Luther Was Not a Monk

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The decidedly urban character of Erfurt meant another important thing for our story: the presence of friars. Luther was not a monk, properly speaking, but a friar or better a hermit of Saint Augustine. He’s responsible for this error, as he frequently referred to himself as a monk. But he was a friar nonetheless and shared more with the Middle Ages’ new form of religious life defined by the Dominicans and Franciscans than he did with the true cloistered monks of the Benedictine Rule.

For various reasons, meteorological and technological, the population of Europe exploded after 1050, and an agricultural surplus fed the growth of urban life. Friars were made to order for this new environment and the challenges it placed upon the faith of the populace at large. Unlike their landed, Benedictine brethren, who were dedicated to ora et labora (prayer and work) within the confines of a monastery (and its often vast estates), urban friars worked outside their quarters in the cities doing service and teaching. Many were preachers—an art not often practiced by parish priests—or catechists, while others taught in the rapidly growing university system. Still others did works of charity.

Friars were not allowed, at least initially, to own property—the traditional support for monastic existence. Because of this stipulation of strict poverty, they were called mendicant or “begging orders.” This was a matter of some divisiveness. Luther’s own priory had accumulated quite large holdings from alms and bequests. He and his brothers said many masses in payment for these gifts. Individual friars, though, were forbidden possessions.

Because of its name you may be tempted to think that the Augustinian order was a very old one, but it wasn’t. The Order of Augustinian Hermits can be traced only to 1244 (while St. Augustine himself lived from 354-430), when a loose group of reform-minded religious banded together under the so-called rule of St. Augustine—a set of precepts laid out by the church father himself in the fourth century.

In Erfurt, the hermits prayed the hours, studied, taught in the University, preached in local churches, heard confession, and said mass. It was a busy life, full of religious responsibilities and not so full of comforts. The day began the middle of the night, with matins; then there was 6 a.m. prime, 9 a.m. terce, sexte at 12 noon, and after the noonday meal and rest the 3 p.m. nones, 6 p.m. vespers, and at last compline just before bed. And mass sometime before midday. Missing any service required a good excuse and had to be compensated for. After he moved to Wittenberg and assumed the duties of a professor, Luther would have had exemptions from certain hours. He kept careful track of what he had missed, though, and by the time he finally stopped praying the canonical hours altogether in 1520 he had accumulated over three months of prayer debt.

The later Luther had little good to say about monasticism. But he only stopped wearing his cowl in 1523 and was ever loathe to give up the mass. During his years in the cloister, he would have recited three psalms at every office (which means that it he prayed the Psalms through nearly once a week). It was monasticism that gave him the Bible.

4 thoughts on “Luther Was Not a Monk

  1. FROM THE CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA (If Luther and the Augustinians were not “monks” who were monks? Seems a distinction without a difference.) “A monk may be conveniently defined as a member of a community of men, leading a more or less contemplative life apart from the world, under the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, according to a rule characteristic of the particular order to which he belongs. The word monk is not itself a term commonly used in the official language of the Church. It is a popular rather than a scientific designation, but is at the same time very ancient, so much so that its origin cannot be precisely determined. So far as regards the English form of the word, that undoubtedly comes from the Anglo-Saxon munuc, which has in turn arisen from the Latin monachus, a mere transliteration of the Greek monachos. This Greek form is commonly believed to be connected with monos, lonely or single, and is suggestive of a life of solitude; but we cannot lose sight of the fact that the word mone, from a different root, seems to have been freely used, e.g. by Palladius, as well as monasterion, in the sense of a religious house (see Butler, “Palladius’s Lausiac History” passim). Be this as it may, the Fathers of the fourth century are by no means agreed as to the etymological significance of monachus. St Jerome writes to Heliodorus (P.L., XXII, 350), “Interpret the name monk, it is thine own; what business hast thou in a crowd, thou who art solitary?” St. Augustine on the other hand fastens on the idea of unity (monas) and in his exposition of Psalm 82, extols the appropriateness of the words “Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum” when chanted in a monastery, because those who are monks should have but one heart and one soul (P.L., XXXVII, 1733). Cassian (P.L., XLIX, 1097) and Pseudo-Dionysius (De Eccl. Hier., vi) seem to have thought monks were so called because they were celibate.
    In any case the fact remains that the word monachus in the fourth century was freely used of those consecrated to God, whether they lived as hermits or in communities. So again St. Benedict a little later (c. 535) states at the beginning of his rule that there are four kinds of monks (monachi):
    CENOBITES who live together under a rule or an abbot,
    ANCHORITES OR HERMITS, who after long training in the discipline of a community, go forth to lead a life of solitude (and of both of these classed he approves; but also
    “SARABITES” and
    “GIROVAGI” (wandering monks), whom he strongly condemns as men whose religious life is but a pretence, and who do their own without the restraint of obedience.”

  2. Paul Sailhamer argues that Luther and the Augustinians were monks by saying that the distinction between monks and friars seems to be “a distinction without a difference.” But, then he quotes from the Catholic Encyclopedia which states that monks led a more or less contemplative life “apart from the world.” There is the “difference” he is looking for. Friars do not live “apart from the world.”

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