Savonarola (1452–1498) Laments After Recanting Under Torture

Savonarola Preaching against Prodigality by Ludwig von Langenmantel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While in prison, Savonarola underwent severe torture, under which he recanted. Ardent for holiness, he had left home as a youth with the family Bible, abandoning his medical studies, to become a monk. Not only did he rise to leadership at St. Mark’s monastery near Florence, but by his preaching and prophecies he became virtually dictator to the city. In time the Florentines tired of his solemnity and strictures and turned against him. Then the churchmen, whom he had strongly criticized for wrongdoing, pounced. They arrested and interrogated Savonarola, trying to find some pretext on which to execute him, and ultimately succeeded.

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Ashamed of his weakness in recanting, Savonarola penned meditations on two penetential Psalms—31 and 51. These became highly influential, being reprinted dozens of times. Just how influential they were can be see in this fact: a quarter of a century later, Martin Luther issued an edition, for which he wrote the introduction, describing Savonarola as a true believer in grace. We reproduce part of each meditation here.

Excerpt from Meditation on Psalm 31

But I will turn myself toward Heaven and then hope will come to my aid. Behold! Already despair quails beneath her glance! Now let the world weigh on me as it will, let my enemies rise against me; my fear has passed from me, for I have rested all my hope in the Lord. Perhaps, O Lord, You will not grant my prayer to be released from bodily anguish, for such grace might be hurtful to the soul, inasmuch as virtue gains strength in tribulation. Then shall I be temporally confounded by men; their strength and power shall be arrayed against me; but you permit it, so that I am not confounded in eternity…Therefore, I will put my hope in the Lord, and He will hasten to deliver me from all tribulation. And by whose merits? Not by mine, O Lord, but by Yours. I offer not up my justice to you, but I seek your mercy. The Pharisees toook pride in their justice; therefore it was not the justice of God, which is only to be attained by grace; and no one will ever be justified in God’s sight solely for performing the works of the law.

Excerpt from Meditation on Psalm 51

Sinner that I am, where shall I turn? To the Lord, whose mercy is infinite. None may take glory in himself. O Lord, a thousand times you have wiped away my iniquity, yet a thousand times have I fallen back into it…But when your Spirit shall descend upon me, when Christ shall live within me, then I shall be safe. Strengthen me in Your Spirit, O Lord; not until then can I teach Your ways to the wicked. If You had asked the sacrifice of my body, I would have given it before now; but burnt offerings are as nothing to You; You would have the offering of the spirit instead. Therefore, O sinner, bring your repentent heart unto the Lord, and nothing else shall be required of you.