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

Chapter IV

The Prayer of Jesus

Who would dare, without trembling and without invoking graces from above, to lift his eyes toward what must have been those hours of unimaginable inner prayer when the Incarnate Word silenced all things within himself so that his soul might be free to experience lovingly, under the light of vision, the glory of his Father, of his own Divinity, and of the Holy Spirit? Theologians tell us that to the beatific vision, in which the divine essence causes itself to be grasped by the created intellect, there is joined in the blessed the experience of love due to the gifts of the Holy Spirit {1}; it is in this way that one can think that when he entered into prayer superior to any concept Christ contemplated God, and called down divine mercy on men.

And without doubt his contemplation also turned, in the tears of the gift of Knowledge, toward that poor humanity whose languors it was his mission to bear.

My God, enlighten a little for me this mystery, the thorns on the head of Christ and, within, his very bitter thoughts. Meditation for which "the representation of place" has been made by sinners on the body of the Blessed One, by flagellation and the other cruelties and the mock crowning, pending the Cross and Death.

On the Mount of Olives Jesus held before his eyes the subject of his prayer, all the sin to be assumed and the abandonment by men and God. Then began his agony in trembling and fright and the sweat of blood. And now, under the crown of thorns, he has in his humanity the vision of all the evil that has been, that is present, and that is to come.

Darknesses of the contemplation of sin, truly implacable night, mystical and fathomless night, experience founded in charity and in Christ's union of love with sinners. It is for them that he has come, to carry them on his shoulders across the torrent of the ages to the solid land of eternity.

The King's bed is of wood of Lebanon, his diadem is of thorns. We have laid him on the cross, all misery is naked before him, and his bloodied head bows slightly upon his shoulder. He tastes the infinite bitterness of our sins, as in the darkness of divine contemplation the poor saints taste the essential sweetness of God.{2}


When Jesus withdrew into solitude to pray, it was doubtless first and principally to pray without words.

But Jesus prayed also with his lips as with his heart. He prayed aloud on Psalm Sunday,3 he prayed aloud in his great sacerdotal prayer at the Last Supper, he prayed aloud in the Garden of Olives, he prayed aloud on the Cross. And his vocal prayer of every day, is it not that very one which he taught us to say with him, after him? The Lord's Prayer is not only the prayer that Jesus taught us, it is the prayer of Jesus himself.

With what tenderness and longing he was to pronounce the great desires contained in the first three petitions! They were his own prayers which he offered to his Father, for the Name of his Father, for the Kingdom of his Father, for the Will of his Father; they were his own prayers before being the prayers which, as head of humanity, he offered in the name of his brothers.

The other petitions of the Lord's Prayer he pronounced in the name of the sinners that he had come to save, and according as, Mediator and Lamb promised to sacrifice, he was but one with those whose sins he had taken upon him.

So true it is that by essence the Lord's Prayer is a common prayer,{4} the prayer in which each of us addresses himself to God on behalf of his brothers as well as on his own behalf, the prayer in which the Son of God has pronounced not only petitions whose meaning held first for himself personally, but also petitions whose meaning held only for the sinners with whom he identified himself through love. It is clear that the last three petitions could not concern Jesus personally. He had no sins to be forgiven; he was not in danger of falling into temptation; he had no need to be delivered from evil -- he, the conqueror of evil, the Saviour of the world.

The fourth petition, nevertheless, he made as we must make it, at once for the bread of which he and his had need each day while journeying on the earth, and for the bread of which the poor of the world have need every day.

And in a certain sense he could also make the sixth petition for himself, not through fear of sinning but through fear of having to endure that which revolts nature; and he could even make the seventh petition also, according as it concerns the evil of suffering. (Pater, si possibile est, transeat a me calix iste.)

To meditate each petition of the Lord's Prayer, trying to enter into the sentiments of Jesus himself when he pronounced it, would doubtless be a good manner of praying.


