The ‘Our Father’ Explained by the Church Fathers

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Patristic Commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer

The following is a list of Patristic commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer, with links to original-language versions and English translations.

The Lord’s Prayer is a pearl of great price, a treasure of Christianity, the value of which is often obscured by its very familiarity. Tertullian rightly called it “truly the summary of the whole Gospel.” (De oratione 1; Migne PL 1,1155). More than a simple prayer, the Our Father constitute a spiritual exercise, a form of meditation and contemplation, and a complete philosophy of life, all contained in a few lines.

It is vital that Christians learn to pray it reflectively, with understanding. For this we have numerous commentaries of Church Fathers to assist us.

Perhaps no better preface for the following can be found than the following remarks of St. John Cassian, taken from Conferences 9 (full citation supplied below).

[3] … and the soul kept free from all conversation and from roving thoughts that thus it may little by little begin to rise to the contemplation of God and to spiritual insight. …

[4] For the nature of the soul is not inaptly compared to a very fine feather or very light wing, which, if it has not been damaged or affected by being spoilt by any moisture falling on it from without, is borne aloft almost naturally to the heights of heaven by the lightness of its nature, and the aid of the slightest breath: but if it is weighted by any moisture falling upon it and penetrating into it, it will not only not be carried away by its natural lightness into any aerial flights but will actually be borne down to the depths of earth by the weight of the moisture it has received. So also our soul, if it is not weighted with faults that touch it, and the cares of this world, or damaged by the moisture of injurious lusts, will be raised as it were by the natural blessing of its own purity and borne aloft to the heights by the light breath of spiritual meditation; and leaving things low and earthly will be transported to those that are heavenly and invisible. …

[25] This prayer then though it seems to contain all the fullness of perfection, as being what was originated and appointed by the Lord’s own authority, yet lifts those to whom it belongs to that still higher condition of which we spoke above, and carries them on by a loftier stage to that ardent prayer which is known and tried by but very few, and which to speak more truly is ineffable; which transcends all human thoughts, and is distinguished, I will not say by any sound of the voice, but by no movement of the tongue, or utterance of words, but which the mind enlightened by the infusion of that heavenly light describes in no human and confined language, but pours forth richly as from copious fountain in an accumulation of thoughts, and ineffably utters to God, expressing in the shortest possible space of time such great things that the mind when it returns to its usual condition cannot easily utter or relate.

Compilation of the list was considerably facilitated by: Petiot, Henri (alias M. Daniel-Rops; editor); Hamman, Adalbert (translator). Le Pater expliqué par les Pères. (2nd ed.) Paris: Éditions Franciscaines, 1962.

Authors are listed chronologically, in order of year of birth.

Notation: Migne PL = J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologia Latina; Migne PG = J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologia Graeca.

Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160–c. 225)

On Prayer (De oratione) 1–10

  • Latin: Migne PL 1, 1149–1166
  • English: Thelwall, Sydney. (translator). In: Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (editors), Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. (ANF-03), Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887. (pp. 681–684). (Text)

Origen of Alexandria (c. 184–c. 253)

On Prayer (De Oratione) 18–30

St. Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200–258)

On the Lord’s Prayer (De oratione dominica; Treatises 4)

  • Latin: Migne PL 4, 519–544
  • English: Wallis, Robert Ernest (translator). In: Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (editors), Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5 (ANF-05), Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886. (Cyprian: Treatises, 4, pp. 447–457). (Text)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313–386)

Catecheses mystagogicae 5.11–5.18

St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–c. 395)

On the Lord’s Prayer (De oratione dominica; 5 Sermons)

St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 337–397)

On the Sacraments (De sacramentis) 5.4.18–5.4.30

Evagrius Ponticus (345–399)

Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer (Expositio in orationem dominicam); Clavis patrum graecorum (CPG) no. 2461

St. John Chrysostom (c. 347–407)

Homilies on Matthew (In Mattheum) 19

Explanation of the Lord’s Prayer (Oratio dominica ejusque explanatio)

  • Greek, Latin: Oratio dominica ejusque explanatio; Migne PG 51, 44–48
  • English: ?

Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350–428)

Catechetical Lectures

St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430)

On the Sermon on the Mount 2.4.15–2.11.39

Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament 6–9 (= Benedictine edition 56–59 )

St. John Cassian (c. 360–435)

Conferences 9.18–9.25 (On the Lord’s Prayer, De oratione Dominica)

St. Peter Chrysologus (c. 380–c. 450)

Sermons 67–72

St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662)

A Brief Explanation of the Prayer Our Father to a Certain Friend of Christ (Orationis Dominicae expositio)

Bibliography

Ayo, Nicholas. The Lord’s Prayer: A Survey Theological and Literary. Rowman & Littlefield, 2002 (Orig. 1992, Notre Dame University)

Hammerling, Roy. The Lord’s Prayer in the Early Church: The Pearl of Great Price. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Simonetti, Manlio (ed.). Matthew 1-13. (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture). InterVarsity Press, 2001. (pp. 130–139).

