The Lord's Prayer: An Esoteric Interpretation

By Scott Osterhage

If we wish to find meaning in the Lord's Prayer, we must find our own meaning, using our higher faculties to delve into the heart of what each of us finds significant. The following explains what makes the Lord's Prayer more meaningful to me from the standpoint of the esoteric wisdom behind it, by pushing back the exoteric envelope of prayer, reading between the lines, and culling thoughts from various sources. To repeat any prayer mechanically, without feeling or thought, is a real tragedy. We are endowed with an enlightened mind acquired through evolution from that original Source — whether we term it the Divine, That, God, or a Higher Power — and we are here to use that faculty.

H. P. Blavatsky maintains that "prayer, as now understood, is doubly pernicious: (a) It kills in man self-reliance; (b) It develops in him a still more ferocious selfishness and egotism than he is already endowed with by nature." (The Key to Theosophy, p. 70.) From a theosophical viewpoint "prayer opens the spiritual sight of man, for prayer is desire, and desire develops WILL; . . ." (Isis Unveiled, 1:434) It is "WILL-PRAYER, and it is rather an internal command than a petition." (The Key, p. 67.) This attitude is echoed by Jesus in Matthew (6:5-6) when he instructs: "And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. . . . But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret . . ." He is asking us to retreat into an inner part of ourselves, for: "Our Father is within us 'in Secret,' our 7th principle, in the 'inner chamber' of our Soul perception. 'The Kingdom of Heaven' and of God 'is within us' says Jesus, not outside." (Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine 1:280n.) We need to shut the door to the physical senses, concentrating on something higher, something within us, something divine. An old saying asks us to know when to remain silent: prayer is such a time.

As we travel between the exoteric (public or open) and esoteric (private or concealed), there must be a transition. For our purposes, a transition exists between prayer as ritual and as a mystical experience in the search for personal truth. Many of us know the Lord's Prayer by heart, so we have mastered the ritual aspect, but what of the mystical experience? If we develop our will with sincere desire-thought, concentration, contemplation, or meditation, we speak to our inner divinity and naturally encourage growth in awareness of our true goal of selflessness towards humanity, and eventually all beings around us.

In the Revised Standard Bible, Matthew 6:9-13 reads:

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 debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Some translations add: "For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, for ever, Amen."

This Christian prayer was actually derived from older Jewish prayers and may be reconstructed almost verbatim out of Talmudic sources:

'Our Father which art in heaven, be gracious to us, O Lord our God; hallowed be thy name, and let the remembrance of thee be glorified in heaven above, and upon earth here below. Let thy kingdom reign over us, now and forever. Thy holy men of old said, Remit and forgive unto all men whatsoever they have done against me. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil thing. For thine is the kingdom, and thou shalt reign in glory, for ever and for evermore. — Manly Palmer Hall, The Mystical Christ, p. 135 [Phrases not in italics are not in the Christian version]

This origin is interesting, considering how Christianity has historically emphasized its uniqueness. It shows the universality of the esoteric tradition among nations.

We can explore some of the hidden meaning of this prayer as it breaks down into distinct phrases, each expressing its own particular and universal concepts. First comes our Father, which identifies the god within, who we are in actuality. It sets up a relationship of child to parent between the lower or animal portion of us and our higher self, that spark of divinity which eventually clothed itself in "coats of skin" — identifying our inner divinity as our parent brings our lower self into immediate contact with our higher self. Consequently, we do not have to conceptualize God as someone or something separate from us; nor do we have to travel to some holy person or place to receive illumination. We have it — right here, now! There is a Zen koan which admonishes: "The brilliant gem is in your hand!" We need not look further than ourselves for that divine Being which we so earnestly seek outside us. Emmet Fox reasons: "It is a Cosmic law that like begets like. . . . The offspring is and must be of the same nature as the parent; and so, since God is Divine Spirit, man must essentially be Divine Spirit too . . ." This divinity is described as "our Father" not "my Father," which "indicates the truth of the universal brotherhood of man"; "we are not to pray for ourselves but for all mankind" is the point implied. (Power Through Constructive Thinking, pp. 17-18.)

Who art in heaven: this is the Father within. Swami Prabhavananda says, "'To be in heaven' is to realize God in our own consciousness." (The Sermon on the Mount according to Vedanta, p. 87.) It is that highest of indivisible essences, our divine self or god-spark. Some translations of the Bible use "which art" rather than "who art" in heaven, and for me this nonpersonality helps work against the inculcated conception of a large, manlike god sitting somewhere out in space.

Hallowed be thy name: hallowed means holy or sacred, whole or entire. "Always and in everything let there be reverence . . ." as a Polynesian prayer puts it. Mystically, the name of anything implies its essential nature or character. In some religions God's name is a mantra, a sound-symbol for certain aspects of the divine. Repeating it over and over sets up a sympathetic vibration with more subtle levels of consciousness, tuning in to a higher frequency or aspect of ourselves, which is that "heaven within." Vibration is a key concept to interpreting the laws of nature esoterically. One writer has suggested that this phrase "is rightly translated 'Intoned be thy Name' — such a sounding having the tendency to rouse the higher nature, and call the lower to attention." (Because . . . For the Children Who Ask Why? Anon., p. 30.)

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven: this verse eloquently echoes the Hermetic axiom, "As it is above, so it is below; as it is below, so it is above." It is our duty to try to bring the perfected spheres to the world below and to help lift matter into spirit. This is one meaning behind the symbol of Solomon's seal or the Star of David — two interlacing triangles, one pointing up and the other down; the pyramidal one symbolizing the struggle to raise the material to the spiritual and the downward one signifying compassion reaching out from above.

Divinity or God's kingdom is within us already, but it exists as a latent center which we must try to open fully with our yearnings and strivings toward lofty ethical ideals. Living in a world evolving through divine wisdom, we need to cultivate the spiritual possibilities within our hearts and minds. Katherine Tingley taught: "None can grow in the truest sense spiritually, unless he has suffered till his mind and heart are attuned to the heartache of the world." By this suffering — a sacrifice, which is a sacred offering — we sublimate our animal self to the higher principles in which divinity lives, moves, and has its being. Thereby we transmute suffering into service — for all. The will for spiritual betterment is often overridden by the lower self in order to fulfill the base desires and instincts which bind us to the material aspects of the world. This verse reminds us to leave the channel open to our higher self and let our conscience and intuition guide us in making choices and in carrying out our daily tasks. We will know it by its altruism and selflessness — just as we know the vine by its fruits.

The passage has also been translated: "May the will of the indwelling spirit be done in the body" — for it is through this physical vehicle that we sense and experience life from day to day. (Op. cit., p. 31.)

Give us this day our daily bread: bread is equivalent to spiritual sustenance — manna from heaven, the bread of life. We each have our work to do and should do it in the proper frame of mind. What is our duty for today — this moment, now? We need nourishment for the soul, just as the body is sustained with bread made of grain. Another translation reads: "may we receive spiritual food from our higher aspirations." (Ibid., p. 31.) But we receive it only when we ask — "ask and it shall be given unto you," "knock and the door shall be opened."

We are to remember daily wherein we have our life — not store up our aspirations to release them all on one morning a week. We are in the habit of eating every day, and we also need soul inspiration daily. No one can assimilate food for another, physically or spiritually, and we must each come to our own realization of the divine — the truth, whatever we call it — without judging others' concepts or attempting to change them forcibly because we feel we are right.

A Hindu story relates that in the heaven world existed the embodiment of the highest absolute Truth. One day it fell to earth and shattered into pieces which spread everywhere. As different people found these fragments, they declared that they had found Truth while, in reality, they had found but a relative truth, a portion of the absolute. No one's truth is the only truth: some are larger or smaller, more or less inclusive, yet no one can say that another does not have at least a portion of truth. If we could but learn to work with our neighbors, share ideas, and realize that if we look carefully those pieces of the gem will begin to fit together, together we might discern an even larger truth.

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors: here is the doctrine of cause and effect or karma. These lines of the prayer do not relieve us from our transgressions or our obligation to correct them; neither does any priest or holy man have that power. We must assume responsibility for our deeds and acts. I do not believe one can be released from the effects of his causes — the killer on his death bed may not be "absolved" of all wrongs committed through last minute confession or belief in a higher power. Paul wrote to the Galatians (6:7): "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." With this verse we ask our higher self to release us from the habit and guilt of past actions so that we may choose rightly in each new situation. We need not feel guilt over missed opportunities, for nature is patient, does not forget, and will urge us again to correct our thinking and harmonize our acts. We should attempt to move through life in equilibrium with nature — not creating ripples in the pond.

