The heart of Lutheran spirituality: oratio, meditatio, tentatio

King David in a medieval book of hoursAs I mentioned in my previous post, Gaylin Schmeling in his essay Lutheran Spirituality and the Pastor (PDF) describes Luther’s phrase “oratio, meditatio, tentatio” (prayer, meditation and affliction) as “the heart of Lutheran spirituality.”

While Luther emphasised this especially for pastors, it applies equally to laypeople: “It is the method of spiritual formation for each individual who daily dies and rises in Baptism.” Luther identifies it as being taught by Psalm 119:

This is the way taught by holy King David (and doubtlessly used also by all the patriarchs and prophets) in the one hundred nineteenth Psalm. There you will find three rules, amply presented throughout the whole Psalm. They are Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio.

Really, though, the principle of Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio permeates the entire psalter, as a brief glance at (to pick a couple from recent days) Psalm 90 or Psalm 86 will confirm.

Turning back to Psalm 119, though, Prof Schmeling quotes vv.26-27, 58 as an example of how it teaches oratio (prayer):

  Teach me your statutes.
Make me understand the way of your precepts,
and I will meditate on your wondrous works. […]
I implore your favour with all my heart;
be gracious to me according to your promise.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that Luther’s Small Catechism (unusually for such a document) includes forms of prayer for morning and evening that are simple yet rich in meaning, encompassing recollection of baptism, confession of our Trinitarian faith, and the prayer that Christ himself taught us “and through which our prayer is united with His continual intercession.”

To illustrate the principle of meditatio, Schmeling quotes Psalm 119:97-99:

Oh, how I love your law!
It is my meditation all day long.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your decrees are my meditation.

To read and meditate on the Scriptures is to encounter Christ himself and all his blessings. As Luther put it:

When you open the book containing the gospels and read or hear how Christ comes here or there, or how someone is brought to him, you should therein perceive the sermon or the gospel through which he is coming to you, or you are being brought to him. For the preaching of the gospel is nothing else than Christ coming to us, or we being brought to him.

Johann Gerhard says that “the Christian will ruminate on the Word or roll it over in his mind as a cow chews on its cud.” And our greatest example of such ruminative meditation is the Blessed Virgin Mary, who “kept all those things and pondered them in her heart.”

The most distinctive element of Luther’s triad is tentatio (which he substituted, significantly, for the traditional principle of contemplatio). Again, Schmeling quotes Psalm 119 (vv.71-72):

It is good for me that I was humbled,
so that I might learn your statutes.
The law of your mouth is better to me
than thousands of gold and silver pieces.

The word Luther used to translate tentatio is Anfechtung. The word can refer specifically to the suffering a Christian experiences because of their faith, but it can also be used in the wider sense of all the afflictions we endure in this life:

In affliction our sinful flesh is crucified with Christ, a part of our daily return to Baptism. The afflictions that the Lord allows to come upon the Christian are not a punishment for their sins, rather they are a chastisement from our loving Father to strengthen our faith, draw us closer to Him, and guide us in life. Here we are refined like gold and silver.

We tend to feel that it’s a sign of God’s favour when things are going well in life. However, for Luther, God is even closer to us in our suffering, and it is in suffering that we learn most fully what God is like:

The cross alone is our theology (Crux sola ist nostra theologia). Tentatio makes beggars out of theologians and theologians out of beggars. Concerning Anfechtung, Luther writes, “This is the touchstone which teaches you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdom.”

And as Schmeling adds a little later in his essay, once again this drives us back to the psalms. Meditation on the psalms reveals how central Anfechtung is to our life as God’s children:

The Psalms inform our minds, warm our hearts, and direct our wills toward the knowledge of God. As one reads the Psalter he must conclude that Anfechtung has always been the common experience of the believer. This is not something extraordinary that is only happening to him as St. Paul reminds us (1 Corinthians 10:13). The Lord has sent this trial or conflict for His good purpose (Psalm 119:71–72). The believer finds his comfort as he meditates on the Psalms perceiving that God has provided endurance and deliverance for His Israel in every age through the means of grace. He prays the Psalms, assured of the redemption of the Lord.


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