Word, bath, meal: the raw materials of Christian spirituality

Abendsmahlbild, St Nikolai’s Church, Luckau

Christians meet for worship on Sunday. Christians pray, together or singly, on all days of the week at morning and evening, perhaps also at noon or night. They pray in praise and intercession. In their Sunday meetings Christians gather around the scriptures. They also hold a meal. They teach faith to those who would join community, then they bathe them. These are the root elements of an ordo, of a pattern of scheduled rituals.

Gordon Lathrop, Holy Things, p.35 (src)

I came across this quotation the other day, and it’s been bouncing around my head ever since – partly because it resonates with me, partly because it leaves me feeling that more needs to be said (and to be fair, Lathrop does describe this as just the “root elements” of a Christian ordo: more needs to be added).

Lathrop’s structure of “word, bath, meal” is helpful, though there is a risk of reductionism in saying, simply, baldly: “they hold a meal”; “they bathe them.” After all, Luther tells us in the Small Catechism that baptism “is not simply water [a ‘bath’], but it is the water included in God’s command and connected with God’s Word” (emphasis added). Similarly, in the Sacrament of the Altar, “it is not the eating and drinking [that is, the ‘meal’ in and of itself] that do these things, but these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the remission of sins.’” It is the word that makes the bath and the meal what they are; it is the bath and the meal that thus become indispensable means of bringing that word to us.

But as a reminder of the deep structure of Christian spirituality, corporate and individual, there is a lot to reflect on in Lathrop’s words. There are three patterns at work here:

  • a pattern of corporate worship, in which Christians meet together each Sunday to “gather round the scriptures” and share in the Lord’s Supper;
  • a pattern of personal devotion, in which we pray, either alone or with others, in the morning and the evening, with an emphasis on praise and intercession;
  • a pattern of spiritual formation, in which Christians are taught the faith and baptised.

These three elements are not wholly separate and distinct, but are intertwined together in the day-by-day, week-by-week life of the church.

This reminds both of the threefold Rule described by Martin Thornton, and also of Thornton’s emphasis on the Book of Common Prayer as the basis of a spiritual “rule” rather than simply a set of liturgies. More practically, immediately and personally, it has also highlighted that in recent months I’ve probably let the element of “praise and intercession” slip away in my own patterns of personal devotion: a useful corrective.


Richard Beck on hope for “Winter Christians”

Richard BeckLast night I had the pleasure of hearing Richard Beck speak at The Borough Common in London, as part of his UK speaking tour. Richard’s wife, Jana, also contributed actively to the discussion.

Richard began by describing how it became apparent early in his marriage that he questioned his faith far more than Jana did hers. One thing that helped them both work through this was being introduced to the terminology “Summer Christians” and “Winter Christians”: Richard being in the “Winter” camp, Jana in the “Summer” – though they agreed that 24 years of marriage has moved them closer together, with Richard being more “autumnal” and Jana describing herself as “early spring”.

The focus of Richard’s talk was therefore on what it means to be a “Winter Christian”, and above all how a Winter Christian can learn to have hope as well as questions. He described how Job 13:15 has been a key text: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”

This post sets out an expanded version of notes I made after the talk, with my own thoughts in response. I’ve formatted the notes as quotations (and references to “I” are to Richard), but they are notes made from memory after the event and not verbatim quotations. Apologies to Richard in advance for any misquotations or misrepresentations of what he said.

Psalms, prophecy, poetry 

Walter Brueggemann distinguishes between psalms of orientation and psalms of disorientation. An example of a psalm of orientation of Psalm 1: the righteous get their reward, the unrighteous get their comeuppance; it’s a “Hollywood ending”.

An example of a psalm of disorientation is Psalm 13: one of many psalms that say to God, in essence, “why aren’t things working out like Psalm 1 said they would?” One of the things that gives me faith in the Bible is this way in which it contradicts itself; it squabbles with itself.

But most psalms of lament end with doxology: why? Again, Brueggemann provides a framework for this, when he observes the different kinds of “poetry” that are to be found in the prophets.

