by John Wijngaards
Latin American theologians reproach Europe for having made religion the preserve of the individual. God and I are all that count. They shudder at Cardinal Newman’s assertion that “in the purest and most direct acts of religion” man stands alone before God: face to face, solus cum solo. The cure for Europe’s spiritual crisis, they tell us. Iies in reviving the sense of community which is the essence of the Church. I believe they are wrong. Europe’s faith will only be saved if Christians in Europe are true to themselves, if we do not betray our culture in which the dignity and freedom of each person stands supreme. The Church community we need will be much like our own brand of socialism: the kind that mobilises free. self-made, my home-is-my-castle minded men and women. The ideal of becoming a family of free and equal brothers and sisters lies deeply embedded in our religious past. It is there that we should look for inspiration, rather than to Latin America: as in Gerard Groote’s “Modern Spirituality”. that byproduct of a new social awareness in the late Middle Ages.
In previous centuries, attention had been focused on the courts of high nobility and kings, or on public achievements such as cathedrals and city halls. Now the free burgher, whether merchant or skilled craftsman, discovered for the first time the worth of his own life. The 14th-century Low Countries manifest this self-respect in every sphere. Music is composed not for church choirs or royal orchestras. but for instruments played in kitchens and sitting rooms. The Flemish Primitives begin to depict the homes of ordinary workers and middle-class people. Architecture turns from exclusive interest in public buildings to the layout of residential houses and the adornment of their facades. Even literature becomes disenchanted with the classical ballads of kings and their knights, instead producing moving stories and plays about the common folk.
Gerard Groote belonged to this milieu. His father was a well-to-do businessman in the township of Deventer, the third most prosperous merchant city of the Netherlands. Gerard was given the best European education of the time. When he was eight years old he joined the so-called Latin school, where he learned to read and write in both Latin and Dutch. Then, as a boy of 15, he was sent to Paris, Europe’s capital in academic studies, where it took him three years to master “the free arts”. These included grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. He then graduated in law, theology, medicine and alchemy, completing all the courses that were offered.
Meanwhile, this ambitious merchant’s son, now doctor of theology and guest lecturer in Prague and Cologne, had not failed to consolidate his position by also obtaining official clerical status. He already enjoyed a good income as a lecturer and owned a handsome property in Deventer left him by his father. Yet he procured the tonsure so that he could qualify for additional appointments. Representing his home town Deventer on official business with the Pope at Avignon, he availed himself of the opportunity to be appointed canon at the cathedral church of Aachen. In 1371 he managed to obtain additionally a similar appointment at the cathedral church of Utrecht. In both cases he received the substantial income of these appointments, while leaving the corresponding duties to vicars working in his name. Gerard thus embodied the ruthless drive for education, position and money that has fuelled the upward climb in European society for so long. That experience would give his later spiritual leadership a sureness of touch beyond the reach of priests and monks.
We do not know exactly what caused Gerard’s conversion. Was it the illness he suffered 12 years before his death? Was it contact with those of his friends who were dissatisfied with the lack of depth in faith and practice? We will never know. One thing is certain: from an ambitious, self – centred cynic he became a dedicated follower of Christ. The last 10 years of his life he spent in organising practical reforms. He resigned his clerical benefices in Aachen and Utrecht. He gave his spacious mansion to the municipality as a community house for single women without support. He allocated his reserve properties to the poor.
Gerard’s success as a reformer was phenomenal. A few years after his death, lay communities of Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life would multiply throughout the Low Countries and far beyond them. Thousands of families would be inspired to follow the new life-style propagated by his disciples. This success was no doubt due to the fact that Gerard had managed to give expression to what the Europe of his time needed most: a spirituality that respected and challenged the laity.
People have to learn. The “Modern Devotion” stimulated the spread of knowledge to ordinary homes. Gerard Groote made copying ancient texts the principal task of his lay communities; so much so that a quarter of all manuscripts preserved from antiquity were copied by his followers. Each community earmarked a third of its income for extending the local library. Jan Cele, Gerard’s personal friend, founded the first “secondary school” organised on modern principles: he divided the pupils into classes, entrusted the teaching to qualified staff, recorded progress through periodic examinations.
Study, however. should aim at acquiring useful knowledge and insight, not impressive academic titles or the ability to show off superficial learning. The loquaciousness and pedantic preaching of the time, to be caricatured so well by Erasmus in his Divine Folly, was abhorred. The favoured pattern of instruction was the collation, or “putting a topic together”: a reading of scripture. a brief commentary by a scholar, a discussion in which all participated and common prayer. This method was employed in youth hostels. in local gatherings in parish churches after Sunday vespers.
Personal reading was highly encouraged. Here again the method was considered paramount. Don’t become a scatter-brain who knows thousands of curious facts but doesn’t really understand!” I wonder what Gerard Groote would have thought of the maelstrom of half-digested information which we consume day after day. He certainly would have questioned the mentality that celebrates the memorising of a myriad useless names and details-and honours it with the epithet “Master Mind”. No, to begin with, one should carefully select the right book. This one should read with precision to fathom what the author wanted to say. then assess its use for oneself.
