Oksanen, Reijo

Fourth Way Schools II - the Brothers & Sisters of the Common Life

For introduction please read a short introduction to this series of articles on the Fourth Way Schools in the first article called The Antonites.

Who were the Brethen of the Common Life ?

I knew very little of these brothers and sisters before I found a book written by Ross Fuller [Ref. 1]. The book is written in an intellectual manner and in a language difficult for a foreigner like myself, but the subject is interesting from the point of view of the Fourth Way.

Another detail in this book initially aroused my interest: the author mentions many members of the Gurdjieff Society in London. However, the movement, also called the 'New Devotion', is not presented in Mr. Fuller's book as a Fourth Way School, although references to and with the help of 'gurdjieffian' language are many. To continue the studies I found German books written on the subject and lots of material on the internet too.

One particular web site is full of interesting material. This is an article written by Arthur Broekhuysen. It appears on the web site of Wisdom's Golden Rod, Center for Philosophic Studies. My article relies heavily on the information Arthur Broekhuysen has provided.

Comparing the writings that I came across in book format Ross Fuller's book is the one that I can fully recommend for further reading.

Gerard Groote

The knowledge of all knowledge is for a man to know that he does not know anything. Gerard Groote [Ref. 2]

Gerard Groote, son of a fabric merchant family, lived 1340-1384 in Deventer, Holland (Deventer web site). In his home country he was known as Gert Groot and with the Latin name Gerhardus Magnus.

Groote studied first in Aachen, Germany, and already at a very early age in Sorbonne, Paris. His examinations were in grammar, logic, natural philosophy, speculative psychology, moral philosophy and metaphysics. Afterwards he travelled and studied in Cologne and Prague.

After a serious illness he decided to turn his back on his previous life. An incident in Cologne may have had its influence on this decision. A man came to him on the street and asked: "Why are you standing here like this, intent on empty things? You must become another man." [Ref. 3]

The influence of Gerard Groote is remarkable, particularly when we consider that he died at the early age of 44 and by that time he had only been actively working for the brethen only for a few years.

On the advice of Johannes von Ruysbroek (1293-1381) Gerard entered the Monnikhuizen Carthusian monastery in 1374, and although not taking the vows, he spent three years in Monnikhuizen. After these studies he started his public work. He travelled to Paris to buy books and came back via Groenendal, where again met von Ruysbroek. (At the age of 50 Ruysbroek had moved to the forests of Waterloo with some friends and later established an Augustine monastery in Groenendal).

In 1374 Groote gave his house to some poor women. In 1379 he drafted the outlines of the society and explaining why he had asked these women to live in his house. It was not to found a new monastic order, but to find a place where they might worship God in peace.

Broederenkerk in Deventer

Admittance was for women who were not bound by monastic vows and no vows were demanded of them later. They were free to leave if they chose. Their clothes should wear similar clothes than other women in the town; they were neither nuns nor beguines (lay sisters). A woman could be a member of the society without living in the mentioned "Meester-Geertshuis".

In the "House of Master Gerard" the sisters all worked in common and shared their expenses and income. All were expected to take part in manual labor, and to beg was forbidden. Each member was to perform the tasks that she was best fitted. The sisters became great experts in gardening; they run a dairy business, and many of them earned through their skills in sewing, knitting, weaving and spinning.

In composing this constitution for the Sisters of the Common Life, Groote prepared the way for the mightier organization known later as the Brethen of the Common Life.

Shortly after he left the Carthusian monastery of Monnikhuizen near Arnhem, he had succeeded in recruiting a number of devout followers. In 1380 they were joined by a future leader of the Devotio Moderna, Florentius Radewijns.

Florentius was born at Leerdam in the year 1350. He had studied in Prague from 1374 and had received a master's degree in 1378. He became vicar of the altar of St.Paul in St.Lebwin's Church at Deventer.

Groote's twelve disciples used to meet in Radewijns' vicarage, although all of them actually did not live there.

In 1379 Groote received his ordination as a deacon and a written authorization from the bishop to deliver sermons in public. This permission to preach was later taken away after various interest groups protested against Gerard's reformative activities. Gerard Groote died of plague, after attending one of his friends who had caught it, on August 20th 1384.

Devotio Moderna - in the World, But Not of the World

"..the fact that the women far outnumbered the men is overlooked: on average, there were three women to every male Devout." Digitale Bibliotheek vor de Nederlandse letteren.

By the beginning of 1386 the Brothers of Zwolle completed the construction of a little hermitage in the Nemel hills, on the spot which Groote had indicated. This was the beginning of Mount Agnes, which later witnessed Thomas a Kempis applying for entry in 1399.

The Brothers of Deventer built a monastery at Windesheim and in 1387 six of them took their first vows as Canons Regular. Under the protection of Windesheim and its daughter houses the Brothers were able to continue their teaching among the students of the public schools.

Windesheim Old Brewery - now a church

In 1401, their organization was officially appointed by the bishop of Utrecht. After the council of Constance in 1414 had made its decisions Devotio Moderna expanded into many other countries.

Gerard Groote had urged Florens Radewijns to become a priest. Thomas a Kempis spent several years in Radewijns' presence. Florentius Radewijns lived the ideals of the Imitation of Christ. He compared man with a musical instrument; man in his present state is out of tune with the infinite. When one is converted, one's improper and imperfect affections or emotions are changed into pure love; one will then love God for God's own sake. All our reading, meditations, and prayers should be concentrated chiefly upon the abolition of sin, thus making room for love.

Windesheim and Diepenveen

The brethen who were to live in Windesheim took the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. As they knew practically nothing about monastic life they decided to go to the Augustinian monastery of Eemsteyn near Dordrecht, where some of Groote's best friends were practicing the rules of the Augustinian Canons Regular with the ardour of the New Devotion. They were accepted and initiated into the rituals of the Augustinian order, which the monks of Eemsteyn had learned from those of Groenendaal, Ruysbroeck's monastery.

The convent of Diepenveen, founded by the Sisters of the Common Life, kept in close touch with the sister-houses. Together with the "house of Master Gerard" at Deventer, it tried to improve conditions in the existing houses, and to found new ones. The monasteries of Windesheim and Diepenveen have often been called "model convents" of the fifteenth century.

Windesheim became famous also as a center of literature and art. The monks belonging to this congregation often spoke about the inner life, but they also held learning in high regard. There were many scholars in the monasteries and splendid libraries. At first the monks at Windesheim copied books chiefly for their own use and began soon to edit work for export to foreign countries.

Windesheim was one of the greatest and perhaps the most influential in the whole history of Western monasticism. Several hundred monasteries were inspired by Windesheim and Diepenveen.

The Windesheim Congregation, in pointing out the uselessness of mere form, and in stressing the need of a personal, living faith, helped to prepare the way for a great religious upheaval.
The works of Groote, Radewijns, Zerbolt, Peters, and Thomas a Kempis became known across the Continent, and even today one can find copies of them in libraries and book-stores in most of the larger European cities. The principles of the New Devotion became the spiritual food in many 'bellies of the soul' (as the New Devotion called it) of many thousands of men and women not only in the Low Countries, but also in Germany, France and Spain, and would later be crystallized in the lives of great reformers, like Luther, Calvin, Zwingly and Loyola.

Other Houses of the Brotherhood

The brethen-houses of Deventer and Zwolle until the year 1520, were the two chief centers of the New Devotion outside the monasteries. All the other houses of the new brotherhood were founded by them, either directly or indirectly. Radewijns founded a congregation at Amersfoort. The next place was the city of Delft, where the magistrates, having heard of the rising fame and the good works of the brethen at Deventer, were anxious to secure a similar society of copyists and teachers. In the following years houses were founded at Hertogenbosch, Doesburg, Groningen, Harderwijk, Utrecht and Nijmegen.

In Germany there was a congregation at Münster from the year 1400, founded by Henry of Ahaus, a missionary of the Deventer house. The same Henry of Ahaus instituted a society at Cologne in the year 1417. The brethern at Cologne founded the houses at Wiesbaden, Butzbach near Mainz, Königstein on the Taunus and Wolf on the Moselle. There were important houses at Rostock, Magdeburg, Marburg, Kassel and Emmerich.

In the Southern Low Countries houses of the Brethern of the Common Life were founded at Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels, Grammont, Mechlin, Cambray, Liege, Louvain, and Wynoksberg.

The Sisters of the Common Life also succeeded in founding a large number of houses, particularly in the IJssel valley. At Deventer they had five houses. At Zwolle there were six. There were three houses at Zutphen, two at Doesburg, Kampen and Lochem, two at Utrecht, one at Arnhem, Doetinchem, Gorichem and a host of other places. The houses of the brethern at Zwolle had charge of nineteen sister-houses.

General Characteristics

How did the Brethen of the Common Life live and what were the most characteristic features of their organization? Their constitutions were practically uniform in Germany, and nearly so in the Low Countries.

The brethen of Deventer and Zwolle wrote: "Our house was founded with the intention that priests and clerics might live there, supported by their own manual labor, namely the copying of books, and the returns from the estates, attending church with devotion, obeying the prelates, wearing simple clothing, preserving the canons and decrees of the saints, practising religious exercises and leading not only irreproachable, but exemplary lives, in order that they may serve God and perchance induce others to seek salvation."

"Since the final end of religion consists in purity of heart, without which we shall seek perfection in vain, let it be our daily aim to purge our poisoned hearts from sin, so that in the first place we may learn to know ourselves, and endeavor with all our strength to eradicate the vices of our minds; despise temporal gain, crush selfish desires, aid others in overcoming sin, and concentrate our energy on the acquisition of true virtues, such as humility, love, chastity, patience, and obedience. Toward this end we must direct all our spiritual exercises: prayer, meditation, reading, manual labor, watching, fasting - in short the harmonious development of our internal and external powers."

"Whereas the fear of the Lord is necessary to those who wish to overcome evil, it is expedient for each of us to meditate on such subjects as induce it."

The constitutions further state that the brethen were to rise between three and four o'clock in the morning (later shortly before five), preparing themselves at once for prayer and the reading of certain prescribed selections. All the members of the house were expected to attend the daily mass, and were exhorted to free their mind from all distractions, "thus preparing themselves, as it were, for a spiritual communion."

Since it was considered most beneficial for all men to perform some manual labor every day, the brethen would be expected to spend several hours a day in copying religious books or in performing other tasks. But lest the spirit suffer from neglect, they should occasionally utter short ejaculatory prayers. The brethen were to consume their meals in silence, in order that they might pay proper attention to the reading of a selection from the Bible. After supper they could do as they pleased in their own rooms till eight o'clock. At eight all guests would have to leave the house. The doors were shut fast, and silence was observed till half past eight, when they went to bed.

On Sundays and holidays certain passages in the Scriptures were read and explained; and in this connection there was opportunity for general discussion, when each member of the house could freely express his opinions, as long as he did not indulge in impractical disputes and argumentations. The schoolboys and other people were invited to attend the discussions which were held in the vernacular. The influence thus exerted upon the common people by the brethen is incalculable. For not only were there a great many among them whose fame as orators brought people long distances to hear them, but it was their combined and continued efforts, which must have brought tangible results, considering the great number of holy days they observed.

Their voices were seldom heard on the streets, for they wished to avoid publicity. nevertheless, their influence, though not always manifested visibly. reached the minds of thousands, while the books they circulated reached still larger numbers. They continued their labors in an orderly way. The brethern were always ready to help the sick and comfort the afflicted. And the schoolboys could always get a room in their dormitories, no matter whether they were able to pay for them or not. By preaching reform to all men and women the brethen labored and formed the great movement which throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries helped to change the medieval mind into the modern mind.

As time went on the Brethen of the Common Life found it necessary to appoint rectors, procurators, librarians, and several other office-holders. In the constitutions of the houses at Deventer and Zwolle the duties of the rector, procurator, librarian, tailor, and nurse were carefully outlined; several other offices were treated together in one chapter, though later they were more elaborately discussed in the constitutions used by the German houses belonging to the "Colloquium of Munster."

The houses of the Brethern of the Common Life in the Low Countries used to send representatives to their annual meeting, called "Colloquium Zwollense." Another means of preserving discipline and unity were the annual visitations by two rectors, preferably those of Zwolle and Deventer.

