The movement in the late Middle Ages called the Devotio Moderna revitalized the religious interest of the laity, contributed to the reform of discipline in numerous monasteries, and promoted a greater devotion to duty among the clergy. of the teachings and activities of Master Gerard Groote of Deventer, who after his own conversion from a worldly life, became a zealous promoter of moral reform. Although centered in the Low Countries and Germany, the movement made its beneficial influence felt as far as France and Spain.
Groote, who remained a faithful member of the Catholic Church, is sometimes described as a "forerunner of the Reformation" together with Ruusbroec, Thomas a Kempis, Eckart, Suso and Tauler.
Gerard Groote was born in 1340 in Deventer, an important center of commerce in The Netherlands as early as the ninth century. The town had become a member of the Hanseatic League and was an independent city-state that made its own laws. It was a center of learning which throughout the Middle Ages attracted many young people from various parts of the Low Countries. The Groote family belonged to the leading cloth merchants of Deventer, and had usually one or more members in the senate. The influence of this milieu would mark Gerard for ever as an independent man and more inclined to practical wisdom than to philosophic speculation. After receiving his M.A. degree at the Sorbonne he remained in Paris as a teacher of Latin while he continued his studies in the Faculty of Theology. In 1362 he embarked on the study of law, especially canon law, but he never took a degree in this field of study. He studied also some time at Cologne and Prague and was sure of a brilliant future as a scholar and clergyman. Great mystics have always loved to seek communion with God on the banks of quiet rivers, in forests and deserts. It was of such a country that David wrote: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul."
However this may be, the valley of the Yssel, a Dutch river, became the centre of a great religious movement - the "New Devotion", which developed the institution of the Brethern of the Common Life. It was in this valley that the "Imitation of Christ", next to the Bible the most widely read book in Europe, was composed. Here the "Spiritual Ascensions" was written by Gerard Zerbolt of Zutphen, as well as the "Rosary of Spiritual Exercises" by John Mombaer, which two works- later had a profound influence on Ignatius Loyola. Not only did Loyola use Zerbolt's work as a pattern for his "Spiritual Exercises" but Luther gave it the highest praise. In this valley also Gerlach Peters composed his "Soliloquy", which became the mystical text-book of the Port Royalists or Jansenist in France. Here John Cele lived, the first teacher to introduce the study of the Bible into the elementary schools. And here Gansfort and Erasmus acquired the ideals of reformation which they in turn passed on to Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin.
It was the fortune of the Yssel valley to produce Gerard Groote, the founder of the Brotherhood of the Common Life, who not only preached and wrote, but induced thousands of other to follow his example. He was the spiritual ancestor of Thomas a Kempis, Wessel Gansfort, Hegius, and Erasmus; the inaugurator of the "New Devotion", or Christian Renaissance. Through his influence the schools of Deventer and Zwolle were to become the seats of a revival of learning that was soon to spread all over Western Europe and be carried into the New World.
This "New Devotion", or Christian Renaissance, absorbed the wisdom of the ancients, the essence of Christ's teachings, the mystic religion of the Fathers and the saints of medieval Europe, as well as the learning of the Italian humanists; it assimilated all these ingredients and presented them in a new dress to the old world and the new.
Although he had received several warnings to lead a more serious life, it was an illness that led to Gerard's conversion. His health was restored and he became a new man. He made a general confession of his past sins and changed his dress into the clerical garb. In 1373 he laid down one great principle to dominate his whole further life: the service of God and the salvation of his soul is his principal task in this world; no temporal good whatsoever will be put before the welfare of his soul. From this principle follow the other resolutions. He will not desire more possessions than he already has, and eventually even reduce his actual property, because the more he has, the more he is bound to the world and lacks that inner freedom which is so necessary for the spiritual life. He goes so far as to resolve that from now on there will be no more waste of time on geometric, arithmetic, rhetoric, dialectic, grammar, lyric poetry, or astrological judgments. He abandons philosophy with the exception of ethics, which he believes to be useful both for himself and for teaching others; after all, he reasons, the greatest thinkers of Antiquity always applied philosophy to morals, e.g., Socrates and Plato, and to some extent also Seneca. Anything that tends to the acquisition of more revenues, or that might otherwise result in vainglory and worldly fame is to be given up in the future. Therefore: no more academic degrees, neither in medicine nor in law, and not even in theology no writing of books to demonstrate his talents, no journeys to exhibit his importance, no public or private disputations to show his superiority over opponents.
On September 20, 1374, Gerard signed away the stately mansion in Beguine Street, where he had spent his youth under the loving care of his parents. Although somewhat later the "Master Gerard's House" would develop into the first community of the Sisters of the Common Life, at this point there is no sign that he was thinking of any kind of religious foundation. His house was not given to the Church, but to the City of Deventer, and, after his death, the administration was to be in the hands of the city council. Besides their house Gerard's parents had also left him some large estates - the main source of his annual revenues of 200 gold pounds - which he now wished to "share with the Lord". One estate at least he donated to the Carthusians of Monnikhuizen. The property was given in perpetuity and the only condition was that the Carthusians pay him a modest annuity.
Guest of the Carthusians.
In spite of all precautions his home at Deventer could not seclude Gerard completely from city life, and therefore he looked for a place where he would be entirely free for God and his soul. He chose Monnikhuizen, which is not surprising, for in the opinion of contemporaries the Carthusians were the only order that needed no reform. Moreover, Monnikhuizen was the monastery to which he had donated part of his lands. Gerard entered the monastery shortly after his conversion had been completed, before the end of 1374. He went there as a guest, apparently without the determination to join the Carthusian order. He courageously joined the monks in their prayer, their fasting, and in their manual labor. It is during these years that his ideals which were to inspire others were formed and the spirituality of the Devotio Moderna was born. From now on the principal object of his studies will be the Gospels, because there he finds the example according to which he can reorganize his life: the imitation of the life of Christ will be his highest ideal. A strong emphasis on practical ascetism is characteristic of Gerard: the aim of the spiritual life consists in bringing one's thoughts and actions into perfect harmony with the Will of God, and the means to achieve this is strenuous ascetical effort, e.g. frequent prayer, keeping one's mind busy, minute regulation of all one's actions, repeated checking and amending by self-imposed penance. The life of Christ is the mirror and ideal to be meditated upon and imitated.
A new task.
Gerard had gone to the Carthusians to build up his own interior life and would have preferred to stay in his cell forever and to be forgotten by the world. It was only his sense of duty that made him leave the monastery to devote his talents to a new task He spent three years in study and prayer before he began to preach. He knew only too well that there was a great lack of good preachers, especially of such as lived up to their own sermons. By devoting his talents to preaching he might save not only his own soul but many others as well. One of the first things in preparation for his new task was a book buying trip to Paris in 1377. He had always been a great lover of books and he may have found his library quite inadequate in view of his new task.
Another reason for making this trip was that he desired to visit John Ruusbroec, whose mystical writings had made a deep impression on him.
Ruusbroec had been a canon at St.Gudule's Cathedral in Brussels. His longing for more solitude induced him and two friends to settle down in a little hermitage at Groenendael in 1343. But so many disciples joined them that it was deemed necessary to organize a monastic community. In 1349 Groenendael was formally established as a monastery of Canons Regular of St. Augustine There, in the calm of the forest of Soignes, Ruusbroec - who was prior till his death in 1381 - developed his doctrines of complete detachment from the world, abandonment to the Divine Will, and an intense personal love for God.
On their way home Gerard Groote and his companions made a detour to Groenendael where they were kindly received. During the few days of his sojourn at Groenendael Groote had several long conferences with Ruusbroec, especially concerning the works of the prior himself, because he wished to be sure that he had interpreted his mystical doctrines correctly. They parted as good friends and Groote always retained a deep appreciation for Ruusbroec and his community. Groenendael was the model Groote had in mind when he later planned to found a monastery himself. Their relationship was not however of a nature to classify Groote as a disciple of John Ruusbroec. Groote went his own way in the spiritual life. He was too much of a scientist and jurist to have a taste for flowery language or for mystical speculation.
