Eucharistic Theory, Practice and Devotion
of the Brethren of the Common Life
Jackson Snyder, December 3, 1990

 

Part 2

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  The Friends of God and The Negative Way

The Friends was a loose, lay movement of the Low Countries in the early 14th century, inspired by the experiential nature and language of the Eckhartian corpus. The Friends (so similar to the later English movement of the same name) gathered in small groups, each with a spiritual leader, and produced prophets and visionaries. They considered themselves as the “inner church” guided directly by the Holy Spirit, teaching a doctrine based on Eckhart's "divine spark." When that subtle but vital spark (which is the God-light within) is uncovered, the process of "regeneration" begins. Direct and "immediate revelation" from God became the higher authority and a more immediate truth than the Church or the Scriptures.  

Johann Tauler (1300-1361) was the Friends' greatest spokesman and most inspiring preacher. He wrote that “great doctors of Paris read ponderous books and turn over many pages; the Friends of God read the living book in which everything is life.[2] Tauler's interpretation of Eckhart included the idea that when God imparts truth to his Friend, the latter becomes a "supernatural and divine person," given "all truth," and "wonderful discernment." "You can learn more from the inward voice than you could learn from a man in a thousand years," he wrote. Tauler subscribed to a severe regimen of self-renunciation, a "consuming thirst" for suffering, and, though it was good for a man to have a quiet life in God, it was better to experience a painful life of patience, and best if he should feel secure in a life of suffering.[3]  

The “consuming thirst” for suffering was to be quenched in some rather hideous ways. The Friends inflicted terrible bodily tortures to mortify the flesh, which often culminated in some kind of mystical experience. This theology of the "negative way" (via negativa) is crystallized in their Theologia Germanica, written in the late 14th century. Emphasis is on first-hand experience:  

It is good that we should learn what holy men have wrought, yet it is a thousand times better that we should in ourselves learn who we are, what God is doing in us, and to what ends he will or will not use us.[4]  

Negative theology in its most radical form is exemplified in the practice of "the Blessed Henry Suso" (1295 - 1366), a disciple of Eckhart and a Friend of God (who writes his autobiography in the third person):  

He wore a hair shirt and iron chain, until the blood ran from him and an undergarment [was] made for him [with] strips of leather fixed, into which one hundred fifty brass nails were driven, and were always turned towards the flesh. In this he used to sleep at night. He devised something further – two leather hoops into which he put his hands, and fastened one to each side of his throat.  

Henry inflicted these and many other horrors for 16 years, until a "messenger from heaven" told him he no longer needed to perform such acts.[5]  

Through Johann Tauler's theology of quietude, pain and physical torment, one could attain a certain perfection and place of knowledge, called the "upper school," as described in the Book of the Nine Rocks, in which the author has been granted a vision and hears the voice:  

Thou hast been in the upper school where the Holy Spirit teaches directly within the man himself. This august Master of the school has taken Thy soul and filled it with such an overflowing love that it has flooded even thy body and transfigured it.[6]  

Yet, even on the negative way, the positive way of love and goodness in Christ is still the prime directive:  

He who is made a partaker of the divine nature neither willeth, desireth nor seeketh anything save goodness and goodness for the sake of goodness. Where this light is, the man's end and aim is not this or that, me or thee, or the like, but only the One, who is neither I nor Thou, this nor that, but is above all I and Thou, this and that; and in Him, all goodness is loved as one Good.[7]  

Jan van Ruysbroek (1293-1381) was the third and most important disciple of Eckhart. Underhill considers him "the greatest of Christian contemplatives[8]", who was able to synthesize the very best aspects of Eckhart's "divine spark," the negative way and contemporary contemplation. Though he was no Friend, he was a colleague of sorts and confidant of the both Tauler and Suso. We might say he was a hermit, but the friend of Friends. As such, he was influential in enabling the Abel and “canning” the Cain from the theology and practice of his Friends.  Born in Brabant, Ruysbroek was well educated by his uncle the priest, although Denis the Carthusian described him as having  

no teacher but the Holy Ghost. He was ignorant and illiterate. His authority I believe to be that of a man to whom the Holy Ghost has revealed secrets.[9]  

Despite this description, Ruysbroek needed facility in Latin to be a priest. A reading of his works reveals that he was well versed in the Latin mystics and, though influenced by the enthusiasm of the times, orthodox in theology and praxis. In fact, much of his prolific writing was devoted to refuting the heresy of the Free Spirit movement.[10] In 1343, he retired to the hermitage of Groenendael (near Brussels), devoting the remaining 38 years of his life to meditation and contemplation. In 1350, the community of Groenendael adapted the rule of Augustine and he was appointed prior. He became a great man of the Faith and received many disciples from all over Europe.[11] 

Though Ruysbroek taught the notion of a "divine spark" as did Eckhart,[12] Tauler and Suso, his interpretation was not that the spark is Deity (panentheism, a heresy), but that the spark is an inner means of grace by which the soul might find unity with God.[13] His description of the spiritual life was similar to the rest: life is continuing progression through life-span experiences, from animal impulses, human senses, mystical encounters, to union with the divine, the latter achieved through devotion, contemplation, sacrifice, and especially, the Eucharist.[14] Communion is of the highest value, Ruysbroek taught, both as "mass" and as a means of personal edification. He wrote of it often.

   By the end of Ruysbroek's long life, his theology flowed in two streams, one stream

a superlative spirituality greatly interested in mystical experiences and the other more practical, chiefly concerned with the problems of ascetical life.[15]  

With Axter's important observation (which the interested reader of this essay should reread before continuing), and after a lengthy introduction to the mood, clime and cast of the 14th century, and the cast rôles, we delicately segue to the primary subject of our study, the "Brethren of the Common Life" by here introducing the community's founder, Gerhard Groote.

Part III

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[1]  Edited September 30, 2000 and dedicated to Mignon Snyder.

[2] Cox 111.

[3] ibid 111.

[4] Theologia qtd. by Cox 110.

[5] Cox 112.

[6] Qut. by Cox 108.

[7] Theologica Germanica, qtd. by Underhill 139.

[8] ibid 136.

[9] Qtd. in Cox 118. 

[10]