THE LORD’S PRAYER: The Name, by Evelyn Underhill

Meditations Based on the Lord's Prayer

The Name Evelyn Underhill

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 as the fact governing all judgments and all activities.  This, says our Lord in effect, is the way that you must begin, because this is the essence of religion.  For this, and only for this, it exists.  When he is asked for the secret of prayer, the true tent of meeting which the Lord pitched and not man, (Hebrews 8:2), this delighted recognition of God’s priority comes first to his mind.  Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord!  This is what creation is for: and the very object of man’s transformation is that he may become part of this inner life of the universe, which consists in the praise, the glory, the manifestation of God.  Saint John of the Cross says that creation babbles to us, like a child which cannot articulate what it wants to say; for it is struggling to utter the one Word, the Name and character of God.

Since for Christians the Nature and the Name of God is Love, this means a deep reverence for love in all its manifestations: on one hand as the power which holds the Universe together, on the other as the unearthly glory, the Shekinah, which in every situation declares the presence of the Holy and transfigures Earthly life.  Love is always to be recognized and adored, for it is the signature of God lying upon creation; often smudged and faded, almost blotted out, yet legible to the eyes which have been cleansed by prayer.  It is the peculiar wisdom of the saints that they can read the letters of the Name wherever found and in whatever script; as Francis read them on the face of the Crucified, in the marred features of the leper, and written in the air by the moving wings of the free birds.  These hear the utterance of the Name in all the voices of creation, gruff and gentle, the mating cry of lions and the call of the plover to her straying children; for the saints are realists, centered on God, and understand all life at every level in terms of worship.  All created things, says Jean-Pierre de Caussade, are living in the Hand of God.  The senses see only the action of the creature; but faith sees in everything the action of God.  Eros no less than Agape proceeds from him; the stammering utterance, in a world otherwise perverse and violent, of the Name which even angels cannot pronounce aright.

Thus, Christ places at the opening of the life of prayer an aspiration which sums up the desire of the whole created order: an aspiration too great for the mind and therefore great enough for the soul, proclaiming at once the priority and mysterious call of the Supernatural, and the true vocation of Man.  Indeed, the very reason for the church’s existence is the more perfect hallowing of the Name; for the church is the Body in and through which the Son, the Logos, utters the praise of the Father.  Men are redeemed out of slavery to time into the freedom of eternal life, that they may take their small part in this eternal act of sacrificial worship.

Before the glorious seat of thy Majesty, O Lord, and the exalted throne of thine honor and the awful judgment seat of thy burning love and the absolving altar which thy command hath set up, and the place where thy glory dwelleth, we, thy people and the sheep of thy fold, do kneel with thousands of the cherubim singing alleluia, and many times ten thousand seraphim and archangels acclaiming thine holiness, worshiping, confession, and praising thee at all times, O Lord of all! (Chaldean Liturgy)

Here we are given the direct claim of Eternity on our devotion: embracing and transcending all other aspects of religion, and entincturing with reality all such other expressions of religion as our small spirits can contrive.  Our Father…hallowed be Thy Name.  With one hand we touch the most secret intimacies of the spirit, our loving and childlike relation to God, with the other the creature’s unlimited awe before his mystery: a mystery which grows deeper, the nearer we approach.  As the awe with which we look up at the mountain from the valley is nothing to the awe which fills us when we stand alone among the glaciers, so the development of our prayer must always bring with it a dim yet certain sense of the great reserves, the dread and secret life, of the godhead over against us, which kills cheap and familiar sentimentalisms at birth.

It is those who know most of God, says Saint John of the Cross, who understand most clearly the infinite reaches of his being which remain uncomprehended by us.  Here, as in every approach to Reality, to Holiness, to Beauty, it is those who see much, not those who see little, who realize how much remains unseen.  That is why the theologian always has plenty to say about God; while the contemplative can hardly say anything at all.  The fluent teacher, with his sharp outlines and his neat list of attributes, is only the man with the telescope, not the Alpine guide.  Read prayer must ever be an entering into ignorance, a timid upward gaze toward the splendor which baffles the mind while it satisfies the heart.  The ceremonial acts of organized religion are dramatic representations of this bowing down of our fragmentary intelligences before the “intellectual radiance full of love.”  Thus worship, since it is always an encounter with perfection, brings with it a crisis, a judgment; conviction of sin, and the cause of conviction of sin.  Here at once we are confronted by the austere element in the life of faith, the utter abasement of the creature before the Holy; and are reminded that Love is a grave and ruthless passion, unlimited in self-giving and unlimited in demand.

And next, 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 oblation 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 colored 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 center 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 sense of our own importance, all worry about our own success; and so gives dignity, detachment, tranquility to our action and may make it of some use to him.

