When I think of the requests we make of God, I find my own requests break down into a few categories – Personal needs, Family concerns, Parish concerns, and Hopes and Fears.
But one of the blessings of being Orthodox is that the wise prayers preserved in the Faith cause my prayers to ever expand to include the whole universe. The regular litanies of the Divine Liturgy and other services allow me to move beyond self-centered prayer to pray for concerns I would probably neglect if I always had to “make it up” as I prayed. Prayers for our nation, our “civil authorities,” “peaceful times,” “temperate weather,” and even for “a right answer before the awesome judgment seat of Christ,” broaden my prayers to fight my constant temptation to self-centeredness and reducing God to my “magic genie” Who exists only to get me stuff. This wise rhythm of prayer protects me from the perpetual childishness of focusing only on my needs and desires.
It also teaches me how to pray. And teaches me what my priorities should be in my prayers. It actually reveals a deep truth about who I am: I am one whose prayers are meant to help heal the universe! I pray for the whole world, not just myself!
Look at our Lesson in Matthew 20:17-28:
At that time, as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him, with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The Lord asks James and John “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” Their answer was “yes” but the Lord clearly said to them “You do not know what you are asking.” Of course both of these men did, indeed, “drink the cup” the Lord drank as well. They died a martyr’s death. But they remained faithful to Christ their whole lives.
When the other disciples heard what James and John requested, they were angry! I wonder if they were angry because they wanted those positions on the Lord’s right and left for themselves? Regardless, the Lord took the opportunity of this event to remind the disciples that, in Christ’s kingdom, we will not exercise authority like the world uses authority. The world uses authority to keep people subjects, but in Christ’s kingdom, we are to use authority to serve one another.
Today, what do your prayers focus on? (you do pray, don’t you?) Are you allowing the great and timeless wisdom of the Faith and the pattern of prayers preserved for us in the Church to instruct you about your priorities and your desires? Do you have a prayerbook so that you will be protected from constant self-centered requests? So, when you pray take your prayerbook and pray first for the whole world. When you are in worship services (you do go to services, don’t you?) listen and participate in your heart when the priest prays those litanies you’ve heard so often, and allow them to inform your priorities and requests. It’s learning to pray this way that will make you Orthodox on Purpose!