Wittenberg Seminar:
Reflection on Silence and Familiarity

In March 2015, I was fortunate enough to participate in the LWF's Wittnerberg Seminar. Twenty pastors and bishops from sixteen different countries spent two weeks studying Luther's writings under the supervision of two international scholars. Each day, a different student was responsible for morning devotions. These devotions were held in the Fronleichnamkapell, a small chapel next to the city church. This reflection first appeared as a Facebook Note.

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Posted by Matthew Lynn Riegel on Sunday, March 22, 2015

Friday (3/13/15) was the last day of the seminar, and it was my turn for morning devotions. Armed with the sext liturgy from the Lutheran Campus Ministry at WVU—thank you Emily Buras for sending it to me—I made the appropriate adjustments to make it terce and led the seminar in the mid morning prayer office. With the help of some colleagues, the chairs were arranged in choir (two rows facing each other other side of the long access of the chapel). Beth Schlegel consented to be the opposite semichoir leader so that we could chant the psalm antiphonally. After some brief instruction and a moment of silence, I knocked twice, indicating that all should rise, and chanted the opening versicle, "Be pleased, O God, to deliver me." The assembly responded, "O Lord, make haste to help me." The Gloria Patri was then chanted, followed by the hymn. Instead of the morning verses of the Ambrosian hymn, we gently sang,

Again we keep this solemn fast
A gift of faith from ages past
This Lent which binds us lovingly
To faith and hope and charity.

to Jesu dulcis memoria. There is something rather intense about a group accustomed to singing at forte or even fortissimo singing at mezzo piano instead. The hymn completed, we sat for the chanting of the appointed three letters of the great acrostic meditation upon the law, Psalm 119. With Beth leading the opposite side, the assembly easily adopted the traditional pattern of breathing and antiphonal exchange between the two semichoirs, allowing for a thoughtful recitation of the psalm. We held silence for a few moments—well, a few moments by my reckoning; I'm sure others wondered if I had fallen asleep—listened to the reading from Joel,

"Yet even now," says the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with morning; and rend your hearts and not your garments,"

and held silence again until I knocked. We rose, chanted the Responsorium breve,

Create in me a clean heart, O God
And Renew a right spirit within me,

and the Kyrie. According to custom, we prayed the Pater noster silently---this works really well, in my opinion, with a multilingual assembly, as each can pray in his/her own tongue---concluding with the chanting of the Pater noster's doxology. The dismissal I picked up at Weston Prior nearly 30 years ago—Brian McClinton and Chris Chantelau will remember that road trip—marked the end of the liturgy:

May the spirit of our Lord be with us this day
And with our absent brothers and sisters.

To my surprise, everyone sat with me, lingering in private prayer or simple silence. This happens at the Lutheran Campus Chapel, but this is our custom at LCM@WVU. Yes, the instruction, "Following the prayer service, you are free to remain behind in silent prayer or to depart in your own time," appeared at the bottom of the printed liturgy, but one might expect that busy people would opt to depart in their own time rather quickly. I was the first to rise, and I was in no particular hurry. Then some of the others began to rise. Maybe they needed me to leave first so that they had "permission" to leave themselves. We are all Lutherans (except for one Reformed in the group, and they are even worse than Lutherans when it comes to good order). Most, however, did not rise immediately after me.

"Linger" is the right word, I think. It somehow captures that vague desire we have not to move on once we have encountered something that has arrested our souls, something beautiful, something peaceful, maybe even something sublime. We linger in the sunset. We linger by the forest brook. We linger in the presence of the beloved, hoping against hope to share just a few more moments before the pain of parting rends our hearts. In this cold, callous, cacophonous chaos we call life, the ordered silences of the prayer offices might just be one of the mercies the church can bestow upon an anxious humanity. Why is it that the church so often thinks that the answer to the noise of the world is to make our music louder, our preaching louder, and our youth programming louder? We're just adding to the spiritual noise pollution. Can we, especially through the prayer offices, offer an alternative to the world? Can we, through the silences that surround the Word of God, give the faithful just one moment's rest, a mini-Sabbath in the midst of the day, when they can linger with that Word in peace and delight? Can we believe, for just a little while, that the Shepherd has whispered his verses of love in our ears, and, in the silence following, the seduction of our Shulamite souls is sealed?

For me, praying terce was a welcome relief. My Hanoverian colleague had asked me to consider using the Corporate Confession and Forgiveness rite, a penitential service to go with our discussion of the 95 Theses (and just about everything else) covered in the course of the seminar. I was not entirely comfortable with the idea. Something about foisting a penitential service upon my peers without seeking consensus bothered me. Then again, if anybody needs a penitential service, it is clergy. Stop and think about it for minute. The pastor declares the absolution to the congregation in the brief order; who declares it to the pastor? I'm lucky. We pray compline regularly at the Lutheran Campus Chapel, and we use the old mutual confession and absolution form. I hear the absolution spoken to me twice a week (and, during special times, nightly). I didn't when I was a parish pastor, a time when Dexter Weikel's dictum, "The word of forgiveness is stronger on my brother's tongue than in my own head," proved to be most certainly true. Be that as it may, I was doing the prep for the penitential service when I realized that I couldn't make it work with the time constraint and do it justice. So, back to Plan A: terce.

It was really a double relief to lead terce: 1) relief that I was not doing the penitential rite---though I now have some guilt about that...dang Hammer of Jeremiah; 2) relief that I could pray. Let me explain: when one leads worship, one can't always enjoy worship as worship. There are plenty of times that the worship leader has to worry about what is happening next. For novice worship leaders, everything can be a source of worry and distraction precisely because everything is so new. Now, it is a Christian service to lead worship. A good worship leader knows when to subordinate his/her own desires in order to remove obstacles that might distract or obstruct others as they worship. This is why it is so nice to have a liturgical form with which one can gain familiarity. The old line, "familiarity breeds contempt," might true for some, but I've never found it so with respect to the liturgy. It's like making a dish that you know by heart. You don't have to check and recheck the menu, fretting about the measurements and sequence. You can simply enjoy the cooking experience. While I am frequently surprised in worship by things I've not noticed before in both the Scriptural and liturgical texts, I can say that I am less likely to be surprised when I am fretting about a liturgy I do not know well. Familiarity frees one to actually hear what is being said. The minor hours are familiar...like old friends. A semester in St. Augustine's House provided plenty of opportunity to gain familiarity with the minor hours (as we prayed four each day seven days a week). I've carried the minor hours into the life of the LCM@WVU with weekly sext (daily at the beginning of the year and at the end of each term) and compline. Again, I think it salutary that we use liturgical forms that have a high degree of regularity, especially when we hit the high stress times like midterms and finals. Aren't students, faculty, and staff stressed enough without us getting liturgically creative.

The greater strength of the offices (and, here, I include the major hours) is the psalter. Indeed, the psalms are the center and heart of the office. Luther, while in the Augustinerkloster, most likely recited the entire psalter weekly in the course of praying the canonical hours. Did Luther harshly critique the monasticism of his day? Yes, but that critique is more nuanced than we popularly remember. Even so, there is some irony here. Luther is a master of the psalter in no small part because of his monastic formation.

Vital for his theological formation were the seven hours of prayer and other aspects of monastic devotional life. Daily repetition of its liturgies drilled psalms and other portions of Scripture into his head. The failure of these spiritual exercises to ease his unsettled, distressed conscience did not alter the fact that the psalmists' cries of repentance and pleas for mercy sprang automatically out of the thesaurus of his memory for the rest of his life. (Robert Kolb, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith [Oxford University Press, 2009]).

On of the things for which I am deeply indebted to St. Augustine's House is the inculcation of the psalms upon my mind and heart. Unbidden, psalms rise from my cobwebbed memory in situations personal and professional. Following Luther's catechetical example of mealtime prayers, I often use "psalm bites" to begin prayers at meetings, in the hospital, and elsewhere. There have been more than a few times when the only thing I could manage was a recitation of Psalm 121 or Psalm 88—sometimes, we do not have the words, but the psalter always does. Luther, expresses this truth so clearly:

A human heart is like a ship on a wild sea, driven by the storm winds from the four corners of the world. Here it is stuck with fear and worry about impending disaster; there comes grief and sadness because of present evil. Here breathes a breeze of hope and of anticipated happiness; there blows security and joy in present blessings. These storm winds teach us to speak with earnestness, to open the heart and pour out what lies at the bottom of it. He who is stuck in fear and need speaks of misfortune quite differently from him who floats on joy; and he who floats on joy speaks and sings of joy quite differently from him who is stuck in fear. . . . What is the greatest thing in the Psalter but this earnest speaking amid these storm winds of every kind? Where does one find finer words of joy than in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving? There you look into the hearts of all the saints, as into fair and pleasant gardens, yes, as into heaven itself. There you see what fine and pleasant flowers of the heart spring up from all sorts of fair and happy thoughts toward God, because of his blessings. On the other hand, where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? There again you look into the hearts of all the saints, as into death, yes, as into hell itself. How gloomy and dark it is there, with all kinds of troubled forebodings about the wrath of God! So, too, when they speak of fear and hope, they use such words that no painter could so depict for you fear or hope, and no Cicero or other orator so portray them. (Martin Luther, Preface to the Psalter [1545/1528])

Indeed, he can claim,

In a word, if you would see the holy Christian Church painted in living color and shape, comprehended in one little picture, then take up the Psalter. There you have a fine, bright, pure mirror that will show you what Christendom is. Indeed you will find in it also yourself and the true gnothi seauton, as well as God himself and all creatures. (Op. cit.)

Should it prove impossible that we convince our people to take up the whole Scripture, let us, at least, encourage them to take up the psalter. This could be done through not stinting on the recitation of the psalter in our worship. Too often we treat the psalm, in Sunday mass, as nothing more than a filler between the first lesson and the epistle. Our publishing house is loathe to give us many more than eight verses at a time, and, even when it does, it tends to skip over verses deemed troublesome. We rarely preach on the psalms. I would not be surprised to hear that some pastors have never preached on a psalm their entire careers, and I know some churches that do not include the psalm in the Sunday mass because of time. Better to cut out the taking up of the collection and social hour that tries to pass for the peace (maybe even the children's sermon) than the psalm. We might also expand our use of the psalms in midweek Lenten and Advent vespers: add two psalms to accompany the Domine clamavi and toss in a canticle. We have the time; we don't have to be in a rush. We might use Luther's mealtime prayers at our potlucks, teaching our parishioners to recite with us, "The eyes of all...." We might even preach and teach the psalms and provide psalters for the faithful.

The Psalter ought to be a precious and beloved book, if for no other reason than this: it promises Christ’s death and resurrection so clearly—and pictures his kingdom and the condition and nature of all Christendom—that it might well be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible. It is really a fine enchiridion or handbook. In fact, I have a notion that the Holy Spirit wanted to take the trouble himself to compile a short Bible and book of examples of all Christendom or all saints, so that anyone who could not read the whole Bible would here have anyway almost an entire summary of it, comprised in one little book. (Op. cit.)

Can there be any doubt that the church could benefit from greater familiarity with the psalter? So, what are we waiting for?

After terce, Dr. Wengert stopped as he passed by me, and said, "Thank you." When we returned to the seminar room, he began lecturing on Luther's Preface to the Psalter (1545/1528). During his lecture, he commented on the place of the psalms in Luther's theological and spiritual formation, remarking that the morning devotion, especially given its use of Psalm 119, had provided an example for the lecture and the conversation he wanted us to have. In that lecture, he talked about Luther's use of Psalm 119 in defining the theological enterprise: Oratio, Meditatio, and Tentatio. The last several minutes of the lecture, he asked us to talk about our own experiences with the psalms, and powerful stories were shared.

After lunch and debrief, I headed for Lutherhaus to document two Luther quotes for Scott Moore. Interestingly, they both had to do with booze. Then I booked down the street to Melanchthonhaus so that I could gaze once more on the 1521 Loci communes. We celebrated a festive mass in our unheated chapel. The banquet was a great treat: our hosts, the staff of the LWF Wittenberg Center, served up a meal consistent with Luther's time, including some known Luther favorites. After that, it was one last Stammtische at the Brauhaus. So ended the seminar.