Thursday, September 07, 2006

From Wittenberg to Rome: Retracing Luther’s Steps

It was decided early on that Italy was a non-negotiable for our honeymoon. After all, what is more romantic than a sunset gondola ride in Venice or a trek across the sun-kissed grape vineyards of Tuscany? Nothing, except, of course, Luther and J.S. Bach sites in the ever-efficient Germany or a visit to Vatican City in Rome. Of course. I’m still not sure how I convinced my wife to allow me to go to all the geeky spots I wanted to on our honeymoon, but, alas, she agreed. So off we went to Europe in search of sealing our married life together as well as some very interesting historical sites.

We started in Berlin, which was fascinating in the sense that it is clearly history in the making. With the Wall down only 15 years, and the disparity between East and West noticeable only in the bad socialist architecture leftover by the Soviets, seeing Berlin was seeing a work in progress, and it was light years away from the quaint historical towns we would stop in along the way. From here we went to Wittenberg to see the church door on which Luther (according to legend) nailed those infamous theses in 1517, the Wartburg castle he hid in for almost a year, and Erfurt, where Luther lived as an Augustinian monk, surpassing all of his peers in his obsessive eagerness.

Being in the lovely Wittenberg is close to being back in those innocent heady days where you can still imagine the naïve Luther spoiling for a good debate, but little more. Because the town is not close to Rome, was never sizable to begin with, and had housed Luther’s university for a mere 15 years, it is easy to imagine that Luther honestly never expected anything to come from the posting of those theses. It was little more than an intellectual game of chicken. (He won.) Wittenberg was, and is, an unpretentious place, a site one would never presume to be the setting for one of the most monumental singular events in western history (without overstating it a bit), and it reminded me that only one small act by Luther against the Roman church would lead him to denounce the entire papacy in a matter of years. And when princes started to latch on to his ideas, the politics got real messy real fast, and the Reformation achieved a life of its own.

But before the theses were ever posted, Luther made a trek through Germany and Italy to get to Rome on monastic business in 1510. It is debatable as to whether or not this trip began the Reformation in some sense: was Luther’s faith beginning to crumble as he witnessed debauchery and apathy among priests? Was he beginning to see Rome not as a Holy See but as a den of thieves? It is hard to say, because Luther himself didn’t speak about it for years, and by then he was thoroughly embittered by his experiences with the Roman church. Personally, I find it hard to believe this trip did not at least plant seeds of distrust that would ripen into powerful fruits in the years to come. But I can only comment on my own experiences, as a Roman-defending Protestant en route to the mother of all Catholic destinations. (And because reading someone else’s travel journal is beyond boring, I’ll keep it short and to the point.)

Here were my major points of contention as I moved closer to the Vatican. It became harder to tell who was being worshiped: Jesus, Peter (and his successors) or Mary. I get it, I understand, I love Peter and Mary too, and I know Romans love Jesus more than either. I did find the indulgence altars that still stand in churches a little discomforting (even though I understand it would be a historical sin to destroy them), the numerous offering boxes right by places to kneel and pray were disquieting, and the altars adorned with as much imagery of Mary and popes as Jesus were just awkward for me. “Solus Christus, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura” were the refrains that kept going through my head as I saw what I thought were distractions from these theological tenets. For example, I kept looking for the icon of Jesus as teacher (the one souvenir I sought), but I found Madonna and child way more often. And I also found it hard to accept the sheer opulence of the Vatican. I was torn between the realization that it was all supplemental (at best) to faith and my belief that aesthetic sensibility plays a huge role in the “proper” adoration of Christ. (This in an of itself will get a full post one day.)

Here’s what I love(d) about Rome: the city itself holds a fascinating tension between the secular dominance of the Empire that lingers with its ruins and the Catholic dominance that has been present since the Empire disintegrated. Seeing popes attempt to reclaim the Coliseum, or use its very marble for St. Peter’s is a surprising combination of historical powers. But it seems that, in the words of a friend of mine, popes today are finally reclaiming their role as pastor more than politician, which was all too rare in years gone by. (Our visit to Florence reminded me that too many Medici’s were popes. The politics of those appointments is rather disheartening.) And I, as a Christian, feel greatly indebted to Rome in a spiritual sense for its unwavering stances on doctrine, its reliance upon the Church Fathers, and its sheer volume of believers. The strength of John Paul II against communism and Benedict XVI against “the dictatorship of relativism” literally almost bring a tear to my eye. I owe them a great deal for their strength of character. If only such men were popes in Luther’s day!

To make a long post short, it was worthwhile to see in a span of two weeks the vast difference between the humble town of Wittenberg, Germany and the opulence of Rome. It reinforced again that no one in their right mind would believe what a self-loathing monk in a no-name town could accomplish with the help of good timing, political friends, and years of pent-up frustration among German and Scandinavian nobility with Rome. Just hearing the difference in the languages of German and Italian reminded me of the vastly different world Luther lived in from Rome. (It is true that they would have held Latin in common, though with noticeably difference accents, which can make a difference.)

This is not a total defense of Luther or a total condemnation of Rome by any means; it would have been preferable if Luther could have learned to keep his mouth shut, and if the Roman church had listened when valid criticisms were made. Alas, at least it’s a little clearer after following in Luther’s steps. Well, as much as I can on a 168 km/hour train.

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