Martin Luther’s Vocation

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Giancarlo Pani SJ

 Giancarlo Pani SJ / Church Thought / Published Date:15 March 2018/Last Updated Date:30 September 2020

A topic like Luther’s vocation does not capture the attention of his biographers. It is taken for granted. Everyone talks about it, but only in a generic way. In truth, the facts are not so apparent.

Luther entered the monastery when he was 21 years old, after a storm. On July 2, 1505, while returning to Erfurt from Mansfeld where he was visiting some relatives, he was caught in a storm near Stotternheim, a few kilometers from home. Lightning struck nearby and he was terrified by the possibility of his imminent death. So he made a vow to St. Anne (the mother of Mary) that he would become a monk if he survived.[1] The saint was patroness of miners and he had heard her name many times at home as his father had worked as a miner. In any case, two weeks later, on July 17, Luther entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt and began the path of religious life as a novice.

His father had convinced him to study law. He came from a poor family and was dependent upon his father’s work in the mines. At about the same time, his father’s entrepreneurial spirit improved their position and he sought a good career for his son and a high position in society to help improve the family’s situation.

In 1501 Luther enrolled in Erfurt, obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree. He continued his studies, eventually graduating as a Master of Arts (magister artium) in 1505. He then started to study Law. During these years he was removed from the domestic environment and immersed in the world of culture and of university studies which no doubt held great appeal for the enthusiastic young Luther. He did not, however, like the study of law. Perhaps when in July he found himself in the terrible storm, the young man – a poetic soul, lover of music, sensitive to the wonders of nature – felt an impulse toward the spiritual and contemplative life, but also toward religious life as a guarantee of salvation of the soul and inner peace. It certainly changed both his life and history.

His father was opposed to Luther’s decision to become a monk and did not consent even when he learned about the lightning-inspired vow, doubting the authenticity of the vocation and of the “sign from the heavens.” Luther spoke often about his father’s objections to his vocation, even recalling it on the occasion of his presbyteral ordination in 1507. In the preface of De votis monasticis, written a few years later in the form of a letter addressed to his father, he confesses: “I told you that I was called by the terror of the heavens. In fact, neither willingly, nor from my own desire, did I become a monk, much less from the desire for material advantage, but was persecuted by the terror and anguish of a sudden death. So, I took a vow, which was forced and not free.”[2] The decision to become a monk was experienced then as a sudden and unexpected event. In 1519 his friend Crotus Rubeanus compared the lightning strike of Stotternheim with the calling of St. Paul as an apostle: Luther had been struck down “like a second Paul on the road to Damascus.”[3]

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