Olivier Clément, Three Prayers: The Lord’s Prayer, O Heavenly King, Prayer of St. Ephrem, translated by Michael Breck (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000).
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name.
Your Kingdom come, Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
O heavenly king, O comforter,
the Spirit of Truth who is everywhere and fills all things
Treasure of blessings, giver of life, come and abide in us.
Cleanse us of all impurity,
And of Thy goodness save our souls,
O Thou who are good and loves humanity.
O Lord and master of my life,
Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair,
lust of power, and idle talk;
Grant rather the spirit of chastity, humility,
patience, and love to Thy servant
Yea, O Lord and king,
Grant me to see my own transgressions
And not to judge my brother,
For blessed are Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.
The more I pray the more difficult I find it to pray. I was taught to pray spontaneously, as if this were the only kind of prayer that was authentic. Written and rote prayers were almost automatically condemned as mere ritual without heartfelt meaning. I admire the concern for authenticity, but I must admit that I lack the imagination, the vocabulary, often the enthusiasm and desire to conjure up new words for God every time I want to pray or am called to pray.
There is a place for spontaneity in prayer, to be sure, but even then I find myself repeating words and phrases in the familiar organization of my prayers. This ritualistic, formulaic aspect is nigh unavoidable. And the more I pray the more useful I find it. So I tend to gravitate toward richly-worded prayers that can supply me with words, just as the psalms do, that help me express myself to God. This book contains three such prayers, and reflections on them that deepen their significance as I pray them.
In this book Olivier Clément reflects on three very old, but very rich prayers. The first prayer, the “Lord’s Prayer” or “Our Father (pater noster) is familiar and common to all Christians. Clément spends half of this small book (~40 of ~80 pages) on this prayer. The second is most well-known among Orthodox Christians as the beginning part of the daily prayers.
The third prayer is also well-known among Orthodox Christians and is used formally during Lent. Although Clément, being an Orthodox Christian himself, pulls these latter two prayers from his own tradition, he never writes as someone who ‘claims’ them for that tradition in particular, and one will be hard-pressed to deny the universality of all three prayers.
Clément writes this book as a commentary of sorts. He goes line-by-line, reflecting on each prayer. This is not a historical or exegetical commentary, but a spiritual one. Clément seeks to unearth some of the more or less hidden or implicit spiritual aspects of these prayers. This amounts to an amazing devotional book as Clément takes already profound prayers and through his reflection provides even deeper meditations on the life we are given and called to in Christ.
What I continued to marvel at as I read the book was Clément’s depth of insight. He is able to explain concepts and phrases without pretense or making the reader feel like he’s making all this up. Many of us pray the Lord’s Prayer weekly, perhaps daily. It is therefore quite a feat to provide new insight that does not feel wholly artificial, self-important, or idiosyncratic.
The best part of this book, as can be seen in the quotes below, is the appreciation for life Clément communicates that is, at the same time, clear-eyed and realistic. Positive psychology tells us that if we just decide to be positive about things, we’ll end up being happier. But this ends up being an artificial happiness that is torn down as easily as it is built up. Clément’s joy comes from a realistic perception of himself, others, and the world around him that is caught up in the death and resurrection of Christ. And so he is able to appreciate the entanglements and tragedies of this life as wounds out of which life springs in Christ.
What we must sense most strongly, each day—and I say this especially to those who are young—is that it is good to live. To live is grace. To live is glory. All life is a blessing. (7)
The will of God is not a judicial imperative, it is an influx of life; it bestows existence and renews it when it goes astray. The will of God is, first of all, creation itself, the universe itself entirely borne up by the will-ideas, by the logoi, the sustaining words of the poet-God. (23-24)
Today is it behooves the Church to break away from nostalgia and from the desire for power in order to become—or become once again—the secret soil from which the forests of the future will rise up. (25-26)
The great apostasy is not necessarily atheism. Rebellion and even blasphemy have their own way of seeking God. Considering the pain of this world, there is also an atheism of compassion, which is undoubtedly what is being expressed in the Eli, Eli, lema sabachtani spoken on Golgotha. The great apostasy is rather the sense of having “gotten over” God, of having, “gotten over” the whole question, to be removed from the mystery, devoid of any anguish or bewilderment. (36-37)
Every living thing is moved by the divine Breath. And so it is with this invisible framework that is in constant motion and causes the universal tendency toward dissolution, chaos, and entropy to be turned back into a reintegration, a more and more refined complexity, in such a way that life is continually born out of death. (53)
Man is created from nothingness; if he allows himself to be overwhelmed by fear or by a desperate, climactic flight from this fear, he proceeds toward illusion, toward his dreams, or to an unresolvable insight into an offended love. Christ descends into hell and into death, into the nocturnal abyss where being is overcome, in order to tear from its grasp each of us and all of mankind. By making our wounds his own, Christ turns every wound within us into a source of light—the “light of life,” the light of the Holy Spirit. (60)
Sloth means forgetfulness, to which the ascetics refer as “the greatest of all sins.” Forgetfulness means the inability to be amazed, to marvel or even to see. . . . All this amounts to a spiritual neurosis that has to do not with sexuality—which may become the means of forgetting—but with suppressing the “light of life” which gives meaning to others, to the smallest spec of dust as well as to myself. (73)
Humility is a virtue we may perceive in others but which we cannot see in ourselves. Anyone who says: “I am humble” is woefully vain. One becomes humble without seeking to be so, through obedience, detachment, and respect for the unconditional gift of this mystery; in a word, through openness to grace. (78)
According to Symeon the New Theologian, a man who sanctifies himself becomes “a poor man filled with brotherly love.” He is poor because he strips himself of his roles, of his social (or ecclesiastical) importance and of his neurotic characteristics, because he opens himself up to God and to others, without separating prayer form service. He is then able to discern a person within others, beneath all the masks and ugliness and sin, the way Jesus did in the Gospels. He is able to ring peace to those who hate themselves and who destroy the world. (80-81)
“To see one’s own sin” does not consist in tallying up one’s transgressions, it means feeling asphyxiated and lost, drowning, in vain thrashing about in this lost state and betraying love, scorning and laughing all the while, so great is our self-hatred. It means suffocating in the waters of death, that they might instead become baptismal waters. It is to die, but henceforth to die in Christ in order to be reborn in his breath and to regain a foothold in the Father’s house. (82)
One who sees his own sin and does not judge his brother becomes capable of truly loving him. I have been disappointed in myself often enough that I can no longer be disappointed by anyone. (83)
Kierkegaard describes prayer as something that goes from words to silence. We exhaust our hearts and minds by speaking to God in a discursive kind of way, and when we eventually run out of words we can finally sit in peace and stillness before God. Our words, as they often are in ordinary conversation with others, can be more of a barrier than a medium to God. And so when we finally have no more words to say we can bring our true selves before God and rest in his presence.
This book is a wonderful work of Christian spirituality in its own right. But it also helps us to see the significance of these prayers, and therefore to pray them better. And then to let them go and allow them to lead us to God instead of taking his place.