Thursday, August 21, 2014

Geert Groote

A 19th century depiction of Geert Groote's Brethren of the Common Life
In Latin he was called Gerardus Magnus, but when he was born (in October 1340) in the Dutch city of Deventer, he was called Geert Groote. He was sent away to study, first at Aachen, then at the University of Paris where he studied theology, nominalism, canon law, medicine, astronomy, and even a little magic.

In 1362 he became a teacher in Deventer, where his success and reputation encouraged him to adopt a lavish lifestyle, until a fellow student, Henry de Calcar, made him see the inappropriateness of this. Groote started to change in the early 1370s, inclining toward mysticism and a more humble life. In fact, he gave his worldly goods to the monastic Carthusians and started preaching a life of repentance.

He gathered a small band of followers who called themselves Broeders des gemeenen levens [Dutch: "Brethren of the Common Life"]. The Brethren did not take vows, but merely gave up their possessions to live in a community where they devoted their waking hours to mass, religious reading and preaching, and manual labor. Meals were eaten as a group, with Scripture read aloud. It had all the hallmarks of a monastic life without the need to be clergy. They founded schools; Nicholas of Cusa attended one.

Before he died (20 August 1384), he organized some of the Brethren who wanted a more "regular" life into Augustinians; he died before this plan was complete, but his disciple Florens Radewyns established a monastery at Windesheim that became the center of up to 100 monastic houses called the Windesheim Congregation.

Groote promoted a style of piety now referred to as Devotio Moderna ["Modern Devotion"]. It was a search for inner peace based on self-deprivation and silent meditation on Christ's Passion. One of the students in his school, Thomas à Kempis, was inspired to write The Imitation of Christ, a work that (I believe) has never been out of circulation since the 15th century.

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