St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that calling God "Our Father" ought to inspire the same confidence in God that children have when they address a loving human parent. Experience teaches the sad lesson that not all parents do - or can - adequately care for their children, so to address God as Our Father in heaven should remind us that our prayer does not address a flawed human parent, who might prove incapable of returning a childís affection, but a Father whose loving care is altogether perfect.
In the gospel parables, Jesus always chooses examples from the real life of those whom He addresses, so Jesus often asks His listeners to see a sign of eternal life in some common aspect of everyday existence. On some occasions, a parable describes a very low standard, which we are supposed to exceed; at other times, a positive standard we should strive to meet. At one point Jesus asks, "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?" (Luke 11:13)
This question encourages us to look at ourselves, not to see a God flawed with human imperfection, but to conclude what a parentís love might be, were it not hampered by the inadequacies that limit human love. When we approach God, we bring everything that makes us who we are. If our experience of our parents has been happy, we reasonably expect God to show us the same regard we have encountered at home. But if we have experienced a violent or unhappy childhood, the Lordís Prayer encourages us to see these experiences as precisely what we should not expect from our encounter with God.
The Old Testament book of Ecclesiaticus tells us, "Before prayer, prepare thy soul" (18:23). To identify God as Our Father "in heaven" begins this preparation by reminding us that the encounter with God we look forward to in prayer is no ordinary activity. Not only do we address our prayer to a Father whose love is vaster than any human parentís, the words ought to remind us that we, as children of the Father in heaven, share - or at least look forward to sharing - the glory that our heavenly Father enjoys. St. Paul encourages us, "As we have borne the image of the earthly, let us bear the image of the heavenly" (1 Cor. 15:49), so our words do not only remind us who God is, but what we are (and are called to be) by our relation to Him.
Jesus warns us, "Wheresoever thy treasure is, there also is thy heart" (Matt 6:21). These words can be quite frightening when we think of some of the things that make our hearts beat faster. However, to approach God as our Father "in heaven," allows us to direct our minds toward our true home, to "seek the things that are above, where Christ is" (Col. 3:1). In one of his sermons, St. John Chrysostom preached that the words "in heaven" do not confine God to one place, but rather invite us to withdraw from earthly concerns and fix our attention on things outside and above us. These thoughts of heaven lead us more and more to desire our true home, and this desire elevates and purifies our hearts, enhancing the spiritual dimension of our life and uplifting both our lives and the nature of our prayer.
When he considers the words of the Lordís Prayer, St. Augustine asks us to look at our relation to our human parents and draw some conclusions about our relation to God. We have parents on earth, he says,
To acknowledge our Father "in heaven" asserts our faith in Godís power and the majesty of His nature. Unless they are aided by grace, our minds cannot grasp much beyond what greets our senses. Our imagination may furnish heaven with all sorts of familiar, everyday details, but when we pray to our Father in heaven, our language refers to a plane of existence that is beyond anything we can imagine. To acknowledge Godís existence in this state of being acknowledges our belief in His superiority (and control) over every atom of physical creation. Our prayer also acknowledges His greatness, which exceeds anything human imagination can picture.
Thus far we have considered the words "in heaven" to refer to Godís spiritual abode. St. Thomas Aquinas offers an additional meaning to these words, remarking they can also refer to the saints, whose glorified lives are filled with Godís presence. When we pray, our prayers are united to the prayers that the heavenly host continually offer for the Church. And because Jesus promised, "If any man love me... my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our abode with him" (1 John 4:16), our prayers also unite us with every faithful Christian who enjoys the state of grace.
The very first words of the Lordís Prayer inspire confidence. They tell us who God is, and they remind us what Godís love calls us to be. Once we grasp (however imperfectly) the reality of Godís love, and the immense benefits this love confers on us, we may approach God with trust and confidence. The words of the Lordís Prayer now teach us what we should ask of our loving Father, and how we should frame our request.
