By Sister Judith Ann Zielinski, OSF
In 1955, a 23-year-old, newly-ordained graduate of Lutheran Concordia Seminary traveling in Syria was mistakenly arrested as a spy and sentenced to death with his three traveling companions. Before his execution by firing squad, and as he was being beaten and threatened with death, young Frederick W. (Fritz) Pfotenhauer offered his life up to God. He would later describe feeling “blanketed in peace” as he surrendered to his fate.
The execution was, at the last second, miraculously stayed without explanation, and Rev. Pfotenhauer returned home to a long career in ministry, accepting a call to pastor Hilltop Lutheran Church in South Bend, IN with a tenure that lasted 50 years.
Although Fritz came from a family steeped in Lutheran practice—both his father and grandfather were staunch traditional pastors—Fritz himself believed that God’s grace was boundless. He lived and worked ecumenically and interdenominationally. He was friends with Father Theodore Hesburgh, President of the University of Notre Dame, as well as the Dali Lama, whom he met on several occasions as he trekked the Himalayas. Fritz marched for justice with Dr. Martin Luther King in the 60s and earned a PhD from the University of Notre Dame in the 70s, where he would teach for 20 years. He was a tall, lanky outdoorsman, skier and hiker. He especially loved camping and canoeing in the Boundary Waters, a region of wilderness straddling the Canadian–US border between Ontario and Minnesota.
When he died recently at the age of 89, he left behind a wife, two sons, nine grandchildren and a legion of friends.
I was among them, for Fritz was my spiritual director for nine years.
I contacted him when he was already Hilltop’s pastor emeritus, semi-retired and not actively accepting many new directees, so I felt lucky and honored that he accepted me. We met monthly in his study at Hilltop church. To reach him, I descended a flight of stairs to the church basement, threaded my way through a crowded meeting room full of tables, chairs and Weight Watchers literature, and walked down a long hallway peppered with a gallery of photos from Confirmation/ First Communion/ Graduation events featuring Fritz and young Lutherans. In these he presented simultaneously as a long-haired young minister, a vigorous middle-aged man, and a seasoned senior pastor. At the very end of the hall I reached his study– a cozy little room with bookcases, a few chairs and a woodburning fireplace.
Sharing with Fritz was always a discovery and a comfort. His spirituality was expansive, open and free– simultaneously Lutheran, Catholic, Jungian, Buddhist and Franciscan. He shared my interest in mystical spirituality, the writings of Richard Rohr, the development of an ecumenical “emerging Christianity” and the practice of contemplative prayer. He struggled with me to understand and negotiate the polarities and divisions in today’s politics and church, and he listened deeply, sharing generously about his own questions and struggles. We prayed at the beginning and end of each session, and the hour we spent together always flew by.
Fritz never charged for his time with a set fee but accepted whatever his directees could offer. I often included a verse or two of poetry in the envelope I brought. Over the years I shared lines with him from TS Eliot, Mary Oliver, Robert Frost, Rumi, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Dunne, David Whyte, Rainer Maria Rilke, Brendan Kennelly, Tennyson, and others. Fritz appreciated the lines but only returned the poetry gesture once—three lines scrawled on a scrap of yellow loose-leaf paper in his shaky writing: a verse often recited at Zen Buddhist retreats:
May we exist as a lotus
At home in the muddy water
Thus we bow to life as it is.
How perfect in simplicity those three lines, and how well they summarize what we often discussed: that we are immersed in God’s presence above, beneath, inside and around us all the time; that the greatest illusion is separation; that in God we live and move and have our being. We agreed that a spiritual consciousness offers us what we really need to learn: To see not what “might be” nor “should be” but what actually IS before us.
His ashes were scattered in his beloved Boundary Waters. His spirit was already free and boundary-less in God. Namaste, Fritz. I love you and miss you and I am grateful.