Martin Luther and solitude

One of the more complex figures of history is the Christian reformer Martin Luther. His reform ushered a religious revolution in Europe, not only as the end of the religious domination of the Catholic Church in the precedent it gave to the entire Protestant Reformation, but also in philosophy, especially German and northern European thought for centuries to come.

The famous religious scruples of Luther, considered as expressions of the contemporary milieu, were not entirely outside of the cultural context of medieval mentality. Luther’s insistence on resolving psychological and cultural issues into religious ones was consistent with the late medieval, which saw the rise of dynamic individuals not atypically medieval despite their “modern” thrust: Francis of Assisi to Joachim of Fiore, John Wycliffe to Jan Hus. But Luther viewed his core theological concerns with the nature of sacraments and priesthood, for example, as incompatible to the age. Viewing through a scriptural lens, Luther obliterated the medieval tension that had surrounded typical figures mentioned above and created what for lack of a better term must be called a “modern” point of view.

Not modern in the Renaissance sense — the very term “renaissance” suggests a rebirth of antiquities but not something new. Not modern, either, in the scientific sense; the preoccupations of a Galileo or Copernicus would have struck Luther as irrelevant. Not modern, initially, even in a theological sense, where scruples about abuses would have been reflective of as much a medieval as a modern point of view. Luther was not given to intellectualizing or rationalizing or accommodating the spirit of the age. This spirit was already brewing storms, and he successfully matched the storms of his inner being with those of the age, especially in reflective the restiveness of the German nobility and clergy.

Luther’s mode of thought and action was both his personal strength and his foible. With bracing clarity he could discern the necessities of his religious belief and was no hypocrite. But with equal energy, he could tangle himself in the psychological realm wherein his scriptural authorities offered no relief but dogged outlasting of the assaults of conscience. He thus reduced his inner capacity to wrestling his way past his demons.

From Luther’s scruples — and they are not mere psychological foibles but intrinsic philosophical concerns not resolved by theology alone — history draws a direct line to the doubts of Pascal, the fear and trembling of Kierkegaard, the vehemence and thunder of Nietzsche, the tragic irony of Unamuno.

This drama can best be followed in Luther’s views of solitude. To Luther, as in Judaism (and Islam, for that matter), solitude contradicts the solidarity of the family and community of believers, which is strong not only from belief but as a cultural and ethnic solidarity. While some mystics in these traditions escape the strictures of this proscription — and see solitude as a viable mechanism — Luther was not a mystic. He had no desire to escape or transcend his age and its problems. He was acutely conscious of an individuality that troubled him, and restricted himself to the limited psychological tools available in religion. At times he prayed and yet wondered not merely at God’s answer but doubted the very efficacy of prayer. His was not a dark night or a spiritual dryness but a lifetime of doubt and struggle. In the end, only faith, blind or stubborn, uninformed or inevitable, could overcome.

When in hiding at Wartburg Castle after the trial at Worms, Luther described his dwelling-place as “my Patmos,” or “my wilderness.” Doubts reeled in his mind — as can be understood at such a momentous point in his life, but the doubts were not viewed by him as human, as part of the crisis he had created, the turmoil he had engendered. The doubts were demonic, and the Prince of Darkness taunted him:

Are you alone wise? Have so many centuries gone wrong? What if you are in error and are taking so many others with you to eternal damnation?

And Luther himself, languishing the the castle, experienced an insecurity reminiscent of a novice desert hermit. He wrote to his friend Melancthon:

I can tell you in this idle solitude there are a thousand battles with Satan. It is much easier to fight against the incarnate Devil — that is, against men — than against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places. Often I fall and am lifted again by God’s right hand.

As sympathetic biographer Roland Bainton notes: “Solitude and idleness increased his distress.” The forces against him were building, yet he could not abide patient waiting. Luther was so restless with solitude, with what Bainton calls his “loneliness and lack of public activity,” that Luther averred: “I wanted to be in the fray. … I had rather burn on live coals than rot here.” His digestive ailments worsened and he suffered a virulent insomnia.

