The Our Father: An Introduction to the Spiritual Life

Sermon on the mountThe first post in our series on the “Our Father”.

Last Fall we worked through the Hail Mary, a fine little catechism on grace. We begin in this new year a series on the Our Father, which itself contains a complete introduction to the spiritual life. Today we will examine the prayer as a whole, then comment on each phrase over the coming Mondays.

***

First, the context. The Our Father as we know it comes from Matthew’s Gospel, 6:5-14. What distinguishes Matthew’s Gospel from the others is its very straightforward organization. We could say that Matthew is the grand organizer of the sayings and doings of Jesus.

(To say that is non-controversial. We could further conjecture that Mark’s Gospel whittles Matthew’s down to a rush to the Cross as the only interpretive key to the person of Jesus; Luke’s reworks the previous two according to a Pauline theology of grace and God’s promises; and John’s provides a theological commentary on the previous three: for example, instead of the infancy narratives, he gives us “In the Beginning was the Word”; instead of the Institution of the Eucharist he gives us the Bread of Life discourse, united to the multiplication of the loaves, in John 6; the washing of feet as manifestation of the charity implicit in the Eucharist; and the discourses on unity in John 14-17. Each Gospel has its proper character.)

Matthew organizes Jesus’s teachings into Five Sermons (parallel to the five books of Moses, the central teaching of the Old Testament), with a book of infancy signs beforehand and a book of cross and resurrection signs afterwards. Each Sermon has a narrative attached that ties his actions to these central words. Matthew is straightforward.

The first Sermon is the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’ teaching on the moral life – or, more properly, the spiritual life, beginning with the Beatitudes. (The subsequent sermons are on the mission of the apostles, the parables of the Kingdom, the Church, and the end of time.) What is important here is that Matthew is gathering all of Jesus’s teaching on Christian living into one place. The Our Father is the center of this discourse, and like the Beatitudes at the beginning, summarizes the whole. This is Matthew’s distillation of Jesus’s teaching on life.

***

The Our Father itself contains two clear parts: “thine” and “ours.” Thy name, thy kingdom, thy will; our daily bread, our trespasses (as we forgive), lead us not into temptation, deliver us. Thy comes first: first we look to God, then we look to ourselves.

There is a kind of descent, from the highest to the most mundane. “Deliver us from evil” is the most pragmatic phrase of the prayer. Physical evil is the most immediate (and self-centered) reason we turn to God; for many people, God serves as nothing but a help when things get rough. Moral evil can seem the most basic struggle of the Christian life: God, just help me not to sin!

On the one hand, obviously this is a pretty limited idea of Christianity – indeed, one where God is purely instrumental, and where we are more interested in avoiding evil than in seeking good. On the other hand, there is some sense in which this is the most basic struggle of life, and the Catholic tradition has always seen the struggle with sin as the foundation – though not the end – of the spiritual life. We want to be delivered, or liberated, for something: freedom is no good unless we have something we want to do. But we can’t do anything else until we are liberated.

***

On the other end of the Our Father is the highest, most contemplative part of the spiritual life. Notice the expansion, if we move backwards through the “thy” section. “Thy will” is a beautiful thing, but on the one hand, it focuses more on what happens here than on God himself, and on the other hand, it makes God sound a bit arbitrary, as if he has no plan or higher purpose, just acts of command. In fact, part of the good of speaking of God’s will is that it emphasizes that we don’t know why he wills what he does – though he has his reasons.

“Thy Kingdom,” on the other hand, takes a step higher: bigger purpose, a grander vision, a union of souls, not just the immediate obedience of one man to God. This is the higher vision of his will.

And “thy name” – indeed “Our Father, who art in heaven,” itself – enters into a vision of God himself: not what he wills out there, but him. Think of the difference between saying, “God, tell me what to do,” and simply praying, “Jesus I love you. Jesus, Jesus. Father!”

***

How do you use the Our Father?

 

eric.m.johnston

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *