Saturday, October 1, 2011

Traditional Lutheran Prayer

There is a general failure in modern American Confessional Lutheranism to use Martin Luther's Small Catechism nearly as fully or thoroughly or consistently, in teaching and in life, as it should be used. The good news about the state of Lutheran catechesis and spirituality today, conventional wisdom against rote forms notwithstanding, is that Luther's Small Catechism remains the staple, the core and foundation, for the catechization of youth. This good news means that there is hope for the richness of the catechism to be rediscovered and exploited in each generation. So it is well worth examining the ways in which we might be missing out on appreciating the Catechism more fully.

One such area of neglect is the prayer life the Catechism would have us know and live. The Catechism amounts to a couple dozen pages, and yet latter day Lutheranism has torn faith from life, doctrine from practice, to such a degree that many catechumens are made to spend more time with the modern explanations of the catechism than with the prayers that are contained in the catechism text itself. We shall set aside for now the fact that the "explanations" of the Catechism bring with them additional problems, such as the fact that they teach Lutherans the unfortunate practice of turning the sacred scriptures into atomized, versified, prooftexts. More relevant to the present discussion is that one can find many a parish where children are required to regurgitate answers from the explanation, and then everyone goes downstairs where they gather around the pot luck dinner, and instead of the prayers of the Catechism, all join in with a table prayer that comes from Moravian Pietism, a prayer which in no way merits the place it has been given in Lutheran homes. I can only conclude that if this prayer were introduced today, the average Confessional Lutheran with his head screwed on properly would immediately reject its rhymey cuteness as unfit for regular use in the Lutheran home.

Here is what Luther instructs in the Catechism:
How the Head of the Family Should Teach His Household To Ask a Blessing and Return Thanks

Asking a Blessing

The children and members of the household shall go to the table reverently, fold their hands, and say:

The eyes of all wait upon Thee, O Lord, and Thou givest them their meat in due season; Thou openest Thine hand and fillest all things living with plenteousness.

Note: To fill all things living with plenteousness means that all living things receive so much to eat that they are on this account joyful and of good cheer, for care and avarice hinder such satisfaction.

Then shall be said the Lord’s Prayer and the following:

Lord God, Heavenly Father, bless us and these Thy gifts which we receive from Thy bountiful goodness, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Returning Thanks

Also, after eating, they shall, in like manner, reverently and with folded hands say:

Oh, give thanks unto the LORD, For he is gracious, and his mercy endureth forever, who giveth food to all flesh; who giveth fodder unto the cattle, and feedeth the young ravens that call upon him. He hath no pleasure in the strength of an horse. Neither delighteth he in any man’s legs. But the LORD’s delight is in them that fear him, and put their trust in his mercy.

Then shall be said the Lord’s Prayer, and the following:

We thank Thee, Lord God, Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, for all Thy benefits, Who livest and reignest forever and ever. Amen.
Let us note, first, that much of the Catechism is spent explaining the Our Father in its nine parts (the introductory address, the seven petitions, and the concluding Amen). This Luther does so that we may fruitfully use this prayer in our daily lives. Then, in the section on daily prayers, he actually gives us examples of the Our Father being used in various contexts. So we must note well, first of all, that the Catechism would have us pray the Lord's Prayer, both before and after the meal. For this, the model Christian prayer, is so rich that it can be employed in virtually every circumstance in life.

Second, though many Lutherans are unfortunately taught to look down upon the very concept and appropriateness of monastic life, we should recognize that one of its geniuses is that it has given us this very pattern of prayer. In monastic communities of many different orders, even today, the practice is to pray the Our Father along with a prayer very much like the "Lord God, Heavenly Father" above, and the "We thank Thee," etc. after the meal. These prayers would be preceded by what is most properly called an antiphon. We may call it an antiphon even though we do not necessarily repeat it after the prayer. The antiphon is usually a portion from the Psalms, and monastic practice has many of these antiphons, each appropriate for a different time of year. In traditional monastic practice these antiphons are followed by the Gloria Patri.

There would be nothing wrong , in principle, with a Lutheran family from time to time making use of a variety of seasonal antiphons. While at first such an idea may seem like it would cause confusion or a jarring unpredictability at the table, this need not be if the antiphon is given by the head of the house.

The antiphon "The eyes of all,"etc., is from Psalm 145. And the antiphon "Oh, give thanks unto the Lord,"etc., is from Psalm 136 and Psalm 147.  Both are wonderfully fitting, of course, for year round use.

It is also worth noting that it is often the case that this whole pattern, in practice, is traditionally prayed only after the Sign of the Holy Cross is made with the Trinitarian Invocation. Even though this is not explicitly called for in the Catechism, it might very well be presumed as a near universal Catholic practice in traditional Christian homes.

My own recommendation is to pray the Invocation, with the Sign of the Cross, and then the whole pattern of prayer as above, and then, again, the Invocation. And when time is pressing, or for some other reason a shorter form is desired, I suggest saying the Invocation, followed by the prayer, "Lord God, Heavenly Father."

The other circumstance for which the Catechism gives us certain prayers, or rather a certain pattern of prayer, is at the very beginning of the day, and then the very ending of the day. As Luther, the Blessed Reformer of the Church, instructs us:
How the Head of the Family Should Teach His Household To Bless Themselves in the Morning and in the Evening

Morning Prayer

In the morning, when you rise, you shall bless yourself with the holy cross and say:

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Then, kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.