We have no other guide to eternal life, divine life, beatitude, than the Life of Christ, the Teaching of Christ, the Passion of Christ, and the Prayer of Christ. The imitation of Christ is the way of love and of holiness.

Thus the Lord's Prayer, taught us by Christ,{5} is the truest of prayers, the most completely and perfectly true, just and agreeable to God, the prayer whose flame must always burn within us.

There is no prayer, no contemplation, unless Christ be in the soul, and unless an imitation of Christ, a participation in his states and in his life, and in his prayer, what Saint Paul calls a reproduction of His image,{6} be present in the depths of the soul. He himself is also present there, because all the graces received by the soul reach it through the "instrument," "conjoined" to God, that is the humanity of the Saviour.

If it is a question of the particular goods, even the most justly desirable in themselves, for which, in the innumerable occasions of human life, we happen to ask God, but of which we do not know the role in the reverse side of things and the divine economy, we must believe Saint Paul: "We know not how we are to pray as we ought; but the Spirit Himself pleadeth in our behalf with unutterable groanings."{7} And what then does the Spirit do? He makes us cry, "Abba! Father!"{8} What is this to say if not that the Spirit, when He makes us pray as we must, reminds us interiorly of the example of Jesus and has us pray, as "adopted sons," in the power of the Lord's Prayer? Every prayer in spirit and in truth, especially infused prayer in all its degrees, proceeds in the power of the Lord's Prayer.

Prayer without words is itself founded on the Word who is Christ. It is founded on the Prayer of Jesus. The soul formed by the Lord's Prayer prays -- with or without words, in the murmur of words as in the bosom of the silence of pure contemplation -- in the spiritual straightforwardness of the Lord's Prayer, in the imitation of Jesus.

In wordless contemplation the Credo is always there, in the depth of the soul. And one can say that it is in its light and its power that the soul passes to a knowledge or experience which proceeds from faith and froni the union of love, and in which all concepts are silent (then the light of faith passes through them without awakening them, or while scarcely stirring them, so as to go toward the Reality which is its object, and which it makes the soul suffer through love, under the inspiration of the gifts of the Spirit).

Likewise one could say that it is in the élan and the power of the Lord's Prayer that arise the desire, and the prayer, and the petition, however unformulated, which are immanent to wordless contemplation, in which they have no other voice than the breath of love. The seven petitions are always there, in the depths of the soul, but there is no longer need to articulate them in words; it is their spirit which the Spirit makes mount toward God.

If from the point of mystical experience it were possible, without interrupting that experience, to redescend toward words, it is the words of the Lord's Prayer that one would find at the base, since, to tell the truth, it is in starting from them, according as they are imprinted in the soul, that the soul has been elevated toward wordless union.

When the soul, to seek Him whom it loves, Having no guide nor light
Save for the heart's ardent flame,
experiences the blessings of the night, O Night that was my guide!
O Night fairer than dawn
O happy Night which joined
The lover to his bride
. then it is as if the petitions of the Lord's Prayer, or the one or the other of them, or even at times the first beginnings of some fulfillment, had let fall the weight of human formulas so as to be no longer anything but the respiration of love.

One sees thus that from the busy man who can only recite Our Fathers (but perhaps he has already passed under the regime of the Gifts, perhaps he is farther advanced than one might think in the life of the spirit) to the contemplative who is drawn with closed lips into union with God known as unknown, and who in those moments has no longer but a sigh of the heart with which to make the petitions taught by his Master, it is by a single and same way that all those go to God, whoever they may be, who in no matter what corner of the world hear the call of love and do their best to imitate Jesus.


Saint Thomas recalls (but without accepting, it would seem, responsibility for it){10} that according to Saint Augustine{11} there is a certain correspondence between the petitions of the Lord's Prayer and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. To the first petition would correspond the gift of Fear of the Lord, to the second the gift of Piety, to the third the gift of Knowledge; to the fourth, the gift of Fortitude; to the fifth, the gift of Counsel; to the sixth, the gift of Understanding; to the seventh, the gift of Wisdom.

