Augustine - The City of God
July 29-August 12, 2006
HILL ABBEY 2006 was the first fruit of a nine year discussion with my students and others about a Schola College. While this was really nothing like a typical modern "college", we tried to involve many of the elements that have continually arisen in our discussions as being fundamental to a good literary educational community: a small group of like-minded people reading one very good book together, slowly, aloud, in pleasant, quiet, structured circumstances anchored by Scripture reading, singing, prayer, and varied with walks in the woods, evening fires, and star-gazing.
A letter was sent out to a limited list of Schola alumni (and soon-to-be alumni) on December 5, 2005. While some things in it were changed by late July, it does contain the vision and the main ideas which were, and will continue to be, more fully developed and clarified over time. Space was deliberately very limited in accordance with the vision mentioned above, so this event was by invitation only.
The schedule of events as it actually occured looks something like this.
A reaction from one participant after the first Hill Abbey was over. And another. And a view from one of the cooks. And another from her.
An anecdote about the value of silence.
The Brethren of the Common Life, a late medieval semi-monastic movement
was a precursor to the Reformation, focusing on community life, work,
Some of you were involved in a conversation around the Fire Ring at the last Summer Academy where I told you about the developing plans for Schola's summer college. Some of you were not here but would be interested. This email is to that group that was involved and to some additional people who over the years have demonstrated a clear interest in the vision I tried to lay out that day. All of you are graduates or about to graduate from Schola.
One reason for what follows is an attempt to offer you continuing participation in the vision of Schola, a vision for the life-long love of books and the knowledge and delight there is in them and the company of others who feel the same way; but one other reason for what follows is my desire to hang onto my students and not let them go!
First of all, then, the vision of Schola's summer college for this first year is for a two-week program, which may be expanded to greater length in following years if this is successful. It will involve an intensive reading of one major author. The work of each day would involve about 8 hours of reading, distributed over the course of the day. We will read aloud, taking turns, together in a group, reading slowly and stopping when necessary to discuss what we'd just read, although the emphasis will be on simply reading and listening to what the great author has to say. We'll try to read with ears quick to hear and mouths slow to speak. There will be plenty of room for evaluation and application as we walk and look at the fire and gaze at stars. We'll read with pencils in our hands (these will be provided, along with notebooks, and some suggestions for use of same will be given at the beginning to help you achieve maximum benefit. Think "commonplace" book) and ooh-ing and aah-ing and even woohoo-ing and amen-ing will be encouraged; laughter will be welcome, and I don't think St. Benedict would object.
The book we'll be reading will be one of the volumes from the 38-volume Early Church Fathers set, my favorite of all sets. If I had to give up my whole library and keep only a few books, this set would be among the finalists for keeping. It might win. We'll be reading Augustine's City of God. Athanasius is on deck for the following summer. We'll all use the same edition, which I would purchase for everyone (remember, your fee will cover it). If you already have your own copy and would prefer to use it, you'll get something else of equal value, like a puppy. (um, just kidding)
There will be time set aside each morning and afternoon where all would have solitude for devotions and reflection on the reading (bring your Bibles), and there will be prayer hours (canonical hours) which we'll keep together in imitation of the monastic tradition of regular times throughout the day for Psalms and other Scripture and singing (although I'm not sure about the 2 a.m. Vigils!). There will be a reader during portions of some of the meals as the monastic tradition had. He or she gets to eat first so they're not hungry while they read to the eaters, of course. You'll be fed better than the monks were.
There will be a required rest time (read "nap", because of the early rising) in the afternoon, also exercise including working in the yards and gardens in the morning, and walks in the nearby woods and fields in the afternoon, and after dinner (which will include some great outdoor meals, as I've recruited a friend of mine who is an excellent outdoor cook) there may be another hour of reading, and then short stories and poetry around the fire, and stargazing (early in the 2 weeks, when there will be a new moon; toward the end there will be a full moon and we'll take at least one night hike under the full moon - something the monks would have frowned on, but we're a different kind of order). The schedule will (I hope) be such that you'll get enough rest if you nap when you're supposed to.
