Rev. Donavon Riley
Martin Luther wasn’t even 22 years old when he approached the monastery door in Erfurt. But he’d made up his mind. He knocked on the door of the Augustinian hermits. Martin asked the prior—the man responsible for running the monastery—to admit him.
Then Luther turned his back on a career in law, his father’s expectations, and his friends’ concerns. He allowed fear to drive him into a cloistered life. But why?
At the end of the winter semester in 1503, Martin traveled home to Mansfeld. On the way, the ceremonial dagger (a popular affectation amongst students at that time) Luther wore at his side stabbed him in the leg, probably in the femoral artery—a very dangerous, often fatal wound. A friend who had travelled with him ran to fetch a doctor, since they were still in sight of the city walls. While Luther laid there, propped against a tree, feet pointed toward the heavens, he prayed to the Mother of God: “Oh, Mary, help.” But that wasn’t the event that drove him to seek out the Augustinian hermits in Erfurt. It was, however, the beginning of the end of his law studies.
The second life threatening event, the one that finally drove young Martin into a monastery, happened on July 2, 1505. Caught in a thunderstorm, Luther believed he was about to die (again), and as fear overwhelmed him he cried out, “Help, St. Anne, [and] I will become a monk!” Family and friends tried to talk Martin out of his decision, but it was no use. Two weeks after the storm Luther threw a “going away” party for his friends. The next morning, he went and knocked on the monastery door. “You see me today and never again,” he said. He thought that was the last he’d see of the world. But it wasn’t to be for Luther. As he later remarked, “To the world I had died till God thought it was time.” Some of his friends, like Crotus Rubeanus and Johannes Nathin, compared Luther’s conversion to that of St. Paul. But, Martin didn’t see it that way, and neither did the Augustinian hermits.
Upon entry into the monastery, he was first questioned: Why did he want to join the order? Was his call truly “from God.” What happened during the storm near Stotterheim? Was he filled with fear and trembling about eternal life? Only after the order decided whether his answers were honest and true, was Luther admitted into the monastic life. He was informed of their decision when, as he lay face down at the prior’s feet, the prior prayed: “Oh, God, who kindles the hearts of those who have been converted from the vanity of the world to the victorious prize of the heavenly calling… May they recognize that the grace of their conversion has been granted gratuitously… Amen.”
Luther had come to the monastery for one purpose only. After two near-death experiences, overcome by fear and driven to question everything he’d done up to that point, what Luther wanted more than anything, what he ached for more than money, fame, or his father’s approval, was to find the merciful God.
Next time we will learn about what life was like for the young monk, Martin Luther.
Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota.