Here’s something I’ve been struggling with since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Springfield: How do you do communion when you can’t go to church and take communion? I hadn’t realized how much my spiritual life centered on singing in the choir and weekly celebration of holy communion, and I still don’t have good answers to the question.
But I’m starting to find work-arounds. One is the series of online services my congregation has begun posting to YouTube since public gatherings were . The other, oddly enough, is Luther’s Small Catechism. Not the first place I’d ordinarily think of to find myself in communion with other people.
But let’s think about it a minute …
Lutherans have been reciting the Small Catechism since it was published in 1529. And it has a section of Daily Prayers toward the end. If I recite some of them in the morning, am I not raising my voice in common with other Lutherans over nearly 500 years?
I’m not a theologian, but I think this is one way the church can be church, even in a time of deadly plague, to use a word from Martin Luther’s day, when we can’t gather in one of those buildings we call a church.
Writing in the early 1500s in a patriarchal society, Luther assumed the “head of the family” would lead the prayers. (I’m getting that headnote, by the way, from a copy of the Small Catechism published in 1929 by the Board of Book Mission of the old Norwegian Lutheran Church of America. It turned up in my father’s papers when I was going through them after his death. Maybe that’s one way the communion of saints works, handing down the faith from generation to generation.) Christ the King Lutheran Church in Houston has a modernized, updated text of the prayers, or blessings, on its website.
When I think of the daily blessings, I like to think of Dr. Martin and Katie von Bora gathered together with little Anna Magdalena and Hans. Also part of the communion of saints, that body of the faithful united down through the ages. Anyway, the Morning Blessing goes like this:
In the morning, as soon as you get out of bed, you are to make the sign of the holy cross and say: “God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit watch over me. Amen.” Then, kneeling or standing, say the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. If you wish, you may in addition recite this little prayer as well:
“I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have protected me through the night from all harm and danger. I ask that you would also protect me today from sin and all evil, so that my life and actions may please you. Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.“
After singing a hymn perhaps (for example, one on the Ten Commandments) or whatever else
may serve your devotion, you are to go to your work joyfully.
And that’s it. It couldn’t be more simple. Or more appropriate, I think, for a time when we’re faced with an epidemic against which we have no more protection than our forebears did against the plagues that were still endemic across Europe in the 1500s.
(Luther has a hymn on the Ten Commandments, by the way. It’s a lovely Kyrieleis song or Leise, if you have a taste for 16th-century German psalmody. But there’s also a magnificent contemporary setting of his Morning Prayer, the one from the Small Catechism, by Carl Schalk of Concordia University Chicago. It’s probably more in tune with modern taste.
(The video above shows kids attending the annual Lutheran Summer Music Academy and Festival, an “intentional community [of high school music students], living together for four weeks on a Lutheran college campus.” They traditionally begin each day by singing Schalk’s setting of the Morning Prayer. More evidence of the communion of saints. This video was shot in 2018 in the baptistry of the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University.)
Luther also has an evening prayer. In the translation posted by Christ the King in Houston, the Evening Blessing goes like this:
In the evening, when you go to bed, you are to make the sign of the holy cross and say: “God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit watch over me. Amen.”
Then, kneeling or standing, say the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. If you wish, you may
in addition recite this little prayer as well:
“I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have graciously protected me today. I ask you to forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously to protect me tonight. Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.”
Then you are to go to sleep quickly and cheerfully.
Luther’s morning and evening prayers aren’t the only ones out there, of course. One I especially like is called the Holden Village Prayer, or the “Prayer of Good Courage.” It was composed by the Rev. Eric Milner-White, dean of the Church of England’s cathedral at York:
O God, you have called your servants to ventures
of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths yet untrodden,
through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The “Prayer of Good Courage” has a fine ecumenical flair to it (I got this text from the Presbyterian church in Worthington, Ohio, in fact). And it has a special resonance for troubled times. According to a Holden Village podcast featuring the Rev. Nancy Winder of Seattle, who considers herself an “unofficial historian of the prayer,” Dean Milner-White’s prayer was circulated by Anglicans in a Japanese POW camp during World War II. There it was learned by American Lutherans, and in later years it “popped up everywhere” when ELCA’s Holden Village retreat center was established in the Pacific Northwest. It was a favorite at Faith Lutheran Church in Springfield, and I learned it when I was singing with the praise team at the old Saturday afternoon contemporary service at Peace Lutheran.
More evidence of the communion of saints popping up in unexpected times and places, I think.
Another ecumenical prayer — at least I think of it as ecumenical — is the Daily Examen, a round of prayer and meditation adapted from the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. As James Martin, SJ, explains it in his Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, it consists of five steps: (1) gratitude, remember what you’re thankful for each day; (2) repentance, consider where you fell short and where you can do better; (3) review, go over the day, the good, the bad, the indifferent; what mattered? What didn’t? (4) ask forgiveness; and (5) ask for grace to see you through the next day.
I’m not as good about praying the examen as I ought to be, but I’ve found it to be a valuable way of centering since I learned about it from my spiritual director, a Dominican sister, a couple of years ago. Father Martin says it transcends our denominational — or religious — categories. He recalls the time he taught it to the cast of an off-Broadway play, as religiously heterogeneous a group of people as you’ll find anywhere. He learned:
The daily examen is of special help to seekers, agnostics, and atheists. For them it can be altered into a “prayer of awareness.” The first step is to be consciously aware of yourself and your surroundings. The second step is to remember what you’re grateful for. The third is the review of the day. The fourth step, asking for forgiveness, could be a decision to reconcile with someone you have hurt. And the fifth is to prepare yourself to be aware for the next day. Gradually they may begin to connect the events of their lives with God’s love, presence, and care for them.
Chalk up another one for the communion of saints.
According to Wikipedia, a source I consider my Summa Theologica, or summary of all knowledge, the communion of saints is the “the spiritual union of the members of the Christian Church, [the] living and the dead. They are all part of a single ‘mystical body,’ with Christ as the head, in which each member contributes to the good of all and shares in the welfare of all.” In a 1528 sermon on the catechism, Luther equated it with the “holy catholic church,” or church universal. Ever the university professor, he added:
Formerly it was not in the creed. When you hear the word “church,” understand that it means group [Haufe], as we say in German, the Wittenberg group or congregation [Gemeine], that is, an holy, Christian group, assembly, or, in German, the holy, common church, and it is a word that should not be called “communion” [Gemeinschaft], but rather “a congregation” eine Gemeine. Someone wanted to explain the first term, “catholic church” [and added the words] communio sanctorum, which in German means a congregation of saints, that is, a congregation made up only of saints. “Christian church” and “congregation of saints” are one and the same thing.
Which is why I feel like reciting Luther’s daily prayers — or the Holden Village Prayer, or the examen of St. Ignatius of Loyola — brings me in communion, or congregation, with Christian believers past and present. Luther and Loyola were at loggerheads in the 1500s, of course, but both qualify for the communion of saints. After all, the expression goes back at least to St. Nicetas of Remesiana (c. 335–414). And, as Luther noted, it pops up in the Apostles’ Creed.
So when I recite Luther’s prayers, I’m raising my voice more or less in unison with Luther, Katie von Bora, little Anna Magdalena and Hans. And when I follow along with Loyola’s exercises, or say another prayer, I’m joining with Loyola, the Anglican POWs during World War II, the Lutherans at Holden Village and St. Nicetas of Remesiana. I may not be able to receive the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine (well, grape juice in my case), but in prayer I feel like I am joined in the same congregation with the communion of saints.