Groote's preaching was successful largely because he had first practiced what he proposed to others. There are accounts of Groote's ascetic life at home and of his burning zeal for prayer and study. His home at Deventer was a match for any Carthusian cell. He practiced the greatest possible austerity in his meals and refused to spend much time on this necessary operation. He daily said the breviary by himself. During the years 1377-1380 i.e. before the beginning of his preaching, Groote began to take an interest in the many young scholars who attended the Deventer schools. These contacts may be considered as a transition from preaching merely by example to preaching officially and in public from the pulpits. Eventually this activity would prepare the foundation of the Brothers of the Common Life, but for the time being it was closely connected with Groote's interest in books. He invited students to his home, had them copy manuscripts he had borrowed, and thus added many items to his library.
The youths were paid for their work and received an excellent training in one of the most important arts of their time, that of handwriting. But for Groote it was above all an opportunity, which he clearly intended and used to the full, to imbue their young minds with a deep religious spirit. But Groote's remarkable interest in books and his zeal for religious education would become characteristics of the Brothers of the Common Life. Finally in 1379 Groote received his ordination as a deacon and a written authorization from his bishop to deliver sermons in public.
Apostle of the laity.
As he began his mission the first thought of Groote was for the Laity, especially for the poor and simple. The first period of his career as an itinerant preacher was devoted to the IJssel region; his home town of Deventer, where he often preached in St.Mary’s Church, Zwolle, Kampen, Zutphen, and the many villages in between. Only after some practice, and after reaping his first successes, did he venture to go farther away: to Amersfoort, to Utrecht and to the cities of Holland especially Amsterdam, Haarlem, Leyden, Gouda and Delft.
A characteristic feature of Groote’s preaching method was his extensive use of books. The barrelful of books which he and his assistants rolled along the roads of the Low Countries typifies his zeal for accuracy and richness of content. The sermons were often followed by private discussions with the local clergy and other intellectuals, and on such occasions his books were useful. The contents of Groote's sermons differed greatly according to the audience and the occasion, but it is possible to recognize a few themes which recur frequently and characterize the ideals of a true Christian as Groote proposed it. The following subjects were frequently used by Groote in his sermons: the necessity of doing penance; contempt of this world; fear of the last judgment; love of the heavenly fatherland with the beatific vision of God and the everlasting company of the holy angels. Ascetic practices are certainly good, and even necessary, but they must always be directed towards a higher goal: justice, obedience to the Will of God, peace, interior calm and joy in the Holy Spirit. Without such a purpose in mind, asceticism is a dead thing and bears no fruit of eternal life. With its strong emphasis on practical virtue and tangible results for ascetical efforts, this preaching seems to confirm the businesslike character which is often ascribed to Groote's spirituality. However, the most important theme in Groote's preaching to all classes of people was undoubtedly the ideal of imitation of Christ.
He again accentuates the practical aspects of piety as strongly as possible: meditation and knowledge alone are not sufficient, but it is necessary to confess Christ in word and to imitate Him in work, to strive for perfect conformity with His life and death, if we desire to rise with Him and to ascend into heaven.
When Groote began to preach the whole city of Deventer was stirred, for here was a man who admittedly had not been better than anybody else, but did not hesitate to denounce his former way of life. Groote could speak out strongly against evil because his life showed that he spoke as a man of God; that was the secret of his success. So large indeed were the crowds listening to his sermons that the churches and churchyards were too small to hold them. Many people left their meal on the table in order to hear Groote. Sometimes he preached as long as three hours and often preached twice a day in the same place. This enthusiasm was not only external. Most of Groote's hearers had a sincere desire to live a good Christian life, and many began to strive for perfection.
