JMC : Notes on the Lord's Prayer / by Raïssa Maritain

Chapter I

The Lord's Prayer

The Charity of Christ has provided us with the essential prayer -- the Lord's Prayer, the prayer that is universally true and needed. O ratio Dominica perfectissima est.{1} In itself it is enlightenment and revelation. From the words of Christ, the Word Incarnate, we know in a very certain way, henceforth unveiled and glowing in our hearts, that we have a Father in heaven -- Pater noster qui es in coelis -- a God who loves with paternal tenderness, and not only a Creator. God takes delight in all that he has made ("God saw all the things that he had made, and they were very good",{2} but he loves only men and angels as his children.

For the pagan sages also, in particular for the Stoics, the name Father was doubtless befitting to God, but in an entirely different sense, referring only to the Principle of the cosmos as the universal First Cause: God was our Father because he had begotten us, and because his spark in us caused us to be marked with a resemblance to him. Even in the Old Testament the true meaning of divine Fatherhood remained implicit and was not unveiled. "Fatherhood was the attribute of God the Creator and the God of providence."{3} It was the Only Son, who dwells in the bosom of the Father, who "told" us of this God whom "no man hath seen at any time."{4} "All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knoweth the Son except the Father, nor doth anyone know the Father except the Son, and he to whom the Son may choose to reveal him."{5} Father in an absolutely unique sense for Jesus, whose Person is consubstantial and identical in nature with the First Person of the Trinity, God is Father for his adopted sons in a sense which Jesus alone revealed: He calls us to share -- through the supernatural gift of grace -- in his intimate life, his possessions, his beatitude, in the heritage of his incomprehensible and infinitely transcendent Godhead, and to become "perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect."{6}

"By the very name Father, we confess the remission of sins, sanctification, redemption, adoption, inheritance, our bond of brotherhood with the only Son, and the gifts of the Spirit.{7}


Tertullian said that the Lord's Prayer is the breviary of the entire Gospel.{8}

Like the Gospel, the Lord's Prayer has deep roots in Judaism, and carries the religion of Israel to its supreme point of perfection and flowering, but through the descent of a higher grace and of an absolutely transcendent element.

It has been remarked that many features of the formulas of the Lord's Prayer resemble certain formulas of Jewish prayer and seem to be derived from them. But in drawing upon the treasure of his people's tradition, Jesus transfigured what he took. Despite the material resemblance, an infinite distance remains between the Lord's Prayer and Jewish prayer. The Spirit has renewed and superelevated everything.

Not only is the entire Lord's Prayer free from the slightest human accrescence or superfluity and divinely reduced to the essential, as a piece of gold that is miraculously purified, not only does its brevity contrast with the lengthy passages (however beautiful they may be but which the precious gems of our words make too burdensome) of the benedictions of Jewish prayer, but also and above all the universality of the spiritual kingdom and of the divine Fatherhood has eliminated from it any element of national particularism. "That exceedingly earnest and moving supplication which the Jews made on behalf of Israel is omitted. As charity ought to embrace all men, so the prayer is deemed to be uttered by all the faithful speaking as one to the one true God, who is the Father of them all."{9}


The Lord's Prayer is reported by Saint Luke in a slightly abbreviated form (11:2-4), and in its complete form by Saint Matthew (6:9-13). It is composed, Father Lagrange tells us, of six petitions in two series, "the first three being desires relating to God's glory; the last three being petitions in behalf of man."{10} With more reason, we believe, Saint Thomas holds to the traditional number of seven petitions{11} (sed libera nos a malo is then regarded as not included in the sixth petition: et ne nos inducas in tentationem, but as forming a distinct petition).

This prayer begins in a turning toward God and the goodness of God, In the first three petitions Christ unites us to himself in solemn and admirable supplications, Jesus' desires and our own, addressed to the common Father: Hallowed be Thy Name -- Thy Kingdom come -- Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Christ permits us to join with him in addressing these mysterious supplications to our Father and his, as if our will and the sanctity, or the effort toward sanctity of his human creatures, were an aid brought to God himself in his struggle against evil, against the spirit of evil. Did not God decree for man's salvation the Incarnation of the Word into frail humanity, and the redemptive Passion of his Only Son "obedient unto death, even unto the death of the cross"? Each man is called upon to take part in this great combat led by the Son for the highest glory of the Father, because each man -- in one manner or another, even the most imperfect and remote, and merely because he is born into the world -- is a member of Christ, the head of Humanity,{12} and head of the Mystical Body which magnetizes and draws Humanity to himself.

Therefore we must pray to God for God.

It is very true that the first three petitions of the Lord's Prayer relate to a certain comportment on the part of men -- such that the ineffable Name be glorified among us, that God's kingdom come about in mankind, and that his will be done by us and in us. When you ask that the Father's name be hallowed, "to look at the matter closely," wrote Saint Augustine, "thou art asking this for thyself."{13} Yes, doubtless, but for what good do you ask first and above all if it is not the glory of Him who is your absolute supreme End as he is that of all created things; the accomplishment of the sovereignly good designs of Him whom you love more than yourself and above all created things; and satisfaction of the tenderness and generosity with which he loves you freely with a love that is but one with his necessary love of Himself? So that to look at it even more closely, it is for God and the Good of God that the first three petitions of the Lord's Prayer would have you pray first and above all else.{14} Your own good is here implied only as a secondary consideration.

