Luther: A Life by John M. Todd
John M. Todd is the author of a number of books, including Reformation, and John Wesley and the Catholic Church. Luther: A Life was published in 1982 by The Crossroad Publishing Company. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
Chapter 2: The New Brother
One characteristic has still to be added to the picture of the young graduate at Erfurt. Martin suffered from depression. The first time there is some hint of this is a reference to a mood in the period after his finals, a time of anti-climax when, having attained ones goal, there seems to be nothing so well defined left. It seemed to be so for Luther, and other things conspired to depress him. A close friend had died. And there was a month before his post-graduate course started. The course itself excited little enthusiasm in Luther’s mind. The future indicated to him by his tutors and his father was study of the Law. Hans Luther looked to his son to become a successful man in the local community, a good lawyer, well married. Perhaps even service to the Elector, or the Emperor, might be envisaged.
Conventional society was closing in. But Martin’s discontent was not just a matter of the perennial discomfiture of the young man viewing society with a jaundiced eye, realising with dismay the actual limits of the options available to him. There was something deeper seated. Sensitive, fond of music, rather afraid of his father, and of all authorities, religiously inclined, very intelligent, unfulfilled emotionally, perhaps no more than half awakened sexually — some of the characteristics of the pedigree western intellectual seemed to be emerging. However, these characteristics went along with the vigour of the Saxon peasant stock, the blunt and realistic honesty of a man who faces the facts and acts on them. It was a strange and explosive mixture, this capacity for appraisal, judgement, action, together with great nervousness, an almost neurotic dimension to the capacity for effective action.
Just now a pall of uncertainty, and a sense of inadequacy and apathy inappropriate to, but not untypical of, gifted young men, hung over him. In Luther’s case it was a built-in physical and psychological syndrome, already beginning to be entrenched in a series of experiences. Physically there were the symptoms which became so marked later on in his life, sweating, constipation and general nervousness. Constipation became so much trouble that later the letters often have a reference. At thirty-seven he would complain in a letter to a friend: ‘. . . Defecation is so hard that I am forced to press with all my strength, even to the point of sweating, and the longer I delay the worse it gets.’ Psychologically, he could get very merry but also very sad. Later in life he would say of melancholy: ‘Those who are troubled with melancholy ought to be very careful not to be alone. . .’ and again ‘Watch out for melancholy. . . it is so destructive to one’s health.’ It was certainly the voice of experience speaking. At that time, aged fifty, he had taken the measure of the affliction, and had even used the attacks to enhance his theology; it was almost his most familiar experience. But in his twenty-second year he was only just beginning to wonder what was hitting him when he was suddenly overwhelmed with this sadness and heartless misery. It was undoubtedly the dreaded modern plague, depression.
The medievals knew about it and had also identified and categorised it, in their own terminology, as deadly. Despair, the abandonment of hope, was the ultimate theological category for it. The depressive is precisely in the grip of despair. The medievals saw it as a sin, indeed the final sin. The argument was simple, hardly needing to be made explicit. Life came from God; to despair of a good outcome for that life was then a kind of blasphemy. On the surface the argument looks brutal to the twentieth-century clinician, because the depressive, it seems, cannot help himself. Nevertheless, as theory, the judgement is logical — the abandonment of hope, despair, is the final ‘sin’ whether or not the subject is really responsible for it. Dante reflected society’s assessment conversely in his famous motto set over the gates of hell: ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here.’
The way to this despair was the emotion of sadness, tristia. Luther, in his later years, warned severely against indulging in this emotion. Even accedie, boredom, apathy, dry indifference, was known as a deadly danger on the way down the slope. Melancholia was a growing obsession in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, symbolised by its apostheosis in Burton’s sixteenth-century English text, The Anatomy of Melancholy. The sophisticated Spanish court was a long way from Saxony, but the knight of the mournful countenance, Don Quixote, one can imagine in some kind of Thuringian1 transposition. Throughout Europe the cathedrals offered opportunity for sculptors to provoke somewhat hollow laughter with their skin and bone effigies of ‘death’, set beside or over the memorial of a deceased prelate represented in all his earthly glory. Here the melancholy is laughed off the stage. But it was always ready to creep back with the musician’s lute, and the verses of a poet, or with the sheer horror of the mortality rate. At the first arrival of the Black Death, forty per cent of the population died.
