The wagon swayed from side to side as it navigated the sinewy dirt roads. Martin Luther, bundled up in the back, stared sightlessly into the distance allowing his body to follow the motion. His face was pale and gaunt, punctuated by streaks of grime. His thin hands cradled a sack filled with his belonging that lay in his lap. The cold wind whistled around his head but he seemed indifferent to it as it tugged at the rough, threadbare cloak that hung over his shoulders. To anyone who saw him he looked like a typical German peasant; browbeaten and despairing under the weight of his lot, but if you were to take a closer look there was something about his large, expressive blue eyes that hinted at something greater.
He was being transported from Magdeburg to Eisenach at the request of his father. His parents had sent him to the school at Magdeburg in the hopes that he might escape the poverty that had settled over them. His father wanted him to become a lawyer. The problem was that he had no money, at least not enough money to send his son to school but the school at Magdeburg made provisions for such eventualities. The school was a chorister school. A place where poor scholars had the option of working odd jobs in the local parish church to make ends meet and of singing from door to door to fill their bellies.
Singing from door to door was terrifying and mortifying work. Even now as he replayed scene after scene in his mind Luther shuddered. The insults, physical abuse, and curses flashed across his mind’s eye in a parade of wretchedness. Oh, how he hated every single moment of it! But there was no way around it. No other way to fill his empty stomach than to sing and beg for his food from door to door. But the people of Magdeburg had little time or sympathy for chorister scholars. Luther’s teacher at the school, a gnarled, melancholy Franciscan friar who specialized in anointing and burying the dead would glare down at him when he returned to the school with yet another empty sack.
“You should just go back to where you came from Boy” he would snarl under his breath “peasants should know their place. What right do you think you have to an education? Your place is with your father working in the mines! As if a boy such as yourself could amount to anything of value”
The words stung but deep inside Luther himself had entertained the same thoughts over and over again.
What am I doing here?
Night after night as he fell exhausted onto his hard, cold bed, the walls of his stomach contracting in hunger, his mind had given way to despair as he contemplated the realities of his life. So deep was the despair that pressed in on him that at times he wondered if he would lose his mind.
He had no one to turn to. No friends, no mentors, no one. Not even God. The God he had been introduced to was not someone he could turn to in his trials. And so he struggled alone, despairing, desponding and occasionally in utter desperation pleading with God to deliver him, to provide some way of relief from the crushing load that pressed against his heart.
But did God hear? Did he care?
Tears welled up in his eyes and spilled down his cheeks, tracing a path through the grime. He hurriedly wiped them away with his fists, willing himself to get a grip on his emotions. The wagon rattled on down the road towards Eisenach which was to be his new home. He hadn’t been able to make ends meet in Magdeburg and so his father had made arrangements to transport him to another Chorister School in Eisenach.
Another Chorister School. More of the same humiliation and hunger just in a different location.
Luther felt tears pricking his eyes and he angrily fought them back. He couldn’t cry. He just couldn’t. He was afraid that if he did, the dam would burst and give way to the kind of uncontrolled hysteria that no self-respecting boy of 14 should ever indulge in. He sucked in a deep steadying breath and focused on the wooden floor of the wagon.
I must be brave he chanted to himself in desperation I must be brave.
“I don’t think I can go another step Gunther” Martin shook his head wearily and motioned for his friend to stop.
Gunther nodded “I feel the same Martin” he agreed “but we have not eaten anything all day”
Martin ran a hand across his face and looked out across St. George’s Square. “I know but after the abuse, we suffered at that last door” he paused for a moment, reliving the shame “I don’t think I want to try another one” he finished in almost a whisper.
Gunther motioned across the square with his head “Let’s try one more door” he cajoled “just one…that big one just on the other side”
Martin’s gaze swiveled in the direction Gunther was motioning towards and he took in the stately old home. “Looks like it belongs to one of the wealthy nobles,” he said in a tired voice
“Come Martin” Gunther grabbed his arm and propelled him across the square “I’m hungry. I can’t give up without trying one more door”
Luther reluctantly allowed himself to be dragged along the freezing cobblestones. He was cold and tired and hungry. All he wanted to do was curl up into a small ball and sleep the sleep of death. As they neared the house Luther could make out a silhouette in one of the second story windows. Someone was watching them approach. He steeled himself for the worst as he stood beside Gunther in front of the house and began to sing.
Ursula stood at the window watching the two boys make their way down the long street. Outside the cold wind snapped against the branches of the trees. It was not the kind of day that anyone should be out walking let alone begging for food. She watched as they stationed themselves in front of one home after another with their begging bowls only be driven away with curses and insults. She shuddered slightly and shook her head.
She continued to watch as they made their way across the open square and suddenly realized that they were coming to her door. She pushed aside the gauzy curtain just a crack and peered down into the street below, watching them position themselves in front of her door and then begin to sing. Ursula stood in stunned silence listening to the beautiful rich harmony of their voices. She loved music and she was impressed by how well they sang.
When Martin and Gunther had finished their singing she flung open the front door and gave them a welcoming smile.
“How wonderfully you sing!” she exclaimed “Please come in and introduce yourselves to me”
The boys stood completely still for a long moment unsure of how to respond. They had never been met with a welcome like this before and for a moment they were thrown off kilter. Finally, Gunther gathered his wits about him, grabbed Martin’s arm and pulled him towards the house. Once inside Ursula led them into a small parlor with a roaring fireplace. As the warmth began to seep into their frozen and aching bones Martin began to feel unsteady.
“Please, sit down, you must be so cold and tired,” Ursula said sympathetically, motioning towards some chairs. “I will have some food brought to you at once” she continued moving to ring the bell.
“Now,” she said, walking back into the room and taking a seat across from them “tell me your names and where you are from?”
Ursula’s compassion was like a giant battering ram beating against the carefully constructed dam around Martin’s heart. As he looked into her eyes he felt something inside him snap and his emotions began to seep through the widening cracks. He buried his face in his hands and began to sob.
After he had regained his composure he told her who he was, who his parents were and where he came from. Ursula’s heart went out to the young 14-year-old boy struggling under a weight of hopelessness and despair. She realized that his parents were relatives of her husband, Conrad Cotta and she resolved to do something for the boy.
Leaving Gunter and Martin to eat in front of the fire, Ursula went in search of her husband and after consulting with him they both decided to offer Martin Luther room and board in their home free of charge. It was an answer to prayer that deeply touched Martin’s heart. Ursula and Conrad became a second set of parents to him and his stay in their home gave him a glimpse of the compassion and love of God.
It would have been easy for Ursula to act like every other person Martin encountered that day but she chose to respond differently. She chose to use the currency of tenderness and compassion and that made all the difference. A little boy was once asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I want to be kind” was his response. I do too.