Katie Luther enters with a rag covering her face and some smoking herbs in her hand.
She tiredly takes the face covering off and starts her monologue.
Ah, dear people! What times we live in! The plague is back in town. People are getting sick, people are dying. All we can do is try to drive out the foul air and the spirits of the devil that cause this pestilence! And try to stay away from others. And then hope and pray for the best.
But I am forgetting my good manners. My name is Katherine Luther, also known under my maiden name, Katherine von Bora. Welcome to Wittenberg and to my house! Although these are not good and merry times.
My dear husband, the famous Dr. Martin Luther, has been dead 6 years now – may God rest his soul – I am a crone 53 years of age now, the children are grown, our estate was badly damaged and most of our fields destroyed in the religious wars that ensued shortly after Martin’s death. And now the plague. I’m so tired, so discouraged. I think it is time to leave all this behind. Our dear prince and protector, John Frederick, has offered me shelter near his castle in Torgau. I think this time, I will go. (Shakes her head.)
Ah, how times and circumstances change!
I remember when Martin and I were just married. In the year of our Lord 1527, just two years after our wedding, another plague reached Wittenberg. And, ah, how most university professors and students ran! Whoever had some place to flee to, left town, trying to escape the pestilence. Many, unawares that they already had caught the disease, took it with them, helping to spread it even further. Our town became a ghost town. Only the working poor, the old and the sick stayed behind.
Some who left even abandoned their sick – a wife, a husband, a child, a parent. Ah, what the fear of death can do!
Our prince at that time, John the Steadfast, urged my dear husband Martin to flee as well. He said, ‘Dr. Luther, you have a young wife, you have a toddler, take them and leave! Save yourself!’
But Martin would hear nothing of it. ‘And who will take care of the poor souls in this town who need a word of hope, who need the message of the gospel during these times?’ he said. ‘Who will take care of the sick who have been abandoned? No, my Lord, I have to stay.’ Ah, he could be stubborn that way!
Martin wanted to send me away – especially since I was with child, and he wanted me to take our young son with me. But how could I leave him? For better and for worse, wasn’t that part of what I had promised him on our wedding day? Besides, what would happen to me, our son and our unborn child if Martin died? Many in Wittenberg still openly despised me for marrying the famous professor and reformer, a monk – among them Martin’s best friend, Philip Melanchthon. It would have been hard for me without Martin’s protection. No, I rather would have died with him than try to live without him.
And so we stayed. Martin still preached on occasion in the town church – although he admonished people who are ill to stay home, for God’s sake – or better, for their neighbor’s sake. Together with the pastor of said town church, Johannes Bugenhagen, who had also chosen to stay behind, he visited the ill, praying for them, sharing Holy Communion with them – albeit from a safe distance!
And God watched out for us. Miraculously, we didn’t catch the pestilence. Well (pointing to the burning herbs), we didn’t only rely on God’s protection, but tried to use our senses, too.
But not everyone used their God-given brains. Some had the superstitious belief that they could get rid of the plague by infecting others with it – they thought the illness would leave them once it finds a new host. Pah! What fools! But even worse were those who knew they had caught the plague and still would go and mingle with others, be it because of ignorance or because of sheer malice. Oh, how Martin ranted against such folks! The latter he even wanted hanged for willfully endangering their neighbor!
During those dark days, he received a letter from a colleague, asking ‘Whether one may flee from a deadly plague’. And Martin responded – and not only to said colleague, but he thought his advice would be so valuable that it should be published as a pamphlet.*
And how did Martin respond to the question ‘whether one may flee from the deadly plague’? It depends, he said. We should not be afraid of death, but we also shouldn’t be foolish and tempt God either. If you have no obligations, he said, you may leave and seek safety somewhere else. But if you bear some responsibility that cannot be laid upon someone else – be it as a civic leader, a clergy person, a physician, or a mother, a father, a caregiver of any kind – it would be a sin to leave your neighbor in need behind.
For, as Martin wrote another time**, ‘A Christian is an utterly free person, lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is an utterly dutiful person, servant of all, subject to all.’ In short, yes, in Christ, we are set free. But at the same time, this freedom calls us to love God and neighbor. With freedom comes responsibility. And how do we show our love for God best? By serving our neighbor.
We have to look out for each other, Martin said. This is what love is all about. That’s why we can’t just run away when there is danger. And thanks be to God for all those who stay, who selflessly care for those who are ill, even though is means grave danger for themselves. May God protect them!
Martin summarized his advice at the end of the letter to his colleague as follows: ‘Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? You ought to think this way: “Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.’
Oh, that people would heed his words! I have a feeling that many a pestilence will come down upon man and death will reap many souls because of foolishness and negligence!
But enough for now. I better start packing some trunks and tell our servants that I will be leaving with my two youngest.
But I don’t just want to think of myself. I will think on all victims of epidemics past, present and future. (Lights candle, moment of silence.)
May God embrace them in His everlasting care. And may God bless and keep you, my dear friends. Amen.
* “Whether One Should Flee From the Deadly Plague” from 1527: Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 43 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 119–38.
** ‘On the Freedom of a Christian’, 1520