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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 5 — History of Protestantism in Germany to the Leipsic Disputation, 1519

Chapter 3 — Luther's life in the convent

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Astonishment of his Townsmen – Anger of his Father – Luther's Hopes – Drudgery of the Convent – Begs by Day – Studies by Night – Reads Augustine – Studies the Bible – His Agony of Soul – Needful Lessons

WHEN his friends and townsmen learned on the morrow that Luther had taken the cowl, they were struck with stupefaction. That one with such an affluence of all the finer intellectual and social qualities, and to whom his townsmen had already assigned the highest post that genius can fill, should become a monk, seemed a national loss. His friends, and many members of the university, assembled at the gates of the monastery, and waited there two whole days, in the hope of seeing Luther, and persuading him to retrace the foolish step which a fit of caprice or a moment's enthusiasm had led him to take. The gate remained closed; Luther came not forth, though the wishes and entreaties of his friends were not unknown to him. What to him were all the rewards of genius, all the high posts which the world could offer? The one thing with him was how he might save his soul. Till a month had elapsed Luther saw no one.

When the tidings reached Mansfeld, the surprise, disappointment, and rage of Luther's father were great. He had toiled night and day to be able to educate his son; he had seen him win one academical honor after another; already in imagination he saw him discharging the highest duties and wearing the highest dignities of the State. In a moment all these hopes had been swept away; all had ended in a monk's hood and cowl. John Luther declared that nothing of his should his son ever inherit, and according to some accounts he set out to Erfurt, and obtaining an interview with his son at the convent gate, asked him sharply, "How can a son do right in disobeying the counsel of his parents?"

On an after-occasion, when telling his father of the impression made upon his mind by the thunderstorm, and that it was as if a voice from heaven had called him to be a monk, "Take care," was John Luther's reply, "lest you have been imposed upon by an illusion of the devil." [1]

On entering the convent Luther changed his name to Augustine. But in the convent life he did not find that rest and peace to enjoy which he had fled thither. He was still seeking life, not from Christ, but from monastic holiness, and had he found rest in the convent he would have missed the eternal rest. It was not long till he was made to feel that he had carried his great burden with him into the monastery, that the apprehensions of wrath which haunted him in the world had followed him hither; that, in fact, the convent bars had shut him in with them; for here his conscience began to thunder more loudly than ever, and his inward torments grew every day more insupportable. Whither shall Luther now flee? He knows no holier place on earth than the cell, and if not here, where shall he find a shadow from this great heat, a rock of shelter from this terrible blast? God was preparing him for being the Reformer of Christendom, and the first lesson it was needful to teach him was what a heavy burden is unpardoned guilt, and what a terrible tormentor is an awakened conscience, and how impossible it is to find relief from these by works of self-righteousness. From this same burden Luther was to be the instrument of delivering Christendom, and he himself, first of all, must be made to feel how awful is its weight.

But let us see what sort of life it is that Luther leads in the monastery of the Augustines: a very different life indeed from that which he had led in the university!

The monks, ignorant, lazy, and fond only of good cheer, were incapable of appreciating the character or sympathizing with the tastes of their new brother. That one of the most distinguished doctors of the university should enroll himself in their fraternity was indeed an honor; but did not his fame throw themselves into the shade? Besides, what good would his studies do their monastery? They would replenish neither its wine-cellar nor its larder. His brethren found a spiteful pleasure in putting upon him the meanest offices of the establishment. Luther unrepiningly complied. The brilliant scholar of the university had to perform the duties of porter, "to open and shut the gates, to wind up the clock, to sweep the church, and to clean out the cells." [2] Nor was that the worst; when these tasks were finished, instead of being permitted to retire to his studies, "Come, come!" would the monks say, "saccum per hackum – get ready your wallet: away through the town, and get us something to eat." The book had to be thrown aside for the bag. "It is not by studying," would the friars say, "but by begging bread, corn, eggs, fish, meat and money, that a monk renders himself useful to the cloister." Luther could not but feel the harshness and humiliation of this: the pain must have been exquisite in proportion as his intellect was cultivated, and his tastes refined. But having become a monk, he resolved to go through with it, for how otherwise could he acquire the humility and sanctity he had assumed the habit to learn, and by which he was to earn peace now, and life hereafter? No, he must not draw back, or shirk either the labor or the shame of holy monkhood. Accordingly, traversing the streets, wallet on back the same through which he had strode so often as an honored doctor – or knocking at the door of some former acquaintance or friend, and begging an alms, might now be seen the monk Augustine.

In this

kind of drudgery was the day passed. At night, when the other monks were drowned in sleep, or in the good things which brother Martin had assisted in begging for them, and when he too, worn out with his many tasks, ought to have laid himself down to rest, instead of seeking his couch he trimmed his lamp, and opening the patristic and scholastic divines, he continued reading them till far into the night. St. Augustine was his especial favorite. In the writings of the Bishop of Hippo there is more of God's free grace, in contrast with the deep corruption of man, to himself incurable, than in any other of the Fathers; and Luther was beginning to feel that the doctrines of Augustine had their echo in his own experience. Among the scholastic theologians, Gerson and Occam, whom we have already mentioned as opponents of the Pope's temporal power, were the writers to whom he most frequently turned. [3]

