Recently on Catholic Answers, Steve Ray took an hour to explain how to “develop your spiritual life.” Steve explained how everything we do is “spiritual” if done under the lordship of Christ. He mentioned that even changing the diaper of a baby “is a spiritual act because I’m doing what God wants me to do at that moment.” You can listen to an excerpt of Steve’s comments here. Ironically, this is actually Protestant theology 101. Perhaps it’s a remnant of insight from Steve’s Protestant days.
In contrast to Ray’s insight, the medieval Catholic church offered the monastic life as a means to be truly spiritual. If you entered the monastery, you would be taking the path of the apostolic lifestyle. A renunciation of the things of this world was the way to deep spirituality. Monks took on the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, as these were thought to be the ways in which the apostles lived (the Councils of Perfection). The medieval church held these were not obligations placed on all Christians, only those wishing for a deeper level of spirituality on the path to eventual salvation.
Martin Luther joined the monastery because he was serious about his soul and being truly spiritual. Commenting on his monastic life, Luther stated, “It is true, I was once a pious monk, and so strictly did I observe the rules of my order that I may say: If ever a monk got to heaven through monasticism I, too, would have got there…. If this life had lasted longer, I would have martyred myself to death with vigils, praying, reading, and other labor.” Luther became a strong critic of monastic spirituality, rejecting the sacred-secular dichotomy that dominated the medieval church. He put forth the priesthood of all believers. A Christian was a priest before God regardless of his occupation. Luther stated:
It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are called the spiritual estate, while princes, lords, artisans, and farmers are called the temporal estate. This is indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy. Yet no one need be intimidated by it, and for this reason: all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them except that of office [LW 44:127].
It follows from this argument that there is no true, basic difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, between religious and secular, except for the sake of office and work, but not for the sake of status. They are all of the spiritual estate, and are truly priests, bishops, and popes. We are all one body of Christ the Head, and all members one of another. Christ does not have two different bodies, one temporal, and the other spiritual. There is but one Head and one body. [LW 44: 129-130].
This was a strong antidote to the works driven medieval view of spirituality. The monastic life ceased being the highest calling. Luther’s paradigm affirmed the sacredness of every calling, whether one was a cobbler, blacksmith, or mother. Whatever one does, one should do to the glory of God. Note Luther’s words on parenthood:
Now observe that when that clever harlot, our natural reason (which the pagans followed in trying to be most clever), takes a look at married life, she turns up her nose and says, “Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labor at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves? What, should I make such a prisoner of myself? O you poor, wretched fellow, have you taken a wife? Fie, fie upon such wretchedness and bitterness! It is better to remain free and lead a peaceful, carefree life; I will become a priest or a nun and compel my children to do likewise.”
What then does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels. It says, “O God, because I am certain that thou hast created me as a man and hast from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will? O how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight” [LW 45:39].
There is a fundamental difference though between what a contemporary Catholic apologist and Martin Luther are saying. For a Roman Catholic, one must become perfectly spiritual in order to become justified. The soul must become objectively pleasing to God to merit heaven. For Luther, whatever work we do, we do out of gratitude to God for the perfect work of salvation Christ has accomplished already. Luther states,
“Keep in mind, that you need not do any work for God nor for the departed saints, but you ask and receive good from him in faith. Christ has done and accomplished everything for you, atoned for your sins, secured grace and life and salvation. Be content with this, only think how he can become more and more your own and strengthen your faith. Hence direct all the good you can do and your whole life to the end that it be good; but it is good only when it is useful to other people and not to yourself. You need it not, since Christ has done and given for you all that you might seek and desire for yourself, here and hereafter, be it forgiveness of sins, merit of salvation or whatever it may be called. If you find a work in you by which you benefit God or his saints or yourself and not your neighbor, know that such a work is not good.” [Sermons of Martin Luther 1:36].