I’m going to tell you a story; how I met, married, and then fell in love with a renegade and traitor named Martin Luther.
In the years since entering convent school at the age of five, one thing had always been perfectly clear to me: salvation was not a free gift. It was one a person could earn. Only an insane god would permit fallen, corrupt children into His kingdom without first requiring certain sacrifices and services.
Luther disagreed: “The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty,” he had said, in Heidelberg.
In the fall of 1517 he’d drafted his Theses – ninety-five complaints against the Church’s practice of indulgences. For a fee – small or large – a person could buy forgiveness. We were taught that indulgences could only remit a portion of the suffering a person would endure in Purgatory, but Luther argued that the practice, which was wrong to start, was abused by money-hungry church leaders, and the laity was misled and hurt.
The Ninety-Five Theses were my first exposure to Luther. Fronika and Margaret Zeschau, my fellow Sisters at Marienthron, had an Uncle Wolfgang who was friends with the radical. Not long after the Theses were posted on the door of a church in Wittenberg, causing uproar in the little town, he sent his nieces a letter. The girls had been keeping their sympathies for the reform movement quiet, but this was too much. Now they made their beliefs known to everyone at the convent – except for my father’s sister Margareta, our stern Abbess, who would have punished them severely for speaking against the Church. They whispered their discontent to willing ears as they went about their chores; they kept regular correspondence with their uncle; they went so far as to talk quietly about it to Leonard Koppe, a merchant who brought Marienthron its fish.
At first Fronika and Margaret faced disagreement ranging from humor to outright dislike. Most of the Sisters thought perhaps it was a phase, a little rebellion; a few, including my dearest friend Beth, were concerned; one or two held their noses high and ignored the girls, paying them only enough attention to case a resentful stare their way. But not a soul had the daring or guile to let Aunt Margareta take note.
I had another aunt at Marienthron: Magdalena, my mother’s sister. She had the same effect on me as Aunt Margareta did – strict obedience, that is – but by way of an entirely opposite method. Lena was an addictively sweet woman, always ready with a compliment and never demanding any sort of behavior. But all of us Sisters, myself especially, did everything she asked, took her words as scripture. To us, she was a prophetess. And for the first time in my life, I found my filial and religious duty to Margareta contradicting my heartfelt duty to Lena. The convent positively trembled when it came to light that Lena had written to Luther.
One afternoon she and I worked together in the infirmary, rolling and putting away cleaned bandages. The three patients nearest us – all old, weak women – were sleeping. “Lena,” I said, though we weren’t supposed to be speaking. “Please tell me this letter to Luther is a rumor.”
Her reaction was so slight, anyone but me would have missed it; her eyes flicked up and scanned the room, to ascertain the privacy I had already made sure of.
“Why would I say that?” she asked, barely whispering.
A smokestack burned in my chest.
“Please, I’m begging you – don’t write to him anymore. It’s not safe.”
She waved her hand, at her waist. “The only danger I face is a stern talk from the Abbess.”
“She’ll have you beaten.”
“No, she won’t. She loves me.”
“She wouldn’t if she knew what you were doing.”
Lena stared me down.
“You’re interested, aren’t you?”
“Of course not,” I said, but Lena’s smirk said she understood. “I’m certainly curious,” I amended. “I don’t face a beating, though.”
Lena turned back to the bandages. “Ihr Luther is a wise man,” she said thoughtfully. “He believes that to submit oneself to a certain law – for example, enforced silence – can be holy and honorable. But to submit others to those same laws, laws not imposed by scripture, without their agreement – well, that’s dishonest. It makes those who obey look as though they believe something which they may or may not.”
I dropped my voice further.
“You’re talking about Marienthron, aren’t you?”
“Of course I am.”
“But there’s no reason to even discuss it. You’ve already made your vows.”
“Ihr Luther suggested we leave anyway.”
“Magdalena!” My shocked whisper was audible, and a patient sewing in her bed nearby looked up. I was careful when I spoke again. “You could be caught and killed.”
“Which makes a beating from Margareta sound much less terrifying, doesn’t it?”
“I only want to serve the Lord,” Lena said, seeing that I wasn’t going to speak. “I believe I can do that better elsewhere. Katharine, I want to sing to Him for the pure joy of singing, not because the Abbess says to. I want to talk with others about how much I love the Lord. I want to read my Bible in German.”
“It will be lonely without you.”
“That’s certainly true,” she said. “Since several other girls are coming with me.”
“Katharine, you know I can’t tell you that.”
Fear clenched my throat, and my voice dropped even lower. “Beth?”
She didn’t answer, but in so doing she told me the truth. I was going to lose my best friend.
“I don’t even know that.”
I paused. “You expect me to go with you, don’t you?” I asked, scared of her response. She raised her eyes to mine.
“I expect you to do whatever it is you would do if you were not afraid,” she said.
In the first hours of Easter Sunday, 1523, Koppe smuggled me and eleven other nuns out of Marienthron, the convent I’d called home since I’d been a child.
As soon as she could be sure everyone was asleep, Aunt Lena sneaked all the girls into the refectory, in groups of three. There we sat, silently, for hours, trying to keep awake, not speaking a word. Beth and I clutched each other’s hands, our breathing synchronized. Before the sun was up, Koppe arrived and we listened as he told the women in the kitchen – in a remarkably loud voice – that his delivery of fish had been unloaded and he would be leaving now.
It was obviously a cue, since Aunt Lena, crouching, moved for the door. Again in threes, we sneaked around the base of the building and met Koppe at his wagon. With an apologetic grimace on his face, he showed us into reeking empty fish barrels. “I’m sorry,” he murmured to each of us, securing the lids.
At the gate to the convent, I could hear Koppe saying goodbye to the warden, who would have watched the gate while he was here doing his business. Since he was an old, trusted friend at Marienthron, there would be no need to accompany Koppe throughout the visit. It was a sweet departure, escaping right under that greedy old man’s nose.
I knew it would be a long, uncomfortable journey, squatting in the stink of fish without a blanket to ease the jostling. But thankfully a large forest lay north of the convent, and so we were able, after a little while, to come out of the barrels and sit together, huddled for warmth.
“I guess I can explain to you the plan,” Koppe said as we came out, stiff and sore. “We’ll be taking you to Torgau tonight, a few hours’ journey. We’ll stay there for the day and tomorrow any one of you who isn’t going home to family will come with me to Wittenberg to meet Luther.” A little shock came over me – meeting Luther! – but it was a long road ahead still.
We tried to pass the time in conversation, but after years of enforced silence at Marienthron, we found it uncomfortable to speak freely or to laugh. We weren’t sure how to go about prayer without a leader. We might have sung, if we had known any hymns in German. Singing lyrics we couldn’t understand seemed to violate the integrity of what we’d just done.
I don’t know how long it had been when Else von Kanitz gasped, a soft little noise, and stared into the woods. A few of us, myself included, saw her fearful eyes and followed them.
Not quite where she’d looked, but nearby: a sudden movement, a man. After a second, another one, further back, only visible to one who was looking. And, now that we were silent, voices. In the dark, far away.
Had the warden indeed sent men this far simply to retrieve and punish twelve pitiful women?
For a few moments, we all sat, stunned and fearful, before Koppe noticed the silence. He looked over his shoulder and, seeing our stares, smiled.
“Don’t worry, Sisters,” he said. “Those are rebels, just like you, now, I suppose. They hid here to organize rebellion against Duke George and all the other lords. It’s hard to keep thinking of required labor at Marienthron as divine. It’s actually good news for you. You have a lot of enemies in the world – it’s true – but those voices, they’re on your side.”
Credit where credit is due:
Katharina von Bora: A Reformation Life by Rudolph K. and Marilynn Morris Markwald
Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd ed.,by Timothy F. Lull
Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton