Meister Eckhart’s Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer

 

Sermon Thirty-Five: Bread is given us for others, on account of others, and with others, especially the indigent

 

“On the Lord’s Prayer”

 

“Our Father.” There are some matters we should note before considering the Lord’s Prayer. First, that we tend to be lazy regarding the things of God and therefore we are first exhorted to ask and pray. Second, God commits us to his love, for when we are still a long way off, he calls us back and attracts us. God’s love is so good that it is necessary that he give of himself. It should be noted that nothing temporal is asked for from God in this prayer. This is true, because the Lord’s Prayer itself does not contain anything of this sort. Besides, how could we ask him for the very thing which he everywhere teaches us to hold in contempt? It is not appropriate for God, who is eternal, to give things of such a temporal nature. Temporal things are not asked for because, in comparison with eternal things, they are nothing, and to pray for nothing is not to pray.

 

“Father.” We note first of all a point made by Chrysostom that God wanted more to be loved than to be feared. This is why the prayer begins “Our Father” and not “Our Lord.” The word “Father” is used that we might know that “he gave us the power to be the sons of God.” As a consequence, “if sons, then heirs, too.” “He who says ‘Father,’ through this one naming confesses the remission of sins, the adoption and inheritance of sons, fraternity with the only begotten Son, and the generosity of the Spirit.” We are to love the honor of God and grieve over everything which opposes it, wherever it occurs, just as true sons act toward their fathers. The petitioners are to have confidence, for fathers are supposed to listen to their sons, and furthermore we have been told, “Ask and you will receive,” and again, “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that …”

 

“Our.” Note first of all that the word is “our” not “my,” because the prayer is very pleasing which is motivated by love and not by necessity. Jerome says: “The more a prayer communicates, the more efficacious it is.” We are speaking here not of my or your or even everyone’s father but of him from whom “all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.” We say “our” in order that we might remember that all people are our brothers and co-heirs and thus we might love them and persevere to the end with them as brothers, keeping also in mind that other verse: “All of you are brothers.”

 

“Who art in heaven.” Note first of all what Chrysostom says: “We blush to fill our lives with earthly things when we realize that we have a Father in heaven.” From the first sermon of Abbot Isaac we learn that we should avoid in total horror the present life which we live inasmuch as we are so far separated from our Father. And the psalm says: “Alas for me that my dwelling here is prolonged.” We are reminded by these words that we should hasten with all the desire of our hearts to that place where we profess to have a Father. As the psalm says: “By the waters of Babylon we laid down our harps, for how could we sing to the Lord on foreign soil?” We are reminded that we should allow nothing to deprive us of a noble heritage of such great dignity. We recall the saying that we are heaven or, rather, the very heaven of heavens if we want our Father to be in us. Chrysostom says in his homily: “When one says ‘in heaven’ he does not merely point to God but he is taken from earth in prayer and placed in heaven above.” We recall the words of Augustine in his commentary: “In heaven, that is among the saints and the righteous ones.” “For there is as much spiritual difference between the righteous and the sinners as there is physically between heaven and earth.”

Augustine in the same commentary on the words “in heaven” says: “These words are said so that the soul is reminded to direct itself to its more excellent nature, namely to God. For there in heaven, its earthly body is transformed into a higher body, namely a spiritual one.” “It is good that everyone, small and great alike, have some idea of God; therefore, since most people cannot think about God in a noncorporeal way, it is better that they believe God to be in heaven than on earth.”

 

“Hallowed be thy name.” “That is, may God’s name be so known that everyone will understand that there is nothing more sacred.” “Hallowed” has the further sense of “May thy name be glorified” — namely, that in everyone there may be this sentiment: “We expend our whole heart for the glory of our Father, our desire and our joy being the witness we give to his glory.” The words of Jesus which we find in John’s Gospel state: “That person is true who seeks the glory of him who sent him; there is no falsehood in such a person.” Paul, too, declares that he could wish that he were cut off from Christ Jesus that the salvation of the whole people of Israel might be advance to the glory of the Father. He could indeed be fearless in wishing to perish for Christ because he knew that no one could die for life itself.

