A World Awash in Sheer Monkery

A World Awash in Sheer Monkery

While our modern world may not speak with the same theological vocabulary, modern people face just as much pressure to prove that we are right with ourselves and right with the world. We may not ascend a holy staircase on our knees, but many of us daily count our steps and count our calories. We may not cry out to saints in the middle of a storm, but every time a hurricane comes, leading intellectuals will cry out to science to save us from our carbon sins.

Reformation Day may be behind us, but a huge responsibility lies before us. The faith of the Reformation must be kept alive because the ideas Luther combatted are just as much present in our own day.

The story should be familiar to most Protestants.

Martin Luther was walking toward the village of Sotternheim when he got caught in a thunderstorm. Terrified by a bolt of lightning, Luther cried out in fear, “St. Anne, save me! And I’ll become a monk.” Two weeks later, an anxious Luther entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt.

Five years later, in the winter of 1510, Luther and another monk were on their way to Rome to represent one side of a conflict involving the Order of the Augustinian Hermits. As the junior partner in their monastic tandem, with few official responsibilities, Luther turned the trip into his own personal pilgrimage. For Luther, the Holy City of Rome was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see holy places and sacred shrines, to do works of penance, and to gain indulgences for himself and for his loved ones.

One day while in Rome, Luther visited the Scala Sancta—the Holy Stairs said to be the very steps Christ ascended during his trial before Pontius Pilate. The staircase, filled with relics and carved crosses, provided pilgrims with an unparalleled opportunity to procure a plenary indulgence for himself or for others. A young man racked with guilt, Luther dutifully climbed all 28 steps on his knees, kissing each step as he went and repeating the Lord’s Prayer all along the way.

As earnest as he was in his self-abasement, the Scala Sancta provided no relief for Luther’s anxiety. Upon reaching the top, Luther looked back down and said to himself, “Who can know if these things are so?” Luther desperately wanted to know that he was right with God, which is why he cried out to St. Anne in the thunderstorm, and why he made an 800-mile pilgrimage across the Alps to Rome, and why he climbed the Holy Stairs on his knees, and why he was almost killing himself with vigils, prayers, and a punishing pursuit of obedience.

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