Under the alias “Squire George,” a bearded knight rode from Wartburg Castle and its safety, heading northeast to Wittenberg to check on the Reformation’s progress.1 Bold, high-stakes scenarios were not unusual for this sixteenth-century Christian; however, less well-known is that while being hidden in Wartburg Castle after being excommunicated by the Pope, this high-profile hostage also quietly steeped his soul in Scripture, a lifelong pursuit.
Martin Luther’s celebrity as a theologian overshadows his monastic core, but we can recover the vibrancy of his friar’s heart and find encouragement in our own struggles by studying what Luther says about the place of the Bible in our lives.
Not attracted by Aristotle, Aquinas, or the Scholastic movement’s overwhelming emphasis on ratio (logic), Luther focused his life and theology on oratio (prayer), as articulated by third-century Christian writer and bishop Cyprian of Carthage: Sit tibi vel oratio assidua vel lectio: nunc cum Deo loquere, nunc Deus tecum (You should apply yourself to prayer or to reading sacred texts [lectio]: at times you speak with God, at times he speaks with you).2
In other words, Luther practiced the ancient spiritual discipline associated with monasteries from the fifth century on: lectio divina. Cyprian’s quotation captures the essence of this Bible-rich dialogue with Christ, because during an unhurried reading of Scripture, we “listen to” the sacred text as our questions and wounds and needs and joys surface, and we receive the living Word obediently, as if spoken to each of us directly and personally.3
Luther’s poignant descriptions of lectio divina remind us of his monastic background—that he entered an Augustinian friary at twenty-two, experiencing for some seven years there Scripture meditation as the heartbeat of monastic theology. Luther describes its importance and the need to say verses aloud to help their wisdom penetrate the human heart:
Zum andern soltu meditirn, das ist: Nicht allein im herzen, sondern auch eusserlich die mündliche rede und buchstabische wort im Buch imer treiben und reiben, lesen, und widerlesen, mit vleissigem auffmercken und nachdenken, was der heilige Geist damit meinet.4
On the other hand, you should meditate, by which I mean: not only [saying Scripture] interiorly, in your heart, but also externally, ever pushing and rubbing it into your heart by saying it out loud, literally word-for-word, reading it, and reading it again, with assiduous attention and reflection on what the Holy Spirit means by it.
Luther adds that a hasty approach to or the abandonment of Scripture meditation leaves souls immature and cut off from fellowship with Christ:
Und hüte dich, das du nicht uberdrussig werdet oder dencket, du habest es ein mal oder zweu gnug gelesen, gehöret, gesagt, und verstehet es alles zu Grund, Denn da wird kein sonderlicher Theologus nimer mehr aus, und sind wie das unzeitige Obs, das abfellet, ehe es halb reiff wird.5
And be careful that you don’t grow weary or think that because you’ve read or heard or said a passage once or twice you completely understand it, because no special theology will come from this, and those who do not meditate [on Scripture] will be like green apples fallen from the tree before they are even half ripe.
Luther embraced Scripture as the sacra pagina (sacred page) that helps us grow a happy intimacy with Christ if we read it daily, slowly, attentively, alone and unrushed. His lectio divina involvement with God’s living Word also reveals his deep attachment to and affinity with spiritual ancestors such as Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux. Luther put Scripture meditation at the center of his life, for the same reason Bernard did—both had an intense desire for a personal relationship with the incarnate, living God, and both knew that lectio divina nurtures our friendship with God, as Bernard says:
And let him become for me not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living: that is to say, not a word inscribed in dumb characters on dead vellum, but the Word of God in human form impressed on the living page of my faithful heart, impressed, I say, not by the agency of mortal hand, but by the operation of the Holy Spirit.6
I want that, too, so often I say or sing a Bible verse aloud. Singing Psalm 34 nourishes my soul: “I will bless the Lord at all times. . . .,” I sing as I walk. I sing as I clean toilets at home. I sing at interminable traffic lights on days I’m in a harried rush. And each time I sing its verses for the umpteenth time, I understand something new that re-convinces me of Christ’s love.
1. James M. Kittelson, Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career.(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003),164, and 174 for Cranach etching.
2. Franz Posset, Pater Bernhardus: Martin Luther and Bernard of Clairvaux (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1999),135, 379, and Duncan Robertson, Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011), xi.
3. Robertson, xiii.
4. Posset, 136.
5. Posset, 136.
6. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 4, “In Praise of the Virgin Mother,” no. 11; see Posset, 149.
Carmen Acevedo Butcher is a professor of English and scholar-in-residence at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia. She was the Carnegie Foundation professor of the year for Georgia in 2006, and during the 2004-2005 year she and her family lived and learned in Seoul, South Korea, while she taught as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer at Sogang University. She has written books on medieval women mystics and linguistics. More information can be found on these at her website. (Photo credit: Katherine Butcher.)
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