8. MYSTICS and


[adapted from Vauchez, 4 and Walker, 5.8]

[22.1] Medieval Mysticism; [22.2] From Eckhart to the Devotio Moderna







(Vauchez  4, “Medieval Man in Search of God”, pp. 150-162.”)


  Art and Spirituality


THE Church was truly striving to lift a coarse and poorly educated people beyond purely material demands by leading it to sense the existence of a higher reality. To this end, it did not hesitate to use the resources of art, both as the expression of an intense spiritual life - that of the clerics--and as a means of giving the laity a glimpse of the greatness and infinite wealth of the divine mystery. We will not study here the difficult problem of the religious formation, or rather permeation, which the faithful received through cycles of frescos or liturgical singing, or through the sculptured groups which proliferated, from the late eleventh century onward,on the porches of abbeys and cathedrals. A great deal has been said about the ‘stone Bible’ which these works offered to the gaze of simple folk. It is not certain that educational intentions were paramount in the minds of those who had them produced; they seem rather to have been aimed at making an emotional impact liable to extend into spiritual insight. In a religion in which worship remained the essential act, the main function of God’s house was to offer the divine mysteries a setting worthy of their greatness.



  Abbot Suger of St.-Denis




Abbot Suger St.-Denis, Paris Windows, St. Denis

But beauty in form was not appropriate only to the sacred nature of liturgical services. The stone church, a symbol of the Church itself, of the redeemed people, was to give the faithful a foretaste of the beauty of heaven. Suger, the great abbot of Saint-Denis (1080-1151), is one of the few clerics of the time who defined with precision the religious aims which inspired the building and decoration of places of worship. In his autobiography, he developed a symbolism of light strongly influenced by the mystical theology of Pseudo-Dionysius the areopagite. According to dionysian doctrine, every creature receives and transmits divine illumination according to its capacity, and beings as well as things arc ordered in a hierarchy according to their degree of participation in the divine essence. The human soul, enveloped in the opaqueness of matter, longs to return to God. It can succeed in doing so only through visible things which, at succeeding levels of the hierarchy, reflect His light better and better. Through created reality, the mind can thus rise again to the uncreated. In the field of art, such a concept of the relationship between the human and the divine led to the proliferation inside churches of objects made of silver and gold or adorned with precious stones, which, because of their radiance, could be regarded as symbols of the virtues and help man rise to the splendor of the Creator. Likewise, the light filtering through stained glass windows supported the flights of meditation and led the mind back to God, whose reflection it was. To quote the inscription which Suger had engraved on the bronze door of Saint-Denis:

By means of perceptible beauty, the numbed soul rises to true Beauty and, from the place where it lay engulfed, it rises again to heaven when it sees the light of these splendors.’

   Bernard of Clairvaux on Artistic Simplicity

Renewed monasticism declared war on these aesthetics which were also those of Cluny in the name of a rigoristic spirituality. Though Saint Bernard allowed rich decorations in churches designed for the faithful, he was opposed to them in abbatial churches and, generally speaking, among religious. Thus the statutes of Citeaux, like those of the Carthusians, forbid placing gold crucifixes or silk hangings in conventual churches and adorning them with sculptures and stained glass windows. ‘Let us leave painted images to simple folk’, wrote the regular canon Hugh of Fouilloy. In Saint Bernard’s opinion, all this luxury was not only useless but dangerous. First of all, the concern for a rich setting prevented clerics from giving alms to the poor. More especially, by cultivating the arts in a disorderly fashion, man ran the risk of coming to love pleasure for its own sake and of multiplying superfluous stimulations for the purpose of pure enjoyment. Did wealth and abundance of ornament not lead, in the last instance, to a search for sensual delight, with the mind dissipating itself in outer sensations and letting itself be distracted by shimmering impressions?