The action for moral reform of Groote and his disciples met with bitter hostility. There were three groups of antagonists, which each opposed Groote for different reasons.
The first group is to be found at Kampen, where some of the magistrates and most citizens adhered to the sect of the Free Spirit. The people of Kampen had a grudge against Groote, for he had insulted them deeply by his action against Bartholomew of Dordrecht. They had eagerly believed in the teachings of this eloquent monk, but Groote accused him of heresy.
Opposition came also from some members of the Dominican order. One probable reason for disliking him was the fact that he was an ininerant preacher and thus seemed to arrogate a privilege that was properly reserved to the mendicant orders. Also the mendicant insisted that the communities of the Brothers and Sisters of The Common Life were unlawful.
The third group of antagonists must be sought among the secular clergy, in particular those who Groote attacked so forcefully. It was a time of great tension and finally in the fall of 1383, a formal petition was presented to the bishop of Utrecht to withdraw Groote's preaching faculty. The initiative for this action was taken by the citizens of Kampen, but they were supported by some members of the Dominican order. The request was granted. Bishop Florent van Wevelinckhoven, who had authorized Groote's action for moral reform in his diocese and invited him to preach at the synod, yielded to the opposition. It is unknown if and what formal accusations were filed. Groote was never censured or suspended, and his faculties were revoked only in an indirect way. Bishop Florent issued a decree whereby the permission to preach was reserved to priests alone so that deacons were excluded from the pulpit. Since Groote was a deacon the probition applied to him, but when shortly afterwards all deacons of the diocese were given new faculties individually, Groote was passed over.
Although Groote was not permitted to preach, he was still able to continue his action for moral reform by private counseling and used his opportunities to the full. More than ever before he devoted himself to the formation of his disciples. It was for them in the first place that he translated parts of the breviary into Dutch and added explanatory glosses to difficult passages.
In 1384 some of his discples expressed their desire to move to a remote place where they would be able to lead a contemplative life without disturbance. Master Gerard was highly pleased with their request, but did not see the plan realized, for it was not until the beginning of 1386 that the little monastery of Mount St.Agnes near Zwolle was opened. The importance of the event lies in the fact that the monastic and contemplative element, which was to become the most successful embodiment of the Devotio Moderna, goes back to Groote himself. It was ultimately his veneration for Ruusbroec that induced Groote to plan the foundation of a monastery of Canons regular. Groote's admiration for the great prior of Groenendael may have been a sufficient reason for him to choose the Rule of St.Augustine. By building a monastery for part of his disciples Groote would give evidence of his high esteem for the monastic life in its traditional form. The monastery was to give a good example to the Brothers who lived in the world and should receive them hospitably.
The rules were rather easy to observe and would not require a big change in the way of life they were accustomed to.
The end of the journey.
In August 1384 there was a sudden flare-up of the plague at Deventer, and one of Groote's friends, Lambert Stuerman, a cleric, was among those stricken. Not long before Stuerman had made his will and destined a sum of money for the monastery of Canons Regular which Groote planned to build. Hence, when called upon to use his knowledge of medicine, Groote was all the more willing to nurse his friend. Unfortunately he contracted the contagious disease himself. Knowing that he would not be able to survive he asked to receive the Last Sacraments. On August 20th, between five and six o'clock in the afternoon, he departed from this world. With tears in their eyes the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life paid the last honors to their Master and sang a solemn requiem. The funeral was attended by large crowds of people. Groote was buried in St.Mary's Church where he had preached many times.
His disciples carried on his task. By the beginning of 1386 the Brothers of Zwolle completed the construction of a little hermitage in the Nemel hills, on the spot which Groote had indicated. This was the beginning of Mount Agnes. The Brothers of Deventer built a monastery at Windesheim and on October, 17, 1387, six of them took their first vows as Canons Regular. Under the protection of Windesheim and its daughter houses the Brothers were able to continue their apostolate among the students of the public schools. At last, in 1401, their organization was officially appointed by the bishop of Utrecht, then Frederick van Blankenheim. The council of Constance solved the last doubts, and from then on the Devotio Moderna flourished and made its influences felt far beyond the borders of the small country where its origin lay.
