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by Evelyn Underhill

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The title of the book, Abba, is the term used in more than one place in the New Testament for addressing God as Father and it is with the ‘Our Father’ prayer that these meditations are concerned. At first sight it might be thought impossible to say anything fresh on something so familiar to all Christians as the Lord’s Prayer. Yet the inexhaustible


The title of the book, Abba, is the term used in more than one place in the New Testament for addressing God as Father and it is with the ‘Our Father’ prayer that these meditations are concerned. At first sight it might be thought impossible to say anything fresh on something so familiar to all Christians as the Lord’s Prayer. Yet the inexhaustible depths of meaning to be found in it may, by the very fact of familiarity, all too easily escape notice and understanding.

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Church Publishing, Incorporated
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Treasures from the Spiritual Classics Series
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Treasures from the Spiritual Classics


Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 1981 A. R. Mowbray & Co. Ltd.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-2467-5



The New Testament has preserved for us, in our Lord's reply to His followers, a complete description of what Christian prayer should be; its character and objective; its balance and proportion; its quality and tone. As we explore this description and try to realize all that is implied in it, we find the whole world of prayer, its immense demands and immense possibilities, opening before us. Yet in accordance with that steady hold on history, that deep respect for the tradition within which He appeared, which marks the whole of Christ's teaching, the description was given—as the answer to those who asked for the secret of Eternal Life was given—in words which were already familiar to the askers: in seven linked phrases which were a part of Jewish prayer, and can be traced to their origin in the Old Testament. It is as if we went to a saint and asked him to teach us to pray, and he replied by reciting the Quinquagesima Collect. We can imagine the disappointment of the disciples—'We knew all this before!' The answer to this objection is the same as the answer to the Lawyer: this do and you shall live. You already have all the information. Invest it with realism, translate it into action: phrases into facts, theology into religion. I am not giving you a set formula for repetition, but several complementary pictures of the one life of prayer.

It is too often supposed that when our Lord said, 'In this manner pray ye.' He meant not 'these are the right dispositions and longings, the fundamental acts of every soul that prays,' but 'this is the form of words which, above all others, Christians are required to repeat.' As a consequence this is the prayer in which, with an almost incredible stupidity, they have found the material of those vain repetitions which He has specially condemned. Again and again in public and private devotion the Lord's Prayer is taken on hurried lips, and recited at a pace which makes impossible any realization of its tremendous claims and profound demands. Far better than this cheapening of the awful power of prayer was the practice of the old woman described by St. Teresa, who spent an hour over the first two words, absorbed in reverence and love.

It is true, of course, that this pattern in its verbal form, its obvious and surface meaning, is far too familiar to us. Rapid and frequent repetition has reduced it to a formula. We are no longer conscious of its mysterious beauty and easily assume that we have long ago exhausted its inexhaustible significance. The result of this persistent error has been to limit our understanding of the great linked truths which are here given to us; to harden their edges, and turn an instruction which sets up a standard for each of the seven elements of prayer, and was intended to govern our whole life towards God, into a set form of universal obligation.

This is a sovereign instance of that spiritual stupidity with which we treat the 'awful and mysterious truths' religion reveals to us; truths of which Coleridge has rightly said, that they are commonly 'considered so true as to lose all the powers of truth, and lie bedridden in the dormitory of the soul.' But when we 'centre down,' as Quakers say, from the surface of human life to its deeps, and rouse those sleeping truths and take them with us, and ask what they look like there—in the secret place where the soul is alone with God and knows its need of God—then, all looks different. These great declarations disclose their intensity of life, their absolute quality; as a work of art which has hung respected and unloved in a public gallery glows with new meaning when we bring it into the home or the sanctuary for which it was really made. Seen thus, the Paternoster reminds us how rich and various, how deeply rooted in the Supernatural, the Christian life is or should be, moving from awestruck worship to homely confidence, and yet one: how utterly it depends on God, yet how searching is the demand it makes on man. 'Every just man,' says Osuna, 'needs the seven things for which this prayer—or this scheme of prayer—asks.' Taken together they cover all the realities of our situation, at once beset by nature and cherished by grace: establishing Christian prayer as a relation between wholes, between man in his completeness and God who is all.

