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The Consolation of Martin Luther

On Luther's merits.


The lowest sort of readers, C.S. Lewis argues in An Experiment in Criticism, read tabloid news stories and cheap novels as an aid to “egoistic castle-building.” That is, they read stories that help them to build castles in the air—stories of previously unappreciated women who suddenly become the objects of the overwhelming passion of rich and desirable men, or stories of men sunk in the drudgery of unprofitable wage labor who suddenly become rich beyond the dreams of avarice, or of awkward teenage boys who suddenly find themselves enjoying orgies of sensuality. The charm of such stories is that they support the egoistic fantasies of success and pleasure to which such readers are already prone. This charm is particularly sought by the lowest sort of reader, but I think that it is a charm that most readers (or viewers of narrative film) have felt at one time or another.

I remember once, when I was struggling to finish my dissertation in theology, a confrère lent me a D.V.D. of a film entitled Limitless, in which a young man struggles to write his first novel while contending with writer’s block and a general lack of focus and drive. Suddenly, he obtains an extraordinary drug that so heightens his powers of attention, memory, imagination, and thought that he is able to finish the novel in a matter of days. Not only does he finish it; he makes it into a masterpiece. The drug enables him to learn foreign languages with ease, to reconstruct complicated academic debates from a few fragments of memory, and to predict the future of the stock market. That last ability is somewhat unfortunate, because after the first twenty minutes or so of the film the protagonist turns from interesting things like writing the Great American Novel to the crushingly boring business of making his fortune on Wall Street. But those first twenty minutes are an extraordinary work of vicarious castle-building. What could a struggling dissertation writer not do with such a drug! What languages and authors could he not master? What subtle treatises on theology and philosophy could he not write? What depths of understanding could he not reach?

On reflection, however, possible side effects to such a drug occurred to me. For example, the preternatural strengthening of memory might lead one to be so oppressed by what is sad and shameful in one’s past that it would be unbearable. Based on that reflection, I posted on social media that it would be interesting to make a film about a similar drug that results in people being overwhelmed by sorrow and shame. To my very great surprise, a number of people responded that Catholicism was precisely such a drug. My own experience of Catholicism is so different. The sacrament of confession, in particular, has always been a great help to me to consign what is past to the past. The knowledge that I have been forgiven allows the past to fade. Not that penitents emerging from the confessional forget their sins as completely as Dante emerging from the river Lethe, but no longer burdening the conscience, the sins can be allowed to fade into the background of the memory.

One ought, of course, not to attribute too much importance to the emotional effects of confession. What is essential is the objective absolution that is effected by the sacrament, independent of the emotional state of the penitent. The contrition (or at least attrition) that is necessary to receive forgiveness of sins is a matter of the will, a spiritual faculty, not of the emotions or passions that are found at the sensitive level of the soul. Nevertheless, under normal circumstances, to know that one has been forgiven is a consolation that is felt at an emotional level as well. As a priest, I am privileged to see this often. I remember one person who confessed to me many years ago. This person had committed a serious sin against the Fifth Commandment. She said that for sixteen years she had been fleeing from herself, not admitting to herself what she had done, working day and night to distract herself from herself. But now she was ready to give up. She said that she could not imagine that God could forgive her. And then she admitted what she had done in floods of tears, in which sorrow was mingled with relief. When I gave her absolution, I could see the sorrow turn to joy. The words of Jeremias occurred to me: “And I will turn their mourning into joy, and will comfort them, and make them joyful after their sorrow.”

Sometimes, however, the spiritual reality has no emotional effect. Spiritual writers tell us that this can have various causes. At times God withdraws sensible consolations from the soul for purposes of purification. When received in the right spirit, this can be very good for the soul. At other times, there is an obstacle due to some emotional disorder. For example, the embarrassment of admitting one’s shame can so dominate the emotions that relief is not felt. Or some hidden emotional wound can impede the feeling of joy. This is usually no great difficulty, but to a soul that puts too much importance on emotional effects, it can lead to doubt in the efficacy of the sacrament. I remember one penitent who kept on confessing the same sin that had been absolved many times, because, lacking the emotional relief that she sought, she could not believe that she had been absolved.

