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The Message of the “Our Father”

If we here dare to speak of the “Our Father” in order to show what a radical antithesis it is to this-worldliness, we fully realize how inadequate are our words about this prayer of prayers. There are after all so many interpretations by Church Fathers and other great theologians of earlier times, that it might seem arrogant of me to present the following meditations on the “Our Father.” But they are necessary to show the tremendous danger of this-worldliness and its total incompatibility with the Christian revelation.

The “Our Father,” the prayer which Christ taught the Apostles and of which He said, “In this way you should pray,” this prayer contains in its opening words a decisive revelation. The invocation of Yahweh, the Unapproachable One, with “our Father,” contains the completely new and indescribably consoling revelation that God is our Father. Our “being sheltered” (Geborgenheit) in God, and God's love for us, is all contained in the words, “our Father.” If the greatest difference is that between a non-personal deity, and a personal God Deus videns et vivens (a living God who sees us), one must nevertheless not underestimate the importance of the difference between, on the one hand, the unapproachable God, the absolute Lord, the Creator of heaven and earth, the living God into whose hands it is terrible to fall, and on the other hand God as loving Father.

But these two differences are not exactly parallel. In passing from the notion of a nonpersonal God to that of a personal God, Deus videns et vivens, one passes from darkness to light, and overcomes a great error. For God, who is the absolute being, is not non-personal a non-personal being could never be absolute. But in calling upon God as “our Father,” it remains true that He is the Unapproachable One, the Judge to be feared, One who fills us with fear and trembling. None of this is eliminated but is rather transcended and crowned by the fact, so consoling and so overwhelming, that God is also a loving Father, that our relation to Him is not only only that of a slave and servant but also that of a child. This is analagous to the relation between obedience and love. Obedience to God is never overthrown by love for God, but remains of great importance. Something new and still more sublime is added. We always remain slaves and servants of God, even if we are His children.

But right after the inexhaustibly glorious message of the invocation “our Father,” there come the words, “who art in heaven.” This calls to mind the unspeakably mysterious glory of God. After the intimacy which lies in the invocation “our Father,” we are freed from the danger of becoming too familiar with God. The incomprehensible mysteriousness of Him who is enthroned above the world, His transcendence, is clearly expressed in the words, “who art in heaven.” Here we see that true prayer is characterized by a looking up to heavenly things, a vertical “direction” (which Teilhard would replace by a horizontal “direction”). And these important words in the invocation, “who art in heaven,” should be prayed by us. Praying is after all not just an observing, but a turning to God; these words involve the actualization of the attitude of a child, of looking up to Him who is enthroned above the world and reigns in heaven. It is not difficult to see that these words show once and for all that any attempt to deny the transcendence of God is radically incompatible with the Christian Revelation.

The first thing which follows is adoration, “hallowed be Thy name.” This is not a prayer of petition, or of thanksgiving, or even of praise as in the Gloria, “laudamus te, benedicimus te.” It is an act of adoring invocation. The name of God is objectively something infinitely holy. In praying “hallowed be Thy name,” we enter into that rhythm of the glorification of God which objectively exists. We are not here praying that God will bring it about that everyone will adore Him, we are rather giving utterance to that which objectively ought to be as it is, and we are clearly expressing the primacy of the glorification of God.

Then follows, “Thy kingdom come.” Here, too, we are primarily repeating, as it were, the “gesture” of something which objectively ought to be, we are participating in the glorification of God, and taking a primary interest in it. The kingdom of God is above all the kingdom of God in the soul of the individual, which means personal sanctification, and glorifying God as a result. But this kingdom also involves the triumph over the prince of this world; this triumph lies in the spreading of the communion of saints on earth. For we find running through the entire Gospel words such as, “Proclaim to them the kingdom of God,” and “The Kingdom of God is near.”

The Old Testament prophets, especially Isaiah, speak of a kind of restitution of paradise, in which there is no more suffering and in which there is peace. even among animals. But in the New Testament it is the glorious second coming of Christ which is spoken of, the Parousia though this second coming is not clearly distinguished from the Last Judgment, the end of the world, and the resurrection of the dead, in other words it is not distinguished from the fulfilment of everything in eternity. In any case the words, “Thy kingdom come,” do not refer to an earthly paradise to be attained by scientific and technological progress in the external organization of human life. The Preface of the Mass on the feast of Christ the King explains what “Thy kingdom” is: “regnum veritatis et vitae; regnum sanctitatis et gratiae; regnum justitiae, amoris et pacis” (a kingdom of truth and of life, a kingdom of holiness and of grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace). This kingdom of God is clearly opposed to any this-worldliness. The fact that these words come right at the beginning of the “Our Father” is fully indicative of the absolute primacy of the supernatural, of the glorification of God.

In the words “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we enter in the deepest way into the rhythm of that which objectively ought to be. Here the main thing is to understand the meaning of “will of God.”

The first meaning is: that which is pleasing to God, that which He commands us. This is the will of God which we ought to obey. The second meaning is: that which He allows. In this second sense everything which happens is God's will: happy and beautiful events as well as unhappy ones and trials and crosses and even the reign of evil.

