Skip to main content

The Words - 'Our Father'

By Sr Ann Catherine Swailes

This, of course, sounds very odd in English, because it’s not our natural word order, but it’s a different matter in other languages: in Latin, for instance – Pater Noster and in German Vater Unser.

It is also, as it happens, the way the prayer opens in Spanish, so when St Ignatius and St Teresa followed their own advice and prayed it, either in Latin or in their mother tongue, in the ways I’ve mentioned, the first word they dwelt on would not have been “our” but “Father”. For that matter, for those of us here who are English, our Anglo-Saxon forbears began the Lord’s Prayer not ure Faeder, but Faeder ure. So this isn’t just complete eccentricity on my part. And I’m going to approach it this way partly precisely because – again at least if we’re native English speakers - it’s not what we’re used to, and so it might make the phrase a bit less like the holy background music it sometimes becomes, something we say every time we go to Mass, and at least five times every time we pray the rosary, but whose meaning we perhaps don’t all that frequently ponder. It’s often a good thing to find techniques for freshening up our thinking like this. But I’m also doing this because I wonder if it might specifically in this case be helpful to ask first, what does it mean to say God is Father, and secondly, what does it mean to say that God is our Father. We have, perhaps, to have some idea of what Fatherhood in general, and God’s fatherhood in particular is like, before we can look at the implications of seeing ourselves in relationship to this paternity, seeing ourselves standing before God and calling Him Father.

And just one final preliminary before we really get going.  One answer, of course, to the question, why do we, or why should we, call God our Father, and it’s a perfectly respectable one, is that Jesus told us to. The older translation of the Mass reminded us of this: “Jesus taught us to call God our Father, and so we have the confidence to say…” It’s a less accurate rendering of the Latin than the one we hear in Church now, but it’s a perfectly accurate way of recalling what we are told in the gospels. “Lord, teach us to pray”, the disciples asked. “When you go into your chamber, say…” Jesus responds.   So, why should we call God our Father: well, because that’s what it says in the Bible we should do.

But there’s another equally respectable question:  why did Jesus tell us, why does the Bible tell us to call God our Father? Of course, it’s possible to ask questions like this in a haughty arrogant kind of a way, with the subtext of “why should I believe what Jesus or the Bible tells me anyway?” – but it’s also possible to do so in a humble way, a way that shows gratitude for the gifts of our minds and our hearts by using them to get to know the God better who gave them to us in the first place, and out of a desire that we will be able better to answer those we meet and care for who do not share our faith. In this sense, it’s never wrong to ask why.

And it’s particularly important in this case, because some people genuinely do find it hard to see why we should, or how we can, call God our Father, and they deserve an answer to this question that isn’t just a conversation stopper, but one that might actually help them to relate to the God who offers us a Father’s love, and longs for us to accept it.

So, what might it mean – and what, rather importantly, does it definitely not mean, to call God Father?



There is a story of St Therese of Lisieux who was encountered, towards the end of her short life, by one of the Carmelite novices in her community sitting with a rapt expression on her face while doing some sewing. “What are you thinking of?” the young sister asked. “I am meditating on the Our Father. It is so sweet to call God our Father”. And, we are told, tears glistened in her eyes.

We know, of course, that Therese’s relationship with her own father – now a canonised saint of the Church – was a particularly tender, loving and intimate one. Her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, paints a delightfully detailed picture of that relationship, and, indeed of Louis’ own character as a father. He took her fishing; taught her by example not only to give generously to the poor, but to do so with exquisite sensitivity; encouraged – at considerable cost to himself – her vocation to Carmel in which she would flourish. His terrifying descent into the darkness of dementia and his death wounded her terribly, but she had cherished memories of their time together. It’s easy to see, surely, why Therese found it sweet to think of God as being her Father, being like the father she had loved and lost. But it’s simply not like that for everyone, and some, including some for whom we care very much, perhaps even some of us ourselves, might be tempted to mutter a little bitterly “well, good for Therese” at this point.

 My own father, for instance, was a good man, but I did not have a tender intimate loving relationship with him as a child and adolescent – and he died when I was fourteen which meant I never had the chance as an adult to put this right or allow him to do so.  I know that, over the years, I have struggled with really relating to God as my Father, and I don’t think this is a coincidence.  And there are of course many for whom their experience of earthly fatherhood – or, indeed, their lack of experience of earthly fatherhood - has been far more of an obstacle to accepting the love of God the Father than that: victims of abuse, those whose fathers have not been around for them, those who have lost their fathers to suicide or warfare: the list goes on and on.

Here I think it can be helpful to recall a very basic difference between, on the one hand, our Christian tradition, and on the other, some of the rejections of that tradition that form the backdrop to our lives and the lives of our contemporaries.

