Archive for the ‘Martin Luther’ Category

My Lord Katie

Katharina von Bora

Before we leave Martin Luther behind, I want to tell you just a little bit about his better half, his wife Katharina von Bora.  Martin would likely not disagree about the “better half” reference.  He referred to her, in fact, as “My Lord Katie.”  If one can judge a man by his choice in wives, Martin Luther deserves high marks, for Katharina was a most remarkable woman.

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.

Katharina in Wittenberg

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?


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On Hallowed Ground

Old Jewish Cemetery in Frankfurt

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.

Old Jewish Cemetery, Frankfurt, Germany

Memorial Wall, Old Jewish Cemetery

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.

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Sermons in Sound

Statue in Bach's birthplace of Eisenach, Germany

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. 

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Martin Luther's room in Wartburg Castle

Martin Luther's room in Wartburg Castle

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?

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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 erickson.lori@gmail.com, won’t you?

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Here I Stand

The Famous Door in Wittenberg

Today I’m giving you a little Martin Luther history, but only a little, because I know you Lutherans out there already know all this information, and non-Lutherans may not be very  interested.  But every educated person should know at least a little about this German reformer who had great influence on Western culture and the history of Christianity.

Luther was…complicated.  He was fiery, passionate, intellectual, and earthy, a man of courage and conviction.   He was blessed with good friends who helped him at critical junctures in his life and he enjoyed a happy marriage to Katharina von Bora, a former nun with whom he had six children.  He also had an unfortunate tendency to identify his enemies with the Anti-Christ (but who among us hasn’t done something similar?).

Born in 1483, Luther was the son of a miner.  Originally he planned to be a lawyer, but on a summer night in 1505 he was caught in a terrible thunderstorm. Fearful of his life, he vowed to St. Anna that if he survived he would become a monk.  Luther joined an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt (much to the disappointment of his father) and soon out-monked even the most zealous of monks.  Luther was determined to save his soul through rigid discipline and penitence.

In 1510 he went to Rome.  This wasn’t a good year to visit Rome if you were an idealistic monk, as the church was in the middle of building St. Peter’s Basilica and needed to raise a lot of money fast.  The selling of indulgences—which were said to release a soul from purgatory—was the primary means of doing so.  In addition to the selling of these worthless pieces of paper, Luther was appalled by the power, wealth, and corruption of the church hierarchy.  (I also suspect that, unlike The Holy Rover, he wasn’t charmed by all the little statues of the Virgin Mary for sale.)

Back in Germany, Luther struggled with the role of the church in salvation, finally finding his answer in Paul’s Letter to the Romans.  Through Paul’s words he came to understand that we are saved by faith, not works.  Luther launched a campaign to reform the church, which included nailing his famous 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg.  He didn’t intend to start a new church, but when the bishops and Pope opposed him, he turned on his former superiors with vehement passion.  In return the Pope threatened to excommunicate him if he didn’t recant. 

And then comes Luther’s finest moment.  Any of us would be lucky to get something like this on our resume, for really it’s quite remarkable.  Luther is brought before the authorities, who give him the chance to renounce what he has preached and published.  If he refuses, he faces excommunication and death.  Luther stands up and says this:  “Here I stand.  I can do no other.  God help me. Amen.”

And there, my friends, is a profile in courage.  Regardless of what came after that, regardless of some pretty nasty things Luther said about the Jews and how he behaved during the Peasants Rebellion, what he did at that moment was remarkable.  He stood up for the right of one person to claim a direct relationship with God.  He stood in opposition to corruption and brute force.  He claimed the primacy of conscience over political expediency.  Here I stand.  I can do no other.

Where do you stand?  On what rock are you willing to stake your life?  Interesting to ponder, isn’t it?

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My traveling buddy

Guten Tag, meine Freunde!

I’m back home again after having spent the past 10 days in Germany. The picture of the men in lederhosen that I posted last week wasn’t really fair, for modern Germany is nothing like that dorky picture. Over the next days I’ll be telling you about some of what I found interesting there, but let me begin by saying this: Germany is sophisticated, fascinating, and only a little bit dorky (honestly, I did see men wearing lederhosen, a costume that cannot be worn with much dignity, though men do look cute in them).

I traveled to Germany for a meeting of the Society of American Travel Writers, which included networking and professional development. I also went because I was intrigued by one of the tours offered, In the Footsteps of Martin Luther. In the history of religion, Luther is a Very Big Deal. And in my own life, his writings and life have shaped much of who I am today, since I was baptized a Lutheran, grew up a Lutheran, attended a Lutheran college, and am descended from many generations of Lutherans. And while I am no longer a Lutheran today (instead a close cousin, an Episcopalian), I have an affection for the religious tradition of my birth (as well as a bit of ambivalence about it).

Besides, taking a Luther tour is a good thing to do right now because the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the Church Door is coming up in 2017. If you’re a writer specializing in spiritual travel, such anniversaries make for good professional opportunities.

So I went to Germany as a Fallen Lutheran, ready to spend four days following in the footsteps of the famous, if a bit grumpy, Father of the Reformation. What happened? Tune in tomorrow (and in the days to come) to find out.

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