Luther’s Advice: Concentrate When You Pray
Despite our ready admittance that prayer is among the most important things we can do with our time, I have not met a Christian who is satisfied with their prayer life. I confess that I have always found prayer difficult, and not least because I have a propensity to get distracted very easily (something my wife finds irritating five minutes after she’s requested help with something).
When Luther’s barber, Master Peter (the one responsible for that hair) asked for some advice on prayer, Luther wrote a kind of open letter called A Simple Way to Pray. In it he urges a readiness and eagerness to pray, writing, ‘It is of great importance that the heart be made ready and eager for prayer… What else is it but tempting God when your mouth babbles and the mind wanders to other thoughts?’
He gives an example of a priest praying in Latin, getting distracted with every other line, and you don’t need a word of Latin to recognise what’s happening:
Deus in adjutorium meum intende. Farmhand, did you unhitch the horses? Domine ad adjuvandum me fastina. Maid, go out and milk the cow. Gloria patti et filio et spiritui sancto. Hurry up, boy, I wish the ague [malaria] would take you!
For Luther, it is a regret that he had prayed many hours of these worthless and ‘blasphemous’ prayers. And so he goes on to offer this simple yet priceless advice:
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, ‘Pluribus intentus, minor est ad singula sensus’—‘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!
It seems to me that learning to do this well — to pray with concentration and focus — requires a good deal of self-knowledge. I recall reading (or hearing?) John Piper speak of his habit of turning to Jonathan Edwards first thing in the morning to warm his heart before he opens the Bible and prays. Martin Lloyd-Jones would often speak of the need to know oneself; what helps you? what lifts your mood? Perhaps you pray best after meditating on Scripture, or whilst walking the dog, or in your attic.
If knowing yourself is the first step, the second is surely making decisions and sticking to them. I think many of us fail to pray because we have not decisively answered the simple questions like where? when? how? I know for myself that I must make clear plans and even write them down, because I rarely find myself spontaneously drawn to focussed prayer.
Look again at Jesus. ‘And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed’ (Mark 1.35). I take comfort from the inference that even Jesus needed to take quite decisive steps to get rid of distractions. How much more do you and I?