RECENTLY at a liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, I heard a story of a kind we do not often hear in the western church. The preacher was a bishop of the Church in Albania, a church only lately emerged from decades of persecution meted out by a totalitarian government.
The readings included these words by Paul: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Phillipians 4.6).
The bishop interpreted the phrase “with thanksgiving” to mean, not that thanksgiving was a third category after prayer and supplication, but rather that thanksgiving formed the context and underpinning of all prayer. So he told us a legend from his part of the world.
A Christian prince had among his courtiers a person of intelligence, competence and wisdom who accompanied him everywhere. What the prince admired most about him was his sense of gratitude to God and his belief that thanksgiving was the root of faithful life.
One day as the two were hunting, a strap on a saddle broke and needed repair. The courtier produced some tools and they began to work. As they worked, the courtier’s hand slipped and he cut off the ends of two of the prince’s fingers. Enraged, the prince had him imprisoned.
Sometime later the prince, hunting alone, trespassed on the hunting grounds of another prince, a “pagan” (to use the bishop’s word). He was captured, brought to trial and sentenced to be sacrificed to the local god. However, when it was discovered that he was two fingers short of being a whole human being, he could not be a worthy sacrifice. He was therefore whipped and sent home.
Arriving home, he visited his courtier friend in prison, anxious to tell him of his perils. The prince asked the courtier what he had been doing in prison. “Giving thanks,” was the reply. “But what can you give thanks for in this dreadful place?” asked the prince. “I simply give thanks, and only now do I know for what. If I had been with you at your capture, because you were not an acceptable sacrifice, they would have killed me because my body is unblemished,” said the courtier.
In a time of great worry for many people, a time when we need to listen to histories and cultures not our own, the legend presses me to hear its message.
I suspect that Paul’s words, “do not worry about anything,” will pose a major challenge for many people in 2002, just as they have in the past year. The bishop’s point that thanksgiving is not just another thing we need to include in our prayers, but is the way in which all prayer should be offered, establishes a fundamental attitude in our relation with God.
If we get that right, the others things fall into place. Let us pray that things do fall into place. So, in familiar words, “let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” Archbishop Michael Peers is primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.