Each house should, if possible, have four priests and some other members of the clergy. If somebody applied for admission, the brethen were required to examine his physical condition, and his mental suitability; he should be asked from which country he had come. He would be asked, also, whether he could write, and if he loved to read books. In case he was found to be in good health and of sound mind and habits, he would be allowed to remain in the house for two or three months, whereupon he might be promoted to a further trial of ten or twelve months. After this lapse of time he might become a Brother of the Common Life, having first sworn before a notary public and in the presence of some witnesses that he renounced all claim to any property of his own. Members could be expelled in case of ill-behavior. the brethen were exhorted to preserve mutual love, peace, and harmony, and although none of them would be expected to take the vows of chastity and obedience, nevertheless they all should strive to cultivate these virtues.

Practical mystics

The Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life may well be called practical mystics, in distinction from such men as John Ruysbroeck. Love for their neighbor impelled them to work among the people in the cities. Their highest aim was the reformation of the Church, which could most effectively be done, they thought, by educating the youth of the country and by instructing the common people in the essentials of the Christian religion. They paid much attention to their "spiritual natures", or their "inner selves". Formed in the image of God, as they believed, and assured by Christ that the kingdom of heaven is found within the human heart, they continually strove to explore their inner lives, to unite their inner selves with God or Christ, and thus regain their lost heritage. They were also much given to meditation.

The New Devotion in France

In France Paris became and remained the one chief centre of the Christian Renaissance. Two men were to determine the character of this movement in France: John Standonckand John Mombaer, both natives of Brabant.

John Standonck was born in the year 1450. After attending school for a few years in his native town Mechlin he went to Gouda where the Brethen of the Common Life had founded a boarding school within their own building. Here the boy was given a scholarship. All his physical and mental needs were provided for. John became one of the best students at Gouda and the seeds of the "New Devotion" found a very fertile soil in him. In 1469 he matriculated at Louvain and not long thereafter we find him in Paris where for some time he acted as librarian of the Sorbonne. Not only did he preach at Paris, but he founded a dormitory for poor students very much like those erected by the brethen at Deventer and Zwolle. In this dormitory Erasmus and Calvin were to have a room one day. Here the masterpieces of Christian mysticism would be read and copied, among them the "Imitation", the "Spiritual Ascensions", and the "Rosary of Spiritual Exercises".

In 1490 John Standonck bought a small house on the Rue des Sept-Voies. Here he invited a small number of poor students to live with him, who attended the courses at Montaigu, but resided at Standonck's house, forming a sort of semi-monastic fraternity in imitation of the dormitories of the Brethen of the Common Life. In 1493 more than eighty of them were lodging with Standonck. The house had become too small.

Standonck was now obliged to look for more spacious quarters. Fortunately his acquaintance with some of the most influential men in the kingdom was to result in providing him with a still better home. A new chapel was built and a new dormitory. Early in the year 1495 the first eighty-six occupants entered their new home. The whole group of buildings was henceforth referred to as the college of Montaigu. The rules of Montaigu owe much to those in use at Deventer and Zwolle. One might state that the institution of Standonck at Paris was an offshoot of those of the brethern. In 1503 more than 200 students were living in the dormitory of Montaigu. The king was very much pleased with Standonck's work and granted the college 200 pounds a year. The "congregation" sent out three hundred men to reform monasteries and it was therefore a preparatory school for the reformed monastic orders.

Were the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life a Fourth Way School ?

The evidence for:

Gerard Groote was a layman and worked with lay people

the work was carried out in life and in life occupations

the monasteries were used for the members to learn about salvation and to give them a 'legitimate' permit to teach

main literary work left was Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ, which deals with inner Christianity

a well organized hierarchical system in running the centers

concentraton on learning and living a Christian life on the individual level were more important than saving the whole world

appearance at a time when reform of the monasticism and the Christianity as know in the various churches was a necessity

the confirmation of their work was the reformation

Links to Devotio Moderna can be found in GIG's Links section at Devotio Moderna

© Reijo Oksanen 2004 - 2006

Ref. 1 - Ross Fuller: The Brotherhood of the Common Life and its Influence, State University of New York Press, 1995.

Ref. 2 - ibid, p. 81

Ref. 3 - ibid, p. 86