Here we have to make an important distinction. As long as we are speaking of personal crosses such as the death of a beloved person or an incurable disease, it is a question of something allowed by God, and our response must be one of submission in which we say, “Thy will be done.” We should pray to be spared personal evils as long as they can still be avoided, and we should do everything in our power to avoid them. Even our Lord prayed in Gethsemane, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” But then He said, “Thy will be done.” If it is a question of crosses which cannot be avoided, such as the death of a beloved person, there remains for us only to say, “Thy will be done.” But we have a very different case when God allows the triumph of evil in history, when He allows heresy and apostasy, and the flourishing of movements hostile to Himself such as Nazism and Communism. These are things which God allows for reasons which we cannot understand; here the words of St. Paul apply, “How incomprehensible are His judgments, how unsearchable His ways (Rom. 11:33)!”

We must not fail to grasp the call of God to fight against these evils with all our might. It would be totally false to think that God expects of us only a resigned “Thy will be done.” That would be a disastrous quietism. The criterion for determining the response which God expects of us is the will of God in the first sense, in the sense of that which is pleasing to God. It would be a great, indeed a catastrophic error to think that something is pleasing to God simply because it has happened, because it has come into existence. Although we have already spoken about this dangerous error, we refer to it explicitly again. 77 It is always the will of God for us to struggle against what is evil and false. Whether we will prevail in our struggle, that we do not know, and here again we should say, “Thy will be done.” As Pascal says so beautifully, we must fight with Christ, but we do not know whether we will conquer with Him. But that Christ will conquer in the end that we know.

The response of “Thy will be done” to the crosses which God imposes on us is also according to the will of God in the first sense, in the sense of that which we should fulfill, and thereby glorify God. Thus the will of God in the first sense reaches into the sphere of the will of God in the second sense (in the sense of what God allows), at least as far as our response is concerned. But even this does not eliminate the difference between the will of God in the sense of His commandments, and the will of God in the sense of that which He allows.

But things which are not personal crosses or evils for me or others, but which are wrong and offensive to God, such as sin or apostasy or heresy, are only allowed by God for mysterious reasons, and it would be thoroughly wrong to respond by saying, “Thy will be done.”

The will of God in the sense of what He allows is fulfilled in any case. In this sense of “will of God,” nothing can happen against His will. And this is the sense in which a person suffering from some trial should say, “Thy will be done.” We should accept the will of God in this sense, whereas we should obey the will of God in the sense of that which is pleasing to God. If we mean “will of God” in the sense of what is allowed, then it is an expression of complete abandonment to Him to say. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The will of God in this sense is not something which ought to be, but rather only something which in any case fully exists. In thus abandoning ourselves to God we do not enter into the rhythm of that which objectively ought to be, we rather perform an act of adoring self-donation to God. But if we mean “will of God” in the sense of that which is pleasing to God, that which glorifies Him, then to say “Thy will be done” is an expression of “hungering and thirsting for justice,” of “seeking first the kingdom of God,” of entering into the rhythm of that which objectively ought to be. In this sense the will of God is fulfilled in heaven, there it is full reality; and thus in praying that His will be done, we enter into the rhythm of what objectively ought to be. But when we pray that the will of God be fulfilled on “earth” we are referring to something which is not yet as it ought to be. In saying “on earth as it is in heaven,” the “as” shows clearly that heaven and the fulfillment of God's will there is taken as a model for what should be “on earth.” Thus it is that in our prayer for the will of God on earth, we enter into the rhythm of that which objectively ought to be, and this is quite similar to praying, “Thy kingdom come.”

But the important thing for us in the present context is that the whole first part of the Lord's Prayer is the total antithesis to this-worldliness in religion, to shifting the emphasis from eternity to earthly “progress,” from the supernatural to the natural, from the glorification of God to the establishment of an earthly paradise. This whole first part concentrates on the glorification of God, and in praying it we enter deeply into the rhythm of that which objectively ought to be.

It is not until the second part of the prayer that we find the petition referring to our earthly happiness, “give us this day our daily bread.” This “daily bread” refers not only to the nourishment which we need to live, but surely also to everything which is a legitimate objective good for us or for those with whom we are united in some form of love. In making this petition we clearly avoid falling into any false supernaturalism, and we see clearly that it belongs to the very nature of man to possess Eigenleben, that is to be interested in objective goods for himself, to yearn for happiness (I have discussed all this in Chapter IX of my book Das Wesen der Liebe “The Nature of Love”). Of course, in stating clearly in the first part the absolute primacy of God and the glorification of Him, the prayer also states the absolute priority of the glorification of God over even the highest objective good for the person that eternal beatitude which God explicitly desires for man. But as long as we are on earth we would not be full men if we were concerned only with the glorification of God and our eternal salvation, if we were not also interested in objective goods for ourselves such as friendship, love. marriage, the experience of what is beautiful and noble, of those goods which, since they possess high values, are precious gifts of God. We should include all these things in “our daily bread.” After all even the Church prays in the litany of All Saints, “a peste, fame et bello libera nos Domine” (deliver us, O Lord, from plague, hunger, and war). And in the Gospel. by saying, “Ask and you will receive” (Luke 11:9), Christ is telling us to make the prayer of petition. And it is a lofty expression of our faith in the omnipotence and the infinite goodness of God to ask even for earthly goods.

