Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

70 Days on the Road with Luther

An ecumenical pilgrimage from Erfurt to Rome.

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In 1510, Martin Luther, not-yet-reformer, walked from Erfurt to Rome on business for the Augustinians. In 1910, missionaries from all over the world gathered in Edinburgh, Scotland, to discuss world evangelization, in the process giving birth to the ecumenical movement. And in 2010, my husband Andrew and I figured we'd try to put the two together, retracing Luther's steps from Erfurt to Rome for the sake of ecumenical reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics.

We've been on the road nearly four weeks now, not quite halfway through our trek. Today—Friday, September 17—we'll finally exit Germany. It will have taken us just shy of a month to do so, which has given us a new perspective on the enormous extent of what even in the 16th century Luther could describe as "Germany." Then follows a week of passing through three countries in quick succession before arriving in a fourth: Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland, then over the Alps into Italy.

One of the purposes of this pilgrimage 500 years after Luther's own was to try to get a feel for just what it might have been like for him, how it might have impressed his young mind and soul. (He was 27 years old: younger than we are!) We've wondered if he was chosen for this trip because his spiritual fathers wanted to get him out of the priory, into the world, with more to occupy his mind than his own sins. If so, the strategy probably backfired. Luther traveled with only one companion, and with so many hours through fields and forests, no books to read and no news of the outside world, no separate experiences to report to one another, conversation surely ran dry. We suppose they filled the time with psalms. We ourselves can get antsy without our usual dose of print, especially when the scenery turns dull.

We've also realized that since Luther traveled south from November to January (rather than from August to October, as we're doing), he'd have spent a lot of each day in the dark as the daylight withered away. And we've gained respect for the sheer physical hardiness his ascetic discipline must have given him. He went a significantly greater distance than we do every day, his average being roughly 42 km. We trained for this walk—something he probably didn't do while hanging around the priory in Erfurt—and yet feel bone-weary after a few weeks of averaging a mere 30 km a day. Still, we suppose, this feeling is part of the spiritual lesson of pilgrimage. At some point you realize that there are physical values other than comfort, so you get used to being tired and uncomfortable and plow ahead anyway. You also realize that you can't do this by your own strength but must turn to God for help—which is how all of life is, but our comforts at home lure us into thinking otherwise.

Some things would have been easier for Luther. He could count on Augustinian or other monastic hospitality every night, and he probably even got a dispensation from the Advent fast—long-distance pilgrims needed meat. We had hoped to camp often, but the weather has been so awful we've mostly been sheltering ourselves in pensions and guest houses. In our modern identity-card society, warm welcomes and quick friendships do not form in a night, even if you are an apparently earnest pilgrim. Further, in Luther's time there was, as a rule, only one road between each town, so he didn't need a map, only a list of cities to connect the dots. Now there are so many roads that we can't fathom how we'd have pulled this off as recently as five years ago, even using detailed topographical maps, instead of the GPS device and tracking system on our iPhone. And Luther really had nothing to do except walk and pray, but 21st century life marches relentlessly on no matter where we are, so there are still bills to pay, school papers to sign, communications of all kinds to be managed. We can't be totally unplugged, as 16th-century travelers were as a matter of course.

One of the most interesting lessons has been comparing what Luther saw with what we've seen. As old as buildings can get in Germany—at least compared to America—there is very little, aside from churches, that is more than 500 years old. And even the churches have been through bombings, repairs, new roofs, and the onslaught of the Baroque. A pre-1510 structure always elicits our excitement. Luther mentioned seeing the new clock on the town square in Nuremberg, put there in 1509—we saw it too. Some days later we found, quite by accident, the site of the former Augustinian cloister in Memmingen, where we know for sure Luther spent the night. The church in the free city of Ulm had already been built, if not with quite such a tall spire, when Luther passed through; and we must have passed through the same city gates as he did in Nördlingen, which boasts a fully intact city wall all the way around its perimeter.

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