Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Erasmus, Thomas á Kempis, and the Brethren of the Common Life

            Deventer [a town in the Dutch province of Overijssel, an intellectual center when Erasmus lived and in which he attended school as a child] was impregnated by the spirit of the Devotio Moderna, the “modern piety” of the Brethren of the Common Life.  The movement originated two hundred years before the time of Erasmus under the impact of Gerard Groote (died 1340) of Deventer, who gathered a following dedicated both to the contemplative and to the active life.  They lived in a community under a regimen like that of the monks, calling for fasts, vigils, reading, and prayer, privately and in common, interspersed by long periods of silence unrelieved by boisterous levity.  The Brethren went out into the world to care for the sick and the poor and, above all, to teach children.  Sometimes they established schools of their own, sometimes planted their members here and there as teachers in existing institutions.  Their support came not from alms, but from labor, whether manual or literary, in particular from the copying of manuscripts, which continued to be in demand for some time after the invention of printing.  This was work also in which the Sisters could engage, for there were houses also of a branch for women.

          The movement called itself modern, but the modernity lay rather in the area of zeal than of dogma.  The teaching of the Church was accepted and discussion of her tenants deprecated.  Thomas á Kempis, the best-known of the Brethren, in his Imitation of Christ declared that the “Trinity is better pleased by adoration than by speculation” and he looked askance upon addiction to study.  There was thus an anti-intellectualistic strain in the movement.  The stress was placed upon piety and deportment.  The piety was marked by a heartfelt, lyrical devotion to Jesus, with undeviating endeavor to follow in his steps rather than to merge the self in the abyss of the Godhead.  The Brethren were consequently fond of the Latin mystics, Bernard and Bonaventura, rather than of the German mystics, Eckhart, Suso, and Tauler.  Nor did they conceive of piety as consisting in tearful dissolution before the wounds of Christ.  The following prayer to Jesus by Thomas á Kempis turns upon the teaching and example of the Master.

Lord Jesus Christ, who art the light, true, eternal and unchanging, who didst deign to descend to the prison of this world to dispel the shadows of human ignorance and show us the way to the land of eternal brightness, hear the prayers of my humility, and by Thine immense mercy instill into me that divine light which Thou hast promised to the world and ordered to be preached to all peoples, that I may know Thy way throughout my earthly pilgrimage.  Thou art the mirror of life, the torch of all holiness.  .   .  . Thou hast set Thyself before me as an example for living.  .  .  . Be Thou my joy, the sweetness of my soul. Dwell Thou with me and I with Thee, with all the world shut out.  Be Thou my teacher, my Master, and may Thy teaching be my wisdom.One observes that there is no reference to Christ as the propitiator.  He is the enlightener, the exemplar, the beloved companion, and the Lord.

          One of the most persistent notes in the piety of the Brethren was inwardness.  “Learn to despise the outward.  Direct thyself to the inward and thou shalt see the kingdom of God come within thee.” “Strive to withdraw thy heart from all love of the visible and transfer it to the invisible.”  Inwardness admits of no compulsion and objection to constraint militates against lifelong vows which constrain the monk to go through exercises in which the mind perchance no longer believes and to which the heart no longer responds.  To go on repeating by rote is the utter stultification of piety.  The movement at the outset dispensed with lifelong vows, but such was the pressure from the older orders, who feared lest the more flexible rule would undercut their own recruiting, that one branch of the Brethren yielded and joined the Augustinian Canons Regular.  Others, however, stoutly held out for their freedom.

          The ethical concern of the Brethren made some of them hospitable to the writings of classical antiquity.  Gerard Groote in his writings cited nineteen classical authors as over against twenty-one Christian.  He was particularly attracted to the moralists Seneca and Cicero.  The disposition to draw upon the pagan preparation for the gospel received a great impetus from the Italian Renaissance.  Rudolph Agricola, trained at Groningen in the atmosphere of the Brethren, went to Italy and was there imbued with Plutarch’s ideal of elegant diction, to be employed, however, only in the service of religion.  For Agricola the cultivation of the soul, man’s immortal component, was to be undertaken by way of erudition leading to the tranquil and unshakable seat of wisdom.  To this end he acquired proficiency not only in Latin, of course, but also in Greek and Hebrew.  Erasmus, when twelve years old, heard him speak at Deventer.  A younger man than Agricola was his friend Alexander Hegius of like aspirations.  While Agricola wrote about education, Hegius practiced it as head of the school at Deventer.  Erasmus, in his last year there as a scholar, heard him lecture on special days.  For both men Erasmus entertained a high regard and found in their example a tremendous confirmation for his own later battle on behalf of the broader study of the humanities, the more so because these men could not be reproached with any deviation from the faith, from the Church, or even from the Brethren.  Agricola was buried in the cowl of a Franciscan.

          One observes thus two strands in the tradition of the Brethren.  The one represented by á Kempis was fearful lest any sort of learning might wither the spirit.  The other, stemming from Groote and flowering in Agricola and Hegius, could appropriate the classical heritage.  The two attitudes were to conflict.  Erasmus was to champion the liberal wing while retaining essentially the piety of á Kempis. 

-from Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom, (Crossroad 1982), pp. 8-10.

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