|Luther’s contribution to the tradition of Western spirituality was to highlight the potential for a rich spiritual life among laity busy with “worldly” tasks.|
Reverend Kallas received his Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and currently serves as pastor, with his spouse, at Grace Lutheran Church in Santa Barbara.
IN what way Martin Luther contributed significantly to the Western spiritualist tradition of the church regretfully has drawn meager attention within modern theological studies. Indeed, some may ask or, for that matter, question whether Luther may be seen as a positive contributor to the heritage of Christian spirituality. Since the magnum opus of Albrecht Ritschl, the History of Pietism, Luther scholarship time and again has endeavored to bracket off the reformer from the spiritualist and mystical tradition of the Western church. So dominant has been the “negative relation”(1) of Luther to matters of spirituality that only recently has the very question of a “Lutheran spirituality” again come to light within Lutheranism. An indicator of this shift appeared in the book On Becoming a Musical Mystical Bear by the Dominican spiritualist writer Fr. Matthew Fox. After a presentation to an enthusiastic group of Lutheran pastors, Fox relates, one exuberant cleric deeply moved by it all exclaimed: “Spirituality is where the action is in America today; and we Lutherans have never even used the word!”(2) Indeed, one is tempted to say, the Lutheran fellowship has discovered and seemingly appropriated of late a new word in its arsenal of theological terms: spirituality.
Gratitude, however, must be extended to Professors Georges Casalis and Jean-Louis Klein of the Free Faculty of Protestant Theology, Paris, for their study highlighting “Lutheriennes” spirituality in the Dictionnaire de spiritualité. And in their effort to have this work translated and printed, the editors of Spirituality Today similarly deserve credit for having opened for discussion the contribution of Luther to Western spirituality.(3)
The present inquiry, though, grows out of some concern that the study of Professors Casalis and Klein overlooks crucial elements in the spirituality of Martin Luther. Limited space makes it virtually impossible for a point by point rejoinder, nor would that method effectively delineate in what way Luther fits into the complex legacy of Christian spirituality. In any case, this essay will examine once again the topic of a Lutheran spirituality but from another vantage point and with particular concern for matters largely neglected in the article cited above.
Accordingly, the present investigation is entitled “The Spirituality of Martin Luther: A Reappraisal of His Contribution.” The “contribution” of concern here is to the Western spiritualist tradition. My basic argument is that Luther indeed stands at a critical juncture in the history of Western spirituality. In the elaboration of this thought, the subsequent study will be carried out with two primary questions in mind. First, how did Luther move the history of Christian spirituality in decisive new directions largely unanticipated in the ancient and medieval church? Second, in what way did his understanding of spirituality come to bear on piety during the sixteenth century and make a lasting contribution to the Western spiritualist tradition? By means of this approach, critical elements hitherto unexamined will, it is hoped, come into clearer view.
LUTHER’S MONASTIC EXPERIENCE
No serious appraisal of a Lutheran spirituality can be made, of course, without regard to that profound spiritual crisis Luther experienced in the monastery. Indeed, the mature spirituality of Luther can be rightly appraised only against the backdrop of monasticism and its overall importance to spirituality during the sixteenth century.
Luther himself never hesitated to speak openly of that experience and the way monastic life basically defined his early spirituality. Years after his departure from the Augustinian cloister at Erfurt, Luther expressly related the impact monastic discipline made on his youthful spiritual life: “I was truly a pious monk, and so strongly did I observe the rules of my order that I can say: If ever a monk got to heaven through monasticism, I, too, would have gotten there. To this all my associates in the cloister, who knew me, will bear witness.”(4)
A heartfelt devotion to the monastic life stands out prominently in the later remembrances of Luther. But more than simply the rigorous discipline, monasticism seemingly provided the young Luther with an avenue from this world into the heavenly realm, an orientation sought, no doubt, to allay great personal insecurities. In terms of its discipline and direction to life, therefore, monastic life truly defined for the youthful Luther the finest expression of spirituality known to the sixteenth century.
However dedicated Luther may have been in his devotion to monastic spirituality, lingering problems also persisted. Strangely, it was not the daily rigors of monasticism itself that took their toll and caused Luther’s greatest personal turmoil. In his quest to live a spiritual life “without reproach,” Luther once confided, he found no small degree of success.(5) Evidently to live morally and “without reproach” was not so burdensome as it may have been to many of his contemporaries. That Luther nonetheless remained inwardly perplexed and unsatisfied with his spiritual condition effectively caused him to think through the very nature of the spiritual life and its relationship to monastic life. Monastic vows seemingly provided Luther little ultimate assurance that his spiritual odyssey headed straightway to God. Nor did an adherence to the celibate life create in Luther confidence in the authenticity of his spiritual condition. For that matter, the very institution of monasticism, where spirituality was supposed to come to its most refined expression, simply could no longer bear the weight of Luther’s deep personal concern to discover a satisfactory spiritual condition coram Deo.
With the collapse of youthful confidence in monasticism as the primary context for Christian spirituality, Luther simultaneously was forced to consider anew what it really meant to be spiritual. If not adherence to monastic life, then what? If not in the observance of vows and celibacy, how does spirituality come to positive expression in the lives of the faithful?
Theologically, the plight of Luther resolved itself in the profound personal discovery that God loves the unrighteous sinner purely and simply on account of Jesus Christ and the Cross.
Spiritually, however, Luther still faced an acute problem. In fact, the spiritual crisis of Luther significantly deepened, for now the very institution of monasticism no longer provided an assured framework, or context, wherein spiritual life comes to positive expression and righteousness before God is assured. Indeed, the theological discovery that God was a gracious God apart from monastic discipline pushed Luther to evaluate anew the very nature of Christian spirituality itself.
What the theological discovery of a gracious God actually did for Luther was expand his correspondent vision of spirituality beyond the perimeters of the monastery. That the Lord God was truly gracious to his people apart from the institution of monasticism freed Luther to look more critically at the entire monastic enterprise and, accordingly, the spiritual life. No longer was spirituality viewed by Luther particularly in terms of the cloister, vows, celibacy, vigils, pilgrimages, and the like. Neither bodily mortification nor rigorous ascetic discipline, moreover, assumed intrinsic value to spiritual development. And, not the least for Luther, the professional religious — whether monks, nuns, or clerics — no longer stood indubitably at a higher level in the hierarchy of divine spirituality. Indeed, once God was known to be the spiritual partner of human beings apart from monasticism, Luther turned accordingly to view spirituality anew and in spiritual domains largely ignored in the Western tradition prior to the sixteenth century.
A NEW VIEW OF SPIRITUALITY
How thoroughgoing and decisive was this shift in perspective can be seen in a significant sermon illustration used by Luther in connection with his exposition of Matthew 24:25-26. In the text, Jesus sternly warns his disciples against blind ventures into the wilderness in search of prophetic figures claiming special messianic authority. This allusion to the wilderness, however, causes Luther to reflect critically on the life of the great fourth-century desert father, St. Anthony. According to Luther, Anthony at a critical juncture in his spiritual life seriously wondered about the value of his existence out in the hot deserts of Egypt and, most importantly, “whose equal he would be in the kingdom of heaven.” At that point, Luther relates the outcome of the story and its significance for his largely peasant audience:
[This experience] revealed to Anthony 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.(6)
Not uncommonly did preachers during the sixteenth century jest with their monastic counterparts about the rigors of their life. But at a deeper level can be found a critical element in the new perspective Luther came to find regarding Christian spirituality, namely, that a lowly, anonymous cobbler from Alexandria may well display far greater spirituality than the famous Egyptian desert monk, St. Anthony. Often Luther expressed great compassion for the common folk; but more than merely sympathy for their social condition, the reformer deeply appreciated in the simple laity a potential for genuine spirituality which commonly was assumed, or believed, to be realizable only in the professional religious. Hardly a passing anecdote, the sermon illustration about St. Anthony highlights a major turnabout in Luther’s thought and sets forth a significant contribution to the Western spiritualist 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.