Grisaille Glass Fossanova, Abbey Church Fossanova, cloister

   In the eyes of the abbot of Clairvaux, all this contradicted the requirements of’ the spiritual life. For the soul needed inner concentration so as to be able to know itself and become unified in humility; introspection conflicted with empty curiosity, which threatened the religious spirit. But let us make no mistake! Saint Bernard and the supporters of ascetic rigorism were not enemies of art, and in a cistcrcian nave purity of line and simplicity of form amply make up for lack of ornament. But the irrationality and rich exuberance of romanesque art contrasted with an aesthetics of poverty which chose to restrict itself to what was necessary and retained only simple, functional shapes. Cistercian art is austere, disciplined, and based on a search for purity. It is no less steeped in spirituality than that of Cluny. But whereas, in the latter the joyful abundance and wealth of forms aimed at dazzling the mind and giving it a foretaste of everlasting festivities, the new art saw an obstacle to contemplation in such material realities. For the supporters of asceticism and voluntary poverty, only through bareness could man attain spiritual love, which made vital necessities into a springboard toward God.

    Thus not one but two spiritualities of art existed during the medieval period: one accepted and even sought the mediation of perceptible things; the other rejected the analogy between the beauty of the world and the splendor of the Beyond. For supporters of the latter, the ascent toward God implied humility and renunciation of the carnal use of the senses. The role of art was then restricted to favoring man’s return to his inmost self, which awakened him to the inner life.


    A Conquest: The Inner Life


As piety underwent a process of individualization and religion became more personal, the life of the spirit ceased to be the privilege of monks. In a society which was beginning to free itself from outward constraints and to curb blind violence, a growing number of clerics and lay persons acquired that minimum amount of leisure and distance from instinct which makes meditation and reflection possible: ‘Inside western man a new pioneer front opened up, that of conscience.’ it is certainly not by chance that this new awareness—in the full meaning of the term coincided with a certain lapse in eschatological prospects. While the masses untiringly persisted in pursuing the millenium and transferred their hopes, which had been disappointed by the mediocre result of the crusades, to successive messiahs, the best minds rediscovered the truth of the Gospel maxim: ‘The kingdom of God is within you’. A change took place at the level of religious mentalities: the last judgment still figured among the essential concerns of the faithful, but it lost its character of harrowing imminence. It would soon be regarded only as ‘the distant sanction of the judgment of one’s conscience in inner dialogue with Christ’.’

Such a development resulted in enhancing yet more the importance of the sacrament of penance in Christian life and in modifying its form. The essential stage of the penitential process shifted from atonement to confession. Until the eleventh century, indeed, sin was not deemed to have been remitted until the penalty inflicted for it had been entirely accomplished. From the twelfth century onward, the generally accepted notion was that confession was the essential gesture and that absolution was an accomplished fact as soon as confession had been made, for the Church acknowledged that it was such a humiliating and difficult act that in itself it possessed expiatory value. It is therefore not surprising that from then on the sacrament of penance was referred to as ‘confession’. The mind’s turning back toward itself, its becoming conscious of its misdeed and of the offence given God were henceforth more important than the increasingly easy actions which penitents continued to carry out by way of satisfaction.

More generally speaking, the twelfth century was marked in the spiritual sphere by an attitude which has been called ‘Christian socratism’. Men of such different temperaments as Abelard, Saint Bernard, and Hugh of Saint Victor shared the conviction that in order to know heaven and earth it was first of all necessary to know oneself. A fortiori, the soul would be able to reach God only after a lengthy journey through the meanderings of the human psyche and the steps of the intellect: ‘How do you ask to sec me in my brightness, you who do not know yourself?’ says God to the soul in a bernardine work. Far from being a detour, introspection henceforth appeared as a necessity for anyone aspiring to live at a level higher than that of instinct.