The schedule still needs tweaking, so many of the things mentioned in this letter may be slightly altered in the interest of keeping things simple, tranquil, and focused. When you leave after your two weeks I hope you will be feeling refreshed in some very important ways, simply by my promoting to the best of my ability the circumstances under which you can read and contemplate together in the manner I know you all desire. You don't (and won't ever) have many opportunities to do those things, and I sure haven't, so I want to make them for you (and for me). Come to Idaho. Potlatch will be the beginning of a new monastic age.
The number of spaces will be very limited; we can only take 15 students (and some of those will be my daughters) because we want to house everyone here on the Hill and also the benefit will be greater if the numbers are small and more peaceful and intimate.
The dates are July 29 through August 12th. July 29 and August 12 are Saturdays - we will want everyone to fly in on the 29th and we'll pick them all up at the Spokane airport (if you live far away), and fly out on August 12, when we'll take you all back. The day after you arrive will be Sunday, so you'll attend Christ Church with us. Then the first week we'll read Monday through Saturday, then rest on the Lord's Day with church and a feast and a walk and of course a fire at night. The next Monday through Wednesday, August 7-9, are the annual Credenda/Agenda Trinity Fest (formerly called the History Conference and held in February but now moved and renamed).
All participants in the Summer College will be automatically registered for the Trinity Fest (and Ball!) and your Summer College fee will cover your Trinity Fest (and Ball) fee, and we'll provide transportation to and from the Fest (yes, and the Ball too!). After three days of Trinity Fest, we'll have two more days of Summer College and then you'll fly home, weeping bitterly of course at having to leave, as we will be weeping bitter tears at seeing you go. Or you could just stay.
Some of you may have family wishing to come to the Trinity Fest and/or come out to visit while we're in session. They are most welcome - we would charge a fee per person for any meals, but they are welcome to come and sit in, especially for the evening fire stuff, for no other charge than for food.
And finally, the Summer College won't be called Summer College - it has it's own name: Hill Abbey. Like the blog: http://www.schola-tutorials.com/hillabbey. Whence the name? Well, I live on a hill (a rather beautiful hill if I do say so myself) and this "college" is really trying to be more like a temporary monastery (a group with an abbot at their head) than like a college. Unfortunately, you have to put up with me as your Abbot, but then an Irish abbot tends to be pretty laid back. Especially when plied with food, drink, and good company. I have no illusions about competing someday with New St. Andrews or Hillsdale in some growth-fueled future, at least on their own terms. We're operating on different terms here, some very, very old terms which began in early Christian Egypt and continued through medieval Europe and still holds on in a few places scorned by the modern world.
If many people express interest, I'll be in the sad position of having to cut the list off at the maximum number, but then it's better that way, don't you think? If the response is huge, I'm not sure what I'll do; perhaps do two per summer. But let's cross that bridge after we've burnt it. Wait, I mean....
The fee will be $1,375. It will cover everything between flying in and flying out, including housing, food, books and supplies, transportation to and from the airport and Moscow (church and Trinity Fest), shirts and coffee mugs with the new logo, and Trinity Fest registration. In other words, the fee will cover *everything* except your airfare or other transportation costs to get here and back. Obviously, this isn't cheap, because we're keeping the number small, but it's as reasonable as I can make it.
I think there are 32 of you on this list. Even though I know not all of you will be able to do this I wanted to give you the first chance because all of you have been in on discussions about this very project. There are too many things to do in life, and you can't do them all. But consider this: I'm hoping to offer you what I wish I wish I'd had many years ago: a chance to spend a couple of weeks in quiet immersion in one very great author, savored slowly, and in the company of brothers and sisters who want to read for wisdom and not just knowledge; the chance to do so in beautiful and comfortable surroundings; the chance to sample briefly the best elements (I hope) of one of Church Histories most intriguing products, the monastery.
For a variety of reasons, the deadline for application must be March 1. If I do not have sufficient interest (and paid deposits) by then, Hill Abbey will be quietly laid to rest, perhaps to be attempted again the next year. In a couple of weeks I'll open the invitation more widely. The sooner you can let me know whether you'd like to do this, the better. If you are reasonably sure you're in, please let me know. I won't consider it a firm commitment till you send your deposit, so don't worry about being locked in just by saying you're interested; but it will help to know who's strongly interested, so please let me know if you really do want to try to do it.
If after looking at the list of people in the "To" box to whom this is sent you think of someone else you really think would like this, please let me so I can consider it and perhaps send them an invitation too. This is by invitation only (it has to be, really), but I am open to inviting anyone who meets what I think should be the qualifications.
