We tend to forget that Martin Luther spent many years as a monk, in the Augustinian cloister in Erfurt, Germany. He had his choice of several different orders he could have joined, but elected to join the "Black Friars," an order known for its particularly stringent ascetic practices. Leaving behind a promising career in the law, he entered the walls of the monastery on July 17, 1505. It was only in the mid-1520s that Luther finally set aside his monk's cowl.
He would later remark, "If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would indeed have been among them." Luther described this period of his life as one of deep spiritual despair. He said, "I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailor and hangman of my poor soul." (See Kittelson, Luther the Reformer, pp. 53&79).
Reflecting on these years, thirty-two years later as he wrote the Smalcald Articles, Luther here acknowledges the original good intentions for the founding and maintenance of monastic communities: to educate men and women for the good of society and church. "They could produce pastors, preachers, and other ministers for the churches. They could also produce essential personnel for the secular government in cities and countries, as well as well-educate young women for mothers, housekeepers and such."
The last remark about young-women surely was written as Luther reflected on his beloved Katie, a product of the monastic system, where she had received precisely this kind of education, making her a particularly suitable helpmeet for the Reformer.
However, because the monastic institutions had lost sight of their primary and most important purpose, and had become "blasphemous" with all their "humanly invented services regarded as something better than the ordinary Christian life and the offices and callings ordained by God" they should be abandoned and torn down.
This is a key point to consider. Luther puts his finger on the chief evil associated with monastic communities: they had come to be regarded as "something better than the ordinary Christian life." This is what the unique Lutheran emphasis on vocation is all about: it is not in set-apart monasteries, or in liturgical finery, or in monastic rigor that one finds the true Christian life. No, quite the contrary. One serves God best and chiefly in the "ordinary Christian life."
There is a particularly moving and poignant letter by Martin Luther, composed during his time in hiding at the Wartburg Castle, in 1521, after he had been excommunicated and declared a public criminal. He wrote it as the dedication letter for his work Martin Luther's Judgment About Monastic Vows. It was a letter t0 his father, Hans. In the letter Luther describes the conflict between himself and his father when he became a monk over-against his father's wishes. He rejoices in their reconciliation and thanks his father for helping him to see the truly higher commands of God were not to be found in monastic life, but in the "ordinary life" as set forth in the Ten Commandments. He had come to realize that the only aspect of his monastic life that was God-pleasing was that through it God had called him into the ministry of the Word. He thanks God for reconciling him to his father and explains to his father how now, through the ministry of the Word, God is making many more sons for Himself. The letter concludes:
I am sending [you] this book, then, in which you may see by what signs and wonders Christ has absolved me from the monastic vow and granted me such great liberty. Although he has made me the servant of all men, I am, nevertheless, subject to no one except to him alone. He is himself (as they say) my immediate bishop, abbot, prior, lord, father, and teacher; I know no other. Thus I hope that he has taken from you one son in order that he may begin to help the sons of many others through me. You ought not only to endure this willingly, but you ought to rejoice with exceeding joy—and this I am sure is what you will do. What if the pope should slay me or condemn me to the depths of hell! Having once slain me, he will not raise me up again to slay me a second and third time, and now that I have been condemned I have no desire ever to be absolved. I trust that the day is at hand when that kingdom of abomination and perdition will be destroyed. Would that we were worthy to be burned or slain by him before that time, so that our blood might cry out against him all the more and hasten the day of his judgment! But if we are not worthy to bear testimony with our blood, then let us at least pray and implore mercy that we may testify with deed and word that Jesus Christ alone is the Lord our God, who is praised forever. Amen. Farewell in the Lord, my dearest Father, and greet in Christ my mother, your Margaret, and our whole family. (Luther's Works, Vol. 48:336).
Luther's remarks about the good that God brought out of monasticism, in his personal experience, applies as well to monasticism's history in general. Through the monastic orders God preserved the Sacred Scriptures and the Christian faith itself during the darkest days of Europe, when much of culture and learning had collapsed after the fall o the Roman Empire. Even as we must reject and condemn the errors born of monasticism, we must take care to thank God for the blessings and benefits that resulted from the existence of the monasteries, particularly the missionary work conducted throughout Europe in the first millennium.
Encouraging people to seek to live a "higher" Christian life in monastic communities, as Luther says in this article "conflicts with the chief article on redemption through Jesus Christ." How is that? When the Church teaches, or creates the impression, that by observing humanly devised services to God, one is in fact bringing oneself closer to God, making oneself more holy in God's eyes, then the merits of Christ are obscured, clouded and eventually set aside in favor of a focus on the "higher" calling invented by man. This is what monastic communities had become, and still are.
Even to this day in the Roman Church, those who pursue a vocation of full-time service to the Church are known as "religious" as opposed to the laity. Here, and elsewhere in the Lutheran Confessions, monasticism is soundly and roundly criticized and rejected, chiefly because of its threat to the "chief article" — the Gospel of Christ.
Though brief, this article contains a profound insight for the church today, and a challenge. Consider how it is possible to give people the impression that it is when they are doing things at their church that they are serving God in a higher way? There is always lurking about the danger of a "New Monasticism" by which people are made to feel that it is only when they are on the congregation's property, involved in a parish committee or project that the are truly serving God. Thankfully in recent yeas there has been a renewed emphasis on the doctrine of vocation, whereby we are able to see that the entire "ordinary life" of the Christian is service to God. And it is the "ordinary life" of our various callings and stations in life that we are the witnesses to Christ that we are called to be.
Indeed, perhaps the greatest use of this particular article today is to help us understand the high calling each of us has in Christ in our "ordinary life," made new in Christ.