On the Lord’s Prayer

When the dawn appears,

When the light grows,

When midday burns,

When has ceased

The holy light,

When the clear night comes;

I sing your praises, O Father,

Healer of hearts,

Healer of bodies,

Giver of wisdom,

Remedy of evil;

O Giver also

Of a life without evil,

A life not troubled

By earthly fear —

That mother of distress,

That mother of sorrows.

Keep my heart in purity,

Let my songs speak

Of the hidden source

Of created things;

And, far from God,

Never let me be drawn into sin.

— Synesius of Cyrene, Hymn IV

 

Introduction

Man is meant for prayer, because prayer is communion with God, who is the beginning, middle, and end of human life.

During his days in the flesh, Jesus gave himself wholly to prayer, with fervent sighs and tears. In this way, he restored and ennobled human nature, making it share in the inexpressible unity that he enjoys with the Father, for Christ is ever with and toward the Father, and those joined to Christ are likewise situated.

To his disciples, the Lord gave a prayer, since he alone knows how to rightly reverence God. This prayer remains with the Church, but today it is much neglected, familiarity having bred disdain. Yet it holds the entire gospel in miniature.

I have, with fear and trembling, endeavored to set forth its saving doctrine, according to the holy Scriptures and the fathers and doctors of the faith. Let the reader pray for understanding.

“Our Father”

How can the Father be described? Who can praise him as he is? What tongue can capture his mystery?

He is the primordial fountain of divinity, the secret wellspring of being. Every spiritual sweetness, every treasure of wisdom, every material blessing descends from his superabundant goodness, while he remains tranquil and undiminished, veiled by impenetrable light. He is immortal, invisible, and blessed; merciful, gracious, and patient. He loves all things and hates nothing that he has made. Even his justice is medicinal, for chastisement brings repentance, and repentance brings holiness.

Ever at work, he is ever at rest; present every moment, he exceeds time; filling heaven and earth, he outstands their bounds; everything imitates him, nothing compares to him; emptying himself, he is complete; serene, he pours forth charity; silent, he utters knowledge.

No one has seen the Father. He is contemplated in the Son of God, Jesus Christ: the radiance of his glory, the exact expression of his nature, with him in the beginning, by whom the Father speaks all things. And the Spirit, who flows from the depths of the Father and the Son, and who is adored and glorified with them, whispers to the faithful: “Return now, O friend of Christ, whence you came, to the holy and unique Father.”

But how can we return to that secret spring on high? Even angels know not the path, unless they are shown. Behold, the Father himself has provided the way: Jesus Christ, and him crucified. This Savior we consider not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit, perceiving in him the very substance of God: wisdom and power and righteousness and life and light. He who gazes upon the Son of God is made like him, and like the God whose Son he is — beautiful like the Beautiful, true like the True, good like the Good. Thus, we dare call God our Father, clinging to him who communicates glory to us in Jesus Christ, his beloved Son and faithful Servant.

Now, observe that we do not say “my Father,” but “our Father,” for the Father imprints his likeness on every creature in some fashion, and in a special way upon the saints, who are conformed to him through his Image, Jesus Christ. Moreover, all the saints possess the Father equally; rather, he possesses all the saints equally. And we look forward to the day when this communion is seen plainly for what it is: an everlasting bond of knowledge and love.

“Who art in heaven”

With this phrase, we hail the Father’s loftiness and radical dissimilarity to creation. After proclaiming his paternity, we announce his transcendence, lest we forget that he is fundamentally different than we are. What sense touches, what word articulates, what mind comprehends: such is an effect of God, but not God himself. He is ever greater, the hidden One, and he imparts the same inscrutable deity to the Son and, with the Son, to the Spirit. (If you grasp this, you will genuinely cherish the manifestation of Jesus Christ, in whom the invisible God is recognized.)

However, transcendence does not imply distance. God’s very transcendence ensures his intimacy. Being over all, he is through all; being through all, he is in all. Truly, we live and move and have our being in him.

Moreover, he has drawn near to us in Jesus, who is the appearance of his love. Through this Jesus, we boldly approach the Father, a journey not made by physical motion, but by spiritual motion, through the exercise of the divine virtues: faith, hope, and charity.

Finally, by saying that our Father is in heaven, we say that this world — this vale of bitter tears and restless shadows — is not our fatherland. We await a new world, wrought by the revelation of Jesus Christ, when creation will be as he is now: suffused with the Father’s splendor. Then we will dwell in our true homeland; then God will be all in all. And toward this homeland we advance when, facing the rising sun, we lift up the holy oblation, and so offer ourselves with Christ to God through the eternal Spirit.

