Prayer is the substance of eternal life. It gives back to man, insofar as he is willing to live to capacity – that is to say, to give love and suffer pain – the beatitude without which he is incomplete; for it sets going, deepens, and at last perfects that mutual indwelling of two orders which redeems us from unreality, and in which the creative process reaches its goal. There is, as Henri Bremond has said, even in the poorest and crudest prayer, “a touch of Pentecost.” It awaits and expects the action of the Spirit, acknowledges the most mysterious and yet the most certain reality of our experience; the intercourse of the Transcendent God with fugitive man, and of fugitive man with the Transcendent God. Yet all our attempts to describe this mysterious reality are like the scientists’ attempts to describe the universe; at worst diagrammatic, at best symbolic and allusive. It eludes definition, refuses to be caught in the meshes of the mind. We cannot say of it on God’s side, Lo! there the beginning; nor on man’s side, Lo! here; because it comes not with observation, but emerges unperceived from that deep ground of being where we do not know ourselves apart from him. There, beyond thought, the pressure and invitation of God is experienced by the creature, and thence there filters into consciousness some response to the Unseen; an act of loving attention, a submission, a supplication. Here is the beginning of prayer, and hence it spreads to include at last every level of our being, every aspect of our existence, and bring into conscious expression its fundamental relation with God.
This is a conception of prayer which we easily forget; for the cheap fussiness of the anthropocentric life has even invaded our religion. There, too, we prefer to live upon the surface and ignore the deeps. We seldom pause for that awed recognition of pure Being, so steadying and refreshing to the soul, which is the raw material of the interior life. Yet the true growth and development of humanity seems to depend on this constant reorientation toward the Holy, this deep thrust of the spirit to the unchanging sources of its life. When a seed germinates, first the radicle pushes down into the nourishing earth; its delicate exploring tip penetrates that dense and hidden world, seeking and finding food. After that, the plumule unfolds and emerges into the light and air. Thus it should be with the spirit of man. The small seed of transcendental life in him, which the vicissitudes of circumstance will feed, maim, or kill, according to the dispositions of the soul, must thrust its rootlet down into the world of spirit before it pushes its plumule up. Prayer must precede action. A deep adherence in our ground to absolute Beauty and Love is the only condition under which we can manifest beauty and love, and so redeem the world’s ugliness and sin. But we have come to believe that we can ignore this spiritual imperative, have the shoot without the root; Christian action without Christian contemplation, the fruitful ideology without contact with the Idea. The parable of the Sower is there to warn us of the inevitable result; and indeed the whole of the New Testament, once we have discarded our utilitarian prejudices and learned to look at it with innocence of eye, decisively announces the priority of the spiritual, the mysterious greatness of prayer.
Christ, whose Earthly life was both a correction and a completion of human life, taught above all else, by example as well as precept, this supreme art and privilege of the borderland creature. For him, man was a being set in the world of succession and subject to its griefs and limitations; yet able in his prayer to move out to the very frontiers of that world, to lay hold on the Eternal and experience another level of life. How different such a doctrine and practice were from those of his own or any other time, is shown by the demand of the disciples who had witnessed his nights of solitary prayer in the hills: Teach us how to pray. Those who asked this were good and pious Jews, who already accepted the worship of the Name and practice of daily prayer as a normal part of life. But now they realized how far beyond these orderly acts of worship and petition was that living intercourse with the living Father, which conditioned every moment of Christ’s life; his link with the Unseen Reality from which he came and the source of his power in the world to which he was sent. Here for the first time they saw prayer, not as an ordered action, or a religious duty, not even an experience; but as a vital relation between man in his wholeness and the Being of God. Here was one who knew in the full and deep sense how to pray; and in the light of his practice, they perceived the poverty and unreality of their own.
The New Testament has preserved for us, in our Lord’s replay to his followers, a complete description of what Christian prayer should be; its character and objective; its balance and proportions; its quality and tone. As we explore this description and try to realize all that is implied in it, we find the whole world of prayer, its immense demands and immense possibilities, opening before us. Yet in accordance with that steady hold on history, that deep respect for the tradition within which he appeared, which marks the whole of Christ’s teaching, the description was given – as the answer to those who asked for the secret of Eternal Life was given – in words which were already familiar to the askers: in seven linked phrases which were a part of Jewish prayer, and can be traced to their origin in the Old Testament. It is as if we went to a saint and asked him to teach us to pray, and he replied by reciting the Quinquagesima Collect. We can imagine the disappointment of the disciples – We knew all this before! The answer to this objection is the same as the answer to the Lawyer: this do and you shall live. You already have all the information. Invest it with realism, translate it into action: phrases into facts, theology into religion. I am not giving you a set formula for repetition, but seven complementary pictures of the one life of prayer.
There is a drawing by William Blake, called, “The Prayer of the Infant Jesus,” which seems to show us the response by anticipation to the disciples’ petition, Teach me how to pray. The Child who kneels upon the bed in the center of the picture is already a Master of prayer. The radiance of the Uncreated Light, breaking the surrounding darkness, falls upon him. In his tiny figure, perfect in poise and happiness, human nature – and in human nature all creation – is brought into filial relation with God: a whole poured out in love toward a Whole. Round him are his pupils visible and invisible; for Love incarnate has its own lessons to teach, even to discarnate spirits. The angels, humbled and exultant, kneel in awe before the mystery of the Word, uttering from within his own creation the praise of the ineffable Name. Behind, with closed eyes and folded hands, devout and recollected, are the Earthly forms of Mary and Joseph. Above them their immortal spirits, already citizens of the world of supernatural prayer, bend their piercing gaze upon this child, who knits together the worship of Heaven and Earth. On all, men and angels, lies a great silence in which the Divine Wisdom begins, from within humanity, his redeeming work.
If, looking at this picture, we consider the seven clauses of the Lord’s Prayer, we shall find here the link which binds them all together; so that they become seven moments in a single act of communion, seven doors opening upon “the world that is unwalled.” For these seven clauses represent seven fundamental characters of the one indivisible relation between the spirit of man and the Eternal God; they are seven lessons in prayer, forming together a complete direction for the conduct of our inner life. We begin to realize this, when we consider each separately, and see something of what each of them involves.
(1) Our Father which art in Heaven: the sublime invocation which establishes our status before God, not merely as his creatures and slaves but as his children. We are the sons and daughters of the Eternal Perfect, inheritors of the Abiding; we have in us the spark of absolute life.
(2) Hallowed be thy name: selfless adoration, awestruck worship as the ruling temper of our life and all we do.
(3) Thy Kingdom come: devoted and eager cooperation with his transforming and redeeming action; the defeat of evil and the triumph of love as the first object of our prayer.
(4) Thy will be done: active self-abandonment to the mysterious purposes and methods of God, and complete subordination to his design, as the perpetual disposition of the soul.
(5) Give us this day our daily bread: confident dependence on God for all the necessities of life. “Without thee I cannot live.”
(6) And forgive us our trespasses, our debts – the too much and the too little – the major types of disharmony with love: the prayer of filial penitence.
(7) Lead us not into temptation: the acknowledgement of our creaturely weakness and trust in his prevenient care.
And then the great affirmation which embraces and justifies our faith, hope, and charity: Thine is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory. We ask this of you, for only you can do it: no lesser power, no lesser love, will suffice.
Lover of souls, Great God, I look to thee.
It is too often supposed that when said, In this manner pray ye, he meant not “these are the right dispositions and longings, the fundamental acts of every soul that prays,” but “this is the form of words which, above all others, Christians are required to repeat.” As a consequence this is the prayer in which, with an almost incredible stupidity, they have found the material of those vain repetitions which he has specially condemned. Again and again in public and private devotion the Lord’s Prayer is taken on hurried lips, and recited at a pace which makes impossible any realization of its tremendous claims and profound demands. Far better than this cheapening of the awful power of prayer was the practice of the old woman described by Saint Teresa, who spent an hour over the first two words, absorbed in reverence and love.
It is true, of course, that this pattern in its verbal form, its obvious and surface meaning, is far too familiar to us. Rapid and frequent repetition has reduced it to a formula. We are no longer conscious of its mysterious beauty and easily assume that we have long ago exhausted its inexhaustible significance. The result of this persistent error has been to limit our understanding of the great linked truths which are here given to us; to harden their edges, and turn an instruction which sets up a standard for each of the seven elements of prayer, and was intended to govern our whole life toward God, into a set form of universal obligation.
This is a sovereign instance of that spiritual stupidity with which we treat the “awful and mysterious truths” religion reveals to us; truths of which Coleridge has rightly said, that they are commonly considered so true as to lose all the powers of truth, and lie bedridden in the dormitory of the soul. But when we “center down, “as Quakers say, from the surface of human life to its deeps, and rouse those sleeping truths and take them with us, and ask what they look like there – in the secret place where the soul is alone with God and knows its need of God – then, all looks different. These great declarations disclose their intensity of life, their absolute quality; as a work of art which has hung respected and unloved in a public gallery glows with new meaning when we bring it into the home or the sanctuary for which it was really made. Seen thus, the Paternoster reminds us how rich and various, how deeply rooted in the Supernatural, the Christian life is or should be, moving from awestruck worship to homely confidence, and yet one: how utterly it depends on God, yet how searching is the demand it makes on man. Every just man, says Francisco de Osuna, needs the seven things for which this prayer – or this scheme of prayer – asks. Taken together they cover all the realities of our situation, at once beset by nature and cherished by grace: establishing Christian prayer as a relation between wholes, between man in his completeness and God who is all.
And we note their order and proportion. First, four clauses entirely concerned with our relation to God; then three concerned with our human situation and needs. Four hinge on the First Commandment, three hinge on the Second. Man’s twisted, thwarted, and embittered nature, his state of sin, his sufferings, helplessness, and need, do not stand in the foreground; but the splendor and beauty of God, demanding a self-oblivion so complete that it transforms suffering, and blots out even the memory of sin. We begin with a sublime yet intimate invocation of Reality, which plunges us at once into the very ground of the Universe and claims kinship with the enfolding mystery. Abba, Father. The Infinite God is the Father of my soul. We end by the abject confession of our dependence and need of guidance: of a rescue and support coming to our help right down in the jungle of life. Following the path of the Word Incarnate, this prayer begins on the summits of spiritual experience and comes steadily down from the Infinite to the finite, from the Spaceless to the little space on which we stand. Here we find all the strange mixed experience of man, overruled by the unchanging glory and charity of God.