 

Another meaning to the petition “hallowed be thy name” is: “Father, make us such that we might merit either to understand the greatness of your holiness or to possess it.” There is an additional sense of the text: “Make us live in such a way that through our conversation your name is glorified and make holy.” Or, as we read in Matthew’s Gospel: “Let them see your good works and glorify your Father.” The text can also mean: “By a continuing growth in holiness may we be purged of our daily failings” in order that God’s name is hallowed, that is, kept holy in us. We say “hallowed be thy name” because what we know about God reflects a ray of his love and power. We pray that “knowing him we may fear his holy name and solicitously be on guard lest by chance we violate the holiness of his name through any evil deed or ours.”

 

“Thy kingdom come.” It is fitting that the petition ‘Hallowed be thy name” came earlier because, according to St. Jerome, “It is a mark of great trust and a pure conscience not to fear the kingdom of God and his judgement.” We pray “Thy kingdom come” first of all that with the devil driven out by the extinction of our vices, God might reign in us or rather in the whole world through the abundance of virtue. Second, the prayer refers to the future kingdom of which Jesus spoke: “Come, blessed of my Father, see the kingdom …” “For the saint knows by the testimony of his own conscience that when the kingdom of God shall appear, he will participate in it.”

 

        The text says “thy” for God is eternal spirit. Therefore, his kingdom is not corporeal, temporal, or anything of the sort but something much more sublime. It is called “thy” kingdom because it is in spirit, in eternity, and what the kingdom reveals is the power, wisdom, goodness, riches, and honor of God.

 

“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”Concerning this petition, it is first to be noted that Chrysostom refers this phrase to the three preceding petitions. For these petitions do not say “sanctify” (in the imperative) or “may we sanctify” or “bring in your kingdom” or “may we receive your kingdom”. Nor does it say “do your will” (in the imperative) or “may we do your will.” Rather, these petitions are impersonally stated: “may it be hallowed” or “may it come” or “may it be done.” What this teaches us is to pray for the whole world. It is important to notice the relationship of the third petition to the second, for it teaches us to receive celestial things, saying: “Thy kingdom come.” And this before we ever arrive at heaven, bidding this very earth to become a heaven in saying: “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” “Let error be eliminated, let virtue grow, let evil be cast out, let goodness return, and then there will be altogether no difference between heaven and earth.” And this is the first explanation of the third petition.

 

        According to another exposition of this phrase, earthly things desire to be equal to those in heaven, for just as the will of God is fulfilled by the angels in heaven, so too it should be fulfilled by all people on earth. This is something we will readily pray for, if we believe that God is more solicitous for us than we are for ourselves. The will of God is our salvation, according to the text: “God wills all persons to be saved.” We pray, therefore, to be saved or for salvation when we say: “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” For just as those who are in heaven are saved, so too those who are on earth are to be saved. Here is where we see more of the meaning of the earlier petition: “Thy kingdom come.” For when this kingdom of God arrives, whether now through grace or in the future through glory, then the will of God will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

 

        “As in heaven” also refers to the righteous and “on earth” refers to sinners. It is a prayer for the retribution of both good and evil which will occur in the final judgement, a future which is prayed for in the petition “Thy kingdom come.” Heaven and earth can also refer to spirit and flesh. We are praying therefore that as the mind, which is spirit, is obedient to God, so may the flesh be obedient to the spirit. Moreover, “on earth as it is in heaven” implies “as in Christ, so in the whole church.” We pray that as we already perceive the kingdom of God in our minds or spirits, while we are on earth, so may it be the will of God that we perceive it in our glorified body in the resurrection of the dead, thus attaining the salvation of both mind and body.

