Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Here I Walk: A Modern Pilgrimmage to Rome

Martin Luther
In 1510 Martin Luther set out from Germany to Rome --  just a good Augustinian friar who got lucky enough to take a trip to Rome on business. His few months in Rome greatly influenced his career, and back in Germany he came to have doubts about some of the church's practices.  In 1517 he said so publicly, in the 95 Theses -- according to legend nailed to the door of his church.  In doing so, he started what became the Protestant Reformation.  

This year two Americans, Sarah and Andrew Wilson, set out to retrace Luther's steps as best they could. They walked from Erfurt, Germany to Rome, Italy on a journey of 70-some days and more than 1,000 miles.  

On their last day in Rome Sarah was kind enough to answer a few questions about their journey.  

AKN: When did the idea for this pilgrimage first come to you? How did it evolve? 

Sarah: I think it was when we were starting graduate school, in 2003 or 2004, and we noticed that the anniversary of Luther’s pilgrimage to Rome was coming up in a few years. Already then we thought it would be fun to retrace his steps, but we had no real idea about how or even why, except for the coolness factor. When I started working at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, in 2008, we started thinking about it again. We began to realize it would be a great opportunity to look at Luther not from a polemical or ideological point of view—which is an ongoing temptation for both Lutherans and Catholics, though from opposite directions—but in the setting of the ecumenical developments of the last half century, and as an act of hope for the future. From there it grew into the project that we just finished.

AKN: How did you prepare for your trip -- physically? Intellectually? Spiritually? 

Sarah: Physically: we started going on regular walks, gradually increasing their length until in the last month we took about 2 full-day walks per week. Andrew also was in charge of making our gear as lightweight as possible; he made a fair amount of it himself. 

Intellectually: I was able to draw on my previous 2 years of work in ecumenism to shape blog-post-length forays into ecumenism, and we both read up on what little is known about Luther’s pilgrimage. We’re both pretty familiar with his work so it was easy to select the passages from his writings that we wanted to share. 

Spiritually: lots of prayer, by us and others. Once we started walking we said morning prayer every day and evening prayer about half the time. We also just prayed whenever we needed it, which was pretty often!

AKN: How has pilgrimage changed from Luther's time to ours? 

Sarah: This world is not made for pedestrians anymore!! Luther would’ve faced dangers, of course, like wolves and bandits and darkness (though there is no record of any such troubles), and one time he and his companion got very sick with what was probably malaria. But he didn’t have to face automobile traffic, and roads were as much for walkers as for horse or cart drivers. 

SarahWilson, pilgrim
We didn’t expect it at all, but one of the dominant experiences of our trip was the sheer difficulty of transportation on foot. You’re allowed to walk for pleasure on trails, and you’re allowed to drive if you just want to get somewhere—but you’re not really allowed to walk if you want to get somewhere.

AKN:  How did your trip worked logistically? Where did you stayed? What essentials did you take with you?

Sarah: All we could really do ahead of time was choose each day’s destination and certain cities that we had to reach by a certain time. Beyond that we had too much other stuff to do to make careful plans. Once we got going, our daily destinations changed quite a bit, but we always made it to our goal week by week, mainly since we had to meet with Andrew’s parents and our son or other people at those points. 

We had internet access on a smart phone so usually each morning we would search and find a hotel to stay in while we were in the four Germanophone countries, though sometimes we just wandered into town and tried our luck. We had hoped to camp a lot, but it’s illegal to camp outside of a campground in Germany, and not many campgrounds actually lay in our path (and when you walk 20-30 km a day, walking a few km out of your way to a campground is not an attractive option). In Italy, once we got south of Pavia, we stayed either in pilgrim hostels or in the camper van with Andrew’s parents and our son. 

Andrew Wilson, pilgrim
Our equipment was minimalistic and lightweight: basic toiletries, one pair of clothes and pajamas, water bottle, sun hat and glasses, phone. Andrew carried a laptop and camera too, for the photographic part of our task. For the first half we also carried camping gear, though we hardly used it at all, and cooking equipment.

AKN: You chose a scripture passage for each day. How did you choose them? How have you used them on your journey? 

Sarah: When I started working in ecumenism I came to realize that the difficulty of unity in the church is not a recent problem, or even a 500-year-old one, or even a 1000-year-old one. The apostles are already dealing with it in their epistles. Jesus even gives instructions for addressing conflict in the church, so he knew what was coming! 

I’ve found it very illuminating to read the Scripture attentive to what they already then knew to constitute the true unity of the church and to challenge our contentment with division. So I chose the Scripture passages to be read with the situation of division in mind, in hope of a future unity.

AKN: How has the act of walking changed for you over the last few months? 

Sarah: Mainly it’s just gotten easier. I look back at our first few weeks and can’t believe I ever complained about walking 20 km in one day. By the end we had to have a day in the mid-30s before it seemed like an onerous burden. And even then it certainly wasn’t impossible, just kind of aggravating when we had other stuff to do. It wasn’t much of a challenge for Andrew at any length, as he’s done this kind of long-distance hiking before. 

I think we are both finding it very unpleasant to go back to wheeled forms of transit! It’s very cooped up and stressful. And a little humiliating—it’s taking us an hour and forty minutes to fly back to where we started, which took us 70 days to walk.

AKN: Where did you find Martin Luther's fingerprints along the way? 

Sarah: There’s not much trace of him anymore south of Coburg, though we know that he did stop in certain other cities: Nuremberg, Ulm, Memmingen, Kempten, Chur, Chiavenna, Pavia, Florence, Siena, and of course Rome. What we knew about him being there was from books, not from local memory. 

But it was always fun to find an Augustinian church or monastery, since there’s an excellent chance that he stayed there. It was also great to walk along the old Roman roads—our trail sometimes took us along them—since that certainly would’ve been the way Luther walked.

AKN: Your final destinations in Rome were the tombs of St. Peter (in St. Peter's Basilica) and St. Paul (at St. Paul Outside-the-Walls). Why did you choose these two sites? 

Sarah: Luther spent 4 weeks in Rome, so he probably saw everything there was to see, and there was no way we could manage it all! We decided instead to make our ending more specific to our own ecumenical pilgrimage. Symbolically Peter has stood for the Catholic church and Paul for the Lutheran (and other Protestant) church. We know that they had some pretty grave disagreements, yet they are both chosen apostles of Christ, both epistle writers in our Scriptures, and both martyrs for their faith in Rome. We hope that this example of differences subsumed under a great commonality of faith in Christ can be inspirational to Lutherans and Catholics today.

AKN: How did you spend your time in Rome?

Sarah: There was definitely pizza and other good things to eat, but most of it was wrapping up our pilgrim visit. In addition to Paul and Peter we stopped at St. John Lateran and the Scala Santa (two other important places that Luther visited and remembered), and had a few brief glimpses of the Roman Forum and the Colisseum. 

Martin Luther nailing up the 95 Theses
Being a pilgrim is not the same as being a tourist! Honestly we had little energy left for sightseeing.

AKN:  How did you mark Reformation Sunday (October 31, 2010) in Rome? 

Sarah: We attended the German-language Lutheran congregation in Rome. They always celebrate Reformation Day in ecumenical fashion; there was a Catholic prelate preaching, I saw a friar in the back row, and the confession of faith was taken from the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. At the end we had a chance to say a bit about our walk and got a very warm response.

Thanks to Sarah and Andrew for sharing their journey!  To read more about their pilgrimage, check out their blog:

1 comment:

alexandra korey said...

This is absolutely fascinating! thank you for posting about this eloquent and motivated pilgrim.

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