The world changed after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. Popes shook, kings cracked, governments broke open and were built up again. Sometimes I can imagine the entire earth seizing up and then releasing and then seizing up again in the centuries that followed.
In Lutheran countries, their understanding of man's relationship with God changed, their understanding of God's relationship with man changed, and many women rubbed their hands together and thought, “Okay. It’s our turn! We’re ready.”
It’s funny how much the world can shift while the worlds of women remains essentially the same.
The men looked at them and gasped, “Without the nunneries, what do we do with the single ones?" So they maintained the endowments for the nunneries and declared them secular convents for middle and upper-class single white women. (No one at that time, or any other, has been particularly concerned about accommodating other classes or colors of women.) These were called Damenstift. Damen means ladies. Stift means donation, generally the estate the secular convent stood on had been donated. When I read about Damenstifts I wonder if we could reclaim the word. So many of the women who were put away donated so much to the world that kept changing without them.
One of those women was Catharina Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel. We know she was born on Oct 22, 1697. We know she died sometime after 1768. We know she lived in a Damenstift. And we know she wrote Be Still, My Soul in 1750. Except she wrote it in German, it was called, "Stille meine Wille, dein Jesus hilft siegen." It was very beloved and very German until Jane Laurie Borthwick, another single sister in another place and time unkind to women - especially single women - began a great translation of pietic German hymns.
With help from her sister, Jane translated 122 hymns and published them in a book called, Hymns from the Land of Luther. Catharina’s great work was in the collection. Translation isn’t transcription, it’s transformation. In giving us Catharina's Be Still, My Soul - Jane was giving us hers also. In 1850, Be Still, My Soul was carried from the German tongue into English hearts. It has remained there ever since.
I often think of these women. Giving us this hymn about upheaval and change and a steady God. They lived in a time, in a world, that must have felt very much out of their control. I imagine their hopes were many and their objects few. If I close my eyes, I can sit with them each in their rooms, one hundred years apart. I can watch the candle dimming as they work over these words, I can feel their courage as they face the dark while naming the light.
We’re not so different from these sisters. Time passes but the scene - for all of us - remains the same. We're each in dimly lit a room. Sometimes writing something new, mostly trying to translate the words that have come before into something we can understand now. As we do so, we'll not just transcribe, we'll transform. We'll change them and make them our words too. We'll do our best to face the dark while naming the light. As we work, the candle will falter, the world will change and the hour will hasten on.
Be still, my soul: The Lord is on thy side;
With patience bear thy cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In ev'ry change he faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: Thy best, thy heav'nly Friend
Thru thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
Be still, my soul: Thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as he has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: The waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.
Be still, my soul: The hour is hast'ning on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: When change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.
Katharina von Schlegel, b. 1697;
trans. by Jane Borthwick, 1813-1897