The Our Father: Ladder to the Heavens

Teresa of Avila’s Vision of the Dove, by Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1614).

In my article previously published in HPR, “Overlooked and Underprayed: the Our Father,”1 I tried to point out several unique and important characteristics of the prayer, the Our Father. I hoped, thereby, to encourage Catholics to pray this prayer with much greater attention and devotion, lest the abundance of grace and spiritual power resting in that prayer be wasted. That hopeful effort continues and is expanded in this article. On the foundation of that first article, I want, now, to focus more deeply on the sequence of petitions in the Our Father, a sequence having great significance, noted by Thomas Aquinas.

To review, St. Thomas noticed this remarkable characteristic of the sequence of the seven petitions of the Our Father:

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, STh. II-II,Q.83,art.9)

St. Thomas 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. “The first thing to be the object of our desire is the end”—that is, the first petition, “Hallowed be thy name,” is the ultimate end of our rightful true needs, the final purpose of our prayers. The petitions after that first one, then pray for those things that are prerequisite to the first, all in their proper order. Indeed, taking the petitions a pair at a time, applying Thomas’s insight, we see that all through the list of seven, we pray first for a real spiritual need (in order of its true importance), and then next we pray for what is a pre-requisite to that need. Thus, the first petition is our ultimate, and final end of our spiritual journey; the last of the petitions is the spiritual “place” our journey must begin. Our pilgrimage in Christ begins with the last of the petitions, “Deliver us from evil.”

Therefore, this ordered sequence of petitions is an ordered series of steps along a journey in Christ—a ladder of spiritual ascent—which can be placed alongside the three traditional stages of the spiritual life to reveal a most helpful correspondence. The three stages of the interior life are traditionally named: first, the purgative stage—the stage of the beginner; then, the illuminative stage—the stage of the proficient; and, finally, the unitive stage—the stage of the perfect.2

This article will explore the correspondence briefly, to point out the tremendous relevance of the Our Father to the entire spiritual journey of the soul: from initial conversion to Christ, to the highest prayers of contemplative union with God this side of glory.

Correlating the Our Father with the Three Stages of Spiritual Life
In “Overlooked and Underprayed: the Our Father,” I noted the correspondence between the seven petitions, and the seven interior mansions of St. Teresa of Avila.3 This correspondence, once it is seen, immediately links the petitions of the Our Father with the other widely accepted description of the spiritual journey—the traditional three stages of the spiritual life—which can be reconciled with that of St. Teresa. I will simply state the correspondence first, and then discuss it further. I will list the petitions in the order in which they are prayed, so, therefore, the “ladder” of ascent through petitions, and, thus, through the stages of the spiritual life, will begin at the bottom of the list or ladder, and ascend upwards. I will also list in the table the corresponding sacraments of the Church (pointed out in my article previously referenced), to better facilitate consideration of their relevance in the spiritual journey of ascent.

Petitions of the Prayer Stages of the Spiritual Life Sacraments of the Church
Hallowed be thy name Stage of the Perfect -the Unitive Stage Matrimony
Thy kingdom come Holy Orders
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven Stage of the Proficient -the Illuminative Stage Anointing of the Sick
Give us this day our daily bread Eucharist
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us Stage of the Beginners -the Purgative Stage Confession
 Lead us not into temptation Confirmation
 Deliver us from evil Baptism

The Our Father and the Purgative Stage
A beginner in the Christian life has just turned from the death of the world of sin, and turned to the saving life of Jesus Christ. He prays, “Deliver me from evil!” And in the sacrament of baptism, he enters Christ and his life. He still must struggle against evil, both outside of him and within him. He must continue to pray for deliverance from the evil around him (“Deliver me from evil”) and the temptations to evil within him (“Lead me not into temptation”). He must sincerely repent and seek God’s forgiveness (“Forgive me my trespasses”) when he falls away from his place in Christ, that grace may be restored.

This is the Purgative Stage of the spiritual life, the stage of the Beginner. His struggle is to purge himself of sin, keeping faithful to God’s grace, striving for self-control and discipline, praying for grace, seeking victory over the power of evil. His main religious occupation is to safeguard the grace he has received and resist sin, still very vulnerable to the lusts of the world that he has so recently turned from. Divine grace must be treasured! It must be guarded! He must resist the calls of the world. and its ways of disordered loves, and hold fast to Christ his Lord.

It can be easily seen that the last three petitions are especially appropriate and relevant for the “beginner” in the Christian life. In the beginning, the new Christian is mostly focused on himself and his new life in Christ. The expansion of this prayer into one of priestly compassion and intercession (deliver us, lead us not, forgive us …) will come in time, as he grows, if he grows, in Christ.