“Hallowed be thy name”

God’s name indicates “what” he is: self-subsistent, self-giving being. This name is holy indeed: awesome, overwhelming, set apart, cloaked in majesty. It is so holy that old Israel said merely, “Lord,” rather than utter the cryptic syllables given to Moses. And this honorable circumlocution — the title “Lord” — the apostles attribute to the Son of God, Jesus Christ, and to the Spirit sent through him.

So wondrous is this mystery that the angels praise it thrice. Holy! Holy! Holy! The first exclamation is for the Father, font of deity; the second is for Jesus Christ, living Word and blessed Wisdom; the third is for the Holy Spirit, sevenfold Gift.

Therefore, the divine nature belongs equally to the three persons, as the Lord intimated: “Baptizing in the Name” — not the names — “of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Thus, when we pray to the Father, we honor the undivided Trinity.

Reverence this mystery. Bow your head before it. In due course, love will bring understanding.

“Thy kingdom come”

These words have three meanings. First, we ask that God’s hidden sovereignty be revealed for all to admire. Second, we ask that rebellious creatures be converted to docility. Third, we ask that God reign in us and so manifest himself through us.

God is said to reign in us when the heart is subject to, and unified by, his holy and undivided power. The heart must be single. Who has such a heart? Only the incarnate Word. He alone really knows and loves God, for he is in the beginning with God and is God. Therefore, he is the kingdom, and anyone who acquires his mind dwells firmly in that mystical country promised to the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles. And the heart ruled by God is free, abounding in love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, fidelity, and self-discipline.

We acquire the kingdom through faith, hope, and charity; through prayer and works of love; through vigils, fasting, and much ascetic labor; through study of the Scriptures, observation of the commandments, and participation in the sacraments.

The kingdom is not easily described, which is why the Lord employed figures to sketch its features. A man can be told, but until he tastes, he is a stranger to its mysteries. Persevere and you will find the pearl; strive and you will uncover the treasure; endure and you will enter the banquet; open wide your heart and you will receive the gift, which is the Spirit. Are you daunted? Nothing is impossible with God.

“Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”

The will of God meets no resistance in heaven: that is, in himself (for he is simple), and in those joined directly to him by the beatific vision. Yet the will of God meets much resistance on earth. Therefore, with these words, we pray that all hasten eagerly along the paths traced by holy wisdom.

This is an easy prayer in good times, but in bad times it is very hard. Life brings sadness and suffering, much bitter myrrh, until we feel desolate, defeated, and worn down. At such moments, we are prone to question God’s gracious will — or worse. The heart recoils before the pains that beset man. The darkness in which we walk often seems too thick to navigate. What can one do but, with Job and Jeremiah, lament one’s birth into this woeful arena of agony? No human cleverness can dispel the gloom of torment. The only remedy is to contemplate God’s wisdom, and especially to look upon Christ crucified: poor, forlorn, despised, yet exuding serenity, justice, and compassion.

We must ask: What is God’s will? He wants every creature to share in his happiness. Therefore, when we pray that his will be done, we ask that all things be conformed to him, and partake of his beatitude in a manner befitting their nature.

The faithful know that God draws them to himself through triumph and defeat alike, so they might savor his glory forever. Inexpressible mystery of our religion: dust and ash are called to enjoy divinity itself! The earthly mind staggers. Only faith reveals; only hope sustains; only love grants a taste.

So, let the will of God be done: in joy and in despair, in peace and in turmoil, in abundance and in deprivation, in safety and in danger, in confidence and in doubt, in day and in night, in success and in failure, in public and in private, in life and in death.

“Give us this day our daily bread”

Thus, we request bodily necessities: food, clothing, protection from the elements, and so on. However, the Savior discouraged the pursuit of material needs in prayer, encouraging his followers to seek instead the kingdom of God. Properly understood, “bread” bespeaks the One who revealed himself as living manna come down from heaven. As carnal bread nourishes the body in its labors and travels, so spiritual bread — the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ — nourishes the soul in its labors and travels.

How to consume this bread — the bread of charity, the bread of unity, the bread of peace, the bread of wisdom, the bread of sanctity — which no hand can touch? Contemplate creation; you will eat. Kneel before the cross; you will feast. Study the Word; you will chew. Worthily receive the blessed sacrament; you will imbibe heavenly sweetness in this age and the next.

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”

By asking forgiveness, we admit that we are sinners. Let us always bear in mind this truth. Do not be so earthly as to presume yourself clean because you keep the exterior forms of holiness. Do not be so rash as to deem yourself better than those who defile themselves outwardly, while you who know better defile yourself inwardly.

