There are two interpretations that St Maximos gives for this part of the Lord’s Prayer. The first is by far the most important.
The primary understanding
I am the bread that came down from heaven and gives life to the world cries our Lord. It is this Bread, this life-giving, fulfilling, sustaining, joyful Bread that we are to ask for daily. The phrase ‘this day’ refers to the present age, our present life in these mortal bodies, as well as an everyday reliance upon the Word (Logos) within us.
It is He who truly sustains us, and when we are able to cast off the passions and cares of this world and purify our hearts, we will find that He is far more desirable than any nourishment or fulfillment that the world promises us.
The reception of this heavenly Bread is in accordance with the purity and readiness of our hearts to perceive Him. In other words, those who ask in faith will receive Him, but it will be an amount that is in proportion to their faith. St Maximos explains,
He who prays to receive this daily bread, however, does not automatically receive it all as it is in itself: he receives it in accordance with his receptive capacity. For the Bread of Life in His love gives Himself to all who ask, but He does not give to all in the same way. He gives liberally to those who have done great things, and more sparingly to those who have achieved less. Thus He gives to each person in accordance with the receptive capacity of his or her nous/intellect.
The Nous (aka Intellect)
This is a word frequently used in the writings of the Church Fathers. The Greek word “nous” is frequently translated as “intellect,” however, it is different from the way we normally use the word. There are many words like this in Orthodoxy; words that have one meaning in the world and another meaning in deep spirituality.
From the glossary of the Philokalia: the intellect is the highest faculty in man, through which – provided it is purified – he knows God …[the intellect] understands divine truth by means of immediate experience, intuition or ‘simple cognition. The intellect dwells in the depths of the soul; it constitutes the innermost aspect of the heart. The intellect is the organ of contemplation, the eye of the heart.
Those who do great things
It is only through the cleansing of the intellect that we can experience God. Do not misunderstand St Maximos’ words above in which he says God gives liberally to those who have done great things. By great things, he does not mean those which would rank high by human standards (such as leading large churches or feedings thousands of homeless people), rather he is primarily referring to those who have achieved great purity of heart.
While virtuous acts are a fruit of one who has purified their intellect, they are not proof of a pure heart. Many people do righteous things for impure reasons, whether it be pride, vanity, envy, a desire to be noticed or liked by others, or even the thought that they can earn God’s favor.
An honest person who has begun the inward journey of cleansing their heart will eventually come to the realization that everything they do has mixed motives. When we realize this, we are drawing closer to repentance and the Kingdom, and we can pray with sincerity, “I have done nothing good before Thee.”
The secondary meaning of “daily bread”
Briefly, the other meaning is that God will provide for our daily needs. However, this must not be the focus of our prayers, or even of the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus teaches us to seek first the Kingdom of God and to spend no time in worrying about food or clothes. If our Savior teaches us not to even think about what we will eat, then why would He command us to pray for our daily bread?
For that reason, St Maximos teaches that the primary meaning of “daily bread” is receiving the Lord Himself.
By asking for our needs to be met for that day only, we are letting go of the future and our desire to control. Free from anxiety let us pray for bread sufficient for one day at a time, thus…we make life a rehearsal for death… even before death comes, cutting off the soul’s anxiety about bodily things.
There is a simplicity that enters our life when the heart is detached from bodily cares. Let us be satisfied simply with what sustains our present life, not with what pampers it. In this way, we do not ignore the needs of the body, but we also do not allow those needs to dominate our thinking. Rather, we seek after the Kingdom of God, we look for the heavenly Bread. By doing so, we realize that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
Our loving Father is reaching out to us, his beloved children, deeply desiring relationship with us. He is standing at the door of our hearts knocking, but we must make room for Him to enter.
We who mystically represent the cherubim,
and who sing to the life giving Trinity,
the thrice holy hymn,
let us now lay aside, lay aside all earthly cares.
That is the hymn we sing every Sunday before the Great Entrance, before the precious body and blood of our Lord are brought into the congregation. We then receive the heavenly Bread Himself through the Eucharist in a way that even those of little faith such as myself can experience His presence.
God is willing to meet us wherever we are in our faith journey. We do not have to have the faith of a saint in order to begin to receive our heavenly Bread; just a heart that is willing to be still and listen.
I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.
Part 1: Our Father who art in heaven
Part 2: Hallowed be Thy name, Thy Kingdom come
Part 3: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Part 4: Give us this day our daily bread
Part 5: And forgive us our trespasses…
Citation note: rather than inserting St Maximos’ words in quotations, I decided to use italics in hopes that it would make this flow more easily and it would be more readable. All quotes are from his work entitled “The Lord’s Prayer” which can be found in its entirety in the Philokalia Volume 2, Faber and Faber Publishing.