This past Monday night, on the eve of the Gottesdienst conference, I sat around a table piled with food and booze alongside some fellow editors and other faithful pastors. There was much frivolity and laughter, babies and toddlers everywhere. Father Fritz Eckardt was there. He wasn’t lecturing, he was simply reflecting, talking, but we were all wishing we had notepads. He told us again of his struggles over ten years ago and even earlier. I’ve heard these stories dozens of times and never grow tired of them. I sit in his presence with no less awe and admiration than I do for the shut-in who haltingly tells of landing in Normandy in the midst of artillery fire and discovering hours later that at some point he had soiled his pants and didn’t know it.
In the midst of a particularly difficult and confused time, Father Eckardt made a profound discovery: the Psalter calmed and settled his mind. The peace that God’s Word in the Psalter gave him returned his sanity and enabled him to carry out his duties at home and parish. He said, “That is when I knew I had to memorize the Psalms.”
I knew this from him from conversations and from his writing. But it took on new tones for me. Part of that was because I have the same experience: the more I recite the Psalms the more I find them calming. Days without Matins feel as though they are about to spin out of control. But his words were still echoing in my mind the next day when Father Rick Stuckwisch said, “When I get in a funk, I find that singing, or even reading, the hymns of Paul Gerhardt calms my mind and comforts me.”
The stories aren’t the same. The struggles aren’t identical. Neither are the cures. But there is a common thread that shouldn’t be missed.
Fathers Eckardt and Stuckwisch are rightly recognized as two of our brightest, most articulate, and faithful pastors. Hundreds of us look to them for guidance and help, but like the vet who soiled himself at Normandy, their lives and ministries have had hardship and failings. Consider this, though: What happens when the vet tells you he soiled himself? Two things: it creates sympathy not derision, and it shows the character that overcomes rather than succumbs.
The vet was rightly scared and out of his mind, but he did his duty. Father Eckardt and Father Stuckwisch were rightly scared for their enemy is none other than the devil himself. They were suffering from terrible mental and spiritual anguish – as all who serve in the Office will at some point - but the Lord sustained them and brought them through with His Word. The Lord spoke to Father Eckardt, as He still does, in the Psalter, in tones and cadence that bring peace and comfort to his particular situation and personality. The hymns of Paul Gerhardt provide a parallel service to Father Stuckwisch. There, also, the Lord speaks comfort and order and purpose.
God, in His mercy, through the disciplines of daily, ordered prayer, gave custom-made and specific help in times of need to these two remarkable men. This does not mean that either man would not have been comforted by the other’s medicine. There is an objectivity to the Psalter and also to the Gerhardt hymns, but I suspect that the Psalter is better suited for Father Eckardt than it is for Father Stuckwisch, and that the hymns are better suited the other way around. Here is what we should all note: the help came, in both cases, through the purposeful habit of prayer. Ask, says the Lord, and you shall receive.
Again, they weren’t lecturing us when these things came up. But their examples are certainly instructive and encouraging. They are fathers in the faith and Office who have lived through and suffered more than others of us. What a joy it is to be with them when these things come out so naturally and unbidden! Pray the Psalter, brothers. Sing the Gerhardt hymns. Say your prayers – whether you feel like it or not. There is a promise there that has been demonstrated once again in these godly men. And if there is something akin to the Psalter or Gerhard hymns that has served you in a similar way please tell us about it in the comments.