   Biblical (Monastic) Mysticism

According to monastic tradition, the privileged meeting place between the individual conscience and God was Scripture. For in the Middle Ages the Bible was not one book among many others, but the book which held the key to all mysteries. People learned to read in it, and attempted to discover in it the laws ruling the life of human beings and of the universe. God was almost physically present in it: solemn oaths were sworn on the Bible, and one would open it at random in order to read in it one’s destiny or seek one’s vocation. Saint Francis did so at the moment of his conversion. Such a book was not intended to be read. In fact, even among monks, few indeed possessed the entire text, and its content was far from invariable. Important differences were to he found from one copy to the next, and the notion of canonical scriptures meant almost nothing during a period when apocryphal texts such as the gospel of Saint Peter and apocalyptic treatises were readily incorporated into the Bible. The knowledge which both clerics and laity had of it was nearly always an indirect one. The texts most often quoted were those which occurred in the liturgy: the psalms, the synoptic Gospels, the letters of Saint Paul and the Book of Revelation. As a result, the faithful were well acquainted with some books, and virtually ignorant of others. Every believer drew from this vast heritage according to his abilities and his needs. The literature relating to the crusades afforded ample room to the Old Testament, with its tales of the wars waged by the people of God and its descriptions of the Holy Land, and also to the Book of Revelation which nourished the eschatological hopes of the masses. Under normal circumstances, most of the faithful were more interested in the psalms and in the Book of Job, which abounded in moral precepts and down-to-earth maxims. The clerics in city schools were fond of speculating on Genesis, which brought out God’s action as creator, and contemplatives, beginning with Saint Bernard and William of Saint Thierry, took pleasure in commenting on the Song of Songs interpreted as a chronicle of the tumultuous wedding of God and the human soul.

    For medieval man, therefore, the Bible was a reality with which he was more or less deeply permeated, but which, in all cases, nourished his spiritual life by providing him both with matter for reflection and with directions for action. Reminiscences and quotations crowd the writings of clerics in such large numbers that it is often difficult to make out what proceeded from their own minds and what belongs to the sacred text. The latter was both interiorized and updated, so much so that it became part of personal experience. For Scripture was not regarded as a mere narrative of salvation history. Beyond its obvious historical meaning, a subtle exegesis, which sometimes tended to drift towards allegory, discovered an appropriate moral and spiritual significance in every episode, if not in every word. This manner of approaching the biblical texts entailed the risk of dissolving facts in a very rich but not always coherent symbolism. How tempting it was to seek answers to each and every question in a book whose author was God himself?

    During the first decades of the twelfth century, the urban schools developed a method allowing access to an understanding of the divine mystery while avoiding what might have been vague and subjective about the traditional biblical commentaries. With Abelard, theology - since that is what we are dealing with--became an autonomous discipline, resorting to logical reasoning and dialectics. God remained the object of knowledge, but one sought to attain him through natural reasoning, not through outpourings of the heart. Scripture was not excluded from the field of reflection, but was placed on the same level as pagan authors, particularly Plato and Aristotle, whom the West was beginning to rediscover. In some intellectual circles—especially Parisian ones—the idea prevailed that the principal truths of Christianity, including the mystery of the Trinity, could be accounted for by using the concepts and methods of pagan philosophy. Saint Bernard was disturbed by this and accused Abelard and his disciples of bringing revealed truth down to the level of human truth. It is not our intention to relate the long and painful controversy which pitted the abbot of Clairvaux against the ‘knight of dialectics’, whom he blamed for trusting the aptitudes of reason too much. What matters for our purpose is that with Abelard theology broke away from the ‘sacred page’ (sacra pagina), that is, from the spiritual commentary of the Word of God. From then on, we must deal on one hand with a scholastic theology which was a rational speculation on revelation, and on the other with a mystical one which remained centered on the meditation of Scripture and refused to favor intellectual reflection as a means of access to the knowledge of God.


  The Origins of Western Mysticism


There was another deep divergence between the theological and the mystical way: the latter’s objective was not to wrest God’s secrets from him, but to allow the soul to experience his presence and to be united with him. The biblical text, which, for the spiritually-minded, remained the necessary reference of all religious experience, provided a starting point for meditation, which led by stages to contemplation. Many twelfth century authors, from Aelred of Rievaulx to Saint Hildegard, have described this passage from reflection to enlightenment from personal experience. According to them, the divine Word first acts upon the mind like a flame, severing the bonds which join it to the flesh and to sin. Once the memory has been purified, the soul can use the words and images of the text as a foothold in its attempt to rise toward its Creator. At the end of a series of ascending stages, it crosses, as by means of a ladder, the infinite distance separating it from God. Confessions of unworthiness are gradually replaced by surges of affection. Finally, in silence, the Word takes possession of the soul and becomes flesh: man gives birth to God. As Saint Bernard says: ‘The Word’s speech is the infusion of his gift’ (Locutio Verbi, infusi doni). The Word who speaks to human persons and who gives himself to each of them are one and the same. The spirit emerges elated and dazzled from these uplifting moments. Thanks to Scripture, man can free himself from his own limitations, since in it the visible and the invisible meet.

