By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published August 3, 2012, in The Madera Tribune
The talented musician, Ludwig, wanted little to do with the Catholic Church or its priests, which isn’t completely surprising.
The archbishop of Cologne ruled his birthplace, Bonn, within the Holy Roman Empire of the 18th century. Only two centuries before, a religious and political conflict — the Cologne War — devastated the Electorate of Cologne.
The war began because an archbishop, never known for priestly character, resolved to marry an attractive nun without renouncing his princely position. The pair had a love affair for two years before Archbishop Gebhard von Waldburg announced his conversion “to the light” on Dec. 19, 1582.
His switch from Catholicism to the teachings of John Calvin, a French pastor and theologian, upset the delicate balance of power between Protestants and Catholics in the Holy Roman Empire. The archbishop of Cologne was one of the seven imperial governors who elected future emperors. Previous converts had resigned from office to avoid bloodshed, but Gebhard did not.
So it was that, with the future of the empire at stake, Protestants and Catholics fought for five years with the support of co-believers and mercenaries from elsewhere. Villages disappeared, and the formerly richest region of the empire would be ruined economically.
By the 18th century, life had become normal again. But such recent history hardly inspired trust. Moreover, Ludwig had a passion for more than beautiful music in the major city of Vienna. Prostitutes and young female students would also occupy the elegantly dressed musician’s time.
If he was in a church, it was for the music.
There were exceptions, such as when his mother — the only family member he had a loving bond with — died at 41 in July 1787 of tuberculosis and poor nutrition. His father surrendered more deeply to alcoholism, and Ludwig had to petition to become head of the household — at the age of 19.
His parents had seven children, but only three boys had survived. Ludwig took seriously his responsibility for his two younger brothers. Once when he discovered one cohabiting with an employee, he demanded they marry or he would report them to the authorities. They did so.
A decade later, his own life would change further after he was diagnosed with syphilis, a common sexually-transmitted disease. Though the connection wasn’t known at the time, syphilitic meningovasculitis likely damaged a nerve in his head, and slowly caused deafness.
Fear of what people would think caused him to isolate himself from others to protect his secret. The society he loved was taken from him.
In 1815, his brother Kaspar died. He left behind a wife and son, Karl. On his deathbed, he had asked Ludwig — who never married — to be co-guardian of the 9-year-old boy. That relationship would be difficult and full of heartache and disappointments.
Yet, through his deafness and trials, Ludwig’s relationship with God did grow.
“What is to be done?” he wrote to a friend shortly before his death. “What is to become of me if this lasts much longer? Mine has indeed been a hard doom; but I resign myself to the decrees of fate, and only constantly pray to God… The Almighty will give me strength to endure my lot, however severe and terrible, with resignation to His will.”
During a thunderstorm, Ludwig von Beethoven would die of a cold surrounded by close friends on March 26, 1827. More than 10,000 attended his funeral in the church of the Holy Trinity. The deaf pianist is considered one of the greats of classical music.
Only God can judge anyone’s soul, but I think Ludwig gained wisdom through suffering.
For artists, in particular, he urged: “Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets. For it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.”
What does he mean? The medieval Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas argued that God is the supreme Beauty, and all that exists reflects that beauty to some degree. Furthermore God is not only the ultimate cause of all beauty; God continues to “pulchrify” (beautify) creation, and God’s creatures participate in divine beauty when they accept and cooperate with God’s light.
Such divine beauty not only pleases the senses but also enlightens the mind. “The eyes and ears of our soul,” Aquinas wrote, “enable our vision to see the transcendent beauty present ontologically in all being.”
Ludwig apparently agreed. Like many throughout history, he discovered that beauty and truth, at their best, can both grant us glimpses of God, and they are worth suffering for.