In this selection one of the Catholic Church’s most outstanding theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas, (pictured above) takes a special look at one of our most outstanding prayers, the Lord’s Prayer!
St. Thomas, known as the “Angelic Doctor” for his extensive writings about angels, taught and wrote voluminously about our faith in the 13th century at the University of Paris, as well as in Naples and Rome among other places. (In his 30’s he was even appointed a theological advisor at the Papal Court!)
In his massive body of work, influenced in no small part by Aristotle’s ideas about the unity of body and soul, St. Thomas showed us how reason and faith complemented each other; in other words, how faith in God was perfectly reasonable.
In his view, philosophy (the study of ideas about knowledge, truth and the nature and meaning of life) and theology (the study of God and religious faith), like reason and faith, are distinct from each other yet very much compatible, as God is the creator of both! He showed us how theology steps in with supernatural, divine truths where the natural truths from philosophy leave off.
(Note that St. Thomas was concerned with proclaiming objective truth here, not just subjective opinions about what truth is, which so often plague us nowadays!)
We have excerpts from two separate passages here, both taken from the “Catechetical Instruction of St. Thomas Aquinas” (taken from his many “Opuscala” Or “Little Treatises” linked here.) We see in these passages St. Thomas’ keen and methodical sense of observation, as he first makes his statement about the components of prayer (“A prayer must be confident, ordered, suitable, devout and humble.”) and then backs his argument up with quotes from scripture and various saints.
It brings to mind his great work the Summa Theologica a true classic of Catholic teaching par excellence in which he explores various aspects of Christianity including God’s nature, our nature, morality, Christ, and the sacraments, in meticulous detail.
St. Thomas Aquinas worked tirelessly to teach and write about God and Catholicism, leaving behind a sizable body of commentary at his untimely death in 1274. Yet he always had a deep sense of humility about his work. It was always about God, not about him!
Soon before his death he experienced an ecstasy (a religious vision) that was so awe-inspiring that he felt that everything he’d written was but “straw” by comparison! (This brings to mind St. Paul’s experience of Heaven during an ecstasy (2 Cor 12:2-4)).
In another such vision our Lord said to him supposedly from a crucifix “You have written well of Me, Thomas; what reward will you have?” Talk about a vote of confidence! St. Thomas replied “None other than you, Lord.” Talk about a love of God!
As mentioned above, our excerpts below are from Aquinas’ Catechetical Instructions. In the first of these, St. Thomas discusses the five qualities of prayer present in the Lord’s Prayer. The second is called “A Short Explanation of the Whole Prayer.”
(Note: Italics Added)
FIVE QUALITIES OF PRAYER
"Our Father who art in heaven." Among all other prayers, the Lord's Prayer holds the chief place. It has five excellent qualities which are required in all prayer. A prayer must be confident, ordered, suitable, devout and humble.
It must be confident: "Let us, therefore, go with confidence to the throne of grace" (Heb. 4:16). It must not be wanting in faith, as it is said: "But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering" (James 1:6). That this is a most trustworthy prayer is reasonable, since it was formed by Him who is our Advocate and the most wise Petitioner for us: "In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge;" (Col. 2: 3) and of whom it is said: "For we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the just one"(I John 2:1).
Hence, St. Cyprian says: "Since we have Christ as our Advocate with the Father for our sins, when we pray on account of our faults, we use the very words of our Advocate."
Furthermore, this prayer is even more worthy of confidence in that He who taught us how to pray, graciously hears our prayer together with the Father, as it is said in the Psalm: "He shall cry to Me, and I will hear him" (Ps. 91:15).
Thus writes St. Cyprian: "It is a friendly, familiar, and devout prayer to ask of the Lord in His own words."And so no one goes away from this prayer without fruit. St. Augustine says that through it our venial sins are remitted.
Moreover, our prayer must be suitable, so that a person asks of God in prayer what is good for him. St. John Damascene says: "Prayer is the asking of what is right and fitting from God."
Many times our prayer is not heard because we seek that which is not good for us: "You ask and you do not receive, because you ask amiss"(James 4:3).To know, indeed, what one ought to pray for is most difficult; for it is not easy to know what one ought to desire.
Those things which we rightly seek in prayer are rightly desired; hence the Apostle says: "For we know not what we should pray for as we ought" (Rom. 8: 26). Christ Himself is our Teacher; it is He who teaches us what we ought to pray for, and it was to Him that the disciples said: "Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 11: 1).