In the first chapter of the Book of Genesis – a text to which we’ll return later - we read not only that God created us, but that He created us in His own image, so that when we look at ourselves and each other, and our life together, we see something, at least, of what God is like. By contrast, some of the most sophisticated and influential voices that have ever been raised against Christianity in our culture, proclaim precisely the opposite of this. Belief in God, in other words, is seen as the result of human beings looking at themselves and, so to speak creating Him in their image.  The 19th century German anthropologist and philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, for example, suggested that, amidst the suffering and confusion human beings experience, we long for there to be a God who will console us and who will give us immortal life, and so we have invented an imaginary deity for ourselves, whom we have endowed with all our own best qualities, which turn out to be remarkably like the qualities ascribed to God in the Bible. Feuerbach’s God is loving, wise, and loyal: He just happens not to exist.

 It’s important to see, I think that the fact that as Christians, we believe that we are made in God’s image rather than the reverse does not mean that we can simply ignore such challenges to our faith: actually, they have something important to teach us. In practice, human beings – including Christian human beings – do indeed have a tendency to mistake our images of God, which are inevitably drawn from our experience of those other images of God, our fellow human beings, for God Himself. Feuerbach was absolutely wrong to think that God was really nothing but such images, but he wasn’t wrong to think that we all have such images. And, sadly, it is, despite Feuerbach, not only the admirable and the inspiring aspects of human nature that form them. This is precisely why traumatic experiences of human fatherhood can be such a barrier to faith in the fatherhood of God. They are, as it were, the raw materials for shaping the idols we shudder before in fear, instead of worshipping the true and living God out of love. If our human father belittled or abandoned us, if he in any way proved himself untrustworthy, it may indeed be difficult, it may even seem impossible, for us to put our trust in God our heavenly Father. But believing that we are made in the image of God, and not he in ours, means that none of this has to be the last word.

Sr Tamsin told us a story last time about the experience of a group of teenagers in the US who were healed from their toxic experience of absentee and abusive fathers by their time at a Catholic summer camp. This was the first time, for many of them, that they had heard anyone tell them that God the Father loved them, but surely it was only possible for them to hear this message because the compassion and companionship of the mature Christian men who were doing the preaching made them credible witnesses of that love. They provided a visual aid, so to speak, for the lesson they were teaching, a lesson that, sadly, the young people under their care had not learned from their own upbringing.

 And something similar happens whenever priests are good fathers to their people, neither infantilising them nor failing to care for them. It happens when male teachers and family friends are good role models for boys; it happens when we see God’s fatherliness reflected in the saints who are literal, biological fathers – like St Louis Martin– but also in those who are fathers in other ways, like those founders of Religious orders whose spiritual sons and daughters share a family resemblance with them.

It’s even, I would suggest, what happens when we are touched by portrayals of fictional fathers.

And in that last case, incidentally, I’m not necessarily thinking of Great Literature. One of my guilty pleasures is the American TV serial Young Sheldon, the prequel to the – at any rate on this side of the Atlantic – better known The Big Bang Theory, a sit-com focusing on the lives and loves of a bunch of early career scientists at a prestigious US university. Young Sheldon explores the childhood and adolescence of one of this friendship group, an eccentric, lonely, possibly neuro-atypical little lad growing up in a small town in Texas. All his family are – to me at any rate –profoundly lovable, but his father, George, a high school football coach, is the real hero, and I urge you to make his acquaintance.

 If you do so, you’ll see that George loves his sometimes-infuriating wife and children deeply, and often imaginatively, makes costly sacrifices for them and (I gather; the last episodes haven’t yet been screened in the UK but there are spoilers all over the internet) leaves them devastated at his premature death. But he isn’t perfect: he can be lazy, irritable, and over-sensitive (especially where his mother-in-law is concerned) and more than a bit clueless.

And all this also makes an important part of what it means to say that we are made in the image of God, not the other way round. Because our own flesh and blood fathers, even the best of them, aren’t flawless either, and nor are our priests, our teachers, our friends, even the saints. Only God is the perfect Father. We see God the Father mirrored in our own fathers, and in the various fatherly figures we encounter, but more or less dimly mirrored, showing us something of the beauty and splendour of the divine Fatherhood but not the whole story.  That’s why, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we need to purify our images of God the Father, and why, in the Letter to the Ephesians, St Paul says that he ”bends his knee before the Lord, from whom all human paternity takes its name”: human fathers, so to speak, are called after God the Father, not the other way around, because He is their model, not the reverse.

And it’s also why – whatever our own experience of human fatherhood - we needn’t be bitter and despairing when we eavesdrop on St Therese telling us what the Fatherhood of God means to her. We do not have to make do with substitutes, drawn from our own painful memories. The God whom she saw reflected so clearly in St Louis Martin longs to be for all of us what He was in her life.

So, if all human fatherhood takes its name from divine fatherhood, what is that divine fatherhood like? Who is it we are worshipping when we worship God as Father?

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses asks the people of Israel: “Is He not your father who created you?”  Maybe then, one way into meditating on what we mean by calling God our Father might be to ask what our tradition suggests it might mean that God is our creator, and here the differences between human and divine fatherhood, as well as their similarities are perhaps important.

The novelist Marilynne Robinson, in her recent book entitled Reading Genesis points out some very striking differences between the first pages of the Bible and the creation stories that have survived from other cultures in the ancient Middle East. In these accounts, the existence of the universe as we know it is often the result of fierce conflict between the gods – in the Babylonian epic the Enuma Elish, for instance, the heavens and the earth are crafted by the god Marduk, from the body of the giant serpent goddess Tiamat, whom he has slain, with the tears streaming from her eyes becoming the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. As Robinson remarks, “This could hardly be more remote from the serenity of ‘Let there be…and there was’ “, the refrain that runs through the Genesis creation account. And this is closely related to another difference. The gods of the ancient myths have needs: the God the Bible reveals does not. 

 The very fact that the gods in the Enuma Elish are locked in mortal combat with each other, fighting for dominance amongst themselves, suggests that none of them are almighty, and this is also shown in the way that they create not simply by speaking effortlessly, as the God of Genesis does, but from pre-existing raw materials.

And the human beings they fashion in due course, are brought into being so that they can cater to the gods’ wishes and whims. They build houses for them, they feed them, sometimes fight proxy wars for them and so on. Their only value lies in their being useful to the gods, and when they cease to be useful, or indeed when they are a just a nuisance, the gods have no hesitation in simply eliminating them. There is even a story in which a goddess wipes out whole tribes of human beings because they are making too much noise and disturbing her sleep: surely more extreme than even the angriest parent banging on their teenage offspring’s bedroom and declaring “if you don’t turn that racket down, I’ll come in there and give you what for!”

More fundamentally, the needs of the gods imply a neediness that is completely absent from the biblical account.  It is sometimes suggested – in not very good First Holy Communion catechesis for instance – that God created the world and all that it contains, because He was lonely and wanted someone to love Him. In fact, it would be truer to say that God creates the world, not for His sake, but for ours. God doesn’t need our love, not only because he doesn’t need anything, but because God is love:  the three Persons of the blessed Trinity love each other perfectly for all eternity. But just because God is love He creates; pouring out that love into and onto His creatures.

And perhaps that is also part of what is implied in those serene words “let there be…” God lets His creation be, not in the sense of leaving it alone and not caring for it; no single atom in the universe would exist if God did not hold it in being. But in the sense that God lets us, and all of creation, be what we are made to be, simply because He loves us, and in loving us brings us into being. As theologian and permanent deacon Frederick Bauerschmidt puts it, “if what it means for us to love someone or something is to say, ‘I am glad you exist’, what it means for God to love us is for God to say, ‘because I am glad, you exist”.

And this too is an important insight into the perfection of God’s Fatherhood. In all human relationships, there is inevitably need on both sides. Children, of course, need to know that their parents love them, but the reverse is also true: the deepest reason that parents are glad that their children exist is surely the love they experience from them, and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with any of this: on the contrary, it is beautiful and good.

But this good and beautiful thing can become warped: parents can use their children to satisfy their needs in all sorts of ways that are neither legitimate nor healthy. There are horrific and dramatic instances of child abuse within families, of course, but also far more subtle – and far more common- distortions, which are the very opposite of the letting be we were thinking about a moment ago.

Parents can seek to make their offspring in their own image, or in the image of the person they would have liked to have been had their own upbringing only permitted it; as the years go by, they can refuse to let them be adults because they crave the security they find in caring for children, and so on. None of this is – in all probability – the parents’ fault: they too have been shaped by the neediness of their own parents, and so on, and so on. But it is damaging: God the Father who has no needs, and therefore no neediness, does not do this. And it can be healing for some of us to hear it.


So, God is Father. But what does it mean to say that He is “our” Father specifically? It is sometimes suggested that this description of God is unique to the New Testament, and therefore to Christianity. It’s an ancient opinion: writing in the third century after Christ, the Egyptian theologian Origen remarked that nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures could he find evidence that the OT people of God saw him as their Father.  But it’s not quite accurate, although, as we shall see, there is something new, and unique, and profoundly important about the way in which Christians are privileged to address God by this title.

We have already noticed one Old Testament text which talks of God as our Father and creator, and there are plenty of other places where “Father” language is used of God, and “children” language used of human beings. It’s important to stress this, because as Christians we are sometimes tempted to imagine that the Scriptures presents us with two different Gods: a stern, wrathful overlord in the Hebrew Bible and a gentle, loving Father in the Gospels, almost, as I once heard a preacher put it, as though the Almighty had gone on an anger management course between the two Testaments. This has never been the Church’s official teaching: in fact, Marcion who proposed in the second century that the OT should be omitted from Christian Bibles on this account was condemned as a heretic, but that hasn’t stopped it being influential, and if we allow it to influence us, it will deprive us of some really beautiful resources with which to reflect on the Fatherhood of God. To give just one example, there is that lovely passage in the prophet Hosea, where the people of Israel are compared to a toddler whom the Lord carries in His arms, presses to His cheeks, bends down to feed, and teaches to walk. That surely tells us something very important about what God the Father is and is not like, which, again, perhaps some of us, or some of those we know and love, need to hear.

But nevertheless, there is a newness in what the New Testament tells us about God as our Father, and this brings us back to the question from which we started: we call God our Father because Jesus told us to, but why does He tell us to do that?

Jesus did indeed tell us to call God our Father. But we also know, of course, that Jesus Himself calls God his Father. There is, so to speak, a relationship between His relationship with God the Father and our relationship with God the Father. And this has some exciting implications.

First, of course, it means that we are, as it were, members of Jesus’ family, His brothers and sisters, children of the same God whom He and we call Father. And that in turn, of course means that we are brothers and sisters of all the other friends and disciples of Jesus, all His other brothers and sisters, throughout the world, and throughout history, all those who have learned to call God their Father. And not even only of them, which, of course, is a beautiful and inspiring thought, but also a daunting one.

 In Piers Plowman, the only surviving work of the Medieval English poet William Langland, in which the narrator has a series of dreams in which he is brought to understand the Christian life ever more deeply, he hears Jesus stating that both because He shares our human nature and because He shed His blood for all humanity, all human beings are His “blood brothers”, or in Langland’s rather alarming Middle English, his “bloody brethren”. This comes at the climax of the whole poem, when the narrator has fallen asleep in church on Palm Sunday and finds himself present at the events Holy Week commemorates. Here, Jesus is giving a kind of victory speech to the devil and his angels, as He bursts the bars of the underworld and releases those held captive there. Much earlier in the poem Langland tells us of the obligations this blood brotherhood lays on Christians: beggars, for instance are to fed and clothed because they are our “brethren by blood, for God bought us all”, and here, at the harrowing of hell, he has Jesus remind us that we cannot (which perhaps more realistically means that at any rate we should not) see our brethren, any of our brethren, wounded with suffering without showing pity on them. The family obligation involved in being a brother or sister of Jesus, then, is universal and unlimited.

And that could be a somewhat overwhelming thought. Fortunately, though, there is another implication of that relationship between Jesus calling God His Father and our doing the same that gives us reason to hope.

As Christians, we can dare to call God our Father as Jesus does, not simply because we are His brothers and sisters, but also because, through our baptism, we are so closely related to Jesus that we are members – cells, organs and limbs - of His body the Church. We share as it were not merely a family resemblance to Jesus but his very DNA. His name is our name, as St Paul tells the Church at Corinth: you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.  When our bloody brethren cry out in their pain and we have pity on them, it is to Christ Himself that we show mercy: when we feed or clothe the “least of our brothers and sisters”, or visit them in sickness or imprisonment, as Jesus Himself tells us, we feed or clothe or visit Him.

And perhaps at first sight this makes things still more alarming, especially when we remember how this passage from St Matthew’s Gospel goes on. If we do not do these things, it will be Jesus Himself whom we are not feeding, clothing or visiting, and, as I once heard a preacher somewhat understatedly put it, the consequences of this for us will not be very nice: having failed to recognise Jesus in the poor and the suffering, we will be deprived of His company for all eternity. But just because we, like our brothers and sisters, are members of Christ’s body, there is a sense in which, as St Augustine puts it, the voice of Jesus is our voice, and His is ours. When we call out to his Father for those in need, when we pray for strength to serve Christ in our brothers and sisters, our prayer is His prayer, His strength our strength. We need not fear that we are unequal to the task, because Jesus is not unequal to the task and His Father is truly our Father.

And so it turns out that to call God our Father is not only to reveal something about God. It is also to learn something quite awe-inspiring about ourselves and our dignity as His children. It truly is sweet to call Him Our Father in His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.