 

“Give us today our daily bread.” In Matthew 6 we read: “Give us today our supersubstantial bread,” but in Luke 11: “Give us today our daily bread.” In his exposition of Matthew, Chrysostom employs the word “daily” and explains it in a fourfold way: first, “Grant us today to prepare and consume without sin our daily bread, that by which we are daily nurtured.” For whatever is consumed or received without sin and in righteousness is certainly something given by God. For whatever is not given in this way is certainly not given by God but comes from concupiscence of the devil. Second, our bread, that which we already have, give us today; “daily” that is sanctified or whole or blessed. And this fits with the version of Matthew which speaks about “supersubstantial bread.” Third, give us today our daily bread, that is, give us daily what we need for the day, namely for this one day, so that we do not spend today or in one day what suffices for us for one hundred days or for one hundred persons for one day – but give us today our daily bread or daily for today, that is, daily for one person or one day. Fourth, give us today our daily bread, that is, as much as is possible, for we do not want to have more than daily bread.

 

Regarding the word “our,” Chrysostom in the exposition referred to above explains it in a twofold way: first, that we might understand that bread is given to us so that not only we might eat but that we recognize others in need, lest anyone say: “my bread” is given to me instead of understanding that it is ours, given to me, to others through me and to me through others. For not only bread but all things which are necessary for sustaining this present life are given to us with others and because of others and given to others in us. Whoever does not give to another what belongs to the other, such a one does not eat his own bread but eats the bread of another along with his own. Thus when we justly eat the bread we have received, we certainly eat our bread; but when we eat evilly and with sin the bread we have received, then we are not eating our own bread but the bread of another. For everything which we have unjustly is not really ours.

 

“Our bread.” This states that we pray to be given daily bread, that is, for today. This signifies that it would not be proper for us to be solicitous each separate day for all the things necessary for our support. There is an allusion to this in the Gospel According to the Hebrews which, according to Saint Jerome, has a gloss on this text from Matthew 6 which states: “Give us tomorrow’s bread today.”

 

“Give us today our daily bread” tells us that we are in need each day. Asking for bread today means in the present or during the time of our pilgrimage in this present age. For we are in need of material bread as long as we are mortal, fragile human beings. This same point is alluded to in the gloss from the sermons of the fathers quoted above. But it should be noted that part of the significance of the word “bread” is the sufficiency of this present life. One can read this in Augustine’s letter to Probas about prayer to God: “It is not wrong to wish a sufficiency of life’s goods, if one indeed wishes that and not more.” It is in this same way that one can figuratively understand the Gospel reference to the tunic: “Nor should you have two tunics.”

 

We can find significance in this word “bread” as heavenly teaching or inspiration or illustration according to the text: “Not by bread alone does man live, etc.” This is why Matthew uses the phrase “supersubstantial bread,” insofar as God himself feeds every creature, always and everywhere. Or again, one can consider the text from John: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.” For insofar as Christ is divine, he too feeds all things.

 

In this sacrament of his Body, participation in which is our daily thought, we say “our bread.” There is no obstacle in our not receiving the sacrament daily, for we in no way less effectively participate if we are one body living in true love with those who receive the sacrament, wherever they might be. this agrees with what is said about the apostles, “who because of their teaching are always on the move,” that thus they would keep nothing for the next day.

 

It can also be noted here that we are not commanded to pray for money or luxuries but for bread: “give us today our daily bread.” “A disciple of Christ should ask for food for the day, lest we seek to remain long in this present age, we who pray that his kingdom may come quickly.” For we say: “Thy kingdom come” in the spirit of the text “Alas for me, Lord, that I am still dwelling, etc” and the other Pauline passage: “I desire to be dissolved, etc.”

 

Another understanding of this text is: “Give us the bread which is today, in the sense of eternity which is always today.” Or, “Give us the supersubstantial bread today – that is, in eternity.” This is the perspective we see in the text “Today I have begotten you.” Saint Augustine, toward the end of the sixth chapter of the Confessions says: “Your years are as one day and your day is not daily but today, because your today does not lead to a tomorrow any more than it succeeds a yesterday. Your today is eternity. Therefore, you eternally begot him to whom you said: ‘This day I have begotten you.’ ” He commands us to pray with this temporal referent to show that not only spiritual things but all temporal realities have their origin in God. This is first of all in opposition to the Manichaean position. Also, you do not choose a bread which is not flavored. Finally, this helps us to know that the very least of the good things we have is from God.