Please consider, and let me know what you think. Watch for the website coming in a few weeks. God bless you all.
Your Devoted Irish Abbot,
What Actually Happened:
Saturday, July 29: Arrival (7:00 PM Dinner)
Schedule week 1 (Sunday, July 30-Saturday, August.5)
Schedule week 2 (Sunday, August 6-Saturday, August 12)
Order for daily morning and evening prayer
The Harrowing Silence: A Confession
(by Wyman Richardson, from Communio Sanctorum)
We have a new Presbyterian pastor in our small town. I like him and look forward to ministering alongside him here in South Georgia. He informed me a couple of weeks ago that he would be having noonday services on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week and that the services would last from 12 to 1:00. I couldn’t make it Monday or Tuesday, but yesterday, Wednesday, I arrived at the church a couple of minutes before 12 along with my Minister of Senior Adults, Rev. Horace Keen. It ended up being a pretty revealing and harrowing hour.
The Presbyterian church here is small. They run 20 or so on Sunday mornings. At noon, when the service began, I was sitting on a pew, Horace was on a pew behind me and two elderly ladies were sitting to our right in two different pews. So there were 4 of us in all, plus the pastor who was sitting in the back of the sanctuary
I say the service “began”, but that’s not really the right word. The pastor gave us a sheet of paper when we went in and, as I sat and read it, I realized that the first 30 minutes…the first 30 minutes…would be for silent prayer and reflection.
Well, I guess I feel like I’m a busy guy. I’ve got a lot to do and it’s a busy week. When the reality of the fact that I would be sitting in silence in this sanctuary for thirty minutes settled in on me, I confess that I began to run through a gamut of emotions.
The first was panic. What am I supposed to do for thirty minutes? Then mild irritation. Did he tell me that the first thirty minutes would be in silence? Then regret. I could have come at 12:25, had a brief prayer, heard the devotional and then left. Then self-conscious anxiety. Did Horace understand that we would be sitting here in silence? Is he angry at me right now?
So I sat. Every slight stir I made, every shifting of the body, caused the old wooden pew to creak. I had sat for what seemed like a long, long time and then I hazarded a peek at my watch: 12:03. 3 minutes? Oh no, this is agony.
And then it happened. I had a “picture of Dorian Grey” moment where I saw myself in all my ugliness. I began to think new things and to ask new questions:
What has happened to you that a minister of the gospel cannot sit in a sanctuary in prayer for 30 minutes without panicking?
What exactly is it that you have to do that is so pressing?
What kind of spiritual pride lurks in your heart that you feel the temptation to sneer at this little crowd in this little church?
What has “ministry” come to mean to you?
Who understands ministry better: you, who have spent the week running around, or this new pastor, who has called his church to prayer and meditation in this holy week?
Is the resurrection of Jesus Christ not worth stopping for?
Why are you so afraid of silence?
Why aren’t you praying?
So I prayed. And in the silence I prayed for things and for people I had not prayed for in some time. Then I felt and heard the flow of life all around me and prayed for it. The back door of the church was open and I could hear the cars driving by on the street outside. I heard a mother severely scold her child: “What are you doing out here! You know you shouldn’t be out here!” So I prayed for her and for her child, for God’s grace to consume them. I heard the birds outside singing and chirping. I thanked God for the birds, for the beauty of the earth. I don’t know the last time I’ve thanked God for the birds. I thought of church members whose struggles occasionally seemed small and petty to me. There in the silence they grew and became important. I prayed for them. I prayed for my friend Horace and for his wife Carolyn.
Names, faces, problems, successes, failures, family, friends, enemies. They all came rushing through my mind and I could barely keep up.
At 12:30 the new pastor stood up and brought a brief devotional and then we dismissed.
Outside I turned to my friend Horace. “You know, God really taught me a lesson in there.” His head began to nod knowingly the moment I started to speak. “Me too,” he said. “Me too.”
It’s in the quiet places that we meet God. It’s also in the quiet places that we meet ourselves. Sometimes in the quiet places we are finally able to hear and to see what we sound like and what we have become. That is why the silence is harrowing and frightening. That is why we avoid it and flee it and rage against it.
T.S. Eliot was right after all:
The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.
O perpetual revolution of configured stars,
O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us father from God and nearer to the Dust.
Find the quiet places. Seek them. Run to them. And then sit and
and hear what the Spirit is saying. The silence is a harrowing and a
THE BRETHREN OF THE COMMON LIFE
In the fourteenth century there developed in the Low Countries a model for Christian communities that are not as austere as pure monasticism: the Brethren of the Common Life. In essence it was an informal community of men and women devoted to a pure life centered around renunciation of worldy goods (but no required vow of poverty), chaste behavior (but no requirement of perpetual celibacy), and devotion to learning (especially the church fathers but also the "classics"), teaching (they founded excellent schools all over northern Europe, which numbered among their students many of the Reformers such as Luther, who supported the schools), and copying manuscripts. Gerhard de Groote, the founder of the Brethren of the Common Life, was so devoted to books that it is said he kept a chest of them by his chair at table so that there would always be good reading at meals. Here are some entries from the internet about this late medieval movement.
From Schaff's History of the Christian Church, Book VI, Chap. IV, section 34:
It was fortunate for the progress of religion, that mysticism in Holland and Northwestern Germany did not confine itself to the channel into which it had run at Groenendal. In the latter part of the fourteenth century, and before Ruysbroeck’s death, it associated with itself practical philanthropic activities under the leadership of Gerrit Groote, 1340–1384, and Florentius Radewyn, 1350–1400, who had finished his studies in Prag. They were the founders of the Windesheim Congregation and the genial company known as the Brothers of the Common Life, called also the Brothers of the New Devotion. To the effort to attain to union with God they gave a new impulse by insisting that men imitate the conduct of Christ. 500 Originating in Holland, they spread along the Rhine and into Central Germany.
Groote was born at Deventer, where his father had been burgomaster. After studying at Paris, he taught at Cologne, and received the appointment of canon, enjoying at least two church livings, one at Utrecht and one at Aachen. He lived the life of a man of the world until he experienced a sudden conversion through the influence of a friend, Henry of Kolcar, a Carthusian prior. He renounced his ecclesiastical livings and visited Ruysbroeck, being much influenced by him. Thomas à Kempis remarks that Groote could say, after his visits to Ruysbroeck, "Thy wisdom and knowledge are greater than the report which I heard in my own country."
At forty he began preaching. Throngs gathered to hear him in the churches and churchyards of Deventer, Zwolle, Leyden and other chief towns of the Lowlands.501 Often he preached three times a day. His success stirred up the Franciscans, who secured from the bishop of Utrecht an inhibition of preaching by laymen. Groote came under this restriction, as he was not ordained. An appeal was made to Urban VI., but the pope put himself on the side of the bishop. Groote died in 1384, before the decision was known.
Groote strongly denounced the low morals of the clergy, but seems not to have opposed any of the doctrines of the Church. He fasted, attended mass, laid stress upon prayer and alms, and enforced these lessons by his own life. To quote an old writer, he taught by living righteously—docuit sancte vivendo. In 1374, he gave the house he had inherited from his father at Deventer as a home for widows and unmarried women. Without taking vows, the inmates were afforded an opportunity of retirement and a life of religious devotion and good works. They were to support themselves by weaving, spinning, sewing, nursing and caring for the sick. They were at liberty to leave the community whenever they chose. John Brinkerinck further developed the idea of the female community.
The origin of the Brothers of the Common Life was on this wise. After the inhibition of lay preaching, Groote settled down at Deventer, spending much time in the house of Florentius Radewyn. He had employed young priests to copy manuscripts. At Radewyn’s suggestion they were united into a community, and agreed to throw their earnings into a common fund. After Groote’s death, the community received a more distinct organization through Radewyn. Other societies were established after the model of the Deventer house, which was called "the rich brother house,"—het rijke fraterhuis,—as at Zwolle, Delft, Liége, Ghent, Cologne, Münster, Marburg and Rostock, many of them continuing strong till the Reformation.502
A second branch from the same stock, the canons Regular of St. Augustine, established by the influence of Radewyn and other friends and pupils of Groote, had as their chief houses Windesheim, dedicated 1387, and Mt. St. Agnes, near Zwolle. These labored more within the convent, the Brothers of the Common Life outside of it.
The Brotherhood of the Common Life never reached the position of an order sanctioned by Church authority. Its members, including laymen as well as clerics, took no irrevocable vow, and were at liberty to withdraw when they pleased. They were opposed to the Brethren of the Free Spirit, and were free from charges of looseness in morals and doctrine. Like their founder, they renounced worldly goods and remained unmarried. They supported the houses by their own toil.503
To gardening, making clothes and other occupations pertaining to the daily life, they added preaching, conducting schools and copying manuscripts. Groote was an ardent lover of books, and had many manuscripts copied for his library. Among these master copyists was Thomas à Kempis. Classical authors as well as writings of the Fathers and books of Scripture were transcribed. Selections were also made from these authors in distinct volumes, called ripiaria — little river banks. At Liege they were so diligent as copyists as to receive the name Broeders van de penne, Brothers of the Quill. Of Groote, Thomas à Kempis reports that he had a chest filled with the best books standing near his dining table, so that, if a course did not please him, he might reach over to them and give his friends a cup for their souls. He carried books about with him on his preaching tours. Objection was here and there made to the possession of so many books, where they might have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.504 Translations also were made of the books of Scripture and other works. Groote translated the Seven Penitential Psalms, the Office for the Dead and certain Devotions to Mary. The houses were not slow in adopting type, and printing establishments are mentioned in connection with Maryvale, near Geissenheim, Windesheim, Herzogenbusch, Rostock, Louvaine and other houses.
The schools conducted by the Brothers of the Common Life, intended primarily for clerics, have a distinguished place in the history of education. Seldom, if ever before, had so much attention been paid to the intellectual and moral training of youth. Not only did the Brothers, have their own schools. They labored also in schools already established. Long lists of the teachers are still extant. Their school at Herzogenbusch had at one time 1200 scholars, and put Greek into its course at its very start, 1424. The school at Liége in 1524 had 1600 scholars.505 The school at Deventer acquired a place among the notable grammar schools of history, and trained Nicolas of Cusa, Thomas à Kempis, John Wessel and Erasmus, who became an inmate of the institution, 1474, and learned Greek from one of its teachers, Synthis. Making the mother-tongue the chief vehicle of education, these schools sent out the men who are the fathers of the modern literature of Northwestern Germany and the Lowlands, and prepared the soil for the coming Reformation.
Scarcely less influential was the public preaching of the Brethren in the vernacular, and the collations, or expositions of Scripture, given to private circles in their own houses. Groote went to the Scriptures, so Thomas à Kempis says, as to a well of life. Of John Celle, d. 1417, the zealous rector of the Zwolle school, the same biographer writes: "He frequently expounded to the pupils the Holy Scriptures, impressing upon them their authority and stirring them up to diligence in writing out the sayings of the saints. He also taught them to sing accurately, and sedulously to attend church, to honor God’s ministers and to pray often."506 Celle himself played on the organ.
The central theme of their study was the person and life of Christ. "Let the root of thy study," said Groote, "and the mirror of thy life be primarily the Gospel, for therein is the life of Christ portrayed."507 A period of each day was set apart for reflection on some special religious subject,—Sunday on heaven, Monday on death, Tuesday on the mercies of God, Wednesday on the last judgment, Thursday on the pains of hell, Friday on the Lord’s passion and Saturday on sins. They laid more stress upon inward purity and rectitude than upon outward conformities to ritual.508
The excellent people joined the other mystics of the fourteenth
century in loosening the hold of scholasticism and sacerdotalism, those
two master forces of the Middle Ages.509 They gave emphasis to
the ideas brought out strongly from other quarters,—the heretical sects
and such writers as
Marsiglius of Padua,—the idea of the dignity of the layman, and that
vows are not the condition of pure religious devotion. They were the
contributors to the vigorous religious current which was flowing
the Lowlands. Popular religious literature was in circulation. Manuals
devotion were current, cordials and praecordials for the soul’s needs.
codes of rules for laymen were passed from hand to hand, giving
for their conduct at home and abroad. Religious poems in the
such as the poem on the wise and foolish virgins, carried biblical
Van viff juncfrou wen de wis weren
Unde van vif dwasen wilt nu hir leren.
Some of these were translations from Bernard’s Jesu dulcis memoria, and some condemned festivities like the Maypole and the dance.510
Eugene IV., Pius II., and Sistus IV. gave the Brothers marks of their approval, and the great teachers, Cardinal Cusa, D’Ailly and John Gerson spoke in their praise. There were, however, detractors, such as Grabon, a Saxon Dominican who presented, in the last days of the Council of Constance, 1418, no less than twenty-five charges against them. The substance of the charges was that the highest religious life may not be lived apart from the orders officially sanctioned by the Church. A commission appointed by Martin V., to which Gerson and D’Ailly belonged, reported adversely, and Grabon was obliged to retract. The commission adduced the fact that there was no monastic body in Jerusalem when the primitive Church practised community of goods, and that conventual walls and vows are not essential to the highest religious life. Otherwise the pope, the cardinals and the prelates themselves would not be able to attain to the highest reach of religious experience.511
With the Reformation, the distinct mission of the Brotherhood was at an end, and many of the communities fell in with the new movement. As for the houses which maintained their old rules, Luther felt a warm interest in them. When, in 1532, the Council of Hervord in Westphalia was proposing to abolish the local sister and brother houses, the Reformer wrote strongly against the proposal as follows: "Inasmuch as the Brothers and Sisters, who were the first to start the Gospel among you, lead a creditable life, and have a decent and well-behaved community, and faithfully teach and hold the pure Word, such monasteries and brother-houses please me beyond measure." On two other occasions, he openly showed his interest in the brotherhood of which Groote was the founder.
From The Catholic Encyclopedia
A community founded by Geert De Groote, of rich burgher stock, born at Deventer in Gelderland in 1340; died 1384. Having read at Cologne, at the Sorbonne, and at Prague, he took orders and obtained preferment -- a canon's stall at Utrecht and another at Aachen. His relations with the German Gottesfreunde and the writings of Ruysbroek, who later became his friend, gradually inclined him to mysticism, and on recovering from an illness in 1373 he resigned his prebends, bestowed his goods on the Carthusians of Arnheim, and lived in solitude for seven years. Then, feeling himself constrained to go forth and preach, he went from place to place calling men to repentance, proclaiming the beauty of Divine love, and bewailing the relaxation of ecclesiastical discipline and the degradation of the clergy. The effect of his sermons was marvellous; thousands hung on his lips. "The towns", says Moll, "were filled with devotees; you might know them by their silence, their ecstasies during Mass, their mean attire, their eyes, flaming or full of sweetness." A little band of these attached themselves to Groote and became his fellow-workers, thus becoming the first "Brethren of the Common Life". The reformer, of course, was opposed by the clerks whose evil lives he denounced, but the cry of heresy was raised in vain against one who was no less zealous for purity of faith than for purity of morals. The best of the secular clergy enrolled themselves in his brotherhood, which in due course was approved by the Holy See. Groote, however, did not live long enough to perfect the work he had begun. He died in 1384, and was succeeded by Florence Radewyns, who two years later founded the famous monastery of Windesheim which was thenceforth the centre of the new association.
The Confraternity of the Common Life resembled in several respects the Beghard and Beguine communities which had flourished two centuries earlier and were then decadent. The members took no vows, neither asked nor received alms; their first aim was to cultivate the interior life, and they worked for their daily bread. The houses of the brothers and sisters alike occupied themselves exclusively with literature and education, and priests also with preaching. When Groote began, learning in the Netherlands was as rare as virtue; the University of Louvain had not yet been founded, and the fame of the schools of Liège was only a memory. Save for a clerk here and there who had studied at Paris or Cologne, there were no scholars in the land; even amongst the higher clergy there were many who were ignorant of Latin, and the burgher was quite content if when his children left school they were able to read and write. Groote determined to change all this, and his disciples accomplished much. Through their unflagging toil in the scriptorium and afterwards at the press they were able to multiply their spiritual writings and to scatter them broadcast throughout the land, instinct with the spirit of the "Imitation". Amongst them are to be found the choicest flowers of fifteenth-century Flemish prose. The Brethren spared no pains to obtain good masters, if necessary from foreign parts, for their schools, which became centres of spiritual and intellectual life; amongst those whom they trained or who were associated with them were men like Thomas à Kempis, Dierick Maertens, Gabriel Biel, and the Dutch Pope Adrian VI.
