Former Elder Vassileios of Iveron Monastery
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 transgressions, as we forgive those who transgress against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. Amen.
I have selected a passage from the Gospel, the prayer known as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, since I believe it is the most representative prayer - the prayer handed down to us by the Lord Jesus Christ.
I believe that the Lord has taught us the prayer He has created; He gave us the life He has lived and taught us how He was. And this is Jesus’ truth. He had said once: “I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15, 5). Just as the relationship between the vine and the branches is organic and the juice flows easily from the vine to the branches, in the same way Jesus flows in our existence by giving us His entire being. Therefore, I believe that through this prayer we live in Jesus Christ, provided we consciously pray and experience the prayer.
Let us begin by reciting this prayer and studying it piece by piece.
The first phrase says:
“Our Father who art in heaven”
I believe we commit one major sin. We sometimes become demoralized and forget one thing: the Lord loves us even though we are weak. If we hold on to just one thought this is it: that the Lord loves us and that the Lord is our Father.
We normally say that the parents love their child not because it is a good child but because it is their child. Therefore it is a major consolation to us if we manage to consciously accept and feel that we too could call the Lord “Father”. This word says everything. It places us immediately into the Church. Someone could be an orphan, his own people may have abandoned him; he may have lost everything and feel completely alone. Nevertheless, as soon as he considers that the Lord is his Father, he feels sheltered and secure and the entire world becomes his home.
I could even dare say this: Wouldn’t it be better if everybody abandoned us in order to experience the love of the Lord? Yes, I believe it would be. You see the Lord says in His Beatitudes: ‘Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the thirsty, the hungry the weeping…etc” In other words, it would be better if we were to lose all human affection along with everything else, if only we would feel that the Lord is our Father.
I remember once that I had asked an old lady in Paris- she was Russian- to tell us what a monk is and she replied without thinking that “a monk is someone who is hanging from a string; the string is the love of the Lord”. I believe that this is true of every person. Man is strong in this life; his strength is the fact that the Lord loves him. We were born and we continue to live in hope, because Someone loves us. This Someone is strong even though we are weak.
“Our Father who art in heaven’’. So, our Father is not just someone whom we may see but is a heavenly Father, Who lives in heaven. Therefore, the whole heaven becomes our home. Thus we ought to feel free and at ease. Once, when they informed Evagrios Pontikos- one of the great ascetics in Nitria- that his father had died, he replied without thinking: “Do not blaspheme. My Father has never died!”
Thus in this first line of the prayer, our Lord gives us courage, turns us into His siblings and incites us to call His Father “our” Father. We call the Lord “our” Father, not “my” Father. Therefore the Lord is everyone’s Father and we are all brothers.
“Hallowed be Thy name,
Thy kingdom come”
The Holy Fathers of our Church see the presence of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in these two lines. Along with the first line, the Holy Trinity in its entirety is present. The Name of God the Father is the Word of God the Father, the Son of God, and the kingdom of the Lord is the Holy Spirit. (There is an earlier version of the Gospel in which the prayer instead of saying ‘Thy Kingdom come’says: ‘Thy Holy Spirit come on us and cleanse us’). Here therefore the Holy Trinity is present as in the Creed of Faith, where we declare: “I believe in one God, Father Almighty…and in Jesus Christ… and in the Holy Spirit…”
“Hallowed by Thy Name”. We pray that the Lord’s name is hallowed. If according to the Holy Fathers the name of God the Father is the Son and Word of God, then “hallowed by thy name” may be related to what Jesus said in John 17, 19: “And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified in truth”. ‘Sanctify myself’ means: the Lord sacrifices Himself so that they are sanctified in truth; so that the faithful are sanctified indeed. Thus, when we are praying “Hallowed by thy Name”, it is as if we are saying: let the sacrifice of the Son and Word of God be sanctified. Thus, the Lord is our sanctification, our deliverance and our justice. By ‘Thy kingdom come’ we beg for the Holy Spirit to come during Pentecost. The Holy Spirit always comes and the Church is the continuing Pentecost.