First, there is the poetry of indictment. Amos is a good example of this: the prophet confronts Israel with its failure to live up to the terms of God’s covenant, and warns of disaster to come if it doesn’t change its ways, particularly in its treatment of widows, orphans, foreigners and the poor. A lot of Christians (particularly those who would identify as “progressive” or “liberal”) find that this type of prophetic “poetry” resonates with them strongly.

Second, there is the poetry of lament, classically to be found in the book of Lamentations. This is where the disaster warned of by earlier prophets has come to pass: Jerusalem is destroyed, the people are exiled. Now the prophet sets aside the poetry of indictment, and sits beside the people to weep with them. Again, this is a poetry with which I can identify.

But then there is the poetry of hope. After all the unheeded warnings, after the disasters and lamentation, we come to Isaiah 40, “the first chapter of the New Testament”, where God tells the prophet to “comfort, comfort my people.” This poetry of hope is often the hardest for “Winter Christians” to express for themselves.

What Winter Christians need is a balanced diet of indictment, lament and hope.

Some thoughts on this: first, I don’t think I’d go so far as to describe myself as a “Winter Christian”, though I’m closer to that than to “Summer” (talking to Richard afterwards, I said that my two favourite times of the church year are Advent and Maundy Thursday). I’m certainly a “person of two questions” (see below).

One of the main benefits of praying the Daily Office is that, by praying all the psalms on a regular basis, we get that balanced diet of indictment, lament, hope; orientation and disorientation.

One thing that struck me thinking about Richard’s talk afterwards is the importance of realising that the psalms of orientation are as much the Word of God to us as the psalms of disorientation. It’s easy to slip into thinking that the latter are the real psalms, the crunchy psalms, unlike those pollyanna-ish efforts like Psalm 1. But we need to pray the psalms of orientation also (such as Psalm 107 this morning), as an expression of our hope that, ultimately, all wrongs will be righted by God’s justice and love.

How many questions? 

I mentioned above Richard’s distinction between “people of one question” and “people of two questions”. Here’s how he described it earlier in his talk (again, heavily paraphrased from memory):

One difference between Summer Christians and Winter Christians is the difference between being a person of “one question” and a person of “two questions”. Someone may ask, “Why does God allow suffering?” and be given an answer such as: “Because of free will.”

A person of “one question” will accept that answer and move on. However, a person of “two questions” is likely to follow up with: “Well, why did God create us with free will if he knew what the result would be?”, and so on. The moment you ask that second question, your path is determined: there will be a third question, and a fourth question, and your faith walk is always going to be one of questioning.

We shouldn’t fetishise being “questioning” people, though. That can easily degenerate into cynicism. One highly concrete way in which Richard has learned hope (and Jana confirmed these are experiences that have brought the two of them closer together, spiritually) is by spending time with marginalised people: through their work with homeless and poor people, and Richard’s ministry in leading Bible studies in a maximum security prison in Texas.

Lamentation and privilege

Richard described how he had led a very well-received Bible study for a group of university professors on the psalms of lament. This privileged audience readily agreed that the church needed to allow more space for lamentation.

When I was preparing for my first prison Bible study, I reached for this as it had been the most successful study I’d led, and surely prisoners (many of whom had been in prison for decades, and were destined to die there) would understand better than most the gritty reality of life and the need to acknowledge this in our faith.

However, as I started to talk about the psalms of lament, the prisoners cut me off. For them, their faith was the one thing that gave hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. To start deconstructing that was to strike at the root of their very being.

This made me realise the privilege I have. For me, faith is optional. If I stopped believing today, it wouldn’t make much difference to my life tomorrow. But for many marginalised people, faith isn’t optional: it’s the only thing they have that makes sense in their lives. As a result, they are people of hope, not cynical questioners; and I’ve changed, become more hopeful, as a result of this.

That point about how, for those of us with privileged and affluent lifestyles, “faith is optional”, really hit home for me.

Making God’s love credible 

Richard went on to describe how his work with prisoners has also given him a greater awareness of how important the link is between the love we show one another and our ability to experience God’s love:

One prisoner, Steve, asked how the words “God loves you” could have meaning for him when no one had ever said the words “I love you” to him – not his mother, nor his father, nor any family or friends. He had never heard those words spoken to him. So every week now I stand before him and tell him: “Steve, I love you.” My saying “I love you” makes the love of God credible to Steve.