Saint Augustine's great concern was to place us on guard against the idea that God could receive anything whatsoever from the creature, or that the creature's efforts could add anything to Uncreated Good. However, we should not, out of fear of a manifestly absurd idea, turn our eyes away from the sublime mystery of truth referred to in the first three petitions of the Lord's Prayer and which Saint Paul expressed by saying that we are God's coadjutors, Dei enim sumus adjutores.{15} In the joy that God takes in his saints, in the return of the prodigal son, in the love of men and of angels -- and above all in the perfect charity and obedience of Christ Jesus -- there is nothing, absolutely nothing by which the creature could add anything whatsoever to the superexcellent fullness of the divine Being. On the contrary, as it is God who causes the creature, and the liberty of the latter moved by Him, to participate in the work which He himself accomplishes in accordance with the eternal designs, so also it is God who in virtue of the superabundance of his charity causes the loving responses of his creatures, the offerings and the gifts to which his Grace induces them, to enter into the very joy and exultation of love which are identical with his immutable essence and through which he delights eternally in himself.{16} The manifestation ad extra of his glory adds nothing to this glory which is his by necessity of nature, but he has freely willed from all eternity that while unfurling itself in time it be fully possessed on high by the eternal glory in which it shares, and receive from it all its effulgence.

We see in what sense it is right to say that we should pray to God for God. We should first and before all desire, seek, and pursue the good of this God whom we dearly love, and ask him that the manifestation of his glory and of his goodness be finally accomplished. Through the merits of Christ's Passion -- uniting ourselves with it and living in divine grace and charity -- we should first and before all else aspire in heart and action that we ourselves and every immortal soul should bear witness to the holiness of the heavenly Father and render his Name blessed on earth; that we should hasten the expansion of his Reign and the final coming of his Kingdom, triumphant over every other power; that we should accomplish here below his adorable Will, so that through love it may finally be established also on earth as it is established in heaven.

We should pray that charity may in the end transfigure this world and invest it with a divine character, finally liberating it from the kinds of rights, if one may so speak, which the Prince of this world has exercised over it.


And that charity may reign in us, we should pray for ourselves in the manner taught us by Jesus in the continuation of the Lord's Prayer.

Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie. Here begins the prayer of sinners for themselves. We ask daily bread for our bodies and for our souls; pardon for our sins, in return for the mercy we show toward those who have offended us; we ask our heavenly Father to guard us from the dangers of temptation and for him to deliver us from evil.

He will do this because He loves us and because He is the source of all good. And without this what could we offer him? The gifts that children make wholeheartedly to their father are always drawn in some measure from that father's wealth.

{1} Saint Thomas Aquinas, Sum. theol., II-II, 83, 9.

{2} Gen. 1:31.

{3} M. J. Lagrange, Evang. selon saint Luc, p. 321, n. 2.

{4} John 1:8.

{5} Matt. 11:27.

{6} Matt.5:48.

{7} Saint John Chrysostom, Hom. 19, in Matt. 6, n. 4., Patrologia Graeca, 57, 278.

{8} De Orat., cap. 1, Patrologia Latina, 1, 1153.

{9} M. J. Lagrange, The Gospel of Jesus Christ. Translated by the members of the English Dominican Province (westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1958), vol. II, p. 15.

{10} M. J. Lagrange, Evang. selon saint Matthieu, p. 126. "St. Matthew's six petitions plus an invocation form the perfect number." -- M. J. Lagrange, The Gospel of Jesus Christ, op. cit., vol.II, p. 15, n. 7.

{11} Sum. theol., II-II, 83, 9. -- The tradition of which we speak here has Saint Augustine as its highest authority. Origen and Saint John Chrysostom regarded the Lord's Prayer as composed of six petitions. Cf. Lagrange, Evang. selon saint Matthieu, p. 131, n. 12.

{12} Sum. theol., III, 8, 3. "Christus est caput omnium hominum Membra corporis mystici non solum accipiuntur secundum quod sunt in actu, sed etiam secundum quod sunt in potentia." ("Christ is the head of all men . . . members of the mystical body not only as they are in act, but as they are in potentiality.")

{13} Cum rogas ut sanctificetur nomen ipsius, nonne quasi pro illo ilium rogas, et non pro te? Intellige, et pro te rogas. Serm. 56, cap. 4, n. 5. P.L., 38, 379. Cf. ibid., cap. 5, n. 7, P.L., 38, 380, with regard to the second petition, fiat voluntas tua: "Ut ergo fiat a te, non sine causa oras, nisi ut bene sit tibi."

{14} This is what Saint Thomas teaches regarding the first petition of the Lord's Prayer (II-II, 83, 9). we believe with Father Lagrange that it is the same for the other two petitions which are joined to it. Cf. Lagrange, Evang. selon saint Matthieu, p. 126, n. 8 (cited above, p. 22, n. 10). And again, ibid, p. 127, n. 9: "But one can also consider of primary importance the honor and in some way the good of God. The human soul can raise itself no higher than by this benevolent love, this true friendship which incites in itself desires in behalf of the sovereign good it loves." -- P. 128, n. 9: "We can desire the spread of God's holiness for his own sake without thinking of the spiritual benefit we will draw from it." -- P. 129, n. 10: "The three elevations descend in an admirable order from God to man, who will be more directly on the scene in the last three petitions."

{15} Cor. 3:9.

{16} Cf. John of Saint Thomas, Cursus theol., t. III, disp. 4 a. 4 and 5 (on the liberty of the divine will, and of its immanent acts in regard to creatures).

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