Therefore the Holy Trinity is present in these three lines. In addition, we may also find here the reality of the epiclesis made during the central prayer of the Holy Liturgy. There, the priest begs the heavenly Father to send the Holy Spirit and make the bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ.
And thus we arrive at the fourth line, which is the central part of the Lord’s Prayer and the central part of the life of Jesus and of our own lives. It is this:
“Thy will be done”
This phrase may be compared to the “Amen” of the prayer. Because “Thy will be done” is the conclusion and the recapitulation of the previous phrases. Earlier we say “Hallowed by Thy name”, “Thy kingdom come”, “Thy will be done” and refer to the Lord; we offer everything to the Lord and this is confirmed and recapitulated by “Thy will be done”.
In order to understand how important this phrase is, it will be good to consider why Jesus descended from heaven. “I descended from heaven to fulfill the will of the Father who has sent Me and to accomplish His work”, He says. And also: “As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5, 30). Moreover, remember when Jesus met the Samaritan woman? When His disciples urged Him to eat, He had replied: “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”(John 4, 32-34) “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work”.
I think that this last phrase “my food is to do the will of him who has sent me” is the most essential element which describes Jesus’ life and our own lives. Thus during the hour of His real agony at Gethsemane- the time when an earthquake strikes, so to speak, and everything is being tested- when He “…being in an agony he prayed more earnestly”, he said: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matthew 26, 42). Thus, at His most difficult moment, He was the first to say the very same thing He had instructed us to say. And then He proceeds to walk peacefully, in His Almighty way, towards the Passion precisely because He had said “Not my will be done, but Your will be done”. As soon as He had said this, He turned inwardly, gained strength and pressed on.
It wouldn’t be inappropriate to take a look at our own life at this point. We get on with our lives, we make plans, have prospects, have a good time but suddenly we may meet with trouble. I believe that there is no man who has not gone through his own Gethsemane. When everything collapses, then and only then everything rises; only then does man comprehend Jesus’ words “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work”. When everything turns upside down and there is no hope, no light to be seen; when everything is covered in darkness, if this person says “My Lord, thy will be done” he suddenly receives new strength; he rises and walks humbly towards the path, towards the passage, towards the Resurrection, who is Jesus, in a never ending process. Then in hindsight he will be grateful to the Lord not for the happy but for the difficult times of his life, for his personal Gethsemane. These have forced him, through the dismantling of his ego, to freely admit and say “My Lord, thy will be done”.
I believe that the phrase: “Thy will be done” relates to what the Lord said at the beginning of the creation: “let there be… and it was so” as well as to the epiclesis during the Holy Liturgy when the priest begs the Father to send the Holy Spirit and make the bread, the Body of Christ and the wine the Blood of Christ, and ends with “Amen, Amen, Amen”, when the mystery is already accomplished. When man willingly says “My Lord, let your will be done to me” resembles what the Virgin Mary said to Archangel Gabriel: “let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1, 38). Namely, let it be to me, in me, in my entire existence according to your words; Lord let it be according to Your will. From then on, man becomes sanctified and receives a different kind of strength.
Abba Isaac says somewhere that man can become God through Grace, if he obeys the Lord. He can become God and truly create new worlds out of nothing; He can become totally regenerated; the weak gains strength and he who is dead is revived and lives on. He then comprehends that to say calmly “Lord, thy will be done and not mine” is the real food indeed.
Thus, a true theologian is not the one who goes to the university and gets honors because he remembered a couple of dates and some names and wrote a dissertation. A true theologian, who comprehends the power and the truth in our Lord’s teachings, is the one who says when in trouble: ‘not mine, but your will be done’. Then the entire Lord enters in him, makes him a theologian, makes him God through Grace and enables him to walk forward in Jesus Christ. And just as the risen Lord walked through closed doors, similarly this weak man, who has become all powerful with the Grace of the Lord, gets on with his life irrespective of whether the problems have been solved or not.
Therefore, if we happen to face difficulties, let’s talk to the Lord honestly, in any way we wish, because the Lord is our Father. But in the end let us say: “My Lord, I do not know what to do. You do. You love them more than me and they belong to you more than they belong to me. Let thy will be done. If your will seems to be like a catastrophe on the outset, let it be catastrophic”. Any catastrophe from God is better than any success achieved through human effort. The latter creates a true mess and a real disaster. Thus ‘thy will be done’ is the phrase which feeds and elevates us to another place.
“On earth as it is in heaven”
St John Chrysostom says that Jesus makes everyone responsible for the deliverance of the whole world. It doesn’t say: “Lord, let thy will be done in my life” but, “let thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.
Once I visited the island of Kos to meet an old lady. She told me: ‘I do not know how to read and write; I do not even know how to recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed of Faith. Nevertheless, every night before bed, I cross myself and beg the Lord to let the world wake up well. “Am I doing well?” “Yes, you are”, I said to her.
See, the old woman had uncovered the essence of this prayer. Because she lived her life in Church and the Lord’s grace was flowing in her existence silently, just as the vine juice flows into the branches, she did what was right without having ever learnt to read or write.
“Give us this day our daily bread”,
When we finally become able to reach our own Gethsemane and say during our most difficult moment, ‘Lord, thy will be done’ without distress, or indignation, but calmly and resolutely, then I do believe that our spiritual stomach is ready to digest the real food. And that is our Lord, Jesus Christ.” I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eats of this bread, he shall live forever” (John 6, 51). I am the real bread, the living bread which came down from heaven. If one eats it, one will live forever and will not die; He already experiences eternal life while still living this life.
What does Jesus mean when He says ‘give us this day our daily bread’? The Holy Fathers explain that ‘daily’ bread means the bread which has to do with man’s existence or the bread for the next day. ‘Next day’ means the forthcoming eon, the kingdom of heaven. Thus, we are praying so that the Lord makes us worthy of the ‘eternal life’, of the heavenly bread, i.e. Jesus Christ, and to offer Him to us- the real food- from this life. So, we wish to be able to feed on the bread of the angels, the bread of ‘the next day’, the bread of the eternal life and of the kingdom of heaven.
“And forgive us our transgressions, as we forgive those who transgress against us”
Let us remember the prayer the Lord offered for those who crucified Him: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23, 34). There was no excuse for what they did; but the Lord found one for them.Namely that they do not know what they are doing.
“Forgive us our transgressions, as we forgive those who transgress against us”.
This phrase is somehow more demanding. Jesus does not implore us to beg the Lord to help us forgive the others; instead, we are telling the Lord that we have forgiven them anyway. St Gregory of Nyssa says that it is as if we are asking Lord, the Father, to notice our exemplary behavior and forgive us too.
If by any chance we do not show forgiveness, there is nothing anymore to be done; Jesus Christ was clear on this: “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6, 15). We may be attending religious classes and spiritual meetings, may go to church, may take the Holy Communion, may have advanced in spiritual life, may even perform miracles and yet not show forgiveness. If we do not show forgiveness, everything was done in vain.
Let us remember what St Kosmas Aitolos was preaching to the people: ‘I am distressed because I do not have the time to see each one of you individually, so that you can confess to me, tell me your troubles and to console you with words provided by the Lord. So, because I cannot see you individually, I have a number of things which you must obey. If you obey, you will do well. The first thing is: “forgive your enemies”’.
In order to help them understand what he meant, he told them a story. “Two people came to me to confess, Peter and Paul. Paul said to me: ‘Holy father, I am following the Lord’s path ever since I was a boy. I have done many good deeds, I am praying, I give alms, I have built churches and monasteries. I only have one weakness. I cannot forgive my enemies’. I have decided that this man is to go straight to hell and gave instructions to throw his body to the dogs when he dies. After a short while, Paul comes to me and says: ‘I have not followed the straight path ever since I was young. I have stolen things, I have dishonored women, I have killed people, and I have burnt down churches and monasteries. In other words, I have been acting as if I was possessed. I only do one thing: I forgive my enemies’.
And St Kosmas concluded: “I put my arms around his neck and kissed him. I also instructed him to receive the Holy Communion in three days”.
