I’ve been thinking about prayer today. Maybe because of what happened yesterday. I lost my cell phone and mentioned my plight on my Facebook page. Several friends responded with good advice about reporting it, getting a replacement, etc. I ordered a replacement phone at 5 p.m. Monday and it arrived at 1 p.m. Tuesday! With only a $50 deductible, I’ve got a brand new Blackberry Pearl just like the one that was lost/stolen.
So, when I realized it was missing, I immediately made the sign of the cross and said, “Lord help me.” Then I proceeded to ask people for help. My daughter had the quickest most practical advice. But when I looked at my Facebook status, I noticed more than one of my Orthodox friends said to pray to St. Phanourios.
By that time I was on my way to solving the problem, and didn’t want to take the time to bake a cake, which is the tradition when St. Phanourios helps you find a lost object. So, I just left him out of my prayers. And even when I prayed, “Lord help me,” I didn’t actually say, “help me find my cell phone,” or “help me get another one quickly,” or anything specific. Just, “Lord, help me.”
I think it’s a practice I’ve developed as an Orthodox Christian which differs greatly from my prayer life as a Protestant.
As a child growing up in the Presbyterian Church, I memorized the Lord’s Prayer, but it was really the only liturgical prayer I remember being taught. During my teen years, I was involved in Bible study groups and youth groups in various churches, and I was introduced to “spontaneous” prayer, a practice which I continued into my college years, even writing some of them down in notebooks.
So why did this St. Phanourios thing trip me up yesterday? He’s one of many saints that Orthodox Christians have traditionally prayed to for help with specific needs for generations. And yet, somehow this tradition harks back to the Protestant tradition of asking for specific things when you pray. Or at least that’s the way I remember it. Like, “Please help me make an A on this test,” or “Please let so-and-so (a boy) love me back.” When I have a headache, I don’t usually pray to St. John the Baptist to cure it. Instead, I usually take two Tylenol and try to take a break from the computer or the heat or whatever activity I’m doing. And yes, sometimes I say, “Lord, have mercy,” and I cross myself.
All this got me to thinking about how Jesus taught us to pray. When teaching men to pray, Christ said,
Pray then like this: 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 trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13, cf Luke 11:2-4)
Of course Christians from both Eastern and Western traditions embrace the Lord’s Prayer, but I wonder if we “interpret” it differently? The only place in this prayer where we ask for something that could be interpreted as a physical need is when we say, “give us this day our daily bread.” But some Orthodox saints explain that part of the prayer as us asking for something spiritual.
“St. Isidore Pelousiotes says: The prayer which the Lord taught does not contain anything earthly, but everything is heavenly and looks to the profit of the soul, even that which appears to be unimportant and sensible.”
Other theologians say that the prayer can mean both, give us our spiritual bread, which is Christ, but also our physical bread, which can mean food, clothes, houses, cell phones….
I love how we say, “Lord, have mercy” about a hundred times during the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church, because that’s what we always need—mercy. And truthfully, we don’t always know what’s best for us, but God does.
What’s your approach to prayer? Do you routinely ask God for specific things—a job for your son, a healthy birth for your first grandchild, success on exams for your kids in school, your house to sell? I’ve certainly prayed for those specific things at times, but then I always think, “so, what does it mean if I get the thing I prayed for…. or if I don’t?”
My spiritual father has a saying that I love: “Pray and do the right thing.” It’s synergistic—us working together with God. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to learn. Good thing we’ve got a lifetime here on earth to practice.