When I go to bed, the Devil is always waiting for me, When he begins to plague me, I give him this answer: “Devil, I must sleep, That’s God’s command, ‘Work by day. Sleep by night.’ So go away.” If that doesn’t work and he brings out a catalog of sins, I say, “Yes, old fellow, I know all about it. And I know some more you have overlooked. Here are a few extra. Put them down.” If he still won’t quit and presses me hard and accuses me as a sinner, I scorn him and say, “St. Satan, pray for me. Of course, you have never done anything wrong kin your life. You alone are holy. Go to God, and get grace for yourself. If you want to get me all straightened out, I say, ‘Physician, heal thyself.’”

At other times, Luther writes, he argued with God for remaining hidden and denying the virtue of his challenge to Christendom.

Luther’s restlessness with himself translated into an opposition to solitude. Luther was of peasant stock, with the virtue of community and conviviality as foremost ways of living, and this formed his character in a compelling way. After so many years as a monk, however, his liberation did not bring peace, for relations with God remained, by his own belief, at an individual level, without intermediate church or priesthood. So his advice to himself for overcoming solitude, whether psychological or theological solitude, was a good dose of the world — not worldliness, but the world of his upbringing and that of his peasant and humble compatriots. Solitude is the field of temptation and the devil, he tells himself. Don’t fight there. As Bainton notes, Luther’s final solution was to “banish the whole subject. Seek company and discuss some irrelevant matter as, for example, what is going on in Venice. Shun solitude.”

As Luther himself put it: “Eve got into trouble when she walked in the garden alone. I have my worst temptations when I am by myself.'”

Bainton continues paraphrasing Luther’s sentiments on solitude:

Seek out some Christian brother, some wise counselor. Ungird yourself with the fellowship of the church. Then, too, seek convivial company, feminine company, dine, dance, joke, and sing. Make yourself eat and drink even though food may be very distasteful. Fasting is the very worst expedient. Once Luther gave three rules for dispelling despondency: the first is faith in Christ; the second is to get downright angry; the third is the love of a woman.

Music was especially commended. The Devil hates it because he cannot endure gaiety. Luther’s physician relates that on one occasion he came with some friends for a musical soiree only to find Luther in a swoon; but when the others struck up the song, he was soon one of the party. Home life was a comfort and a diversion. So also was the presence of his wife when the Devil assaulted him in the night watches. …

Manual labor was a relief. A good way, counseled Luther, to exorcise the Devil is to harness the horse and spread manure on the field. In all this advice to flee the fray Luther was in a way prescribing faith as a cure for the lack of faith. To give up the argument is of itself an act of faith akin to the Gelassenheit of the mystics, an expression of confidence in the restorative power of God, who operates in the subconscious while man occupies himself with extraneous things.

Ultimately, then, Luther was to abandon the strictures against conviviality of his own St. Augustine. He was now in a lay state, or, rather, that novelty to medieval culture of lay priesthood or ministry, new even to him. Solitude could have no place in this realm, banished as the cause or field of his psychological problems, and of his theological doubts. Solitude was the tool of the devil, who hates sociability, conviviality, and gaiety. Solitude betrayed his childhood ideals and his new-found theology that the virtuous soul could only expect doubt and mental struggle.

Yet even those who seemed at peace with the world and their nature, those whom the Gospel already identified as children, were deemed by Luther to lack the fire of truth. Or, rather, this mental struggle was projected upon them. Once, Luther’s infant son was nursing and elicited a melancholy remark: “Child, your enemies are the popes, the bishops, Duke George, Ferdinand, and the Devil. And there you are sucking unconcernedly.” And when his little daughter prattled about Christ and heaven and angels, Luther said wistfully, “If only we could hold fast to this faith.” The little daughter replied innocently: “Why, papa, don’t you believe it?”

Martin Luther was an unwitting catalyst of great revolutions of thought. One of these was to banish solitude from modern Christian tradition, though it lingers in the human condition, and dogs the thinkers, secular and religious, centuries later.