Friday, February 22, 2013

Luther's Sacristy Prayer

Regular readers know how troubled we at the Egg are by "true stories" that are only half-true, and by misattributed "quotations."  Passed around by preachers and other motivational speakers, they often encapsulate clever and even wise ideas, well worth hearing.  Our concern is that, when something false is passed off as true, or something said by Bernard Shaw is attributed to Billy Graham, the shadow of dubious veracity falls over everything else that the speaker has to offer.

It was in this spirit that we wrote about Martin Luther's supposed "apple tree" remark, which it is almost certain he did not say.  Luther, like Mark Twain and St Augustine, is one of those figures -- historically important, well-spoken and prolific -- to whom false attributions cling like burrs.

Another "Lutherism," which floats around the Internet in various forms, is his sacristy prayer.  It is an exceptionally beautiful prayer, expressing the humility worthy of a priest heading to the altar.  We included it in Odd Hours, with the caveat that we could not vouch for its attribution.  Ever cynical, we presumed it to be by somebody else

Good news!  It's echt Luther.  For those who care, the passage (WA 43, 513) comes into  a commentary on Genesis 27:11-14, in which Luther has ben talking about faith and prayer, then about leadership before God.  Here is the Latin original:
In primis vero oret gubernator Ecclesiasticus:
Domini Deus, tu constituisti me in Ecclesia Episcoporum, Pastorem, vides, quam sim ad tantum et tam difficile munus obeundum ineptus, et si absque tuo auxilio fuissem, iamdudum evertissem omnia.  Ideo te invoco.  Ego quidem os et cor applicare volo, docebo populum, discam ipse et meditabor diligenter in verbo tuo, Tu me instrumento tuo utere: tantum ne dereliquas me: So enim solis fuero, facile perdidero omnia.  
Here is F.C. Longaker's somewhat wordy English translation, still in widespread use:
Lord God, Thou hast ordained me to the office of pastor and bishop in Thy Church. Thou seest how utterly unfit I am rightly to fulfil this exceedingly responsible calling. If it had not been for Thy wisdom and help, I should long ago have brought everything to nought. Unto Thee, therefore, I lift up my voice. I desire to lend my heart and lips to this service; I desire to teach the people; and I desire myself ever to be a disciple, meditating on Thy word. Use me, O Lord, as Thy workman; leave me not, neither forsake me; for if Thou forsake me, I shall bring everything to ruin. Amen.
(Wilhelm Loehe, Liturgy for Christian Congregations, 3rd ed., Newport, KY: 1902.  Incidentally, we couldn't find the prayer in the copy of Loehe's German Agende that we consulted.)

A few points are worth mentioning.  First, "in primis vero" notwithstanding, it isn't clear that Luther is offering this prayer for use just before worship, although it seems perfect for that purpose.  Second, we are amused by how alien to the popular "Lutheran" piety is is to call the pastor, as Luther does, an "ecclesiastical governor."  Especially these days, we seem altogether ready to cede that role to our council presidents.  And third, Luther does not conclude with an "Amen."  His text continues:
Diversum faciunt Sectae et Rottenses.  Illi enim sumunt sibi sapientiam et facultatem gubernandi et docendi.  Ideo timere prorumpunt in Ecclesiam, non orant, nec credunt, Dei donum esse administrationem, sive Ecclesiasticum, sive Politicam, sed seipsos magistros et duces rerum ingerunt.  Ideo fit tandem, ut turbent et impediant, quae ab aliis utiliter aedificata sunt.
Very crudely translated (and send us a note if we have erred grievously):
The Sectarians and Fanatics create conflict.  The latter assume for themselves the wisdom and capacity to govern and teach. Therefore they break out rashly in the church, neither praying nor believing that administration of the ecclesiastical or political systems are the gift of God, but rather they inflict themselves as teachers and leaders.  They do this, finally, to disturb and hinder what others have usefully constructed.
This is probably not meant to be part of the prayer, but it is an important idea nonetheless, and typical of Luther.  The person praying in the sacristy, a properly appointed gubernator, pastor and episcopus, is contrasted with those disruptive and undisciplined souls who have no churchly office except what they claim for themselves.  The one is called to humility and service, but the others are not called at all.


Pastor Joelle said...

Oh man this is good news. When I saw the title I was terrified you were going to take this away too ;)

Father Anonymous said...

Heh. Trust me, I'm relieved by this discovery as well. It's nice, for once, not to be the Grim Reaper of Aphorisms.

Father Anonymous said...

Upon reflection, I have just noticed an alternative translation which is interesting.

"Episcoporum" is a genitive plural, and does not match "pastorem," an accusative singular. Now, one doesn't want to make too much of this. Cases can be used in ways that confuse English speakers, medieval Latin was notoriously sloppy, and in all likelihood our text is just a transcription of some student's notes.

But. The opening line could be translated as "you have made me a pastor in the bishops' church." This truly does NOT sound like the Luther of legend, but ... well, there you have it.

Daniel Flucke said...

Thanks for finding this! I've been trying to track down where this is from. I just made a graphic of another version that's less specific to being a pastor that I found quoted in For All the Saints, which gives a citation of a prayer book from 1956. The graphic and that version are here