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.


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.

The “mystical union” in Lutheran spirituality

Medieval depiction of the Church as the Bride of ChristGoogling for articles on “Lutheran spirituality” (as you do), I came across the essay Lutheran Spirituality and the Pastor (PDF) by Gaylin R. Schmeling.

Two themes highlighted in this essay leapt out at me:

  • “Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio” (prayer, meditation, affliction), which Prof Schmeling describes as “the heart of Lutheran spirituality”.
  • “The mystical union” between God and the justified sinner (or as Prof Schmeling puts it, “Union and Communion with God through the life-giving Word and the blessed Sacraments”).

In this post, we’ll looking at the second of these themes, the mystical union. In my next post we’ll look at what Prof Schemeling says about the theme of oratio, meditatio, tentatio.

The “mystical union” is not, I have to admit, a phrase I have heard often in my decade as a Lutheran. “Mystical” is not a very “Lutheran”-sounding word, and apparently some have suggested that the concept is a product of Pietism, rather part of “orthodox” Lutheranism. However, Schmeling argues that the mystical union has been feature of Lutheran theology right from the start, finding references to it (if not the phrase itself) in the Lutheran Confessions.

But what is the mystical union? Schmeling quotes Johann Quenstedt (1617-1688):

The mystical union is the real and most intimate conjunction of the substance of the Holy Trinity and the God-man Christ with the substance of believers, effected by God Himself through the Gospel, the Sacraments, and faith, by which, through a special approximation of His essence, and by a gracious operation, He is in them, just as also believers are in Him; that, by a mutual and reciprocal immanence they may partake of His vivifying power and all His mercies, become assured of the grace of God and eternal salvation, and preserve unity in the faith and love with the other members of His mystical body.

The mystical union is, to use an image employed by David Jay Webber, a “bridge” between justification and sanctification: the sinner is justified by grace through faith, is united to God in the mystical union, and begins to live a new life of holiness and love. The three can be distinguished conceptually, but are simultaneous in practice, with each flowing through to produce the next.

The mystical union is not a dissolution or absorption of the human into the divine:

Rather the Lutheran theologians explicate the mystical union using the analogy of the personal union in Christ. As the human and the divine in Christ are united into one person and yet the natures remain distinct, so in the mystical union the Trinity makes its dwelling in man but God and man remain distinct.

Lutheran devotion has commonly used the image of marriage to describe this union as in Gerhardt’s hymn ending: “And there, in garments richly wrought / as Thine own bride, I shall be brought / to stand in joy beside Thee.” In marriage, man and woman are united as one flesh, but without losing their own identities or existence. (Hence the image used for this post, of the Church as the Bride of Christ.)

Nor is this a direct union which bypasses the word and sacraments, or the life of the church. Rather, “this gracious union with God is conveyed and preserved through the means of grace.”

Finally, it’s important to note the direction in which this union operates. It is not a ladder up which we ascend to God through our own efforts or contemplation:

in the mysticism of the Lutheran fathers man does not climb to God through contemplation, but God Himself descends to us in the manger and the cross. Christ unites us with Himself in the Word, He clothes us with Himself in Baptism, and He feeds us with Himself in the Holy Supper so that we have union and communion with the divine.

The concept of the mystical union is important in Lutheran spirituality because, as noted above, it is the bridge that connects our status as forgiven sinners (justification) with our life as Christians, growing in holiness and love (sanctification). It also shows how the Lutheran understanding of our union with God is richer than I had previously appreciated.

The Eucharist: Teresa of Avila vs the “Lutherans”

Holy Communion of St Teresa of Avila, by Claudio CoelloHow central is the Eucharist to our spirituality, and in what way? Rowan Williams discusses St Teresa of Avila’s answers to these questions, in his chapter on the Way of Perfection in his book Teresa of Ávila.

For Teresa, what lies at the heart of the Eucharist is this:

Jesus knows our weakness and our need; he desires, with God’s own desire, to go on being with us as he was with us in the incarnate life, in humility and vulnerability. This is the divine desire we encounter in the sacrament of the Eucharist: the sacrament itself becomes for Teresa the primary and most immediate sign of God’s unconcern with honour and self-protection, the sign of the divine longing to be unconditionally at hand for us. (pp.95f.)

Teresa’s discussion of the Eucharist in the Way of Perfection comes in the section on the petition from the Lord’s Prayer, “give us this day our daily bread”, which Teresa “has no doubt at all” refers only to the sacrament. This isn’t, Dr Williams adds, because she dismisses the importance of “real bread for the hungry”, but is due to:

the conviction that – since the Eucharist is so pre-eminently the sign of God’s desire to be with us, God’s humility and faithfulness, in being unconditionally accessible to us – we should expect to find it at the heart of a prayer that is so pervaded by the acknowledgement of this divine availability from its first words onwards. (p.96)

For Teresa, “thanksgiving after Communion must remain the very centre of our spirituality”. This is the one time when we are not to try to use pictures of Jesus (whether mental or carried with us) in our meditation, because “Christ’s presence in the sacrament [is] the enactment now of the events narrated by the gospels,” so no other reminder of his presence is needed. At Communion, Teresa is “wholly confident that she is in Christ’s company no less than was Mary Magdalene in the Pharisee’s house.”

Williams summarises Teresa’s even deeper reflections on the Eucharist in her Spiritual Testimonies, written a few years after the Way of Perfection:

In Communion, the Father receives the Son’s sacrifice in the soul: that is, presumably, the Father is present already in the soul but the Son must come to him there. More precisely, the Trinity is present in the soul; but the graces God wills to give us are ‘released’ by the coming of the Son in his humanity into the soul. When this happens the joy of the eternal trinitarian life is realized on earth. This encapsulates the chief theme of her earlier thoughts on the Eucharist: what is enacted here is the completion of the divine will. God is present as creator and sustainer at the centre of the soul, but is present as a transforming act of love only as the humility of the incarnate Christ draws the whole world into its proper harmony with heaven. The image of God’s humble love returning to God through our souls and bodies in Communion is a striking summary of Teresa’s whole Christology as well as of her thinking on the sacrament. (p.97)

And in her Meditations on the Song of Songs, Teresa describes Communion as a fulfilment of the bride’s petition in the Song: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.”

All this then leads Teresa to attach the “scandal of ‘Lutheran’ desecration of the sacrament” (Williams has earlier referred to the “semi-mythical ‘Lutherans’ who so preoccupy Teresa in this work”): 

She has not the faintest idea of Lutheran theology, but knows only that eucharistic cultus is under attack and that the Mass as she knows it is being taken away. For her this can only be an assault on the Gospel itself, the good news of God’s humility and vulnerability for our sake. (p.98)

That said, Williams picks up a point here that has struck me a number of times while reading about Teresa:

For the historian of theology, the paradox is that her Christocentric piety, her profound understanding of the cross, and above all her sense of the grace of God acting without regard to our merit or achievement all echo Luther himself so closely.’ What is distinctive, though, is precisely this linking of a theology of the cross and of the sovereignty of grace to the eucharistic presence. (p.98)

The one point at which I’d take issue with Dr Williams here is that last sentence: it seems to me that the linking of a “theology of the cross”, the “sovereignty of grace” and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist are, along with baptism, at the centre of Lutheran spirituality. However, it’s probably fair to say that the Lutheran understanding of “eucharistic presence” is different in emphasis from, and perhaps narrower than, Teresa’s: in practice, Lutherans tend to emphasise the presence of Christ’s body and blood “in, with and under” the elements, rather than seeing Communion as an encounter with the Christ who wants to “go on being with us as he was with us in the incarnate life”.

So this is maybe an area in which Lutherans can learn from Teresa. At the moment, I don’t think anyone could say of most of us what Williams says of Teresa:

And what must be remembered in reading anything Teresa writes about the Eucharist is that it is for her the one concrete and contemporary sign of the reality on which everything depends—the desire of God to be with creation, at all costs—and is thus the centre and touchstone of all that is said about Christian life and prayer. 

A monk’s advice on reciting the Jesus Prayer

Mountain of SilenceA book I’ve taken delivery of, but haven’t yet started reading, is Kyriacos C. Markides’ The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality. I have, however, taken the opportunity to flick through the pages dealing with the Jesus Prayer (see previous posts 1 | 2).

