‘So, a good and attentive barber keeps his thoughts, attention, and eyes on the razor and hair and does not forget how far he has gotten with his shaving or cutting. If he wants to engage in too much conversation or let his mind wander or look somewhere else he is likely to cut his customer’s mouth, nose, or even his throat. Thus if anything is to be done well, it requires the full attention of all one’s senses and members, as the proverb says, “He who thinks of many things, thinks of nothing and does nothing right.” How much more does prayer call for concentration and singleness of heart if it is to be a good prayer!’ Martin Luther to Peter the Barber
Early in the year 1535, Peter Beskendorf became the most famous hairdresser of the reformation. He was Martin Luther’s barber and wrote to the great reformer asking for advice on how to pray. Peter not only had reputation as the master barber of Wittenberg, but he had a reputation for godliness and sincerity in his love for the Word of God. He was one of Luther’s oldest and best friends, so his request is not all that surprising. What is surprising, however, is that Luther took the time out of his immensely busy reformation schedule to write him a thirty-four-page reply with theological reflections and practical suggestions about how he ought to approach prayer to the Almighty God. While this story teaches us a thing or two about Christian leadership and the pastoral care of individuals (read: a salutary reminder against the professionalisation of ministry), the letter itself provides some wonderful insights which may help trim our own prayer life into shape.
Luther begins by sharing some of his own experiences of prayer – and hopes that Peter might do better at it than himself! When he feels “cool and joyless in prayer” due to busyness (or more accurately the obstruction of the flesh and the devil), he makes it a priority to find some solitude in private, or if the time is right, solace at church. Luther shares that he quietly recites to himself – “just as a child might do” – the Ten Commandments or the Apostles’ Creed, or some words of Christ or Paul, or the Psalms. There is a realism here which we modern Australian evangelicals can surely relate to: busyness, dryness in prayer, and the need for solitude. But there is a challenge in Luther’s words too: what Scriptural truths can we easily meditate upon, or what Creedal truths flow from our lips with childlike ease?
Luther states immediately afterwards that it is a good thing to let prayer “be the first business of the morning and the last at night”. He advises his trusted tonsorialist to guard against those deluding ideas that say “Wait a little while … first I must attend to this or that”. These thoughts get us into situations which arrest our attention and involve us such that prayer slides into the background of the day. How true is this? It is all too easy to check the news or the social media feeds and before we know it, the day has begun, or the day has ended without prayer! Surely, we can think up some simple strategies to help with this – perhaps it may as straight-forward as leaving the mobile phone in another room?
Luther writes that when your heart has been warmed by reciting Scriptural truths and is focused on God, to kneel or stand with folded hands, and to lift your eyes to heaven, speaking or thinking the following prayer:
“O Heavenly Father, dear God, I am a poor unworthy sinner. I do not deserve to raise my eyes or hands toward you or to pray. But because you have commanded us all to pray and have promised to hear us and through your dear Son Jesus Christ have taught us both how and what to pray, I come in obedience to your word, trusting in your gracious promise. I pray in the name of my Lord Jesus Christ … as he has taught us: Our Father in heaven, etc.”
The rest of Luther’s letter provides models of how he personally prays through the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments (“use them as a flint and steel to kindle a flame in the heart”), and the Lord’s Prayer (“I suckle at the Lord’s Prayer like a child, and as an old man eat and drink from it and never get my fill”). He breaks them into lines, or parts of lines, and then expands them into further prayer. Interestingly, he encourages each line of the Ten Commandments and the Creed to be fashioned into a garland of four strands: first the command or instruction, second a relevant thanksgiving, third a relevant confession, and fourth a relevant petitionary prayer. What is abundantly clear, is that Luther perceives great depth to these standard features of the Christian faith – indeed, moreso than many of us may perceive in them.
Given the absence of the Creeds, the Decalogue, and the Lord’s Prayer from some contemporary evangelical churches, one wonders whether we have lost some spiritual gems here? The creative recapture of these jewels of the faith may, in fact, bolster our corporate, family, and personal prayer lives. If we are passionate about personal piety or church growth, then what good reason might we have not to be passionate about these Scripturally sourced pearls of wisdom? Of course, Luther is acutely aware of the danger of external religion and the danger of slavishly following a mere form of words (remember that Luther was the former Augustinian Eremite friar — not a monk! — who knew a thing or two about religious adherence). He laments that in his own day the Lord’s Prayer is “prattled and chattered so irreverently all over the world!” Indeed, he calls it “the greatest martyr on earth.” But misuse of a good thing does not make the thing bad – especially when that thing is the living and active Word of God. Therefore, says Luther, the Christian ought to pray in these trustworthy treasures to the heart, and in so doing, the Christian will warm and kindle his faith in the Lord Jesus.
After that, the simple letter is abruptly finished. And simplicity is what marks the letter from start to finish. In fact, the published form of the letter is entitled, “A Simple Way to Pray”. It is quite something, that one of the most erudite theologians of the early Reformation and one of the most prolific authors of the same period, writes about prayer so simply. The reason is that, for Luther, the Christian life never moves on from the simple things of the faith. One might write 95 thoughtful theological propositions to challenge the core tenets of late medieval Roman Catholic devotion and theology, but one never moves on from being a sinner in need of Christ. One might take a mighty and courageous stand before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (at the time the most powerful man on the planet with the exception of the Chinese Emperor), but one never moves on from the struggle to pray after rolling out of bed in the morning, or before rolling back into bed at night. One might turn the whole of Europe upside down with myriad publications proclaiming the saving slogan of “faith alone”, but one never moves on from the ABC’s of the Christian life: the Apostles’ Creed, the Decalogue, and the Lord’s Prayer. And lastly, one might attain a senior and statesmanlike role in society, but one never moves on from a child-like prayer-life: simple words, humble attitude, faltering at times, but ever grateful.
We can only surmise how Peter Beskendorf prayed in great reformer’s advice. However, tragedy was to befall that beloved master barber. On the Saturday before Easter of 1535 he shared a meal with his son-in-law Dietrich. And although the details of what took place are scant, we know that through intoxication the old barber fatally stabbed Dietrich and was subsequently exiled and spent the rest of his life ruined and impoverished. Perhaps Peter treasured Luther’s words then, more than ever? One particular sentence of Luther’s prayers would have spoken volumes into his sad situation: “… in thy mercy, grant us a blessed departure from this vale of sorrows so that in the face of death we do not become fearful or despondent but in firm faith commit our souls into thy hands.”
There is something we can extract for ourselves from this historical context. For even struggling saints like us may find ourselves – or those we love – on hard times. Where is our God when we pray in such situations? We can imagine Joseph praying to be rescued as he was sold into slavery, only to later say that “God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). We can imagine Paul praying three times to have the thorn in his flesh removed – but God said no: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9). And it is for this reason – God’s hidden purposes – that we pray “Your will be done.” In the meantime we must – amidst the pain – hold onto God’s promises that somehow he “causes all things to work together for good” (Rom. 8:28), and must cast our cares on him, knowing that he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). We must keep remembering that he will give us strength sufficient for each day and that he has promised, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5; cf., Rom. 8:35-39). Personally, I’m always helped by what C.S. Lewis once said: “For most of us prayer in Gethsemene is the only model. Removing mountains can wait.” And I’m sure that both Luther and Peter the Barber would be in full agreement with that too.
 It was subsequently published and was so popular that four editions were printed that same year.
Mark Earngey – Lecturer in Christian Thought, Moore Theological College