In the journey of ascent through the petitions, we see a unique condition that the Lord has placed on the Christian’s prayer for forgiveness when he sins: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This prayer, with this conditional phrase “as we forgive,” is a radically challenging imposition in our prayer! This beginner, often susceptible to temptations, needs the forgiving mercy of God! Yet, God has placed a condition on his forgiveness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches the true but troubling nature, at this point in the journey, of true prayer for God’s mercy. It teaches us, “Now—and this is daunting—this outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us” (CCC §2840).

God’s mercy is our urgent need when we fall into sin! Yet, there can be an obstacle within us to his infinite and potent mercy if we refuse to be a person of mercy ourselves! If I keep my heart hardened against another, it becomes hardened also against God’s mercy for me! This petition, in other words, can become a dead end in my ladder of ascent, if I will not become a person having mercy for others: for all others, including, most specifically, anyone whom I will not, cannot, forgive for what he did to me, or to someone I love. That person, and his sin that is most difficult—impossible—to forgive, can become an impenetrable barrier to my spiritual ascent, perhaps, even to my salvation, if I cannot find the mercy of forgiveness for him in my heart. That deadly sin in us must be rejected, repented of, forgiven, lest our ascent stops here and now, cold and hard.

Aligning the petitions alongside the three stages, we can see the critical nature of this petition. If my journey continues past this petition, I enter the Illuminative Stage. If not, what will become of me? There is no standing still in spirituality: one either advances or one regresses.

St. John of the Cross has written much on this boundary or bridge—between the Purgative and the Illuminative Stages. He has named the crisis here the “Dark Night of the Senses,” in which one experiences a time of passive purgation. Here, God must do what he alone can effect.  He describes three specific signs present to a soul in this Dark Night: 4

  1. The soul finds no pleasure or consolation in the things of God, but it also fails to find it in anything created. …
  2. Ordinarily the memory is centered upon God, with painful care and solicitude, thinking that it is not serving God, but backsliding, because it finds itself without sweetness in the things of God. …
  3. The soul can no longer meditate or reflect in its sense of the imagination. … For God now begins to communicate himself to it, no longer through sense … but by … simple contemplation, (which the soul, of itself, cannot attain).

The sense of inner desolation, described by these signs, reflects spiritual emptiness, of need for a new heart capable of supernatural mercy toward others. To grow in the spiritual life, we need a new heart! Nothing less than his love, his mercy, his life in the center of our being, can remedy the void within us. Only his light can dispel this darkness, if he will but come.

The Our Father and the Illuminative Stage
In the Illuminative Stage, the Lord does come, in a radically new life-changing way, in infused contemplation. Here, ascetical vocal prayer and meditation make room for mystical prayer, infused contemplation. The bridge into darkness has revealed a glorious light, and new illumination upon the altar of the Cross and our own self-offering.

Here, then, in the Illuminative Stage, the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread,” is prayed with transformed meaning—with meaning infused with divine significance, meaning overshadowed by the glory of the Holy Eucharist, the sacrament of this petition. Yes, all material needs are rightfully included in this petition (CCC §2861). But all needs, material and spiritual, are provided in the providential care of our Lord, who is present, immediately and substantially, in the Holy Eucharist!

The next petition in the ladder of ascent is also in the Illuminative Stage: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Here, again, prayer with a condition is set before us, requiring something more of us than the first impulse of our hearts. Our “understandable” prayer of self-offering—“Thy will be done!”—falls into mystery beyond understanding, with a condition beyond our knowing: “as it is done in heaven.”

The Illuminative Stage, and its two petitions of the Our Father, are indeed mysterious, and mystical. God has shown us the perfect obedience to the Father’s will “as it is done in heaven”—in the life and death of the Son. The answer to the question, “How do human persons do the Father’s will on earth as it is done in heaven” has an answer: Jesus Christ. And his answer is, in a sense, summarized at the Cross, on the Cross. There, his perfect obedience and love was outpoured, poured into the ground for a greater harvest to come. This petition calls us to silence and listening, waiting and offering, self-offering in union with his at the foot of his Cross. Wordless waiting before the Crucifix holds the answer for us, “How do I pray this petition?”

As was true for the first petition having a condition in it, so also for this second one: this petition is a bridge, reaching over and into the Unitive Stage beyond it, the final stage of spiritual maturation in Jesus Christ. It offers the answer to his perfect will—the obedience of the Son—that is offered to us, challenging us, in the petition. Here is the boundary between the life of the Son received and lived in a human person, and the receiving and living of that Life to perfection—the perfection of union with him.

