“A poor beggar…”

The “famous last words” of Martin Luther were “We are beggars; this is true.” It is variously expanded upon to suggest that “we are beggars before God“, ie. dependant upon his grace. But this little scrap on the internet (reproducing the “little scrap of paper” on which these words were written) has some interesting context:

The Last Written Words of Luther:
Holy Ponderings of the Reverend Father Doctor Martin Luther
16 February 1546

[Dr. Martin Luthers Werke, (Weimar: Hermann Boehlaus Nachfolger, 1909), Band 85 (TR 5), pp. 317-318. Translated by James A. Kellerman]

1. No one can understand Vergil’s Bucolics unless he has been a shepherd for five years. No one can understand Vergil’s Georgics, unless he has been a farmer for five years.

2. No one can understand Cicero’s Letters (or so I teach), unless he has busied himself in the affairs of some prominent state for twenty years.

3. Know that no one can have indulged in the Holy Writers sufficiently, unless he has governed churches for a hundred years with the prophets, such as Elijah and Elisha, John the Baptist, Christ and the apostles.

Do not assail this divine Aeneid; nay, rather prostrate revere the ground that it treads.

We are beggars: this is true.


1. This is a translation of WA, TR 5:168 (no. 5468) of a scrap of paper that Johannes Aurifaber (a.k.a. Johann Goldschmied) found when Luther died. Aurifaber wrote: “Luther … wrote these words in Latin on a slip of paper and put them on his table. I, Johannes Aurifaber, wrote them down and Dr. Justus Jonas, Superintendent of Halle, who was at Halle at the same time, took the slip of paper with him.” Unfortunately, this slip of paper has long since disappeared.

2. I have followed the account of the document as told by Aurifaber. There are, however, divergent accounts of what was on that scrap of paper. Since the original slip of paper has been lost, it is impossible to ascertain what Luther actually wrote. For other accounts, see WA 48:241 and TR 5:317 (no.5677). Although the wording differs slightly, the sentiment is the same.

3. The line in praise of Vergil’s A enid is composed of nine feet of dactylic hexameter, the meter in which the Aeneid is written. It is most likely an adaptation or misquotation of two lines near the end of Statius’ The Aeneid (12:816f), a poem also written in dactylic hexameter and profoundly influenced by Vergil’s epic:

Nee tu divinam Aendeida tempta,
Sed Ionge sequere et vestigia semper adora.

Luther wrote:

Hanc tu ne divinam Aeneida tenta,
Sed vestigia pronus adora.

4. “We are beggars” is written in German; the rest of the document, in Latin.

Well, could he ever have imagined that one day the Pope of Rome would echo his thoughts? In the interview/book “Light of the World” with Peter Seewald, Pope Benedict XVI has said:

As for the pope, he too is a poor beggar before God, even more so than other men. Naturally I pray above all to the Lord, to whom I am bound, so to speak, by old friendship. But I also invoke the saints. I am great friends with Augustine, Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas. So I say to them: “Help me!” The Mother of God, also, is always and no matter what a great point of reference. In this sense, I take my place in the communion of saints. Together with them, strengthened by them, I also speak with the good God, above all begging, but also thanking; or simply content.

Certainly here is a man who has “assail[ed the] divine Aeneid” and “indulged in the Holy Writers”, and yet acknowledges himself still a “beggar” who – at 83 years of age – has barely begun his life’s work. It is a humbling reflection. I know in my own studies (as I guess anyone ever has who has tried to prepare a doctorate any any given thesis) that no matter how much research you do or experience you have, it is never enough, never complete. If the Pope himself is a “beggar”, let us content ourselves with the same glorious title!

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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One Response to “A poor beggar…”

  1. Matthias says:

    sir Isaac Newton at the age of 86 said that he was still like a child walking on the seashore looking at new sea shells. A Faith in the Living God means that we should expect each day to have something new,exciting and different .

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