September 2012 Print

An Original School of Spirituality: The Devotio Moderna

Fr. Dominique Bourmaud, SSPX

It is not easy to trace the growth and varieties of the delicate topic called “Spirituality.” This is both a science and an art which deals with all things akin to the spiritual life. It aims at that Christian perfection which Our Lord but formally commanded to each of us: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Schools of Spirituality

A quick glance at the history of spirituality reveals that, after rather scanty works produced on the subject in Patristic times, the Middle Ages break down the schools of spirituality according to the various orders (especially Benedictines, Carthusians, Dominicans, and Franciscans). As for the Modern era starting from the sixteenth century, to the old schools, they add new congregations—the Jesuits, the Salesians, and others attached either to a person (the Liguorian school) or to a location (the seventeenth-century French school). The Augustinians were also well represented, but we shall see them quite involved as we delve into our present topic.

Much could be said about the nuances of spirituality among these categories. As we focus on the Devotio Moderna, it will suffice to say that up to the Middle Ages, and even later in the old monastic orders, the common method of prayer for all Christians was called lectio divina, a practice which involved reading Scripture at deeper levels of meaning.

Involved in this process are three steps:

  1. meditation, the reflecting with the mind upon the meaning of the sacred texts;
  2. affective prayer, the spontaneous movement of the will in response to these reflections;
  3. contemplation, the two previous mental prayers in a more quiet state in God’s presence.

The Origins of the Devotio Moderna

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, wars and the Black Death spread chaos throughout the land, a chaos which was also felt among the clergy both physically and spiritually. The Devotio Moderna (Latin for modern devotion) arose in the Low Countries around the year 1400 in an attempt to establish reform. It spread to Germany, northern France, Spain, and possibly Italy. Gerhard Groote was highly dissatisfied with the state of the Church and what he perceived as the gradual loss of monastic traditions and the lack of moral values among the clergy, a sentiment expressed by the Dominican Henry Suso long before him. To remedy this, Groote founded the Brethren of the Common Life; after his death, his disciple Florens Radewijns established a house of Augustinian Canons at Windesheim in Holland. These two communities—the former living in the world, the latter monastic—became the principal exponents of Devotio Moderna.

Under Radewijns, who added the vows and enclosure, the Congregation of Windesheim grew into a large tree. By the end of the fifteenth century, it comprised about 100 monasteries of either sex, although it suffered greatly from the Protestant depredations of the sixteenth century. The Windesheimers increased silence and austerity, focused their spirituality on inner devotions and frequent short periods of meditation, especially before each new activity.

Nor did they forsake all apostolic ministry. Their main outdoor activity was a new way of preaching, called conference or collatio. The non-ordained brothers would give the people, in cemetery or houses, simple exhortations in the vulgar tongue based on scriptural and patristic fragments. These conferences were joined together into collections called rapiaria, which we shall encounter again.

Thomas à Kempis left us a laudatory portrait of life in these oases of peace founded by Groote: “From the highest to the lowest each practiced humility, which is the first of all virtues; it turns the earthly dwelling into a paradise, and transforms mortal men into living stones of God’s temple. There obedience was flourishing; there the love of God and of men warmed the hearts. Those who had come cold left full of joy, warmed at the sacred word.…There seemed to revive, in all its freshness, the memory of the Ancient Fathers, and the ecclesiastical life was raised, in conformity with Church traditions, to the highest degree of perfection” (Mourret, Histoire de l’Église, V, 129).

The term moderna attached to this system is in no way derogatory, but simply indicating that it departs from the Devotio Antiqua. The latter was more scholastic and speculative, especially the great German mysticism of the Dominican school of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries represented by Master Eckhart, Tauler, and Suso. Oblivious of descriptive experience of the divine within the soul, these authors wanted to clarify how the soul adheres to the divinity, what is God in His Being, His Life and perfections. There is no room for the humanity of Christ. For instance, Blessed Suso’s main work is The Short Book of the Eternal Wisdom.

The Legacy of the Devotio Moderna

The Christian world is forever indebted to this congregation in that it gave it two momentous gifts: the little book of The Imitation of Christ and a rigorous method of mental prayer.

If we need to sum up the essence of Groote’s spirituality, we should say that it was to recall men to the imitation of Christ. The Imitation of Christ, this is the title of one the most famous book of the Devotio Moderna. Most likely, the four books of the Imitation are rapiaria, collections of maxims which guided the life of the Brothers of Common Life. Thomas was born at Kempen, near Cologne (Germany) and entered the monastery of Agnetenberg, ruled by his brother John à Kempis in 1399. He spent most of his life copying codices, composing spiritual works and poems, and died an old man at age 92. Chroniclers like to describe his spirit “most amorous of the Passion of the Lord and admirable consoler of those tried and desconsoled.” This goodly portrait tells us of a humble, sentimental, and tender religious. Among his other known works, we list Meditationes de Vita et Beneficiis Salvatoris Iesu, the Soliloquium Animae, and the De Elevatione Mentis ad Inquirendum Summum Bonum. None of his works follows a logical pattern in treating the themes. However, The Imitation of Christ is remarkable in that it is written in a clear and vigorous style without the florid amplification and repetitions of the other treatises of Kempis.

Windesheim was from its beginnings a powerhouse of spirituality. Groote introduced a structured method in “On Four Kinds of Matter for Meditation,” including mental imagery. The concept of immersing and projecting oneself into a Biblical scene about the life of Jesus was developed by Ludolph of Saxony in his Vita Christi in 1374 and became popular among the Devotio Moderna community. Mombaer, who reformed some French convents, wrote in 1494 the encyclopedia of spirituality of the Devotio Moderna, a huge rapiarium, the Rosetum Exercitiorum Spiritualium et Sacrarum Meditationum. Here, he compiled all the spiritual principles, the religious practices, and ascetical methods used in Windesheim. Among others, he quotes Gansfort’s ladder of meditation, which comprises no less than 23 degrees which go through memory, understanding, to reach finally the will. It is the paragon of psychological methodism, turned almost mechanical.

The Main Traits of the Devotio Moderna

It is generally admitted that the disciples of Groote compose a spiritual category of their own. By their forceful Christo-centricity, by stressing the affection over abstract thought, they are followers of the Franciscan over the Dominican spirituality. The line that goes from St. Bernard to St. Bonaventure continues straight through the Devotio Moderna, although it does add its proper nuances, which it will not be useless to spell out here.

Not only is it distinct from the speculative Devotio Antiqua, it is even anti-speculative and depreciative of it. “What does it profit you to dispute of the high things of the Trinity?... I’d rather feel compunction than know its definition” (Kempis I, 1). This is why everything reverts to the practice of the faith: imitate Christ practically, His humility, His patience, His obedience, His love of the Cross. 
To this practical aspect is joined the affective character, as indicated by the name devotio. Mombaer prefers feeling to understanding. He wrote: “Let all our things turn into affection…and let us reduce all understanding into captivity.”
It tends to an excessive moralism. Even the concept of Christ seems less real and less conformed to history because it is made more abstract and moralizing. Rather than the person of Christ, they would meditate on His virtues. 
Yet the most characteristic of this spirituality is the methodization of the interior life. In Windesheim, all the acts of the day were perfectly regulated, from the moment of rising and hearing Mass and praying the office, to the mode of eating, walking, reading, and sleeping, with the corresponding ejaculatory prayers and internal acts. No one ever regulated mental prayer as much as they did. As an example, the Brothers of Deventer meditated on Saturday over sins; on Sunday, over the kingdom of heaven; on Monday, over death; Tuesday, God’s blessings; Wednesday, judgment; Thursday, hell; Friday, the Passion.

Need we say that this highly regulated piety had also its shadows. The Brothers, so monastically centered, imbued with such an anti-world spirituality, really shunned the care of the neighbor, which they saw as a danger for their own salvation. Also, due to its individualist bent, the Devotio Moderna gave little importance to the Mystical Body of the Church and to the Roman Pontiff as such. Its lack of interest for feeding the human mind would prove a hollow barrier against the Protestant heresy, which attacked dogma and would stress the individual feeling of the divine. Luther, for one, found the Imitation more inspired than the Epistle of St. James. His tragic error was confusion between scriptural and devotional inspiration.

This being said, during the Renaissance, someone had to teach hatred of the world to a worldly Papacy, attachment to Christ to a pagan revival, and the monastic ideal to a defiled secular clergy. Also, the ultra-methodical aspect of meditation has proven a valuable tool to Christianity as the famous Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius can testify.

Fr. Dominique Bourmaud has spent the past 26 years teaching at the Society seminaries in America, Argentina, and Australia. He is presently stationed at St. Vincent’s Priory, Kansas City, where he is in charge of the priests’ training program.