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Week Three: “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread”
When I was a senior in college, I used to sit down and talk regularly with one of my theology professors, a Dominican priest. I was discerning a vocation with the Passionist community at the time and had to decide whether to apply for acceptance to novitiate after college. I remember a particular conversation in which I communicated my anxiety about this decision. I was fearful that I would not make the right choice, and I wondered if I “had what it took” even to think about becoming a Passionist priest. After I finished pouring out my concerns and confusion, this wise professor just sat back in his chair and said to me, “Robin, you just have to trust that God will give you what you need.”
I was struck by the simplicity of his response to me. He is a very learned man who is conversant with the intricacies of theology. I was expecting a response that was more subtle and intellectual. Instead, he simply invited me to trust that God would give me what was necessary to make a good choice and implement that choice. His comment stuck in my mind in the days following our meeting, and I remember it to this day, almost thirty years later.
In the structure of the Lord’s Prayer, there is a transition from a beginning that attunes our minds and hearts to God’s concerns, to a series of petitions that voice what we need as disciples. We begin with the grander vision – asking that God’s name be hallowed and immersing ourselves in the commitment to God’s reign. The beginning of this great prayer is “other-centered.” But then we proceed to ask about more earthbound realities, those things that we need in order to fulfill the will of God and work for the coming of the kingdom. And so we ask God to give us our daily bread, beginning with “this day” but knowing that we must also ask again tomorrow and each day after tomorrow.
There is something very down-to-earth about this petition. Leonardo Boff captures this quality well in his reflection on the Lord’s Prayer: “No matter how high the spirit soars, no matter how deep our mystical probing, or how metaphysical our abstract thinking, the human being will always be dependent on a piece of bread, a cup of water – in short, on a handful of matter” (The Lord’s Prayer, 75). Pope Benedict XVI observes, “Anyone who asks for bread for today is poor. This prayer presupposes the poverty of the disciples” (Jesus of Nazareth, 152). In asking for daily bread for this day, we acknowledge our complete dependence upon the care and providence of God, even for the smallest things in life.
Notice that we ask not for “my” bread but for “our” bread. We acknowledge that we are relational, interdependent beings whose personal welfare is intertwined with that of all of our sisters and brothers. Benedict XVI underlines the importance of this word “our”: “Here, too, we pray in the communion of the disciples, in the communion of the children of God, and for this reason no one may think only of himself. … we also pray for bread for others. Those who have an abundance of bread are called to share” (151). Reflecting on this prayer from the vantage point of the poor of the third world, Boff observes: “God does not hear the prayer that asks only for my bread. A genuine relationship with God calls for maintaining a relationship with others. When we present God with our own needs, he wants us to include those of our brothers and sisters. Otherwise the bonds of fellowship are severed and we live only for ourselves. We all share the same basic necessity; collective satisfaction of that need makes us brothers and sisters” (77). As disciples who pray daily for “our bread,” we are challenged to become ever more conscious of the scourge of hunger in our world. Asking for our daily bread implies a commitment to do what we can (even if it seems very little) to eliminate hunger and malnutrition in the world.
We ask God, then, for our concrete needs. On the one hand, we know that prayer involves more than just petition. If our prayer consists simply of asking God “for stuff” then it is superficial and self-centered. At the same time, by including this petition for our daily bread in the prayer that he taught his disciples, Jesus assured us that it is essential to ask God for all that we need in life. In his wonderful little book, On Prayer, Karl Rahner includes a section entitled “Prayer in Our Needs” (65-80). Rahner suggests that we should avoid two extremes in our conversation with God. The first is limiting prayer to petition. But the other extreme is also detrimental to our relationship with God, i.e., ceasing to ask God for what we need. Rahner points out that some people give up on praying for their specific needs because they feel that their prayers have not been answered. They conclude that it’s no use to ask. Others think that any petitions that we place before God should concern only “the lofty needs of the soul.” We should not ask for things like food on our table, healing from sickness, a good job, safe travel, etc. Our petitions should be only for spiritual realities like patience, purity of heart, courage, and the like. Rahner argues that both extremes are wrong. It is indeed true that prayer entails more than petition. At the same time, “we feel a deep need to turn to God and lift pleading hands of prayer to him” (70). Rahner observes, “A truly Christian prayer of petition is a prayer which is essentially human” (76).
As he often does, Rahner points us to the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. In his prayer Jesus asks that the cup of suffering be removed from him. He makes this plea in all his anguish. As Rahner notes, Jesus “did not ask for something sublime or heavenly, but for that mortal life to which we all cling so tenaciously” (75). At the same time, Jesus exemplifies a readiness to accept the will of the Father: “Not my will but yours be done.” Through this prayer Jesus shows us how to come before God honestly with our concrete needs. His prayer is deeply human: he asks that he be spared this suffering. At the same time, he teaches us that in asking for our concrete needs we must entrust ourselves to God, realizing that God knows and sees in a way that we cannot know and see. And we do so with trust that God always desires what is best for us. Rahner writes, “To lead a truly Christian life is to place one’s whole being into the hands of God as confidently as a child takes the guiding hand of its father” (78-79).