Martin’s depressions were not so severe as to immobilise him, but they provided an important dimension for what followed. Graduation over, after a visit home, he settled in again, bought his law books, including the great Corpus Juris, the book of Canon Law, and registered for the course. It was May 1505. Martin had allowed things to take their course till now, and still did so. But at the back of his mind for years had been burgeoning an ideal — aim for the highest. There was only one highest in that world, in terms of ideas, and that was to become a monk or friar, to be a ‘religious’, someone utterly dedicated to God. It was a safe way, too. We do not know and probably It was largely unconscious, but it would have been like him to have smouldering in the back of his mind the attraction of this life. Probably it had been given no formal voice. Something was needed to fan the flame, and set it blazing. In this case a moment of terror did the trick. Lightning.
Martin was perhaps already in some state of disarray by late June. He had undertaken one of his walks home to Mansfeld. There was a five days’ break at this time running from Feast of SS Peter and Paul on 28 June to The Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin on 2 July. Martin was not much more than half a mile from the gates of Erfurt, in the afternoon of 2 Ju1y, returning to be ready for work the next day. He was at a little place called Stotternheim. Thunder clouds had built up, and suddenly the lightning flashed, a bolt striking right beside Martin who was knocked to the ground, though unhurt. In terror he shouted out: ‘Beloved St Anne! I will become a monk.’ St Anne was the patron saint of miners; Martin had heard prayers to her throughout his childhood perhaps more than to any other saint. He turned instinctively to her when in real trouble. The unconscious had spoken, in the language of current religious coin. In later years he described himself at the moment when the lightning struck as ‘walled around with the terror and horror of sudden death’ judgement loomed.
Back in Erfurt, Martin told his friends what had happened. Was he bound? Must he keep a vow, unpremeditated, spoken under such stress and with no witnesses? Most said no. A few said yes. His friend Crotus Rubeanus said, fourteen years later, that Luther’s final affirmative decision was a surprise, even a disappointment to his friends. Luther himself spoke of it as a sudden decision. But the historian has to add that, psychologically, it could not have been entirely unexpected. The decision gave Martin his first major act of independence. It was a way out and a way forward, and one which would be approved by religious authority. It would also solve any emerging emotional and sexual troubles. Any such incipient involvement or expectation had to be firmly abandoned. Above all Martin was taking his own life in hand, swiftly.
Within a fortnight he was having his last party, and saying goodbye to his fellow students, before going the next morning to the great gates of the Augustinian Friary which he had walked past so often as a student. No time had been lost. The Prior and the Novice Master needed a few days to consider the young man’s application to be admitted. Martin had himself to cancel his registration for the law course, sell his books, and settle his affairs. Of the books, Vergil and Plautus alone he took with him.
It was a classic picture, one of the best of the final small batch of graduates at one of the best universities deciding to opt for the most demanding sector of the local religious life. (The Carthusians indeed led a stricter life, but they were in fact hermits, never leaving the monastery, and in another category; vocations to their way of life were rare.) The Augustinians regarded the application from the successful young graduate as very satisfactory, part of the proper order of things. Martin himself was overawed at the thought of the tradition to which he was binding himself in a friary lately reformed under its own volition. The Order of Augustinian Eremites, to give them their full name, had the best reputation in Erfurt; and there would be every likelihood of further university work to come,
Yet somewhere at the very heart of all this reputation and status lay a contradiction of the original drive of the religious order. No one fully understood the contradiction. Spreading like an unobserved dry rot it would lead to the widespread and spectacular collapse of much of this way of life in less than two decades’ time. There were scandals of course; and even the very way the friars sometimes maintained themselves, by collecting cash gifts from the faithful when preaching, and encouraging them to gain an Indulgence (see Appendix) had for a long time been criticised. But there was something more fundamental.
The virtues of the ‘religious’ life — poverty, chastity and obedience — were the formal signs of the special life of prayer and dedication, but they had somehow ceased to be its raison d’etre. Like so many others, the Augustinian cloister had in fact taken on a life of its own as a social and economic unit in a society devoted to the maintenance of the policy and economy of the Church with all its complicated and expensive structures. Status, social and economic, had come to play the overriding part; the virtues had come, in a way, to be a function, even a decoration, of this important social unit, Instead of being primarily the special calling of a few, the religious life had become the profession of many. Theology had become, to a great extent, a vast rationalisation of this state of affairs.
To walk out into the streets of Erfurt in the Augustinian habit was to command respect. But there were those with resentments in society at large, some poor and ill-paid, who regarded all those committed full time to the Church as part of a well-heeled world into which they were not admitted. Critics from their own class were numerous enough for the clergy officials to be alert and ready with measures against those who seemed to threaten the structure with their criticisms. In a society still largely univocal, there was a feeling of something threateningly revolutionary about stinging criticisms from their own class. Neither side often thought in exactly such terms. In good faith the one attacked the established theories because they did not seem to tie in with the Gospel of Jesus Christ the ‘revelation’ of the New Testament. In good faith the other defended them as part of the Church’s guaranteed sacred interpretation of that revelation. But what made it all so tense was that these matters would quickly escalate into matters of life and death. The Church’s decision that a man was a ‘heretic’ led to his being handed over to the ‘secular arm’ of society, the political authority; heresy equalled treason. Burning was the normal retribution. Lollards were being tried and burnt quite frequently in England. A group of Catholic priests, members of the Church’s Dominican Order, had been declared to be heretics and burnt in Germany, within living memory. Only a few decades previously the famous preacher Savanorola, also a priest member of the Dominicans, had been burnt for heresy in the great piazza at Florence. All this added a hardness and an edge to theology and its practice; it became a political tool.
Inside the monastery and in the university the rules had become very strict, with detailed regulations about how far junior lecturers might go in doing anything more than expound a text as distinct from adding their own comments and glosses. Their lectures were regularly monitored by senior men. Canon Law ruled — with all the force of the received religion behind it, the certainty that through this law in a manner spoke the voice of God. Official theology had come to be a Freudian superego, the law-giver. Luther’s father-obsession was strongly tickled, his attraction to the system was all the stronger.
A religious community sharpens the personal characteristics of its individual members. Shut up together for life this company of men or of women breeds definition. It has rules, and conventions. The community does not have that mixed biological and psychological drive which commonly holds a family together. If the religious community is to prosper, it has to keep the Rule; even the conventions as distinct from the Rule are important and cannot be continually overlooked without danger of disruption. Since the purpose of the community is to release its members from the problems inherent in possessions, in sexual and family life and in the detailed and general ordering of one’s own life, so to be able to serve God through the prayer and work of the community, then the sense of importance attached to every item of its life can become unbeatable, or totally glorious. In practice, day by day, it is simply a hard grind, and often remains so throughout life. The rewards are considerable, streaming out along the psychological and spiritual to the social and practical. Substantial and speedy achievement is possible for such a community, and the sense of unity in spiritual purpose is thrilling. Failure is equally dispiriting, and the disunity and disagreement behind it disconcerting. Martin reacted to all this with his usual intensity. His ultra-sensitive antennae were dangerously fascinated by an atmosphere which seemed to offer both a total solution, complete security, and at the same time a sense of dynamic spiritual energy. The generic religious dimension was intensified: within a context of emphatic dependence were opportunities for initiatives springing from an inner spiritual freedom.
