Prayer for the Love of Christ
February 13, 2014 Leave a comment
By Johann Arndt
The following was translated from Johann Arndt’s Paradies-Gärtlein Voller Christlicher Tugenden: Wie Dieselben durch Andächtige Lehr- und Trostreiche Gebete in die Seele zu Pflantzen Seyen (Little Garden of Paradise, Filled with Christian Virtues, Showing How They Should Be Planted in the Soul through Devotional Prayers That Are Rich in Doctrine and Comfort) (Nuremberg: Joh. Andreae Endters Seel. Sohn und Erben, 1710), p. 185-188. Arndt’s original work was published in Magdeburg in 1612.
The book is divided into three “registers” of prayers. The first register is divided into five “classes.” The first class contains prayers for virtues that follow the Ten Commandments. The second class comprises prayers of thanksgiving for the benefits shown to us by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The third class has prayers for comfort in time of cross and tribulation. The fourth class contains prayers that are a sort of companion to Luther’s Table of Duties in the Small Catechism. And the fifth and final class consists of prayers of praise and joy “to the honor and praise of God’s name.”
The particular prayer that follows is #5 from the second class in the first register. It is significant for the Lutheran Church because Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676), her most famous poet, penned his originally-16-stanza hymn, “O Jesu Christ, mein schönstes Licht,” on the basis of this prayer. (In hymn 479 in Christian Worship, it is reduced to four stanzas under the title, “Jesus, Your Boundless Love to Me.”)
Gerhardt’s poem inspired Philip Friedrich Hiller to transform all the prayers in Arndt’s work into German hymns in the mid-1700s. More recently, Seminarian Kent Reeder set the words of the Christian Worship translation of Gerhardt’s poem to new music, and his arrangement was chosen as the class hymn by the 2013 graduates of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary.
In what follows, I have retained Arndt’s original paragraph format, but have inserted numbers to correspond to the stanzas of Gerhardt’s hymn. Perhaps the right reader will stumble upon it, resulting in either a fresh translation of Gerhardt’s (entire) hymn or a new and completely original hymn.
Johann Arndt (1555-1621) is often considered to be the forerunner of the Pietistic movement, due to the extremely devotional nature of his works. Then again, a pious author of a dogmatic treatise is often labeled an orthodoxist simply because he deals in dogmas, while a doctrinally-sensitive devotional writer is often labeled a pietist simply because he deals in prayers and meditations. (There are some religious scholars who seem to think that the internal life of Johann Gerhard, who came under Arndt’s influence in his teens, was one huge contradiction, since he made considerable contributions to both dogmatics and devotional literature.) The fact is, even the title of Arndt’s work (“…Prayers that Are Rich in Doctrine and Comfort“) shows that you cannot be a true dogmatician without being devotional, and no devotional writer worth his salt is ignorant of biblical doctrine. True doctrine, rightly understood and taught, always leads to and fuels personal piety. Paul Gerhardt himself clearly appreciated and benefited from Arndt’s devotional writings, and yet this was the same Gerhardt who, while pastor in Berlin, refused to sign a promise not to preach against Reformed doctrine from the pulpit, and was consequently deposed from his office in 1666.
Having said that, the prayer below may strike the modern Lutheran reader as almost embarrassingly schmaltzy. If Gerhardt had not thought so highly of it, we might be tempted to dismiss it as emotional fluff. But such strong, poetic love language serves us well in three ways:
- It calls to mind the relationship between Christ and his Church, which the Bible portrays in terms of marriage.
- It vividly reminds us that Jesus should always be the Christian’s highest and greatest love. (If the prayer makes us uncomfortable, we do well to ask ourselves, “Am I uncomfortable simply because I don’t express my love the same way Arndt does, or is it because I don’t actually love Christ more than everything and everyone else?”)
- It shows us how profoundly the love of Christ can touch the emotions of certain Christian individuals. Even if we ourselves haven’t experienced that kind of emotional reaction, we can still appreciate the varied ways that the gospel affects humans.
To that end, I present what follows to the glory of the same God whom Arndt worshipped, out of love for the same Savior whom he so passionately loved.
Prayer for the Love of Christ
(1) Ah, my Lord Jesus Christ! Most noble Lover of my soul! Grant me your grace, that my love for you may ever be sincere and new, and that I may say to you: (2) Lord Jesus, my most cherished Love, let me feel nothing else in my heart but your love. Remove from my heart everything that is not your love, for I do not want to have anything else in my heart but your love. (3) Ah, how kind, how charming and sweet is your love! How it refreshes my soul! How it delights my heart! Ah, let me think of, see, desire, perceive, and feel nothing else but your love, for it is everything, it has everything, it touches everything, it surpasses everything. (4) Ah, how I desire to retain this noble treasure in me eternally! Let me keep watch over it day and night and diligently and actively guard this treasure, care for it, pray for it. For this love is the foretaste of eternal life, the portico of paradise. (5) Ah, my Lover! Out of love for me you were wounded; wound my soul with love for you. (6) Ah, your precious blood, poured out from such great love, is so noble, so penetrating, that it may well soften a stony heart. Oh, let it force its way into my heart! That way your love will permeate my heart, for your love is in your blood. (7) Oh, that my heart would open up! It would then receive and soak up your delicate and noble drops of blood, which fell upon the earth when you were in the throes of death [Luke 22:44]. Oh, that I would open the well of my eyes! I would then pour out ardent tears of love, (8) and I would follow after you crying for so long, like a child, until you came to me, took me in your arms, and united yourself with me in your spiritual, heavenly matrimony, so that I would be of one heart, one spirit, and one body with you. (9) Oh, draw me to yourself, so I may run [Psalm 119:32]. Oh, if only I could kiss you in my heart! If only I could perceive your sweet comfort from your mouth! (10) Oh, my Comfort! My Strength, my Life, my Light, my Treasure, my Salvation, my Highest Good, my Love! Unite me to yourself, for all that I have without you and apart from you is purely pain and gall, misery and sorrow, nothing but restlessness and worry. (11) You, however, are my soul’s only rest, peace, and joy.
Therefore, grant that your noble, tender love may always and eternally shine within me. Ah, let the holy fire of your charming love burn in me through and through. Let the fire of holiness, the fire of joy, the gentle, lovely little fiery flame which is without all toil, worry, and anxiety – let this fire refresh me. Let the noble fragrance of your love revive me. Let the precious balm of heaven soothe and heal my heart, that I may run after this noble fragrance of your ointment unobstructed.
(12) Ah, most beautiful Lover! What could there possibly be that I do not have in your love? It is indeed my pasture, my complete sufficiency, my food and drink, my heavenly bread, my sweet wine, my joy, my peace, my gentle rest, my life, my light, my salvation, my blessedness, my wealth, my desire, my honor, my adornment, my glory. (13) Ah, if I should lose your love, what would I have left? Would I not be naked and bare, poor and pitiful? Ah, then let me cry for you, and seek you with tears with Mary Magdalene [John 20:10-16], and never give up until I find you, (14) for you have loved me without fail. Therefore it is purely out of your goodness that you have drawn me to yourself. Ah, let your love guide me at all times! It will then remain with me (15) and bring me back when I go astray. Let it teach me in my ignorance. Let it be my wisdom in my foolishness. Let it call me back when I sin. Let it hold me steady when I stumble. Let it help me up when I fall. (16) Let it comfort me when I am troubled. Let it strengthen me when I am weak. Let it fan into flame the smoldering wick of my faith when it is about to go out. Let it take me to itself when I depart and keep me eternally at its side. Amen.