The Lord’s Koan

The Catechism of the Council of Trent, also known as the “Roman Catechism,” devotes twelve dense pages to explaining the meaning of “lead us not into temptation.”  The catechism of the Second Vatican Council, simply called The Catechism of the Catholic Church, despite its extensive treatment of prayer, offers in contrast only four brief and independent bullet points  (Nos. 2846-9). The one is a masterpiece of elucidation, counsel, and argument; the other reads a bit like a PowerPoint slide.

This difference is a fact.  Likewise, a fact is the relative lightness of treatment of fear of God, spiritual combat, and the perils of final perseverance in the more recent Council and Catechism, as compared with those of Trent.

Do not misunderstand me.  I don’t draw these contrasts to imply anything invidious, in either direction.  No statement of anything can be a statement of everything.  Catholicity, of its nature it would seem, must welcome complementarity.  And there can be complementarity in presentations of the faith as well as in liturgies.

Here, rather, I am interested simply in the fact that this petition, “Lead us not into temptation,” is apparently so rich in implicit meaning that the learned expositors of the faith who wrote the Roman Catechism could devote twelve pages to it, and found it fruitful to do so.  This fact in turn testifies, it would seem, to the divine wisdom of the particular wording of that petition, which has been passed down to us from the Apostles.

That is to say, if we view the petition pedagogically.  Undeniably, “lead us not into temptation,” asked of God, is challenging.  One teacher’s “confusing and potentially misleading” statement,  however, is another teacher’s puzzle, or koan, or paradox set forth precisely to be unraveled.

Or turn the matter upside down: suppose you had to pick a short phrase, a brief petition, which would capture everything unfolded in those twelve pages of exposition, what would you pick?  What other expression could possibly have the same effect?  By the nature of the case it couldn’t be something that was straightforward, obvious on its face, and easily grasped.

Look at the Lord’s Prayer as it leads up to that petition.  It presents a picture that is, as it were, rather flattering to us, and such as might even encourage a certain complacency, if taken on its own.

“Our Father” — we are children of God, then, on good terms with him, it seems. “Hallowed be thy name,” — we apparently find it natural and easy to revere him.  “Thy Kingdom come” — so we are on his side!  “as we forgive those who trespass against us,” — we even seem to be “proactive” in forgiving sins, forgiving them before God forgives us.

Yes, I am aware that these are all “petitions,” and that we tend to ask for things we want but don’t yet have, or don’t possess securely.  But how much of this more “cautious” mode of reading the opening of the Lord’s Prayer comes from our habits of reading back into it the cautiousness of “Lead us not into temptation”?

Again, look at the Lord’s Prayer from the point of view of a teacher.


You, as a teacher, want to convey the ideal condition of a disciple of yours: confident in his divine filiation; reverent towards holy things; zealously apostolic for the spread of the Kingdom; merciful and forgiving towards his neighbor.

But then, you also want to be sure to position such a disciple in the world as he will actually face it, highlighting just and only the things that matter.  How do you do so with a couple more brief petitions?

“Do not tempt me”?  Unnecessary to say.   “Temptations exist”?  Not a petition at all; not something you’d say in conversation with another person.  “Give me strength for the combat”?  Now we’re getting closer to the mark.

But what combat — nothing has been said so far about any combat, a war, or an enemy.  And not all temptations look like combat.  Temptations are tricky.  And combat calls for steadfastness and courage, but virtues other than these are needed in the face of many temptations.

And besides, steadfastness and courage connote self-reliance rather than the necessary reliance on God.

“Do not allow me to face temptation”?  But God does allow us, often testing us by permitting us to be tempted.  The Bible is filled with examples.

“Do not allow me to fall into temptation”? (The language adopted by some bishops’ conferences recently.)  But many temptations are insidious, growing imperceptibly, not something we “fall” into at all.

Or do you mean, rather, “do not allow me to fall, once tempted”?  But then this includes two things at least, not simply “Give me the grace not to fall into sin when tempted,” but also “Do not, as you sometimes do, and may justly do, by withholding your grace, allow me to fall into additional sin as punishment for my past sins”.

Yes, the Roman Catechism patiently explains, these are both among the petitions so elegantly contained within the simple and brief, “lead us not into temptation.”  And yet not only these but also, for example, “Keep me from the perversity of using your blessings, such as beauty and wealth, as instruments of sin,” and “Keep me from becoming corrupted by prosperity.”

A whole world is introduced by that simple petition, a world where, as the Roman Catechism explains, a Christian must practice watchfulness (“Satan is overcome not by indolence, sleep, wine, revealing, or lust; but by prayer, labor, watching, fasting, continence, and chastity”): and distrust of self and confidence in God (“It will be most efficacious when offering this Petition that, remembering our weakness, we distrust our own strength”).

“Let no one indulge feelings of self-complacency,” the Roman Catechism warns, nor flatter himself that he can “withstand the temptations and hostile assaults of the demons” without serious divine assistance from the sacraments.

It is the Lord’s koan, disturbing, inducing caution yet reliance upon him, jarring us out of self-complacency.


*Image: The Temptation of St Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500-1510 [Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO]

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy’s Lead Us Not into Temptation, But Deliver Us From Evil

St. Augustine of Hippo’s Lead us not into temptation

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.