But though he set great store on Augustine, there was another book which he prized yet more. This was God's own Word, a copy of which he lighted on in the monastery. Oh! how welcome to Luther, in this dry and parched land, this well of water, whereat he that drinketh, as said the great Teacher, "shall never thirst." This Bible he could not take with him to his cell and there read and study it, for it was chained in the chapel of the convent; but he could and did go to it, and sometimes he spent whole days in meditation upon a single verse or word. It was now that he betook him to the study of the original tongues, that being able to read the Scriptures in the languages in which they were at first written, he might see deeper into their meaning. Reuchlin's Hebrew Lexicon had recently appeared, and with this and other helps he made rapid progress in the knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek. [4] In the ardor of this pursuit he would forget for weeks together to repeat the daily prayers. His conscience would smite him for transgressing the rules of his order, and he would neither eat nor sleep till the omitted services had been performed, and all arrears discharged. It once happened that for seven weeks he scarcely closed his eyes. [5]

The communicative and jovial student was now changed into the taciturn solitary. The person as well as the manners of Luther had undergone a transformation. What with the drudgery of the day, the studies of the night, the meager meals he allowed himself – "a little bread and a small herring were often his only food" [6] – the fasts and macerations he practiced, he was more like a corpse than a living man. The fire within was still consuming him. He fell sometimes on the floor of his cell in sheer weakness. "One morning, the door of his cell not being opened as usual, the brethren became alarmed. They knocked: there was no reply. The door was burst in, and poor Fra Martin was found stretched on the ground in a state of ecstasy, scarcely breathing, well-nigh dead. A monk took his flute, and gently playing upon it one of the airs that Luther loved, brought him gradually back to himself." [7] The likelihood at that moment was that instead of living to do battle with the Pope, and pull down the pillars of his kingdom, a quiet grave, somewhere in the precincts of the monastery, would ere long be the only memorial remaining to testify that such a one as Martin Luther had ever existed.

It was indeed a bitter cup that Luther was now drinking, but it could by no means pass from him. He must drink yet deeper, he must drain it to its dregs. Those works which he did in such bondage of spirit were the price with which he thought to buy pardon. The poor monk came again and again with this goodly sum to the door of heaven, only to find it closed. Was it not enough? "I shall make it more," thought Luther. He goes back, resumes his sweat of soul, and in a little returns with a richer price in his hand. He is again rejected. Alas, the poor monk! What shall he do? He can think but of longer fasts, of severer penances, of more numerous prayers. He returns a third time. Surely he will now be admitted? Alas, no! the sum is yet too small; the door is still shut; justice demands a still larger price. He returns again and again, and always with a bigger sum in his hand; but the door is not opened. God is teaching him that heaven is not to be bought by any sum, however great: that eternal life is the free gift of God. "I was indeed a pious monk," wrote he to Duke George of Saxony, at a future period of his life, "and followed the rules of my order more strictly than I can express. If ever monk could obtain heaven by his monkish works, I should certainly have been entitled to it. Of this all the friars who have known me can testify. If I had continued much longer I should have carried my mortifications even to death, by means of my watchings, prayers, readings, and other labors." [8]

But the hour was not yet come when Luther was to enjoy peace. Christ and the redemption He had wrought were not yet revealed to him, and till these had been made known Luther was to find no rest. His anguish continued, nay, increased, and his aspect was now enough to have moved to pity his bitterest enemy. Like a shadow he glided from cell to cell of his monastery; his eyes sunk, his bones protruding, his figure bowed down to the earth; on his brow the shadows of those fierce tempests that

were raging in his soul; his tears watering the stony floor, and his bitter cries and deep groans echoing through the long galleries of the convent, a mystery and a terror to the other monks. He tried to disburden his soul to his confessor, an aged monk. He had had no experience of such a case before; it was beyond his skill; the wound was too deep for him to heal. "'Save me in thy righteousness' – what does that mean?" asked Luther. "I can see how God can condemn me in his righteousness, but how can he save me in his righteousness?" But that question his father confessor could not answer. [9]

It was well that Luther neither despaired nor abandoned the pursuit as hopeless. He persevered in reading Augustine, and yet more in studying the chained Bible; and it cannot be but that some rays must have broken in through his darkness. Why was it that he could not obtain peace? This question he could not but put to himself – "What rule of my order have I neglected – or if in aught I have come short, have not penance and tears wiped out the fault? And yet my conscience tells me that my sin is not pardoned. Why is this? Are these rules after all only the empirical devices of man? Is there no holiness in those works which I am toiling to perform, and those mortifications to which I am submitting? Is it a change of garment only or a change of heart that I need?" Into this train the monk's thoughts could scarce avoid falling. And meanwhile he persevered in the use of those means which have the promise connected with them – "Seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." "If thou criest after wisdom, if thou liftest up thy voice for understanding, then shalt thou find the fear of the Lord, and understand the knowledge of thy God." It is not Luther alone whose cries we hear. Christendom is groaning in Luther, and travailing in pain to be delivered. The cry of those many captives, in all the lands of Christendom, lying in fetters, goes up in the cry of this captive, and has entered into the ears of the Great Ruler: already a deliverer is on the road. As Luther, hour by hour, is sinking in the abyss, nearer, hour by hour, are heard the approaching footsteps of the man who is to aid him in breaking the bars of his own and the world's prison.


Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, June 23rd, 2018
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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