Praying to Our Father Who Art in Heaven

‘Blessed is the man who goes to sleep under the protection of that outpost, the outpost of those three or four words.’ —Charles Peguy

Antoine Coypel (1661-1722), “Almighty God the Father,” detail of the ceiling of the chapel of the Palace of Versailles, Yvelines, France
Antoine Coypel (1661-1722), “Almighty God the Father,” detail of the ceiling of the chapel of the Palace of Versailles, Yvelines, France (photo: Public Domain)

One does not usually shed tears for the village atheist, especially as his numbers more and more threaten to take over the village, but when you consider how little he has to offer, one does feel a certain fleeting sympathy. I mean, up against the inestimable advantage of belief in God — a God who actually wants us to call him Father! — how can the poor fellow compete? What percentage can there be in nothingness?  One would almost need the persuasive powers of God himself to convince humankind to embrace its own extinction. And if that really were the end to which all things tend, why do so many of us continue to lament, sending up countless cries beneath a deaf and indifferent sky? 

If, as the poet Larkin tells us, “Being brave / Lets no one off the grave,” why do we persist in trying to be brave?  

How do the Scriptures square off on the question? What sort of image of God are we given there and will it satisfy the deepest needs of the human heart? When the disciples turn to Jesus to ask, “Lord, teach us to pray,” have they any idea at all what he will say? That his answer will be full of the most disarming simplicity, and not a single word too many? “When you pray,” he tells them, “say, ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name …’”

It is the only occasion in the Gospels when Jesus refers to “our” common Father. Any other time he will say “my Father and your Father.” But here, in describing the relation uniting us with himself, Jesus expressly says, “Our Father.” Is it truly possible that we have been permitted, enjoined even, to address God in this way? 

Because, elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus has no hesitancy in calling God his Father, knowing full well that no other member of the human race has ever dared to speak of God in that way. In fact, Our Lord uses the Aramaic Abba, a mode of address, a term of endearment, so intimate, so tender, that only from within the fastness of a family would people speak that way. How horrified the learned Doctors of the Law must have been on hearing the All-Holy God spoken to in this way! By a fellow Jew no less. It is simply unthinkable. After all, it was Judaism that erected layer upon layer of circumlocution to avoid having to speak the unutterable, the unspeakable Name. And for Judaism especially, such a God would never enter the human estate, never become one of us. He necessarily remains the Wholly Other, hurling his thunderbolts from on high, watching them fall upon a hapless humanity.

But in Jesus everything changes. God puts on a human face and speaks to us, and to the Father, as one standing in the breach between the two, ourselves and God, thus becoming the perfect bridge (Pontifex Maximus) to mediate the difference. However, it is only twice in the Scriptures that Jesus speaks with such naked directness to the Father. The first time is when he undertakes to teach his disciples how to pray, and then when it is his own prayer, which is spoken in brokenness and fear on the night of his betrayal. “Abba, Father,” he cries out, “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.”

But the cry in the Garden will go unanswered, the father refusing (or so it seems) either to lift the cup and thus spare the son the suffering to come, or at the very least to so anesthetize the son that he needn’t feel it. The appointed hour, and all that Jesus must endure along the way, does not go away, leaving him alone and bereft at the last. Was ever a more heartfelt prayer spoken, an uttered cry more eloquent than this? Would a human father be willing to forsake his son in this way?

“Let the atheists themselves choose a god,” writes Chesterton in a moving and mysterious passage. “They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”

Might it be that this was the price freely paid by the Son of God to ensure that the prayer taught to his disciples actually got through to their common Father? The great Peguy, in his profound and beautiful meditation on the Our Father, will place on the lips of the eternal Father himself the astonishing admission that because it was his Son who invented that prayer, no longer may his anger be applied to the Children of Men. “Blessed is the man who goes to sleep under the few words ‘Our Father who art in heaven …’ words that conquer me, the unconquerable.”

As part of a longer work called The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, Peguy presents “A Vision of Prayer,” in which God the Father, speaking like a very old and wise peasant, announces, “I am their father … Our Father who art in Heaven. My son told them often enough that I was their father…

My son who loved them so, who loves them eternally in heaven.
He knew very well what he was doing that day, my son who loved
 them so.
When he put that barrier between them and me, Our Father who art
in Heaven, t
hose three or four words.
That barrier which my anger and perhaps my justice will never pass.

This is how God sees us now, through the prism of his Son. Thanks to a mere handful words spoken by Jesus before his disciples, we see how the austere justice of the one may be deflected by the ardent mercy of the other. How infinitely it is to our advantage that we pray those words. That we do so often and humbly.

Those three or four words which move forward like a beautiful
 cutwater fronting a lowly ship.
Cutting the flood of my anger.