Thursday

Nov. 10, 2011

When the War is Over

by W. S. Merwin

When the war is over
We will be proud of course the air will be
Good for breathing at last
The water will have been improved the salmon
And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly
The dead will think the living are worth it we will know
Who we are
And we will all enlist again

"When the War is Over" by W.S. Merwin, from The Lice. © Copper Canyon Press, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of a man whom Pope Leo X called "the wild boar in the vineyard": monk and theologian Martin Luther (books by this author), born in Eisleben in what is now Germany (1483). His father was born a farmer, worked his way up to become a copper smelter, and hoped that his son would advance even further and become a lawyer. Martin did well at school, but his family's financial difficulties almost caused him to drop out — at the age of 14, he ended up singing on the streets in return for bread. He had a very good singing voice, but it still wasn't enough to get him through school. A wealthy benefactor noticed the boy and helped pay for his education.

All was going according to plan — Martin went to the university to study law — when he got caught in a terrible thunderstorm. He thought he was going to die, and he made a bargain with St. Anne that if he was saved he would become a monk. He survived, and soon after, he entered a monastery. Although his parents were very devout, they were crushed to learn that their son had given up his chances to become a lawyer.

As a young monk, Luther was obsessed with his own struggle for salvation, but could not find it. He would flagellate himself, or lie out all night in the snow, but to no avail. One of his superiors worried that Luther was spending too much time thinking about his personal spiritual torment, and decided he needed more to do, so he sent him to teach at the university in Wittenberg.

Luther visited Rome, where he was disgusted by the behavior of the Church authorities, who seemed to treat their religious duties as a joke and were most interested in selling indulgences. Luther went back to Wittenberg and continued his intense study of the Bible, and finally decided that the Church had it all wrong — that salvation wouldn't come from performing acts, like paying indulgences for the forgiveness of sins, but rather from individual faith. The final straw for Luther came when members of his own parish started traveling to a neighboring territory to spend their hard-earned money on indulgences, and then told Luther that they had no need of confession since they had purchased forgiveness.

Luther was fired up, so he wrote out his argument in a document, and he mailed a copy to the Archbishop of Mainz and another to the Bishop of Brandenburg. On October 31st, 1517, he took a third copy and nailed it onto the door of the church at the University of Wittenberg, which was the custom — the door functioned much like a bulletin board. He was anticipating a fierce academic debate, but not much beyond that. But his ideas coincided with the rise of the printing press, and within a few months, his words had spread all across Europe.

Luther said, "I would never have thought that such a storm would rise from Rome over one simple scrap of paper." But he continued to openly criticize the Church. In 1520, the pope issued a statement threatening excommunication; Luther publicly burnt it. So he was excommunicated and called before the Diet of Worms, a general assembly of representatives from all the estates of the Holy Roman Empire. There, Luther refused to recant any of his statements. He was condemned, his writings were banned, and in the Edict of Worms, the representatives wrote: "We have declared and hereby forever declare by this edict that the said Martin Luther is to be considered an estranged member, rotten and cut off from the body of our Holy Mother Church. He is an obstinate, schismatic heretic, and we want him to be considered as such by all of you." It was illegal to befriend Luther, to take him in, and although they had just released him, they immediately offered a reward for his capture. But Luther had earned the respect of Frederick III, his local ruler, who offered him sanctuary — he sent men who pretended to attack and kidnap Luther on his way home from the Diet of Worms, and then hid Luther in his castle.

While he was hidden away, Luther's ideas set off revolutions, as peasants violently turned against the upper class in what they saw as a natural continuation of Luther's thinking. Luther was appalled by this — things had gotten away from him. Eventually, the armed fighting quieted down, but the Reformation had become a movement much larger than Luther.

When Luther was 41, he got married to a 26-year-old ex-nun named Katharina von Bora, whom he had helped smuggle out of a convent in a pickled fish barrel. They had a happy marriage. They gardened and played music together, and raised six children. Luther said: "Who loves not woman, wine, and song remains a fool his whole life long."

When a friend wrote Luther a letter confessing that he was depressed, Luther had some advice for him: "Be strong and cheerful and cast out these monstrous thoughts. Whenever the devil harasses you thus, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you: 'Do not drink,' answer him: 'I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.' One must always do what Satan forbids. What other cause do you think that I have for drinking so much strong drink, talking so freely and making merry so often, except that I wish to mock and harass the devil who is wont to mock and harass me. Would that I could contrive some great sin to spite the devil, that he might understand that I would not even then acknowledge it and that I was conscious of no sin whatever. We, whom the devil thus seeks to annoy, should remove the whole decalogue from our hearts and minds."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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