Circular Letter: Summer 1998
The Our Father and
The Ministry of the Holy Angels
Jesus Teaches Us to Pray
And it came to pass as Jesus was praying in a certain place, that when He had ceased, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, even as John also taught his disciples’” (Lk 11,1-3).
Through Him we became children of God and should live in communion with Him; that is the life of the holy Angels in heaven (cf. Heb 12,22f). And that is what we should share with them: life with God, which is a life in prayer. Jesus evidently enjoyed a most perfect communion with the heavenly Father. He came into the world to teach us about the Father and to lead us to share in His personal union with the Father. It is not surprising, then, that Jesus readily taught His disciples how to pray. Practically, He taught them the ‘Our Father’. This prayer contains everything we need to aspire to in order to achieve eternal life in God. It includes the essential doctrine of the gospels. That is why Tertullian called it the ‘brief gospel’1. And St. Augustine concludes: “Run through all the words of the holy prayers [in Scripture], and I do not think that you will find anything in them that is not contained and included in the Lord’s Prayer” 2
Why Prayers Fall Short
There are three things, St. Thomas says, that we need to know: the things to be believed; the things to be hoped for; and the things to be done. The things to be believed, which are contained in Scripture, have been formalized for us in the Creed and are explained to us in the Catechism. The things to be done are recorded for us in the Law, first in the Ten Commandments, the laws of the Church, and most especially and universally in the Law of Christ, which is the two laws of love: the love of God and the love of neighbor, even as Christ loved us. The things, however, we ought to hope for are expressed for us with singular beauty in this prayer. “The Lord’s Prayer is the most perfect of prayers … In it we ask, not only for all the things we can rightly desire but also in the sequence that they should be desired. This prayer not only teaches us to ask for things, but also in what order we should desire them.” 3
Prayer goes unheard, when souls ask for the wrong things, like honor or worldly gratifications, or when souls pray without filial trust, humility and perseverance. 4
How Prayer Ought to Be
The Lord’s Prayer is perfect in all these regards and schools us in the five qualities proper to perfect prayer. Prayer should be properly formulated and properly ordered; it should be confident, devout and humble.5 Two points refer to the content, while the last three regard our interior dispositions.
1. The Lord’s Prayer is perfectly formulated and upright. St. John Damascene noted that in this prayer we ask for what is truly needful and fitting. On our own, we do not well know what we should pray for – but He who together with the Father pours the Spirit into our hearts (cf. Rom 8,26-27) formulated this prayer for us according to the mind of the Father. Normally, he who petitions should know what he wants before he asks. But with the Lord’s Prayer, we let the prayer form our desires. Once they are thus formed, then, the better we understand the petitions, the better we will pray, namely, in a union of mind and will. It is in this sense that St. Augustine said that we may legitimately desire whatever is included in the Lord’s Prayer; moreover, we should not desire what falls outside its scope.
2. It is not sufficient that our desires be legitimate, but they also ought to be well ordered. This the second perfection of the Lord’s Prayer. It is perfectly ordered; it teaches us to seek ‘first things first’, the greater goods before the lesser goods, God’s glory before our personal needs! “Seek first the kingdom of heaven and its justice, and all else will be given to you” (Mt 6,33). It is not sufficient to pray the Lord’s Prayer in its original order, but we should also school and discipline our hearts (behold the origin of the word ‘disciple’!) such that we truly desire the seven goods petitioned in the order that they appear in the prayer. All asceticism, namely, is contained under this heading: that we order all our desires according to the order intrinsic in the Lord’s Prayer.
3. Now we can pray the Lord’s Prayer with sure confidence, knowing that it is authored directly by Him, Who in union with the Father and the Holy Spirit will directly attend to our petitions. He who formulated our prayer is our Advocate with the Father in heaven (cf. 1 Jn 2,1). Even we are inclined to give good things to those we love. “If you, evil as you are, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Mt 7,11).
4. The fourth quality of true prayer is that it is devout. True devotion and the efficacy of prayer comes from the heart, from the intensity of charity rather than the prolixity of words: “In praying do not heap up empty phrases as the gentiles do” (Mt 6,7). Here in union with the very Son of God we raise our hearts and wills fervently to the Father; we identify and share the solicitude and aspirations of the Son praying to His Father and our Father. Doing so, we know that our sacrifice of petition will surely be pleasing to God.
Consider how closely true devotion is linked to the proper order of our petitions: that we first desire and commit ourselves to God’s glory and the coming of His Kingdom. The very nature of devotion is linked – as we saw in the last Circular Letter – to a fundamental commitment, indeed, to the Baptismal vow, by which we became partakers in the sonship of Christ and in the Kingdom of Heaven. This mysterious link with the Baptismal vow is evidently the reason why, in the early Church, the Lord’s Prayer, along side the Holy Eucharist, fell under the arcane discipline: only those who were initiated through Baptism could be introduced and participate in the celebration of the Mass and in the recitation of the ‘Our Father’!
5. Finally, our prayer should be marked with humility. When it was proposed to David, that he should ask for king Saul’s daughter in marriage, he responded: “Does it seem to you a small matter to be the king’s son-in-law? I am a poor man, and of small ability!” (1 Sm 18,23). Infinitely less, of course, is our natural dignity and worthiness to call God ‘our Father’. And it is for this very reason that we are reminded daily at Mass, that it is because of our Savior’s command that “we dare to say: our Father!” 6
What does any man have that he has not first received from God? Hence, we ask nothing of God in the name of justice, but rather humbly (though confidently) in the name of His love and mercy. “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, will He not give us all things with Him?” (Rom 8,31f).
Our humility should not be exhausted in a sincere acknowledgement and recognition of our lowliness, but should also include a willingness to deploy all that we have and receive for the service of God and the Church. The German word for humility, “Demut”, comes from a medieval word, “Dienmut”, meaning the fortitude or strength to serve. And it was certainly to this root of humility that our Lord referred to when at the Last Supper He recommended the example of His humility to His apostles, saying, “I am in your midst as He who serves!” (Lk 22,27). It would be an odd disparity of dispositions to extend our hands to petition, and refuse to extend them to help. The two go together just as much as the fact that we pray to ‘our’ Father for ‘us’, and not to ‘my’ Father for ‘me’.
The Angels Pray With Us
The ‘Our Father’ raises our attention to God and His Kingdom in the first three petitions, and only then addresses our needs. The sevenfold structure or petitions of this prayer, offers us an excellent course of spiritual formation. After all, if the Lord’s Prayer is a recapitulation of the entire gospel; if it contains the fundamentals of our faith and the spiritual life; if it includes (implores) the seven most necessary things for eternal life: and, if the holy Angels have something important to do and contribute to our spiritual well-being, this will certainly become evident in terms of this prayer.
Indeed, they do, for by faith we hold that God has sent them as ministering spirits to assist those who are called to be heirs of salvation (cf. Heb 1,14). Accordingly, using the Lord’s Prayer we may reflect upon our holy ‘symbiosis’ with the holy Angels and how we may benefit from their ministries. We might expect a mini-anthology of the work of the holy Angels in the Divine Plan of Salvation.
Calling Upon God as ‘Our Father’
The first question that arises in conjunction with the Lord’s Prayer is this: By what right and title do we call upon God as “our Father”? And even more, can the holy Angels in any genuine sense call upon God as their father? St. Thomas mentions three reasons or justifications for us calling God “our Father”. The first reason is the fact of our creaturehood. The second is the providence which God exercises over His creatures, which bridges between grace and nature, since by providence we come to our supernatural goal. The third reason has to do entirely with the order of grace and faith.7
Created in the Likeness of God
First of all, God created us in His image and likeness. This similitude to God lies in the fact that we, Angels and men, have been endowed with an intellect and will; we can know and love as God does. Thus, the author of Deuteronomy argues that God is our Father from the very fact of creation: “Is He not your Father, who possessed you and made you and created you?” (32,6). This argument ascends by way of a certain analogy or comparison from the reality of nature to that of grace. Such knowledge helps us to understand a great deal about God.
Concerning this created and natural image and likeness of God in us, it is evident that the Angels resemble God much more perfectly than we do, since their intellect and will are naturally closer to God than man’s. 8 Like God they are pure spirits; they are immortal and stand outside of time. St. Bonaventure called them “mirrors of the Divine perfections” in which the soul may ponder the perfections of God.9 This image of a mirror is certainly not original with him, but goes back, at least, to Dionysius who wrote: “The Angel is an image of God, a manifestation of the hidden [Divine] light, a pure, most clear, uncontaminated, unstained immaculate mirror receiving the whole beauty [though not totally] of the Divine goodness.” 10 What one sees, of course, in the mirror is not the mirror, but the object reflected, namely God. The preface to the Mass of the Angels celebrates this fact of the Angelic beauty and how a knowledge of them may lead us closer to God: “In praising your faithful Angels and Archangels, we also praise your glory, for in honoring them, we honor you, their creator. Their splendor shows us your greatness, which surpasses in goodness the whole of creation.” It seems that it is due to this splendor of their intellectual, spiritual nature that the Angels are occasionally called ‘sons of God‘ in Holy Scripture.11
We understand, therefore, that the Psalmist exclaims, “In the sight of the Angels, I will sing your praises, my God” (Ps 137,1), for both man and Angel by their natural similitude stand like sons before God, as their origin or ‘father’.
The Paternal Providence of God
Closely linked to the fact of creation, is the subsequent moment of Divine Providence. God cares for all that He has created with provident love, as a father cares for his family. Thus the author of the Book of Wisdom exclaims: “It is your providence, O Father, which steers the ship’s course” (Wis 13,3) in which he compares the course of creation to a ship’s voyage. And the psalmist rejoices: “As a father has pity on his children, so does the Lord have pity on those who fear Him” (103,13). In His providence God guides and corrects as does a father: “The Lord reproves him whom He loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Prov 3,12). Jeremiah accentuates the cordial side of this relationship when he writes in the name of God: “with consolations I will lead them back, I will make them walk by brooks of water, in straight paths in which they shall not stumble; for I am a Father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn” (31,9).
The Angels too are beneficiaries of this paternal goodness of God; as the Catechism teaches: “The truth that God is at work in all the actions of His creatures is inseparable from faith in God the Creator. God is the first cause who operates in and through secondary causes: ‘For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure’ (Phil 2,13). Far from diminishing the creature’s dignity, this truth enhances it. Drawn from nothingness by God’s power, wisdom and goodness, it can do nothing if it is cut off from its origin, for ‘without a Creator the creature vanishes’ (Gaudium et Spes 3). Still less can a creature attain its ultimate end without the help of God’s grace.”12 In the case of the Angels, who were tried at the very beginning of the world, the passage from the state of creation to the state of glory was very brief, when the holy Angels “turned to the supreme good with the help of grace [such that] they were both confirmed and perfected in glory” as St. Bonaventure attests.13
Once confirmed in glory, the Angels themselves are servants of the paternal providence in our behalf: “Bless the Lord, O you His Angels, you mighty ones who do His word… Bless the Lord, all His hosts, His ministers that do His will” (Ps 103,20-21). In this sense, St. Paul even refers to a certain paternity among the Angels when he affirms that all paternity in heaven and on earth derives from the Fatherhood of God (cf. Eph 3,15). St. Thomas explains that paternity exists only in living or intelligent beings, both of which are perfectly united in the Living God, Who begets a SON, who is at once the LOGOS, the WORD of God. In our human nature the father begets his children physically and spiritually, by generating and educating them. In the pure spirits, there is, of course, no physical generation, but spiritually they not only ‘conceive’ in their own minds, but ‘beget’ knowledge in the Angels and men beneath them by illumining them with the Divine light.
Since life refers not only to the substantial fact of existence, but also to the acts of life, to living more perfectly and fully, it follows, “that whoever induces (leads) another to any act of life such that they act, understand, will and love well, may be said to be their father.”14 Surely, this is the mission of the Angels in our behalf, and so in this spiritual sense, they exercise a paternity over us. But they themselves have nothing spiritual or supernatural which they did not themselves first receive from God. As St. John of the Cross teaches: “This wisdom [the fire and light of Divine love] descends from God through the first hierarchies [of Angels] unto the last, and from these last unto men.”15 Therefore, they themselves are the first beneficiaries of this paternal providence of God.
Sons of God Through the Grace of Christ
The principal reason, however, why we are privileged to call God our Father is because He has made us to share in the Sonship of His only begotten Son. The mystery of God-Father – from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth has its name (cf. Eph 3,15) – has been revealed to us only in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God.16 But it is not merely a pleasing appellation, but the fact of our new identity: “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are” (1 Jn 3,1). The Father “destined us in love to be His sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1,5). This takes place by the Blood of Christ poured out for us on the Cross, and by our Baptism into His death and resurrection, and so we become with Christ sons of God and heirs of heaven (cf. Rom 8,17). This transforming communion with Christ by grace makes us truly partakers of the Divine Nature (cf. 2 Pt 1,4). With grace we also received the ‘Spirit of sonship‘. “When we cry, ‘Abba, Father!‘ it is the Spirit Himself bearing witness with our spirit, that we are children of God!” (Rom 8,14-15). As the Catechism teaches: “Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life.” 17
It is clearly this mystery of Divine grace and our incorporation into Christ that makes the “Our Father” the exclusive right and privilege of the Church. Every other appeal to God as Father is really only an imperfect comparison, but in grace we share in the very sonship of the eternal Son of the Father, and call upon God as our Father in virtue of this sharing in the life of the Trinity. This is surely a greatest dignity and privilege.
The Grace of the Angels
But what about the Angels? “By Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of His Body. As ‘adopted sons’ we can henceforth call God ‘Father,’ in union with the only Son.”18 How does this mystery of supernatural grace and adoption apply and relate to the Angels? How are they related to Christ? And finally, in what sense may they call God ‘Father‘?
First, the holy Angels certainly enjoy the perfection of sanctifying grace and glory, which is the formal cause by which creatures share in the Divine Nature. In this regard, Jesus teaches us that the Angels in heaven constantly behold the face of the Heavenly Father (Mt 18,10). When St. Paul affirms that all things in heaven and on earth will be reestablished in Christ (cf. Eph 1,10) he teaches that the holy Angels form part of His Mystical Body, of which Christ is the Head (cf. Eph 1,21ff). Having the fullness and the first place in all things in the Church (cf. Col 1,18ff) it follows that the grace of the Angels is not only subordinate to Christ’s grace, but that it issues from His grace. Divinely this is clear because as God, Christ is one in being with the Father. But St. Thomas explains furthermore that also due to His closeness to God, even in His humanity, such a plenitude of grace was given to Christ, that all grace and the effects of grace (e.g., the virtues, spiritual light and the fire of love) should flow from him to all others as from a single universal principle of grace.19 This is how he understands the text from St. John: “From His fullness we have all received” (Jn 1,18), namely, not just men, but that “Christ as man is the cause of all graces to be found in all intellectual creatures”, that is in men and in the Angels!20 “Since Christ infuses in a certain manner into all rational creatures the effects of grace, it follows that He is, in a certain way, the principle of all grace according to His humanity, even as God is the principle of all being. Accordingly, just as in God all the perfection of being is united, even so in Christ is to be found all the plenitude of grace and virtue, such that he can not only lead others to the works of grace, but into grace itself. And this is the meaning of [Christ] being Head [of the Church].”21
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who is a bit more rhetorical in his approach, comes to a similar conclusion. He states: “You want to know how there was a redemption for the Angels!” – The problem, of course, is that the good Angels never fell into sin, and the fallen Angels could never rise back to grace – “Listen closely! He who raised up fallen man granted to the Angel who remained standing, that he not waver. Thus Christ withdrew the one from captivity, and held the other one back from captivity. And for this reason, there was redemption for both of them, saving the one after the fall and saving the other before the fall. So it is evident that our Lord Jesus Christ was the redemption for the holy Angels, as well as their justice, and their wisdom, and their sanctification. And all these four things He became for them on account of men, who cannot comprehend the invisible things of God except by means of tangible things (cf. Rom 1,20). Thus, all that He was for the Angels, was done for us.“22
St. Thomas expresses this last idea like this: “The [sanctifying] influence of Christ upon the Angels was not the finality of the Incarnation, but something that follows upon the Incarnation.”23 Temporally, of course, the Angels benefited before man, but always because of man. By accepting this, of course, the holy Angels were led to a great degree of holy humility, and explains their eagerness to serve Christ and to intercede for and help the human members of His Mystical Body.
We have considered the grace of the Angels in order to better understand our union with them and the grounds for our common relationship to Christ and to His Father. In doing so we have discovered the most extraordinary predilection of God for mankind, such that when we sinners were least worthy, His love for us manifested itself in the greatest way in the Incarnation and on the Cross, so that He might lead us back into His paternal embrace. While the Father loves us as true sons in Christ, the embrace of His love extends beyond mankind to include for the glory of Christ and for our sake all the holy Angels. Therefore with us and in Christ they too experience and are beneficiaries of the paternal love of God, and so in union with us they dare to say: “Our Father, who art in heaven.”
In the forthcoming Circular Letters we will reflect upon the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer and discover the holy fellowship that we have with the holy Angels in the life of prayer, and how we can greatly benefit from this glorious dimension of the communion of saints.
1 Tertullian. De Oratione. Ch.1; Catechism of the Catholic Church (=CCC 2774.)
2 CCC 2762, Aug. Ep. 130, 12,22.
3 CCC 2762, citing St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae (=ST) II-II.83,9.
4 Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas. Commentary on Gospel of St. Matthew. (Ch. 7,vv. 6-9). See also, CCC 2725-2745.
5 St. Thomas Aquinas. Sermon on the Lord’s Prayer. Introduction.
6 Cf. CCC 2777-2778.
7 Cf. Sermon on the Lord’s Prayer.
8 St. Thomas. ST. I.93,3,c.
9 Collationes in Hexameron. Kösel Verlag, München 1964 p. 238.
10 De Divinis Nominibus Ch. IV.
11 Cf. Deut 32,8; Job 1,6; 2,1; 38,7.
12 CCC 308.
13 Breviloquium Ch. 8,2 St. Anthony Guild Pr., Paterson NJ. 1963, p.91.
14 St. Thomas Aquinas. Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians, ch. 3,15; cf. ST.I.45,5,1m.
15 St. John of the Cross. Dark Night of the Soul. Bk.II.ch.12,3.
16 Cf. Tertullian. De Oratione 3; CCC 2780.
17 CCC 1997.
18 CCC 1997.
19 St. Thomas ST III.7,9,c.
20 Commentary on St. John’s Gospel on verse 1,18.
21 De Veritate 29,5,c.
22 Sermon on the Canticle of Canticles, 22 (PL183,880).
23 De Veritate 29,4,5m.
The texts of the Circular Letters are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without written permission.
©2021 Opus Sanctorum Angelorum Inc.
Back to Meditations Index →