Markides’ book consists of conversations between him and Father Maximos, a monk from Mount Athos working to establish churches, convents, and monasteries in Cyprus. In one chapter, Markides discusses the tradition of “ceaseless prayer” with Father Maximos, and in particular the Jesus Prayer – or, as Father Maximos refers to it, the Efche (transliterating the Greek Η Ευχή, “the Wish”):

Father Maximos then talked about the Efche, the “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner,” a subject that we had discussed earlier. This special form of prayer has been considered by the holy elders as central to the spiritual life. He reminded me that the Prayer is to be recited continuously by the serious pilgrim and full-time practitioner of the spiritual arts. It is, he claimed, the most potent medicine for the cure of the soul, the “science of the sciences,” precisely because it is the method which, once mastered, can lead to the opening of the doors toward God. Repeating these simple words, Father Maximos said, by virtue of their power, can lead us into realms beyond the words and into the great mystery of Theosis. (p.198)

Markides suggests that the Efche bears some resemblance to the mantras used in Eastern religions, but Father Maximos rebuts this:

Whatever secrets are revealed are not the result of intellectual knowledge of some occult formula. They are revelations that come from above as a result of the purification of the heart through deep metanoia and humility. (p.199)

A key element of this comes from filling the mind with a good thing – the name of Christ – in order to exclude the other, less wholesome, influences that surround us:

When you practice the Jesus Prayer systematically, it is as if you move about within a polluted city wearing an oxygen mask over your face. Nothing can touch you. (p.199)

(As one very minor example of this, I’ve noticed that I pay less attention to advertising posters if I’m reciting the Prayer as I walk.)

The risk of using the Prayer in this way, of course, is that it becomes a matter of superstition: an incantation that I must keep uttering lest some evil befall me. Markides raises this in his conversation with Father Maximos:

“Father Maxime, the other day someone who was waiting for confession mentioned to me that whenever she is in a plane ready to take off, she begins to recite the Prayer. But she feels as if she is not honest. That somehow she has an ulterior motive, to keep herself safe. When that idea enters her head she loses the urge to pray.” (p.200)

Father Maximos advises people in that position not to worry too much. It is precisely because the Prayer is not about our efforts, but about the work of the Holy Spirit, that our mixed motives do not determine its value:

“It does not matter what your motives are when you concentrate on the Prayer. Even if your intentions are not perfect, with time the systematic practice of praying will also perfect your motives. What happens, you see, is that the Jesus Prayer teaches you how to pray. Do the Prayer and then God will take care of the rest. He will lead you to Him through the Prayer.” (p.200)

Markides admits to retaining “some residue of doubt” in his mind, however, and asks Father Maximos whether praying nonstop really is achievable for people who are living in the world, as opposed to monks:

“But as I told you before, it is simple,” Father Maximos insisted. “Just fill up your idle time with the Prayer.”

“I don’t have idle time,” I reacted half-humorously.

“Look. You drive a car, don’t you? While you do that, you can neither read nor solve mathematical puzzles. Use that time to recite the Prayer. Or, while you cook, wash the floor, wait at a bus stop, recite the Prayer. If you get into the habit of filling up these empty time slots with the Jesus Prayer you will experience extraordinary benefits in your heart, truly extraordinary, believe me.” (p.203)

Father Maximos still recommends taking time to pray the Jesus Prayer deliberately and with concentration, even if only for five minutes a day at first:

“The Jesus Prayer becomes even more effective when, in addition to filling up idle time, one takes a few minutes regularly every day to exclusively focus on it.” (p.203)

The important thing is to be persistent, and to keep praying even when you start “remembering all the work that you needed to do, all the things that you forgot to do during the day and so on”.

Father Maximos also joins with other Orthodox writers in counselling the unguided layperson against the breathing exercises and other techniques used by monks while reciting the prayer:

“So,” Father Maximos went on, “the best way for someone to practice the Prayer, the Efche, is to focus on the words with humility. This is a safe approach that protects the layperson from possible pseudospiritual experiences and delusions. What’s important, you see,” he expanded, “is to get into the habit of praying. And if one has access to a spiritual guide, so much the better.” (p.204)

All this helps us to see how the Jesus Prayer can fit into a “Protestant”, and in particular Lutheran, framework: that it is not a work we carry out in order to ascend some ladder of mysticism, but a way of centring our focus and attention on the heart of the Gospel: the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, and his mercy to me, a sinner.

Prayer ropes and the Jesus Prayer

Orthodox prayer rope (33 knots)In her book, The Jesus Prayer (see previous post), Frederica Mathewes-Green discusses the use of a “prayer rope” – used by Orthodox Christians to keep count while repeating the Jesus Prayer.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Ms Mathewes-Green’s book has encouraged me to try the “fixed use” of the Prayer as well as the “free use”, and so I went onto eBay to see if I could find a cheap prayer rope. Turns out there are lots of them available; the one I ended up with is shown in the picture above. Prayer ropes come in various sizes: starting at 33 knots (like mine), but with hundred or three hundred knot ropes also being common.

