‘Our Father’ Contains a Trove of Spiritual Treasure

BOOK PICK: ‘Mysteries of the Lord’s Prayer’

‘Mysteries of the Lord’s Prayer’ delves into the Our Father.
‘Mysteries of the Lord’s Prayer’ delves into the Our Father. (photo: CUA Press)

Mysteries of the Lord’s Prayer

Wisdom From the Early Church 

By John Gavin, SJ

The Catholic University of America Press, 2021

192 pages, $24.95

To order: amazon.com

Jesuit Father John Gavin begins his book with an evocative image: Pliny the Younger’s eyewitness account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on Aug. 24, 79 A.D. This cataclysmic event buried the entire city of nearby Pompeii in burning volcanic ash. 

Centuries later, amidst the sad remains of the residents of Pompeii, archaeologists have discovered thousands of priceless artifacts, preserved intact beneath the ash. Among these, etched in stone, is a Rotas-Sator Square. In Latin, it’s a bit of a nonsense sentence: rotas opera tenet arepo sator. But it reads the same forwards, backwards, up and down — one of the coolest palindromes ever. 

It’s also an anagram: The letters reform into the phrase pater noster (“Our Father” in Latin) in the shape of a cross, framed by the letters A and O — Alpha and Omega. Some archaeologists and scholars assert that the presence of this artifact in Pompeii indicates Christianity may have reached this part of the Roman Empire by 79 A.D. at the latest. 

Among other linguistic puzzles related to the Lord’s Prayer, the author examines which of the two biblical versions — Matthew’s or Luke’s — is closest to the actual words Jesus taught and, related to this question, how the version of the Our Father appearing in the earliest extant catechetical handbook of the Church, the Didache, came about. 

Father Gavin’s discussion of these quandaries is really interesting but necessarily brief, because the heart of his book mines the deep spiritual treasures of the “Our Father.” Other commentators and scholars have carefully examined this ancient, foundational Christian prayer in terms of its language, its structure, its references and connections to Jewish prayers, and the way it sits within the context of the entire Bible. 

But, writes Father Gavin, “while acknowledging the fruit of these approaches, [this book] will follow a different path: the way of aporiai — that is, ‘problems’ or ‘obstacles.’ Problems in the scriptural text inspire modern students to dig deeply into the sources of history, the fonts of philology, and the resources of interpretive schools. However, for the Fathers of the Church, who will serve as our primary guides in these reflections, puzzling passages acted as flags or signs of hidden springs waiting to burst forth.”

Or, if you will, these more difficult parts of the prayer text serve as an “X” on a treasure map, alerting the seeker to “dig here.” 

The men known as the Church Fathers are the spiritual heirs of the apostles and the apostles’ disciples. The Patristic age begins in the mid-100s A.D. with Tertullian and Origen of Alexandria and continues through the middle of the first millennium after Christ’s birth. At the end of the book, Father Gavin provides brief portraits of the Fathers he draws upon and an annotated bibliography of their major works.

The fact that the “problems” or “obstacles” raised are conceptual rather than linguistic, textual or structural makes this book much more fruitful for contemplation than a rigorous scholarly explication would be. For example, the first aporia is “How can human beings call God ‘Father?’” 

Other aporiai include “Where is God the Father?” “How can God grow in holiness?” “Was there ever a time when God did not rule?” “Are there limitations to God’s will?” “Why should we seek bread?” “Can we make a deal with God?” and “Does God tempt us?” 

The aporia about the phrase “give us this day our daily bread” is especially illuminating: “One question in particular regarding this petition comes to the fore: What, exactly, is the object of this request? Is it actual bread? Or is bread a symbol for something spiritual?” 

The answer has to do with a mysterious Greek adjective epiousion, the full meaning of which remains largely unknown: “[The word] puzzled even a brilliant native speaker, Origen of Alexandria,” explains Father Gavin. 

As I read this chapter, I recalled one of the episodes of Father Dave Pivonka’s Wild Goose series, in which he had a conversation with a Muslim about the nature of God. It was a rewarding exchange — up to a point. Father Pivonka’s Muslim interlocutor could neither grasp nor accept the concept of God as “Father.” The conversation foundered on the rocks of this bold, uniquely Christian claim.

 “Today,” says Father Gavin, “the Church desperately needs to rediscover the meaning and power of calling God ‘our Father’ in a broken world.” 

This book is rich fare and will help all Christians — not just Catholics — grow to appreciate their “daily bread” (which has a wider figurative meaning than that of the Eucharist) more and more with every recitation of our most well-known prayer. 

Highly recommended.