Thus the four words of this petition can cover, criticize, and reinterpret the whole of our personal life; cleansing it from egoism, orienting it toward reality, and reminding us that our life and work are without significance, except insofar 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, from 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, says Martin Buber, you explore the life of things and of conditioned being you come to the unfathomable, if you deny the life of things and of conditioned being, you stand for nothingness, if you hallow this life you meet the living God.  Here is declared that principle of cosmic order which must govern the coming of the Kingdom and doing of the Will; and shall at its term convert the whole world of action into an act of worship.  Since this world of action includes the small but powerful movements of the individual soul, here too the law of the Cosmos is to be applied.  For this soul’s life, if indeed that soul is truly living, must be that of a spirit standing in adoration before the Lord and Giver of its life; and its response to its surroundings physical and spiritual, in love and pain, fulfillment and sacrifice, in home, work, social contacts, aesthetic and intellectual experience must subserve this, its first duty.  All must be brought to the altar and consecrated to the purposes of the Holy.  All, directly or overtly, must hallow the Name of God.

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 wholehearted 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 worshiping 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.

Yet the life of prayer is incomplete if it stops here, in the realm of aspiration.  Costly action as well as delighted fervor must form part of it.  Like all else in the spiritual life of animal man, it must have its sacramental expression.  Heroic sacrifice, peaceful suffering, patient and inconspicuous devotion to uncongenial tasks, the steady fight against sin, ugliness, squalor, and disease, the cleansing of national thought and increase of brotherhood among men: all this is a true part of the hallowing of the Name.  It is our response to the impact of Perfection, our active recognition of the claim of God.  Awe alone is sterile.  But when it is married to sacrificial love, the fruits of the Spirit begin to appear; and the hallowing of the Name and the working for the Kingdom are seen to be two sides of one reality – the response of the creature to the demand of Love.

For Christians, there can be no limit to this consecration of life; in all things and at all costs putting the Holy first.  The royal law must govern, even in those situations dark to faith when the demand of God, the call to sacrifice, cuts right across the texture of life and seems to oppose prudence and common sense.  Here our modern humanitarianisms and sentimentalisms, our ceaseless attempts to harness the supernatural in the interests of our dark Satanic mills, look very cheap and thin over against the solemn realities of religion, the awful priority of God, which the Bible forces again and again on our reluctant and utilitarian minds.  Abraham leading Isaac up Mount Moriah is perhaps too hard a sacrament of worship for the modern Christian to digest.  But the principle is summed up and driven home with less violence, yet with all the weight that history can give, in the story of King David and Ornan the Jebusite. (1 Chronicles 21:18)

David is told by his seer that he must build an altar to God on Ornan’s threshing floor.  To a mind bent on man and his legitimate interests, the suggestion is outrageous.  All social and economic considerations are against it: for the threshing floor is a necessity of Ornan’s livelihood.  When the demand comes, he is threshing wheat on it, performing one of the essential duties of his practical farming life.  King David, with the hesitation of a prudent monarch forced to make an unpopular demand, asks for the threshing floor and offers an adequate price.  And suddenly the simple farmer, in his passionate generosity, his vivid sense of the overruling demand of God, towers over the careful piety of the King; so anxious that religion shall not cause any trouble with the people.  Ornan is not even content to give what is asked, though this already strikes at a central need of his life.  He knows that his only possible answer is total, delighted sacrifice.  And Ornan said, “Take it to thee.  Lo! I give thee the oxen for burnt offerings and the threshing instruments for wood, and the wheat for the meal offering.  I give it all!” – the final vow, the total consecration, the unconditioned surrender to God.  Everything offered in oblation without stopping to count the cost.  Hallowed Be Thy Name.

Out of the mists of Jewish history, with its savage cruelties, its primitive and uneven reactions to the dawning light of the divine, comes this perfect picture of a flawless response to God’s demand.  All the Jebusite farmer’s response to God’s demand.  All the Jebusite farmer’s useful and necessary work, his human achievement and his future needs are offered, the very tools of his craft turned into fuel, the wheat for the coming winter sacrificed.  I give it all, that so this place may be holy to the Lord.  Thus the site of Solomon’s Temple was sanctified; and a place was prepared for the Holy of Holies, the Ark and the Mercy Seat.  Those who stand today in the temple area of Jerusalem, stand on the threshing floor which was offered without condition by Ornan the Jebusite.  There Isaiah saw the Seraphim; there the child Jesus, near the end of its long history, was presented before God; there he watched the widow give her mite; then he cast out those who dared to mingle man’s profit with God’s praise.  An unbroken chain leads from the farmer’s offering to the Cross.

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