Theory, Practice and Devotion
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
inflicted these and many other horrors for 16 years, until a
"messenger from heaven" told him he no longer needed to perform
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
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.
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.
Jan van Ruysbroek (1293-1381) was the third and most important disciple of
Eckhart. Underhill considers him "the greatest of Christian
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.
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.
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.
Though Ruysbroek taught the notion of a "divine
spark" as did Eckhart, 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.
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. 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.
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.
Edited September 30, 2000 and dedicated to Mignon Snyder.
Theologia qtd. by Cox 110.
by Cox 108.
Germanica, qtd. by Underhill 139.
in Cox 118.