“The Lord’s Prayer is most perfect” (ST II-II q. 83, a. 9). Such a bold claim might be supported by observing the centrality of this prayer in Christian life. In the first decades of the Church, the Our Father came to replace the Shema Yisrael at the three hours of traditional Jewish prayer (John Brook, The School of Prayer, p. 9). It was eventually brought into the celebration of the Eucharist. The ancient author of the Didache gave the exhortation, “Thrice in the day thus pray.” And for centuries now, the Church has lifted up this heavenly prayer three times each day in the Sacred Liturgy. It is a prayer most Catholics know well. It is one of the few prayers fallen-away Catholics still remember by heart. On one’s deathbed, with limited physical or mental strength, these words can still be mouthed with surprising ease.
For a prayer hailed “most perfect” by St. Thomas Aquinas and many other saints, it can often pass by our lips without much thought or stirring of the heart. It can come close to many other powerful statements we often say, but it can also grow stale or mechanical if we are not attentive or careful. I love you. God bless you. I pledge allegiance….
Meditation on individual parts of this magnificent prayer can help a Christian better internalize its power as a whole. Beginning with the first word—Our—the text brims with meaning. This is a prayer said by a community of believers. For all that we hear about a personal relationship with Jesus, it is surprising to hear in this one word the emphasis our Lord places on the communal or ecclesial relationship we have with, not just our Lord, but our Father. More than a feudal relationship, we bear a filial relationship to the Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth. And like that, with each word, with each syllable, we come to know why it is that these are the words Jesus Christ gave to the Apostles in response to their simple request: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).
The prayer contains seven petitions. The first three, like the first three commandments of the Decalogue, pertain to God. The final petitions more directly concern us—that we are fed and forgiven and that we are shielded and saved. Saint Thomas, again, says that in the Lord’s Prayer “not only do we ask for all that we may rightly desire, but also in the order wherein we ought to desire them” (ST II-II q. 83, a. 9). More matter for meditation. Do I desire these things in this order? Above all else, do I desire that God’s name be hallowed? Are his kingdom and his will more important to me that my daily provision or protection? Is God first?
Tertullian makes an outstanding claim in saying that the Our Father “is truly a summary of the whole gospel” (On Prayer, 1). The good news, the very message we believe, love, and preach, is contained in summary form in this prayer. It is fitting, then, that the final 88 pages of the Catechism of the Catholic Church open up for us the depths of this five-verse prayer we take from the Gospel according to St. Matthew.
As we conclude the month dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, let us enter more deeply into the words our Savior so lovingly taught us. At Mass, at Lauds, at Vespers, and in the Rosary especially, let us ask Mary to enlighten our minds and fill our hearts when, “at the Savior’s command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say….”
Image: Illuminated Text of the Our Father, Albani-Psalter (12th Century)