Saying the Lord's Prayer Backwards
A meditative ascent
This is not a post about exorcist movie tropes. Sorry to disappoint if that’s what you were expecting. Rather, I wanted to share some thoughts inspired by Jonathan Pageau’s podcast episode on the Lord’s Prayer.
Pageau describes how the prayer encompasses the whole of reality from top to bottom, starting with God in heaven and working down through the world to the depths of the Evil One (a possible translation for the last word of the Lord’s Prayer). So, the Lord’s Prayer paints a cosmological picture familiar, for instance, to readers of Dante.
This brought to my mind the Platonic teaching, shared by such Christian fathers as Ss Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius, that evil has no existence in itself, but is merely a lack of goodness and hence of being, much as darkness has no existence but is only a lack of light. On this patristic and Platonic basis, the Lord’s Prayer could be read as a descent from God as source of Being, through the heavens and earth, to the ultimate evil of absolute non-being. Read from beginning to end, it can serve as a credo of metaphysical descent: Being flowing down from the summit of creation.
However, while this metaphysical speculation is very interesting, we mustn't forget that Our Lord was responding to the disciples’ request for instruction on how to pray, not for a pocket-sized cosmology. As a prayer, the Lord’s Prayer is not just a description of divine descent, but is meant to lift us up in our ascent to God. Its primary purpose is not just to describe the path down the mountain, but show us the way up it.
This prompted me to try praying the Lord’s Prayer in a way I hadn’t before, to see it from a different angle: indeed, to see it from where I am really standing, which I fear is rather closer to the bottom of the mountain than to the top. In a word, I wondered what it would be like to pray the Lord’s prayer backwards.
Our Lord taught His disciples to pray the Our Father from beginning to end, and heaven forfend that I should pretend to know better. I offer this reverse reading of the Prayer as a complementary meditation, not by any means a replacement, which I hope will help us when we pray it again in the order it was given to us.
A prayer to begin the ascent
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
“Teach me thy way, O Lord, and I will walk in thy truth:
O knit my heart unto thee, that I may fear thy Name.” Psalm 86:11
I call upon the Eternal Father through his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, that through the intercession of the most holy Virgin Mary, the mother of the same God and Lord Jesus Christ… he may enlighten the eyes of our soul to guide our feet in the way of that peace which surpasses all understanding. (St Bonaventure, Prologue to the Itinerarium Mentis)
1 Deliver us from the Evil One
“Keep thy mind in Hell, and despair not,” said St Silouan. Thus we begin our journey at the lowest point, in the abyss. Like the Rich Man looking up to Lazarus, we see the path ahead, but between it and us there is a great fissure which we cannot cross by our own device.
So, we pray with thanks and in trust to the one who has crossed that divide with the wood on which He died, and to the Father who sent Him for our sakes. We pray that He may lift us up from the domain of the evil spirit who would keep us in the depths and give us that first boost of strength we need even just to begin the climb.
“We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age” (Eph 6:12)
May God guard us from the Prince of this World and Father of Lies (Jn 14:30, 8:44), from him who of spite and envy would drag us into the same eternal separation from God to which he has been condemned. May He keep us from all who despise life and being, who would rather drag us into their darkness than bow to the Light, and from all agents of the culture of death which pervades the world. May the Cross of Christ which battered down the gates of Hades break their shackles and ours, while there is still time. May the One who walked on water lift us from the eddies of chaos and disorder, and by the light of His providence, guide us onto the solid path of righteousness. And may His holy angels guard us on the way, led by the general of the Heavenly Hosts:
St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
2 Lead us not into temptation
“Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation;
the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mt 26:41)
We start to walk on the path towards the clouded summit, but struggle to avert our eyes from things of flesh, the lures and fears which lurk on either side. Whether sirens or monsters, things we wish to run towards or things we wish to flee, there are so many incentives to leave the path and lose the way.
If that were not enough, the enemy has littered the path with stones for us to stumble on, especially on those stretches which are already sheer and narrow. We face fatigue and hunger, follow signs promising food and shelter, but find no lasting rest or nourishment in the dark caves where they dwell.
From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness; from all inordinate and sinful affections; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil: Good Lord, deliver us. (The Litany, Book of Common Prayer)
Thank God, we do not travel alone. We are but members of a greater body. At the same altitude, our companions in the Church on earth walk with us, and we help each other to carry our crosses.
