Those Medieval Monks You Were Warned About

elieve me, medieval monks have gotten a bum rap. For far too long, most of us have thought of the Middle Ages as a time when Europeans wandered in the dark, constantly checking their calendars to see if it was time for the Enlightenment yet. The darkness, according to Protestants, was spiritual in nature, as the true Gospel was subverted by a power-hungry clergy which lived and breathed to keep layfolk subjugated to works-righteousness. “The church of that day taught that men must work hard to earn their salvation” is a quote I found on one Protestant website; it is representative of what many Protestants believe concerning medieval Catholic doctrine. As any historically ignorant person will insist, the Church of the Middle Ages had allowed the lamp of truth to burn so low that no one knew that it is by grace that we are saved through faith, or that we must be born again, or that Christianity is a relationship with a Person. Works-righteousness ruled, they will tell you. After all, former Augustinian monk Martin Luther claimed that no one read the Bible in those days. In fact, if you believe him, few people even knew what the Bible was!

Thirty years ago, no one read the Bible, and it was unknown to all. The prophets were not spoken of and were considered impossible to understand. And when I was twenty years old, I had never seen a Bible. I thought that the Gospels or Epistles could be found only in the postills [lectionaries] for the Sunday readings. Then I found a Bible in the library, when I first went into the monastery, and I began to read, re-read and read it many times over and reread the Bible many times….

Immersing himself in Bible study as an Augustinian monk, however, seemed to exacerbate Luther’s fears of judgment:

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him.

I was myself more than once driven to the very depths of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!

Luther tried as hard as he could to please this seemingly implacable God:

I was indeed a pious monk and followed the rules of my order more strictly than I can express. If ever a monk could obtain Heaven by his monkish works, I should certainly have been entitled to it. Of this all the friars who have known me can testify. If it had continued much longer, I should have carried my mortifications even to death, by means of my watchings, prayers, reading and other labors.

With claims like those, Luther succeeded in making himself the poster boy for recovering medieval Catholics. Reading these assertions, Protestants allow themselves to be convinced that it was a suppression of the Gospel perpetrated by the Catholic Church which pushed Luther to the brink of despair.

We must note at the outset that Luther’s story about the Bible being unavailable to the common man (before he himself translated it into German) has not held up very well. Historian Jaroslav Pelikan put it politely:

Partisans of Martin Luther and of his Reformation have sometimes given the impression that the translation of the Bible into German begins with him, an impression that his remark that the Bible had been lying “under the bench [unter der Bank]” before the Reformation seemed to foster. The historical situation is, of course, quite otherwise….. [Mentelin’s Biblia Germanica] was followed by seventeen other printed High German and Low German Bibles that appeared before Luther’s September Testament of 1522.

Eighteen different editions of the Bible in German printed before Luther translated his Bible – where did they go? Unless they were printed, boxed up and deep-sixed, those Bibles went somewhere – to someone, right? After all, the law of supply and demand mandates that if no one was willing to buy them, printers wouldn’t have kept printing them. Someone was buying those Bibles. University of Alberta historian Andrew Gow contends that “Luther’s Bible translation was a hit because burghers had been reading vernacular Bibles and biblical texts for so long, not because they had been denied access to the Bible.” Read Professor Gow’s article here; it contains fascinating quotes from other authors like these:

In 1494 a worthy merchant wrote in his diary: “My country abounds in Bibles, works on salvation, editions of the Fathers, and other books of a like sort.”

…Johannes Eck, claimed to have read almost the entire Bible by the time he was ten years old; and the Xanten chaplain Adam Potken had to learn the four Gospels by heart in his youth in the 1470s and read excerpts from the Old and New Testaments daily with his eleven- and twelve-year-old fellow pupils.

Rost notes that eighteenth-century scholars were often surprised to discover that German Bibles had been circulating in large numbers well before Luther’s translation, so steeped were they in the story of Biblical inaccessibility started by Luther himself.

Obviously, the “near-total absence of Bibles” story has to be taken with a grain of salt; since “Hyperbole” was Dr. Luther’s middle name, we should not be surprised. But Martin Luther was adamant when it came to his charge that he had never heard the true Gospel preached when he was a monk. And let’s face it, if monks believed and taught that one had to work one’s way into Heaven by means of “mortifications even to death, by means of watchings, prayers, reading and other labors” such as those Luther claimed to have practiced, then no wonder he exploded with such vehemence against the Catholic system!