The mind is like a millstone which needs corn for grinding; but what comes out should be healthy food, not chaff. This “healthy food” was written down as brief sayings in one’s personal anthology, known as a raparium. The Imitation of Christ arose from such a collection of inspiring thoughts. But high ideals are not enough; they need to be cut down to size by common sense.
A sense of realism characterised the attitude to spiritual things. Everyday practicality was the norm. Heroism yes, but of the kind that avoids excesses. Mortification does not call for self-imposed penances but for accepting the suffering that comes one’s way. Many desire to sit with Jesus at his supper; few follow him to the cross.” Sanctity does not consist in taking religious vows or going on a pilgrimage. ‘The sun shines on the dungheap as much as on a throne of gold.” There is no mediocrity in this, but an attempt to put the Chnstian vocation where it belongs: in the. messiness of everyday life.
In all circumstances the individual and his feelings should be respected. The Devotio Moderna produced the first treatises on religious psychology. Candidates for the “Common Life” were asked three questions: “Do you have a healthy appetite? Can you sleep well? How well do you adapt to a new situation?” The advice given was always to be strict regarding principles, but lenient with people. This also required patience with oneself. ”Don’t be discouraged if you can’t always live up to your ideals. You are a human being, not God; flesh and blood, not an angel.” “You’ll pray much better. if you develop a sense of humour.”
As in our own days, the Church of the time came in for a lot of criticism, and for good reasons-in fact all the reasons that would lead to the Reformation. Gerard Groote and his followers carefully defined their position as a combination of indictment and loyalty. Thev loved the Church and wanted to remain loyal. They recognised the authority of the Pope – respected even two at once during that confusing period when pope and anti-pope were contending for the tiara; but they never stopped protesting at abuses and mistakes. If the Church had heeded their loyal criticism, then perhaps, for all we know. the Reformation might not have taken place. It is interesting that The Imitation of Christ has always been a highly respected and popular meditation book in Protestant circles.
Reflecting on history is always useful, but particularly so when it is our own history, the past that made us what we are. Why has Christianity in Europe lost so much of its credibility? Why do so many of our people who seek religious values, turn for inspiration elsewhere?
Take for instance the situation in England and Wales. Sixty per cent of the population find religion meaningful, profess belief in God, say that they pray from time to time and reflect on ultimate questions. But only a third of these-in fact only 18 per cent of the population – belong to a Christian church. With minor variations, we find a similar picture throughout Europe. There is something very wrong here. something that should worry us until our conscience hurts.
It will no longer do to blame secularisation, or antiquated structures, or the intransigent rejection by the Catholic Church of contraceptives, even though all these take their toll. The sad, alarming, upsetting reality is that for quite a few people Christianity fails in its spiritual dimension; that, in spite of our claims, they believe themselves to be happier, healthier, more human and closer to God outside the Church. Individual cases which one comes across confirm the general statistics: a High Church Anglican who turns Buddhist in later life; a deeply religious woman who studied in a Catholic boarding school and decides that joining the Church would harm her spiritual life; a young man from a practising Catholic family who attends a session of Sahaja Yoga and becomes a member of the sect “for now I have learnt to pray”.
I know it is difficult to assess the religious crisis in Europe correctly. Obviously no one single cause can be held responsible for such a complex phenomenon. But if I had to select a prime cause, a principal reason, it would be this: the Christian faith is not sufficiently seen as a challenging, personal, spiritual search. The image we project so often reflects the framework, not the heart: worn-out medieval structures, ready-made dogmas and rigid laws that need to be obeyed not discovered. I know there are people who seek security. But there are many others- and these are frequently the cream of our society-who need to be challenged in what they prize most. If the freedom to think one’s own thoughts and speak one’s own mind is rightly so highly valued, spiritual truths and ideals too require individual expression, a deeply personal process of assimilation and commitment.
And here we meet, full circle, what Gerard Groote was asking for. How real is the self-education of our laity? Is their faith based on their own convictions or on what they were told at school or in church? How much spirituality is read and discussed at home? What opportunities do lay people have to voice their opinion in the Church or to guide pastoral reforms in line with everyday requirements? Are we a Church where there is scope for lay enthusiasm and lay initiative?
Critics have pointed out the shortcomings in the Devotio Moderna: its fear of death (small wonder in an age when the plague spared no family); its contempt of “the world” (yet it produced statesmen and artists); its stress on “piety” rather than action (but Groote himself publicly protested against the building of the 300 foot-high spire of the cathedral church at Utrecht, which he branded a presumptuous waste). Certainly, the Devotio Moderna had its weaknesses; I would not advocate that we should revive it lock, stock and barrel. What we should do is to allow its spark to light a new fire in the hearts of our 20th century. secularised, independent-minded believers.
“No one is richer, no one more powerful, no one more liberated than he who knows how to forget himself and love…. Love knows no limit. It glows beyond measure. Love feels no burden, counts no cost…. He who loves runs, flies and is happy. He is free and unrestricted…. Whoever is in love knows what I mean…. Drink then the Lord’s chalice with love if you want to be his friend. He calls you to share his kingdom.”
Published in The Tablet (18th August 1984) pp. 786-787.