Before embarking on the actual subject of prayer in the teaching of the catechisms produced by the Reformation, it may be useful to present some general observations suggested by these texts.
1. The Reformers of the Church prayed.
The Reformation appears to us as a great whole : a work of study, thinking, preaching, discussion, polemic, and organization. But it was more than all this. From what we know, it was also an act of continuous prayer, an invocation and, let us add, an action of certain men and, at the same time, a response on the part of God.
In Luther's Greater Catechism (Catechisms of 1529 are still standard summaries of faith among Lutherans) there is a remarkable passage from which some sentences may be quoted
'We know that our defence lies in prayer alone. We are too weak to resist the Devil and his servants. Let us hold fast to the weapons of the Christian; they enable us to fight the Devil. What has won these great victories over the undertakings of our enemies, which the Devil has used to enslave us, except the prayers of those good men who rose up like a rampart of brass to protect us? Our enemies may mock at us, but we shall defy them and the Devil if we continue steadfast in prayer. For we know that when a Christian prays thus : "Dear Father, thy will be done," God answers him, "Dear child, it shall be done in spite of the Devil and the whole world".
There are some obscurities in the events of the sixteenth century, but here we touch upon a point of particular importance. Perhaps the faults and weaknesses which we observe at other moments of history are due to the fact that we no longer understand the meaning of these words of Luther's.
2. The Reformers were of one mind concerning the importance and the significance of prayer.
When the texts of the various catechisms are read and compared, it is possible to distinguish with some precision the dominant preoccupations peculiar to Luther, Calvin (1545), and the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism (1562). But it would be difficult, if not impossible to discover disagreement in the matter of faith. One of them, for example, emphasizes the fact that prayer is obedience to a command of God man must pray because God wills it. One might suppose that this is Calvin, but in fact, it is Luther who holds this rigorous, almost military, idea : God commands, man must obey. Another insists that prayer is based on Christ's intercession with his heavenly Father. One might expect this to be Luther, but the words are Calvin's.
Calvin also insists that prayer must be addressed to God only, and not to saints or angels. Again we recognize the Genevan Reformer when he speaks of the part played by the Holy Spirit in prayer. On the other hand it is interesting to note that prayer is regarded, in the Heidelberg Catechism, as an act of thanksgiving.
We may also observe that the example and the reality of prayer are identical in all these texts. This ought to be understood in the discussions between Lutherans and Calvinists which still persist in Germany to this day. Since the Reformers were of one mind concerning prayer, they were in agreement on fundamentals; and if men can pray together they should also be able to take Communion together, for doctrinal differences can then be only secondary.
3. One thing needs to be stressed: these texts do not make any distinction between individual and corporate prayer.
For the authors of the catechisms the thing is quite simple: they see the Church, that is to say us, as members of a community forming a whole. But they also distinguish the individuals who constitute this whole. One cannot ask whether it is Christians who pray or the Church. There is no such alternative; for when Christians pray, it is the Church, and when the Church prays, it is Christians. There can be no opposition between these two.
Perhaps it is an indication of sickness in the Church that such questions as these can be asked : How ought I to pray, in my room, for my own spiritual needs? And how ought the Church, on its side, to pray? And so a special interest comes to be directed to prayer in the Church and the 'liturgical question'! Is this not a sign of disease?
For the Reformers there is no 'liturgical question' : one prays in church and at home. They are not concerned to draw a distinction between private prayer and corporate prayer; what does concern them is the necessity of praying and praying well. This is perhaps a point which should be kept in mind. When secondary matters assume importance, it is the sign of some spiritual weakness.
4. Another question is passed over in these texts: must one pray from the heart or according to a set form?
Neither Luther nor Calvin paid heed to this question which exercises so many of our contemporaries. They insisted that it was necessary and right that a man's heart should pray; they stressed the sincerity of prayer as opposed to empty words. They knew what free prayer was, but they also knew that in real prayer the fancy cannot roam as it will : there must be discipline.
Jesus Christ not only told us to pray : in the 'Our Father' he also showed us how to pray, and we should do well to keep to this rule. There must be feeling in prayer, as Calvin says, but feeling must not be an excuse for the mind to wander. The extempore prayers with which Calvin used to end his sermons are remarkable for their stately uniformity; he never indulged in unrestrained outpourings of words. The same elements are always present : adoration of the majesty of God and of the Holy Spirit, but they are not stock phrases.
The Reformers were not fluent in prayer and it is doubtful whether they would willingly have spoken of a gift for prayer. What they say is : Pray and pray well; this is what matters. Be content to possess, in the `Our Father', a model for your prayers, but pray from the free impulse of the heart.
5. The Reformers do not distinguish between explicit prayer (which is offered at specific times and expresses itself outwardly by uttering certain words) and implicit prayer (which finds expression, not in words but in feeling and in a constant disposition of heart, conscience, and mind).
The `pray without ceasing' of 1 Thess. 5.17 is not quoted in any catechism of that period. It would seem that these authors are chiefly concerned with explicit prayer, although Calvin says that language is not always necessary. In general it may be said that the teaching of the Reformers as expressed in their writings, their preaching, and their actions, shows that for them prayer is at once word, thought, and life.
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