Luther’s Journey To Rome
Taken from Wylie’s History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis
Dr Clive Gillis
As often happens, a very trivial matter led to what resulted in the highest consequences both to Luther himself and to Christendom.
A quarrel broke out between seven monasteries of the Augustines and their Vicar-General. It was agreed to submit the matter to the Pope, and the sagacity and eloquence of Luther recommended him as the fittest person to undertake the task. This was in the year 1510, or, according to others, 1512. We now behold the young monk setting out for the metropolis of Christendom.
We may well believe that his pulse beat quicker as every step brought him nearer the Eternal City, illustrious as the abode of the Caesars; still more illustrious as the abode of the Popes. To Luther, Rome was a type of the Holy of Holies. There stood the throne of God's Vicar. There resided the Oracle of Infallibility. There dwelt the consecrated priests and ministers of the Lord. Thither went up, year by year, armies of devout pilgrims, and tribes of holy anchorites and monks, to pay their vows in her temples, and prostrate themselves at the footstool of the apostles. Luther's heart swelled with no common emotion when he thought that his feet would stand within the gates of this thrice-holy city.
Alas, what a terrible disenchantment awaited the monk at the end of his journey; or rather, what a happy emancipation from an enfeebling and noxious illusion!
Luther crossed the Alps and descended on the fertile plains of Lombardy. Weary with his journey, he entered a monastery situated on the banks of the Po, to refresh himself a few days. The splendour of the establishment struck him with wonder. Its yearly revenue, amounting to the enormous sum of thirty-six thousand ducats, was all expended in feeding, clothing, and lodging the monks. The apartments were sumptuous in the extreme. They were lined with marble, adorned with paintings, and filled with rich furniture. Equally luxurious and delicate was the clothing of the monks. Silks and velvet mostly formed their attire; and every day they sat down at a table loaded with exquisite and skilfully cooked dishes. The monk who, in his native Germany, had inhabited a bare cell, and whose day's provision was at times only a herring and a small piece of bread, was astonished, but said nothing. Friday came, and on Friday the Church has forbidden the faithful to taste flesh. The table of the monks groaned under the same abundance as before. As on other days, so on this there were dishes of meat. Luther could no longer refrain. "On this day," said Luther, "such things may not be eaten. The Pope has forbidden them". The monks fearing Luther might report them soon urged him to leave.
The just shall live by faith
Again setting forth, and travelling on foot, he came to Bologna, "the throne of the Roman law". In this city Luther fell ill, and his sickness was so sore that it threatened to be unto death. To sickness was added the melancholy natural to one who is to find his grave in a foreign land. The Judgment Seat was in view, and alarm filled his soul at the prospect of appearing before God. In short, the old anguish and terror, though in moderated force, returned. As he waited for death he thought he heard a voice crying to him and saying, "The just shall live by faith". It seemed as if the voice spoke to him from heaven, so vivid was the impression it made. This was the second time this passage of Scripture had been borne into his mind, as if one had spoken it to him. In his chair at Wittenberg, while lecturing from the Epistle to the Romans, he had come to these same words, "The just shall live by faith". They laid hold upon him so that he was forced to pause and ponder over them. What do they mean? What can they mean but that the just have a new life, and that this new life springs from faith? But faith on whom, and on what? On whom but on Christ, and on what but the righteousness of Christ wrought out in the poor sinner's behalf? If that be so, pardon and eternal life are not of works but of faith: they are the free gift of God to the sinner for Christ's sake.
"The just shall live by faith." As he stood at the gates of death a light seemed, at these words, to spring up around him. He arose from his bed healed in body as in soul. He resumed his journey. He traversed the Apennines, experiencing doubtless, after his sickness, the restorative power of their healthful breezes, and the fragrance of their dells gay with the blossoms of early summer.
Glories of Florence
The chain crossed, he descended into that delicious valley where Florence is watered by the Arno. Florence was then in its first glory. Its many sumptuous edifices were of recent erection, and their pristine freshness and beauty were still upon them. Already Brunell-eschi had hung his dome - the largest in the world - in mid-air; already Giotto had raised his Campanile, making it, by its great height, its elegant form, and the richness of its variously-coloured marbles, the characteristic feature of the city. Already the Baptistry had been built, with its bronze doors which Michael Angelo declared to be "worthy of being the gates of Paradise". Besides these, other monuments and works of art adorned the city where the future Reformer was now making a brief sojourn. To these creations of genius Luther could not be indifferent, familiar as he had hitherto been with only the comparatively homely architecture of a Northern land. In Germany and England wood was then often employed in the construction of dwellings, whereas the Italians built with marble. The wealth of the Medici Bankers now eclipsed all signs of Savonarola's stake and he found no trace of his followers.
So far Luther had failed to discover that sanctity which before beginning his journey he had pictured to himself, as springing spontaneously as it were out of this holy soil. The farther he penetrated into this land of Italy, the more was he shocked at the irreverence and impiety which characterised all ranks, especially the "religious". The relaxation of morals was universal. Pride, avarice, luxury, abominable vices, and frightful crimes defiled the land; and, to crown all, "sacred things" were the subjects of contempt and mockery. It seemed as if the genial climate which nourished the fruits of the earth into a luxuriance unknown to his Northern home, nourished with a like luxuriance the appetites of the body and passions of the soul. He sighed for the comparative temperance, frugality, simplicity, and piety of his fatherland. But he was now near Rome, and Rome, said he to himself, will make amends for all. In that holy city Christianity will be seen in the spotless beauty of her apostolic youth. In that city there are no monks bravely dressed in silks and velvets; there are no conventual cells with a luxurious array of couches and damasks, and curious furniture inlaid with silver and mother-of-pearl, while their walls are aglow with marbles, paintings, and gilding. There are no priests who tarry by the wine-cup, or sit on fast-days at boards smoking with dishes of meat and venison. The sound of the viol, the lute, and the harp is never heard in the monasteries of Rome: there ascend only the accents of devotion: matins greet the day, and even-song speeds its departure. Into that holy city there entereth nothing that defileth.
‘Holy Rome I salute thee'
Eager to mingle in the devout society of the place to which he was hastening, and there forget the sights which had pained him on the way thither, he quitted Florence, and set out on the last stage of his journey. We see him on his way. He is descending the southern slopes of the mountains on which Viterbo is seated. At every short distance he strains his eyes, if haply he may descry on the bosom of the plain that spreads itself out at his feet, some signs of her who once was "Queen of the Nations". On his right, laving the shore of Latium, is the blue Mediterranean; on his left is the triple-topped Soracte and the "purple Apennine" - white towns hanging on its crest, and olive-woods and forests of pine clothing its sides - running on in a magnificent wall of craggy peaks, till it fades from the eye in the southern horizon.
But one object mainly engrossed his thoughts: he was drawing nigh to the metropolis of Christendom. The heights of Monte Mario, adjoining the Vatican - for the cupola of St. Peter's was not yet built - would be the first to catch his eye; the long ragged line formed by the buildings and towers of the city would next come into view. Luther had had his first sight of her whom no one ever yet saw for the first time without emotion, though it might not be so fervent, nor of the same character exactly, as that which thrilled Luther at this moment. Falling on his knees, he exclaimed, "Holy Rome, I salute thee!"
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis