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The Structure of the Lord's Prayer

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Sketch of Rudolf Steiner lecturing at the East-West Conference in Vienna.

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The Structure of the Lord's Prayer

Schmidt Number: S-1482

On-line since: 12th January, 1998

A Lecture By
Rudolf Steiner
Karlsruhe, 4th February, 1907
GA 97

Translated by A. H. Parker from a shorthand report unrevised by the lecturer. The original text is included in the volume of the Complete Edition of the works of Rudolf Steiner, entitled: Dar christliche Mysterium. (No. 97 in the Bibliographical Survey, 1961). This volume contains the texts and notes of thirty-one lectures, also of answers to questions, given by Rudolf Steiner in different places between 9th February, 1906 and 17th March, 1907.

This English edition of the following lecture is published by permission of the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland.

Copyright © 1971
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[ Note | Lecture ]

Thanks to an anonymous donation, this lecture has been made available.


The following lecture was given by Rudolf Steiner to an audience familiar to some extent with the contents of other lectures on different aspects of Christianity. In should be remembered that in his autobiography, The Course of My Life, he emphasizes the distinction between his written works on the one hand and, on the other, reports of lectures which were given as oral communications and were not originally intended for print.

Readers are reminded that the following lecture is printed here for the first time in English and must not be confused with another which has been available for some years on the same subject but with a different title, given by Rudolf Steiner in Berlin a few weeks earlier.

A brief list of publications in English translation of other lectures and of a fundamental book on the subject of Christianity will be found at the end of the text, together with a summarized plan of the Complete Edition of the works of Rudolf Steiner in the original German.


ALL the formulae of a devotional or petitionary character, wise saws, aphorism and the like will be found at all times to contain much that touches upon the hidden mysteries of existence. But we must realize that all the different religions practiced prayer, but differed in one particular aspect in that some practiced prayer more in the form of so-called meditation, whilst Christianity and a few other religions practiced true prayer in the sense we know it to-day. On the whole, meditation is characteristic of the oriental religions. Meditation implies identification with some specific spiritual theme or object so that the meditator finds union with the divine Ground through this spiritual theme or object with which he is identified. Let us be quite clear that there are religions which, for example, prescribe for their members exercises in meditation, definite formulae of a devotional character on which they concentrate their mind, and as they concentrate upon these formulae they feel that divine spiritual life permeates their soul and that the individual, at this moment, is merged with the divine Ground. These formulae, however, belong to the mental realm. Fundamentally Christian prayer is no different except that its content is associated more with the emotional nature and feeling part of man. The Christian merges with the all-pervasive divine Being more through his emotions and feelings.

One should not imagine however that Christian prayer was always understood in this sense, nor indeed should it be understood in the manner in which it is frequently understood to-day. Now there exists an original, archetypal Christian prayer in which Christ Jesus Himself has indicated in the clearest possible way what attitude of mind the Christian should adopt towards prayer. And the injunction of this original prayer is simply this: “Oh my Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou willt.” Now let us look closely at these final words. We are first of all faced with a definite request — Christ asks to be spared the cup of suffering; but at the same time we are asked to surrender to the Divine Will: “Not as I will but as Thou willt.” This frame of mind which, when we pray, allows the Divine Will to pervade us, wills nothing for itself, but allows the Godhead to will in us, this frame of mind, this attitude of surrender must form the undercurrent, the key-note of prayer, if prayer is to reflect the Christian spirit.

So long as this spirit of humility prevails it is clear that it is impossible to practice petitionary prayer. And there are additional reasons why it is impossible to pray to God for the gratification of one's desires: one person would pray for rain, another for sunshine and both would be motivated by self interest. Or take the case where two armies are facing each other. Before the battle is joined each side prays for victory. But it is obviously impossible to grant both requests. But if the spirit in which one asks is, “Not my will but Thine be done”, then the petition is irrelevant — one surrenders to the divine Will. If I wish to make a particular request I leave it to the divine Being to decide whether my request should be granted or not.

This is the predominant spirit of Christian prayer and it is this spirit that gave birth to that universal, all-embracing prayer of Christian tradition, the Lord's Prayer, which according to Christian tradition was taught by Christ Himself. This prayer must, in fact, be reckoned amongst the most profound of all prayers. To-day we cannot really measure the full depth and dimensions of the Lord's Prayer as revealed by the original language in which it was taught. But the thought-content is so powerful that it could lose nothing of its effectiveness in translation into any language.

