It is known as the Lord’s Prayer at once distinctively Christian and yet profoundly connected to the thinking that is the essence of all prayer. “Prayer signifies all the service that ever we do unto God,” as the theologian Richard Hooker puts it. It signifies an orientation, an outlook and an attitude, a perspective that is unitive and comprehensive. It is about our participation in the essential life of God. As Origen, the great 3rd century theologian of Alexandria observes, “the whole of our life says Our Father.” Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, suggests that all prayer is about “letting Jesus pray in us.” The essential life of God in us is prayer.
We say this prayer at every Chapel service. It is, in that sense, a familiar prayer, even in a post-Christian age, but like so many things that are familiar their real significance is often overlooked. Why the Lord’s Prayer? Because it is the prayer which Jesus himself gives us to pray: “When you pray, say Our Father”. This reminds us of Jesus’ words to Mary, “I ascend to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” essentially quoting Ruth. As Aquinas says, “God himself taught us this prayer,” thus establishing the connection between God and Christ, and arguing that this prayer is “the most perfect” and “the most preeminent” of all prayers, the prayer that underlies and informs all prayer. Simone Weil, the 20th century philosopher of attention, builds on this concept. She notes that “the Our Father contains all possible petitions; we cannot conceive of any prayer which is not already contained in it. It is to prayer what Christ is to humanity. It is impossible to say it once through, giving the fullest possible attention to each word, without a change … taking place in the soul.”
Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas, to name but a few, all note the special character of the Lord’s Prayer in terms of its structure and its unique form of address. We do not find in the Jewish or Hebrew Scriptures the practice of praying to God as Father. “Nowhere is there found a precept for the people of Israel,” Augustine states, “that they should say ‘Our Father,’ or that they should pray to God as a Father, but as Lord He was made known to them.” Few indeed are the references in the Hebrew Scriptures to God as Father and even fewer, to God as Mother. Such terms are metaphors for our relation to God.
Lancelot Andrewes, a 17th century Anglican preacher and theologian, offers a helpful explanation. The Lord’s Prayer begins with “a Father, not a Lord/ One being a name of love./ The other of dignity … One being, a name of Goodness, Comfortable … the other of Power, Terrible” (in the sense of awe and wonder) and grounds its daring use in Christ’s command to us. His Father is Our Father. A powerful and poignant intimacy.
To begin with “Our Father” is to begin with praise, Aquinas teaches, but such a beginning also corrects three errors that are absolutely fatal for the life of prayer and thought. What are these three errors?
The first is that God is not concerned about us and so it is a waste of time to ask God for anything. The counter is that God wants us to want what he wants for us, our good, and so prayer has to do with our active engagement with the will of God. The second fatal error is that since all things are known and fixed by God, there is no point whatsoever in praying. The counter is the idea of our active participation with God and his will in the realization of the folly of collapsing eternity into time, of contingency into necessity; in short, a kind of fatalism. The third error goes to the opposite extreme; the presumption of thinking that the providence of God can somehow be altered by our prayers, as if we could make God will what we want. The counter is about our learning to will what God wants.
Simone Weil highlights how the “Our Father” contains all possible petitions. Prayer in its simplest sense is asking. The seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are really all about the glory of God and the human hope of glory. The first three petitions relate to the glory of God; the remaining four petitions speak to the human hope of enjoying God’s glory. This focus on God’s glory and our hope for enjoying God’s glory add to the special and unique character of the Lord’s Prayer and illuminate what is implicit in all prayer, however incoherent and garbled, even “with sighs too deep for words”(Rom. 8.26.). This emphasis on the glory or wonder of God corrects the narcissisms of our contemporary world. It is not about us, about the self-glorification culture of ‘look at me looking at you looking at me.’ It is about God; God for us and in us. That changes entirely how we look at ourselves and one another.
What are the seven petitions that make up the Lord’s Prayer? The first three, directed to the glory of God, are, first, “Hallowed be thy name”; second, “Thy kingdom come”; and third, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words, the focus of the first three petitions is on God in his majesty and truth, God in his glory. The remaining four petitions speak more directly to the human condition but only as grounded in the first three petitions. They are about our hope in God; specifically, beginning with the fourth petition, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The fifth is “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them who trespass against us.” The sixth is “lead us not into temptation” and the seventh is “deliver us from evil.” All rather comprehensive and complete. All a way of gathering the whole world and the whole of our humanity into the life of God.
Chapel this week was meant to focus on the Lord’s Prayer in the forms given to us by Matthew and Luke. The point would have been to connect the Lord’s Prayer to the Resurrection, to the theme of essential life and to prayer as the form of our participation in the essential life of God. There would have been the endeavour to draw the whole of creation into the divine relation in the theme of ‘rogation’ - prayer as asking. It signals an awareness of the source of all goodness and being. Thus this prayer, as Simone Weil suggests, is transformative. It is the movement of the Resurrection in us, an awakening to essential life even in the midst of our anxieties and uncertainties. The antidote is prayer and praise wonderfully concentrated for us in the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father.”
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy