Theory, Practice and Devotion
(1340 - 1384)
was a great disciple of Ruysbroek and founder of what
much later became known as The Sisters and Brethren of the Common Life.
Groote earned his Masters degree from the prestigious University of Paris
and became a professor there. He was brilliant and worldly, and, at one
time, dabbled in secular religion and the black arts. He later received a
papal appointment, and was doomed to be an astonishing success in public
Doomed, that is, until the "divine spark" was awakened within
him at a public sporting match when an anonymous Friend of God approached
him and asked, "Why standest Thou here? Thou oughtest to become
another man!" Soon after (1372), Groote became seriously ill, almost
to death. Through his illness, he became "another man" entirely,
and his life was changed.
In his preparatory period, he drew much from Ruysbroek and visited him at the Groenendaal hermitage in 1377 after reading the latter's many spiritual treatises, finally receiving permission to translate several into Latin. After Ruysbroek's death, Groote edited his master's works in order to tone down some of the more difficult (heretical?) passages and establish better literary organization.
Groote was granted a preaching permit by the bishop of
Utrecht in 1379. Soon after, he became widely known throughout the area
for his revolutionary preaching and consistent lifestyle. His strange attire caused him to be nicknamed and known as
"old grey coat."
Nevertheless, he was well loved, because "He did what he said, and
what he taught that he also lived."
In his expositions, he condemned the clergy mercilessly for
cupidity and luxurious living, and preached the need for a conversion
where "the Holy Spirit inwardly visits, illumines, and changes the
heart of a man."
Before long, his license to preach was revoked by the bishop on a
In 1380, Groote founded a community of religious men in
the Ijssel valley (north of Deventer) modeled after the practices he had
learned from Ruysbroek's hermitage. The brothers described themselves as
simply "the devout." Since Groote had been a
disciple of Ruysbroek and the editor of his works, Ruysbroek's other, more
radical spiritual brothers (such as Tauler, Suso, and the Friends)
extended the right hand of fellowship to the devout and greatly influenced
their religious outlook and practice.
Four years later, Groote died of the plague still a young man.
Later, the group he founded became known locally as the "Congregation
We know the movement today as the Devotio Moderna, or Brethren
of the Common Life. The movement caught on throughout Holland.
Houses were set up in Germany, as well.
The members took no permanent vows (this was the specific
legacy of Groote), they mingled freely in the world for purposes of
service, and they lived from their manual labor without any resort to
begging. They wore simple gray garb, and followed a very simple manner of
life - it was an effort to make daily life spiritual.
Although the Brethren never meant to form another sect (they wanted
to live at peace with the church), they created three problems for the
In order to placate the church on this matter, they
became canons regulars of the Augustinian Rule, like Ruysbroek (but unlike
the Friends, who were Dominicans). They lived from manual labor, mainly
book copying, rather than begging like the beghards and the beguines.
Finally, and most unorthodox for the times, clergy and laity lived side by
side with no status inconsistency.
Although the Brethren were accused of heresy and irregularity on a
number of occasions,
they fought back in a most authentic and excellent manner, and thus won
the approval and sanction of the Church.
Haemerken (Hammerlein) à Kempis (1380-1471)
entered the monastery of the Augustinian Brethren at
Mount St. Agnes where his brother John was prior. At 35, he became a
priest. As mentioned before,
he was a copyist and prolific author, who wrote tracts, treatises, and
biographies, including that of Groote.
He “looked back with veneration to Groote as the master he had
never [actually] seen[, and] expressed [Groote’s] interior message in an
imperishable form in the Imitation of Christ.”
Little is known about his solitary life. I summed it up earlier.
There is much to be gleaned from his Imitation, the most
read Christian book in the world excepting the Bible. A lengthy quote from
Axters (74) explains it best:
The whole work can be summed up as the book of intimacy
with Jesus conditioned by absolute renouncement of self, and in writing it
Kempis was mindful of the store of experience available in those who had
gone before him. Groote and several of his followers used to keep a
rapiarium, 'commonplace book,' in which they wrote down thoughts and
quotations that struck them during the reading.
These rapiara were extensively used in their own work, and Kempis
manifestly arranged and completed these collections, altering and
improving them with a touch that was as delicate as it was sure.
In this way Gerard (sic) Groote and the rest all wrote The
Imitation, or rather certain parts of it; and so, the whole brought
together...represents the best in the contribution of the Low Countries to
title of the work certainly describes the small group with whom Thomas
lived and directed for his entire life.
These men, in DeMontmorency's words,
thought only of Christ and strove to imitate him; whose
sins were minute fallings away from their ideal of the Man of Nazareth -
sins wept over and watched; whose hope lay on the other side of the grave
that offered them no terror; whose faith came so near the faith of the
first Christians that the days of Christ seemed to have returned.
The theology of the Brethren, a synthesis of Eckhart's Divine
Spark, the Friends' Via Negativa and Groote's experiential
faith, was deeply formed into a benevolent and fervent movement through
the gentle direction of gifted ministers, impassioned preaching,
persecution from the establishment, years of experimentation and the
nudgings of the Holy Spirit. Now
let us move on to the primary matter for our consideration, the
Eucharistic Communion, the Brethrens’ most sacred and ecstatic practice.
Edited September 30, 2000 and dedicated to Mignon Snyder.
see Walker 363-364.
Thomas à Kempis is quoted in Cox 121.
qut. in Cox 122.
see Bettenson 135.
Qtd. Cox 126.