Overlooked and Under-Prayed: The Our Father

The Lord’s Prayer (Le “Pater Noster”) by James Tissot, 1886-1896.

The Our Father is simple, easy to memorize and recite, and is thus, easily and often, very poorly prayed. I would say it is abused, is misused, and even is, shamefully, to the point of dishonoring the Lord, who personally gave this prayer to us. The prayer itself, in itself, is so beautiful!  It is profound even in its simplicity, immense even in its brevity, luminous even in a most quiet and humble way.  The Our Father—as the Lord who gave it to us—deserves better than it gets.

I want to advocate for a greater devotion to this prayer among Catholics. We all ought to pray it with greater attention and devotion. We ought not make the sign of the Cross as if we were swatting away mosquitoes, slurring together the words of our Trinitarian Faith, and racing through this prayer, the Our Father, as if points were given to the fastest. The Church, I think it could be said, is habitually disregarding and disrespecting a holy treasure given for our sanctification. Such is a bad habit that can be changed.

I want to point out in this article some of the remarkable qualities of this prayer which I hope will help readers to slow down, and actually pray this prayer. May we all catch a glimpse of the splendor of the Our Father! May we all sense the depth of its words and petitions, and be humbled by them. May we all offer ourselves to the interior reforms and reworking that the Holy Spirit is called to perform in us as we pray this prayer!

I want to write of the potency and beauty of this prayer applying, especially, two features of it: the sequence or ordering of the petitions, and the priestly or intercessory character of it.

The Our Father is a Priestly Prayer
Very significant to this prayer is its intercessory nature. A priest offers sacrifice and intercedes to God, on behalf of men. He is eternally our priest and advocate: Jesus, “because he remains forever, has a priesthood that does not pass away. Therefore, he is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them.” (Heb 7:24-25)  Jesus gave us this prayer that requires of us—if we pray it rightly—a heart of intercession on behalf of men.  St. John Chrysostom noted this:

{The Lord} teaches us to make prayer in common for all our brethren. For he did not say “my Father” who art in heaven, but “our” Father, offering petitions for the common body. {St. John Chrysostom, Hom. in Mt. 19, 4: PG 57, 278} (CCC 2768)

There is no place for self-obsession in this prayer! There is no place for the radical individualism, or self-preoccupation of this secular and materialistic world. No, this prayer—if we will listen to what we are saying, when we are praying—this prayer calls us to be persons of self-donation, having a heart for the other, for all the others, as well as ourselves. This prayer calls us to love all whom Jesus, the Author, loves: all men. His Father is our Father. We seek, we want, we pray for holy daily Bread for them, our brothers and sisters, all.  We seek forgiveness for them, we seek for them hearts of forgiveness for others. We seek protection for them: let them not be lead into spiritual danger or temptation! Keep them safe from the evil one, that enemy of all our souls!

Because, Father, you are our Father, kindle in our hearts and minds the light of truth, your Son, that as witnesses before the whole world, your holiness may shine forth: Hallowed be thy name!  Give us all hunger for your holiness, and longing for your kingdom: may it come now!  May your will be done in us all, and through us all, here on earth, as it is being done now and forever in heaven.

The Our Father is a Prayer of Spiritual Formation
The human soul of a man or woman in prayer, praying this prayer, the Our Father, cannot be untouched if it is prayed as it is deserved, because the words are potent and true; they are holy words, divine words. And the Word of God has authority. To pray the Our Father is to speak prophetic truth—words that resonate and that by their own nature, seek obedience in the soul.  Thus, the prayer, in itself, prayed with right disposition, works to form the soul according to the truth of it in itself. This is the power of prayer in faith, and this prayer orders, and forms the human soul according to the truth within the words, the words of the Word.

This formative work is ordered in the soul by the logic of the sequence of the petitions. Thomas Aquinas noticed this remarkable and fertile characteristic of the seven petitions:

Now in the Lord’s Prayer, not only do we ask for all that we may rightly desire, but also in the order wherein we ought to desire them, so that this prayer not only teaches us to ask, but also directs all our affections. Thus, it is evident that the first thing to be the object of our desire is the end, and afterwards whatever is directed to the end. (Thomas Aquinas, S.T. II-II,Q.83,art.9)

Aquinas saw, then, the sequence of the petitions as listing for us what we need to desire and pray for, in the order in which they are to be desired and prayed for.  “The first thing to be the object of our desire is the end”—that is, the first petition: “Hallowed be thy name,” which is the ultimate end of our rightful and needful desires, the final purpose of our prayer. In this petition, we find our vocation, the explanation for our lives. His name—the name of the Triune God— expresses the glory and splendor of his being, his mystery—his name— which holds for us the explanation of humanity created in his divine image and likeness.  It is the first and, thus, the last, it includes them all.  The Catechism affirms, “This petition embodies all the others.” (CCC 2815)

If this first petition is set aside, and the remaining six considered (petitions two though seven), we see that these six petitions still follow St. Thomas’ observation. These six are in the order of our rightful affections, and now petition two is first among the remaining six. Petition two is thus, among the six, the end to which the other five direct us in prayer. Following this line of reasoning through all seven petitions, we come to the following: petition one is the ultimate and final desire for prayer, petition two directs or points our desires to our final end, petition one.  Petition three orders or directs our desires toward petition two, which directs or points us to petition one. Petition four directs us to three; petition five directs us to four; petition six directs us to five; petition seven—the last petition—directs us to six. Thus, a list of the seven petitions is a ladder of ascent pointing and directing us up, from the last petition up to the first. It is a journey from darkness into deliverance from evil, and from there, even toward communion in the holiness of the holy name.

