Facts and Photos
James Kittelson says of Erfurt: "Erfurt was a city of hills, woods, streams, and the spires of many churches, including a cathedral that rose up out of the tallest hill and presided over all like a brooding citadel. Nothing could convey the awe and majesty of God with such force as did this great, stone presence. Churchgoers had to climb a great pile of stone steps just to reach it from the city below" (44). In this towering cathedral (Photo B) Luther was ordained a priest.
Luther arrived in 1501 to study at the University of Erfurt, founded in 1392. Photo D is the newly-reconstructed entrance of the former university, which closed in 1816. Luther completed his bachelor of arts in the minimum time allowed, one year, and finished the master of arts in two years, graduating second his class of seventeen. He was registered to study law until his thunderstorm experience and vow to St. Ann changed the direction of his life in 1505.
Luther had many options for monastic life in Erfurt–there were eleven monasteries, among them the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Benedictines, and the Augustinian Eremites or Hermits whom Luther joined (not to be confused with the Augustinian Canons, who were in another part of the city). Although the Augustinian Hermits were a mendicant (begging) order, the Black Cloister at the time of Luther was well-endowed and the monks has leisure for study.
Construction on the church began in 1291 and was completed in the mid-fourteenth century. The valuable choir windows in the front, depicting the life of Christ, date from the fourteenth century (Photo E). The side window, facing north, shows the life of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), whose monastic rule the order followed. All the valuable windows were removed during World War II. According to the custom of the time, former abbots were buried in the chancel or choir of the church. As part of the monastic ritual for his final vows, Luther laid prostrate on top of the grave of Abbot Johannes Zacharias, who attended the Council of Constance (1414-1418) and was a leader of those who condemned John Huss and had him burned at the stake for heresy. In this church Luther celebrated his first mass on May 2, 1507 in the presence of his father.
The oldest part of the monastery is the guest house or hospice (photo H). Luther stayed here for several weeks when he initially entered the monastery until he was formally accepted into the novitiate. His father also stayed in the guest house when he came for son Martin's first mass.
On Monday mornings our German instructor, Iris, would greet us with this question: "Was hast du am Wochende gemacht?" (What did you do on the weekend?) I carefully thought through the proper grammar and when my turn came, I replied, "Ich habe geschlafen, wo Martin Luther geschlafen hatte." (I've slept where Martin Luther had slept.) When the five of us (my parents, Richard and Miriam Carter and me) visited Erfurt, we learned that the Augustinian cloister rents rooms in the old guest house (58 DM–about $29–per night for a single room, shared bath, and breakfast). I vowed to return and stay there for a number of reasons. It is an incredibly beautiful city, there's so much to see, I would have my own set of keys to the cloister throughout the weekend, and there is also a group of evangelische Schwestern (Protestant sisters or nuns) who follow the Rule of Benedict, living and praying in the cloister four times each day. The small group of seven sisters was very hospitable; during the weekend I joined them for each of their four prayer times at least once, sitting with them in the choir stalls where Luther prayed daily. It was near the end of my time in Germany, when my German was about at its best, so praying the Psalms and singing hymns in German was quite meaningful. I still couldn't understand most of normal conversations outside of class, but with the written text in front of me, with familiar vocabulary and context, my comprehension of the language was pretty good. At the Sunday divine service, we (I met some friends in Erfurt for the weekend who were on a Bach tour) were invited to come and sit in the choir also, although some of the congregation remained seated in the nave of the church. The liturgy was done with care and reverence, and I felt very much at home. After the divine service, the sisters continued with their service of hospitality, offering coffee to the worshipers in the small café operated by the cloister. The beautiful city, the contemplative setting of the cloister so intimately related to the Luther, the hospitality of the sisters based on the Benedictine tradition of work and prayer that I have grown to appreciate–all these combined to make my stay there a wonderful experience. I was nearly ready to sign up and join the group permanently!