Although we seldom perhaps advert to it, there ought to be a close relationship between our prayer and our life. This relationship should work both ways, from prayer to our life and from life to our prayer. This means, therefore, that our prayer should reflect how we are to live, that we pray for what we need to live as we should, that we pray as God wants us to live.

The Lord’s Prayer is the perfect pattern of what our lives should be. They should first of all be lives in which God is first in everything we do, first in intention, first in purpose, first in intensity of effort, first in the time we spend, because even when we are doing other things God should not be totally absent from our minds. It is again the perfect pattern of how we should live because if God is our Father we are His children. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us, how eloquently it instructs us, that we are to be and always remain and never dare to rise above being children with respect to God.

Finally, if there is anything the Lord’s Prayer teaches us it is the absolute need for humility. What is the Lord’s Prayer except the acknowledgment of man’s total emptiness before God. It teaches us that if we live as Christ taught us to pray we shall practice other kinds of humilities, but the one humility that must be thematic in our life is the sense of our nothingness in the presence of God and therefore that we shall live humility because that is what Christ told us when He taught us the Lord’s Prayer.

Since the first century of the Christian era the Lord’s Prayer has been the most important single prayer in the life of the Church. Its importance in God’s eyes must be great because although God became man to tell us many things, there is nothing practically more important than His teaching us how to pray. And it is all locked up in the simple formula of the Lord’s Prayer.

Vol. 24 - #4, October-December, pp. 4-7

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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