Not surprisingly, it was the common folk with whom the mature Luther concerned himself the most regarding the development of an authentic spirituality. One occasion in the life of Luther points out this particular concern most graphically. On a visit to the village barber of Wittenberg, Peter Berkendorf, Luther confronted a question of supreme importance to the spiritual life. Strange, is it not, that it should be the Wittenberg village barber whose inquisitive nature caused him to corner Luther with straight razor and lather in hand and inquire: “How does one pray?” And how characteristic it was of Luther not to dismiss the query, as though it was only a brief aside to pass time or merely barbershop chatter. No, Luther took the matter directly to heart. In response, moreover, a literary piece of some forty printed pages was prepared by Luther for Peter and subsequently published in 1534 under the unassuming title A Simple Way to Pray for a Good Friend.(7)
Characteristically Luther takes a mild poke in this work at the spirituality exhibited by his monastic counterparts. What Luther suggests to barber Peter is that monastic discipline and its rigors fail miserably in the advancement of authentic prayer. If anything, Luther argued, the reverse is true. At the heart of this critique is a fear in Luther that the spiritual devotion and prayer evidenced so commonly in the religious orders during the sixteenth century had degenerated to little more than “babbling.” In other words, monks prayed, but it was little more than lip motion, a devotion devoid of heartfelt feeling from within and in want of divine inspiration from without.
Conversely, Luther develops for barber Peter a framework within which his struggle to pray more authentically might be finally resolved. Most striking in this literary piece is how Luther deals with the matter of prayer and spirituality in terms of the Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments and Apostles’ Creed, clearly a method reminiscent of that used earlier in the Large and Small Catechisms. What is entirely different, however, is the way Luther treats these three fundamental symbols of the Christian faith. The Lord’s Prayer, Commandments, and Creed are broken apart into their component parts, and short prayers are prepared by Luther with the expressed concern to build on the basic symbols. 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.
SPIRITUALITY AND ORDINARY LIFE
More than simply a formal literary piece on the “how to” of prayer, this work of Luther intentionally relates prayer to the particular vocation of a barber. Here the major concern of Luther to integrate spirituality and the common life comes directly into play. Interestingly, Luther credits Jerome — the patron of rigorous monastic devotion — for his widely quoted proverb that “the person who works prays doubly.” While the proverb traditionally assumed significance more within the monastic context where prayer and work alternated in the course of the daily hours, another practical application ran through the mind of Luther. Of primary concern to Luther was the integration of prayer into the seemingly mundane and “secular” task of a village barber. That Luther took the vocation of a barber with utmost seriousness and saw it as a place where spirituality and prayer can indeed come to positive expression can be seen at an important juncture in the work:
Real prayer is done attentively as a good and diligent barber fixes his mind and eyes upon his razor and the hair and does not forget where he cuts. If he talks a great deal while he shaves, or looks around and has his thoughts elsewhere, he might indeed cut a person’s mouth, nose, or entire throat. Thus anything that is to be done well demands the entire attention of a person . . . . How much more does prayer require the whole heart if it is actually to be a good prayer.(8)
How better, one might think, could a simple village barber learn to pray than to reflect on the nature of his own profession. By implication, moreover, Luther maintains that barbers — to say nothing of farmers, cobblers, or teachers — not only can carry on a rich spiritual life of prayer but can do so “well” if they have an attentive mind and heart.
According to Luther, therefore, prayer and an authentic spiritual life depend especially on the condition of an individual’s heart. It would be a serious misreading of Luther, however, to understand this importance of the heart as though it referred to pure interiority. Certainly Luther appreciates that inward dynamic to spirituality, for it is when the heart is “brought to itself’ in communion with the Holy Spirit that genuine spirituality is attained and experienced richly. But in his counsel of barber Peter, 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.
