Tour of Luther’s Germany: July 20
Before today’s devotions, here are a few candid pictures from yesterday at the Wartburg Castle. I knew of Luther’s history at the castle, but there is so much more. It was built in the 1100’s and was home to St. Elizabeth. Her dedication to caring for the poor lead to her canonization just 5 years after her death at the age of 24. Her story is fascinating. (I don’t have interior pictures to share, but hope to get some from my friend.
My photo of the outside of the Wartburg. It was another beautiful day, but hot – hitting 100. Today is supposed to be 102 and most places do not have air conditioning!
Luther’s study, where he translated the New Testament from Greek into German in just 10 weeks!
A cool door next to Luther’s study – how many times did he step over this very threshold?
I’ll try to send more interior pictures this afternoon.
Wednesday, July 20, 2022: Erfurt, Rudesheim
“There just has to be a city on a spot like this!” declared Martin Luther upon his first view of the many church spires dotting Erfurt’s skyline in the early 16th century. First as a student and then as a monk/priest, Luther lived in Erfurt for nearly 10 years, (with time spent in Wittenberg and Rome interspersed.) It was here that Brother Martin experienced his deepest spiritual angst.
A bit of history (just a little bit!)
Erfurt has one of the largest and best preserved historical city centers in Germany including St. Mary’s Cathedral, St. Severin’s Church, and the famous Merchant’s Bridge. Originally founded in 742 AD by St. Boniface, “The Apostle of the Germans”, it’s wealth of natural resources established it as an important trading and spiritual center. The University of Erfurt was founded in 1379, making it the first university to be established within the geographic area which constitutes modern-day Germany.
As we previously heard, Luther was a law student at the University of Erfurt when he vowed to become a monk after surviving a thunderstorm in a nearby village. He entered the Augustinian Monastery two weeks later. He chose the most strict of all monasteries, referred to as the Black Cloister for the black robes worn by the monks. Following his time as a supplicant, Luther became a monk at the age of 22. Not all monks become priests, but Luther’s gifts and intellect were quickly recognized by the Prior to call him to become a priest. In so doing, Luther would be placed in the care of the vicar-general Johannes von Staupitz, a mentor and friend who would greatly influence Luther’s life.
One might expect that Luther’s time in the monastery was a positive experience. It was not. For many years, his studious and sometimes obsessive nature led him into deep despair at trying to please who he believed to be an angry and vengeful God. This “anfechtung”, (spiritual anxiety, fear, anguish) drove him to extreme practices as he sought to appease God.
In his book “Martin Luther; the Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World”, Eric Metaxas describes this period of Luther’s life very well.
There was in medieval Christian life the strong implication that if one could not earn one’s own salvation outright, one could certainly go a long way toward earning it, and one had better do what one could.. . .
Luther had no quibbles with this, and once inside the monastery, where he had time and space to study the Bible, he searched painstakingly for a path to heaven as few had ever done before. The reason it was all so pernicious was that there were clear implications it really was up to the sinner to redeem himself, that this was indeed achievable, and that where with the help of God’s grace or not, others had done it and so could you. Luther, who was never cynical and who was sometimes innocent to the point of naïveté, took this all at face value and began to work the program, as it were, with all his will.
But precisely because he was so scrupulous and honest and clear thinking, it didn’t work. Luther’s overactive mind was constantly finding ways in which he had fallen short, and so every time he went to confession, he confessed all of his sins, as he was supposed to do, but then knowing that even one unconfessed sin would be enough to drag him down to hell, he racked his brain for more sins and found more. There was no end to them if one was honest about one’s thoughts, and Luther was entirely honest. What if he left confession but had forgotten to confess one errant foul thought from three days before? If one dies before one had one’s last rites, one died “in one’s sins.” So Luther would drive himself and his confessor (who was Staupitz) half-mad with his endless confessions, which seemed to make him feel no better, because he would torture himself afterward, feeling that surely he must have forgotten something.
In addition to becoming obsessed with confession, Luther tried to make peace with God through sharing in Christ’s sufferings, practices which were not unusual at this point in history. Long periods of fasting, self-flagellation (whipping), kneeling in prayer until his knees bled, Luther endured great pain in hopes of appeasing an angry God. He would later remark in a letter to the Duke of Saxony, “If ever a 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 it had continued much longer, I should have carried my mortification even to death…”
Yet his deepest anfechtung held-fast.
In response to Erasmus on the subject of free-will, Luther wrote the following on the dangers of trying to justify oneself before God.
I would not wish to be given free will and to have anything left in my power by which I could endeavor to be saved. . . because even if there were no dangers, no adversities, no devil, I would still be forced to struggle continually towards an uncertainty and beat the air with my fists; for no matter how long I should live, and do works, my conscience would never be certain and sure how much it had to do to satisfy God. For no matter how many works I did, there would always remain a scruple about whether it pleased God or whether he required something more, as is proved by the experience of all self-justifiers and as I learned over so many years, much to my own grief.
This period of his spiritual life would come to an end in Wittenberg, where, through intensive study of scripture, he would come to believe in a God of grace who saves us through his Son’s death on the cross. His later passion for proclaiming the unfettered gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ, came from his personal experience of redemption and freedom. And while he would have shorter bouts of depression and spiritual difficulty later in life (particularly in times of plague and at the deaths of two of his children, his spiritual transformation in (or upon) the cloaca in Wittenberg, would change his life and the course of history. (See July 17.)
Reflection verses Romans 8:31-35, 37-39
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Have there been times in your life when you struggled to experience God’s love? Have you been angry at God or doubted God’s goodness? Even doubted God’s existence? How did you get through that period of your life? Through whom did/does God minister to you in such dark chapters? To whom are you called to minister, bringing hope and healing in the face of despair?
Where we’re staying? Hotel Trapp, Rudesheim
A look ahead ~
Tomorrow we begin with a Rhine cruise, then drive to Worms. “Here I stand, I can do no other.”