The Rise of the Devotio Moderna.
On the 21st of September 1374 Groote ceded the use of his house to some poor women. Five years later he drew up a constitution for the little society, in which he clearly set forth the reason why he had asked these women to live in his house. Not to found a new monastic order, he wrote, has they come to live here, but simply to find a place where they might worship God in peace. Only those could secure admittance who were not bound by monastic vows; nor were they expected to take such vows on entering the house. They should all be free to leave if they chose. All the inmates of the house would remain members of the local parish church, just as all other laymen. Their clothes should in no respect be different from those of the other women in the city, for they were neither nuns nor beguines. One might even be a member of the society without living in the "Meester-Geertshuis", or Master Gerard's house, at all. At first they had one matron, later two. The matrons were to act as treasurers of the house, and would have authority to make all members perform manual labor. Their orders were expected to be promptly obeyed. The constitution of the "House of Master Gerard" further stated that the members were to live soberly, wear simple clothes. No one would be expected to cede her property, on entering the house; the sisters would all work in common and share the expenses together, while the income would be equally divided. Every member of the house who was able to work would be expected to contribute her share of manual labor, for Groote did not want the sisters to beg under any circumstances. Each member, however, was to perform those tasks for which she was specially fitted by nature. Soon the sisters became great adepts in agricultural pursuits; they had a flourishing dairy business, and many of them earned neat little sums through their skill in sewing, knitting, weaving and spinning.
In composing this constitution for the Sisters of the Common Life, Groote prepared the way for a mightier organization known later as the Brethern of the Common Life. Shortly after he left the Carthusian monastery of Monnikhuizen near Arnhem, he had succeeded in recruiting a number of devout followers. In 1380 a man joined them who was destined to become the leader of the Devotio Moderna. This man was called Florentius Radewijns. Born at Leerdam in the year 1350 he had gone to Prague in 1374, and received a master's degree in 1378. So much impressed was he by Groote's imposing personality that he decided to imitate him in all things. He became vicar of the altar of St.Paul in St.Lebwin's Church at Deventer.
It was in Radewijns' vicarage that Groote's twelve disciples used to meet, though not all of them actually lived in his house.
So highly did Groote respect his faithful friend that he had urged him to become a priest. As for himself he thought he was too great a sinner to join the ranks of the priesthood. But Radewijns was endowed with special gifts of devotion. He was wont to practice what he preached and always ready to take an active share in his neighbor's sorrows. A few words from Radewijns' lips would comfort all. "This", says Thomas a Kempis, "I have often tried and experienced myself." No wonder that Thomas a Kempis, who had spent several years in Radewijns' presence, often used to look upon his stay at Deventer with a feeling of reverence and intense gratitude. Florentius Radewijns was a man who lived the ideals of the Imitation of Christ. He compares man with a musical instrument; man in his present state is out of tune with the infinite. When one is converted, one's improper and imperfect affections or emotions are changed into pure love; one will then love God for God's own sake. All our reading, meditations, and prayers should be concentrated chiefly upon the abolition of sin, thus making room for love.
Windesheim and Diepenveen.
The monastery of Windesheim had been founded in the year 1386 by Groote's followers at Deventer, who wished to materialize his plans. They wanted a permanent place of refuge for those among their number who preferred the monastic life, and a place that might afford a temporary shelter to the brethern left behind at Deventer, in case of need. Windesheim was situated in the IJssel valley, three miles southeast of Zwolle.