Martin was received as a ‘postulant’, and lived for a few weeks in the guest house, still to be seen just inside the great gates. During this period of preliminary vetting by the community, he wore his own clothes, but took full part in the church services in the fine Gothic church, and the daily life along with the other novices. Meanwhile, he had sent a message home about his great decision. His father was mad with rage when he heard what Martin had done. Later in life Luther recalled that his father had ‘cut me off from all further paternal grace’. Big Hans saw all his plans destroyed at a single blow. All that investment, the expense and careful planning of sixteen years of primary, secondary and tertiary schooling, was about to be handed over to the priests. But the rage was then, shortly after, cancelled out. The plague was sweeping across Thuringia. Several university lecturers and students died in Erfurt. At Mansfeld two of Martin’s brothers died. Friends told Hans Luther that this was divine retribution: he relented sufficiently so as not absolutely to oppose Martins formal entry into the Augustinian Order.
Within the walls Martin found peace. The days and nights went by with a regularity and a rhythm to which his body and mind quickly responded. Regular sleep; regular meals, few indeed yet adequate; the rhythm of the services in church, study, the meals in common, sleep in common — such rhythm was a great restorer. And, overall, a great silence for much of the time. There was no anxiety. He did what he was told to do.
After a few weeks as a postulant it was seen by the Novice Master that Martin was behaving as he should, and could be admitted formally to the novitiate. This was done at the first of three serious initiation-type ceremonies, to be spread over the next two years. In this first the postulant was clothed. His secular clothes were formally removed and the new novice was clothed in the habit of the Order within which he intended to live for the next year in the hope that at the end of that time, he would be admitted fully and allowed to take vows, which would bind him for the rest of his life.
Brother Martin lay prostrate before the altar, arms stretched out in the form of a cross in the great church, while the Prior recited: ‘Lord Jesus Christ our leader and our strength, Thou has set aside this servant of Thine by the fire of holy humility from the rest of mankind. We humbly pray that this will also separate him from carnal intercourse and from the community of earthly deeds through the sanctity shed from heaven upon him and that Thou wilt bestow on him grace to remain Thine.’ This was but one of numerous prayers, exhortations and warnings — the latter included a list of all the unpleasant things which the novice must expect, the restricted diet, the cold, the rising to recite the Office in church while it was still dark, the shame of having to go begging in the streets. The ceremony had a strong psychological resonance. The habit provided a new, ready-made identity, and at the same time both an ideal and an ever-present reminder of rules and other people to be obeyed. The new identity was further rubbed home in the form of a haircut, the tonsure, a physical initiation.
Brother Martin now moved into the Friary proper. With the other monks he slept in the large upstairs dormitory, ate in the refectory, listening to suitable reading at the same time; and had his stall in the church for the services which were patterned across the day and some of the night These services were centred on the recitation of the sacred poetry of the Jews, the 150 Psalms, which the early Jewish Christians had continued to recite when they became followers of Jesus, and which had become the staple Christian prayer. Martin had these Psalms off by heart within a year or two. And it was the Psalms which would be the chosen subject of his very first lectures in the university when he was twenty-nine. Meanwhile, the impressionable young brother of twenty-one was feeding on the rich diet of the Bible, both in choir and his cell. He had a copy for his own use with a red cover to it, as he recalled in later years. In it he found the great myths of the creation, the fall, the flood, the escape from Egypt, the promised land, the twelve tribes, the exile, the prophets, all full of Semitic poetry and wisdom, and great human stories, followed by the incomparable religious texts of the New Testament — ‘He who would save his life must lose it’. All his life he had heard readings. short excerpts, in the regular church services, but now he read right through the Bible, and then began to study it seriously. By the time he came to lecture he had by heart long sections from all over the text, and was able to quote with extraordinary facility. It is a commonplace that memories were incomparably more efficient and enabled people to recall large quantities of written material in the days when the mind was not bombarded all day long with verbal sights and sound. But Luther had a special gift in this direction over and above the widespread facility. The Bible came to be his most familiar and most loved text. His reading of the Latin classics had given him an appetite for well-shaped language, and the Bible came to be for him, not just words but The Word.
