Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Genesis, Development, and Reception of an Ecumenical Pilgrimage

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Genesis, Development, and Reception of an Ecumenical Pilgrimage

Article excerpt

The Origin of the Idea

My own Christian faith was shaken from its slumbers by Martin Luther. In a spiritual crisis not unknown among late adolescents, I strongly identified with the young Augustinian friar doing his best but finding no rest. I went as far as toying with monkhood (despite being a Protestant) the better to match my own life's narrative to that of my newfound companion. While the simplicity, piety, and regulation of monastic life were attractive, the stillness was not. A competitive athlete and mountain scrambler, I needed more action than a life of ora or even rigorous labora seemed to imply.

Studying is cerebral, and studying theology is no different--it is usually done sitting down. So it is no surprise I made it through seminary imagining a stationary Luther: a man who thought, wrote, and taught, motionless. When I began my doctoral studies in church history and began to think more about the entire environment of the Reformation, I was shaken from this assumption, noticing that Luther was also quite a traveler. 1 was again intrigued.

His longest and most taxing journey was the pilgrimage he made to Rome. "Wouldn't it be great," I said to my theologian wife Sarah sometime around 2004, "if we walked from Erfurt to Rome, just like Luther?" What an education; we would see the real landscape of the Reformation controversy and put some flesh on disembodied ideas. The fact that it would be a serious adventure that required lots of planning only increased my own interest.

So, the idea of reliving Luther's pilgrimage was born: from the need to get up out of our chairs, put some miles under our atrophied feed, and connect our bodies with the history we had so intensely studied. As the 500th anniversary of his trip neared, Sarah was hired by the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and all at once the whim of our academic doldrums became a real geographical and vocational possibility. Now, under the banner of ecumenism, it would not be a mere historical stunt; rather, two Lutherans walking to Rome became the medium for exploring the divisions and highlighting the recent rapprochement between Protestants and Catholics.

Finding Luther's Route

We wanted to follow Luther's route as closely as possible, but I know for certain we did not get it quite right. He left no notes for his trip, and we could glean only a few waypoints from his much later Table Talk: Nuremberg, Augsburg (perhaps only on the return journey), the Allgdu, Florence. Most of our information came from a 1914 work by Heinrich Bohmer called Luthers Romfahrt. (1) The dozen pages it dedicates to his journey pretty much exhaust the evidence. Collating this with his study of Augustinian lodgings along the way, Bohmer proposed a theoretical itinerary.

Just before we left, someone sent us an article from an obscure East German journal suggesting that Luther would have used a map published in 1500 in Nuremberg by an Erfurt faculty member, Erhardt Etzlaub. A reasonable facsimile was easy to locate, courtesy of Wikipedia. The colorized, wall-sized, Romerpilgerkarte was probably not meant to be carried by actual pilgrims, but a list of cities gleaned from the image would suffice: Just follow the road to the next town!

Only after finishing did we find other proposals. Hans-Albert Genthe's edited collection, Auf Luthers Spuren Unterwegs, (2) suggested a similar route with slight variations, notably through Augsburg, then on to Cremona rather than Pavia--the latter of which we had chosen to pass through, since it was the resting place of St. Augustine, patron of Luther's order. Genthe had no notes to back it up, so it is impossible to assess the likelihood of his proposal.

Finding Our Own Route

Scanty evidence aside, how could we make our trip not only historically meaningful but also pleasant for us and picturesque for our blog-followers? Modem pilgrims came to our rescue. …

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