Our Father who art in heaven
by Fr. Alexander Schmemann
Number 1 of 8 commentaries on The Lord’s Prayer broadcast on Raido Liberty by Fr. Alexander Schmemann to listeners in the former Soviet Union. (Translated by Alexis Vinogradov)l
Jesus Christ left us only one prayer, which is therefore usually called the Lord’s Prayer. When the disciples implored him, “Teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1), he gave them this prayer in reply:
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us;
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Mt 6:9-13)
This prayer has been said without interruption for two thousand years. At every moment somewhere on the globe people are saying those very words which were once uttered by Christ himself. This is why we have no better path to the very heart of Christianity than by this short, and on first observation simple, prayer. Albeit, it seems this prayer is not so simple since I have more than once been asked to explain it.
Let me begin this explanation by saying directly that its meaning is inexhaustible, that it is impossible to give this prayer one final and conclusive explanation. As with the Gospels, the Lord’s Prayer is always addressed to each of us personally anew, in a way which makes it seem to have been composed specifically for me, for my needs, for my questions, for my pilgrimage. Yet, at the same time it remains eternal and unchanging in its essence, always calling us to what is most important, to the ultimate, to the highest.
In order to really hear the Lord’s Prayer and participate in it, it is first necessary to rid ourselves of that inner confusion, that fragmentation of our attention, that spiritual sloppiness in which we constantly live. Possibly our most horrible trait is that we regularly hide from everything that seems too exalted and spiritually meaningful. It’s as if we unconsciously choose to be petty and trivial, a choice easier to live by. (You might recall Tolstoy’s character Sviyazhskiy in Anna Karenina, who seemed able to understand and discuss anything, but as soon as the conversation turned to deeper questions about the meaning of life, something in him shut down, and no one could penetrate this barrier. Tolstoy describes it with particular genius).
Indeed, so much of our inner strength is directed at stifling this inner voice, which calls us to an encounter with the ultimate.
And so, we must exercise at least some minimal effort to enter that framework, that state of spirit and soul in which this prayer of all prayers begins to sound, to resonate with us, and is revealed in its full meaning and becomes the one thing needed-food and drink for the soul.
So, let us lift up our minds and begin. Let us start with the salutation, which is at the same time both an appeal and an affirmation: “Our Father.”
The first thing Christ offers to those who ask him to teach them to pray, the very first thing he leaves them as a priceless gift and consolation, as joy and inspiration, is the possibility of calling God “Father;’ to regard him as their father.
How many ideas have evolved in man’s imagination about God! He has been referred to as the Absolute, the First Cause, Lord, Omnipotent, Creator, Benefactor, God, and so on, and so forth. Each of these ideas and designations relates to some element of truth, to a profound experience and a depth of understanding. Yet this one word “Father,” together with “Our:’ contain all these concepts yet at the same time reveals them as intimacy, as love, as a unique, unrepeatable and joyful union.
“Our Father” – here we find the meaning of love, and the answer to love, here lies the experience of intimacy and the joy of this experience, here faith opens into trust, and dependence yields to freedom, intimacy, and ultimately unfolds as joy. This is no longer an idea about God, but already knowledge of God, this is already communion with him in love, in unity, and trust. This is already the beginning of knowing eternity. For Christ himself said to the Father: “For this is eternal life, that they would know you” (Jn 17:3).
This salutation is therefore not only the beginning but the very foundation of the prayer; it renders all the other petitions possible and fills them with meaning. In its deepest and original sense Christianity is the religion of fatherhood, which means that it is not founded on intellectual ideals or philosophical deductions, but on the experience of love which floods our whole life, on the experience of personal love.
All of this is implied within the initial appeal of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father.” Having uttered these words, we add: “who art in heaven.” And here the whole prayer (and with it our whole life) is lifted up, is raised to heaven, for heaven is, after all, that vertical dimension of life, that reference of man to the higher and spiritual, which is at the same time the object of such hatred and mockery among those who reduce human life to purely biological and material categories.
This is not the physical or astronomical heaven that is always refuted by atheists, but it is rather the highest pole of human life: “the Father who is in heaven.” This is the faith of man in the divine love which embraces and permeates the whole world. And this is faith in the world as the reflection, the sign, the presence of this love; this is faith in heaven as the ultimate vocation of man’s glory and destiny, as his eternal home.
The joyful affirmation and herald of all this is the opening of that prayer which Christ gave us as the sign of our divine sonship: “Our Father, who art in heaven!”