The Lordís Prayer is an extremely compact statement, and the language of the prayer is nothing less than remarkable. The punctuation of the prayer will vary with the Scripture translation, but the prayer consists of seven petitions, each of which is expressed either as a wish or a command. In this prayer we either urge God to do something, or we assure Him we will welcome something He does. This language reflects both our daring and our trust. Because God is "Our" Father, we dare to tell Him what to do for us; because He is our Father "in heaven," unmoved by any of the ignoble feelings or motives that detract from our actions on earth, we have the confidence to say we will accept, unquestioningly, what God wills.
The first petition of the Lordís Prayer expresses a wish that Godís name will be known and revered. This seems a safe enough thing to ask for, but St. Augustine warns that these words also ask God to make His name holy in us.
St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that Godís name, which we ask to be made manifest and honored, is lovable, wonderful, venerable and indescribable. It is wonderful because it accomplishes great things. Jesus says,
Godís name is lovable because we all desire salvation, and "there is no other name...whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). The lives of the saints show the value we should attach to Godís name; the martyrs, especially - who were willing to die rather than deny God - help us see how fiercely we should cling to Him.
We say Godís name is venerable, because it commands respect throughout creation. St. Paul says, "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, on things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth" (Phil 2:10). The respect paid by the heavenly host should be obvious, but St. Thomas remarks that "of things on earth" refers to humankind, who bow before God for the love of heaven, which we desire. "Things under the earth" the Angelic Doctor says, refers to the damned, who acknowledge God out of fear.
St. Thomas calls Godís name "ineffable" because it cannot be adequately described by human speech. We often use metaphors, which reveal some quality or aspect of God, such as "rock" or "light," to describe the stability we find in God, or the brightness, warmth and safety we enjoy in His presence. In itself, however, the magnitude of Godís name is beyond our ability to grasp or express. That we can address God by name at all is His gift, given to Moses (Ex 3.13) - and to us - as a sign of His love.
The English word "holy" reminds us of the word "whole." Godís name is holy because it belongs to God, of course, but at the same time the name is perfect (or "whole") because it lacks nothing, and because nothing can be added to it. In Latin, the word "sanctum" refers to the holiness of Godís name, but also calls to mind the word "sancitum," which means "firm." Godís name, thus, reminds us of the eternal, unchanging solidity of Godís love - which the blessed enjoy in heaven, and which we aspire to as we make our way through a daily-changing world.
To call Godís name holy is to distinguish it from the things of earth. This is not to say that earthy things are unholy, but that creation is, by its nature, incomplete. Moreover, creation can do nothing without Godís assistance. God, on the other hand, is eternally creative, and His loving concern guarantees our continued existence as well as all the produce of the earth that supports life. Finally, we say Godís name is holy because God is the light that destroys the darkness of sin and error.
The previous reflection observed that the Lordís Prayer teaches us not only to pray succinctly, but also how our prayers should be organized. St. John Chrysostom commends the order of the Lordís Prayer, saying we do well to begin by asking first for the revelation of Godís glory, which contains our tacit prayer that we may be part of making this glory known. "His own glory He hath complete...but He commands him who prays to seek that He may be glorified also by our life."
We may imagine that because our prayer asks God to do something - perhaps, especially, to do something for us - we are passive partners in the encounter; the Lordís Prayer should dispel this notion forever. We reasonably ask God to provide what we cannot provide for ourselves, but in doing so we pledge our willingness to be a part of what we pray for. Godís name is holy; we cannot add or detract from its holiness. However, if we pray that the holiness of Godís name be acknowledged in our world, we offer ourselves as the preachers or other ministers by which this will come about.
One of the fruits of prayer is a greater understanding of who we are, and a clearer understanding of the individuals God calls us to become. Prayer can be a transforming experience if we allow ourselves to be transformed. This transformation comes at a price, which is the possibility that we will be changed by the experience of our prayer. When we pray the Lordís Prayer we ask God for certain specific outcomes; if we are not willing to play our role in these outcomes, we should hesitate to pray for them.
Back to Light & Life Page | Way Back to Rosary Center Home Page