By Charles Johnston:
What is the Perfect Prayer? Any time you speak to God from your heart, and remain in reverent silence to allow Him to speak to you, I’d say that’s a pretty good start.
We sometimes forget that prayer isn’t a one way street, it isn’t giving God a list of demands and then hanging up the phone. We have to remember that prayer isn’t a hostile negotiation, it’s a conversion in the context of a relationship. We have to approach God and speak with Him, not at Him.
But what about those times when we don’t really know what to say, or there’s a longing that we wish to express but just can’t find the right words? For these, and many other situations, I can’t think of a better way to pray than with the words our Savior gave us.
Some people say that Christ was only giving us a template of how to pray, but never intended to show us what to pray. I agree that the Lord’s Prayer is the perfect template for prayer, but disagree that Christ didn’t intend for us to use His words when praying. In this prayer is the full perfection of prayer, from adoration, to contrition, petition, and praise.
The structure and rhythm of the Our Father, or Lord’s Prayer, as it’s often called, is as close to perfection as can be. First of all, it was dictated to the Apostles, and through Sacred Scripture to us, by the Son of God Himself. Also, it puts our petitions and praises into proper perspective and order. It doesn’t start by asking anything of God, it begins by praising His Holy Name.
We’ve all prayed this prayer many times over, even when I was a child at Presbyterian churches, it was part of the Liturgy, but let’s slow it down and look at each line by itself and study the perfect prayer from the perfect Son of God.
It is recognized that there are seven petitions in the prayer; three are ordered towards God, and four are ordered towards us. We pray this prayer as an individual, but we also pray it as a unified people of God, and petition Him on behalf of all believers in all places. To reinforce the fact that Christianity is a family affair, and not an individualistic one, this pray is prayed as a group, even if you are alone in your home, you are still praying it with everyone that calls God “Father.”
- Our Father, Who Art In Heaven
While not counted as one of the seven petitions of the prayer, the way it is addressed to a familiar father, and not to a far off, distant God, sets the tone for the prayer to come.
CCC 238: Many religions invoke God as “Father”. The deity is often considered the “father of gods and of men”. In Israel, God is called “Father” inasmuch as he is Creator of the world. Even more, God is Father because of the covenant and the gift of the law to Israel, “his first-born son”. God is also called the Father of the king of Israel. Most especially he is “the Father of the poor”, of the orphaned and the widowed, who are under his loving protection.
The image of God as Father wasn’t unheard of in Jesus’ day, the Jews of His time recognized God as the Father and creator of all things. They also seen Him as the Father of the people of Israel. But the way that Jesus refers to God as Father in all of His prayers, and all His teachings, really rubbed the authorities the wrong way. They thought Jesus was being overly familiar, and far too informal with the One True God.
CCC 239: By calling God “Father”, the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that he is at the same time goodness and loving care for all his children. God’s parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, which emphasizes God’s immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature. The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for man. But this experience also tells us that human parents are fallible and can disfigure the face of fatherhood and motherhood. We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard: no one is father as God is Father.
Jews had, and still have to this day, a great reverence for God. So much so that they refuse to pronounce His name, except for on the most solemn occasions. Their relationship with God was one of Lord and serf, while Jesus was showing His apostles that we can have a Father and child relationship with the living God. We can approach God as a child approaches their parent, without formality, just simply and familiarly.
When we say that God is “in heaven,” it doesn’t mean we are saying that God is in anyway limited to a particular point in space, or even that heaven itself is a location. God is omnipresent, meaning He is everywhere at once, but Saint Augustine read this line to mean “in the hearts of the righteous, as it were in His holy temple.”
Heaven is not a physical realm, it is a spiritual reality. So to reach God with our prayers we must enter into this spiritual reality, just like Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24)
We must reach out not just with words, but with our heart and soul, and that is where we will meet God. In the hearts of the righteous is where God “is.”
- Hallowed Be Thy Name
In this line we are recognizing the Holiness of the Name of God. The word “hallowed” is not meant to say that we are causing His Name to be Holy, but we are only acknowledging its holiness.
God’s name is to be held in such high regard, that we are not to say it without good reason. We are to keep it Holy and not take it in vain, as God told Moses in the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20:7)
CCC 2142: The second commandment prescribes respect for the Lord’s name. Like the first commandment, it belongs to the virtue of religion and more particularly it governs our use of speech in sacred matters.
CCC 2143: all the words of Revelation, there is one which is unique: the revealed name of God. God confides his name to those who believe in him; he reveals himself to them in his personal mystery. The gift of a name belongs to the order of trust and intimacy. “The Lord’s name is holy.” For this reason man must not abuse it. He must keep it in mind in silent, loving adoration. He will not introduce it into his own speech except to bless, praise, and glorify it.
The Jews, back during the Old Covenant, and to this day, avoid saying the divine name, even during liturgical readings of the Torah. They replaced the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) with “Adonai” which means “Lord.” In keeping with this translational tradition, in many modern bibles you may see “LORD” substituted where the Tetragrammaton would’ve been in the original manuscripts.
CCC 2143: Among all the words of Revelation, there is one which is unique: the revealed name of God. God confides his name to those who believe in him; he reveals himself to them in his personal mystery. The gift of a name belongs to the order of trust and intimacy. “The Lord’s name is holy.” For this reason man must not abuse it. He must keep it in mind in silent, loving adoration. He will not introduce it into his own speech except to bless, praise, and glorify it.
This was the way they interpreted the Second Commandment. To not take the Lord’s name in vain, meant to not say it at all. This isn’t the way the Church interprets the Second Commandment, but we can appreciate how seriously they took the words spoken to Moses on Mount Sinai. We should endeavor to treat God’s Holy Name with such respect, and especially the name of His Son. The name of Jesus is the “Name above all names,” (Philippians 2:9) and should not be said so flippantly as society uses it today, and should never be used as a profanity! To use the name of Jesus in such a way is a direct violation of the Second Commandment and a form of blasphemy,
CCC 2162: The second commandment forbids every improper use of God’s name. Blasphemy is the use of the name of God, of Jesus Christ, of the Virgin Mary, and of the saints in an offensive way.
The first petition of the Lord’s Prayer reminds us of all these principles in a few simple words; “Hallowed be Thy Name”
- Thy Kingdom Come
The second petition has us praying for the coming of God’s Kingdom.
CCC 570: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem manifests the coming of the kingdom that the Messiah-King, welcomed into his city by children and the humble of heart, is going to accomplish by the Passover of his Death and Resurrection.
Both Jesus and John the Baptist said that “the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 & Mark 1:15). The Kingdom of God is currently found in the Church that He established and left on this earth to be a light unto the nations and a herald of the Gospel. This Kingdom is the shining city on a hill (Matthew 5:14) that is a beacon to salvation for all the world.
But the Kingdom is also a future reality. We say in the Creed every Sunday, that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead, and it is at this final coming of Christ that He will establish His Kingdom in all its fullness for all eternity.
CCC 2818: In the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come” refers primarily to the final coming of the reign of God through Christ’s return. But, far from distracting the Church from her mission in this present world, this desire commits her to it all the more strongly. Since Pentecost, the coming of that Reign is the work of the Spirit of the Lord who “complete[s] his work on earth and brings us the fullness of grace.
It’s this coming Kingdom that we all look forward to, it’s in this Kingdom that God will rule His people for all time. By praying this petition, we are saying, with all the saints throughout history, “come Lord” (Rev 22:17)
- Thy Will Be Done On Earth As It Is In Heaven
Seeking for God’s will to be done should always be part of our prayers. It should be our highest desire to do God’s will, because God’s will is all good, and all holy. By conforming ourselves to His perfect will, we make ourselves more holy, and personal holiness is the goal of all Catholics. We are called to be saints, and saints do the will of God.
CCC 2826: By prayer we can discern “what is the will of God” and obtain the endurance to do it.108 Jesus teaches us that one enters the kingdom of heaven not by speaking words, but by doing “the will of my Father in heaven.”
But what about this clause, “as it is in Heaven”? In Heaven, we will be perfectly in union with God’s perfect will, no longer encumbered by concupiscence or the cares of this world, we will perform His will without question and without hesitation.
To pray that His will be done “on earth as it is in Heaven” is essentially to ask that we be more conformed to His will, just like the Saints in Heaven. That His will be carried out by His servants here on earth, like the commands of a king are carried out by his loyal soldiers.
We don’t have to wait, we shouldn’t wait, until we are in Heaven to conform ourselves to God’s will, and to carry it out here on earth. We are God’s loyal soldiers as members of the Church Militant. Let’s pray this petition with all our heart, and endeavor to do God’s will at all time.
CCC 1029: In the glory of heaven the blessed continue joyfully to fulfill God’s will in relation to other men and to all creation. Already they reign with Christ; with him “they shall reign for ever and ever.”
This petition is manifested in the Feast of Christ the King, instituted by Pope Pius XI. The encyclical that was published by Pope Pius XI to establish this feast, sums up how Christ is to reign as sovereign King on earth as He already does in heaven.
To truly pray this petition means to truly submit to the kingship of Christ, and not just metaphorically, but in the realest sense. It means to wholly, completely, and without question, submit yourself to the will and sovereignty of God.
It has long been a common custom to give to Christ the metaphorical title of “King,” because of the high degree of perfection whereby he excels all creatures. So he is said to reign “in the hearts of men,” both by reason of the keenness of his intellect and the extent of his knowledge, and also because he is very truth, and it is from him that truth must be obediently received by all mankind. He reigns, too, in the wills of men, for in him the human will was perfectly and entirely obedient to the Holy Will of God, and further by his grace and inspiration he so subjects our free-will as to incite us to the most noble endeavors. He is King of hearts, too, by reason of his “charity which exceedeth all knowledge.” And his mercy and kindness which draw all men to him, for never has it been known, nor will it ever be, that man be loved so much and so universally as Jesus Christ. But if we ponder this matter more deeply, we cannot but see that the title and the power of King belongs to Christ as man in the strict and proper sense too. For it is only as man that he may be said to have received from the Father “power and glory and a kingdom,” since the Word of God, as consubstantial with the Father, has all things in common with him, and therefore has necessarily supreme and absolute dominion over all things created.
Quas Primas, 7
- Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread
By baptism we are adopted children of God, and as His children we have the right to request from Him our sustenance. Just as a child lives off of the food provided by his father, so too do we survive from the food, both physically and spiritual, that is given to us by our Father in Heaven.
This is the recognition that every day is a gift from God, and that we survive on a daily basis because of His divine benevolence. The entire universe is held in existence by His nature of existence, and because of His will. Each day we are taken care of if we allow ourselves to rely on His grace.
Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
“Our Daily Bread“
We may interpret this as “that sustenance with which we survive each day” or another variation of asking God to provide for our physical needs. In the literal sense of the text, this is a very good interpretation of what is being prayed. We need to have faith that God will supply all our needs, and not to worry about even basic things for survival, like bread.
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life?
Even though this is the literal sense of the text, I don’t believe it should be how we primarily read and pray it. Not long before Jesus taught the disciples this prayer, He had said to the Devil,
“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'” (Matthew 4:4)
Jesus said “it is written” so, this should make us look to where it is written, and what was the context of that passage.
The passage that Jesus is quoting, comes to us from Deuteronomy, and in it Moses is reminding the people of Israel of all the things God has done for them. One of these things is that He has fed them with both Manna and the Word that has come from His mouth.
And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.
Manna was the miraculous “bread that came down from heaven,” and is a type and prefigurement of the Eucharist.
Yet he commanded the skies above,and opened the doors of heaven;
and he rained down upon them manna to eat,and gave them the bread of heaven.
Man ate of the bread of the angels;he sent them food in abundance.
Jesus tells the Jews in John 6, that even though their fathers ate this “bread of Angels,” as the Psalmist called it, they still died. The bread that kept the Israelites alive for 40 years, although miraculous was still only a shadow, a sign, of the true Bread of Life. Jesus is the Bread of Life, and this Bread does not perish, like the manna that couldn’t be kept even overnight, but it “endures to eternal life.” (John 6:27)
I am the bread of life.
Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.
This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.
I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.
But Moses told them that it wasn’t the bread alone that sustained them in the desert, it was also “every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.” This is another clue in the typological message of the Old Testament, a clue that points directly to Jesus and the Eucharist.
What was it that John the Evangelist called Jesus in the opening line of the prologue of his Gospel?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The Israelites were sustained by eating the “bread of Angels” and hearing the Word of God, how much more are we blessed to be able to consume the Word of God, and the Bread of Life in the Blessed Sacrament.
This is what we are praying for in this petition of the prayer, we are praying to be sustained by the Eucharist and by eating His Flesh, and drinking His Blood, that we may be fed by Him until He comes to take us home.
Another interesting thing about this petition, is that it contains a word that is found nowhere else in scripture. This word is “Epiousios,” and is usually translated as “daily” in English. But this falls far short of what this word actually says. It’s a conjunction of two Greek words, epi meaning above or beyond, and ousia meaning substance. Put together, it is best translated as “super-substantial” or “above-substance,” or “that which is above normal substance of bread.”
Now looking back at what else we’ve discovered about this petition in the prayer, what else could be “super-substantial” bread than the Eucharist?
The Fathers of the Church were practically unanimous in understanding the fourth petition of the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer) as a Eucharistic petition.
Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth
- AND FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES, AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US
CCC 2838: This petition is astonishing. If it consisted only of the first phrase, “And forgive us our trespasses,” it might have been included, implicitly, in the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, since Christ’s sacrifice is “that sins may be forgiven.” But, according to the second phrase, our petition will not be heard unless we have first met a strict requirement. Our petition looks to the future, but our response must come first, for the two parts are joined by the single word “as.”
The fifth petition is the only one that carries a contingency clause. Our forgiveness from God is directly contingent on our forgiveness towards others.