And we note their order and proportion. First, four clauses entirely concerned with our relation to God; then three concerned with our human situation and needs. Four hinge on the First Commandment, three hinge on the Second. Man's twisted, thwarted and embittered nature, his state of sin, his sufferings, helplessness, and need, do not stand in the foreground; but the splendour and beauty of God, demanding a self-oblivion so complete that it transforms suffering, and blots out even the memory of sin. We begin with a sublime yet intimate invocation of Reality, which plunges us at once into the very ground of the Universe and claims kinship with the enfolding mystery. Abba, Father. The Infinite God is the Father of my soul. We end by the abject confession of our dependence and need of guidance: of a rescue and support coming to our help right down in the jungle of life. Following the path of the Word Incarnate, this prayer begins on the summits of spiritual experience and comes steadily down from the Infinite to the finite, from the Spaceless to the little space on which we stand. Here we find all the strange mixed experience of man, over-ruled by the unchanging glory and charity of God.


The crowds who followed Christ hoping for healing or counsel did not ask Him to teach them how to pray; nor did He give this prayer to them. It is not for those who want religion to be helpful, who seek after signs; those who expect it to solve their political problems and cure their diseases, but are not prepared to share its cost. He gave it to those whom He was going to incorporate into His rescuing system, use in His ministry; the sons of the Kingdom, self-given to the creative purposes of God. 'Thou when thou prayest ... pray ye on this manner.' It is the prayer of those 'sent forth' to declare the Kingdom, whom the world will hate, whose unpopularity with man will be in proportion to their loyalty to God; the apostles of the Perfect in whom, if they are true to their vocation, the Spirit of the Father will speak. The disciples sent out to do Christ's work were to depend on prayer, an unbroken communion with the Eternal; and this is the sort of prayer on which they were to depend. We therefore, when we dare to use it, offer ourselves by implication as their fellow workers for the Kingdom; for it supposes and requires an unconditional and filial devotion to the interests of God. Those who use the prayer must pray from the Cross.

Men have three wants, which only God can satisfy. They need food, for they are weak and dependent. They need forgiveness, for they are sinful. They need guidance, for they are puzzled. Give—Forgive—Lead—Deliver. All their prayer can be reduced to the loving adoration of the Father and the confident demand for His help.

'Our Father, which art in heaven.' We are the children of God and therefore inheritors of heaven. Here is the source alike of our hope and our penitence; the standard which confounds us, the essence of religion, the whole of prayer. 'Heaven is God and God is my soul,' says Elisabeth de la Trinité. It is a statement of fact, which takes us clean away from the world of religious problems and consolations, the world of self-interested worries and strivings, and discloses the infinite span and unfathomable depth of that supernatural world in which we really live. From our distorted life 'unquieted with dreads, bounden with cares, busied with vanities, vexed with temptations' the soul in its prayer reaches out to centre its trust on the Eternal, the existent.

In those rare glimpses of Christ's own life of prayer which the Gospels vouchsafe to us, we always notice the perpetual reference to the unseen Father; so much more vividly present to Him than anything that is seen. Behind that daily life into which He entered so generously, filled as it was with constant appeals to His practical pity and help, there is ever the sense of that strong and tranquil Presence, ordering all things and bringing them to their appointed end; not with a rigid and mechanical precision, but with the freedom of a living, creative, cherishing thought and love. Throughout His life, the secret, utterly obedient conversation of Jesus with His Father goes on. He always snatches opportunities for it, and at every crisis He returns to it as the unique source of confidence and strength; the right and reasonable relation between the soul and its Source.

I thank thee, Heavenly Father, because thou hast hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them unto babes ... Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight.... I have kept my Father's commandment and abide in his love ... Father, the hour is come.... O righteous Father! the world knew thee not, but I knew thee.... Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me.... Father, forgive them ... into thy hands I commend my spirit.

Though our human experience of God cannot maintain itself on such a level as this, yet for us too as members of Christ these words have significance. They set the standard of realism, of childlike and confident trust which must govern our relation to the Unseen. Abba, Father. The personalist note, never absent from a fully operative religion, is struck at the start; and all else that is declared or asked is brought within the aura of this relationship. Our sins, aims, struggles, sufferings, our easy capitulation to hopelessness and fear, look different over against that truth. Our responsibilities become simplified, and are seen to be one single, filial responsibility to God. Our Father, which art in heaven, yet present here and now in and with our struggling lives; on whom we depend utterly, as children of the Eternal Perfect whose nature and whose name is Love.

'Ye are of God, little children.' Were this our realistic belief and the constant attitude of our spirits, our whole life, inward and outward, would be transformed. For we are addressing One who is already there, already in charge of the situation, and knowing far more about that situation than we do ourselves. Within His span it already lies complete, from its origin to its end. 'Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before you ask him.' The prevenience of God is the dominant fact of all life; and therefore of the life of prayer. We, hard and loveless, already stand in heaven. We open the stiff doors of our hearts and direct our fluctuating wills to a completely present Love and Will directing, moulding and creating us.