We mentioned earlier that this-worldliness has nothing to do with duly appreciating all true earthly goods, it is rather a shift of emphasis from supernatural goods to natural ones. In many of my writings I have discussed the importance of earthly goods (which, since they have a high value, are sharply distinguished from merely worldly goods), and their mission to bring us closer to God; though I have never denied the danger which they have for our fallen nature, the danger of drawing us into an inordinate attachment to them. But we can understand this mission of earthly goods only in avoiding any this-worldliness, and only in recognizing the absolute primacy of the unum necessarium (the one thing needful).

The next petition, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” does not also refer to earthly goods, but to our relation to God. It is an appeal to the mercy of God for the most important thing for our eternal blessedness: the forgiveness of our sins. The Psalmist speaks of the way we are thrown on the mercy of God when he says: “If you, O Lord, mark our iniquities, Lord, who can stand in your presence” (Psalm 129). It is the same appeal to the mercy of God which we find in the Kyrie eleison, and in the Confiteor when we ask our Lady and all the angels and saints to intercede for us. In this petition we return to the “one thing needful.” Of course, the forgiveness of sins is not the heart of the “one thing needful"; for, this is the glorification of God. But the forgiveness of sins does refer to that great reality which comes after the glorification of God the salvation of man, his eternal beatitude. Even if the salvation of man is second with respect to the glorification of God, still it belongs to the supernatural. We are clearly oriented to the “one thing necessary” in praying for the forgiveness of our sins, in appealing to God's mercy. In this appeal we are not concerned, as in the prayer for “our daily bread,” with genuine earthly goods, but rather with our eternal salvation, with our reconciliation with God to pray for this is precisely an expression of love for God, and of repentance for our sins.

In this part of the Lord's Prayer we also promise to forgive all those who do us wrong. Of course we all hope that God's mercy is infinitely greater than the mercy which we show to others. Our mercy is no model for God's mercy. But when we pray for the forgiveness of our sins, we have also to make the resolution to forgive “those who trespass against us,” to be ready to do this, and to realize how often Christ emphasizes in the Gospel that God will forgive us and do good to us according as we forgave others and were generous with them. In this way he attaches the greatest importance to our being merciful. But in the “Our Father” we cannot ask for the forgiveness of our sins only on the condition that we “forgive those who trespass against us.” These words, which express a central element of our sanctification, have more the character of a promise, of a will to forgive; they do not express a model of that mercy which we hope to receive from God and for which we pray. These words are part of a basic petition, and they express a direction of our will, a realization that forgiveness of “those who trespass against us” is a centrally important condition for our eternal beatitude. Here, too, it is eternal beatitude and our sanctification which are thematic, as well as the sweet consolation of mercy. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

In the petition, “and lead us not into temptation,” there is fully expressed the centrally important awareness of our weakness, as well as of the fact that our first task is not to offend God. Again we see clearly the full antithesis to any this-worldliness. In humbly praying that temptations to sin be kept far from us, we not only express our concern lest in our weakness we offend God, and our awareness that the most important thing for us is not to offend Him; we also express the humility which realizes that, with our own strength, we cannot avoid offending Him. Of course, the trials which God imposes on us out of love are bound up with temptations nevertheless Christ has told us to pray to avoid temptation. We not only may but ought to make this prayer to God. It is a unique expression of humility, which is a central element of sanctify and an indispensable condition for eternal beatitude.

In the final petition, “but deliver us from evil,” the theme is the sheer evil of separation from God, of eternal damnation. It is against this evil that the priest prays when he says between the Agnus Dei and the Communion, “And never let me be parted from Thee.” Notice that it does not say, a malis (from evils) but a malo (from evil). In the Tridentine liturgy one prays after the “Our Father”: “Deliver us, O Lord, from all evils, past, present, and to come.” It clearly makes no sense to be freed from past evils if by evil one means earthly evils, such as crosses, pains, sufferings. How can we be freed from these when they are past? Only if evil (malum) refers to moral evil, to sin, to being separated from God in a way which could last for eternity, does it make sense to pray to be delivered from past evils.

But the “Our Father” speaks in the singular, it speaks of malum (evil), which encompasses all moral evil, all sin, all offense against God this is that absolute evil which leads to damnation. In praying, “deliver us from evil, from wickedness” we are praying to be delivered from the kingdom of evil. And here the whole emphasis is placed on not offending God, and on attaining to eternal beatitude. For the absolute good for us is eternal beatitude, and the absolute evil is eternal separation from God in hell.

And so we see clearly how the prayer which Christ taught the Apostles and, through them, all Christians, is the clearest proof that this-worldliness is unmistakably the antithesis to the Christian Revelation, and in fact apostasy from Christ.


77. Thus Kierkegaard: “So one errs also in supposing that what happens, for the mere fact that it happens, indicates God's approving consent.” Quoted by Lowrie, Kierkegaard (New York: Harper, 1962), vol. II, p. 551.


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