Dr. Luther has presented his charges. Now, in the interest of fairness, let’s let his contemporaries, medieval monks and friars, speak for themselves. What did they know about grace, mercy, forgiveness, and the love of God? Did they get worked up over their inability to impress God with their righteousness? Did they despair? Did they even join Luther in periodically hating this God Who seemed impossible to appease? I’ve invited a panel of experts from the High Middle Ages to tell us in their own words what they believe about God, grace, Heaven and how to get there. We have representatives from three different religious orders, three centuries, and four countries: the 12th-century Cistercian monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux (France), the 13th-century Dominican friars Blessed Jordan of Saxony (Germany) and St. Thomas Aquinas (Italy), the 13th-century Franciscan friar St. Anthony of Padua (Portugal), and the 14th-century Franciscan friar St. Bernadine of Siena (Italy).

Gentlemen, thank you for being here! Let’s start with the works-righteousness charge. Tell me, St. Bernard, what’s your plan for working your way to Heaven?

What I need to enter Heaven, I appropriate from the merits of Jesus Christ who suffered and died in order to procure for me that glory of which I was unworthy. St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090- 1153), Cistercian monk

Really? I was told that medieval Catholic monks and friars trusted in their works to save them – with little interest in the Bible, they knew nothing about the necessity of being “born again.” Right? St. Thomas Aquinas, you wouldn’t be familiar with the concept of being born again, would you?

We must be guided and guarded by God, Who knows and can do all things. For which reason also it is becoming in those who have been born again as sons of God, to say: “Lead us not into temptation,” and “Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and whatever else is contained in the Lord’s Prayer pertaining to this. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Dominican friar

St. Bernadine, are you men saying that one becomes a son of God through faith in Jesus Christ?

The Church is indeed built on the Name of Jesus which is its very foundation, and hence it is the greatest honor to cleave through faith to the Name of Jesus and to become a son of God. St. Bernadine of Siena (1380-1444), Franciscan friar

Hey, Blessed Jordan, help me out here – I’m trying to prove a point! If you were acting as a spiritual father to a group of impressionable young women who had their hopes set on Heaven, what would you teach them about works-righteousness?

See to it then, my dearest daughters, that you receive not this grace in vain, this matchless boon which is His gift, the perfect gift which took not its beginning from you but is from above, coming down from the Father of all light, who through His grace has shone in your hearts, calling you into His marvelous light! Bl. Jordan of Saxony (1190-1237), Dominican friar

Right, right….

But I’m sure you guys don’t understand the concept of asking Jesus into your heart. St. Anthony, what do you tell people who want to draw closer to God?

When God dwells in the soul, the soul becomes even more beautiful. For who can be more blessed or more happy than the one in whom God has set up His dwelling place? What else can you need or what else can possibly make you richer? You have everything when you have within you the One Who made all things, the only One Who can satisfy the longings of your spirit, without Whom whatever exists is as nothing. O Possession Which contains all things within Yourself, truly blessed is the person who has You, truly happy whoever possesses You because he then owns that Goodness which alone can make the human mind completely happy. St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231)

That sounds weirdly like someone who has a personal relationship with Christ! St. Anthony, are you saying that you don’t believe that you have to work your way to Heaven? What do you say when you pray to God?

Dear God, what can I give to come to possess You? … O Lord, I already know Your answer. ‘Give me yourself,’ You say, ‘and I will give you Myself. Give Me your mind and you will have Me in your mind. Keep all your possessions, but only give Me your soul. I have heard enough of your words; I do not need your works; only give Me yourself, forever.

You gentlemen are making it awfully hard for me to pin a works-righteousness charge on you! St. Bernard, do you love God? Do you know how much God loves you??

The faithful know how much need they have of Jesus and Him crucified; but though they wonder and rejoice at the ineffable love made manifest in Him, they are not daunted at having no more than their own poor souls to give in return for such great and condescending charity. They love all the more, because they know themselves to be loved so exceedingly…. St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090- 1153), Cistercian monk

Oh, I give up!
Seriously, nobody who has read your writings can claim that you men don’t know that it is by grace that we are saved through faith, or that we must be born again, or that Christianity is a relationship with a Person. Yet that false charge is the prevailing Protestant wisdom….

Was the Augustinian monk Martin Luther (1483-1546) a confused soul who suffered from scrupulosity, or did all medieval monks believe they needed to work their way to Heaven while trembling in fear that they were headed to hell? Let’s get the opinion of one last monk – the Augustinian St. Thomas of Villanova, a Spanish contemporary of Martin Luther’s. St. Thomas, your fellow Augustinian Martin Luther is tormented by the thought that God is a strict and terrible Judge Who will condemn most of us to hell because we’re just not good enough for Heaven. Is that what you believe about God? What would you say to Brother Martin?

Fear not to approach Him with confidence, for He is called by the name of Jesus. He is the Savior and will not reject those whom He ought to save. If a man is condemned to hell, it is not because he has sinned but rather because he has rejected this so abundant and certain source of salvation. St. Thomas of Villanova (1488-1555), Augustinian monk

It seems to me that the Church, which was purportedly trying to replace the Gospel with a lethal combination of works-righteousness, fear, and ignorance of Scripture, certainly shot herself in the foot when she canonized men like you! Contrary to popular opinion, you medieval monks believe that your salvation is a gift from God, that you must be born again as sons of God, that you must have the One Who created all things living in your heart, that God has no need of your works but wants your soul, and that you will only go to hell if you reject this abundant and certain Source of salvation!

And Martin Luther’s problem was… what exactly? It’s certainly plausible that Luther had no idea what his Spanish contemporary St. Thomas of Villanova was teaching. But Luther claimed to be well-read, and all the other men on our panel pre-dated him – their writings were well-known. Yet he was unaware of the Gospel that they preached, and claimed that the Church taught him works-righteousness? Really?

The medieval Church taught exactly what she had learned from the apostles, that we are saved by grace and justified by faith. The witness of these medieval saints attests to that fact. These are the truths that the Church is still teaching today – our doctrine has not changed, though it is commonly misrepresented by the adherents of Luther’s faith ALONE heresy.

Now, were there medieval monks who set a terrible example, living sinful lives and besmirching the good name of their order? You better believe it! Chaucer’s contemporary, English poet John Gower, wrote a description of 14th-century monks gone wild:

A monastic order is good in itself, but we say that those who betray it are evil. There are certainly monks whom ownership of property has made a claim on, men whom no religious order can hold in check through moral precepts. For some men of property seek the leisure of an order so that they cannot suffer any hardships. They avoid being hungry and slake their thirst with wine. They get rid of all cold with their warm furred cloaks. Faintness of the belly does not come upon them in the hours of night, and their raucous voice does not sing the heights of heaven in chorus with a drinking cup. A man of this kind will devour no less than several courses at table, and empties a good many beakers in his drinking. . . . And while you are bringing him wine, he allures women to himself; wanton monasteries now furnish these two things together.

But note how Gower prefaces his complaint: “A monastic order is good in itself, but we say that those who betray it are evil.” Amen! The entire history of the monastic orders depicts the cycle of foundation, decline, and reform. Following the Second Universal Law of Spiritual Thermodynamics, what began well often degenerated into an ugly mess. Spanish Carmelite friar St. John of the Cross, for example, devoted his adult life to reforming his order – the same St. John, by the way, who wrote:

I have said that God is pleased with nothing but love; but before I explain this, it will be as well to set forth the grounds on which the assertion rests. All our works, and all our labors, how grand soever they may be, are nothing in the sight of God, for we can give Him nothing, neither can we by them fulfill His desire, which is the growth of our soul. As to Himself He desires nothing of this, for He has need of nothing, and so, if He is pleased with anything it is with the growth of the soul; and as there is no way in which the soul can grow but in becoming in a manner equal to Him, for this reason only is He pleased with our love.

But prevailing Protestant wisdom says that medieval monks and friars were lazy, venial, hard-headed, hard-hearted and smelly, and that they were like that because they were ignorant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That would be news to St. Bernard, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Thomas of Villanova, St. Anthony, St. John of the Cross, St. Bernadine and Blessed Jordan, whose theology received the Catholic Church’s wholehearted support – she canonized them, didn’t she? If they were teaching something other than what she believed, why in the world would she give them her Good Faithkeeping Seal of Approval?

Dr. Luther, can you explain this discrepancy?


On the memorial of Bl. Nazju Falzon

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. Nancy said:

    I find this nothing short of brilliant. What an inspired way to present it. Reading it again….

    • Thank you, Nancy! I think Martin Luther’s rhetoric has been allowed to define our understanding of the late Middle Ages for far too long!

  2. One of the obvious (obvious to me, at any rate) ways getting into history can set you free is learning about the Middle Ages – so many people are so sure they know that they were backwards, evil, and mindless that finding out that they were one of the great flowerings of humanity should awaken anyone from their dogmatic slumber,

    I mean, can anyone with even a sliver of openness to their minds look at the thousands of cathedrals and churches built during the Middle Ages, and all the artistry and humor and glory in them, and think: built by humorless, stupid, backwards people?

    Not to mention the glory these buildings give to God, and think these people lacked spiritual depth? Forget the subtle stuff like Aquinas and guilds and development of agriculture, hospitals and universities – just look at the buildings that are still there today.

    Either execrable ignorance or willful blindness.

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