“The use of set prayers can be a help even for a small community living together under certain circumstances, but often it becomes only an evasion of real prayer. By using ecclesial forms and the church’s wealth of thought, we can easily deceive ourselves about our own prayer life. The prayers then become beautiful and profound, but not genuine…Here the poorest stammering can be better than the best-phrased prayer.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 45.
I was a little surprised when I read this about “set prayers”, after all, Bonhoeffer previously encouraged us to pray the Psalms, and “set prayers” by the church are only a step removed from the Psalms (provided they are Biblically based). We want to encourage others to live lives of prayer, this means intimacy with God, conversation with God, prayer-engagement with God in its many forms, including in groanings which cannot be articulated. This also means praying the Scriptures and it can mean prayers written and prayed by other disciples through ages and generations. If we can sing hymns written through the centuries which are directed to God, we can pray prayers directed to God.
Absent a commentary from Bonhoeffer that answers the question, “Why did you write this passage?” we can only attempt to reconstruct why Bonhoeffer thought it important to use limited space within limited time to coach his readers in this fashion. The driving force was, of course, the preservation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in His church, manifested in life together – Christians living in Christ and Christ living in Christians. His emphasis on “real prayer” shows his desire for Christians to really be Christians – to know the indwelling Christ as individuals and as a community – it is not enough to mouth the words of others without experiencing the relationship from which those prayer words were birthed by the union of the Holy Spirit and the individual; as Paul wrote, “He who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him.” If we are to pray the Psalms at some point they must become our psalms, if we are to sing hymns they must become our hymns, if we are to pray prayers that others have prayed then at some point they must become our prayers. All of the foregoing must take possession of us and we must take possession of them – as we are given grace and understanding by the Holy Spirit.
Mere formalism is not enough, in fact it is toxic – the heart must be engaged with God and the mind must be renewed. Bonhoeffer himself did not discover the Bible in his own life until the early 1930s and it was around 1930 and 1931 that he experienced a “change” in his life according to his primary biographer, dear friend, and niece’s husband - Eberhard Bethge. So while Bonhoeffer is likely addressing the formalism he witnessed in the church, he may also be thinking about his own life in addressing “real prayer” – the two were intertwined.
Was he also reflecting on his American experience in the black church and contrasting the worship and prayers he heard there with the formalistic-established church in Germany? Might he also have thought about his work in poorer sections of Berlin and how removed those people were from the formalism of the church? Could he also have pondered the academic - theological environment and considered how it was intellectual and philosophical but not Christocentric or Biblically based? Since all of the foregoing were part of Bonhoeffer’s life, since he had experienced them all, I think they were all in his heart and mind as he wrote about prayer and envisioned what prayer should look like in life together. Maybe Bonhoeffer was more pietistic at times that he would have liked to think.
The next post in this series will continue with the above passage from Life Together.