The process of pointing, or directing, to use the word in the quote from Thomas Aquinas, is itself a formative process under the influence of the Spirit. If the soul is “directed” by the Spirit through the prayer, then the prayer itself is a powerful tool of the Spirit: a “spiritual director” and formator, from Christ.  The formation begins in the soul in directing it out of evil (“Deliver us from evil”), and progressively toward communion in the name (“Hallowed be thy name”).  Practically speaking, a soul on the interior and spiritual journey to communion in the name is moving, growing along this path marked in seven stages that are defined by these seven petitions. Such a soul can sometimes experience one petition as being personally more meaningful and relevant to him than the others. This petition can seem to “define” or name his “place” on the ladder of ascent at that time. The Holy Spirit can thus use the prayer to bring forward that one petition to especially pierce his heart at that time, to especially illuminate his soul, and expose him to himself—to his poverty and his need for the grace of God.  Among other features of this prayer, then, is its diagnostic value for discernment and personal examination of conscience.  It can highlight the progress, or lack of it, or need for it, along the path of God’s intention for us.

A popular and powerful guide to the spiritual journey was written by St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle,1 a castle within, consisting of seven “interior mansions,” or dwelling places, in the soul, with the Lord “His Majesty” dwelling in the soul’s center.  There, he awaits the soul, on journey toward him. In my book, The Ordinary Path to Holiness.2 I devote a chapter discussing the remarkable one-to-one correspondence between the seven “interior mansions” of St. Teresa, and the seven petitions of the Our Father. This correspondence adds to one’s sense of the “places” on the journey where one can find oneself.  These “places” can be described using Teresa’s numbered mansions, and also using our Lord’s correspondingly numbered petitions in the Our Father!

As one example, the comparison of Teresa’s first mansions is below, at the beginning of her interior journey, with the corresponding last petition of the Our Father, taken from The Ordinary Path to Holiness(Chapter Five).  The correspondence of the other petitions with the interior mansions is finished in the book.

The First Mansion—“But deliver us from evil”
Souls in the first mansions of the journey are in special and grave danger, having just escaped from the clutches of the evil one. Teresa writes:

…since in the first rooms souls are still absorbed in the world, and engulfed in their pleasures and vanities, with their honors and pretenses, their vassals (which are these senses and faculties) don’t have the strength God gave human nature in the beginning. And these souls are easily conquered, even though they may go about with desires not to offend God, and though they do perform good works. Those who see themselves in this state must approach his majesty as often as possible. They must take his Blessed Mother and his saints as intercessors so that these intercessors may fight for them, for the soul’s vassals have little strength to defend themselves.

The last petition of the Our Father is uniquely needed in these dwellings, then, since the soul is especially vulnerable and weak. Teresa stresses the need to grow in self-knowledge, of the horror and ugliness of all sin, and to grow also in the realization of the sublime beauty of the soul. These needs are addressed in the full prayer of the Our Father, yet in the last petition of the prayer is the unique and urgent need of the soul: deliver us! The whole Church, then, in praying this prayer, asks not only for their own needs for deliverance, which may be more or less urgent, but also joins in the saving priesthood of Christ in petitioning for the “very least” of his brethren. In this communion of priests, we live our vocation and pray “our Father.”

Another beautiful correspondence that can be found in this prayer—developed further in the book, The Interior Liturgy of the Our Father 3—is that which is between the seven petitions of the prayer, and the seven sacraments of the Church. I will merely outline the correspondence here, which may be sufficient for many to immediately see and appreciate. This correspondence could be very helpful, practically speaking, in catechesis of both children and adults. These correspondences are made clearer in the book, along with a deeper comparison of the journey of seven petitions, with the traditional Catholic spirituality of the three stages, and the two “dark nights” of the soul.  Below is a table of the correspondence with the sacraments. In reading from the last up to the first, one sees traced the spiritual journey walked, and the special graces needed on the journey, appropriate to the stages encountered:

Petition Corresponding Sacrament
Hallowed be thy name Matrimony
Thy Kingdom come Holy Orders
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven Anointing of the sick
Give us this day our daily bread Holy Eucharist
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive… Confession
Lead us not into temptation Confirmation
Deliver us from evil Baptism

The prayer is the ladder of ascent, beginning in Jesus with deliverance from evil, ascending in Jesus by his grace, and ending in Jesus in the glory of the name. We can remember the dream of Jacob, and the promise to Nathaniel, and the angels of God ascending and descending with messages of grace for the pilgrim people on the journey of prayer to God.    

