The Worldliness of the Monastery (Bonhoeffer)

In this post I simply want to record a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that will come up (Lord willing) in some future thoughts about my summer reading on Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi. Bonhoeffer describes the Augustinian monk Martin Luther’s journey to and from the cloister (paradoxically) as a journey, first, into worldliness, and then into the world:

…Luther passed through the cloister; he was a monk, and all this was part of the divine plan. Luther had left all to follow Christ on the path of absolute obedience. He had renounced the world in order to live the Christian life. He had learnt obedience to Christ and to his Church, because only he who is obedient can believe. The call to the cloister demanded of Luther the complete surrender of his life. But God shattered all his hopes. He showed him through Scripture that the following of Christ is not the achievement or merit of a select few, but the divine command to all Christians without distinction. Monasticism had transformed the humble work of discipleship into the meritorious activity of the saints, and the self-renunciation of discipleship into the flagrant spiritual self-assertion of the “religious.” The world had crept into the very heart of the monastic life, and was once more making havoc. The monk’s attempt to flee from the world turned out to be a subtle form of love for the world. The bottom having thus been knocked out of religious life, Luther laid hold upon grace. Just as the whole world of monasticism was crashing about him in ruins, he saw God in Christ stretching forth his hand to save. He grasped that hand in faith, believing that “after all, nothing we can do is of any avail, however good a life we live.” The grace which gave itself to him was a costly grace, and it shattered his whole existence. Once more he must leave his nets and follow. The first time was when he entered the monastery, when he had left everything behind except his pious self. This time even that was taken from him. He obeyed the call, not through any merit of his own, but simply through the grace of God. Luther did not hear the word: “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolation of forgiveness.” No, Luther had to leave the cloister and go back to the world, not because the world in itself was good and holy, but because even the cloister was only part of the world.

Luther’s return from the cloister to the world was the worst blow the world had suffered since the days of early Christianity. The renunciation he made when he became a monk was child’s play compared with that which he had to make when he returned to the world. Now came the frontal assault. The only way to follow Jesus was by living in the world…(The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 47-48).

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