I thought my writing about Martin Luther was finished, but here I am again writing about the reformer again. I am as surprised as anyone. After spending time in his homeland, reading his writings, and studying the moments of his life and faith that led to a deeper understanding of theology and great reform in the church and then writing about my discoveries, I am surprised that Martin Luther would have more to say to me.
It was on All Saints’ Day, last week, that I realized that I am not finished with Martin Luther or maybe he is not finished with me. As people all over the world, I spent much of All Saints’ Day thinking about the saints in my own life. It is a day of gratitude for me, one that is usually spent doing ordinary activities, but deep underneath the ordinary, there is a current of remembrance reminding me that I am not here on my own. There are people that God has put in my life that have given me a deeper understanding of my faith and who continue to inspire me.
Last week, on All Saints’ Day, I found myself thinking about many of the same people I think about each year—ancestors, family members, beloved friends and parishioners. There are always the writers, thinkers, leaders, and ordinary people who I think about every year. There are people of every age—young, old, children. There are people whose very names can conjure up an image and remind me of what I learned from them. There are people whose names I have never known. It is always interesting to me who I think about on that day.
So, in the midst of my reflections I was surprised at the question that came to me during the day: Is Martin Luther one of my saints now?
I must admit that I struggled with the answer at first. I couldn’t quite make myself answer yes or no, which led me to realize that I didn’t know enough about him to answer that question. So, I decided to read about Martin Luther as a person of faith and not necessarily as a reformer. After all, he was more than just a reformer helping to bring about evaluations and changes. He was a teacher, pastor, husband, father, musician, and beer aficionado. Most of all, he was a person of faith.
Earlier, in my study of Luther, I discovered that he was given to bouts of melancholy. It was during one of his bouts of melancholy that he set about to translate the New Testament into German and out of this depression came one of the greatest gifts that Luther could have given the church. These periods of depression came over him frequently throughout his life and there have been many explanations about what led to these periods.
During these times, Luther felt both abandoned by God and drawn to God. Luther named these periods Anfechtung, a word that is not the easiest to translate, but may be close to “temptation,” or “trial.” As I have read commentaries about what Luther meant by this word, I can see that these periods of time were dark periods that led Luther to desperation in his faith. These were periods where faith work was accomplished in obscura, hidden, deep within, and possibly without Luther really being aware.
At that thought about Luther’s faith work being accomplished hidden, deep within, I found myself “sitting up and taking notice.” This concept is not foreign to me. It is a concept that I have studied and written about passionately, for the last three years. This concept led me to another question: Did Martin Luther experience Dark Night of the Soul? Because if Martin Luther experienced “Dark Night of the Soul,” there is no denying that he is one of my saints!
The term “Dark Night of the Soul,” is a term that originates in the thought and poetry of one of my most significant saints, St. John of the Cross, who lived during the 16th century, really just after Martin Luther.
It is very easy for people to assume that “Dark Night of the Soul” means spiritual depression because that is what it sounds like. Many people speak of going through “Dark Night of the Soul,” when they are experiencing difficult things. It might be a difficult time in a career or something catastrophic within the family or a diagnosis of an incurable disease that lead people to express that they are in “Dark Night,” but for St. John of the Cross there was never any idea that “Dark Night” was to be sinister or negative.
St. John of the Cross had many reasons to be spiritually depressed. Like Luther, St. John was a reformer and like Luther, his reforms got him into trouble. He was imprisoned, beaten, and starved for his ideas about reform. He nearly died before he escaped imprisonment. It was during this time that he experience “Dark Night,” but as he later explained, it was a time of joy and grace when God, the Beloved was transforming his spirit and giving him a deep, profound love.
St. John expressed this experience in a poem called Dark Night of the Soul:
“…On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide than the one that burned in my heart;
“This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
–him I knew so well—
there in a place where no one appeared.
“O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
The Lover with his beloved,
Transforming the beloved in her Lover.”
(translation quoted in John of the Cross for Today: The Dark Night, by Susan Muto.)
The gorgeous, mystical language that St. John used to describe God is not the writing of a spiritually depressed person. Rather, it comes from the pen of one who has experienced the love of God in profound, sacred, life-giving ways.
And I find myself wondering if Martin Luther had experienced this same kind of profound, sacred, life-giving love.
The experience that St. John calls “Dark Night” leads to a deep experience of union with the Divine Love, but this experience is not one that we enter as a result of our own decision or our own will. It is an invitation, a calling that requires purging of inaccurate human ideas of deep intimacy with God. It is a calling that requires sacrifice on the part of the “Dark Night” traveler, releasing attachments and ideas that block the way to divine union with Divine Love.
Dark Night is not an easy place to enter because in order to receive the fullness of the experience there are sacrifices to be made. In St. John’s understanding this sacrifice is called “purgation” and can be a long or brief time, and it can be dramatic or traumatic for the “Dark Night” traveler. This call from God covers one’s ability to understand what God is doing in obscura and one has no choice but to proceed in faith.
In the midst of this time of purgation there is the sense that things don’t work as they used to. Prayer, scripture reading, worship does not bring the same contentment and satisfaction that they once brought. God seems to be far away. And yet, there is still a painful, passionate, deep longing for God. For many, this time of purgation leaves them filling quiet and still and waiting. At the end of this time of purgation there is space within the soul. There is contentment with less because there is more room for God—Divine Love.
And I find myself wondering if Martin Luther had experienced this same kind of profound, sacred, life-giving experience.
We may never really know if Martin Luther experienced Dark Night of the Soul, but there are many who declare that he did, because of his writings. I haven’t read enough to make this declaration. We do know that Martin Luther had times of deep and dark depression, but it would not surprise me if Martin Luther experienced a long and vast Dark Night that resulted in a profound, deep, life-giving encounter with the divine love of God. It would not surprise me if Martin Luther’s experience with Dark Night occurred at various times in his life, giving him courage and words that came from deep within and brought changes that made the experience of God’s deep and abiding love for all of humanity a possibility for all.
Many of the words that came from Martin Luther are words that indicate a deep, life-giving faith, tried and purged—words that are filled with love and grace and the knowledge of God’s mercy:
An empty vessel that needs to be filled.
My Lord, fill it.
I am weak in faith;
Strengthen thou me.
I am cold in love;
Warm me and make me fervent
That my love may go out to my neighbor.
I do not have a strong and firm faith;
At times I doubt and am unable to trust thee altogether.
O Lord, help me.
Strengthen my faith and trust in thee.
In thee I have sealed the treasures of all I have.
I am poor;
Thou art rich and didst come to be merciful to the poor.
I am a sinner;
Thou art upright.
With me there is an abundance of sin;
In thee is the fullness of righteousness.
Therefore, I will remain with thee of who I can receive
But to whom I may not give.
–A prayer by Martin Luther
I am grateful for the depth and richness of the life of Martin Luther and for his courage and mercy. As for the flaws, of this reformer, that cause me to continue to study his writings, I am reminded that we have all fallen short of God’s glory and yet, as Luther reminded us over and over again, God is merciful.
And so, I declare Martin Luther one of my saints.
To God alone be glory.