One of the recurrent themes in the Bible is embedded in the Golden Rule: "Do unto others that which you would have them do unto you" — a concept found at the core of most religions. Geddes MacGregor wrote: "A loving heart that forgives others automatically melts the guilt in ourselves so that we are forgiven even as our heart goes out in love to others." (The Gospels as a Mandala of Wisdom, p. 62.) If we are truly sorry for some wrong committed, we understand what we have done and resolve never to repeat it. The benefit comes when the effect returns to us, because we will be well-suited to approach it and make the right choice.

Karma, forgiveness of others, altruism, unselfishness — these are excellent and just thoughts. To forgive and forget is the best course of action, for one cannot know other people's circumstances or what they experience inside, no matter how well we think we know them. Just as people have differing thresholds of physical pain, so the psychological, intellectual, and other vehicles differ among individuals, as do our capacities for handling various inner trials. We actually burden ourselves when we hold onto resentments or ill-feelings toward another. When released from these things, we become free to move on to other more immediate concerns in our lives.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: is not manifestation one gigantic temptation? To move or even see beyond the veil of maya (illusion) to the real basis of the universe is an enormous undertaking. We are asking our higher self to pull us up above the temptation of matter to dwell in the heart of the universe.

James Long interpreted this passage as: "O Father within, lead us not away from our trials and difficulties, so that meeting them squarely we may recognize evil for what it is and overcome its power to control. . . . And let us not fall when tempted." (Expanding Horizons, pp. 32-33.) But sometimes things have to get worse before they get better; things have to come to a head, growing in a certain direction until they burst. Then the healing begins. Let us not be caught in illusion's snare, the pull of the material world. Many versions, many viewpoints; all may contribute to our personal knowledge and understanding.

With knowledge, however, comes responsibility. One who is more knowledgeable about spiritual things will see greater consequences in what may seem small to the average person. One then must "live the life" closer to the line than would be required of another not so knowledgeable. This does not imply that ignorance is bliss, for we must all eventually advance — or be left forever behind. We cannot afford to become complacent or self-righteous. "One's knowledge of the Truth, however little that may be, is a sacred trust for humanity that must not be violated." (Power Through Constructive Thinking, p. 41.)

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, for ever: one author holds that the true translation from the original Aramaic should be: "For of Thee are the realms and the energies and the radiances throughout the life cycles, eternally, and forever." (Gina Cerminara, Insights for the Age of Aquarius, p. 265.) This has a world more meaning for me. "Thine be the glory" also points to the one reality within us from which and for which every action should proceed.

The final word of this prayer, and virtually all others in Christendom, is Amen, meaning "the concealed," that which is hidden or occult. This "is really that sounded 'Word' again, which you often see

written in Eastern writings and occurs in "The Light of Asia" as Om — the Sanscrit word, standing for that God within, the Self of all things and creatures. It is really the mechanical repetition of such prayers that makes people forget That in themselves which is deeper and holier than any words or prayers. -- Because . . . For the Children Who Ask Why?, p. 31

The Hebrew spelling is A-M-N — three letters comparable to the full spelling of Om, which is A-U-M. The three letters are syllables representing the Trinity in one. Some feel it should be uttered only in the silence of one's mind and heart, and I agree.

I do not believe it appropriate or necessary to modify the Lord's Prayer. Rather I would like to paraphrase it and to summarize the ideas thus far presented:

O Great Spirit, Our Parent (my inner divinity), which dwells in the silence of every being, intoned be thy sacred name. (Always and in everything rouse thy essential nature to achieve atonement.) May thy inner peace become realized, may thy will become our motive, here below in the manifest material world as it is in the perfected spheres above.
Nourish our aspirations every Now in duration; and compassionately restore nature's equilibrium, returning the effects of our causes so we may learn (thereby urging beneficent choices). Let not illusion's temptation lead us (into selfishness), so that we may always discern good from evil.
For issuing forth from thee are the realms and the energies and the radiances throughout the life cycles and the rest periods, eternally, and forever. AUM!

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1996. Copyright © 1996 by Theosophical University Press)


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