My previous post looked at Martin Luther’s guidance on prayer to his barber, Peter Beskendorf. An interesting essay from 1982 discusses how the same work, A Simple Way to Pray, can help us understand what a true “Lutheran spirituality” looks like.
In the essay, Lutheran pastor Endel Kallas shows how Luther used the story of St Anthony and the cobbler to show the spiritual value of our everyday vocations. St Anthony, seeking to discover “whose equal he would be in the kingdom of heaven”, had it revealed to him that “as yet he was not the equal of a certain cobbler in Alexandria”:
so St. Anthony comes to the cobbler and asks him what he is doing. The cobbler replies: I, a poor citizen, ply my handicraft; I daily pray that all might be saved and that I, too, poor and unworthy sinner, may gain eternal life through Christ. Hearing that, St. Anthony blushed; he was ashamed to realize that he had not come as far in his monkery as this cobbler.
This was no “passing anecdote”, Kallas notes, but a reflection of “a major turnabout in Luther’s thought” and “a significant contribution to the Western spiritual tradition”:
namely, that spirituality ought not be weighed or judged only with respect to clerics, nuns, or monks but be fully appreciated and sought in the most inconspicuous folk within society. Indeed, Luther would maintain, individuals replete with spirituality may be engaged in the most menial vocations, whether it be in the profession of a cobbler, housekeeper, tinsmith, printer, butcher, farmer, father, mother, or village barber.
Which brings us to Peter Beskendorf and his request that Luther teach him how to pray. The fact that Luther responded to this question so seriously is significant in itself. Kallas also notes the importance of Luther’s framework for prayer, based around the Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer:
Spirituality and prayer thus are rooted in, and develop from, the primary statements of faith. Luther, though, has indirectly broken that more commonly perceived link of spirituality and prayer to monastic practice through this method of exposition. Indeed, in the place of monastic piety Luther elevates the traditional symbols of faith and fixes them at the very heart of Christian prayer and spirituality.
Luther told Peter of the need to avoid mindless “babbling” and to ensure that prayer is of “the whole heart”. However, this did not mean that Luther saw spirituality in terms of “pure interiority”. Quite the opposite:
Luther most certainly is no seeker of a purely contemplative life, nor is he a searcher after an introverted form of spiritual existence. Barber Peter, moreover, is not in the least encouraged by Luther to forsake his barbershop or give up his straight razor and lather in quest of a new and profound level of spirituality. That, without question, is not how Luther understood spiritual development.
What Luther was calling Peter (and us) to was ” a vision … of the manifold ways the Lord God answers prayer and moves imperceptively within the created order”:
Through and through the prayers which Luther prepared for Peter is a concern that prayer itself help individuals integrate their lives into the ongoing activity of God within creation.
Thus prayer was not a matter of pure interiority, but rather “a reciprocal movement from inward communion with God through the Holy Spirit to outward service and support of human beings within society”. This reflects Luther’s “dynamic sense of God”:
Hardly a divine clockmaker “out there,” the Lord God for Luther is intimately related to the manifold affairs of this world. Underlying the prayers Luther writes for barber Peter is a remarkable sensitivity to the immanent activity of God within the present world. God endows wisdom, blesses physical life, counsels rulers, directs governments, helps the common folk, gives favorable seasons, comforts the distressed, assists those near death, protects the fearful. What prayer and spirituality effectively do is integrate hearts with this dynamic presence of God within the worldly context.
Thus, for Luther, “spirituality orients an individual back into the mainstream of life in order to engage more fully with the Lord God and his activity herein”. In doing so, Luther makes “a decisive and lasting contribution to the tradition of the Christian church”: namely, the rejection of any claim that the “professional religious” possess “an intrinsically superior spirituality” to that of the laity. As we have seen:
…barber Peter is not encouraged by Luther to give up his vocation in favor of being a cleric or monk. Nor is he advised to develop greater interiority apart from worldly contacts. Likewise, Luther provides his barber with no ladder on which to ascend from this world to another. Rather, Luther plainly counsels Peter on daily prayerful devotion in the hope that God might be experienced more fully within the seemingly mundane day-to-day task of a barber in old Wittenberg. Spirituality thus is brought down from the heavens and planted squarely within the realm of what, at first glance, appears “secular.”