The first Dark Night was one of passive purgation of the senses, to bring the soul beyond where its own interior hardness and disorder prevented it. Here also, this second Dark Night is required to do for the soul what it cannot do for itself—a cleansing and purification that only God directly can accomplish. Here, the incompleteness of sanctification, the partial gift of self where the full gift is needed; here, the unreachable imperfections, too deep for a person to even realize, are dealt with by God in the Dark Night of the Spirit. This Dark Night addresses, according to the petition in place, the fullness of obedience and faith that the Lord desires and deserves: “thy will, as it is in heaven.” In the Dark Night of the Spirit, the Lord would have the soul look intensely, with zeal inflamed in the heart, having with one desire and intention: “As it is in heaven, O Lord! Make every movement of my heart now, finally, according to your will as it is now, in heaven.”

The Our Father and the Unitive Stage
The two petitions of this final stage, the first petitions of the prayer as we pray it, are: “Thy kingdom come,” and “Hallowed be thy name.” It can be no coincidence that the sacraments corresponding to these petitions—holy orders and matrimony—are called sacraments at the service of communion and mission (CCC §1211). These petitions seek ultimate union with God in his Kingdom, and communion in his name, in final spousal union with Christ the Bridegroom. These eschatological gatherings, of all into his Kingdom, and of his people into spousal consummation, are God’s intention for us from the beginning. This must be for us, as the Our Father directs, and as St. Thomas saw, “the first thing to be the object of our desire” as we pray.

Holy orders, directed to the care and guidance of his Kingdom here on earth, and holy matrimony, directed to the mystery of spousal union here on earth, ought to be—must be—intimately directed together, working together in solidarity, especially now in the last days!

Concluding Thoughts
How we—and the world—need holy priests and bishops, and, thus, a holy Church! How we—and the world—need holy husbands and wives, and, thus, holy marriages! The secular gods of this age, and their contemporary followers, grow stronger, bolder, less timid or ashamed, as the heart of this age grows colder, harder, and more brutal. The need for holy righteousness in Church and home only becomes more acute. We need to pray, fellow Catholics! We need to learn to pray, and then to begin anew a life of prayer.

This remarkable prayer, the Our Father, can lead us into spiritual renewal. Like a spiritual director, it shows us the way of prayer, points the direction of prayer, leads us in ascent of prayer, to follow our Lord in mission. The Our Father leads us into, and through, the three stages of spiritual life that he intends us to travel and experience, along the way of our vocation to true maturity in Christ. He takes us by the hand as beginners, in the Purgative Stage, and leads us to a doorway of inner darkness, on to Illumination in mystical encounter, and infused contemplation. It is here that we most personally and intimately meet him, and grow to know him, and most deeply hear him pronounce our true calling to the glory of his kingdom and beatitude. The Our Father, the most overlooked and under-prayed of prayers, says it all.5

  1. hprweb.com/2015/11/overlooked-and-under-prayed-the-our-father/
  2. A comprehensive study of this spirituality, “The Three Stages,” is found in the two-volume set, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., The Three Ages of the Interior Life, (Tan Books, 1989), also online http://www.christianperfection.info.

    A briefer presentation, by Fr, Garrigou-Lagrange, is found in paperback as The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life, (Saint Benedict Press, LLC, 2009) previously titled, The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life, and is online at ourladyswarriors.org/saints/3ways.htm

    This spirituality is also presented and expanded upon in my book, R. Thomas Richard, The Ordinary Path to Holiness (New York, Alba House, 2003). This book is also in digital format for Kindle at Amazon.com and for Nook at Barnes and Noble online.

  3. This correspondence was presented in The Ordinary Path to Holiness, Ch. 5, p. 131-148. St. Teresa’s Interior Castle can be found online, for example here: intratext.com/X/ENG0033.htm
  4. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, Bk 1, Ch. IX, online ccel.org/ccel/john_cross/dark_night.vii.ix.html
  5. The substance of this article is further developed in my book, R. Thomas Richard, The Interior Liturgy of the Our Father, (self-published paperback, Fidelis Publications, 2004). Available in digital format for Kindle, Amazon.com, and Nook, Barnes and Noble online.
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.

Comments

  1. Pat Coughlan says:

    I was so heartened to read this article. About thirty years ago I was pondering a problem when I had the thought ….’ look backwards through the Lord’s Prayer’! I followed that thought, and found both the specific response to the particular problem as well as the means of praying for resolution of that issue. At that time I had a deep interest in coming to understand the Spirituall Journey ….. but my new understanding of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer led me to correlate these petitions with the stages of the Classical Spiritual Journey, and both enhanced, redirected and added great wonder to my own life. Thirty years later I am still in awe at the mysterious abyss of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer!

    • Thank you, Pat, for this comment. I too, personally, have been greatly helped – blessed – by this correlation of the petitions with the classical understanding of the spiritual journey. Each has illuminated the other – the prayer and the spiritual theology – and each has helped me enter more deeply into the other. It is truly a beautiful reality, for which I praise God.

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