The crowds who followed Christ hoping for healing or counsel did not ask him to teach them how to pray; nor did he give this prayer to them. It is not for those who want religion to be helpful, who seek after signs; those who expect it to solve their political problems and cure their diseases, but are not prepared to share its cost. He gave it to those whom he was going to incorporate into his rescuing system, use in his ministry; the sons of the Kingdom, self-given to the creative purposes of God. Thou when thou prayest, pray ye on this manner. It is the prayer of those “sent forth” to declare the Kingdom, whom the world will hate, whose unpopularity with man will be in proportion to their loyalty to God; the apostles of the Perfect in whom, if they are true to their vocation, the Spirit of the Father will speak. The disciples sent out to do Christ’s work were to depend on prayer, an unbroken communion with the Eternal; and this is the sort of prayer on which they were to depend. We therefore, when we dare to use it, offer ourselves by implication as their fellow workers for the Kingdom; for it supposes and requires an unconditional and filial devotion to the interests of God. Those who use the prayer must pray from the Cross.
In other words, this is essentially the prayer of the living church, the supernatural society of God’s children, the dedicated body. It is addressed, not to Christ, who indwells and rules that dedicated body, but to the Absolute God whom he reveals to men. Because ye are sons, God sent forth the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father.” By the free action of the Eternal Charity man has been lifted up from creation, and made capable of this word. The Incarnate Wisdom prays with and in us; and our worship as his must look beyond the distractions of the contingent to the eternal Beauty and Truth. In his prayer we seem to discern the perfect working of that “intellectus purus et aequus” of which Francis Bacon said that it is never distracted by the particulars and never lost in the contemplation of the entirety.
Yet on the other hand, it is man, haunted by sin, kept in perpetual tension between the pull of Heaven and the pull of Earth, the victim of the very desires that he repudiates and the distracted citizen of a universe which he cannot comprehend, who takes this word on his lips, and puts filial trust and filial adoration at the heart of his spiritual life. Only insofar as he is gathered into this relationship of worship, confidence, and love does he realize and express his shortcomings and his guilt. So the theme of the first movement of Christian prayer is the glory of the Father, the shining forth of the Shekinah; and the straightening out of our deformed world so that it matches the “pattern in Heaven,” the unmanifest creative design. But the theme of the second movement, with its humble petition for the support of the Unchanging Spirit in our ever-changing life, is weak and limited man, as he is now; his needs, his errors, his fears. Men have three wants, which only God can satisfy. They need food, for they are weak and dependent. They need forgiveness, for they are sinful. They need guidance, for they are puzzled. Give – Forgive – Lead – Deliver. All their prayer can be reduced to the loving adoration of the Father and the confident demand for his help.
Our Father, which art in Heaven. We are the children of God and therefore inheritors of Heaven. Here is the source alike of our hope and our penitence; the standard which confounds us, the essence of religion, the whole of prayer. Heaven is God and God is in my soul, said Elisabeth de la Trinité. It is a statement of fact, which takes us clean away from the world of religious problems and consolations, the world of self-interested worries and strivings, and discloses the infinite span and unfathomable depth of that supernatural world in which we really live. From our distorted life “unquieted with dreads, bounden with cares, busied with vanities, vexed with temptations,” (Thomas à Kempis) the soul in its prayer reaches out to center its trust on the Eternal, the existent.
In those rare glimpses of Christ’s own life of prayer which the gospels vouchsafe to us, we always notice the perpetual reference to the unseen Father, so much more vividly present to him than anything that is seen. Behind that daily life into which he entered so generously, filled as it was with constant appeals to his practical pity and help, there is ever the sense of that strong and tranquil Presence, ordering all things and bringing them to their appointed end; not with a rigid and mechanical precision, but with the freedom of a living, creative, cherishing thought and love. Throughout his life, the secret, utterly obedient conversation of Jesus with his Father goes on. He always snatches opportunities for it, and at every crisis he returns to it as the unique source of confidence and strength; the right and reasonable relation between the soul and its Source.
I thank thee, Heavenly Father, because thou hast hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them unto babes.
Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight, I have kept my Father’s commandment and abide in his love.
Father, the hour is come.
O righteous Father! the world knew thee not, but I knew thee.
Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me.
Father, forgive them.
Into thy hands I commend my spirit.
Though our human experience of God cannot maintain itself on such a level as this, yet for us too as members of Christ these words have significance. They set the standard of realism, of childlike and confident trust which must govern our relation to the Unseen. Abba, Father. The personalist note, never absent from a fully operative religion, is struck at the start; and all else that is declared or asked is brought within the aura of this relationship. Our sins, aims, struggles, sufferings, our easy capitulation to hopelessness and fear, look different over against that truth. Our responsibilities become simplified, and are seen to be one single, filial responsibility to God. Our Father, which art in Heaven, yet present here and now in and with our struggling lives; on whom we depend utterly, as children of the Eternal Perfect whose nature and whose name is Love.
