The 1976 production of Luther was on television this past weekend — based on the famous play by the British playwriter John Osborne. I thought it was very well done, if somewhat flawed in its attempt to cover the entire span of Luther’s life. I have yet to see last year’s film starring Joseph Fiennes, but I thought that Stacey Keach was a much better pick for the role (rugged and heavy set, he definitely looks the part of the fiery German theologian).
Osborne portrays Luther as extremely tormented and self-obsessed: emotionally, psychologically, even physically crippled by his guilt — hardly fit to be a monk, and one who I imagine might even be expelled on grounds of mental instability in modern times. Osborne’s portrayal reminded me of a passage by Roland H. Bainton, author of Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther:
- [Wrestling with God’s judgement] Luther reported to Staupitz, and his answer as “Ich verstehe es nicht!” — “I don’t understand it!” Was, then, Luther the only one in all the world who had been so plagued? Had Staupitz himself experienced such trials? “No,” said he, “but I think they are your meat and drink.” Evidently, he suspected Luther of thriving on disturbances. The only word of reassurance he could give was a reminder that the blood of Christ was shed for the remission of sins. But Luther was too obsessed with the picture of Christ the avenger to be consoled with the thought of Christ the redeemer. 1
I think that our culture suffers today predominantly from a lack of belief in sin — that is to say, I haven’t noticed that many people wrestling with guilt on the level of Brother Martin, or reduced to such fear and trembling by the thought of God’s divine judgement. Most of the time it seems that our thoughts are elsewhere, preoccupied with worldly things.
At the same time, I think that some, like Luther in his early days, have a tendency to err in the other direction, where remorse conceals an unhealthy self-preoccupation with one’s sin, a lack of trust in God’s grace and an acceptance of his gift of salvation in Christ. Osborne addresses this issue in a striking passage from his play, where Luther, minutes away from celebrating his first Mass, is mercilessly berating himself for his sins, and his spiritual advisor is obliged to break the spell of self-obsession with a dutiful recitation from the Creed:
MARTIN: All you teach me in this sacred place is how to doubt —
BRO. WEINAND: Give you a little praise, and you’re pleased for a while, but let a little trial of sin and death come into your day and you crumble, don’t you?
MARTIN: But that’s all you’ve taught me, that’s really all you’ve taught me, and all the while I’m living in the Devil’s worm-bag.
BRO. WEINAND: It hurts me to watch you like this, sucking up the cares like a leech.
MARTIN: You will be there beside me, won’t you?
BRO. WEINAND: Of course, and if anything goes wrong, or if you forget anything, we’ll see to it. You’ll be all right. But nothing will — you won’t make any mistakes.
MARTIN: But what if I do, just one mistake. Just a word, one word — one sin.
BRO. WEINAND: Martin, kneel down.
MARTIN: Forgive me, Brother Weinand, but the truth is this —
BRO. WEINAND: Kneel.
MARTIN: It’s this, just this. All I can feel, all I can feel is God’s hatred.
BRO. WEINAND: Repeat the Apostle’s Creed.
MARTIN: He’s like a glutton, the way he gorges he, he’s a glutton. He gorges me, then spits me out in lumps.
BRO. WEINAND: After me, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, make of Heaven and Earth . . .
MARTIN: I’m a trough, I tell you, and he’s swilling about in me. All the time.
BRO. WEINAND: “And in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord . . .”
MARTIN: “And in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord . . .”
BRO. WEINAND: “Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate . . .
MARTIN (almost unintelligibly): “Was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into Hell; the third day He rose from the dead, He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” And every sunrise sings the song for death.
BRO. WEINAND: “I believe –”
MARTIN: “I believe –”
BRO. WEINAND: Go on.
MARTIN: “I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Catholic Church; the Communion of Saints; the forgiveness of sins;
BRO. WEINAND: Again!
MARTIN: “The forgiveness of sins.”
BRO. WEINAND: What was that again?
MARTIN: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”
BRO. WEINAND: Do you? Then remember this: St. Bernard says that when when we say the Apostles Creed “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” each one of us must believe that his sins are forgiven. 2
So I pray that all of you who read this, myself included, will have a Blessed Lent, and realize in our life the words attributed to Pope Clement XI (“The Universal Prayer“):
. . . Keep me, Lord, attentive at prayer, temperate in food an drink, diligent in my work, firm in my good intentions. Let my conscience be clear, my conduct without fault, my speech blameless, my life well-ordered. Put me on guard against my human weaknesses. Let me cherish your love for me, keep your law, and come at last to your salvation.
Teach me to realize that this world is passing, that my true future is happiness in heaven, that life on earth is short, and the life to come eternal.
Help me prepare for death, with a proper fear of judgement, but a greater trust in your goodness. Lead me safely through death, to the endless joy of Heaven.
- Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, by Roland H. Bainton. pp. 45-46. New American Library, 1978.
- Luther, by John Osborne. pp. 29-32. Penguin Books, 1961.