Ursula von Münsterberg and Her Crisis of Conscience

The story of the flight of Katie von Bora from her convent and her arrival at Wittenberg, where she eventually married Martin Luther, is well-known. Few are acquainted with the person who engineered the flight, Ursula von Münsterberg, granddaughter of King George of Poděbrady of Bohemia and cousin of Duke George of Saxony.

Reluctant Nun

Born around 1491, Ursula became orphan of her parents at an early age and was raised by the duke’s mother (and king’s daughter), Sidonie of Poděbrady. When Ursula became older (sometimes between nine and fifteen), the pious Sidonie placed her in the Convent of Mary Magdelene the Penitent in Freiberg, Saxony.

Being frail, Ursula found the convent’s rigid schedule, with night vigils and frequent fasts, difficult to sustain. But there was more. What made her life particularly insufferable were the nagging questions that rose in her conscience – questions she regularly suppressed.

Things began to change when the duke’s younger brother, Heinrich, sent a new chaplain to the convent. Heinrich, a sympathizer of Luther, ruled over Freiberg as a subordinate of his brother, a staunch Roman Catholic. Naturally, in appointing this chaplain, Heinrich followed his theological convictions. While protesting that he should have been consulted, Duke George didn’t overthrow Heinrich’s decision. Later, when this chaplain was in need of a replacement, Heinrich appointed another man with reformist ideas. Apparently, Ursula had a say in this second appointment.

Another important contributor to these decisions was Heinrich’s wife Catherine of Mecklenburg, who had already been a strong supporter of Luther back when her husband was still hesitant. At one point, she was accused of sending some of Luther’s works to the convent. She denied the charges, and the blame was passed on to Ursula.

In any case, these books and the chaplain’s explanations had a great effect on Ursula and other nuns, including the prioress and sub-prioress. Biographer Roland Bainton estimates that, of the 77 nuns, one third turned Lutheran, while another third wavered.

Fugitive

Increasingly convinced that convent life was not in obedience to Scriptures, Ursula began to plan an escape. In the night of October 6, 1528, she and two other nuns slipped out of a side door. Some nuns heard a noise but dismissed it until the next morning, when a veil was discovered by the door and the women were found missing.

Immediately, the prioress alerted the dukes who in turn informed Elector John of Saxony, a well-known supporter of Luther. “We suspect they are in your territory and beg you to send them back,”[1] they wrote.

John assured them they would do their best “to find a Christian and proper solution for this matter.”[2] In fact, the women had traveled to Wittenberg, in John’s territory, where the local pastors, under Luther’s leadership, had warmly welcomed them. It was there that Katie von Bora eventually married Luther.

Rather than sending the women back to the convent, John asked them not to leave his region. Ursula replied: “I assure you I do not need to be admonished not to leave your territory, and I am quite willing to relate all the anxiety, danger, and misery I have experienced in my escape. I have already written my apology. I ask nothing of this world and were I in this hour to stand before the judgment seat of God I would die of joy.”[3]

John invited the dukes to go to Wittenberg and arrest the nuns, if they so wished. He probably knew they would refuse, since Wittenberg was a strong Lutheran community where their men would have been outnumbered. “Send them back,” the dukes answered, “and punish those who abetted their escape.”[4]

Since John denied their request, the dukes felt justified in God’s eyes and were willing to put the matter to rest. But they asked John to stop Ursula from making her apology public. “It may upset many of the sisters and cause others to embrace a godless life,”[5] they said.

It was too late. By the time their letter reached John, Ursula’s apology had been published. “We have read it and see in it nothing offensive,” John said, “but only that which would afford comfort and help to those in like bondage.”[6]

Theologian

The apology Ursula mentioned in her letter was a testimony to her mature theological thinking and to the careful and prayerful manner in which she had come to her conclusions. It was dated April 28, 1528, over five months before her flight, showing that her decision was already settled at that time.

This decision, she said, had been dictated by her conscience. As Luther had stated a few years earlier during the Diet of Worms, going against one’s conscience was neither right nor safe. “Who can withstand God’s wrath?”[7] she asked.

Ursula listed some of the Bible verses that convinced her to leave: Habbakuk 2:4/Hebrews 2:14 (“The just shall live by faith,” the same verse that convinced Luther that sinners are justified by faith alone); John 3:16; and Mark 16:15-16; and Mark 16:5, all stating that salvation comes by faith.

On the other hand, life in the convent was geared at obtaining salvation through works, so much that she found it “wholly the antithesis of [salvation by faith], both in words and works.”[8]

What was worse, she found the convent a means of “offense and slander of Christ our King. We make a new covenant with his and our renounced enemy, locking ourselves out of the community of the children of God and out of the brotherhood of Christ and his members, in order to have a new and particular brotherhood. This [brotherhood] is fabricated by people without God’s Word and contrary to it.”[9]

One example of man-made rules were the three monastic vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity. “Even the vows,” she wrote, “(in which salvation should rest, as they say) throw us who journey to God into uncertainty and eternal damnation.”[10] The obedience they require is to people rather than God. The poverty they advocate is “not a ‘poverty of the Spirit,’ but only an external appearance, which also hinders one from showing one's fellow human beings love and charity [as one is supposed to] according to divine law.” And “chastity is a quality that God alone can create in human hearts and bodies; how, then, are we so arrogant as to pledge and sacrifice what is God's [to give] and not ours?”[11]

“Everything else that follows from these vows,” she concluded, “that is, rules, statutes, constitutions, and new traditions that come to them, are for the most part opposed to God’s Word and faith. These are indeed a road which bypasses God, which is strongly forbidden in the First Commandment.”[12]

Compelled to obey rules not mandated by God, Ursula found that even the attendance to the Lord’s Supper had become a forced tradition, void of all meaning. For all these reasons, she saw no other alternative but to leave.

As the dukes of Saxony had feared, Ursula’s letter became very influential, especially after Luther provided an afterword in its commendation and in praise of God’s word that works in people’s hearts everywhere.

No one knows how Ursula spent the rest of her life and when she died. She lived at least six years after her flight. But if her name was largely forgotten, her letter continued to circulate and to help other nuns to make a better-informed decision about their lives.

 


[1] Roland Bainton, Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy, Boston: Beacon Press, 1971, 50.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 51

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 52.

[8] “Ursula of Munsterberg (April 28, 1528),” in The Canadian Lutheran, May/June 2016, 19, http://individual.utoronto.ca/mmilner/history2p91/primary/ursula1528.htm, 7

[9] Ibid., 9

[10] Ibid., 7

[11] Ibid., 19

[12] Ibid.

 

Simonetta Carr

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