The dangers of such confusion are shown in the life of Martin Luther. In his Sermon on the Sacrament of Penance of 1519, Luther gives a beautiful description of the emotional effects of absolution: “people’s sins no longer bite or make them uneasy, but rather that a joyful confidence, that God has forgiven them their sins forever, overwhelms them.” But Luther shows a fatal misunderstanding of what he is talking about when he identifies these sensible consolations with the reality of forgiveness: “this is what true forgiveness of sins really means.” Luther was a passionate man, with a great capacity for profound feeling. Such a passionate heart is a good thing in itself, but, as Jacques Maritain argued in Three Reformers, it led Luther to put too much importance on “that experimental savoring of piety, that assurance in feeling, which God sends to souls to draw them to Himself.” Luther does not recognize the essential truth that God gives such quasi-experiential signs of His presence as a mere means. Divine grace itself cannot be an object of the senses, not even of the interior senses. Therefore, in the normal course of the spiritual life, God at times removes such sensible consolations, plunging the soul into the “night of sense” in order to purify the soul from too great an attachment to what is secondary, and lead the soul to cleave to God with pure faith.

Luther was, of course, very much in favor of cleaving to God with pure faith. But he came to a very odd understanding of what faith is. In the same sermon, Luther writes, “It may happen that God does not let a person sense the forgiveness of guilt so that the turbulence and uneasiness of conscience persist after the sacrament as before.” Why is this so?, Luther asks. “The deficiency,” he claims, “is in faith.” How does he know that it is lack of faith that causes the uneasiness of conscience? “It is impossible that the heart would not be joyful when it believes its sins are forgiven, just as it is impossible that it not be troubled and uneasy when it does not believe its sins are forgiven.” Luther does not even consider that there might be some emotional barrier to feeling the effects of forgiveness, even though faith in Christ, at the spiritual summit of the soul, remains unshaken.

In his patient refutation of Luther, Cardinal Cajetan showed that Luther fails to distinguish between the supernatural faith in the salvation of Christ, and in the efficacy of the sacraments in general, and an acquired trust in the particular application of grace to a person in this moment. As Cajetan shows, the first kind of faith is faith in the strict sense—one can be absolutely certain that Christ atoned for all sins on the cross, and that He applies that atonement to His members through the efficacy of the sacraments. I cannot, however, have the same absolute certitude that the sacrament that I am receiving now is efficacious, since there might be some obstacle that I am interposing (for example, an intention to continue committing the sin that I have confessed). Nevertheless, I can have a reasonable (acquired) faith that, if I am not conscious of any such obstacle, the sacrament I am receiving now is indeed efficacious.

Luther, however, identifies supernaturally infused faith with the trust in the application of Christ’s grace to me here and now. This results in a paradox. While Luther’s concern is to have the soul turning away from trust in itself and its acts (contrition, works of satisfaction, indulgences) and to trust in Christ alone, the actual conclusion that he comes to is that the soul has to rely on its own subjective certitude in Christ’s forgiveness. For all his railing against self-dependence, Luther makes forgiveness depend on a castle the soul builds in the air.

Luther’s own experience of confession was deeply ambivalent. At times he clearly received deep consolation from the Sacrament. Ten years after the Sermon on the Sacrament of Penance, Luther wrote an Exhortation to Confession, expressing his distress at the fact that his followers had all but abandoned this “splendid, precious, and comforting thing.” Having hollowed out the whole substance of confession; having denied that the sacrament is efficacious through the authority entrusted to the Church, and that the jurisdiction of the Church is necessary to judge whether the penitent has contrition and to assign a suitable penance to make satisfaction for the temporal harm caused by the sin; and having asserted that the same effect as confession could be achieved by simply turning to God in one’s heart, Luther is then surprised that his followers no longer feel the need to embarrass themselves by telling their sins to a minister! Luther here falls prey in an almost comical way to an illusion typical of modern churchmen: that the removal of an obligation will make people more willing to do the action to which the obligation bound them. But the illusion is very revealing of Luther’s own experience of confession.

Luther writes that “we all know from experience” that the rule requiring everyone to go to confession once a year, and to confess all the mortal sins they have committed since their last confession, is a “heavy burden and torture.” The torture for Luther was not principally the shame of admitting his guilt (as it would be for a more pusillanimous soul), but rather the doubt that he felt as to whether he had actually confessed all his sins. Luther’s modern biographers—such as Erik Erikson and Lyndal Roper—have offered plausible psychological explanations for this, such as his disturbed relations with his father, whom he felt he could never satisfy, no matter how much he did to please him. Carried over into his relation to God, this made Luther feel that he had never done enough. The famous story of Luther’s first Mass, where he was filled with panic at the beginning of the Canon when he had to say the words “To you, most merciful Father,” is understandable in this light.

Luther’s errors on penance are prototypically modern in their replacement of the objective good with the subjective effects of receiving that good. This also explains the early Luther’s polemics against the eudemonism of scholastic ethics. For Luther, to desire God as one’s happiness is to subordinate God to oneself, to make God a means to one’s own subjective satisfaction. Hence, he tells us, the natural desire for happiness is perverse. As he puts it in the Heidelberg Disputation: “Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God, and does not want God to be God.” To the greatest scholastic theologians, by contrast, to love God as one’s happiness is to order oneself to God as the true good in which one participates, it is to love God as a common good to which one is subordinated like a part to a whole. This is a point that interpreters of Luther have not always fully appreciated. (Even Maritain obscures the point because of his own personalist misunderstanding of the common good.) On this point, Luther is the true father of modern philosophy.

Luther was, however, too great a soul to be consistent in his errors. Thus, at times he speaks of the goodness of God as a fountain of goodness in which we participate, in a way that should have given him the solution to his objections against scholasticism. For example, in the Large Catechism, Luther explains the First Commandment by discussing how God is the source of all temporal and eternal goods in creatures. He concludes by pointing to a pseudo-etymology of the word Gott in German, which he connects to the word gut (good). German, he says, patriotically expresses the nature of God “more elegantly and appropriately than any other language,” since God is in truth “an eternal fountain which gushes forth abundantly nothing but what is good, and from which flows forth all that is and is called good.”

Luther’s heart was vehemently devoted to that fountain of goodness. And his genius for expressing that devotion, and its emotional effects, in words explains his extraordinary persuasive power. This is shown even in his translation of the Bible, which is by far my favorite translation into a modern language. I find the straightforward, forceful simplicity of Luther’s rendering deeply moving.

Perhaps my love of the Luther translation is partly due to its association with the cantatas and passion music of Johann Sebastian Bach. In the scene of Peter’s tears in Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion we have one of the greatest artistic expressions of the joy of forgiveness, which Luther had felt so strongly, and so perilously. The recitative takes the text of Luther’s translation: Und ging heraus und weinete bitterlich. (And he went out and wept bitterly). The melisma on the word weinete (wept) is not as extended as in the Saint John Passion, but it is somehow even more disconsolately sad. But then Bach follows the recitative with an aria which turns bitter sadness into sweet sadness. The text of the aria by Picander (itself based on a sermon of the great Lutheran theologian Heinrich Müller), turns the tears into a prayer for mercy. But it is Bach’s music which makes it into a piercingly moving portrayal of the sweetness of contrition, that sadness which is at the same time somehow joy. Bach here brings to expression what is most powerful in the Lutheran tradition. Listening to that aria, I cannot but be sorrowful for what became of Luther and his followers. Properly ordered, Luther’s passionate experience of the joy of forgiveness could have been the source of so much good. But having been given the wrong interpretation, it led away from the fresh air of the spirit into a dark castle of the soul, from which the world has yet to escape.

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