And moreover in these first words, the praying soul accepts once for all its true status as a member of the whole family of man. Our Father. It can never again enter into prayer as a ring-fenced individual, intent on a private relation with God; for this is a violation of the law of Charity. Its prayer must overflow the boundaries of selfhood to include the life, the needs of the race; accepting as a corollary of its filial relation with God a brotherly relation with all other souls however diverse, and at every point replacing 'mine' by 'ours'. This wide spreading love, this refusal of private advantage is the very condition of Christian prayer; for that prayer is an instrument of redemptive action, not merely of personal achievement.

Here my enemy prays by my side, since the world of prayer has no frontiers; and in so doing he ceases to be my enemy, because we meet in God.


Hallowed be Thy Name. The modern mind, living sometimes prudently and sometimes carelessly, but never theocentrically, cannot make anything of such words as these; for they sweep the soul up, past the successive and the phenomenal, and leave it in abject adoration before the single reality of God.

This first response of creation to its author, this awestruck hallowing of the Name, must also be the first response of the praying soul. If we ask how this shall be done within the individual life and what it will require of us in obligation and adjustment, perhaps the answer will be something like this: 'Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed, revered, be Thy mysterious Name in my dim and fluctuating soul, to which Thou hast revealed Thyself in such a degree as I can endure. May all my contacts and relationships, my struggles and temptations, thoughts, dreams and desires be coloured by this loving reverence. Let me ever look through and beyond circumstance to Thee, so that all I am and do may become more and more worthy of the God who is the origin of all. Let me never take such words on my lips that I could not pass from them to the hallowing of Thy Name. (That one principle alone, consistently applied, would bring order and charity into the centre of my life.) May that Name, too, be hallowed in my work, keeping me in remembrance that Thou art the doer of all that is really done: my part is that of a humble collaborator, giving of my best.' This means that adoration, a delighted recognition of the life and action of God, subordinating everything to the Presence of the Holy, is the essential preparation for action. That stops all feverish strain, all rebellion and despondency, all sense of our own importance, all worry about our own success; and so gives dignity, detachment, tranquillity to our action and may make it of some use to Him.

Thus the four words of this petition can cover, criticize and re-interpret the whole of our personal life; cleansing it from egoism, orientating it towards reality, and reminding us that our life and work are without significance, except in so far as they glorify that God to whom nothing is adequate though everything is dear. Our response to each experience which He puts in our path, for the greatest disclosure of beauty to the smallest appeal to love, from perfect happiness to utmost grief, will either hallow or not hallow His Name; and this is the only thing that matters about it. For every call to admiration or to sacrifice is an intimation of the Holy, the Other; and opens a path leading out from self to God. These words, then, form in themselves a complete prayer; an aspiration which includes every level and aspect of life. It is the sort of prayer that both feeds and expresses the life of a saint, in its absolute disinterestedness and delighted abasement before the Perfection of God.

From one point of view the rest of the Lord's Prayer is simply about the different ways in which this adoring response of creation can be made more complete; for it asks for the sanctification of the universe. And by universe we do not mean some vast abstraction. We mean everything that exists, visible and invisible; the small as well as the great, the hosts of earth as well as the hosts of heaven; the mouse's tail as well as the seraph's wing brought into the circle of holiness and transfigured by the radiance of God. All creatures without exception taking part in the one great utterance of the Name: all self-interested striving transformed into that one great striving for the Glory of God which is the whole life of Heaven and should be the whole life of earth.

If the transforming power of religion is to be felt, its discipline must be accepted, its price paid in every department of life; and it is only when the soul is awakened to the reality and call of God, known at every point of its multiple experience, that it is willing to pay the price and accept the discipline. Worship is a primary means of this awakening.

It follows once more that whole-hearted adoration is the only real preparation for right action: action which develops within the Divine atmosphere, and is in harmony with the eternal purposes of God. The Bible is full of illustrations of this truth, from the call of Isaiah to the Annunciation. First the awestruck recognition of God: and then, the doing of His Will. We cannot discern His Eternal Purpose, even as it affects our tiny lives, opportunities and choices, except with the eyes of disinterested and worshipping love. The hallowing of the Name is therefore the essential condition without which it is not possible to work for the Kingdom or recognize the pressure of the Will. So the first imperative of the life of prayer is that which the humanist finds so hard to understand. We are to turn our backs upon earth, and learn how to deal with its sins and its needs by looking steadfastly up to heaven.

Excerpted from Treasures from the Spiritual Classics by EVELYN UNDERHILL, Roger L. Roberts. Copyright © 1981 A. R. Mowbray & Co. Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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