A chance to walk in the steps of Martin Luther during the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation led Baton Rouge residents Randy Trahan and his daughter, Camille, to Germany earlier in October.
“We are both serious about our faith, and we are Protestants," says Randy Trahan of their motivation, adding they're also history buffs and that "made it almost imperative for us to go.”
The duo made Wittenberg the central stop for the trip.
“We really wanted to see where (Martin Luther) had nailed up the 95 Theses,” Camille Trahan said.
While the original doors that held the posted propositions no longer exist, the Castle Church now has bronze doors etched with the 95 Theses.
“It was so cool,” Camille Trahan said. “I thought it was a little country church that was out of the way, but it is definitely not. It was really ornate.”
The church tower was an attention-getter for father and daughter. Etched in German on the spire is the opening of Luther’s hymn,“A Mighty Fortress.” Visitors attending services get to sing the famous hymn.
Randy Trahan talked about how Luther’s theses were handwritten, but friends had them typeset within days.
Added Camille Trahan: “He never meant for them to be printed. He was trying to get a scholarly dispute started.”
Luther's actions, she explained, were instigated by a practice at the time that allowed the buying and selling of church offices. Another practice was indulgences, which had been as simple as praying a novena to shave time off from purgatory but had grown to monetary payments.
“The archbishop at that time over Luther’s area had obtained his office far too young (of age) — 15 is far too young to be set over the spiritual welfare of a huge ton of people,” Camille Trahan said. “But they did it because he spent vast amounts of money to get this church office.”
She pointed out he didn’t actually have the money to pay for his office.
“He borrowed it from several banks,” her father said, adding that indulgences were being sold to help pay these debts.
Luther wanted the students, ministers and others involved in the local university to debate the idea of indulgences. He had written many people with no response, so he turned to the social media of the day.
“Luther was rather politically naive at the time he nailed the theses to the door,” Randy Trahan said. “For him, the problem was theological, and I don’t think he recognized the economic and, therefore, the political implications of doing away with the system.”
Both father and daughter described things they learned by being in Germany.
“I’d always know that Luther had picked the date (Oct. 31) to nail up the 95 Theses because everyone would be coming to church because it was All Saints Day,” Camille Trahan said. “I didn’t realize that this particular church was actually dedicated to all saints. ... This was THE church you would want to go to on the Feast of All Saints.”
That explained, she said, why Luther used Castle Church instead of his church, Town Church.
Randy Trahan's biggest surprise was the castle in Wartburg.
Luther was kept in a cell in this castle for most of a year to protect him from people who were upset at the turmoil caused by his actions.
“At a number of points, he became deeply depressed, in part because he was so isolated,” Randy Trahan said. “I knew Wartburg was isolated, but I had no idea just how isolated until I saw it.”
He said that while the town of Eisenach can be seen from the castle’s ramparts, the building is on a mountain, so travel from the town to the castle took hours. “So that helped me understand better the sense of isolation that we knew he felt.”
Randy Trahan said seeing the cell was the most inspirational part of the trip for him.
“That was one of the few places we could say for sure that he was really right there. ... It was the room in which he translated the Greek New Testament into German,” he said. “And that’s a big deal for me because of my work. A lot of my work as a Louisiana civil law professor is translating French materials into English.
“In fact, I was recently involved in translating the entire French Civil Code into English. It’s now the French government’s official translation. So there I am, in this room where my hero performed this translation work, which is something I can relate to. It was a very special, moving moment.”
The other major stop for the two was in Eisleben, the place Luther was born and died at age 63.
“He had a heart attack on the way there. He was bedridden and while there, another heart attack finished him off,” Camille Trahan said.
In Eisleben, tiles with the Luther Rose on them direct visitors to places associated with the man.
These include his birth house, which is as the name implies, as opposed to the death house, which, because of a mistake made by a biographer in the 18th century, is not the place he died.
Other places in the town include the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, where Luther was baptized, and the Church of St. Andrew, where he delivered his last four sermons.
The Trahans also noticed that the historical Lutheran churches still have congregations, unlike many in other European countries, a fact that pleased Camille Trahan. Also, and unlike some of the other branches of the Reformation, the Lutherans didn’t reject all religious art.
“The Lutheran churches are still quite ornate,” Randy Trahan said. “Not as ornate as the Catholic churches, but still there’s a lot of religious art there.”
The final side trip the duo took was to Erfurt, the town where Luther lived “between when he went away to college and when he left for Wittenberg,” Randy Trahan said.
Nearby is the Luther Stone, a memorial to mark the place near the famous thunderstorm. Caught in the storm, Luther promised a saint that if he was saved, he would become a monk.
Back in Wittenberg, they visited the Town Church, which Randy Trahan called "the mother church of the reformation, where all the leading figures regularly preached and held a lot of their meetings."
They also visited Luther’s house and the home of his friend Melanchthon.
“We got a look not just at the family life but what domestic life was like in the first part of the 16th century,” Randy Trahan said.
That life included a public plumbing system with water brought down from the mountains miles away, and fish farming. And the Luther garden had pumpkins, just 40 years after Europeans discovered the New World.
Camille Trahan said that the trip allowed her to picture the actual buildings she's read about or seen in films.
“It’s very different from imagining things based on general German architecture and period,” she said.
Added Randy Trahan: “What we encountered humanized these two figures for us. We tend, as Protestants, to think of them as heroes. Quasi-saints, to the extent we have such a concept in our branch of Christianity. ... You get to see them warts and all. The exhibit in the Wartburg included Luther’s diatribes against the Jews, Luther’s tendency to get too angry too fast and to write in haste. That was on full display. So you come away saying. 'Yes, he was a great hero of the faith, but like the rest of us he wasn’t perfect.' "
Father and daughter encourage others to make the trip, pointing out that many of the special exhibits will be open through November.
Both said communication was easy; that most Germans speak enough English to help.
Camille Trahan pointed out that other than restaurants, most places were open only from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Her father pointed out the distances between towns. For instance, it's still two hours between Wittenberg and Eisenach, even driving on the autobahn, at about 120 mph.
Camille Trahan, who is vegetarian, also said not to worry about food. Even in the small towns, a large variety of diets could be accommodated.