Peter, who did so many good deeds, has defiled everything with his refusal to offer forgiveness. Just like a small piece of dirt taints a hundred kilos of flour. On the other hand, Paul was forgiving even though he had committed so many atrocities. His forgiveness acted like the candle which burnt all of his evil deeds. Occasionally, instead of giving off Christ’s fragrance, our lives seem to smell badly and we do not know why. Therefore, we ought to offer forgiveness without holding a grudge against anyone. Unless we do this all our goodness and our good deeds have been in vain. That’s why the Lord says: “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses”. The tiniest thing can help us win the kingdom of God and the tiniest thing can taint our entire lives.
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one”
On the one hand we say ‘lead us not into temptation’ and on the other James the Apostle implores us thus: ‘Count it all joy, my brothers when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1, 2). Our Holy Fathers solved the riddle for us. St Maximus the Confessor explains that there are two kinds of temptations: One the one hand, there are the hedonistic pleasures which are voluntary and lead one to commit a sin. We pray to the Lord to help us resist such temptations. On the other hand, there are temptations and tribulations which are involuntary and painful; these target our hedonistic tendencies and stop us from sinning. Therefore, we are praying to the Lord to help us resist the first kind of temptations which are hedonistic and voluntary. On the other hand, we are asking for help in accepting the second kind of temptations with pleasure since they cause knowledge and humility and the presence of the Grace of the Holy Spirit. Remember what the book ‘Gerontiko’ says: Take away the temptations and no one is saved.
“Deliver us from the evil one”. This is the last phrase of the prayer. The first one was ‘Our Father’. The lord is the first and foremost reality and the evil one is the last. We walk on a tight rope between the Lord and the devil throughout our lives. The devil did not leave anyone untouched; neither the first Adam in Paradise, nor the second Adam, Jesus Christ, when He went out in the desert. Our Lord, speaking of the devil, said: ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9, 29). In other words, we cannot be delivered from the devil save through prayer and fasting. The devil does not leave us in peace even if we use reasoning against him, just as cancer is not cured with aspirin. A monk says that the greatest lawyer cannot win his case against the devil. That’s why we ought never to start a conversation with the evil one. We just ignore him.
The whole issue in spiritual life is to acquire spiritual discernment in order to be able to differentiate between something which comes from God and something which doesn’t. Here one might say: I am a weak person. How can I acquire discernment?
I believe that things become much simpler if we come to comprehend The Lord’s Prayer. Let us begin from the last point. If we forgive our enemies without reservations; if we feed on the heavenly bread; if we say “Lord, thy will be done” during difficult moments; if we experience the Lord as our Father, then even though we are weak, we will become very strong at the same time. If on the contrary, we always do what we want and we do not give forgiveness, we will turn devil into a lion, even though he is like a small ant; then he will be impossible to overcome.
In other words, a weak man becomes all powerful in the face of the devil if he constantly prays that the Lord’s will be done and if he offers forgiveness without a second thought. Such a man forgives those who trample on him and does not hold a grudge against anyone. Instead he prays: ‘never mind, the Lord is great. Let His will be done. I myself know nothing.’ Thus, he is able to walk away from trouble unscathed.
Remember when Jesus was in agony at Gethsemane and prayed more earnestly, He had said: ‘not my will, but Thy will be done’. Then as soon as He had uttered these words “there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him” (Luke 22, 43). Similarly, in the desert, as soon as He had said: “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’”, the devil left him, “and behold, angels came and were ministering to him” (Matthew 4, 10-11). The same thing happens to us. Spiritual discernment descends upon us and angels come to our assistance if we pray in this way and if we live this kind of life. We will be able to perceive the assistance by the angels. We will be able to experience the kingdom of heaven from this life. We will also be warranted to say that our lives have become ‘angel assisted’ ( angeloktisti) and ‘ God protected’ ( Theoskepasti). Man, even though weak, becomes all powerful with the grace of The Lord.
By Archimandrite Vassileios,
former Abbot of the Iveron Monastery.
former Abbot of the Iveron Monastery.