If you choose, you may also say this little prayer:

I thank Thee, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Thy dear Son, that Thou hast kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray Thee that Thou wouldst keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please Thee. For into Thy hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Thy holy angel be with me, that the wicked Foe may have no power over me. Amen.

Then go joyfully to your work, singing a hymn, like that of the Ten Commandments, or whatever your devotion may suggest.

Evening Prayer

In the evening, when you go to bed, you shall bless yourself with the holy cross and say:

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Then, kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.

If you choose, you may, in addition, say this little prayer:

I thank Thee, my Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Thy dear Son, that Thou hast graciously kept me this day; and I pray Thee that Thou wouldst forgive me all my sins where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night. For into Thy hands I commend myself, my body and soul and all things. Let Thy holy angel be with me, that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.

Then go to sleep promptly and cheerfully.
The pattern we are given for beginning and ending the day is, like the table prayers, inspired by Luther's own monastic training. What he did in this case was not so much take exactly what was done in the monastery, but, rather, the spirit or essence of the canonical hours, and made of it what might be loosely called a "short breviary" for the common Christian.

As we look more closely, we see, first, the Sign of the Holy Cross. This brings the Christian back to the promises of Holy Baptism. It reminds him, in good days and bad, that he belongs to Jesus, by Whose death we have life. It reminds him that the whole of his life is patterned after the cross of Christ, in which the love of the Triune God is revealed.

Second, we see that we are instructed to say the Creed, that is, the Apostles' Creed, and the Our Father. Luther has no need to spell out these prayers here because they are so fundamental, they enjoy such an assumed part of the Christian life, that the Christian family, including the small children, will have no trouble learning them by heart if only they pray them regularly.

After this, Luther suggests a prayer which is very similar to one which comes right out of monastic usage. Luther only slightly modified it. And the corresponding prayer at the end of the day Luther composed, as a beautiful parallel to the one in the morning. As Dorothea Wendebourg writes in the Summer 2005 issue of Lutheran Quarterly ("Luther on Monasticism" 149),
The original prayer came from a Latin collection of late medieval texts and spiritual instructions by the Dutchman Johannes Mauburnus (d. 1501/02). Here, too, it was to be combined with other liturgical elements, of which Luther kept only the first, an invocation of the Trinity together with the sign of the cross (in Mauburnus the invocation was christological, followed by the above mentioned prayer, a petition to the Blessed Virgin Mary asking her blessing, a psalm of praise and a hymn to the Virgin which referred to her as the source of our salvation and our praise). In Luther's version the prayer is in German, therefore shorter and stylistically more simple than the original, but in other respects more specific. E.g., Luther gives thanks for "protection during the night from all perils and dangers" (where Mauburnus has only a general thanksgiving for protection at night), he asks for protection from "all sin and evil, that my entire life and work may please thee" (where Mauburnus asks that "my service [servitus] may be pleasing to thee"). Luther also added a formula of commitment which entrusts one's whole life to God, and a plea for protection by God's guardian angel.
Finally, Luther recommends a hymn in the morning. And at night (a time which calls for the most simple and regular prayer) he simply calls upon the baptized Christian to take his rest with a cheered heart, a theme reminiscent of the office of Compline. Thus we see, to reiterate, a pattern which suggests itself as being a sort of "short breviary" for the Christian.

Based upon all of the above, I would conclude with two thoughts.

1. On the one hand, with such a rich tradition of prayer, given to us in the Catechism itself, we cheat ourselves and our children if we leave it behind us and embrace instead prayers which come to us from lesser traditions, or the mere improvised prayers from the heart.

2. On the other hand, with the genius of such a beautiful and profound richness in simplicity, which we have in these prayer forms, which, again, we might call a brilliantly distilled "short breviary," it is unnecessary and unwise, I suggest, to give people the impression (as I have seen happen, e.g., through the well intentioned enthusiasm for modern compilations like Treasury of Daily Prayer) that what they need for a healthy prayer life is to buy new books, even books with all sorts of wonderful traditional material. I say this as someone who has books of his own, and who is happy to sell them. But we ought never teach prayer in such a way as to give people the impression, either directly or indirectly, that to have a rich prayer life they need to buy more books. We truly have everything needful in those simple yet endlessly rich forms that we were taught as children, or should have been taught. The rest, for the common Christian layman, is icing on the cake.

I hasten to add that school children ought to be taught the Latin forms of all of these prayers as well. They are not germane to the present discussion, but you will find them here when you least expect it.


Phillip said...

If you object to the explanation of the Catechism atomizing the Scriptures into proof texts, then how would you teach children to judge things by Scripture in accordance with Acts 17:11, "Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. " Do you merely want sections instead of verses, or how would you propose to do this?

Dcn Latif Haki Gaba SSP said...

Thanks for the question, Phillip. This topic of the wisdom (or unwisdom) of the versification of the scriptures merits its own blog entry. But let me just try to take a quick swipe at this here.

We ought to teach our children, and everyone, the way Luther, and all great teachers, learned and taught scripture before there was such thing as the versification of the Bible. For one thing, indeed, more context would be taken into account, so that our people would learn more fully to appreciate the organic unity of the sacred scriptures. Some say that it would be too impracticle to go back to a nonversified Bible. I disagree. Keep in mind that when a small section or particle of a chapter needs to be referenced, we could simply cite it the way Luther does in the Small Catechism, where he says things like, "Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Matthew..." or "St. Paul says, Romans, chapter sixth..." etc.