The six brethern who were going to live there took the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. But, although they had been instructed by Groote and Radewijns in the essentials of the Christian religion, they knew practically nothing about the monastic life and its ceremonies. They decided to spend a few days at the Augustinian monastery of Eemsteyn near Dordrecht, where some of Groote's best friends were now practicing the rules of the Augustinian Canons Regular with the ardor of the new Devotion. Here they were kindly accepted and initiated into the rituals of the Augustinian order, which the monks of Eemsteyn had learned from those of Groenendaal, Ruysbroeck's monastery. The vows of obedience were not to the bishop of Utrecht and no promises of allegiance to any party or power were made. Also there was no submission to any rules except those they were to formulate themselves. The cause of this independent attitude was perhaps the inborn love for personal liberty so characteristic of the Frisians and the Saxons.
Although these men were first taught by the monks of Eemsteyn near Dordrecht and Groenendaelnear Brussels, they soon surpassed them all in moral force and religious zeal. Windesheim was the pride of Groote's followers and from 1400-1424 it was the center of the "New Devotion". Of the forty brethern invested before 1424, one half became rectors or priors of monasteries built or reformed under their supervision.
The convent of Diepenveen, founded as it had been by the Sisters of the Common Life, always kept in close touch with the sister-houses. Together with the "house of Master Gerard" at Deventer, it continually strove to improve conditions in the existing houses, and to found new ones. There were also some houses of the Sisters of the Common Life which had been founded by Diepenveen and which at a later date were changed into convents. The monasteries of Windesheim and Diepenveen have often been called "model convents" of the fifteenth century. The reforms introduced by them were the chief cause which for a time at least halted the downfall of monasticism in north central Europe.
Windesheim became famous also as a center of literature and art. The monks belonging to this congregation often spoke about the inner life, but they also held learning in high regard. There were many scholars in the monasteries and splendid libraries. though at first the monks at Windesheim copied books chiefly for their own use, they began about the year 1950, to edit work for export to foreign countries. One of the most remarkable achievements Windesheim could boast of was the correction of the Vulgate. The monks had made up their minds that the Latin Bibles then in use differed too much from each other to be all correct. For several years they compared different editions until finally their standard copy was completed. So well did they perform their task that their copy became the basis for the vulgate adopted officially by the Church at the close of the fifteenth century. In a similar way they brought out editions of the Fathers.
If one takes a general view of the Windesheim group one must come to the conclusion that the remarkable moderation displayed by the monks and nuns of this chapter in all their ways of living and of expressing their thoughts, is highly commendable and truly amazing. The chapter of Windesheim was indeed one of the greatest and perhaps the most influential in the whole history of Western monasticism. Several hundred monasteries had for a time at least basked in the gentle warmth of the newly awakened religious life, that was proceeding in all directions from Windesheim and Diepenveen.
The Windesheim Congregation, in pointing out the uselessness of mere form, and in stressing the need of a personal, living faith, helped unconsciously to prepare the way for a great religious upheaval. Its missionaries scattered the works of Groote, Radewijns, Zerbolt, Peters, and Thomas a Kempis across the Continent, so that even today one finds copies of them in libraries and book-stores in most of the larger european cities. Thus the principles of the New Devotion became the spiritual food of many thousands of devout men and women beyond the Low Countries, ln Germany, France, and Spain, and would later be crystallized in the lives of great reformers, like Luther, Calvin, Zwingly and Loyola.
Other Houses of the Brotherhood.
The brethern-houses of Deventer and Zwolle until the year 1520, were the two chief centers of the New Devotion outside the monasteries. By these all the other houses of the new brotherhood were founded, either directly or indirectly. Radewij us, the first rector of the brethern at Deventer, was asked to found a congregation at Amersfoort. The next place in the Netherlands to ask for a few missionaries of the common life, was the city of Delft, where the magistrates, having heard of the rising fame and the good works of the brethern at Deventer, were anxious to secure a similar society of copyists and teachers. In the following years houses were founded at Hertogenbosch, Doesburg, Groningen, Harderwijk, Utrecht, Nijmegen. In Germany there were many houses. There was a congregation at Munster from the year 1400, founded by Henry of Ahaus, a missionary of the Deventer house. The same Henry of Ahaus instituted a society at Cologne in the year 1417. The brethern at Cologne founded the houses at Wiesbaden, Butzbach near Mainz, Konigstein on the Taunus and Wolf on the Moselle. There were important houses at Rostock, Magdeburg, Marburg, Cassel and Emmerich.