It is interesting that the Lord did not sequence the petitions in the order we might have, had we written the prayer! He begins the prayer at the end of the journey, with the “end” or final purpose of the journey: communion in the name. Perhaps, that sequencing is consistent with the priestly (or even evangelical) character of the prayer. Let us think of ourselves as being with Jesus, resting in him, and in the fullness of this prayer, resting in the faith of the Church, praising and exclaiming together: “Our Father who art in heaven!”  In his love, we cast out the net of the Gospel to the whole Church and beyond, gathering into prayer, and toward communion with him, souls at every step, and stage, of the journey of life. The path to him is the ladder of ascent, and so our prayer is like a great net cast out, reaching first those closest to him, and then reaching beyond to souls at every step and stage—even to those farthest away from him.

The net of his prayer reaches first those who have climbed to the highest step of the ladder of ascent, those whose defining petition is the first of his prayer, “Hallowed be thy name!”  But the net is cast beyond, including those, but continuing past them. It is cast, as well, to the next step lower on the ladder, to those whose defining petition is “Thy kingdom come!” The Lord wants us to continue to pray, to continue to reach further to those more distant, to those whose defining petition on the ladder is the third, and then the fourth, and so on.  This process continues. Our Lord gave us the entire prayer, and the entire prayer defines the entire journey of prayer, and it reaches to all on the journey, all on the ladder of ascent, all at each of the seven defining petitions of this complete and perfect prayer. We cast out the net all the way to the last petition, that boundary where light touches darkness, where those under the power of darkness first find light and salvation, expressed in the cry for salvation, “Deliver us from evil!”  This then is the sequence of the prayer as prayed: beginning where he is, and from him to each step of the journey to the very beginning at first deliverance from evil. In obedience, in prayer, in intercession, we haul in the net in union with our Lord in the prayer he both entrusted to, and imposed upon us.  It is our priestly work of prayer on his behalf—clergy and laity, men and women, our interior labors for salvation.

The prayer is a treasure, to be approached with reverence, and to be prayed earnestly, with even more reverence, with full attention, and due devotion. Its fruit is abundant, beyond expectation.

  1. St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, is available printed from several sources and on-line on several sites for reading or download. One is: ccel.org/ccel/teresa/castle2.html
  2. R. Thomas Richard, The Ordinary Path to Holiness (New York, The Society of St. Paul, Alba House, 2003).  This book is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble in paperback. It is also offered in digital format for the Kindle and the Nook.
  3. R. Thomas Richard, The Interior Liturgy of the Our Father (Fidelis Presentations – self-published in paperback, 2004). This book is currently available in digital form (Revised – 2nd Edition, 2011) for the Kindle (Amazon.com) and the Nook (BarnesandNoble.com).
R. Thomas Richard, PhD About R. Thomas Richard, PhD

R. Thomas Richard, PhD, together with his wife, currently offers parish presentations and adult formation opportunities. He has served as religious formation director for parishes, director of lay ministry and deacon formation at the diocesan level, and retreat director. A former teacher, engineer, Protestant minister, and missionary, he has earned graduate degrees in Catholic theology and ministry, Protestant ministry, and physics. He is the author of several books in Catholic spirituality, which are described on his website, www.renewthechurch.com.


  1. Avatar bill bannon says:

    Excellent…thank you. I’m copying this to Notes.
    Catholics need also to return to the seeking of plenary indulgences which remove all punishment leftover after our sins are foregiven in Confession ( see indulgences in the Catholic Encyclopedia on ths ). After 1967, there is a plenary you can do at home many times a year for you or a deceased…reading scripture devoutly for one half hour within 20 days ( now ) of Confession, Eucharist, an Our Father and Hail Mary for the Pope’s intentions with detachment from all venial sin without which it devolves to a partial indulgence.

    • Hello Mr. Bannon –

      Thank you for your comment, and your suggestion for growing in holiness – a call to us all that seems of growing urgency these days. Your mention of “detachment from all venial sin” led me to read again a part of Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange’s excellent book on spirituality, The Three Ages of the Spiritual Life (http://www.christianperfection.info/tta49.php). He connects the failure to grow in the interior life in a very important way to a person’s lax attitude toward venial sins:

      “[The soul] falls into tepidity, which, with habitual negligence, is affection for venial sin or the disposition of the will to commit certain venial sins deliberately when the occasion presents itself. There is finally, as it were, the firm resolution to remain in this state. In addition to the lack of the spirit of sacrifice, other causes may produce this tepidity of retarded souls: namely, levity of spirit, the thoughtlessness with which one tells, for example, officious lies (i.e., lies of expediency) whenever the occasion offers; spiritual sloth, which leads finally to the abandonment of the spiritual war against our defects, against our predominant fault, which quite frequently tries to pass for a virtue, and gives rise in us to other more or less inordinate passions. A person thus arrives at carelessness and indifference in regard to perfection and no longer truly tends toward it.”

      How we need to seek with fervor a truly holy life, and persevere in that fervor for His will always.


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