In a matter which after all is a matter of opinion, and however unimportant one may be, is it permitted, while retaining the principle, to apply it differently than did the great Doctor of Hippo?

It seems to us that this correspondence is more satisfying for the mind if one establishes it in the following manner:{12}

To say "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy Name," this is particularly appropriate to the gift of Wisdom -- and it is preeminently the prayer of the Peaceful, to whom it has been promised that they shall be called the sons of God.

To ask that His Kingdom come, this is particularly appropriate to the gift of Understanding -- and it is preeminently the prayer of the Pure of Heart, to whom it has been promised that they shall see God.

To ask that His Will be done on earth as it is in heaven, this is particularly appropriate to the gift of Knowledge -- and it is preeminently the prayer of those who mourn, to whom it has been promised that they shall be comforted.

To ask that He give us today our daily bread, this is particularly appropriate to the gift of Fortitude -- and it is preeminently the prayer of those who hunger and thirst for justice's sake, to whom it has been promised that they shall be filled.

To ask that He forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, this is particularly appropriate to the gift of Counsel -and it is preeminently the prayer of the Merciful, to whom it has been promised that they shall obtain mercy.

To ask that He lead us not into temptation is particularly appropriate to the gift of Piety -- and it is preeminently the prayer of the Meek, to whom it has been promised that they shall possess the earth.

To ask that He deliver us from evil, this is particularly appropriate to the gift of Fear -- and it is preeminently the prayer of the Poor in Spirit, to whom it has been promised that the kingdom of heaven shall be theirs.

{1} Cf. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Sum. theol., I-II, 68, 6. -- In his treatise on The Gifts of the Holy Ghost (Cursus theol., t. VI, disp. 18, a. 3, par. 77-79) trans. from the Latin by Dominic Hughes, O.P. (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1951), John of Saint Thomas writes: "The vision of God in heaven ... is twofold" (p. 109). " . . . The light of glory elicits the beatific vision of God before there is any love, since it regulates and arouses love. The gifts of understanding and wisdom are knowledge founded upon and following after the love and taste of divine union with the soul and its being connaturalized with God through love" (p. 114); "From this vision comes love, and intimate affection and a fruition of God. From the fruition comes a loving and experiential knowledge both of God as He is in Himself -- this the vision itself gives -and of God as He is attained and experienced within the soul" (p. 116).

{2} Raïssa Maritain, "La Couronne d'épines," fragment in Lettre de Nuit. La Vie Donnée (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1950).

{3} John 12:27-28.

{4} Cf. Saint Cyprian, De Orat. Domin., n. 8, P.L., 4, 524.

{5} "Nobis formam orandi tradens, per quam maxime spes nostra in Deum erigitur, dum ab ipso Deo edocemur quid ad ipso petendum sit" ("To give us a form of prayer that raises our highest hopes to God, God himself taught us what we ought to request from him"). Saint Thomas Aquinas, Compendium Theologiae, II, cap. 3 (Marietti), n. 549.

{6} Rom. 8:29.

{7} Ibid.

{8} Ibid., 8:15.

{9} Saint John of the Cross, Canticles of the Soul ("The Dark Night"), str. 3, 5.

{10} Sum. theol., II-II, 83, 9, ad. 3. "Ad tertium dicendum quod Augustinus, in libro De serm. Dom. in monte, adaptat septem petitiones donis et beatitudinibus, dicens . . ." ("Augustine [ De serm. Dom. in monte ] adapts the seven petitions to the gifts and beatitudes. He says . . .")

{11} De Serm. Domini in monte, lib. II, cap. 11, P.L., 34, 1286.

{12} In this enumeration we depart partially from Saint Augustine (loc. supra cit.) in what concerns the correspondence between the Petitions of the Lord's Prayer and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. But we agree with him in what concerns the correspondence between the Gifts and the Beatitudes (Cf. Sum. theol., I-II, 69, 3, ad. 3; II-II, 8, 7; 9, 4; 45, 6; 52, 4; 121, 2; 139, 2).

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