Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Alas, Poor Luther

Occasionally, I'll run across a quote from Martin Luther that makes me feel sorry for him. I think he must have struggled against fear his entire life. I've just run across some meditations that support this. 

I've been invited to have a table at a craft fair at a Lutheran school towards the end of October, so I had to find instructions on how to make a Lutheran rosary and how to use it. I knew such a thing existed, with meditations based on Luther's Small Catechism, and it didn't take too long to find what I needed online. I read through everything, to see if there was anything I wasn't comfortable supporting, and didn't find a thing. There were a couple of implied disagreements with Catholic teaching, such as a meditation about having the "confidence to pray directly to God," which, of course, isn't a disagreement with Catholic teaching but may have been a disagreement with Luther's understanding of it - especially since so much of his own spirituality seems to come from fear.

Some examples:
  • On one set of beads, you have the choice of praying “For the sake of your name, O Lord, forgive my iniquity, though it is great.” (Psalm 25:11) or “Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, for I am a sinner.”
  • At the end of the meditation on the ten commandments, the prayer is, "Save me Lord, I am afraid, I have not done all you have commanded.”
  • And one of the meditations says: When we are terrified by our own sins, we can seek assurance that God has selected us for salvation and forgives our sins.
There's nothing wrong with any of this, but it certainly does sound as if it was written by someone who knew what it was like to be afraid, and to be terrified by his own sins. For myself, I don't recall ever being terrified by my sins. Discouraged, frustrated, impatient, contrite and embarrassed, yes; terrified, not really.

In an essay elsewhere, I've put two analogies side by side. One is Luther's statement that human beings are like dungheaps and humans saved by faith in Christ are dungheaps covered with snow. The other is from Thérèse of Lisieux, who compared us humans to a small child who stands at the bottom of a staircase and wants to climb it because her father is at the top and she wants to go to him. The child lifts her little foot but her legs are too short to reach the next step. As she keeps trying, her father's heart fills with love and pity for her; he descends the stairs, picks her up and carries her in his arms to the top.

Both of those analogies make the point that we humans aren't capable of saving ourselves - there's no way we can earn our salvation. But I don't think of the little child as being "terrified" by her inability to climb the stairs, especially if (as Luther seems to have felt) that terror would be directed at her father. Unlike Luther's dungheaps, the small child doesn't need saving because she's basically evil, but simply because she's incapable.

Luther seems to have gone through a period in his life when he did believe he had to be responsible for his own salvation. In fact, that attitude became part of the sin that had to be repented of:
  • When we rely on ourselves for salvation, we turn away from God. The part of us that wants to do this must be drowned in contrition and repentance, so that a new person can arise and live before God in righteousness.
I don't think Thérèse suffered from the delusion that she had to rely on herself for salvation. Toward the end of her life, she did experience spiritual darkness, but seemingly not the fear that Luther battled. For Thérèse, "the good God" was always there, although there were times when she felt she couldn't reach Him. I think that difference between the two of them shows itself in many of the differences between their spiritualities. 


I haven't made any Lutheran rosaries yet, so how about some Anglican ones?

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