This then has a parallel in our weekly life as a church:

In the same way, when we gather as Christians and share the bread and wine with one another, saying “here is the body of Christ broken for you,” “here is the blood of Christ shed for you,” that has greater credibility because I know that last week, you were showing that sort of love for me; you were being broken for me. That helps me understand what it means for Christ’s body to be broken for me.

The danger of labels

Terminology such as “Winter Christian” does carry dangers, though, as Richard observed during the Q&A following his talk:

We have to be careful we don’t start to apply labels in a way that says, “I’m the best type of Christian.” We often build up our self-esteem in violent ways – psychically violent, that is. We mark the other person down, and mark ourselves up. One of the things that makes Jesus so attractive is his complete refusal to do that.

The biggest problem in the Corinthian church wasn’t diversity or division, but shame. We can see this from 1 Corinthians 12:

“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” – this is the language of shaming, of looking down on others as inferior. But God inverts our worldly hierarchies: “On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable […] God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member…”

Re-ordering our affections 

Richard concluded his talk by quoting Wendell Berry’s poem Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, particularly its concluding lines:

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Indictment and lamentation and questioning on their own can lead to cynicism. “Winter Christians” also need to learn to “practise resurrection”, to speak words of hope to others (which can increase both their and your hopefulness). This is partly a matter of reordering our affections:

In capitalist society, we are bombarded with advertising messages designed to secure our affections, to pull them away from the things of God. Right now, someone is being paid to make me want what they’re selling, to make me click on that button. So I do various things to keep my affections centred on God: I pray the hours; I wear a prayer rope on my right arm; I have a tattoo on my left arm; I have a St Francis medallion. My office is nicknamed “the chapel”.

Martin Thornton described the basic spiritual “Rule” of Christianity as consisting of “Mass – Office – personal devotion”, with the most important element of “personal devotion” being what Thornton calls “habitual recollection” rather than formal spiritual exercises. That type of recollective, habitual self-reminding of God’s love and hope is one way to “practise resurrection” in our daily lives.


What did I take away from this? Even though I wouldn’t (quite) describe myself as a “Winter Christian”, a lot of what Richard said resonated with me. To put it into the “Mass – Office – devotion” framework I mentioned in the previous paragraph:

  • Office: praying the Daily Office helps to maintain that balanced diet of orientation and disorientation, of indictment, lament and hope. It can also play a powerful role in keeping our affections centred on God.
  • Mass: we need to see the connection between the Eucharist and the concrete reality of our life together as a church: showing love for one another, refusing to bring into the church the world’s categories of who is “superior” and who is “inferior”.
  • Devotion: at its heart, this is about reordering our affections – particularly in the direction of hope and resurrection – through the habitual recollection of God in our daily lives.

For your contemplation

Sketch of the Crucifixion, by St John of the Cross

In practice, that there is only one vocation. Whether you teach or live in the cloister or nurse the sick, whether you are in religion or out of it, married or single, no matter who you are or what you are, you are called to the summit of perfection: you are called to a deep interior life, perhaps even to mystical prayer, and to pass the fruits of your contemplation on to others. And if you cannot do so by word, then by example.

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, pp.418f.

Here, without further comment, are three quotations I’ve read in the past few days that develop what Thomas Merton is saying above:

From Fr James Farfaglia:

My dear friends, a serious life of contemplative prayer is very important for the times in which we live. As I mentioned to you last week, the traditional structures of support such as family life, parishes and religious organizations that have made our lives comfortable and easy, are presently engulfed in confusion and meltdowns. Moreover, we have to live counter-cultural lives in a culture that is more and more out of control. Our being anchored in God is the path to recovery.

God is moving us away from wrongly clinging to things, people and institutions, other than our Life in Him, lived in His Church. He is calling us to detachment, to the desert, into the night of naked faith. He is calling us to cling only to him. This journey is difficult, frightening at times and even risky. Remember the words of St. Theresa of Avila: “Let nothing trouble you. Let nothing frighten you. Everything passes. God never changes. Patience obtains all. Whoever has God, wants for nothing. God alone is enough” (Poesías 30).

We have to go through this time of intense purification without falling apart or running off to some island. Through perseverance, we will become the living witnesses of the God of love that will transform the present culture of death into the culture of life.

From Fr Thomas Dubay:

In our day the divine fire has not been extinguished. The consuming conflagration has not been contained. The proven incapacity of committees and clubs, speeches and surveys, electronics and entertainment profoundly and permanently to change vast numbers of people for the better has to be conceded. As the experience of the centuries attests, true transformations in the world and in the Church continue to come about only through the interventions of men and women on fire – that is, through saints. The evidence is overwhelming. It is also widely ignored, for it contains an otherworldly wisdom that this world does not welcome. For some, taking the evidence seriously presents a snag, since it implies striving for this same kind of transformation within oneself as a starting point for improving the world.

Indeed, at this very moment, deep and lasting changes in the Church are being brought about by a faithful few who are burning interiorly as a consequence of the deep prayer given by the Holy Spirit, who renews the face of the earth in ways other than our own. These quiet, humble, unassuming individuals seldom write position papers, and they are not likely to appear on controversial television talk shows or to attract frontpage headlines. They are not identified with any “ism”, and they care nothing for a life of luxury or notoriety. They do not achieve popular acclaim by opposing ecclesial leadership and rejecting received doctrine. Rather, they are like the saints have always been. The burning ones are the unflickering light of the world, the savory salt of the earth, the lively leaven in the mass.

[…] In the home, in the marketplace, in the cloister, the love steadily radiating from these simple ones permeates and invigorates the world around us. It is unmistakable evidence of God living in and among us, a clear manifestation to our world that the Incarnation has taken place. Common folk instinctively grasp this, while it easily escapes the more sophisticated, who often fail to comprehend what transcends the tangible order of meetings and strategies and publicity campaigns.

And from Martin Thornton:

England was converted to the faith when St Augustine of Canterbury arrived on the island of Thanet with forty companions. They might have offered service and they probably preached, but they certainly settled down to Benedictine stability and contemplated God. That is one out of thousands of examples of the mystical process of spiritual power. It is mysterious but indisputable.

When we look at our contemporary trouble spots, at violence in the inner cities, at racial hatred, or torture, murder and rape, I can muster little faith in the efficacy of ‘praying about it’. I have absolute confidence in the efficacy of planting a contemplative community in the middle of it and letting God manifest his power. Prayer, real prayer, is no last resort but the first priority.

The calendar and the Bible: for us, today

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, c.1939In a previous post, we saw how Martin Thornton (quoting Sergius Bulgakov) argues that the church calendar is a form of recollection that is not merely the calling to mind of events in salvation history, but a making present of those events for us, today:

During the service of Christmas there is not merely the memory of the birth of Christ, but truly Christ is born in a mysterious manner, just as at Easter he is resurrected. … The life of the Church, in these services, makes actual for us the mystery of the Incarnation. … [I]t is given to the Church to make living these sacred memories so that we should be their new witnesses and participate in them. (Christian Proficiency, p.69)

There is an interesting parallel to this in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little book Life Together, in which he commends the practice of reading substantial, consecutive passages of Scripture each day, rather than just isolated “devotional” verses:

Consecutive reading of biblical books forces everyone who wants to hear to put himself, or to allow himself to be found, where God has acted once and for all for the salvation of men. We become part of what once took place for our salvation. Forgetting and losing ourselves, we, too, pass through the Red Sea, through the desert, across the Jordan into the promised land. With Israel we fall into doubt and unbelief and through punishment and repentance experience again God’s help and faithfulness. All this is not mere reverie but holy, godly reality. We are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth. There God dealt with us, and there he still deals with us, our needs and our sins, in judgment and grace. It is not that God is the spectator and sharer of our present life, howsoever important that is; but rather that we are the reverent listeners and participants in God’s action in the sacred story, the history of the Christ on earth. And only in so far as we are there, is God with us today also. (Life Together, p.38)

In other words, our reading of the Bible is an act of “sacramental” recollection similar to that of the church calendar: a means by which the events of salvation history become not just abstract “timeless truths”, but are made present as truth for us, today.

Recollecting Christ: the spiritual value of the church calendar

Lutheran Church YearIn my previous post, I mentioned in passing that Martin Thornton refers to “recollection” as one branch of “private prayer” (itself part of the threefold Rule of Christian devotion, along with the daily Office and the Mass).

Recollection can take many forms: brief “arrow prayers” during the day, saying grace before and after meals, saying the Angelus, and so on. Thornton particularly commends the practice of spontaneously making petition or thanksgiving at every “failure” or “success” of the day. He also suggests that fasting should be seen as falling under the heading of recollection.

As to the content of recollection, Thornton describes three overall categories: recollection of the Holy Trinity (especially the transcendence of the Father and the immanence of the Spirit, according to need), recollection of Christ (such as through mental prayer), and recollection in the Church – that is, the conscious recollection that, through our baptism we are members of Christ’s body, united with all believers on earth and in heaven.

Thornton then suggests one concrete way in which we can exercise that third form of recollection: by making use of the church’s calendar. The feasts of the church’s year are not merely arbitrary dates for remembrance, but a meeting point between time and eternity, as Sergius Bulgakov (quoted by Thornton) explains:

During the service of Christmas there is not merely the memory of the birth of Christ, but truly Christ is born in a mysterious manner, just as at Easter he is resurrected. … The life of the Church, in these services, makes actual for us the mystery of the Incarnation. … [I]t is given to the Church to make living these sacred memories so that we should be their new witnesses and participate in them. (p.69)

So, Thornton continues, “every feria has its eternal counterpart”. Thus it is healthy to recollect what each day is according to the church’s calendar, as well as according to the civil calendar:

It may seem a bit strange to decide to spend the Friday after the fifth Sunday after Trinity on the beach with the children, but it is a most real aid in the colouring of our whole life with the tints of the eternal presence of Christ.

Similarly, where our spiritual routine – our Rule – breaks down, as is inevitable at times, we should not think of having missed Mass on “Sunday”, but instead “be conscious that we are missing, not Sunday, but Trinity X, or Lent II, or Epiphany IV or whatever it is.”

Another example given by Thornton: while many people choose some form of abstinence during Lent, how many of us make a similar resolution to engage in additional thanksgiving during the fifty days of Easter? Or to mark Ascension Day (as we mark Christmas Day) by having a special meal, perhaps inviting friends to celebrate with us?

As Thornton observes, all this can greatly enrich our devotional lives:

[N]othing is quite so deadening to creative progress as a monotonous sequence of “Sundays” and “weekdays”. (p.124)

Here is the key practical lesson which I draw from all this. If one happened to belong (hypothetically speaking…) to a church tradition that had mislaid the daily Office, or the weekly (or “red-letter” weekday) Mass, or other such elements of church’s Rule, and were looking at how to rebuild it; if you wanted to rediscover how your church could, as a church, worship God “seven whole days, not one in seven”; then it seems to me that the first (and in some respects easiest) task is to renew and re-establish the church calendar.

Spiritual direction: a cry for help

If anyone makes himself his own master in the spiritual life, he makes himself scholar to a fool. – St Bernard

Having finished English Spirituality, I’ve now moved on to another book by Martin Thornton: Christian Proficiency, which aims to provide a more practical guide to living out the principles of “English spirituality”.

“Proficiency” refers to the spiritual life of “a sound ‘ordinary’ Christian” – one who is neither a beginner in the Christian life, “yet far from perfection”. The framework within which Thornton sees such a Christian engaging in prayer is the threefold “Rule” which he sets out in English Spirituality:

  • Office
  • Mass
  • Private prayer

The last of these is then split into:

  • Mental prayer (such as imaginative or intellectual meditation on the life of Christ or the doctrines of the church)
  • Colloquy (which in turn consists of petition, self-examination and confession, intercession, thanksgiving, and adoration)
  • Recollection (the “practice of the presence of God”, both as specific acts of recollection and as a “habitual” state of the soul)

That may sound like quite a lot to squeeze into one life, and Thornton acknowledges this. His recommended solution consists of two main elements:

  • spiritual direction; and
  • “Rule” (as in following a disciplined, though flexible, “rule of prayer”, rather than following a list of “rules”).