In the Southern Low Countries houses of the Brethern of the Common Life were founded at Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels, Grammont, Mechlin, Cambray, Liege, Louvain, and Wynoksberg.
The Sisters of the Common Life also succeeded in founding a large number of houses, particularly in the IJssel valley. At Deventer they had five houses. At Zwolle there were six. There were three houses at Zutphen, two at Doesburg, Kampen and Lochem, two at Utrecht, one at Arnhem, Doetinchem, Gorichem and a host of other places. The houses of the brethern at Zwolle had charge of nineteen sister-houses.
How did the Brethern of the Common Life usually pass their time and what were the most characteristic features of their organization? Their constitutions were practically uniform in Germany, and nearly so in the Low Countries.
The brethern of Deventer and Zwolle wrote: "Our house was founded with the intention that priests and clerics might live there, supported by their own manual labor, namely the copying of books, and the return from certain estates, attend church with devotion, obey the prelates, wear simple clothing, preserve the canons and decrees of the saints, practice religious exercises and lead not only irreproachable, but exemplary lives, in order that they may serve God and perchance induce others to seek salvation. Since the final end of religion consists in purity of heart, without which we shall seek perfection in vain, let it be our daily aim to purge our poisoned hearts from sin, so that in the first place we may learn to know ourselves, and endeavor with all our strength to eradicate the vices of our minds; despise temporal gain, crush selfish desires, aid others in overcoming sin, and concentrate our energy on the acquisition of true virtues, such as humility, love, chastity, patience, and obedience. Toward this end we must direct all our spiritual exercises: prayer, meditation, reading, manual labor, watching, fasting - in short the harmonious development of our internal and external powers."
"Whereas the fear of the Lord is necessary to those who wish to overcome evil, it is expedient for each of us to meditate on such subjects as induce it.
The constitutions further state that the brethern were to rise between three and four o'clock in the morning (later shortly before five), preparing themselves at once for prayer and the reading of certain prescribed selections. All the members of the house were expected to attend the daily mass, and were exhorted to free their mind from all distractions, "thus preparing themselves, as it were, for a spiritual communion."
Since it was considered most beneficial for all men to perform some manual labor every day, the brethern would be expected to spend several hours a day in copying religious books, or else in performing other tasks. But lest the spirit suffer from neglect, they should occasionally utter short prayers, called "ejaculations." The brethern were to consume their meals in silence, in order that they might pay proper attention to the reading of a selection from the Bible. After supper they could do as they pleased in their own rooms till eight o'clock. At eight all guests would have to leave the house. The doors were shut fast, and silence was observed till half past eight, when they went to bed.
On Sundays and holidays certain passages in the Scriptures were read and explained; and in this connection there was opportunity for general discussion, when each member of the house could freely express his opinions, as long as he did not indulge in impractical disputes and argumentations. The school boys and other people were invited to attend the discussions which were held in the vernacular. The influence thus exerted upon the common people by the brethern is incalculable. For not only were there a great many among them whose fame as orators brought people long distances to hear them, but it was their combined, their continued efforts, which must have brought tangible results, considering the great number of holy days they observed.
Their voices were seldom heard on the streets, for they wished to avoid publicity. nevertheless, their influence, though not always manifested visibly. reached the minds of thousands, while the books they circulated reached still larger numbers. They continued their labors in an orderly way. The brethern were always ready to help the sick and comfort the afflicted. And the school boys could always get a room in their dormitories, no matter whether they were able to pay for them or not. By preaching reform to all men and women the brethern labored and formed the great movement which throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries helped to change the medieval mind into the modern mind.