Higher up, we catch a glimpse of those who have gone ahead and reached the peak before us, shining as they catch the sun. Seeing that they have walked the way and survived the trials gives us below greater strength. And in times of special need, when the fogs or snows come in, we can call for them to help, and chief among them the most pure of all and the most tested of all after her Divine Son:
We fly to thy protection, O Holy Mother of God;
Do not despise our petitions in our necessities,
but deliver us always from all dangers,
O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.
(Sub Tuum Praesidium)
3 As we forgive those who trespass against us
“If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Mt 5:23-24)
Even with help, we err and stumble. Tethered to our companions as we try to scale the steeper inclines, however hard we all hold the line, one may drag another down as he falls. It may be tempting to cut the cord. But there is no dead weight in the body we belong to. There is nobody we can abandon. To treat the least is to treat the greatest, for good or ill. We have to keep the connection to one another.
When we reach a place of shelter to shield us from the night, before we break bread together, we must put one another’s falls behind us.
Blessed Lord, who in thy forgiving love didst pray for those who nailed thee to the cross, and hast taught us to forgive one another as thou hast forgiven us: Take from us all bitterness and resentment towards our fellows, and give us the spirit of mutual forgiveness and brotherly love; that so, in perfect charity, we may be partakers of thy everlasting kingdom; for thy name and mercy’s sake. Amen. (Salisbury Book of Occasional Offices)
4 Forgive us our trespasses
“And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’” (Lk 23:34)
Though the summit is darkly clouded, the light of Christ makes clear the upward way. “To sin” means, in both Hebrew and Greek, to miss the mark, to go off-target. As long as we keep our eyes on Christ, we know the way, for He is the Way. Yet even when we do stray and trespass into those dark valleys where we do not belong, the Way Himself comes after us, to seek His lost sheep.
The Way of God is the Way of the Cross: the way of self-gift by which God restores the lost. We can forgive because we are forgiven. We can guide because we are guided. We can give ourselves because God gives Himself to us.
At any point on the Way, we can stop and kneel and speak to God directly, acknowledging our transgressions before Him and praying for forgiveness. Perhaps now is the time. But lest our consciences be troubled with any weighty matter, and this is not enough to quiet them, there are always shepherds on the road and in the shelters to whom we can turn for counsel and, as long as we humbly and heartily desire it, for absolution.
Grant, we beseech thee, merciful Lord, to thy faithful people pardon and peace; that they may be cleansed from all their sins, and serve thee with a quiet mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)
5 Give us this day our daily bread
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn 6:51)
The best shelters are those with altars inside, the wayside temples. Reconciled with our companions and with God, even while we are still en route, as one body, here below we can join our head and High Priest in His offering at the peak. Through the work of the seasons and our human hands, to those He has set free from Satan’s bonds and purified, He gives Himself as the Waybread which sustains.
As we climb higher and the air grows thinner, our carrying capacity diminishes. We have to travel lighter and to carry only the most nourishing food. Abstaining at times from lesser meats, we come to rely more and more on the waybread, so light to carry and yet so fat with goodness:
“The lembas had a virtue without which [the hobbits] would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
As we climb, the supernatural bread becomes the daily bread we constantly desire. And yet it is the desire rather than the sating that drives us on. Our hunger for from compels us all the more eagerly to the next safe house on the trail, bringing us closer to the Tabernacle at the summit, towards which the altars below are oriented.
We taste the Light and it grows within us, like the star of Bethlehem, that House of Bread, showing the wise the Way.
O God, who feedest us thy children with the true manna, the living bread from heaven: grant, we beseech thee, that this precious food may be our support throughout our earthly pilgrimage, until we reach that land where we neither hunger nor thirst; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Priest’s Book of Private Devotion)
6 Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven
“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 7:21)
The base dwellers who despise the Will of God mock it, tell us that it is arbitrary and cruel: all those “thou shalts” and “shalt nots,” the rulings of a tyrant best ignored. But those who have tasted and seen know that God is Good. He never wills anything that contradicts His nature, for that would mean that He was not free: that there were something greater than Him to constrain His will, in which case He would not be God, for as St Anselm taught, God is He than whom nothing higher can be conceived. His will is therefore pure freedom, and we find that freedom only, paradoxically, in serving Him.
