I tend to look askance at petitionary prayer for material benefits. In such prayer one asks for mundane benefits whether for oneself, or, as in the case of intercessory prayer, for another. In many of its forms it borders on idolatry and superstition, and in its crassest forms it crosses over. A skier who prays for snow, for example, makes of God a supplier of mundane benefits, as does the nimrod who prays to win the lottery. Worse still is one who prays for the death of a business rival.
Perhaps not all petitionary prayer for mundane benefits is objectionable. Some of it simply reflects, excusably, our misery and indigence. (Did not Christ himself engage in it at Gethsemane?) But much of it is. What then should I say about the "Our Father," which, in the fourth of its six petitions, appears precisely to endorse petitionary prayer for material benefits?
The other five petitions in the Pater Noster are either clearly or arguably prayers for spiritual benefits. In a spiritual petition one asks, not for physical bread and such, but for things like acceptance, equanimity, patience, courage, and the like in the face of the fact that one lacks bread or has cancer. "Thy Will be done." One asks for forgiveness and for the ability to forgive others. One prays for a lively sense of one's own manifold shortcomings, for self-knowledge and freedom from self-deception. One prays, not to be cured of the cancer, but to bear it with courage. One prays for the ability to see one's tribulations under the aspect of eternity or with the sort of detachment with which one contemplates the sufferings of others.
The fourth petition, "Give us this day our daily bread," translates the Biblia Vulgata's Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie which occurs at Luke 11:3.
At Matthew 6:11, however, we find Panem nostrum supersubstantialem da nobis hodie, "Give us this day our supersubstantial bread." 'Supersubstantial' suggests a bread that is supernatural, beyond all sublunary substances, and beyond all creatures. To ask for this heavenly bread is to ask for a 'food' that will keeps us spiritually alive.
For a long time I perhaps naively thought that 'daily bread' had to refer to physical bread and the other necessities of our material existence. So for a long time I thought that there was a tension, or even a contradiction, between 'daily bread' and 'supersubstantial bread.' A tension between physical bread and meta-physical bread.
But this morning I stumbled upon what might be the right solution while reading St. John Cassian. The same bread is referred to by both phrases, and that same bread is spiritual or supersubstantial, not physical. 'Supersubstantial' makes it clear that 'bread' is to be taken metaphorically, not literally, while 'daily' "points out the right manner of its beneficial use." (Selected Writings, p. 30) What 'daily' thus conveys is that we need to feed upon spiritual bread every single day. On this reading, the fourth petition is as spiritual as the others, and the whiff of superstition and idolatry that I found offensive is removed.*
This reading also has the virtue of cohering nicely with Matthew 4:4 according to which man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Not by physical bread, but by meta-physical bread.
"Give us this day our daily bread" is thus a request that we be supplied on a daily basis with spiritual bread that we need every day. And since we need it every day, we must ask for it every day. But who needs it? Not the bodily man, but the "inner man" says Cassian. The inner man is the true man. 'Inner man' is a metaphor but it indicates a literal truth: that man is more than an animal. Being more than an animal, he needs more than material sustenance.
Addendum on the Literal and the Metaphorical
Here is a question that vexes me. Are there literal truths that cannot be stated literally but can only stated or gotten at metaphorically? Can we state literally what a man is if he is more than an animal? Or must we use metaphors?
"Man is spirit." Isn't 'spirit' a metaphor? "Man has a higher origin." 'Higher' is metaphorical. "Man is made by God in his image and likeness." Aren't 'made,' 'image,' and 'likeness' metaphors?
I once heard a crude and materialistic old man say that if man is made in God's image, then God must have a gastrointestinal tract. I tried to explain to the man that 'image' is not to be taken in a physical sense but in a spiritual sense. But I got nowhere as could have been expected: anyone who doesn't understand right away the spiritual sense of 'made in God's image' displays by that failure to understand an incapacity for instruction. It is like the student who doesn't get right away what it means to say that one proposition follows from another, and thinks that it refers to a temporal or a spatial relation.
The question is whether the spiritual sense can be spelled out literally.
* For Simone Weil, "Christ is our bread." We can have physical bread without eating it; we cannot have spiritual bread without 'eating' it: the having is the 'eating' and being nourished by it. This nourishing is the "union of Christ with the eternal part of the soul." (Waiting for God, p. 146) The fourth petition of the Pater Noster, then, is the request for the union of Christ with the eternal part of the soul. It has nothing to do with a crass and infantile demand to be supplied with physical food via a supernatural means.