As time went on the Brethern of the Common Life found it necessary to appoint rectors, procurators, librarians, and several other office-holders. In the constitutions of the houses at Deventer and Zwolle the duties of the rector, procurator, librarian, tailor, and nurse were carefully outlined; several other offices were treated together in one chapter, though later they were more elaborately discussed in the constitutions used by the German houses belonging to the "Colloquium of Munster."
The houses of the Brethern of the Common Life in the Low Countries used to send representatives to their annual meeting, called "Colloquium Zwollense." Another means of preserving discipline and unity were the annual visitations by two rectors, preferably those of Zwolle and Deventer.
Each house should, if possible, have four priests and some other members of the clergy. If somebody applied for admission, the brethern were required to examine his physical condition, and his mental equipment; he should be asked from which country he had come. He would be asked, also, whether he could write, and loved to read books. In case he was found to be in good health and of sound mind and habits, he would be allowed to remain in the house for two or three months, whereupon he might be promoted to a further trial of ten or twelve months. After this lapse of time he might become a Brother of the Common Life, having first sworn before a notary public and in the presence of some witnesses that he renounced all claim to any property of his own. Members could be expelled in case of ill-behavior. the brethern were exhorted to preserve mutual love, peace, and harmony, and although none of them would be expected to take the vows of chastity and obedience, nevertheless they all should strive to cultivate these virtues.
The Brethern and Sisters of the Common Life may well be called practical mystics, in distinction from such men as John Ruysbroeck. Love for their neighbor impelled them to work among the people in the cities. Their highest aim was the reformation of the Church, which could most effectively be done, they thought, by educating the youths of the land, and by instructing the common people in the essentials of the Christian religion. They paid much attention to their "spiritual natures", or their "inner selves". Formed in the image of God, as they believed, and assured by Christ that the kingdom of heaven is found within the human heart, they continually strove to explore their inner lives, to unite their inner selves with God or Christ, and thus regain their lost heritage. They were also much given to meditation.
The New Devotion in France.
In France Paris became and remained the one chief centre of the Christian Renaissance. Two men were to determine the character of this movement in France: John Standonckand John Mombaer, both natives of Brabant. John Standonckwas born in the year 1450 After attending school for a few years in his native town Mechlin he went to Gouda where the Brethern of the Common Life had founded a boarding school within their own building. Here the boy was given a scholarship. All his physical and mental needs were provided for by the pious brethern. He became one of the best students at Gouda and the seeds of the "New Devotion" found a very fertile soil in his young heart. In 1469 he matriculated at Louvain and not long thereafter we find him in Paris where for some time he acted as librarian of the Sorbonne. Not only did he preach at Paris, but he founded a dormitory for poor students very much like those erected by the brethern at Deventer and Zwolle. In this dormitory Lrasmus was to have a room some day, and also Calvin. Here the masterpieces of Christiaa mysticism would be read and copied in untold numbers, among them the "Imitation", the "Spiritual Ascensions", and the "Rosary of Spiritual Exercises".
In 1490 John Standonck bought a small house on the Rue des Sept-Voies. Here he invited a small number of poor students to live with him, who attended the courses at Montaigu, but resided at Standonck's house, forming a sort of semi-monastic fraternity in imitation of the dormitories of the Brethern of the Common Life. In 1493 more than eighty of them were lodging with Standonck. The house had become too small. Standonck was now obliged to look for more spacious quarters. Fortunately his acquaintance with some of the most influential men in the kingdom was to result in providing him with a still better home. A new chapel was built and a new dormitory. Early in the year 1495 the first eighty-six occupants entered their new home. The whole group of buildings was henceforth referred to as the college of Montaigu. The rules of Montaigu owe much to those in use at Deventer and Zwolle. One might state that the institution of Standonck at Paris was an offshoot of those of the brethern. In 1503 more than 200 students were living in the dormitory of Montaigu. The king was very much pleased with Standonck's work and granted the college 200 pounds a year. The "congregation" sent out three hundred men to reform monasteries and it was therefore a preparatory school for the reformed monastic orders.