To the contrary, the spiritual odyssey for which Luther provides counsel requires of barber Peter nothing more than a vision from his barber stool 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. In a prayerful comment on the petition from the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” Luther writes: “O dear God and Father, add your blessing to this present and physical life. Graciously give us blessed peace, and preserve us against war and strife.” On the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and mother,” Luther advises Peter in the context of a prayer: “Dear Father, you have honored me with your name and office …. Grant me your grace and blessing to support my spouse, children, and employees in a godly and Christian way.” And in a prayer designed to build on the first article of the Apostles’ Creed, the reformer prays: “Eternal God, I thank you, from the heart, that by your goodness we have been made out of nothing into marvelous persons, with body, soul, reason and senses; that we are daily preserved out of nothing, and that you have made us lords over the earth, fishes, birds and beasts. Amen.” Not in the least is there any evidence in the counsel of Luther on prayer that leads to a condition of pure interiority. If anything, prayer facilitates for Luther a reciprocal movement from inward communion with God through the Holy Spirit to outward service and support of human beings within society. Or, put another way, inner spiritual fellowship with God through prayer bursts forth successively and overflows into existence lived squarely within the civic arena.
The pivotal element in the spirituality of Luther is most assuredly the reformer’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. Insofar as the hearts of human beings resonate with this dynamic reality of God within creation do they attain an authentic spirituality. Spirituality for Luther thus is not directed heavenward, nor is it an attempt to bridge the gulf between this temporal arena and God who resides outside the ebb and flow of human history. To the contrary, Luther would argue, spirituality orients an individual back into the mainstream of life in order to engage more fully with the Lord God and his activity herein.
Hence, 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.”
How then might Luther be evaluated with respect to the history of Western spirituality? Though hardly a definitive exposition, the previous inquiry provides some broad contours for a resolution of that question.
This writer firstly would argue that Luther made no claim to complete independence from the spiritualist tradition of the Western church. Often Luther disclosed his deep respect for Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, and Tauler. That is an assumption this study makes, and it leaves unexamined in what way Luther integrated these various sources into his own thought. Though Luther drew on the tradition, it is not suggested that he did not make a contribution which may be viewed as his own from within the confines of the sixteenth century.
With respect to the previous inquiry, two fundamental conclusions might be drawn regarding the contribution of Luther to Western spirituality. First, the mature spirituality of Luther can be evaluated, or appreciated for that matter, only with serious regard to the monastic tradition. That Luther felt no small degree of dissatisfaction with monastic devotion deeply colored the mature expression of his spirituality. What really alarmed Luther, though, was not the institution of monasticism itself, but the notion — however widely held by his sixteenth-century contemporaries — that a monk, nun, or cleric, simply by virtue of his or her profession, could claim greater spirituality. The spirituality of the mature Luther thus is born out of a polemical context where the professional religious are denied any claim to an intrinsically superior spirituality. To the extent that this critique rooted itself in the soil of Western spirituality, Luther made a decisive and lasting contribution to the tradition of the Christian church.
The corollary to that primary argument likewise situates Luther at a very significant juncture in the Western spiritualist tradition. If the professional religious are seemingly brought down off a pedestal in the valuation of their spiritual condition, the laity through the efforts of Luther simultaneously are given significant new consideration. Now the spirituality of an obscure Alexandrian cobbler, Luther affirmed, could stand shoulder to shoulder, if not heads above, that of the great St. Anthony. Likewise, the simple question, “How does one pray?” from the lips of a common village barber served notice to Luther that the spirituality of the laity and their relationship with God deserve serious attention. What has become a great modern concern within Christian communities, namely, the spirituality of the laity, has definite historical roots in the contribution of Martin Luther to the Western spiritualist tradition.
- Cf. Erwin Iserloh, “Luther’s Christ-Mysticism,” Catholics Dialogue with Luther (Chicago: Loyola University, 1970), pp. 37ff.
- Matthew Fox, On Becoming a Musical Mystical Bear (New York: Paulist Press, 1976), p. xi.
- Georges Casalis and Jean-Louis Klein, “Lutheran Spirituality,” Spirituality Today (1981): 218-39.
- WA 38, 143.
- WA 8, 537.
- WA 47, 599f.
- Herbert Brokering, ed., Luther’s Prayers (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1967), pp. 32-62.
- Ibid., p. 41.