By Heather Judd
I recently read Mother of the Reformation: The Amazing Life and Story of Katharine Luther, a biography written by Ernst Kroker (1906) and recently translated from the German by Mark E. DeGarmeaux and published by Concordia Publishing House (2013). Although not intended as a scholarly book, it is meticulously researched and continually refers to the original documents from which we draw our picture of Mrs. Luther.
There are some interesting tidbits about Katie’s life (sadly, the story about Katie and the other nuns escaping their convent in herring barrels is not true--primary sources describe the nuns being smuggled out in a covered wagon as if they were a load of empty fish barrels, and it was a misunderstanding of later writers which stuffed the nuns into actual barrels). However, the thing that struck me most was how much of the book’s 270 pages are not actually about Katharine von Bora Luther. Instead, lengthy sections detail the lives of Luther and their children as well as the couple’s boarders, the men Luther worked with, students from the university, and visitors to the Black Cloister.
No doubt Kroker chose to construct the biography this way because the sources on Katie herself are so scant. We are forced to draw our picture of this formidable woman through the tangential references of others. I was often frustrated that the historical picture is so shadowy, but it led me to reflect: Is this not a perfect illustration of vocation?
Vocation is not about making a name for ourselves, but about serving others. At some times in most vocations—and at most times in some vocations—our deeds will not be lauded or recorded. They may not even seem to be noticed. Nevertheless, the impact they have on others is lasting and worthwhile.
For every great man or woman that history remembers, there are countless forgotten men and women who raised and taught the honored one. Who taught Shakespeare how to form his letters? Who instructed the Apostle Paul in the Torah? Who drilled Newton on his times tables? Who first sang nursery rhymes with Bach? Moreover, who nursed them, burped them, changed their diapers?
These vocational tasks seem menial at any time and especially insignificant once their recipients have outgrown the need for such care. Yet, these are great works, too. In a sermon on the estate of marriage, Luther writes about the “insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties” life so often sets before us, such as changing dirty diapers. These, he says, “are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels.”
Such divine approval certainly extends to the significant deeds recorded by history, but it rests especially on the insignificant. Think of the parable of the sheep and the goats. When the Lord commends the believers who fed, clothed, and cared for others, the unifying characteristic of their works is that they are forgotten. “Lord, when did we see you . . . ?” they ask (Matthew 25:37-39). The work of vocation is meant to be forgotten, to pass away.
In fact, the very nature of vocation is to do in the now what will be unnecessary in the future. Parenting prepares children to leave home. Teaching readies students to graduate from studies. Spouses vow to love and honor, until eventually death renders the vocation null.
All vocation is ephemeral. The love for neighbor that Christ entrusts to us is love that works through living, aging, dying human beings for the good of other living, aging, dying human beings. In this way, vocation changes with us as we change, and it dies with us when we die.
Yet vocation’s fruit is lasting. Through us, God works to bring other human beings into maturity, to help and support, encourage and enlighten, guide and discipline them. Vocation passes away, but it also passes on to another generation.
Sparse though the details of her life may be, Katie Luther is still remembered, even honored with a day of commemoration on December 20, the anniversary of her death. Yet the honor accorded her is not for her own sake. In herself, Katie was most patently a sinner, strong-willed and proud. Hers was not a saint’s life, nor hers a martyr’s death.
However, as the wife of Martin Luther, she was a suitable helpmeet, a skillful household manager, a devoted mother. She brought joy to her husband and order to his life. She encouraged him through his dark times and sometimes even helped direct his work (it was only because of her urging that Luther wrote a response to the Dutch humanist Erasmus—the response that now stands as the monumental Bondage of the Will).
Katie Luther is for us a beautiful commemoration of Christian vocation, performing her duties faithfully. For every deed of hers recorded, thousands more passed unnoticed. So let it be in our lives also, that when we are brought before the throne of judgment on the Last Day we too may ask, “Lord, when did we . . . ?” and we too hear Him respond, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
Heather Judd is currently a sister, daughter, and teacher in a classical, Lutheran school in Wyoming. The last of these vocations demonstrates the divine sense of irony since she (a) was homeschooled for her entire K-12 education, (b) only became a classical education enthusiast after earning her B.A. in education, (c) attended just about every denomination except Lutheran growing up, and (d) had never been to Wyoming before moving there for the teaching call. When she is not spending time in the eccentric world of middle school students, she enjoys reading, writing, acting, baking, playing organ, and pondering the mysteries of theology, physics, and literature.