Before the fifteenth century closed, the Brethren of the Common Life had studded all Germany and the Netherlands with schools in which the teaching was given for the love of God alone. Gradually the course, at first elementary, embraced the humanities, philosophy, and theology. The religious orders looked askance at these Brethren, who were neither monks nor friars, but the Brethren found protectors in Popes Eugenius IV, Pius II, and Sixtus IV. The great Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa had been their pupil and became their stanch protector and benefactor. He was likewise the patron of Rudolph Agricola, who in his youth at Zwolle had sat at the feet of Thomas à Kempis; and so the Brethren of the Common Life, through Cusa and Agricola, influenced Erasmus and other adepts in the New Learning. More than half of the crowded schools -- in 1500 Deventer counted over two thousand students -- were swept away in the religious troubles of the sixteenth century. Others languished until the French Revolution, while the rise of universities, the creation of diocesan seminaries, and the competition of new teaching orders gradually extinguished the schools that regarded Deventer and Windesheim as their parent establishments. A life of De Groote is to be found among the works of Thomas à Kempis.
From Barry McWilliams ("Eldrbarry")
It was in the flourishing commercial and industrial towns of the Low Countries that there developed, in the late Middle Ages, the movement known as the Modern Devotion, or devotio moderna. Its origins are bound up with the career of Gerard Groote (1340-84) of Deventer. The son of a prominent merchant, he lived in a worldly manner until, in 1374, he had a conversion experience, which caused him to adopt an ascetic way of life. From 1379 he became a preacher of repentance, criticizing the clergy so severely that some of them caused him to be officially silenced. He appealed to the pope, who granted him permission to preach, but he died before this permission could reach him.
Groote believed in a combination of religion and learning. He wanted people to be able to read the Bible, and began to translate parts of it into the vernacular. He sought and advocated a more personal religious experience based on the imitation of Christ. He was a mystic to whom the visible church mattered less than a close union with God. Love, faith, and humility were all important, far above outward works. It was the devil who told men that good works would bring salvation and persuaded them to do such works. This foreshadows Luther's teaching of justification by faith and the uselessness of good works for salvation.
From the work of Groote arose two types of communities that spread far and wide. The Brethren of the Common Life were groups composed chiefly of laymen, though it was considered desirable that each house should contain some members of the clergy. From the original house at Deventer, other houses were established in the Low Countries, Germany, and even Poland. The Brethren devoted themselves to religious exercises, the search for personal perfection, work, and service to others. They have been described as practical mystics; their striving for personal union with God was accompanied by efforts to reform the church through educating young people and instructing the laity in the essentials of the Christian faith. Much of their best work was done through the schools. In some cases they founded schools of their own, and elsewhere they became teachers and headmasters of existing institutions. Some future intellectual and religious leaders were affected by the Brethren of the Common Life, including Erasmus and Luther.
The other type of community that derived from Groote's work was monastic in a more traditional sense. The monasteries founded by his followers were grouped in the congregation of Windesheim, and the congregation became a center for monastic reform. The new house was joined by established ones; so that by about 1500, it encompassed ninety-seven monasteries. As part of the devotio moderna it shared the ideals of the Brethren of the Common Life, with emphasis on a deep and personal religious experience and faith, combined with learning, especially in the fields of Biblical and patristic study. There were also feminine counterparts of the communities already mentioned. Corresponding to the Brethren of the Common Life were the Sisters of the Common Life, and there was also a body of nuns who became the center of a movement of reform.
The most famous literary product of the devotio moderna is the Imitation of Christ. Though its authorship has been much disputed, it seems to embody material coming out of the circle of the first Brethren of the Common Life, and it undoubtedly represents the ideas and ideals of the movement. It advocates the abandonment of one's self with its will, passions, and vices. Outward religious observances are minimized. Learning is a danger. Solitude, contemplation, and the love of God are all important.
Alongside the devotio moderna, which was orthodox in its theological views, there was a long tradition of religious radicalism in the Low Countries; the most outstanding characteristic was a willingness to question the accepted doctrine of the Eucharist, or Lord's Supper. Some had gone so far as to reject it entirely, while others had tended to spiritualize it, emphasizing an inward communion rather than an outward ceremony. This spiritualizing tendency profoundly affected Erasmus, in whom also many of the ideas of the devotio moderna and the Imitation of Christ were represented and through whom they reached a wide public.