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).

First and Second Movements in Medieval Philosophy

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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

Rev 5:13
And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, [be] unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.

New American Bible

“Amen.  Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving,
honor, power, and might
be to our God forever and ever.  Amen.”

12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.”


Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp

From a letter on the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp by the Church of Smyrna

A rich and pleasing sacrifice

When the pyre was ready, Polycarp took off all his clothes and loosened his under-garment. He made an effort also to remove his shoes, though he had been unaccustomed to this, for the faithful always vied with each other in their haste to touch his body. Even before his martyrdom he had received every mark of honour in tribute to his holiness of life.

There and then he was surrounded by the material for the pyre. When they tried to fasten him also with nails, he said: “Leave me as I am. The one who gives me strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to stay quite still on the pyre, even without the precaution of your nails.” So they did not fix him to the pyre with nails but only fastened him instead. Bound as he was, with hands behind his back, he stood like a mighty ram, chosen out for sacrifice from a great flock, a worthy victim made ready to be offered to God.

Looking up to heaven, he said: “Lord, almighty God, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to the knowledge of yourself, God of angels, of powers, of all creation, of all the race of saints who live in your sight, I bless you for judging me worthy of this day, this hour, so that in the company

via Universalis: Office of Readings.

Pope’s Talks on Church Fathers

Pope’s Talks on Church Fathers

From March 2007 through June 2008, Pope Benedict XVI dedicated his weekly audience talks to a series of very informative biographical sketches of the Church Fathers. For those who have not studied the lives and writings of the Fathers, or those who just want a little refresher, this is a excellent resource.

The text of the talks can be here found at the Vatican website.

Most of the well-known Fathers of the Church, East and West, are covered. There are some less familiar names as well: Saint Chromatius of Aquileia, Aphraates, “the Sage”, and Saint Romanus the Melodist, for example.

One thing this helps remind us is that beyond the first tier of better known Church Fathers is a second one consisting of perhaps hundreds of lesser-known figures. We possess a large number of their writings, many or most never having been translated into English. This is vast resource waiting to be mined.

Incidentally, two weeks were devoted to Origen; this may help ease concerns anyone may have that Origen is not fully accepted as a Church Father by the Roman Catholic Church.

Those interested in Platonism may note with interest talks on Boethius and Pseudo-Dionysius, along, of course, with those on St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Augustine of Hippo.

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Why Catholicism for Europe: Reason 2

2. Philosophical and psychological depth

Today many people equate Christianity with simple-mindedness. Another group — fundamentalists — naively insist on a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible.

The truth is that Christianity encompasses an extremely sophisticated system of religious, philosophical, and psychological thought. This system, though based on ideas present in Scripture, required several centuries to articulate and elaborate. This task was accomplished by the Church Fathers — figures such as St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. John Chrysostom in the East, and Sts. Justin, Irenaeus, Ambrose and St. Augustine in the West, to name but a very few. In fact there are well over 100 writers commonly considered as Church Fathers. But this is just the top tier; beyond these are dozens more erudite, profound, insightful, and articulate Christian thinkers of late antiquity whose works have come down to us.

They were among the most brilliant and best-educated philosophers of their times — men who followed in the footsteps of Plato and Aristotle. The works of these Greek, Latin, Syrian, and Egyptian Fathers are a vast storehouse of knowledge still scarcely mined. Many of their works have not been translated into modern languages yet — not even all those St. Augustine.

As these works become more widely known and studied (thanks in part to the Internet) the profundity and modern relevance of their thought will become increasingly clear.

Links

(updated incrementally)

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10 Reasons Why Europeans Should Redis…

10 Reasons Why Europeans Should Rediscover Their Christianity

Today many people in Europe and the United States have rejected or view with little interest their own Christian traditions. Since people naturally seek deeper meaning in life, this leads many to turn instead to Eastern religions — to Buddhism and the religions of India, for example — for spiritual answers.

There is certainly nothing wrong with studying Eastern religions. But one should not dismiss ones own traditions in the process. (Even the Dalai Lama says that!).

I’ve decided to begin listing reasons why modern Europeans and Americans — especially those who come from a Christian background — should reconsider their native Christianity.

I’ll try to be as brief as possible. My view is that one person cannot prove or convince another of matters like this. Instead, I work on the assumption that if anything I say here is true, then you already know it latently. I just wish to give you a reminder, or to gently nudge your own inner intuition and attention.

I’ll begin posting these reasons one or several at a time over the next few days or weeks. (Please excuse typos — I’ll edit these out later.)

Let’s begin, then, with the first reason.

1. Christianity is Europe’s “folk religion”.

Modern people greatly admire indigenous religions. For example, the religions of Native Americans, Africans, or Australian Aborigines are studied closely; we seek in these traditions elements of deep, genuine, experience-based religion, “untainted”, as it were, by centuries-long accretions of overrationalized doctrines, dogmas, institutional formalities, etc.

Few consider that, after nearly 2000 years, Christianity has become a genuine indigenous religion of Europeans. Further, much pre-Christian tradition has been smoothly assimilated into Christian practices and customs — and remains available to Westerners in this form. To (re)connect with Christianity, then, is to connect with ones roots.

The Two Threads

There are two concurrent threads in the development of Christianity. There is doctrine, as found in the Bible and developed by early Church writers and later theologians. But also there are the unwritten customs and traditions of Christianity.

The latter include religious liturgies, practices, and art. These things are not governable by written rules.

Religious art is of special interest. Deep truths are expressed by religious art — truths of the heart and soul; things beyond words. Generations of our ancestors have preserved and transmitted these truths to us in art and customs. We would be most foolish to neglect these.

To walk into an old church in Europe and to see the magnificent, expressive, and deeply symbolic art is to be immediately struck with the richness and importance of this dimension of our religious heritage.

We look with admiration at ancient or indigenous art, trying to decipher its symbolism, convinced that it conveys some great hidden truths. Yet how many approach our own rich heritage of Western Christian art with the same diligence, respect, and interest?

Similar considerations apply to religious practices. Why are Westerners intrigued with Tibetan prayer beads, while dismissing the Catholic rosary as superstition? Why show such interest in the asanas of yoga, or investigate Buddhist hand mudras, while remaining unaware of the complex prayer postures of the Catholic mass? Who today takes seriously the significance of kneeling, or of the folding of hands in prayer? People seek to learn the use of Tibetan meditational mandalas, but fail to appreciate their own traditions of deep, devout prayer before an icon or religious statue.

Another example: many Westerners today are interested in Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. One wonders how many of these people know that Sufism was strongly influenced by earlier Christian monastic and mystical traditions in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. While Sufism is all the rage, the numerous writings — inspiring and sophisticated — of this earlier Christian tradition are neglected.

It seems, then, that indeed the grass always seems greener in another’s pasture.

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