When we turn to the prayers of other peoples, we find, wherever religions have reached their high-point, prayers such as I have described to you. But when the various religions declined, these prayers inevitably lost something of their true character. They have become magical formulae, instruments of idolatry, and in the epoch when Christ Jesus taught His followers to pray, many of these magic formulae — all of which had their particular significance in their place of origin — were in common use. These magic formulae were always associated with worldly desires, with personal demands of a self-interested nature. Jesus taught that petitionary prayer, asking for oneself, was contrary to the Christian idea of prayer. Such prayers were secular in intention. When the Christian prays he should withdraw into his inner chamber, into the inner recesses of the soul where he can unite with the divine, spiritual Being. We must realize that in each of us dwells a spark of the Divine, that we partake of the Divine nature. But it would be wrong to assume that the creature is therefore commensurate with the Creator. When we say that man partakes of the Divine this does not imply that man himself is divine. A drop of water from the ocean is of the same element as the ocean, but is certainly not the ocean. So too the human soul is a drop from the ocean of the Godhead, but it is not God. Just as the drop can unite with its own element when returned to the ocean, so, as a drop from the Godhead, the soul unites spiritually in prayer or meditation with its God. This union of the soul with its God is called by Christ entering into the inner chamber.

Now that we have described the nature of Christian prayer and what is demanded of the Christian in prayer we shall be able to turn our attention to the content of the Lord's Prayer itself. I stated that the Lord's Prayer is the most all-embracing prayer. Therefore, in order to understand the Lord's Prayer, it is necessary to begin by widening the scope of our enquiries; we shall need to make many a detour in order to grasp its full meaning. We must study the being of man from a certain angle. As you know, we follow the traditional method which spiritual investigation has practiced over thousands of years. Let us briefly recall the nature of man's being.

First there is the physical body. Its substances and forces are identical with the mineral kingdom and the whole of inorganic nature. This physical body however is not, as the materialist imagines, simply an object in space, but it is also the lowest member of the human being. The next member is the etheric or life-body which man shares in common with the plants and animals, for every plant, animal or human being must call upon the chemical and physical substances so that they are galvanized into life, since of themselves they would remain inert. The third member is the astral body, the bearer of joy and sorrow, of impulses, desires and passions and the normal impressions of daily life. All these are the province of the astral body. Man shares this astral body only with the animal kingdom for the animal also is subject to joy and sorrow, impulses, desires and passions. To sum up, therefore: man shares the physical body in common with inorganic nature, the etheric with all that grows and propagates, with the entire plant kingdom, and the astral body with the animal kingdom. In addition there is a fourth member of his being which raises him above these kingdoms of nature and makes him the crown of Creation.

Such is the conclusion we arrive at after a little reflection. Now there is a name which differs from all others, the “ I ”, which can only refer to oneself. To everyone else I am a “thou”, and everyone else is a “thou” to me. As a name for the identity of the individual, the “ I ” can only arise within the soul itself; it cannot be experienced from without. The great religions have always been aware of this and therefore they said: when the soul recognizes itself as an “ I ”, then the God in man begins to speak, the God who speaks through the soul. The name “ I ” cannot be experienced from without, it must be experienced within the soul itself. This is the fourth principle or member of the human being.

The occult science of the Hebrews called this “ I ” the ineffable name of God. “Jahve” signifies simply “I am”. Wherever interpretations may be given by external scholarship, it really meant “I am”, namely, the fourth principle of the human being. Man consists of these four principles and we call them the four principles of man's lower nature.

Now if we wish to understand the being of man as a whole, we must look back into the history of human evolution. We can trace in retrospect the many and diverse peoples who precede us: the old Teutonic and Central European civilization, the Greco-Latin and Chaldean peoples, the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Hebrews, the Persian peoples, even as far back as the Indian people from whom our present civilization stemmed. And in their turn the Indian people could look back to their forebears who dwelt in Atlantis, the continent which now forms the ocean-bed between Europe and America. Atlantis was destroyed by a series of deluges and vanished beneath the waters. The memory of this catastrophe has survived in the myths and legends of all peoples as the story of the Flood.

But even this civilization is not the oldest on earth. We can look back to still earlier times when man inhabited a continent that was situated approximately between the present Indo-China, Australia and Africa — ancient Lemuria, a continent of immemorial antiquity where totally different conditions from those of to-day prevailed. Usually we are not sufficiently aware of the vast and sweeping changes on earth in the course of human evolution. Now at this time the lower principles in man were already in eminence, and this continent was inhabited by beings consisting of the four principles, physical body, etheric body, astral body and the ego-nature. These beings were more highly organized than the highest animals of to-day, but had not reached the human stage. They were animal-men, yet different from the existing animals of our time. The latter are degenerate descendants which have evolved from these animal-men as a result of retardation and degeneration. The Lemurian beings, therefore, living at that time underwent a quite specific modification.

At that time they were ready to receive a certain force, the force of our higher soul to-day. There took place what we may describe as the union of the lower human nature with the human soul. Up to this time this human soul rested in the bosom of the Godhead, was an integral part of the Godhead Himself. Above therefore, in the realm of the spiritual, we have the divine-spiritual Being; below, the human envelopes consisting of four principles which had evolved so far that they were able to receive “drops” of this Godhead. We can illustrate what took place at that time by the following analogy. Picture a glass full of water. Let us imagine a number of sponges each containing a drop of this water. The drops which had previously formed an integral part of the water are now distributed amongst the sponges. This is a simple illustration which serves to show how the process of ensoulment took place at that time. Hitherto the soul had been one with the divine First Cause, just as the drop had been one with the water. These physical human envelopes behaved exactly as the sponges. These spiritual “drops”, separated from the common divine substance, became individualized. When they became souls they were like drops within the envelopes and from that moment actively began to fashion man as a physical and spiritual being such as he is to-day. These souls incarnated for the first time in the Lemurian epoch, then passed through innumerable incarnations and developed their physical body to its present stage. Thus parts of the Godhead were united with the lower principles of man's being. With each embodiment these souls progressively evolved, with each embodiment they became more perfect in order to attain a higher stage of being in the future.

This part of the higher nature which at that time was united with the lower nature and transformed it, and in the process of this transformation raised itself to a higher level, we call the higher principle of man's being: Spirit Self (Manas), Life Spirit (Buddhi), and Spirit Man (Atma). These are the aspects of the divine Essence by means of which man transforms in gradual stages his lower nature into the higher nature. By means of the force working within Manas he transforms his astral body, through the force of Buddhi he transforms his etheric body and through that of Atma the physical body. Therefore in order to attain the goal of his evolution he must transfigure and spiritualize these three bodies. Formerly, man consisted of the four lower principles — physical body, etheric body, astral body and ego, to which was added at that time the germ of higher development which in reality is an emanation of the highest spiritual principle, namely the higher Triad, the divine Essence, the spiritual potentiality of man. Now we can look at this higher aspect of human nature from two standpoints: on the one hand as the higher nature of man which he is to evolve in the course of evolution, or on the other, as an aspect of the divine Being from which he has emerged, as the Divine aspect in man. Christ takes the second point of view first. We shall follow the same course and enquire into the nature of these higher forces in human nature. We shall start from the highest principle, the force of Atma working within man.

I would now like to characterize for you the true nature and essence of this higher principle of human nature rather than to offer you some kind of superficial definition. That which becomes the force of Atma is, in so far as it is a force emanating from the Godhead, of a volitional nature. If you pause to reflect upon your own power of volition, upon your will power, then you have a pale copy, a pale reflection of that which proceeds from the force of Atma, from the Godhead. Will is the power or force which is least developed to-day. The will, however, has the potentiality to grow increasingly in strength until a time will come when it reaches its maximum potentiality, when it will be able to attain its goal, which the religions call the “Great Sacrifice”.

Now imagine you are looking into a mirror. Your reflection is a faithful copy of your physiognomy, imitates your every gesture, resembles you in every respect, but it is a lifeless image of yourself. You stand before the mirror as a living being and are faced with your lifeless image, which resembles you in every detail, but is without the living reality, the essential self. Imagine that your will had developed to the point when it was able to make the decision to sacrifice your own existence, your own being, or to surrender it to your reflected image. You would then be in a position to sacrifice yourself wholly in order to endow your reflected image with your own life. Of such a will we say: it emanates, it pours out its own nature. What Christianity terms “the divine Will of the Father” is