“St. Anne, help me. I will become a monk.” With this vow, the young law student Martin Luther sought rescue from the thunderstorm which had knocked him to the ground on his walk from his parents’ home back to the university. Against the protests of his father, Hans, who had his own ambitions for Martin, he kept his vow, held a final party for his friends and, on July 16, 1505, entered the so-called “Black Monastery” in Erfurt, Germany.
Luther’s entrance into the monastery set him on a journey to find peace with God. The monastic life meant a constant interaction with the Word of God and constant care for the condition of your own soul. Prayers began before sunrise, as the Psalms were chanted in eight small services (“hours”) through the course of the day. Ascetic practices—denying oneself bodily comfort for the sake of spiritual gain— were common. Luther dedicated himself to prayer, fasting, going without sleep, enduring cold without a blanket, and beating himself with a whip. He would later remark, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I.” In all his effort, his quest for a merciful God remained incomplete.
Nevertheless, his external advancement in the church hierarchy was apparent. Ordained as a priest in 1507, Luther conducted his first mass with fear and trembling, at that time accepting the Roman Catholic doctrine that the priest offers Christ as a sacrifice to God the Father. Luther summarized his feelings at the time: “I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living, eternal, and true God.”
In 1508, Martin Luther enrolled in the monastic school in Wittenberg for theological studies. In the course of a year, he became a professor of the Bible. After teaching briefly at the university there, he returned to the cloister in Erfurt.
In 1511, Luther’s order required him to visit Rome on some business. For Luther, this was a rare opportunity to take on the role of a pilgrim, for the city offered multiple indulgences, that is, activities which would release the Christian from the temporal punishments of sins. When Luther topped the final hill and saw the city for the first time, he exclaimed, “Hail, holy Rome!” However, to Luther’s disappointment, the “assurances” of the indulgences and the religious life of the city itself left him with even more questions and doubt.
After his return, Luther was again relocated to Wittenberg, where his superior, Johann Staupitz, compelled him to earn his doctorate at the university. Luther gained the degree of “Doctor of Sacred Theology” in 1512. This degree entailed more than just an academic status: it included churchly authority to teach the truth of the Scriptures and combat false doctrine. Again, Luther took his vows seriously. His entire conflict with erroneous practices and teachings in the church had its beginning in this obligation.
However, the medieval scholastic teachings of the church brought Luther little comfort in his quest for a merciful God. The nominalist theologians had taught that God would save those who would “do what was in them” to draw themselves to God. Even with his exemplary life, Luther’s conscience could never become convinced that he had done all that he could. Even the Augustinian teaching that we are saved by the “love of God” meant that we are saved by our love for God, not God’s love for us. Famously, Luther retorted: “Love God? I hated him!” Of course, this recognition that he could not love God led only to more guilt and fear.
This article is the first in a series of four that comprise the Historic Exhibit of the Reformation displayed at the Breslin Center on October 15, 2017:
King, Gustav (1808-1869). Luther’s friend Alexis will be slain by his side on a journey (detail). 1847. AKG-images.