17 May An Esoteric Interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer
We have already shared the esoteric meaning of the Lord’s Prayer by Rudolf Steiner, but there are other writers who also have written esoteric interpretations of the Lord’s Prayer. One of the most notable is the metaphysical commentary written by P. D. Ouspensky in the early part of the 20th century.
The following esoteric interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer is from Ouspensky’s work The Fourth Way, a book about self-development based on the works of the Greek-Georgian philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff. The Fourth Way is a compilation of the lectures that were delivered by P. D. Ouspensky in London and New York between 1921 and 1946, which were later published in 1957.
The Esoteric Meaning of the Lord’s Prayer
I have been asked many questions, some of them very naive, by different people who have tried to understand the Lord’s Prayer and who came to me asking me to explain what one or another phrase in it means. For instance, I have been asked what ‘our Father in heaven’ means, who are ‘our debtors’ and what are ‘our debts’ and so on—as if the Lord’s Prayer could be explained in ‘plain words’. You must understand first of all that ordinary, plain words cannot explain anything in relation to the Lord’s Prayer. Some preparatory understanding is necessary, then further understanding may come, but only as a result of effort and right attitude.
The Lord’s Prayer can be taken as an example of an insoluble problem. It has been translated into every language, learnt by heart, repeated daily, yet people have not the slightest idea of what it really means. This failure to understand its meaning is connected with our general inability to understand the New Testament. If you remember, in another conversation, the whole of the New Testament was given as an example of objective art, that is to say, the work of higher mind. How then can we expect to understand with our ordinary mind what was formulated and given by higher mind?
What we can do is to try and raise our mind to the level of thinking of higher mind; and although we do not realize it, this is possible in many different ways. In mathematics, for instance, we can deal with infinities— with infinitely small and infinitely large quantities which mean nothing to our ordinary mind. And what is possible in mathematics is possible for us if we start in the right way and continue in the right way.
One of the first things which must be understood and remembered, before a study of the Lord’s Prayer is possible, is the difference between the religious language and system language. What is religion? This word is used very often; there are people who use it every day, but they cannot define what is meant by religion. In the system we have heard that religion is different for different people, that there is religion of man No. 1, a religion of man No. 2, a religion of man No. 3 and so on.
But how can we define the difference between them? Before coming to definitions we must understand first of all that the most necessary element in all religions known to us is the idea of God—a God with whom we can stand in a personal relationship, to whom we can, as it were, speak, whom we can beg for help, and in the possibility of whose help we can believe. An inseparable part of religion is faith in God, that is, in a Higher Being, omnipotent and omnipresent, who can help us in anything we wish for or want to do.
I do not speak from the point of view of whether this is right or wrong, possible or impossible. I simply say that faith, that is belief in God and in his power to help us, is an essential part of religion. Prayer is also an inseparable part of any religion; but prayer can be very different. Prayer can be a petition for help in anything we may undertake, and also, through school-work, prayer can become help itself. It can become an instrument of work which can be used for reviving ideas of the system, it can be used for self remembering and for reminding us about sleep and the necessity for awakening.
At the same time, the expressions of religious language cannot be translated exactly into the system language. First, because of the element of faith in religion, and secondly, because of the acceptance in religion and religious language of facts and assertions which in the system are regarded as illogical and inconsistent. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that religion and the system are incompatible or contradictory; only, we must learn not to mix the two languages. If we begin to mix them, we shall spoil any useful conclusions that could be made on either of the two lines.
Returning to the idea of God, an idea which is inseparable from religion and religious language, we must first ask ourselves how religions can be divided in a general or historical way. They may be divided into religions with one God and religions with many gods. But even in this division it must be remembered that there is a great difference between the ordinary understanding of monotheism and polytheism and the system understanding of the
Although there are certain differences between gods—as, for instance, in Greek mythology—in the ordinary understanding of polytheism all gods are more or less on the same level. From the system point of view, which includes the idea of different scales and different laws on different levels, one has quite a different
understanding of the interdependence of gods.
If we take the Absolute as God, we can see that it has no relation to us. The Absolute is God for gods; it has relation only to the next world, that is, World 3. The World 3 is God for the next world, that is, World 6, and also for all the following worlds, but in a lesser and lesser degree. Then the Galaxy, Sun, Planets, Earth and Moon are all gods, each including in itself smaller gods. The Ray of Creation as a whole, taken as one triad, is also God: God the Holy, God the Firm, God the Immortal.
