On this day 471 years ago, four days before he died, Martin Luther wrote his last love letter to his wife, Katharina. It wasn’t a Valentine such as we’ve come to expect, with lace and hearts and rhyming sweetness. It didn’t come with a Whitman’s Sampler or a bouquet of fragrant roses.In fact, it was a rather ordinary letter, as far as love letters go. And yet, Luther’s last letter to his wife was in many ways a beautiful testament to a marriage well lived.
“To my dear, kind wife, Katherine Luther, at Wittenberg,” Luther wrote, “Grace and peace in the Lord! Dear Kathie – we hope to return this week, if God wills.”
Luther updated his wife on his health, which he felt had improved. He let her know their two sons, who had traveled to Luther’s hometown of Eisleben with him, were well. He joked that they had eaten and drunk “like lords” and been well-cared for – “indeed too much, so that we might forget you at Wittenberg.” Finally he mentioned he was sending her the gift of a trout – perhaps not the chocolate and flowers a 21st-century wife might hope for on Valentine’s Day, but a gift that surely would have thrilled Katharina.
Luther’s last letter to Katharina was sweet and tender and a little bit mundane. He didn’t know they would be his last words to her, of course. But at the same time, the letter is nearly perfect, because isn’t it often the most ordinary details that comprise a lasting, lifelong love?
…The goodbye kiss as he leaves for work before the sun has crested the horizon.
…The flowers from Trader Joe’s for no reason at all.
…The waiting together on the sofa in darkness for the dreaded phone call.
…The encouraging word, the playful quip, the smile exchanged across the crowded room.
…The laundry washed, dried, folded, put away.
…An embrace in the kitchen, the kids rolling their eyes.
Ordinary details, ordinary lives, extraordinary love.
I’m a sucker for romantic comedies. Give me You’ve Got Mail or The Holiday any night of the week, and I’m a goner, all googly-eyed for Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, for Jude Law and Cameron Diaz. I am easily wooed by Hollywood’s definition of happily ever after.
But I also know, on the cusp of my own 20-year anniversary, that marriage is a process of continual becoming. A husband and a wife don’t simply “become one” when they declare “I do” on the altar. Marriage isn’t an instantaneous flip of a switch, but a lifelong process of becoming one.
Sometimes that becoming one feels Hollywood-effortless. Mostly it feels a bit choppier, two steps forward, one step back.
Neither Martin nor Katharina Luther married for love. She wed in order to survive in a world hostile to women; he married to live out his theology. Their marriage, at least in the beginning, was a far cry from our 21st-century Hollywood-influenced expectations of “till death do us part.”
Yet as time went on and their understanding of one another deepened, Katharina and Martin Luther grew toward one another in marriage. Their nearly 21 years together were a continual movement toward becoming one, a fact made evident even in the most mundane details of Martin Luther’s last letter to the love of his life.