“Even extemporaneous prayer will be determined by a certain internal order. It is not the chaotic outburst of a human heart, but the prayer of an internally ordered community…At first there may be some monotony in the daily repetition of the same petitions that are entrusted to us as a community, but later freedom from an all too individualistic form of prayer will surely be found. If it is possible to add to the number of daily recurring petitions, a weekly order might be tried…” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 44.
Bonhoeffer does not tell us enough about what he is thinking to understand the specific good models or excesses that are in his mind as he writes the above. Later in this passage on page 44 he uses the term, “the arbitrariness of subjectivity” as he counsels the benefit of “relating prayer to one of the Scripture readings”. It is difficult to separate “subjectivity” from “extemporaneous” and one wonders if it is even safe to do so lest we fall into an unintended rigidity and legalism and authoritarian mindset. Perhaps this is Bonhoeffer’s corrective to having either witnessed or heard about “the chaotic outburst of a human heart”?
Our salvation in Jesus Christ is holistic; our minds and hearts are made new and renewed in the likeness of Jesus Christ. If “subjective” primarily relates to affections and “objective” primarily relates to thoughts, we ought to recognize that the marriage and unity of both are found in the shalom we have in Jesus Christ, we are made whole men and women in Him – people with increasingly whole hearts and whole minds and healthy souls in His new creation. The Fall shattered us internally, Christ restores our souls.
My observation about “chaotic outbursts” is that while it may not be fruitful to have them as a matter of course, that there are times when they express both the agony of the human heart and the agony of the Spirit of God as He cries out on behalf of humanity. Sometimes what appears to be indecorous behavior is just what is needed to break the hardness of hearts and to strip away facades of religiosity. It is easy to be a Pharisee in communal prayer when we know that others are listening. There are historic examples of “chaotic outbursts” breaking the dam of religiosity and being manifestations of the Holy Spirit bringing people to repentance and renewal in Jesus Christ. Two examples I have in mind are Jonathan Edwards and Andrew Murray – neither of these men did anything to encourage these outbursts, nor (as far as I know) to propagate them, nor to use them as a standard for spiritual maturity.
What does Bonhoeffer mean by “internal order” and “internally ordered community”? Does he mean that each community has an order similar to the spiritual orders of Franciscans or Jesuits? Does he mean that what we do and how we pray is to be ordered and formed by Scripture? Is this internal order implicit or explicit? Is it a culture peculiar to each local community?
What should be the norm in communal prayer? Patience, longsuffering, consideration, honesty, submission to the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, bearing the burdens of others, freedom to express the yearnings of our souls and the joys of our hearts and the perplexities of our minds as children of God, as brothers and sisters gathered before their Father and Lord Jesus.
Communal prayer cannot be tidy prayer for tidy prayer is prayer more concerned with its form and how it looks to others than it is with spiritual realities. In tidy prayer children are to be seen and not heard, I am not speaking of children in chronological age, I am speaking of those young in Jesus Christ. To be sure there is a Scriptural internal order to prayer and fellowship, such as we see in 1 Corinthians Chapter 14 – assuming we still believe 1 Corinthians Chapter 14.
The prayer life of a community, of those in life together, should not be static, indeed, in Christ it cannot be static – anymore than the prayer life of an individual Christian ought to be static. Internal orders, whether explicit or implicit, carry with them the danger of becoming more form than substance – a corrective and protection to this is allowing the myriad forms of Scriptural petition and worship and communion to mold us as God’s people – communal prayer is a pilgrimage, we pitch our tents in many places on our journey.
We all face the temptation of allowing excesses we’ve seen to dictate our thinking; let’s not look at the excesses for our guidance, but rather to God’s Word.
We’ll continue to explore communal prayer in the next post.