This isn’t a suggestion, it is a binding commandment, upon which our own forgiveness hinges. If we refuse to forgive others, God will refuse to forgive us. It actually is that black and white.
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father also will forgive you;
but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
These words of Christ immediately follow His teaching the disciples the Lord’s Prayer. He says “if” you forgive, this is because the Lord knows that many will refuse to forgive others, and thus exclude themselves from His loving forgiveness. Just as the “unforgivable sin” is believed to be final impenitence, and excluding yourself from God’s covenant with all mankind, so too is it with those who refuse God’s forgiveness because they prefer to continue not forgiving others.
And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.
(See also the parable of the wicked servant Matthew 18:23-35)
- And Lead Us Not Into Temptation
In this petition, are we asking God not to tempt us with sin? Of course not. God doesn’t lead us to temptation, while we beg him not to. That is a very common misconception about this line in the prayer.
AND LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION”
CCC 2846: This petition goes to the root of the preceding one, for our sins result from our consenting to temptation; we therefore ask our Father not to “lead” us into temptation. It is difficult to translate the Greek verb used by a single English word: the Greek means both “do not allow us to enter into temptation” and “do not let us yield to temptation.” “God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one”; on the contrary, he wants to set us free from evil. We ask him not to allow us to take the way that leads to sin. We are engaged in the battle “between flesh and spirit”; this petition implores the Spirit of discernment and strength.
St James makes it clear, and is quoted in the above paragraph from the catechism, that we are never tempted by God, and that if we give into temptation, it leads to sin, and sin, ultimately leads to death.
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one;
but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.
Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death.
This petition is recognizing that a child of God should put their life into His divine providence in such a way, that He leads us in all we do, and in everywhere we go. It also asks that He lead us into His will, and conform our will to His, so that we do not fall into temptation that we would otherwise face, if we were going after our own desires.
We are given free will, and the decision to surrender ourselves to God, and His plans, is entirely free, but it’s only by the grace of God that we could even make such a choice to abandon ourselves to divine providence.
As the catechism states, to surrender to His will is actually a great victory, and a victory only possible through prayer,
CCC 2849: Such a battle and such a victory become possible only through prayer. It is by his prayer that Jesus vanquishes the tempter, both at the outset of his public mission and in the ultimate struggle of his agony. In this petition to our heavenly Father, Christ unites us to his battle and his agony. He urges us to vigilance of the heart in communion with his own. Vigilance is “custody of the heart,” and Jesus prayed for us to the Father: “Keep them in your name.” The Holy Spirit constantly seeks to awaken us to keep watch. Finally, this petition takes on all its dramatic meaning in relation to the last temptation of our earthly battle; it asks for final perseverance. “Lo, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is he who is awake.”
By praying to be able to abandon ourselves to His will, we are actively decreasing ourselves so that He may increase in us. Just as John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) So that we can say as Saint Paul said, “it is no long i who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)
We May find ourselves in difficult circumstances, and we may be tempted to chose the wrong path, but by the grace of God, we ask that He take us by the hand, like the children we are, and lead us to His path.
- But Deliver Us From Evil
CCC 2851: In this petition, evil is not an abstraction, but refers to a person, Satan, the Evil One, the angel who opposes God. The devil (dia-bolos) is the one who “throws himself across” God’s plan and his work of salvation accomplished in Christ.
Delivery from evil, and it’s primary agent; that is essentially what the Gospel is all about. We are delivered, by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, from the evils we have chosen. We were born with original sin, but have also chosen sin throughout our lives, and only by Christ’s atoning sacrifice can we be delivered.
Our first parents were deceived by the evil one, and they fell from friendship with God. Now that we have a channel, by which we can restore that lost friendship and innocence, we ask that God protect us from the evil one so that we may not fall again.
By placing ourselves within His will, and asking to be kept from the evil one, we are petitioning the Lord to keep us in a state of grace, so that when we reach the end of this life, we will see Him face to face in the heavenly Kingdom.
CCC 2854: When we ask to be delivered from the Evil One, we pray as well to be freed from all evils, present, past, and future, of which he is the author or instigator. In this final petition, the Church brings before the Father all the distress of the world. Along with deliverance from the evils that overwhelm humanity, she implores the precious gift of peace and the grace of perseverance in expectation of Christ’s return By praying in this way, she anticipates in humility of faith the gathering together of everyone and everything in him who has “the keys of Death and Hades,” who “is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Deliver us, Lord, we beseech you, from every evil and grant us peace in our day, so that aided by your mercy we might be ever free from sin and protected from all anxiety, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
(When I first set out to write this post, I was unaware that there is an entire section of the catechism dealing with the Lord’s Prayer. I used these paragraphs liberally throughout this post, they are CCC 2803-2854 and can be found here http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p4s2a3.htm )