Brother Martin was totally at the service of religion, a neophyte, new born. His depressions had retreated for the time being. ‘I experienced in myself and in many others how quiet Satan is in the first years of monastic life,’ Luther would tell his friends in later years. Apart from anything else, the sheer novelty of the life made a great impact. Within a few months the hardships were beginning to bite as the winter came on and there was heating nowhere except in one room where the brethren could go to warm up if the cold became too intense; and with Advent at the beginning of December the meals fell to one a day with only some dry bread and wine in the evening. But this was all grist to his mill. He read the Lives of the Fathers and wondered at the austerities of the desert hermits: ‘I used to imagine such a saint, who would live in the desert, and abstain from food and drink and live on a few vegetables and roots and cold water.’ His Novice Master was a father in God to him and enabled him quite easily to adapt himself to the life, ‘a fine old man’ and a ‘true Christian’ as Luther referred to him later. The community spent between four and five hours a day in church. The time that was over from this and other monastic exercises Brother Martin spent in memorizing the Rule and other such texts, studying the Augustinian tradition, and doing some chores about the house, including cleaning the latrines. Then there was begging in the town with a sack on one’s back.
Silence was obligatory for most of the day, and a series of signs were used to substitute for the ordinary business of life, asking for the butter at table or enquring what the time was. There were set times of recreation when conversation was normal. The atmosphere in the house was influenced by Father Johann von Staupitz, Head of the Saxon-Thuringian province of the Order, and author of the new statutes for the thirty reformed or ‘observant’ friaries. He was a man of insight who tried to keep a high standard of observation without going to extremes. He had the knack of understanding others, and of enabling an authentic religious dimension to flower within the dangerous ambience of the social and political authoritarianism which continually threatened o destroy it. At this time, he was often away in Wittenberg where he had recently co-operated with Elector Frederick in founding a new university; its philosophical and theological sector was largely in the hands of the Augustinians who had had a house in the town for many years. But as provincial Superior of the Order, Staupitz called in at Erfurt from time to time, trying to keep the numerous tensions at a low pitch. From the first he was excited about the arrival of the brilliant young graduate from the university, with a suggestion of some special charisma about him.
Another friar of outstanding importance in the Friary during Martin’s first year was Johann Jeuser von Paltz, head of theological studies in the house for the last twenty years, also a professor of theology in the University. Like Martin, be had come to the cloister from the University. He was a man of high spiritual and theological reputation, who went on preaching tours, which combined encouragement of piety among the faithful with financial service to the monastery since Indulgences were the principal reward that he offered the listeners. In 1502 he had a set of his sermons printed under the title ‘The Mine of Heaven’. It proved a valuable mine for the Friary which was able to complete the rebuilding of their library with the income. The library would itself further contribute to the theological and spiritual standards of the Friary. The sermons would help the numerous people who heard them to keep on the right path in this world and to save their souls in the next. The widespread criticism of Indulgences he thought of as the perverse ravings of ill-instructed fools.
The twelve months went by, and before the end of the summer in 1506 Brother Martin was recommended by the Novice Master for full profession of vows. The second initiation ceremony was held, again before the altar in the church, and even more solemn moments. Holding a lighted candle in his hand, Luther said aloud in front of the whole community: I, Brother Martin, do make profession and promise obedience to Almighty God, to Mary the Sacred Virgin, and to you, the prior of this cloister as representative of the general head of the order of Eremites of the holy bishop, St Augustine, and his rightful successors, to live until death without worldly possessions and in chastity according to the rule of St Augustine.’ He received the reply, ‘Keep this Rule, and I promise you eternal life.’ The next stretch of time led up to the crown of his new life, ordination to the priesthood. During this year, Martin’s inner tensions began to tangle with the tensions in the community, and a worrying sadness took over from time to time, while great inner joy was also experienced by him. The momentum of life within the conventional structure carried him forward on its flowing tide.
1. Thuringia is the geographical area of wooded hills and valleys roughly including Eisenach and Weimar down to Coburg.