Luther had a sense of inferiority, and later believed its origins to lie in the sometimes over-strict upbringing in the family home. It may also have postponed the flowering of Luther’s energies and abilities, heightening them when they did emerge during his exhausting years in the Wittenberg friary.
Devout, earnest, self-critical and relentlessly self-disciplined, his only goal as a friar was to earn his way into heaven. He performed his share of manual labor and begged in the city with other monks. "I kept the rule of my order so strictly that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I."
Possibly Luther chose the Augustinians because he was familiar with them. As a student of the University of Erfurt for the previous four years, his lodgings had been the Georgenburse, in the immediate vicinity of the Augustinian Priory. As well, some of the friars from there had possibly been his lecturers, as the University had numerous lecturers who were Augustinian.
The Augustinian friary in Erfurt was long-established. The Augustinians had come to Erfurt in 1266, only ten years after their Grand Union. By the time in 1300 when Germany was made into four Augustinian Provinces, Erfurt was the largest and most important Augustinian priory in the new Province of Thuringia-Saxony.
At the time of Luther’s entry there in 1505, the Erfurt friary had the expected regular religious routine. The spirit within the house, allowing for the natural number of more or less lax members, was quite blameless; and the friars were generally held in high esteem by the citizens who took them for confessors and spiritual directors. With a more than adequate economic base, the friary was then busily constructing new halls for library purposes, also a lecture hall beside their great Gothic church. The Augustinian friary and church were landmarks in the town, and the property formed an island in the busy streets. The friary, in fact, was wealthy because of numerous bequests in the past century, and contained from fifty to seventy priests and lay brothers.
The Erfurt friary was a house of strict observance, which would have been an attraction to Luther. It was one of a group of German Augustinian houses entitled ‘observant’ on account of fairly recent commitment to a stricter regime than had previously been customary. (There were thirty Observant Augustinian houses in Germany, seven of which – including Erfurt – were more strict than the others.) The friars there followed a rule of considerable asceticism. The standard fasts, every Friday, and during other long periods of time including Lent, allowed for only one meal taken late in the day. Kept strictly, these fasts could and sometimes did undermine health. But at other times they ate and drank very plentifully on numerous feast days, as Luther later noted.
Luther then made his Augustinian religious profession at Erfurt in July or August 1506. A few weeks later, he was then ordained a subdeacon (a preliminary step to priesthood) on 19th September 1506. He then began his theological course, which indeed was all too meagre since neither the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas or of his successors, nor even of the renowned Augustinian, Aegidius Romanus (i.e., Giles of Rome O.S.A., circa 1243 - 1316), were well-known at Erfurt.
Luther's textbooks consisted principally of the writings of Occam, Gabriel Biel, some of the writings of the Fathers of the Church, John Gerson, and Cardinal Peter d'Ailly, the latter two of which contained various theological errors and defects concerning papal authority. At the same time that he was attending lectures on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Luther also pursued his scriptural studies, even to the extent of neglecting his theology, for which he was reprimanded by one of his professors, Bartholomäus (Bartholomew) van Usingen O.S.A., but with litile or no effect. (Usingen not only had taught theology to Luther as a young Augustinian but also, even earlier again, had taught him philosophy in the faculty of arts at Erfurt when both of them had still been laymen.)
After only a few months of preparation, because of his educational standing as a Master of Arts, Luther was ordained to the priesthood on Cantate Sunday, 3rd April 1507. He was in such a state of excitement and fear that at times he was scarcely able to continue with his First Mass. And yet so enthused was he over his new joy that he told his father that he had a clear vocation to the Religious life and praised the "monastic life as something high and great. It appears that he entered into his new life within the Erfurt friary with all of his accustomed zeal and fervour, obeying all the rules very attentively. In accordance with the Rule of St Augustine and under the guidance of an experienced director Luther was given ample opportunity for considering whether the spirit which was leading him was of God. Under the tranquilizing influence of the monastic life his latent qualities, dulled by an inauspicious youth, took root. He developed into a promising friar.
Encouraged by the fraternal charity and kindness of his superiors, the young friar learned humility in the performance of menial tasks, strengthened patience and chastity by mortification and self-denial, and, in general, commenced the practice of solid Christian virtue. During this period, Luther seemed satisfied and looked forward with eager expectation to the monastic life which he called a "heavenly life." Competent spiritual guidance and enlightenment were not lacking to Luther neither at this time nor in the following years.
Luther himself praised his novice master as a "dear old man, who, under the damned frock was without doubt a true Christian" and in like manner one of his later professors, Master Bartholomew (Usingen O.S.A.) as the “best paraclete and comforter" in the Erfurt friary. From the first, however, he brooded much and was constantly worried and depressed by "the fear of God's judgment, gloomy thoughts on predestination and the recollections of his own sins.”
Luther's piety during the early years of his religious life seems to be quite well substantiated, although this was partly in spite of experiencing difficulty - spiritually regarding his scruples at not satisfying a demanding God, and psychologically with depression. Luther was nevertheless for twelve years an active and useful friar of the Augustinian Order, respected and trusted by his fellows in religion, and greatly beloved by the Augustinian Vicar-General, Johann von Staupitz O.S.A.
Physically there were the symptoms which became so marked later on in his life; these included excessive sweating, constipation and general nervousness. Constipation became so much trouble that later his letters often made reference to it. For example, at thirty-seven he complained in a letter to a friend: ‘Defecation is so hard that I am forced to press with all my strength, even to the point of sweating, and the longer I delay the worse it gets.’
Luther was sensitive, fond of music, rather afraid of his father and of all authorities, religiously inclined, very intelligent, and unfulfilled emotionally. Psychologically, he could get very merry but also very sad. Later in life he would say of melancholy: .... But in his twenty-second year he was only just beginning to wonder what was hitting him when he was suddenly overwhelmed with this sadness and heartless misery. It was undoubtedly what is now called deep depression.
It was only subsequent to Luther's years at Erfurt - i.e., in 1517, when Luther was thirty-four years of age, and eleven years after his profession as an Augustinian - that any proposition actually opposed to Catholic teaching or practice emanated from his pen. Historians are close to unanimous that during the first eight years - and others say eleven years - of his Augustinian religious life Martin Luther strove zealously to become an exemplary religious, to practice faithfully solid Christian virtues, and to lead a good and holy priestly life.(Continued on the next page.)