Today The Holy Rover bids auf wiedersehen to Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora, as well as to Germany. I hope you’ve enjoyed the digital journey of this past week. It seems appropriate to end with another piece by Bach, that admirer of Luther and lover of music and of God. Click on the link below for a little music to send you into the weekend.
Archive for October, 2010
The daughter of an impoverished nobleman, Katharina was sent to a convent at the age of five. She took her nun’s vows at sixteen but later grew dissatisfied with the cloistered life after hearing about the reformation movement led by the monk Martin Luther. Along with 11 other nuns, she escaped from the convent by hiding in the wagon of a fish merchant.
Katharina came to Wittenberg, where she met the notorious monk who was causing such a ruckus. The two were married when she was 26 and Martin was 42 (by then he, too, had renounced his vows as a monk). By all accounts they had a warm and loving marriage. While Martin lived the life of a scholar, Katharina was a whirlwind of industry. She kept the family afloat while the impractical Martin devoted himself to his books. She ran a farm and brewery, bred and raised cattle, fed the 20 or so students who lived with the family, gave birth to six children, and during times of sickness ran a hospital. “She is the Morning Star of Wittenberg,” Martin said, referring to her habit of rising at 4:00 a.m.—no doubt in order to get everything done on her long list for the day.
In Wittenberg there stands a statue of Katharina von Bora. On her hand is a wedding ring that is burnished by the touch of many hands, for it is said that rubbing it will bring one a happy marriage. (Of course I rubbed it while I was there.) It made me quite happy to see her there, caught in mid-stride. She looks like a woman who would be very good at running a household, a state, or a country. In another age, perhaps she would have. And one wonders: would Martin Luther have accomplished what he did, if Katharina von Bora hadn’t been at his side?
This photo may not look like anything remarkable, but the story behind these stones is worth telling.
The picture is of the side of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, an eighteenth-century Protestant Baroque church. For two centuries this gilded and ornate jewel stood at the heart of the city, until in 1945 it became a pile of rubble during the fire-bombing of Dresden at the end of World War II. For 45 years the church lay in ruins.
After the reunification of Germany in 1990, the citizens of Dresden launched the daunting task of rebuilding the church. More than $200 million was raised from 20 countries, and engineers, architects and art historians began sorting through the rubble, laboriously reconstructing a puzzle with hundreds of thousands of pieces. On October 30, 2005, the Frauenkirche was re-consecrated before a joyous crowd of 250,000 people.
When I visited the church, I saw in its interior the old tower cross that had been discovered as the stones were cleared. Today it serves as a focal point of remembrance and prayer. On the church’s altar is a Cross of Nails, which is a symbol of the reconciliation work begun after World War II in the English cathedral of Coventry (which was destroyed by German bombers in 1940). Today the Frauenkirche is linked with more than 160 reconciliation centers around the world in the International Community of the Cross of Nails. Each day at noon the church’s bell rings, sounding an invitation to pause for a moment and pray for peace.
And here’s the part that I found most moving: on top of the church today is a golden cross given by the people of Great Britain. It was crafted by the son of one of the pilots who bombed Dresden and it bears this message: “Build bridges—Live Reconciliation—Bolster Belief.”
So this picture of light and dark stones shows much more than is first obvious, does it not?
Have you ever been to a place where the weight of history is palpable? I visited a place like that in Germany, in the center of the city of Frankfurt.
The Old Jewish Cemetery is a walled enclosure where the Jews of Frankfurt were buried from the thirteenth century to 1828. During the Nazi era, much of the graveyard was desecrated and the stones were removed. Only one corner remains undisturbed, filled with headstones marked with Hebrew lettering and covered with moss. On the walls surrounding the cemetery, small plaques bear the names of the approximately 12,000 Frankfurt Jews who were killed during World War II. Among them is Anne Frank, who was born in the city.
In the middle of the bustle of Frankfurt, this is a place of silence. As we stood next to the grave markers, our guide told us about the Jewish history of the city, how Jews were a vital part of its society for many centuries despite living under burdensome restrictions and being prohibited by law from most professions. He spoke about the creation of the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt and of the terrible Nazi years.
I admire the ways in which Germany has come to terms with the dark parts of its past, but places like this bring to mind the question of how this could happen, how a nation so cultured and educated and sophisticated could produce such evil. It is a reminder as well of how religion can be twisted (Martin Luther’s writings on the Jews of his day, for example, were used as Nazi propaganda). It is a cautionary tale for all of us in the modern world, of how the forces of hate can engulf a society.
And so this little cemetery remains, a keeper of memory and bearer of the weight of history.
Before visiting Germany, I had no idea that Martin Luther played such an influential role in the music and life of Johann Sebastian Bach. Luther believed strongly in the importance of music in church, saying that worship was essentially musical. Bach took his words seriously, creating many works with direct connections to theological and Biblical themes. He kept Luther’s translation of the Bible in his studio and wrote initials signifying “Soli Deo Gloria” (to God alone be glory) on most of his musical compositions.
So today, let’s listen a bit to one of Bach’s sermons in sound. As we do so, I think it’s clear why Bach believed that the beauty of music was a reflection of the beauty of God.
Today I want to tell you about the most moving place I visited on my Luther tour, this small, rustic room in Wartburg Castle. Luther lived here for nearly a year in 1521-2, hiding from church and state authorities after refusing to recant his beliefs. A German prince who supported his efforts for reform brought him to Wartburg Castle, which at the time was a ramshackle structure perched high on a hill overlooking Eisenach in eastern Germany. Luther took off his monk’s robe, grew a beard and long hair, and lived under an assumed name.
In this room, Luther translated the New Testament into German and wrote many doctrinal and polemical pieces. He forged a new identity both on the outside and on the inside. When he returned to public life, he was a changed man.
I found this room moving in part because it is a shrine to a writer. Luther was a theologian and man of the church, yes, but he was also a powerful craftsman of words. We sometimes forget just how powerful words can be, but this little room reminds us that one person, working at a desk with a pen, can shake the foundations of the established world.
Our group stood inside the room for a few minutes and then left, for there was a long line of people waiting outside the door. It was oddly touching to see that the line included many Japanese people, most of them quite elderly. They had the look of pilgrims on their faces. Earnest. Reverential.
So that’s what can happen when one person has an idea and devotes his life to it. One day you’re an outlaw fearing for your life. And five centuries later, people from around the world are coming to pay homage to you in the simple, rustic room in which you wrestled with words and ideas. Amazing, isn’t it?
Today, just for fun, I want to show you the best souvenir I picked up in Germany: socks that bear Luther’s immortal phrase “Here I stand. I can do no other.” How could one possibly argue with the truth of this sentiment while sporting such attractive footwear?
The good folks in Wittenberg, Germany, told me that they were at a loss for Luther-related souvenirs until they came up with these socks. I think they deserve extra credit for their creativity. You can also buy Luther Beer and Luther Bonbons in Wittenberg, but these socks take the prize.
Which brings me to an idea I have for an On-Line Museum of Peculiar Religious Souvenirs, which would feature photos from around the world. A friend has promised me a picture of her Snow Globe with the Buddha inside, and certainly my Luther socks will be included. But if you have picked up odd trinkets on your travels, do send me a photo at email@example.com, won’t you?