Have you lusted? You are an adulterer. Have you spoken evil about your brother? You are a murderer. Have you desired that which your sister has? You are a thief. Have you damned another? You teeter at the precipice of hell. Have you displayed your good deeds? You stand among the prideful angels who fell from heaven. Have you clung to comfort and wealth? You are much deluded, like one who hoards his own filth. Have you gotten drunk? You are a transgressor against the divine image within. Have you lazed and lingered about? You are an ingrate, neglectful of the time God has given you. Have you aired your so-called wisdom? You are a false teacher, poisoning naïve souls. Have you obsessed over passing trifles? You are an idolater.

Wolf! Snake! Beast of prey! When struck, you strike; when insulted, you insult; when injured, you injure. You are disputatious, vain, puffed-up, conceited, swollen with inane laughter and silly opinions. Self-serious, self-regarding, self-interested. You vindicate your rights. You flaunt your achievements. You dole out mercy in thimbles and pursue justice according to the world’s stringent measure. Look how you seek only your own! Look how you hold everyone else to account!

O man, do you not spy in your alleged piety the devil’s trickery? O man, you shed tears over the loss of a creature, but your eyes are dry over the loss of the Creator! O man, do you not understand how you despise your Savior? Yet you call yourself a Christian. Have you not heard that it is better to be than to appear? You strutting hypocrite, you master of pretense. As the Lord said, the judgment will be worse for you than for the citizens of Sodom. (But I speak concerning myself.)

Do these condemnations seem too harsh? Search yourself. If one cannot accuse himself in such terms, he cannot love the Lord. Only those who are forgiven much, love much. What use is the cross of Christ to a “good man”? Let the “good man” rescue himself when death approaches, when darkness falls, when the soul is weighed, when the reckoning is made. Those who regard themselves highly, those who excuse themselves, those who traffic in absurd rationalizations — such do not cry out to Christ, such do not grab the hem of his cloak, such do not feel his merciful gaze. Yes, blessed are those who mourn in this life for their sins and the sins of the whole world. They will inherit lasting happiness. (But our mourning is never morose, for even the sadness of the Christian is radiant.)

Now, those who sincerely ask forgiveness, receive forgiveness: not only pardon for sins committed, but removal of sins’ disfiguring effects. Regenerated by the Spirit, the soul is inflamed with divine love and illumined with divine knowledge. The gifts of remission and restoration make us shine like the Father. As such, we are obliged to imitate the grace he displayed in Jesus Christ. We must communicate to those indebted to us the mercy we have received. The Father’s mercy is perfect; our mercy must be perfect.

“Lead us not into temptation”

We do not ask to be spared temptation, but to be led not into temptation: that is, we ask to overcome temptation. Jesus himself was tempted but sinned not. We must enter the kingdom of God by following his footsteps.

We do not struggle by ourselves. The Lord said: I am with you always. The Lord said: I go before your face. Despair not when the passions burn and the demons rage. To triumph, you must crush these opponents. But to crush them, you must lay aside your arms and let God fight for you. He will reveal himself in your feebleness, just as he shined forth in Christ’s passion and death: in weakness, might; in darkness, light; in death, life; in flesh, godhead.

When you meet temptation but enter not into it, you vanquish the world — not you, but Christ in you, the hope of glory. The Father has arranged that man should toil for his fruit. This law applies to spiritual fruit, as well. But the Lord supplies the strength.

And if — when — you falter, hate your sin and repent of it, but be gentle to yourself, as you must be gentle toward other sinners. Or do you think that you should be tougher on yourself than Christ, who died for you while you were yet his enemy?

“But deliver us from evil”

With these words, we ask to be preserved from sickness and sin, along with anything else that entails deprivation of a proper good. We ask to be kept from the cunning of demons, who prick our passions and confound our thinking. (About these beings many are curious, but it is enough to say of them: they are despicable.) We ask also to be made to stand on the day of judgment, when our faults will be laid bare. Let us live honestly now with God’s help, lest we be put to shame in that final hour.

Wishing fervently to avoid condemnation and enjoy forever the blessed vision in which all things are known and loved, we sigh: “Deliver, O Lord!” And the Father answers those who cry sincerely. This we know because he has shown his love for us in the Son of God. Moreover, he has poured his charity into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. He is faithful: the salvation he has begun to work in us, he will bring to perfection.

And all will be well.

Conclusion

Let us pray for discernment. God himself is our teacher. Whatever is true, he will demonstrate, explain, and confirm. May the Father be glorified forever, along with the Only-Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and with the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Philip Primeau About Philip Primeau

Philip Primeau is a layman of the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island. He holds a bachelor's degree in theology and is currently a third-year law student. He may be contacted at primeau.philip1@gmail.com.

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