“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving be made
for everyone…that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (I Timothy 2:1).
How delightful to hear people ask each other for prayers, or say they are praying for someone. It’s assumed we all know what a prayer means. Here, however, St. Paul uses four different terms to express the various forms of prayer.
The first word is basically a request. It expresses a need. It can be addressed to the Lord God, but it can also be a plea for help from some human being. I may be wrong, but at the risk of a reverse prejudice, I find it’s easier for women to ask for help than for men. There’s just something about the male ego that resists asking for assistance, or for acknowledging we men have any need from another, even from God. Maybe it’s not true for all cultures, but in America we still cling to the image of rugged individualism. Our symbols of manliness are mostly of heroes who are able to use their ingenuity, intellect, physical abilities or even gifts of persuasion to get what they want on their own. No priest doesn’t know what it is like to try helping a person who insists he doesn’t want any help and who would be pleased if others would mind their own business. If I need help, I’ll ask for it.
The second word is the most common for what is generally meant by prayer [preseuche]. Only God can fulfill these requests. Once a person, male or female, gets beyond the attitude of radical self-reliance, then he may come to the realization that some things only God can provide. When you are filled with shame or guilt, nobody but the Lord can forgive you. When you are at the end of your inner strength, only God can provide you with the grace to go on going on, despite and through all obstacles.
Then St. Paul speaks of intercession. It can happen that somebody you know has a personal relationship with one in high places, maybe the owner of a company where you would like to be employed, or perhaps one who is responsible for admitting candidates to a school or institution. You ask your friend if she would please take your curriculum vitae or application to that great person and put in a word on your behalf. Because the Orthodox Church is a community of believers, and since it transcends the limits of space and time, we ask those in “High places,” the angels and saints in heaven, to intercede on our behalf. Some might argue: Why not go to Jesus Christ Himself? Why use subordinates? And of course we do—but we also feel the warmth and affection of those who love us in Christ. Our Lord tells us that we are surrounded by angels, that we have a guardian angel to watch over us, and we who honor the lives and glory of those who went before us to their rest and are aware of our struggles to grow in faith, so we ask them to intercede for us as we do for one another.
Finally there is Eucharist, another word for thanksgiving. It’s inadequate to go on always asking for things from God, as though we are nothing but eternal infants. There’s a time to praise God for all He has done for us. One vesper prayer asks the Lord to receive our prayer “to the extent that we are able.” It means: Understand, Lord, that we are shortsighted. We pollute our prayers with doubt, fear, laziness, routine, boredom and the other faults that we incur just by being human and limited. So we give a blessing for all that we know and all that we are unaware of, which God is providing for the universe in general and for ourselves in particular.