Gesthemane and the Archetypal Existential Temptation

“Christ’s temptation in the garden of Gesthemane constitutes the archetypal temptation of human existence. The The Garden of Gethsemane, Andrea Mantegna c. 1470temptation in that case was impending death by crucifixion and the fear produced as a result. However, Christ does not allow his gnomic will to overpower his natural will and thus prevents through free will the penetration of temptation into the heart where it inflames the passions which eventually lead to sin.  [See Maximus Confessor, Opuscule 3.]“

Source: Ilias Bantekas, “The Metaphysics of Temptation in Eastern Orthodox Monasticism“, Theandros, 4(2), 2006/2007.

The terms gnomic will and natural will require clarification:

  • Gnomic will:  false, egoistic will
  • Natural will:  our will when set into motion, guided, and energized by God

Despite its unfamiliarity as a term, ‘gnomic will’ is the perhaps the more experientially familiar.  This is our ordinary will in the fallen state.  Thus, in a sense, what St. Maximus calls “‘natural will” might be thought of as a supernatural will or divinely inspired will, and what he calls “‘gnomic will” might actually be considered the ‘natural’ (i.e., more associated with our usual, fallen nature) will.

The WikiPedia has two paragraphs on gnomic will, the more important one being:

“The notion of gnomic will belongs to Eastern Orthodox ascetical theology, being developed particularly within the theology of St Maximus the Confessor. The term ‘gnomic’ derives from the Greek gnome, meaning ‘inclination’ or ‘intention’. Within Orthodox theology, gnomic willing is contrasted with natural willing. Natural willing designates the free movement of a creature in accordance with the principle (logos) of its nature towards the fulfilment (telos, stasis) of its being. Gnomic willing, on the other hand, designates that form of willing in which a person engages in a process of deliberation culminating in a free choice.”

The main point is that Jesus Christ’s temptation in Gesthemane corresponds to a continuing existential struggle and choice of ours: to follow either false reasonings and false will, or to exercise the true (natural), God-led will, and thereby to act in the way God wishes, the former producing unhappiness and the latter leading to the Kingdom of Heaven — in our souls and in the world.

A fine point invites further attention:  may it properly be said that we exercise our natural will, or is it exclusively God who exercises it?  That is, are we merely passive bystanders when our natural will operates?  This seems like a very relevant question, even at first it might seem like something that smacks of excessive scholasticism.  At stake here are fundamental ideas about personal individuality.  There is no need to pursue this topic here — it’s enough simply to mention it.  Let it suffice to suggest that we should not make any limiting assumptions in this regard.  It is entirely possible — if not experientially self-evident — that natural will may be a joint activity of personal and Divine action.  Although the power of natural will — and certainly it’s direction, may come ultimately from God, nevertheless there seems a definite sense in which it is our will: our doing, making, intending, or effort. It does appear that we are contributing or committing something of ourselves.

Having gone this far into the subject of Gethsemane we may add a little more.  The struggle associated with the choice between following gnomic will and natural will is so basic to the human condition that we would expect to find it repeatedly, and perhaps centrally, addressed in the Bible.  And, indeed, the entire story of the fall of Adam and Eve  may be understand precisely in these terms.  The Fall itself corresponds to Adam and Eve choosing gnomic will over natural will.  The events of Gethsemane, and the subsequent passion, crucifixion and death (and resurrection) correspond to a reversal of Adam’s primal sin, and, in a sense, a restoration of what was lost.   What was lost in a garden is corrected in a garden.

In case it has not been mentioned before in so many words (most likely it has, but in any case it bears repeating), the process of reversing the primal psychological sin of egoism corresponds not just to the events of Gethsemane, but through the point of John 19:30:

When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.

The Greek word for ghost here is pneuma, or spirit, so one might understand this as corresponding to the relinquishing of control (“giving up”) of the spirit, letting thereby the spirit guide and energize our will and actions.

The Garden of Gethsemane, Andrea Mantegna c. 1470

St. Maximus on the ‘cosmic liturgy’

“Maximus presents the Church, and the sign that she imprints on the world, in the largest and most open terms possible. The Church lies in the midst of the natural and supernatural cosmos like a source of light that sets all things revolving around itself; in that she represents everything symbolically, she also is an effective guarantee of the transformation of the whole universe. The liturgy is for Maximus more than a mere symbol; it is, in modern terms, an opus operatum, an effective transformation of the world into transfigured, divinized existence. For that reason, in Maximus’s view … the liturgy is ultimately always ‘cosmic liturgy’: a way of drawing the entire world into the hypostatic union, because both world and liturgy share a christological foundation.” (From Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy, p. 322.)

via The New Liturgical Movement: The New Oxford Movement? Easter 2007: Cosmic Liturgy Course.

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