Those things, therefore, which He has taught us to pray for, we most properly ask for. "Whatsoever words we use in prayer," says St. Augustine, "we cannot but utter that which is contained in our Lord's Prayer, if we pray in a suitable and worthy manner."
Our prayer ought also to be ordered as our desires should be ordered, for prayer is but the expression of desire. Now, it is the correct order that we prefer spiritual to bodily things, and heavenly things to those merely earthly.
This is according to what is written: "Seek ye first Therefore the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matt. 6:33). Here Our Lord shows that heavenly things must be sought first, and then things material.
Our prayer must be devout, because a rich measure of piety makes the sacrifice of prayer acceptable to God: "In Thy name I will lift up my hands. Let my soul be filled with marrow and fatness" (Ps. 63:5).
Many times because of the length of our prayers our devotion grows cool; hence Our Lord taught us to avoid wordiness in our prayers: "When you are praying, speak not much"(Matt. 6:7).
And St. Augustine says: "Let much talking be absent from prayer; but as long as fervor continues, let prayer likewise go on." For this reason the Lord made His Prayer short. Devotion in prayer rises from charity which is our love of God and neighbor, both of which are evident in this prayer.
Our love for God is seen in that we call God "our Father;" and our love for our neighbor when we say: "Our Father . . .forgive us our trespasses," and this leads us to love of neighbor.
Prayer ought to be humble: "He hath had regard for the prayer of the humble" (Ps. 102:18). This is seen in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18: 9-15), and also in the words of Judith: "The prayer of the humble and the meek hath always pleased Thee" (Jud. 9:16).
This same humility is observed in this prayer, for true humility is had when a person does not presume upon his own powers, but from the divine strength expects all that he asks for.
It must be noted that prayer brings about three good effects. First, prayer is an efficacious and useful remedy against evils. Thus, it delivers us from the sins we have committed: "Thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my sin. For this shall every one that is holy pray to Thee in a seasonable time" (Ps. 32:5).The thief on the Cross prayed and received forgiveness: "This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).
Thus also prayed the Publican, and "went down to his home justified"(Luke 18:14). Prayer, also, frees one from the fear of future sin, and from trials and sadness of soul: "Is any one of you sad? Let him pray" (James 5:13). Again it delivers one from persecutors and enemies: "Instead of making me a return of love, they detracted me, but I gave myself to prayer" (Ps.109: 4)
In the second place, prayer is efficacious and useful to obtain all that one desires: "All things whatsoever you ask when you pray, believe that you shall receive" (Mark 11: 24). When our prayers are not heard, either we do not persevere in prayer, whereas "we ought always to pray, and not to faint,"( Luke 18:1) or we do not ask for that which is more conducive to our salvation.
"Our good Lord often does not give us what we wish," says St. Augustine, "because it would really be what we do not wish for." St. Paul gives us an example of this in that he thrice prayed that the sting of his flesh be removed from him, and his prayer was not heard (2 Cor. 12:7).
Thirdly, prayer is profitable because it makes us friends of God: "Let my prayer be directed as incense in Thy sight" (Ps. 141:2).
A SHORT EXPLANATION OF THE WHOLE PRAYER
By way of brief summary, it should be known that the Lord's Prayer contains all that we ought to desire and all that we ought to avoid. Now, of all desirable things, that must be most desired which is most loved, and that is God.
Therefore, you seek, first of all, the glory of God when you say: "Hallowed be Thy name." You should desire three things from God, and they concern yourself. The first is that you may arrive at eternal life. And you pray for this when you say: "Thy kingdom come."
The second is that you will do the will of God and His justice. You pray for this in the words: "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
The third is that you may have the necessaries of life. And thus you pray: "Give us this day our daily bread." Concerning all these things the Lord says: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God," which complies with the second, "and all these things shall be added unto you,"(Matt 6:33) as in accord with the third.
We must avoid and flee from all things which are opposed to the good. For, as we have seen, good is above all things to be desired. This good is fourfold. First, there is the glory of God, and no evil is contrary to this: "If thou sin, what shalt thou hurt Him? And if thou do justly, what shall thou give Him?"(Job 35:6-7) Whether it be the evil inasmuch as God punishes it, or whether it be the good in that God rewards it--all redound to His glory.
The second good is eternal life, to which sin is contrary: because eternal life is lost by sin. And so to remove this evil we pray: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."
The third good is justice and good works, and temptation is contrary to this, because temptation hinders us from doing good. We pray, therefore, to have this evil taken away in the words: "Lead us not into temptation."
The fourth good is all the necessaries of life, and opposed to this are troubles and adversities. And we seek to remove them when we pray: "But deliver us from evil. Amen.