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

 

Part 3

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Gerhard Groote (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 life.[2] 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.[3]  

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.[4] 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.[5]

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."[6] Nevertheless, he was well loved, because "He did what he said, and what he taught that he also lived."[7]  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"the Holy Spirit inwardly visits, illumines, and changes the heart of a man."[8]  Before long, his license to preach was revoked by the bishop on a technicality.  

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."[9] 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.[10]  Four years later, Groote died of the plague still a young man. Later, the group he founded became known locally as the "Congregation at Windesheim."[11]  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.[12]  Although the Brethren never meant to form another sect (they wanted to live at peace with the church), they created three problems for the establishment. 

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.[13]  Although the Brethren were accused of heresy and irregularity on a number of occasions,[14] they fought back in a most authentic and excellent manner, and thus won the approval and sanction of the Church. 

Thomas 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.[15]   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.”[16]  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 Christian spirituality.  

The 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.[17]  

   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.

Part IV

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

[2]  see Walker 363-364.

[3]  Cox 122.

[4]  Wiseman 25

[5]  Axters 67.

[6]  Southern 336.

[7]  Thomas à Kempis is quoted in Cox 121.

[8]  Cox 122.

[9]  Southern 345.

[10]  Axters 44.

[11]  Wiseman 25.

[12]  Jones qut. in Cox 122.

[13]  Southern 339. 

[14]  see Bettenson 135.

[15]  Erb 109.

[16]  Southern 353.

[17]  Qtd. Cox 126.