By Susanna Bertelsen
In late July, 2017, my husband and I went to Germany to visit the “Lutherstadts” or the historical sites of Martin Luther and the Reformation. We saw Eiseleben, his birth and childhood home, where he grew up in a family of affluence, (his father owned a mining company) and began reluctantly to study law after the persuasion of his father. Eiseleben was also the site of his death. Following a vision of a “bolt of lightning,” he was moved to leave law studies and go to Erfurt where he entered the Augustinian Monastery. There he was ordained a priest and immersed himself in academic theological studies including the languages of Greek, Hebrew and teachings of the Bible. He was later directed to teach Biblical Studies at the University in Wittenburg where, 500 years ago, he formulated his well-known 95 theses which he posted on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg.
Those theses were the result of his many years of prayer, study and meditation upon the Sacred Scripture which awakened him to challenge ecclesial and political abuses of his time, most notably, the buying and selling of indulgences as penance for sins, among others. His preaching and teaching begat reforms that led to the Protestant Reformation followed by the Council of Trent and has inspired theologians across the world, including those invited to the Second Vatican Council in the Modern Age.
Our historical journey continued to the Castle Wartburg, near Eisenach, where Luther spent nearly a year in seclusion surrounded by peaceful nature. During his time at Wartburg, Luther was devoted to silent prayer, study and encounter with the Word of God which inspired him to translate the New Testament from the original Greek into German in eleven weeks!! (according to the Wartburg Museum curator).
Looking into Luther’s small room at the peaceful Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt, and later standing in his study at the Castle Wartburg, looking out windows overlooking a magnificently vast forest as far as the eye could see, I began to wonder about the impact that silent exposure to nature might have had on him during his life. What seemed clear to me during this amazing journey through the Luther sites and museums was that Luther was immersed in prayer, meditation and encounters with God’s Word that moved him to live out the Gospel in his own life.
Fascinated by the energy in movements in history (like the Reformation), I recalled during our tour from Eiseleben to Erfurt through Castle Wartburg and Wittenburg, how the late middle ages were a significant turning point in western civilization overall. My thoughts drifted to faraway Spain, way beyond the Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt and the forests surrounding Castle Wartburg. I remembered how the Holy Spirit was at work in Spain in the hearts and minds of two other well-known 16th century wisdom figures: Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila.
Ignatius of Loyola was of noble birth. After his dramatic conversion, he went out to the townspeople, not secluded in a monastery, to inspire all to find God in everyday life. Giving all the Glory to God, Ignatius and his followers founded the religious order of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) who began to open educational opportunities for “ordinary” people and to improve the education of clergy. (Check out this Loyola website for more on Ignatian Spirituality.)
Teresa of Avila, from an affluent family, was educated by Augustinian nuns in her town and later entered a local Carmelite convent. Prayer, in many forms, became the central focus of her life and later she was moved to reform more than 15 Carmelite Convents and Monasteries (together with John of the Cross) from what had become a lax lifestyle to a more self-disciplined, Scripture informed and prayer-centered way of life.
What common wisdom might Martin Luther (1483-1546), Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) and Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) have acquired that could inspire us today? They were all influenced by the political and religious challenges of their time. They exhibited leadership. They were challenged by dark periods and emboldened by periods of clarity and light. Each one struggled with their God until they surrendered to the Divine Mystery in their lives. They intentionally created time for study of and silent prayer with Scripture. Each had a passion to share the teachings of the Gospels to all people, regardless of class. It seemed that their spiritual practices led them to “listen” more deeply to the stirrings of the Spirit within them. Through their study, prayer and lived experiences each one encountered the Presence of God to inspire, to heal, to reach out. They developed relationship through encounter with the Holy One who moved them to become aware of and to reform the inequalities and abuses of their time, in the places and spaces around them. I see here Divine synchronicity! Luther in Germany and Ignatius and Teresa in Spain discovered and developed contemplative life styles. Contemplation, for each of them, led to action, within their respective worldly situations.
My reflections on 16th century Martin Luther, Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila make me consider how I, in the 21st century, might attend more deeply to the Presence of the Holy in and around my own life’s situation. They challenge me to ask: To whom and to what must I LISTEN more attentively?… What REFORMATION or change or transformation in myself must occur in order to ENCOUNTER the “good” in myself and others?… And then, to allow that “goodness” to nurture my spirit in order to ACT in loving kindness with myself, toward those in my own communities, and with sensitive regard of our beautifully created planet.
Curious to learn more about the spirituality of these esteemed 16th century wisdom figures, whose charisms and teachings live on today??? I share the following references and invite you to explore:
Philip D. W. Krey and Peter D.S. Krey. (Eds. & Trans.) Luther’s Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press. 2007.
Joseph N. Tylenda. (Trans.) A Pilgrim’s Journey: the Autobiography of Ignatius of Loyola. Rev. ed. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. 2001.
Mirabai Starr. (Trans.) Teresa of Avila. The Book of My Life. Boston: New Seeds. 2008.