 

“And forgive us our trespasses.” Note how this gives us a way of prayer, teaches us morals, takes away anger and sadness, the root of all evil, and discloses the way in which we are able in our prayer to ask for things we need and to temper the divine wrath or judgement against us — all of this by saying, “Forgive us, etc.” We say “our trespasses” because, as Chrysostum points out, a certain amount of patience is praiseworthy in the case of personal injuries but to conceal in any way offences against God is impious. There are many people who are very prone to forgive the offenses they themselves commit against their fellow creatures or even against God, but they are in no way so quick to forgive the injuries committed against themselves. Besides, if the one who is harmed prays fruitlessly unless he forgives his debtors, what do you think of the prayer of the one who is doing the harm?

 

There are some who simply pass over the phrase: “as we forgive those who trespass against us,” but those who do this are ignorant. Those who do not pray in the way Christ taught are neither Christians nor true disciples of Christ. Furthermore, the Father will not readily hear a prayer which the Son did not teach. The Father pays attention to and receives, not the words, but rather the meaning of the Son. “You can say anything you want in a prayer therefore, but you are not able to deceive God.”

 

In regard to this fifth petition, “Forgive us, etc,” we should note several things. First of all, all those who call God “Father” are instructed to pray daily and to ask every day for forgiveness, saying “Forgive us …” This commandment is given lest the innocent become self-satisfied and by praising themselves become more worthy of hell. Furthermore, in this petition, the paternal compassion of God is commended to us, “for he who teaches us to pray for the forgiveness of sins is the same who promised compassion.” The prayer does not say “as we will forgive” but “as we forgive.” For God does not want to forgive us unless we first forgive in the same way, he forgives us. And he forgives us when we ask and pray for forgiveness. It is enough, therefore, if we forgive those asking and begging forgiveness. “For he who asks forgiveness of the one against whom he has sinned is no longer to be considered an enemy.” Thus Augustine in the Enchiridion says that the love of our enemies “does not include that group of people who, we believe hear us when we say in prayer: ‘Forgive us as we forgive.’ ”

 

It should be noted that in the first three petitions, whenever the things of God are spoken of, they are spoken of in the singular — “your name,” “your kingdom,” “your will” — but in the other four petitions the plural form is used: “our bread,” “our trespasses,” “do not lead us,” “deliver us.”

 

“And do not lead us into temptation.” This is the sixth petition. Note first of all that we do not pray not to be tempted. For Job was tempted and so were Abraham and Joseph, so that their reward might be increased. But we pray not to be led, not to be conquered — as though someone were to pray not that he not feel the flame of the fire but that he not be consumed by it. What is implied in this petition is that our enemy is not able to tempt us, unless God permits it “so that all of our fear and all of our devotion be equally directed to God.” What follows is: “but deliver us from evil,” which means, “do not permit us to be tempted beyond what we are able to handle and along with the temptation give us the strength to resist it.”

 

Another way of looking at this petition, “lead us not into temptation,” is that we are praying for perseverance in holiness. But we ask God not to lead us into temptation, even though Saint James says that God does not tempt us to evil because, according to Saint Augustine in Concerning the Gift of Perseverance “nothing happens unless God either does it himself or permits it to happen.”

 

“But deliver us from evil.” This is the seventh petition. Note first of all that we pray against evil, against sin, that we not be led to it, an evil act which we have not yet committed. For we pray, “lead us not, etc.” But now we pray to be freed from evil, from a sin already committed. “From evil” also means “from the devil,” because he is the one who speaks evil or because of the relentless warfare which he wages against us. “From evil” can mean from the vice of asking for things which are carnal or temporal. “One might be ashamed to ask for what one is not ashamed to desire.” If one is conquered by greed, then a good prayer is to be freed from that very evil of greediness. “For you will ask and not receive what you wrongly asked” — wrongly here means carnally or temporally.

 

Amen.

 

Passion for Creation: the Earth-honoring spirituality of Meister Eckhart,

Matthew Fox, Inner Traditions International, 2000, p. 495 – 503.

 

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