In somber contrast with this effervescent society were the saints and mystics who, under these dukes, gave Holland a high place in religious history. Jan van Ruysbroeck, a Brussels priest, retired at fifty (1343) to an Augustinian monastery at Groenendael, near Waterloo, where he devoted himself to mystical contemplation and compositions. He professed that the Holy Spirit guided his pen; nevertheless his pantheism verged upon a denial of individual immortality.
God Himself is swallowed up with all the blessed in an absence of modes... an eternal loss of self.... . The seventh degree is attained when, beyond all knowledge or all knowing, we discover in ourselves a bottomless not-knowing; when, beyond all names given to God or to creatures, we come to expire, and pass over in eternal namelessness, where we lose ourselves .. . and contemplate all these blessed spirits which are essentially sunken away, merged and lost in their superessence, in an unknown darkness without mode.5
The Netherlands* and Rhenish Germany saw in this period a profusion of lay groups—Beghards, Beguines, Brethren of the Free Spirit—whose mystic raptures led often to piety, social service, quietism, and pacifism, sometimes to a rejection of the sacraments as unnecessary, and occasionally to a cheerful acceptance of sin as quite swallowed up in union with God.6 Gerrit (Geert, Gerard) Groote of Deventer, after receiving a good education at Cologne, Paris, and Prague, spent many days with Ruysbroeck at Groenendael, and was moved to make the love of God the pervading motive of his life. Having received deacon’s orders (1379), he began to preach in the towns of Holland, in the vernacular, to audiences so large that the local churches could not hold them; people left their shops and meals to hear him. Scrupulously orthodox in doctrine, and himself a “hammer of heretics,” he nevertheless attacked the moral laxity of priests as well as of laymen, and demanded that Christians should live strictly in accord with the ethics of Christ. He was denounced as a heretic, and the bishop of Utrecht withdrew from all deacons the right to preach. One of Groote’s followers, Floris Radewijnszoon, drew up a semi-monastic, semi-communistic rule for the “Brethren of the Common Life,” who lived in a Fraterhuisat Deventer with Groote at their head, and—without taking monastic vows—occupied themselves with manual labor, teaching, religious devotions, and copying manuscripts. Groote died at forty-four (1384) of a pestilence contracted while nursing a friend, but his Brotherhood spread its influence through 200 Fraterhuizen in Holland and Germany. The schools of the Brotherhood gave the pagan classics a prominent place in their curriculum, preparing the way for the Jesuit schools that took over their work in the Counter Reformation. The Brethren welcomed printing soon after its appearance, and used it to disseminate their moderna devotio. Alexander Hegius at Deventer (1475–98) was a memorable example of the type that fortunate students have known—the saintly teacher who lives only for the instruction and moral guidance of his pupils. He improved the curriculum, centered it around the classics, and won the praise of Erasmus for the purity of his Latin style. When he died he left nothing but his clothes and his books; everything else he had secretly given to the poor.7 Among the famous pupils of Deventer were Nicholas of Cusa, Erasmus, Rudolf Agricola, Jean de Gerson, and the author of The Imitation of Christ.
We are not sure who wrote this exquisite manual of humility. Probably it was Thomas Hamerken of Kempen in Prussia. In the quiet of his cell in the monastery of Mt. St. Agnes near Zwolle, Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471) gathered from the Bible, the Fathers of the Church, and St. Bernard passages expounding the ideal of unworldly piety as conceived by Ruysbroeck and Groote, and rephrased them in simple mellifluous Latin.
What will it avail thee to be engaged in profound discussions of the Trinity, if thou be void of humility, and art thereby displeasing to the Trinity? Truly, sublime words do not make a man holy and just, but a virtuous life maketh him dear to God. I had rather feel compunction than know how to define it. If thou knewest the whole Bible by heart, and the sayings of all the philosophers, what would it profit thee without the love of God, and without grace? Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity, except to love God, and Him only to serve. This is the highest wisdom, by contempt of the world to tend toward the Kingdom of Heaven.... Yet learning is not to be blamed... for that is good in itself and ordained by God, but a good conscience and a virtuous life are always to be preferred....
He is truly great who hath great love. He is truly great that is little in his own eyes, and that maketh no account of any height of honor. He is truly wise who casteth aside all earthly things as dung, that he may win Christ....
Fly the tumult of men as much as thou canst, for the treating of worldly affairs is a great hindrance.... . Truly it is misery to live on the earth.... It is a great matter to live in obedience, to be under a superior, and not to be at our own disposing. It is much safer to obey than to govern.... The cell, constantly dwelt in, groweth sweet.8
There is a gentle eloquence in the Imitation that echoes the profound simplicity of Christ’s sermons and parables. It is an ever needed check on the intellectual pride of frail reason and shallow sophistication. When we are weary of facing our responsibilities in life we shall find no better refuge than Thomas à Kempis’ Fifth Gospel. But who shall teach us how to be Christians in the stream and storm of the world?