For the last few days (September 22-25), I and various sisters here in Munich have been glued to the TV as Pope Benedict made his third visit to Germany as Pope. My experience of this visit, however, began a week before his arrival. I had a friend from Hungary who was studying in the small but historic town of Jena, in the eastern German state of Thüringen. She would only be there until the end of September, so I was anxious to see her before she left. Now, I knew Jena was famous because the great German poet Friedrich Schiller had lived there. I also knew that the town of Weimar, famous because of the even greater poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was in the same area. (Goethe is pretty much the German Shakespeare, and these two poets are German classicism, just to give you an idea of how famous they are.) What I didn’t know, however, was that just 45 minutes from Jena was the city of Erfurt, where Martin Luther had been an Augustinian monk. Erfurt was one of the stops on Pope Benedict’s packed itinerary, specifically because of its connection to Luther; ecumenism between Lutherans and Germans is a pretty hot topic in the German Church right now, with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation coming up in 2017.
So, in all my anxiety to visit my friend, I got very confused as to various dates. She had said that she might be able to get me a ticket to the Pope’s Mass at Erfurt. At first I thought the Mass was on Monday, when I had to work. Then my friend thought it was on Sunday, when she had to leave for Hungary. To make matters worse, she had no internet with which to communicate. Anyway, it ended up that I went to Jena exactly a week before the Pope came to Erfurt. I wasn’t so bothered by this until I realized how close the towns were. Saturday night I stood in front of the Cathedral at Erfurt, looking at the massive altar they were setting up for the Pope, exactly a week too early. Then it hit me how narrowly I’d missed him, and I was quite depressed and angry with myself for a few days.
Now, just hours before all this Pope-craziness took hold of me, I was obsessed with poet-craziness. We looked at Schiller’s garden house, Schiller’s town house, Goethe’s garden house, the botanical garden where Goethe studied, the university where Schiller studied and taught, and even Goethe’s girlfriend’s house. I even paid to see the graves of the pair of them, though I thought this both expensive and overly touristy. It was in Schiller’s garden, though, that something caught my eye and made pause and think about all this madness. Near the gate was a concrete bust of Schiller, painted white but chipped in places, with rain dripping down the graven features. This made me think of the multitude of Greek marble statues I’d seen in various museums, and of how the classicists were crazy about the Greeks—almost idolized them, you could say. I could only think of the Bible verse (Ps. 135: 16-18) that talks about how those who build idols will become like them—mouths but cannot speak, eyes but cannot see etc. Now, I’m not saying these poets were really guilty of idolatry, but it did make me think about the fanatical way in which I was retracing their every step. This was also a warning against making an idol of a famous person, reducing them to one concrete, static image without actually getting to know them, so to speak, or entering into a dialogue with them. Crazy as I was about Schiller, I think I’ve read exactly two poems of his, and the first few lines of one of his plays. Strange as it may be, the moment when Goethe and Schiller seemed most alive to me was when I was standing at their graves, when I remembered that they were real people with eternal souls which could possibly benefit from my prayers. I also began to realize, on the train ride home, that the best way to get to know these poets was to interactively read their works and discuss them with others, seeing what relevance they had for our lives today.
This brings me back to my disappointment at not seeing the Pope in person. I realized that in order to get to know him, I should read his writings, discuss them, learn from them and apply them, instead of just blindly cheering along with the 100,000-person crowd, cool as this would have been. I came away from Jena and from the TV screen bound and determined to read Pope Benedict’s homilies, encyclicals and books, and to think about them, discuss them, and write about them. Then I realized I could do this with the Bible to get to know Jesus better…funny what thought processes a little statue can trigger!