Pragmatic and pastoral: Luther on prayer

Martin LutherOne underappreciated gem from Martin Luther’s writings is his “Simple Way to Pray”, addressed to his barber, Peter Beskendorf, who had asked for guidance on prayer.

In this booklet, Luther shows many of the same tendencies as the English tradition described by Martin Thornton: a “speculative-affective synthesis” of doctrine and prayer, a pastoral and domestic emphasis, and a distinctly Benedictine influence in the use of a form of lectio divina and of “frequent and ardent” prayer rather than complex devotional techniques.

Luther’s guidance falls into roughly three sections:

  1. A general introduction on how and when to pray in the midst of a busy life.
  2. Use of the Lord’s Prayer as a structure for prayer.
  3. Use of the Ten Commandments (or of a psalm or scriptural text) for further meditation or prayer when time allows.

1. Introduction

Luther emphasises that he is basing his advice on how he himself prays, again showing the same unity between priest and layperson as Thornton describes as a key element of “English spirituality”. When he feels he has become “cool and joyless” in prayer, Luther says, he says quietly to himself “the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and, if I have time, some words of Christ or of Paul, or some Psalms, just as a child might do”.

Luther also advises that prayer be made “the first business of the morning and the last at night”, and to “guard yourself carefully against those false, deluding ideas which tell you, ‘Wait a little while. I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.'” We all know how that ends, don’t we?

The most interesting and original advice given by Luther in this section, though, is his suggestion that our daily work can be “as good as or better than prayer, especially in an emergency”. This is Luther’s concept of vocation (a critically important part of Lutheran pastoral understanding) as itself a form of prayer, and indeed as a means of obeying Christ’s injunction to “pray without ceasing”.

That said, we shouldn’t allow this “vocation-as-prayer” to supplant entirely what Luther calls “the habit of true prayer”. Again, Luther is acutely aware of the human capacity for self-deception: “The devil that oppresses us is not lazy or careless, and our flesh is too ready and eager to sin and is disinclined to the spirit of prayer.”

2. The Lord’s Prayer

Having “warmed the heart” with the Commandments, Creed, psalms and so on, Luther goes on to set out how the Lord’s Prayer can be used as a basis for our own prayers, by expanding on each petition (in a similar manner to that set out in the Small Catechism).

Luther’s theology of prayer is perhaps best summed up by his comments on saying “Amen”:

Finally, mark this, that you must always speak the Amen firmly. Never doubt that God in his mercy will surely hear you and say “yes” to your prayers. Never think that you are kneeling or standing alone, rather think that the whole of Christendom, all devout Christians, are standing there beside you and you are standing among them in a common, united petition which God cannot disdain. Do not leave your prayer without having said or thought, “Very well, God has heard my prayer; this I know as a certainty and a truth.” That is what Amen means.

Given how Luther is often (unjustly) accused of “individualism”, it is noteworthy how he teaches that our confidence in prayer is intimately connected to our awareness of praying in and with the church as a whole, even in our individual prayers.

Luther also emphasises that Peter (and we) should not simply repeat his words, which “would make it nothing but idle chatter and babble, read word-for-word out of a book”. He wants our hearts “to be stirred and guided concerning the thoughts which ought to be comprehended in the Lord’s Prayer”, rather than simply reciting written prayers in an inattentive and distracted manner. (A healthy warning for those of us who find the Daily Office a helpful basis for our prayers.)

In short, we need to devote the same concentration to our prayers as we do to the tasks of our daily vocations. Luther applies this specifically to Peter:

So, a good and attentive barber keeps his thoughts, attention, and eyes on the razor and hair and does not forget how far he has gotten with his shaving or cutting. If he wants to engage in too much conversation or let his mind wander or look somewhere else he is likely to cut his customer’s mouth, nose, or even his throat. Thus if anything is to be done well, it requires the full attention of all one’s senses and members, as the proverb says, “The one who thinks of many things, thinks of nothing and does nothing right.” How much more does prayer call for concentration and singleness of heart if it is to be a good prayer!

3. The Ten Commandments

In the final section, Luther describes how – if he has “time and opportunity” (again with that pastoral realism!) – he goes on to a similar meditation with the Ten Commandments, using a technique which clearly owes a debt to the monastic practice of lectio divina, in which he treats each commandment in turn as “instruction”, “thanksgiving”, “confession” and “prayer” (see this post from a few years ago for more details).

Once more, we need to maintain our spiritual attentiveness rather than working mechanically through a technique:

If in the midst of such thoughts the Holy Spirit begins to preach in your heart with rich, enlightening thoughts, honour him by letting go of this written scheme. Be still and listen to the one who can do better than you can.

Similarly, Luther concludes with a repetition of his call for a sane, pastoral balance (one which, yet again, shows the influence of St Benedict):

Take care, however, not to undertake all of this or so much that one becomes weary in spirit. Likewise, a good prayer should not be lengthy or drawn out, but frequent and ardent.

Finding A Simple Way to Pray

I’ve been quoting the version found in the latest edition of Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. A cheap Kindle edition is available from CPH. Finally, If you google “simple way to pray” you will find various copies of Luther’s text.


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