So we may choose on which level we wish to take our God if we want to use the word ‘God’ in the religious sense, that is to say, in the sense of a God having immediate access to our lives. From the system point of view we have nothing to prove that any of these worlds may have a personal relation to us; but there is a place for God in the system.
In the lateral octave which begins in the Sun as ‘do’ there are two quite unknown points about which we have no material for thinking. The octave begins as do in the Sun, then passes into si on the level of the Planets. On Earth it becomes la-sol-fa, which constitutes Organic Life including man. When each individual being in the human, animal and vegetable kingdom dies, the body—or what remains of the body—goes to the Earth and becomes part of the Earth, and the soul goes to the Moon and becomes part of the Moon. From this we can understand mi and re; but about si and do we know nothing at all. These two notes may give rise to many suppositions as to the possible place of a God or gods having some relation to us in theRay of Creation.
Now, remembering all that has just been said, we may come to the study of the Lord’s Prayer. The first thing is to discover why and when it was given. We know that it was given to replace many useless prayers. The next thing is to note many interesting features in the Lord’s Prayer itself and in its very special construction; and from our understanding of this construction, and particularly from our knowledge of the Law of Three, we may be able to realize that, from the system point of view, there is a possibility of the development of understanding through our understanding of the Lord’s Prayer.
Like many mathematical problems, the study of the Lord’s Prayer must begin with a correct disposition or arrangement of the separate parts of the problem. We notice at once two interesting things: first, that the Lord’s Prayer is divided into three times three, and second, that in the Lord’s Prayer there are certain key-words, that is to say, words which explain other words to which they refer. We cannot call the division into three times three triads, because we do not know their relation to one another and cannot see the forces. We can only see that there are three parts.
If you read the first three petitions together as one part, you will see many things which you cannot see if you read them in the ordinary way.
1. Our Father which art in heaven hallowed be Thy name
2. Thy kingdom come
3. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
In the first petition, ‘Our Father which art in heaven hallowed be Thy name‘, the immediate question is, who is ‘our Father’? The key-word is ‘heaven’. What does ‘in heaven’ mean? If we try to answer this question from the point of view of the Ray of Creation we may be able to understand something. We live on the Earth, so ‘heaven’ must mean higher levels, that is, the Planets, the Sun or the Galaxy.
The idea of ‘heaven’ presupposes certain forces, or certain mind or minds on those higher levels to which, in some way, the Lord’s Prayer advises us to appeal; ‘heaven’ cannot refer to anything on the level of the Earth. But if we realize that the cosmic forces connected with the Galaxy, the Sun or the Planets are too big to have any relation to us, then we can look for the place of our ‘Father in heaven’ in the do or si of the lateral octave—or we can again leave it to higher regions.
In the words which follow there is nothing personal. ‘Hallowed be Thy name’ is the expression of a desire for the development of the right attitude towards God, and for a better understanding of the idea of God or Higher Mind, and this desire for development obviously refers to the whole of humanity. The second petition, ‘Thy kingdom come‘, is the expression of a desire for the growth of esotericism. In A New Model of the Universe I tried to explain that the kingdom of heaven could only mean esotericism, that is to say, a certain inner part of humanity under particular laws.
The third petition, ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven‘, is the expression of a desire for the transition of the Earth to a higher level, under the direct will of Higher Mind. ‘Thy will be done‘ refers to something that may happen but has not yet happened. These three petitions refer to conditions which may come but which have
not yet been fulfilled.
The first petition of the second part of the Lord’s Prayer is: ‘Give us this day our daily bread‘. The word ‘daily’ does not exist in the oldest known Greek and Latin text. The correct word, which later was replaced by ‘daily’, is ‘super-substantialis’ or ‘supersubstantial’. The correct text should be: ‘give us this day our supersubstantial bread’. ‘Supersubstantial’ or ‘spiritual’ as some people say, may refer to higher food, higher hydrogens, higher influences or higher knowledge.
The two following petitions in this second part, ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors’, and ‘Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil‘ are the most difficult to understand or to explain. They are particularly difficult because their ordinary meaning, as generally accepted, has nothing to do with the real meaning. When people think about the words, ‘forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors’ in the ordinary way, they immediately begin to make logical and psychological mistakes.
First of all, they take for granted that they can forgive debts, and that it depends on them whether they will forgive or not forgive; and secondly, they believe that it is equally good to forgive debts and to have their own debts forgiven. This is a fallacy and has no foundation whatever. If they think about themselves, if they study themselves, if they observe themselves, they will very soon see that they cannot forgive any debts just as they cannot do anything.
In order to do and in order to forgive one must first of all be able to remember oneself, one must be awake and one must have will. As we are now, we have thousands of different wills, and even if one of these wills wants to forgive, there are always many others which do not want to forgive and which will think that forgiveness is a weakness, an inconsistency or even a crime. And the strangest thing is that sometimes it is really a crime to forgive. Here we come to an interesting point. We do not know whether it is good to forgive or not, whether it is good to forgive always, or whether in some cases it is better to forgive and in some cases better not to forgive.
If we think more about it, we may come to the conclusion that even if we could forgive, perhaps it would be better to wait until we knew more, that is, until we knew in which cases it is better to forgive and in which cases it is better not to forgive. At this point we should remember what has been said about positive and negative attitudes and we should realize that positive attitudes are not always correct, negative attitudes are sometimes necessary for a right understanding. So, if ‘forgiving’ always means having a positive attitude, then forgiving may sometimes be quite wrong.
We must understand that to forgive indiscriminately may be worse than not to forgive at all; and this understanding may bring us to the right view of our own position in relation to our own debts. Suppose for a moment that there actually was some benevolent and rather stupid deity who could forgive our debts, and who would really forgive them and wipe them out. It would be the greatest misfortune that could happen to us. There would be no incentive for us to work then, and no reason to work.
We could go on doing the same wrong things and having them all forgiven in the end. Such a possibility is quite contrary to any idea of the work. In the work we must know that nothing will be forgiven. Only this knowledge will give us a real incentive to work, and at least prevent us from repeating the same things which we already know to be wrong.
It is interesting to look at schools from this point of view and to compare schools with ordinary life. In life people may expect forgiveness, or at least hope for it. In school nothing is forgiven. That is an essential part of a school system, school method and school organization. Schools exist precisely for not-forgiving, and because of this fact one can hope and expect to get something from a school. If things were forgiven in schools, there would be no reason for their existence.
The inner meaning of ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors‘ actually refers to influences, that is to say, influences from higher levels. We can attract to ourselves higher influences only if we transfer to other people the influences we receive or have received. There are many other meanings of these words, but this is the beginning of the way to understand them.
The third petition of this second part is: ‘Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil’. What is our greatest
temptation? Most probably it is sleep: so the first words are understandable—’help us to sleep less, or help us to awake sometimes’. The next part is more difficult. It reads: ‘But deliver us from evil’. Possibly it should be ‘and deliver us from evil’. There are many interpretations of this ‘but’, but none of them is quite satisfactory as translated into ordinary language, so I shall leave it for the present.
The chief question is, what does ‘evil’ mean? One possible interpretation is that in relation to the ordinary temptation, which is only sleep, it means letting oneself fall asleep again when one had already begun to awake. It may mean giving up the work when one has already understood the necessity for working, giving up efforts after one had begun to make efforts and, as has already been mentioned, starting to do stupid or even harmful things, such as going against school rules and justifying oneself for so doing. Many interesting examples of things of this kind can be found in the actions of people who leave the work and particularly in their explanations of their doing so.
Finally, the third part of the Lord’s Prayer should be taken as referring to a future
order of things and not to the present order.
1. For Thine is the kingdom
2. the power
3. and the glory for ever Amen,
presupposes that the desire expressed in the first part of the Prayer has already been realized, has already taken place. Actually these words can only refer to the future.
In conclusion, the whole of the Lord’s Prayer can be taken as one triad. It cannot be taken in the sense that one part is active force, another part passive force and a third part neutralizing force, because all relations probably change with the change in the centre of gravity of attention. This means that, by itself, each of these three divisions or parts can be taken as one force and that together they can make a triad.
These very big ideas are put in the form of a prayer. When you decipher this idea of prayer, prayer in the sense of supplication, disappears.
If you have enjoyed this esoteric interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer by P. D. Ouspensky, you will likely also the Living Hour’s metaphysical commentary on the Our Father Prayer, which can be found at: The Lord’s Prayer Explained.