Mathewes-Green tells the following story of how the prayer rope came to be invented:

A traditional story tells of a monk who made a knot in a cord for every repetition of the Prayer, but while he slept, the devil would come and untie all the knots. An angel appeared and showed the monk a special sort of knot, one formed of seven intricate overlapping crosses, and this one the devil was unable to untie.

If you think that sounds quaint, check out this video of how to tie the knots in a prayer rope: I’d take a lot of convincing that any merely human agency came up with this… 😉

In case that’s not enough to put you off from trying to make one yourself, note that:

you have to say the Prayer continually while making the knots (it takes about ninety minutes to make a thirty-three-knot rope); if your mind wanders, you must undo all the knots and start again. When my prayer is shallow and cold, I am comforted to think of the prayers of the person who first held this prayer rope as he or she made these knots, and filled them up with prayers.

How is a prayer rope used? Mathewes-Green describes this briefly:

While you’re praying, hold the prayer rope in your left hand, moving your fingers along the knots in turn. Keep your right hand free for making the sign of the cross.

One writer quoted by Mathewes-Green recommends making the sign of the cross every ten repetitions, and prostrating oneself three times after every thirty three. These are not compulsory, though.

Typically the number of repetitions is a multiple of a hundred: Mathewes-Green recommends no more than a hundred at a time, at least for beginners (and in the absence of a spiritual guide). However, it’s not about saying exact numbers: as much as anything, the prayer rope is just an aid to concentration. As Mathewes-Green observes, “some people find it easier to concentrate … if they have something to do with their hands.”

“Tuning the heart” with the Jesus Prayer

Mount AthosOver the past couple of days, I’ve been reading Frederica Mathewes-Green’s book The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God.

This is a short introduction to the Jesus Prayer, on which I’ve posted occasionally in the past. It focuses mostly on the “fixed use” of the Prayer (specifically setting time aside to say it) rather than the “free use” (spontaneously saying the Prayer as you go about your daily business). As my own use of the Prayer has tended towards the latter, it was good to be given a fresh impetus to attempt more of the former. (It should be noted that the “free use” is not to be confused with the spontaneous, “prayer of the heart” to which Orthodox practice of the prayer, whether “fixed” or “free”, is ultimately directed, and which is seen as a fulfilment of St Paul’s call for Christians to “pray without ceasing”.)

One of the most illuminating aspects of the book is its explanation of the word nous. Rather than our modern division of “head” vs “heart”, “thoughts” vs “feelings”, the practice of the Jesus Prayer is based on the Greek distinction between dianoia (the reasoning faculty of our minds) and nous: the mind’s “receptive” faculty, the part of our mind that perceives truth directly rather than by a process of logical reasoning. We have no word for this in English, so “we don’t know it exists”, but it is the nous – and not merely our “feelings” – that is engaged when we encounter Christ in the Jesus Prayer.

The majority of the book is taken up by a series of questions and answers addressing practical and theological issues that western Christians, in particular, may have about the Prayer (for example, is it just an example of the “vain repetition” condemned by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount?). That said, it is not a long book: as Mathewes-Green points out, very few books on the Jesus Prayer are: “It’s a short prayer, and the way to do it is to keep saying it over and over.”

The hard part, she observes, is not to say the words but “to mean them”. It is is conviction that prompted her to write the book in the first place: to plot a middle course between those Orthodox Christians who insist that the Prayer should not even be attempted by non-Orthodox Christians, owing to the risk of self- (and demonic) deception, and those who would appropriate it as a tool of generic “spirituality”. As she writes at the end of the first part of the book (p.30):

I know that I am not qualified to write about the Jesus Prayer at the level it deserves; it’s fair to say that a beginner like me should not write about it at all. But I came to think that an inadequate book might be better than none, for I could see that the use of the Prayer is spreading, severed from its original context. While searching the Internet, I come across a site that teaches that the “Jesus Prayer” consists of repeating the name “Jesus” only and no other words. I see a review of a book in which the author reports that his experience with the Jesus Prayer was enhanced when he combined it with Buddhist meditation. I run across an all-purpose prayer website that offers this invitation: “Enjoy the inspirational words of the Jesus Prayer. Pray using these free online words.”

So I decided to go ahead and do the best I can.

She did a great job. I warmly recommend this book.