My oldest brother, Tom, died of malignant brain cancer last summer. He had been diagnosed the summer before (2005) and had undergone surgery and chemotherapy. The physicians told us that he had a particularly virulent form of cancer that almost always comes back. I remember a conversation I had with one of my relatives in the fall after Tom’s diagnosis. Tom was still in the clear after his surgery, but all of us were waiting for the other shoe to drop. This relative, who is a prayerful person, expressed her deep confusion and frustration to me about her prayer. She said that with Tom’s illness, and in a couple of other situations that were important to her, it seemed that God was not answering her prayers. No matter how hard she prayed, things did not seem to be getting any better in any of these situations. She suggested to me that, given Tom’s diagnosis, maybe we should not pray for healing for Tom. Maybe we should just pray to be able to accept God’s will and leave it at that.
I, too, was struggling with how to pray at that moment. But as I thought about it, a couple of things seemed to become clear. First of all, it was important for this relative, for me and for all of us to bring our feelings of fear and frustration directly to God. We needed to come to God as we were, with our confusion and our feelings of loss. That was the only way in which our communication with God would be able to continue and to deepen throughout this ordeal. Second, it seemed to me that we did need to pray for healing for my brother, all the while entrusting him and ourselves to God’s faithful care and providence. It was the natural and loving thing to want our brother to be healed of cancer, even though according to the physicians such a healing did not appear likely. Not to pray for healing would seem inhuman. And we could be sure that God would hear and answer our prayer for healing. That healing might not be a cure from cancer, as it was not in the long run. But it could well be a healing for Tom in spirit and mind and the ultimate healing of eternal life. It could also be healing and consolation for the family. To come before God with honesty at that moment meant bringing our confusing welter of feelings honestly to God and asking God that our concrete, earthy needs be met.
As we reflect on this petition for our daily bread this week, I would suggest that we come before God and honestly present our needs to him. What is it that you need right now in order to continue and grow in your life as a follower of Jesus? No matter how sophisticated we become in the spiritual life, we still need regularly to come to God and tell God everything – the whole works – and allow God to be there with us and for us. Pouring out our souls to God in this honest way enables us to perceive the reality of God’s presence in our lives more deeply. In your dialogue with the Lord this week, ask for the bread that you need to sustain you at this moment in your life. Speak very concretely to God. As you do, ask for the grace to entrust your cares and your entire self to God more deeply.
Fr. Robin Ryan, cp
Suggestions for Daily Prayer:
Online Bible Resource
Monday -- Slowly pray Psalm 147. This beautiful prayer celebrates the God who gives us what we need. It tells us that God “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” God “takes no delight in the strength of horses.” Rather, God “takes pleasure in the devout, those who await his faithful care.” As you pray this psalm, bring your own personal needs to God with trust in God’s faithful care.
Tuesday – Read and reflect on First Kings 19: 1-18. This is the compelling story of Elijah, one of the great prophets of Israel. Elijah has just taken on the prophets of Baal singlehandedly and confronted the powerful king and queen (Ahab and Jezebel). Usually dauntless in spirit, Elijah is now frightened and on the run to save his own life. He is in dire need of God’s help and waits to experience the presence of God. He discovers this divine presence in “the tiny whispering sound.” Reflect on what this passage says to you about God’s presence in your life.
Wednesday -- Read Romans 8: 28-39. Paul celebrates the indomitable love of God that has been poured out in Jesus Christ. He proclaims, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” What does it mean for you to know that God is for you? What does it mean for you to know that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities … can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus?
Thursday -- Read Luke 9: 10-17. This is Luke’s account of the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus will not allow his disciples to dismiss the hungry crowds. He says to them, “Give them some food yourselves.” When the disciples protest about the impossibility of the task, Jesus feeds the crowds himself. How has Jesus satisfied your hungers in the past? Is there a particular hunger within you now that you need to bring to Christ? In what way is Jesus inviting you “to give some food” to others?
Friday -- Read Luke 7: 36-50. In this beautiful story a “sinful woman” (we are not told what her sin was) comes to Jesus as she is, in search of mercy, acceptance and a new start. She risks the ridicule of the “righteous” who are gathered in the home of Simon the Pharisee. Jesus does not tell her to leave and come back to him after she has straightened out her life. Rather, he takes her where she is, pointing out the depth of love she has shown in anointing his feet, and he offers her mercy and a new beginning in her life. Reflect on what this passage says to you as you come to Jesus in your own need.