When the disciples of Jesus wanted to deepen their life of prayer, they asked Jesus to show them how to pray. We receive from the Lord a blueprint for our life and how our prayer can be modeled around the prayer he taught us. The early church fathers wrote many commentaries on the prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples, described both in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4.
The version most know to Christians is taken from Matthew:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.[c]
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,[d]
but rescue us from the evil one.[e]
Let us raise this question again (how do we pray?) and reflect on what Saint Thomas Aquinas had to say on the subject. Although he was not from the early church period (Saint Thomas, an Italian, was born from 1225 to 1274) he was a prolific writer on both philosophical and theological subjects, well known for his Summa Theologica, and his work is often quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. A reliable source indeed. Let us begin. St. Thomas wrote (italics mine – what struck me):
FIVE QUALITIES OF PRAYER
“Our Father who art in heaven.” Among all other prayers, the Lord’s Prayer holds the chief place. It has five excellent qualities which are required in all prayer. A prayer must be confident, ordered, suitable, devout and humble.
It must be confident: “Let us, therefore, go with confidence to the throne of grace.” It must not be wanting in faith, as it is said: “But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering.” That this is a most trustworthy prayer is reasonable, since it was formed by Him who is our Advocate and the most wise Petitioner for us: “In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge;” and of whom it is said: “For we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the just one.” Hence, St. Cyprian says: “Since we have Christ as our Advocate with the Father for our sins, when we pray on account of our faults, we use the very words of our Advocate.”
Furthermore, this prayer is even more worthy of confidence in that He who taught us how to pray, graciously hears our prayer together with the Father, as it is said in the Psalm: “He shall cry to Me, and I will hear him.” Thus writes St. Cyprian: “It is a friendly, familiar, and devout prayer to ask of the Lord in His own words.” And so no one goes away from this prayer without fruit. St. Augustine says that through it our venial sins are remitted.
Moreover, our prayer must be suitable, so that a person asks of God in prayer what is good for him. St. John Damascene says: “Prayer is the asking of what is right and fitting from God.” Many times our prayer is not heard because we seek that which is not good for us: “You ask and you do not receive, because you ask amiss.” To know, indeed, what one ought to pray for is most difficult; for it is not easy to know what one ought to desire. Those things which we rightly seek in prayer are rightly desired; hence the Apostle says: “For we know not what we should pray for as we ought.” Christ Himself is our Teacher; it is He who teaches us what we ought to pray for, and it was to Him that the disciples said: “Lord, teach us to pray.” Those things, therefore, which He has taught us to pray for, we most properly ask for. “Whatsoever words we use in prayer,” says St. Augustine, “we cannot but utter that which is contained in our Lord’s Prayer, if we pray in a suitable and worthy manner.”
Our prayer ought also to be ordered as our desires should be ordered, for prayer is but the expression of desire. Now, it is the correct order that we prefer spiritual to bodily things, and heavenly things to those merely earthly. This is according to what is written: “Seek ye first therefore the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.” Here Our Lord shows that heavenly things must be sought first, and then things material.
Our prayer must be devout, because a rich measure of piety makes the sacrifice of prayer acceptable to God: “In Thy name I will lift up my hands. Let my soul be filled with marrow and fatness.” Many times because of the length of our prayers our devotion grows cool; hence Our Lord taught us to avoid wordiness in our prayers: “When you are praying, speak not much.” And St. Augustine says: “Let much talking be absent from prayer; but as long as fervor continues, let prayer likewise go on.” For this reason the Lord made His Prayer short. Devotion in prayer rises from charity which is our love of God and neighbor, both of which are evident in this prayer. Our love for God is seen in that we call God “our Father;” and our love for our neighbor when we say: “Our Father . . . forgive us our trespasses,” and this leads us to love of neighbor.
Prayer ought to be humble: “He hath had regard for the prayer of the humble.” This is seen in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke, xviii. 9-15), and also in the words of Judith: “The prayer of the humble and the meek hath always pleased Thee.” This same humility is observed in this prayer, for true humility is had when a person does not presume upon his own powers, but from the divine strength expects all that he asks for.
It must be noted that prayer brings about three good effects. First, prayer is an efficacious and useful remedy against evils. Thus, it delivers us from the sins we have committed: “Thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my sin. For this shall every one that is holy pray to Thee in a seasonable time.” The thief on the Cross prayed and received forgiveness: “This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise.” Thus also prayed the Publican, and “went down to his home justified.” Prayer, also, frees one from the fear of future sin, and from trials and sadness of soul: “Is any one of you sad? Let him pray.” Again it delivers one from persecutors and enemies: “Instead of making me a return of love, they detracted me, but I gave myself to prayer.”
In the second place, prayer is efficacious and useful to obtain all that one desires: “All things whatsoever you ask when you pray, believe that you shall receive.” When our prayers are not heard, either we do not persevere in prayer, whereas “we ought always to pray, and not to faint,” or we do not ask for that which is more conducive to our salvation. “Our good Lord often does not give us what we wish,” says St. Augustine, “because it would really be what we do not wish for.” St. Paul gives us an example of this in that he thrice prayed that the sting of his flesh be removed from him, and his prayer was not heard. Thirdly, prayer is profitable because it makes us friends of God: “Let my prayer be directed as incense in Thy sight.” (Endnotes below).
What really stood out for me in this short exegesis by St. Thomas is how prayer is truly integral to the human person. Almost as though we do not fully live (breathe) if we are without prayer. It is only able to work in those who have recourse to it. There is order in prayer that helps order our lives which seems to be a nice counterbalance for when we are confronted with disorder and chaos.
What about you? What did you learn from St. Thomas here? Or, is there a line of the Lord’s Prayer that you find easy – or difficult – to pray?
- Heb., iv. 16.
- James, i. 6.
- Col., ii. 3.
- I John, ii. 1.
- “De oratione dominica.”
- Ps. xc. 15.
- “Enchir., lxxviii.
- “De fide orthodoxa,” III, c. 24.
- James, iv. 3.
- Rom., viii. 26.
- Luke, xi. 1.
- “Ad Probam,” Epist. cxxx.
- Matt., vi. 33.
- Ps. lxii. 5.
- Matt., vi. 7.
- “Loc. cit.”
- Ps. ci. 18.
- Jud., ix. 16.
- Ps. xxxi. 5.
- Luke, xxiii. 43.
- Ibid., xviii. 14.
- James, v. 13.
- Ps. xviii. 4.
- Mark, xi. 24.
- Luke, xviii. 1.
- II Cor., xii. 7.
- Ps. cxi. 2.