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).

Principles of Psychological Exegesis of the Bible

sacred reading

For a few years I’ve been working on a psychologically-based approach to biblical interpretation. It has both traditional and new elements. It draws heavily on the philosophical-allegorical method of biblical interpretation developed by the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BC–c. 50 AD), and subsequently refined by later Christian writers like Origen, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory of Nyssa, whence it became a staple (if little-known today) of Christian exegesis. It adds features drawn from modern personality theory and depth psychology. Readers leery of modern ‘psychologizing’ of religion may be relieved to know that it is orthodox in all respects.

I almost feel I should apologize for summarizing the method so briefly below – as though nothing useful could be so easily described. However inasmuch as I am a mathematician as well as a psychologist it is natural for me to try to reduce a theory to essential elements. In other words, please do not misjudge the usefulness of the approach from its condensed explanation. In the final analysis, the method is only as valuable as you yourself find it to be. The less I say, in fact, the better, so that you have greater opportunity to explore it for yourself.

The method can be understood as involving five principles, explained below.

1. Psychological salvation

The aim of the Bible is to promote our salvation, understood in an all-embracing sense that includes both spiritual and psychological aspects. These two aspects are inseparable, one necessary for the other. Our direct interest here, however, is psychological salvation. This is understood as an overall transformation that affects moral life, intellect, will, desire, emotion, social life, and orientation to the physical environment. It is epitomized by the statement, “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2) The result of this transformation is attainment of a new psychological condition referred to in the Gospels as the Kingdom of Heaven.

(a) This condition is characterized by many features which the psychologist Abraham Maslow associated with Being perception and Being cognition and plateau experience. Sensory perceptions are clearer, more vivid, more beautiful, unified, sacred. The world may be experienced as transfigured. Experience and activity are ends in themselves, not means to ends (Being rather than Becoming);

(b) Inwardly the state is characterized by greater mental clarity (insight, serenity, recollection, peace, joy, happiness, creativity, inspiration) and by absence of negative emotions and thoughts (anxiety, cynicism, pessimism, anger, depression, etc.);

(c) In this condition a person may experience a union of the individual will and God’s will; egoism and those characteristic problems that attend it are reduced. One experiences a sense of flow, spontaneity, effortlessness, enjoyment, and delight.

(d) It corresponds to what various writers have termed unitive, transcendental, and integrated mental states. At a physiological level, it is potentially associated with better-than-usual integration of left- and right-brain activity.

(e) One does not so much attain this as an immediate and permanent psychological condition, as experience it temporarily with greater frequency and duration.

(f) This form of psychological salvation does not replace the concept of spiritual salvation, understood as attainment of eternal life in the traditional religious sense; but the former promotes and is possibly a stage in the attainment of the latter.

2. Scriptural consistency

All parts of the Bible aim to promote spiritual and psychological salvation. Each passage should be understood in relation to this greater purpose; one should not interpret a verse or passage out of context or without reference to this overarching meaning.

3. Psychological correspondence

This is the key interpretative principle: that every character, situation, and event portrayed in Scripture has a counterpart in the psychic life of the individual.

(a) This principle dovetails with the large (but largely unappreciated) psychological literature concerning ego plurality (e.g., Rowan, 1990; Schwartz, 1995). This body of work sees human personality in terms of not a single ego, but many (dozens, perhaps hundreds) of part-egos or subpersonalities, each associated with a different interest, appetite, and social role.  The ‘ordinary’ state of affairs is that these personalities conflict.  A major task of psychological salvation is to harmonize them, producing an integrated and self-realized person.

(b) The principle of psychological correspondence is a routine feature in the modern interpretation of dreams (i.e. each character in a dream reflects some aspect of the dreamer’s personality or psyche).

(c) This principle is also found in modern psychological interpretation of myths and literature (e.g., the Odyssey, Plato’s Republic).

(d) It is also the basis of Philo’s system of biblical interpretation (i.e., each character in the Bible corresponds to some mental ‘disposition’).

(e) This does not preclude there also being other levels of meaning in a verse or passage of Scripture, i.e., literal, historical, moral, etc.

4. Agreement with doctrine and tradition

The Christian Church was founded by Jesus Christ with the aim of promoting human salvation, and the Holy Spirit has guided the Church throughout its history. Psychological meanings ‘discovered’ in the Bible must be tested against sound Christian doctrine and tradition; what is at variance with these is likely an idiosyncratic interpretation, untrue.

5. Grace

To adequately understand the psychological meaning of Scripture requires inspiration and grace, and in order that these may be obtained, prayer.

Bibliography

Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being. 2nd ed. Van Nostrand, 1968. (1st ed., Van Nostrand, 1962; 3rd ed., Foreword and Preface by Richard Lowry, Wiley, 1999).

Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1971 (republished: Arkana, 1993).

Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. Routledge, 1990 (repr. 2013).

Schwartz, Richard C. Internal Family Systems Therapy. New York: Guilford, 1995 (repr. 2013).

Uebersax, John S. On the Psychological Meaning of Psalm 1. 2008.

Uebersax, John S. The ‘Strange Woman’ of Proverbs. 2009.

Uebersax, John S. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. El Camino Real. 2012.

Uebersax, John S. Why do the Heathen Rage?: A Psychological Investigation of Psalm 2.’ (article in preparation).

First version: March 2014 (Rev. September 2014)

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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