I mentioned a few months ago that I didn’t feel I had a “‘spiritual director’-shaped hole in my life”. I suspected that I was lying (or at least protesting too much) even then, and reading Thornton has made me rethink.

But what is spiritual direction? Thornton is careful to distinguish it from “counselling”, which is usually aimed at addressing specific problems, usually over a finite period of time. Spiritual direction is intended for the ongoing life of the “ordinary” Christian. Similarly, Thornton distinguishes it from individual confession and absolution: while one’s director may also be one’s confessor, this will not always be the case.

Thornton compares spiritual direction to asking for directions from a police officer:

[He] advises us to follow a certain road to get to a certain place, he may give us a choice of routes and point out their respective snags and merits. He does not order us against our will – unless it is a one-way street when it is better for us to follow his direction all the same – nor does he get out of his car and take us there himself. (pp.25f.)

As a result, spiritual direction has nothing to do with “autocracy, ‘priestcraft’, submissiveness, easy ways out, not standing on one’s own feet, interfering with the relation between the soul and God, etc., etc., etc.” – to rehearse some of the usual Protestant arguments against the practice. What it can do is to free us from the burden of having to work everything out for ourselves.

Thornton then turns to the very practical question of how to set about finding a spiritual director and starting to undergo direction. If you are interested in this topic, you’ll want to read this section of the book in full, but here is a brief summary:

  1. “The Church gives you absolute freedom of choice as to who your director shall be.” If you want it to be your parish priest or pastor, and they are the right person for the job (not all are), then all well and good. But if not, you are free to choose someone else.
  2. The priority should be to find a director who is competent – that is, who has “a working knowledge of ascetical and moral theology supported by a regular life of prayer”.
  3. If you find it difficult to identify a potential director, ask your Christian friends (see the end of this post!), or write to your bishop. “You can be assured that you are not ‘troubling’ anyone with something trivial,” Thornton reassures us, pointing out that such a request will likely make a pleasant change from the average bishop’s usual postbag.
  4. Once you have found a guide, use them. Thornton compares this to your dentist, where you will have regular periodic checkups, but can also call on them when a specific problem comes up (without ringing them for every slight twinge).
  5. Don’t be afraid if you find it difficult to talk about spiritual things. A large part of the director’s job is to draw out from you what they need, just as a doctor can diagnose you even if all you can say is “I have a pain – here”.
  6. Don’t be afraid to discontinue with a given director if the relationship doesn’t work or has run its course, though equally avoid chopping and changing.
  7. Tell your pastor that you are receiving spiritual direction (assuming they are not already your director!).
  8. Finally, and importantly: don’t leave it till you are facing a crisis. As Thornton points out, “if you are on a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean, it is a bit late to learn to swim” (fuller quotation here – worth reading). If possible, the time to commence direction is when things are generally going well for you.

All this brings us to the real purpose of this post. My wife and I are both interested in investigating spiritual direction (in the sense described by Thornton) further, but have no idea where to begin. It’s not something that really exists within the Lutheran tradition, and while we have a huge regard for our pastor, this doesn’t really strike us as his sort of thing.

So we’d welcome any suggestions on where to start looking for a potential spiritual director. Geographically we’d be looking at London/Kent. In terms of temperament, theology and general outlook – and especially bearing in mind Martin Thornton’s description of the role – my expectation is that an Anglo-Catholic or Benedictine director is probably what we’d be happiest with (the Jesuit approach, for example, almost certainly isn’t for us). I’m thinking we’d probably expect to meet up with them (I assume individually rather than as a couple) at say 3- or 6-monthly intervals, and then to be in occasional email contact between times.

If you have any ideas, contact me either via the comments (I’m happy to email you back if you put your email address in the relevant field) or on Twitter.

Update: several people on Twitter have suggested the London Centre for Spirituality, whose website has a section on spiritual direction. From the LCS website, it looks like the people to contact in my neck of the woods are SPIDIR. Thanks to all who have contributed suggestions.

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.