Monday, March 27, 2006

Perspectives on Luther: Did he join the Monastery Selfishly?

"If the life of monks and nuns is really what they claim that it is: the highest and most perfect form of Christianity, they should consistently give any person credit for making the effort to lead that life. In fact, they ought all to turn monks and nuns to honor their own principles."-W.H.T. Dau

This will be the beginning of a response to a man who calls himself “St. Thomas More” over on the CARM board. His comments came in the thread, Perspectives of Luther which I began responding to here and also on CARM.

Let’s take a look at More’s first charge: Luther’s joining of a monastery was inappropriate. More says,

The problem with Luther starts with his motivation for joining a religious order in the first place. He was training to be a lawyer and following a couple of incidents that awakened his sense of his own mortality (friend’s death in a duel and close call in a violent storm), he made a commitment to God to become a religious. First off, to become a religious to save your own hide is a little selfish.”

This charge is very similar to that put forth by the dreadful Facts About Luther by Patrick O'Hare (see chapter 2). As with O'Hare, I’m convinced More's understanding of Luther’s early life is muddled, and similarly I wonder how familiar he is with the aspects of medieval monkery and the implications it had during Luther’s early life.

W.H.T. Dau in his book, Luther Examined and Reexamined: A Review of Catholic Criticism and a Plea for Reevaluation (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1917, 20-21) gives a helpful picture of the young Luther. More would have you believe that one day Luther simply had a notion to join the monestary selfishly out of the blue. Such was not the case. Dau explains:

The holy life of the saints had been held up to him as far back as he could remember as the marvel of Christian perfection. Home and Church had cooperated in deepening the impressions of the sanctity of the monkish life in him. When he saw the emaciated Duke of Anhalt in monk's garb with his beggar's wallet on his back tottering through the streets of Magdeburg, and everybody held his breath at this magnificent spectacle of advanced Christianity, and then broke forth in profuse eulogies of the princely pilgrim to the glories of monkish sainthood, that left an indelible impression on the fifteen-year-old boy. When he observed the Carthusians at Eisenach, weary and wan with many a vigil, somber and taciturn, toiling up the rugged steps to a heaven beyond the common heaven; when he talked with the young priests at the towns where he studied, and all praised the life of a monk to this young seeker after perfect righteousness; when in cloister-ridden Erfurt he observed that the monks were outwardly, at least, treated with peculiar reverence, can any one wonder that in a mind longing for peace with God the resolve silently ripened into the act: I will be a monk?

We, too, would call this an act of despair. We would say with Luther: Despair makes monks. But the despair which we mean, and which Luther meant, is genuine spiritual despair. What Catholics call Luther's despair is really desperation, a reckless, dare-devil plunging of a criminal into a splendid Catholic sanctuary. That Luther's act decidedly was not. By Rome's own teaching Luther belonged in the cloister. That mode of life was originally designed to meet the needs of just such minds as his. His entering the monastery was the logical sequence of his previous Catholic tutelage. Rome has this monk on its conscience, and a good many more besides. As piety went in those days, Luther had been raised a pious young man. He was morally clean. He was a consistent, yea, a scrupulous member of his Church, regular in his daily devotions, reverencing every ordinance of the Church.”

His was an introspective nature. He had wrestled daily with the sin that ever besets us. He knew that with all his conventional religiousness he could not pass muster before God. Over his wash-basin he was overheard moaning: "The more we wash, the more unclean we become." He felt like Paul when he groaned: "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Rom. 7, 24.) He was sorrowing for his poor soul. He was hungering and thirsting for righteousness. "When will I ever attain to that state of mind that I am sure God is pleased with me?" he mused distractedly. What he could not find while engaged in his secular pursuits, that, he was told, the cloister could give him. To obtain that he entered the monastery. If ever Rome had an honest applicant for monkery, Luther is that man. Nor did he act precipitately. As shown, the thought of this act had been quietly forming in him for years. When he made his rash vow to St. Anna, he still allowed two weeks to pass before he put his resolution into action. Try and picture to yourself his state of mind during those fourteen days! Moving about in his customary surroundings, he was daily probing the correctness of his contemplated change of life. He fought a soul-battle in those days, and the remembrance of his father made that battle none the easier. From the Catholic standpoint Luther deserves an aureole for that struggle. After entering the cloister, he was still at liberty for a year and a half to retrace his fatal step. But his first impressions were favorable; monkery really seemed to bring him heart's ease and peace, and there was no one to disabuse his mind of the delusion. After nearly two years in the monastery, while sitting with his father at the cloister board on the event of his ordination to the priesthood, he declares to his father that he enjoys the quiet, contemplative life that he has chosen. Surely, he made a mistake by becoming monk, but Catholics cannot fault him for that mistake. If the life of monks and nuns is really what they claim that it is: the highest and most perfect form of Christianity, they should consistently give any person credit for making the effort to lead that life. In fact, they ought all to turn monks and nuns to honor their own principles."

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