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Sunday, August 20, 2017
Date Posted:

Luther’s Life In The Convent

Taken from Wylie’s History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis
Dr Clive Gillis

WHEN his friends and townsmen learned on the morrow that Luther had taken the cowl, they were struck with stupefaction. That such a capable man should become a monk, seemed a national loss. Friends and university staff assembled at the gates of the monastery for two days hoping to dissuade him. The gate remained closed. What to him was worldly advantage? The one thing with him was how he might save his soul. Till a month had elapsed Luther saw no one. The rage of Luther's father was great. "How can a son do right in disobeying the counsel of his parents?"

Luther changed his name to Augustine in the convent. He was still seeking life, not from Christ, but from monastic holiness. The burden within him 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.

St Augustine of Hippo

His fellow monks were ignorant, lazy, and fond only of good cheer. That one of the most distinguished doctors of the university should enroll himself in their fraternity was indeed an honour; but did not his fame throw themselves into the shade? His brethren found 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. Nor was that the worst; when these tasks were finished, instead of being permitted to retire to his studies he had to go out in town to beg. 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 labour or the shame of holy monkhood.

In this kind of drudgery was the day passed. Nevertheless at night he trimmed his lamp and read the patristic and scholastic divines, he continued reading them till far into the night. St. Augustine was his especial favourite. 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.

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. In the ardour 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.

Like a corpse

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 meagre meals he allowed himself - "a little bread and a small herring were often his only food"- the fasts and macerations he practised, 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." 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 labours."

His Father confessor baffled

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.

Seek and ye shall find

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 awaiting him to aid the Great Ruler in breaking the bars of his own and the world's prison.

Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis

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