At this high point, made radiant and light by the bread of life, the last thing we want is to be dragged back down by the gravity of sin. But the Enemy loves to appear as an angel of light, and we are easily deceived. All too often we find ourselves, like the Apostle, wanting what we do not truly want. And so, if we do stumble - no, rather, when we stumble - we need to take stock of where we are, find our waypoint lower down the path, and start to climb again, always seeking to make God’s will our own.
God’s will is love, and it grows as it is given and consumed. May we desire nothing else, and may that desire be its own reward. Thus the love that moves the sun and other stars moves also things below.
O Lord our God, grant us grace to desire thee with our whole heart; that so desiring thee we may seek and find thee; and so finding thee may love thee, and loving thee may hate those sins from which thou hast redeemed us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
7 Thy Kingdom come
“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Luke 17:20-21)
We reach a peak on which stands a city, glorious beyond compare. Strange creatures of light flitter through its streets, beautiful and terrible, shifting shapes before our eyes. Here we think our quest is ended, that we have found the Kingdom, the New Jerusalem.
But we are wrong. This is only a peak, not the peak. Nothing we see, no place we can go on foot or even in the wanderings of our mind can encompass what the Kingdom is. If we comprehend it, it is not God.
The Kingdom is no place. It is to be ruled by God, to have God as one’s king; to come under his protection and put ourselves at his mercy, to be fed from his store and to make His will our own. It is to be one with Him, subjects of His reign.
Our hearts beat faster as we climb the steeper slopes beyond and breathe the thinner air. But if they beat in time with the Sacred Heart of Our Lord, then the Kingdom is already within us.
O Father of light and God of all truth, purge the whole world from all errors, abuses, corruptions and sins.
Beat down the standard of Satan and set up everywhere the standard of Christ. Abolish the reign of sin and establish the kingdom of grace in all hearts.
Let humility triumph over pride, charity over hatred, meekness over passion, generosity over covetousness; and let the gospel of Christ in faith and practice prevail throughout the world; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen. (Percy Dearmer)
8 Hallowed be thy Name
“I am God, and there is no other… To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” (Isa 45:22-23)
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the Name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:9-11)
Passing the last peak, we start the final ascent, but now the way ahead is clouded in darkness. Our eyes perceive less, words begin to fail, but as the gloom deepens, our hearts feel warmer. For at the centre of the darkness burns unseen the secret fire.
With growing clarity, we see before us the One we have followed all this way, our High Priest, His back to us as He serves an unseen altar. Only when we sink to our knees behind Him do we realise that He who bears the Name “God Saves” shares too the Name of Names, the unspeakable Name of the source of all things given to Moses in the fire, the one Who Is and yet is no thing and beyond all things.
O God, who hast made the most glorious name of our Lord Jesus Christ, thine only-begotten Son, to be exceeding sweet and supremely lovable to thy faithful servants: Mercifully grant that as we do love and honour his holy name upon earth, so we may evermore enjoy the vision of him in heaven; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
9 Thou art in Heaven
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.’” (Rev 21:1-3)
In awe, we find ourselves unshod, but our feet feel nothing below them. It is no longer clear whether we stand on the peak of earth or the deepest trough of heaven. One minute, we stand on the water, above the teeming chaos, and the next minute, it is gone.
We hang suspended at their crossing place, our arms encompassing all things in marital embrace, and radiant, we gaze upon the Bridegroom. We know nothing but Emmanuel, who dwells in us and we in Him.
And yet in knowing Him we need know nothing more, for in Him all things live and move and have their being. We know earth as it is meant to be: as a place in heaven.
Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that like as we do believe thy only begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
(Collect for Ascension Day, the Book of Common Prayer)
10 Our Father
At last, when all other words fail, “Father” is the last to linger on our lips.
“Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
We are all prodigals, but of which father? The Father of Lights, or the Father of Lies? The inconstant and ever-changing, the one who offers the chaotic pursuit of fleeting desires? Or the constant, the perfect, the Good, desire of whom is its own reward, and that eternal?
One Father will welcome us to our lasting home and eternal feast; the other, in the end, wants only to feast on us. One laughs with joy at our return, the other seldom, and only then with mockery and scorn. One makes us kings with Him, the other makes us slaves.
So, let us descend from the heights, calling on the Father to aid the Church in our cosmic struggle against the world, the flesh and the Devil, by praying the way His Son, Our Saviour, taught us:
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 trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.