    With Saint Bernard and William of Saint Thierry—both of them Cistercians—, such mystical experiences, always present in a diffuse way within monasticism, were carried to their farthest consequences and presented in systematic fashion for the first time. Both of them took as a starting point the Song of Songs, an especially lyrical book of the Old Testament which was interpreted as a dialogue between God, identified with the lover, and the soul, presented as the Almighty’s beloved. Starting from there, Saint Bernard developed in a grandiose vision a whole dialectic of the relationship between the Creator and his creatures. According to him, man is in the image of the world through his body, in that of God through his soul. On account of original sin, the divine element in man has been overshadowed by evil. But God has restored this likeness through the Incarnation: Mary, the new Eve, is not only the instrument of the new creation, but a model for Christians of all times. The soul-bride in search of God must strive to resemble the Virgin and, like her, to become a mother in order to give birth to the divine spirit. From that moment on, man rises above his fleshly and sinful condition and finds his way back to the heavenly home for which he yearns from the bottom of his heart.

The abbot of Clairvaux distinguishes four steps in this ascent:

[1] carnal love, which consists in loving oneself,

[2] then love of neighbor and of Christ’s humanity which is already higher, although still on a mediocre level.

[3] If the Christian perseveres, he will come to love God in his sweetness and to obtain spiritual consolations. But God will not come down into the soul until she has become capable of

[4] loving him for himself, after having completely shed her carnal husk.Once she has reached this stage, the soul-bride, like the Church whose figure she is, lives according to love. In her all the potentialities which go to make up human nature become supernaturally actualized.

Far from being an abnormal occurrence, mystical ecstasy is the soul’s perfect fulfilment inasmuch as it allows God to be known in the deepest recesses of the trinitarian mystery. Saint Bernard was too much of a realist to be unaware of how exceptional such states are, and he himself clearly underlined that the mystical experience is inferior to the face-to-face vision of God which would occur in heavenly bliss. But, as at the Transfiguration the apostles participated in Christ’s radiance, the ecstasy afforded the soul by the Bridegroom’s kiss conforms her to some extent to the loved one to whom she is spiritually united. Through mystical union, man does not become God, but he rises above himself and receives by grace what God is by nature. In a being thus deified, the divine image is definitively restored.

    The spiritual themes found in the writings of William of Saint Thierry (d.1148), author of the Mirror of Faith (Speculum fidei) and On Contemplating God (De contemplando Deo), are more or less the same as those developed by his friend Saint Bernard, but there is more emphasis on the trinitarian mystery. The human soul, in William’s eyes, is the created image of the creating Trinity—a doubtless inferior and debased image, but one nevertheless modeled on it. For, according to him, the Fall did not destroy the basic likeness, but merely clouded it. By relying on grace and on personal effort, a human being athirst for perfection may restore this likeness by reattuning his soul to the Trinity. In order to achieve this, he will have to rise from the animal to the rational state, and from the latter to the spiritual one, which lets him share in the glory of the Resurrection here below. In those who establish themselves at this level, the three faculties of the soul regain their true function—memory brings man back to the Father, reason leads him to Christ and will to the Holy Spirit—and open up onto an intimate knowledge of the triune God.

    The mysticism which arose in the West in the twelfth century was not restricted to the cistercian current alone, important though it was. Indeed, other ways were experimented with in the search for union with God. Some authors strove to associate intellectual reflection with a loving quest for the divine presence. This was the case, in particular, in the School of Saint Victor, a house of regular canons founded in Paris in 1113 by William of Champeaux and made famous by a series of great theologians and spiritual teachers, chief among them Hugh (d.1141) and Richard (d.1173) of Saint Victor. The latter is the more interesting from our viewpoint, for he developed a doctrine often called ‘speculative mysticism’. For Richard, the author of a treatise on the Trinity (De Trinitate), the Holy Trinity is the highest object of contemplation. In order to attain to knowledge of this mystery, speculation, that is, rational investigation, is the first stage. One must discover the necessary reasons which allow the intellect to grasp the foundations of trinitarian life. But, according to him, contemplation alone, founded on Scripture and nourished by love, allows access to the intimate life of the divine persons. God awakens in the human soul a haunting and unquenchable longing which drives the creature to merge with him in a leap of the mind beyond itself (excessus mentis) which, according to Richard, is an enlightenment rather than an ecstasy properly so called. Though the goal pursued is, as for Saint Bernard, intimate union with God, the Victorines view it primarily as a vision of the profound meaning of things and of beings. Their thought process abolished, or rather was unaware of, the harriers set up by later spirituality between the ascetic, intellectual, and mystical lives. For them, the ascent toward God implied the analysis of psychological realities, the exploration of the soul’s faculties, and the steps of contemplation. This concept of the spiritual life--one both synthetic and dynamic had scarcely any influence in its own day. But it opened the avenues on to which a Saint Bonaventure was to venture in the thirteenth century.

Other mystical experiences, most especially in feminine circles, took devotion to Christ’s humanity and a longing for active participation in the Saviour’s Passion as a starting point. This current is not unrelated to the cistercian school, and both Saint Bernard and William of Saint Thierry gave the mystery of the God-Man an important place in their experience and in their writings. Both had, however, emphasized that devotion to the humanity of Christ was merely one of the very first steps of love. In their view, one could go from shadow to light, from earth to heaven, only by gazing on God in his divinity, and the soul in quest of perfection had to rise from meditation on Christ according to the flesh to contemplation of Christ according to the spirit. In the religious movement which developed in the diocese of Liege and in Brabant at the end of the twelfth century, those aspects played an essential part, however, and adoration of the suffering Christ lay at the heart of the mysticism which then blossomed in cloisters and beguinages. Saint Lutgard and Mary of Oignies sought to he united with God in his incarnation and poverty. From then on, and for at least a century, the emotional clement became dominant in western mysticism. Its essential components were a pathetic feeling for the drama of Redemption, meditation on the bloody sacrifice of Christ, the gift of tears which purified the inner gaze and expressed compunction of the heart. Should we sec in this feminine mysticism no more than a popularized reflection of Saint Bernard’s ideas on the soul’s relationship with its Creator? In so doing, we would be minimizing the originality of the I.ow Countries’ spirituality; we would also be forgetting that a half century rich in change separates the abbot of Clairvaux from the beguine recluse of Oignics. He saw the flesh as no more than a shadow’ and an obstacle beyond which one had to go in order to rise up to the eternal Word; for her, Christ’s body, both as an instrument of salvation and as a token of eternity in its eucharistic continuation, was at the heart of the Christian mystery.

    All religions have witnessed and witness various degrees of participation in the mysteries they teach. Medieval Christianity is no exception to the rule: from the cult of relics to bridal mysticism, it offers a broad spectrum of ways of access to the divine. It may seem strange to lump together such different forms of religious expression. But the stress laid by theologians on the role of the incarnate Word in the Redemption and the upsurge of popular devotions to the persons of Christ and his mother express the same intuition, though doubtless at different levels. The orientations of piety have by no means been proven to be always dependent on that of the lofty spirituality lived in cloisters. In the twelfth century, the two apparently developed concomitantly, and in some features, the religion of the masses may even have been ahead of that of the elite: devotion to the Holy Lance, miraculously discovered before Antioch by the crusaders, preceded the Brabant mystics’ veneration for the wound in Christ’s side by several decades. Beyond these problems of influence, which are always delicate and difficult to solve, the historian notes that on the threshold of the thirteenth century two basic certainties permeated the religious consciousness of the West: God could be reached only through his crucified Son, and in order to achieve salvation, it was necessary to model oneself on Christ. But there are several ways of identifying with a loved one: seeking out his footsteps and cultivating his memory, imitating his example or attempting to he one with him. Different though these attitudes are, they arc nonetheless inspired by the same feeling.







(Walker 5.8)

Towards Simplicity and the Apophatic

Besides the intellectual, the mystical tendency was strongly represented in many of the schoolmen. Hugo of St. Victor and Bonaventura may as rightly be reckoned to the mystics as to the scholastics. Aquinas showed marked mystic leanings, derived from Augustine and the Pseudo-Dionysius. Aristotle never wholly conquered Neo-PIatonic influences. Neo-Platonism itself enjoyed a measure of revival in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, partly through the strongly Neo-Platonizing. Arabian commentaries on Aristotle, but even more through the widely read Liber de Causis, falsely ascribed to Aristotle, but containing excerpts from the Neo-PIatonic philosopher, Proclus (410-485), and ultimately by translations directly from Proclus’s accredited works.


  Eckhart and Tauler


An important representative of this mystical spirit was “Meister” Eckhart (1260-1327), a German Dominican, who studied in Paris, served as provincial prior of the Saxon district, lived for a time in Strassburg, and taught in Cologne. At the close of his life Eckhart was under trial for heresy. He himself declared his readiness to submit his opinions to the judgment of the church, but two years after his death a number of his teachings were condemned by Pope John XXII.



Eckhart Tauler Suso

In true Neo-Platonic fashion Eckhart taught that that which is real in all things is the divine. In the soul of man is a spark of God. That is the true reality in all men. All individualizing qualities are essentially negative. Man should, therefore, lay them aside. His struggle is to have God born in his soul, that is to enter into full communion with and to come under the control of the indwelling God. In this effort Christ is the pattern and example, in whom Godhead dwelt in humanity in all fullness. With God dominant the soul is filled with love and righteousness. Churchly observances may be of some value, but the springs of the mystic life are far deeper and its union with God more direct. Good works do not make righteous. It is the soul already righteous that does good works. The all-important matter is that the soul enters into its full privilege of union with God.

Perhaps the most eminent of Eckhart’s disciples was John Tauler (?-1361), a Dominican preacher who worked long in Strassburg, of which he was probably a native, in Cologne and in Basel. The times in Germany were peculiarly difficult. The long contest for the empire between Frederick of Austria and Louis of Bavaria, and papal interferences therein, wrought religious as well as political confusion. The bubonic plague of 1348-1349, known in England as the “black death,” devastated the population. To his distressed age Tauler was a preacher of helpfulness, whose sermons have been widely read ever since. In them are many “evangelical” thoughts, which aroused the admiration of Luther, and have often led to the claim that he was a Protestant before Protestantism. He emphasized the inward and the vital in religion, and condemned dependence on external ceremonies and dead works. His real position was that of a follower of Eckhart, with similar mystic emphasis on union with the divine, on “God being born within,” though he avoided the extreme statements which had led to churchly condemnation of Eckhart’s opinions. A less practical but widely influential representative of the same tendencies was the ascetic Dominican, Henry Suso (?-1366), whose writings did much to further this mystic point of view.


  Other Mystics


Through these influences a whole group of mystic sympathizers was raised up in southwestern Germany and Switzerland, who called themselves “Friends of God.” These included not only many of the clergy, but nuns and a considerable number of laity. Among the laymen, Rulman Merswin, of Strassburg (1307-1382), was the most influential. Originally a banker and merchant, he was intimate with Tauler, whose views he shared, and devoted all the latter part of his life to religious labors. He mystified his contemporaries and posterity by letters and books which he set forth purporting to come from a “great Friend of God” in the Highlands (i. e., Switzerland), whose existence was long believed real, but now is practically proved to have been a fiction of Merswin himself. The most important work of these Friends of God was the “German Theology,” written late in the fourteenth century by an otherwise unknown and unnamed priest of the Deutsch-Herrn Haus of Frankfort, which was to influence Luther, and to be printed by him in 1516 and 1518.

These German mystics all leaned strongly toward pantheism. They all, however, represented a view of the Christian life which saw its essence in a transforming personal union of the soul with God, and they all laid little weight on the more external methods of ordinary churchly life.


  Brethren of the Common Life


This mystical movement was furthered in the Netherlands by John of Ruysbroeck (1294-1381), who was influenced by Eckhart’s writings and enjoyed the personal friendship of Tauler and other of the Friends of God.


 Ruysbroeck  Geert Groot

Ruysbroeck’s friend, in turn, was Gerhard Groot (1340-1384)—a brilliant scholar, who upon his conversion, about 1374, became the most influential popular preacher of the Netherlands. A more conservative churchly thinker than Ruysbroeck, Groot was much less radical in his mysticism.



 Wessel Gansfort  Thomas A'Kempis

A man of great practical gifts, Groot’s work led shortly after his death to the foundation by his disciple, Florentius Radewyn (1350-1400, of the Brethren of the Common Life. This association, of which the first house was established in Deventer, grew out of the union of Groot’s converts for a warmer religious life. They grouped themselves in houses of brethren and of sisters, who lived essentially a monastic life under common rules, but without permanent vows, engaged in religious exercises, copying books of edification, and especially in teaching. Work was required of all. These houses were wide-spread in the Netherlands and in Germany, and did much to promote popular piety in the fifteenth century.

The Brethren of the Common Life were non-monastic in the matter of vows. Groot’s preaching led to an influential movement for those who preferred the monastic life, though it, also, did not take full form till shortly after his death. This was the foundation of the famous [Augustinian] monastery of Windesheim, which soon gathered a number of affiliated convents about it, and became a reformatory influence of power in the monastic life of the Netherlands and Germany. In both these movements the mystic influence was strongly present, though in a much more churchly form than among the immediate disciples of Eckhart.

The noblest product of this simple, mystical, churchly piety is the Imitation of Christ—a book the circulation of which has exceeded that of any other product of the Middle Ages. Though its authorship has been the theme of heated controversy, it was unquestionably the work of Thomas a Kempis (1380?-1471). A pupil of the Brethren of the Common Life in Deventer, most of his long life was spent in the monastery of Mount St. Agnes, near Zwolle. This foundation was a member of the Windesheim congregation, of which Thomas’s older brother, John, was one of the founders. Thomas’s life was outwardly the most uneventful conceivable; but few have understood, as did he, the language of simple, mystical devotion to Christ.

The famous theologian and biblical scholar Russel Gansfort maintained an affiliation with the community at Zwolle thgoughout his life.


Major Characteristics of the Devotio Moderna




Ten Principles of the Devotio Moderna





  Mystical Extravagances


The mystical movement had its reverse side in a pantheism which broke with all churchly and even all moral teaching. Such was that of Amalrich of Bena (?-1204), a teacher in Paris, who was led by the writings of John Scotus Erigena and the extreme Neo-Platonic opinions of the Spanish Mohammedan expositor of Aristotle, Averroes (1126- 1198), to the conclusions that

[1] God is all,

[2] that He is incarnate in the believer as in Christ,

[3] and that the believer cannot sin.

[4] He also held that as the Jewish law and ritual had been abolished by the coming of Christ, so that of earlier Christianity was now done away with by the coming of the Holy Spirit.

   Amalrich was compelled to recant by Pope Innocent III, but he left a number of followers.


Similar extravagances kept cropping out in the regions of Germany and the Netherlands, where the mysticism already described had its chief following.

[1] In many ways it was simply that mysticism carried to a pantheistic extreme.

[2] It was usually quietist, believing that the soul could become one with God by contemplation,

[3] and in consequence of that union its acts could no longer be sinful, since it is controlled by God.

[4] All sacraments and penances, even prayer, become superfluous.

These views were not united into a compact system, nor did their holders constitute a sect, though they have often been so regarded and named the “Brethren and Sisters of the Free Spirit.” Undoubtedly, however, such notions were rather frequently to be found in monasteries and nunneries, where mysticism was practised extravagantly, and among the Beguines, whom they brought into doubtful repute. They were not only repressed by the inquisition, but were opposed by the greater mystic leaders of whom an account has been given.

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