By Kristin Berkey-Abbott
In these days leading up to the Reformation, we’ll hear a lot about all we gained: the translation of the Bible into the language of the people, the idea that we don’t need intermediaries as we talk directly to God, all the great Protestant hymns and the diversity of ways to celebrate our faith. But in this discussion of what has been gained, what about what has been lost?
I spent a Lutheran girlhood in complete ignorance of the great tradition of Christian saints. My first exposure came as a young teenager in Charlottesville, Va., when, as the tallest blonde girl, I was selected to lead the St. Lucia Day procession. The grownups placed a wreath with candles on my head and lit the candles. The younger children carried their candles. I walked up the church aisle and held my head very still.
I still remember the exhilarating feeling of having burning candles near my hair. I remember hot wax dripping onto my shoulders – I was wearing clothes and a white robe over them, so it didn’t hurt.
It felt both pagan and sacred, that darkened church, our glowing candles. I remember nothing about the service that followed, but it did inspire me to learn more about the saint.
In the past decade, as I’ve explored monastic traditions, I’ve started to keep an alternate calendar in my head. In addition to the regular calendar and the liturgical calendar, I now am mindful of the saints days that are approaching. In the spirit of full confession, I’ll admit that so far I have focused on the saints who are more familiar: Francis, Hildegard of Bingen, Brigid, Patrick and Julian of Norwich.
What did we lose by our Protestant rejection of these special feast days? Most obviously, we lost the opportunity to have more opportunities for festivity, both in our daily lives and our Sundays. But at a deeper level, we lost many opportunities for inspiration from those who have gone before us. I have taken great comfort from the knowledge of female medieval mystics, especially the abbesses. Like me, they wrestled with how to be a good administrator and how to balance the demands of community life with the yearning for God and the need for time for creative pursuits and opportunities.
My exploration of monastic traditions has also led me to feel the loss of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and I tend to blame the Reformation for this loss. When I’m at Mepkin Abbey, I notice the references to Mary threading through the day. As a feminist, I find that Mary offers us a point of entry into contemplating the feminine faces of God, which certainly may not be the leap that the Mepkin monks would mean for me to make.
I wonder: If our religious traditions had paid more attention through the centuries to the female saints and to Mary, could we have arrived at a place of more inclusivity sooner?
My exploration of the Celtic saints has led me to an appreciation of a sacramental outlook and a wish that our Lutheran understanding of the idea of sacrament was broader. Ancient Celtic Christians believed not only in the incarnate Jesus of the past but in the incarnate sacredness of everyday life: that every task existed to point us to the creator.
While I understand that perhaps sacraments should be a bit more special, I do wish we had more of them. In particular, Lutherans have lost a lot by not seeing marriage as a sacrament. Nothing has ever helped me understand the nature of God’s love better than my marriage, except, perhaps, the love of my parents for me. I make mistakes, and my spouse forgives me. He forgives me, even though he knows I will likely make the same mistakes again and again. I do the same for him. He sees me – the best me, the worst me – as I truly am, and he loves me. Largely, he loves me, not because of anything I might say or do to convince him, but because he knows me.
I know that Lutherans believe that sacraments are actions that we are commanded to do by God and that what I have described is more of the kind of sacrament described by The Anglican Book of Common Prayer: an “outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible Grace.” As a good Lutheran, I am able to comfortably dwell within this discomfort of ideas that don’t agree.
In fact, what I find most wonderful about the Reformation is that, while we seem to have lost some of the ancient practices, we have gained so many more possibilities. And what I love about being Lutheran is that I am part of a community comprised of people who are open to exploring even more ancient traditions in our quest for a life of meaning.
We may be content with some of what was lost as the Reformation proceeded. But if we find we are not content, we are part of a tradition that should be open to change and reform.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott is a lifelong Lutheran, a college professor and department head. She has taught a variety of English and creative-writing classes for the last 20 years.