Ye are of God, little children. Were this our realistic belief and the constant attitude of our spirits, our whole life, inward and outward, would be transformed. For we are addressing One who is already there, already in charge of the situation, and knowing far more about that situation than we do ourselves. Within his span it already lies complete, from its origin to its end: Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before you ask him. The prevenience of God is the dominant fact of all life; and therefore of the life of prayer. We, hard and loveless, already stand in Heaven. We open the stiff doors of our hearts and direct our fluctuating wills to a completely present Love and Will directing, molding, and creating us. One aspect of redemption and one meaning of the incarnate life of Christ is to show men how to love this Present God, who comes to us in this thing and that thing, yet who induces in us a thirst and a longing that cannot be satisfied by any other thing than himself alone.
And moreover in these first words, the praying soul accepts once for all its true status as a member of the whole family of man. Our Father. It can never again enter into prayer as a ring-fenced individual, intent on a private relation with God; for this is a violation of the laws of Charity. Its prayer must overflow the boundaries of selfhood to include the life, the needs of the race; accepting as a corollary of its filial relation with God a brotherly relation with all other souls however diverse, and at every point replacing “mine” by “ours.” This wide-spreading love, this refusal of private advantage is the very condition of Christian prayer; for that prayer is an instrument of redemptive action, not merely of personal achievement. It is true that there is a bracing solitude of the spirit in which is realized the secret and unique relationship of each soul with God; for each its own place, its own prayer. But these personal responses and experiences, sacred and unrepeatable, take place within that one great movement of man’s prayer of which the church’s corporate worship is the sacrament. Here my enemy prays by my side, since the world of prayer has no frontiers; and in so doing he ceases to be my enemy, because we meet in God.
When to this classic model we add those other teachings on prayer in which Christ recommends great hiddenness as toward men, and great humility, initiative, persevering faith, as toward God, we get the picture of a secret but most actual supernatural activity, detached from the distractions of Earth and set toward another center of desire. This secret life is to be prosecuted with courage, confidence, and zest: asking, seeking, and knocking with the assurance of the child, not with the desperation of the lost and starving slave. The soul that says, “Abba,” cannot conceive of God as one who treats us worse than we treat the children whom we love. All is ours. It is for us to throw down the barriers, quench the flame of separation, accept the unspeakable gift, find the hidden and awaiting treasure, and go forward to the frontier of unspeakable experiences, which fulfill and more than fulfill the utmost cravings of the soul, yet are part of the neglected heritage of man. Then, appeals for rescue and protection, requests for the alleviation of this or that Earthly difficulty or pain are perceived to be beside the point: for these pains and difficulties will be the actual occasion of gratitude, once they are seen in spiritual regard as instruments of the perfecting of the soul. Our Father. We appeal by allusion to a character of Reality which is itself mysterious, yet which we can discern, because it is faintly reflected in our human experience. Beyond lies the unknown, the unreflected mystery of the Godhead. Between this homeliness and that transcendence there is no stopping place for the soul. Yet, because there can be no conflict in the simplicity of the Divine Nature, we know that within it these extremes are united. The ultimate mystery is favorable to us; and our truest relation is that of filial trust.
The Father is our Fount and Origin, in whom our life and being is begun. (Jan Van Ruysbroeck) If this is our true situation, our relation to supreme Reality, that truth must rule our lives. Whether considered in philosophic or devotional regard, the thought is overwhelming. It rebukes the anthropocentric bias of our theologians, and the petty sentimentalisms of our self-centered piety. We are the children not of Earth but of Heaven; inheritors of a supernatural world of independent beauty, unaffected by our nursery achievements and untarnished by our nursery sins. Interrogating our deepest nature, we discover in ourselves, as Ruysbroeck says, the Unconfined. In spite of the twist which sin has given to us as a part of the created order, the hard-set deformation of the soul, the violence and cruelties of the life in which we are immersed, our essential kinship with Holiness remains. The Father, said Saint Paul to his fellow Christians, has made us fit to share the inheritance of the saints in light.
God, who stands so decisively over against our life, the Source of all splendor and all joy, is yet in closest and most cherishing contact with us; and draws us, beyond all splendor and all joy, into Truth. He has created in us such a craving for himself alone, that even the brief flashes of Eternity which sometimes visit us make all else seem dust and ashes, lifeless and unreal. Hence there should be no situation in our life, no attitude, no preoccupation or relationship, from which we cannot look up to this God of absolute Truth and say, Our Father, of ourselves and of all other souls involved. Our inheritance is God, our Father and Home. We recognize him, says Saint John of the Cross, because we already carry in our hearts a rough sketch of the beloved countenance. Looking into those deeps, as into a quiet pool in the dark forest, we there find looking back at us the face we implicitly long for and already know. It is set in another world, another light: yet it is here. As we realize this, our prayer widens until it embraces the extremes of awestruck adoration and confident love and fuses them in one.