English translation of fragments of ‘Geert Groote’
by Susan Verkerk-Wheatley / Anne-Marie Bos
Geert Grote (fragments)
His name still points to a programme. He brought a movement into being which gave a good reputation to the name of the Netherlands, especially in the spiritual domain, over many centuries, a movement that one regards as characteristic of the Netherlands and bestowed on Dutch piety an individual place in the history of the spiritual life. He was a renewer, but the new that he brought forth did not disappear again as quickly as it arrived, it has remained and it still exerts its appeal.
He is the father of the ‘Modern Devotion’, a new school of thought in the perception of the Catholic Faith which placed particular emphasis on the humanity of Christ and also therefore in the Christian religion; the adaptation of piety, prayer and virtue to human nature as a key condition for it to flourish was advanced through it.
People have also cited John Ruusbroec, the blessed Prior of the Groenendaal cloister in the Sonienbosch near Brussels, as the father of the modern Devotion. It cannot be denied that this one certainly had a very strong influence, in many ways laid the foundations on which Geert Groote could build on further. The Netherlands can point with pride to John Ruusbroec as a great master of Mysticism and to a master great enough to found one’s own school, but we do not do full justice to Geert Groote if we only see in him the pupil of Ruusbroec, he has entirely his own merits, the modern devotion is not to be identified with the school of John Ruusbroec. Although there is great kinship, although with the modern devotion one may even speak of dependence on Ruusbroec, there are characteristic differences whereby the movement, led by Geert Groote, should occupy its own and separate place.
It can then also not surprise us that in a time such as this the figure of Geert Groote once again awakens more than the normal interest, his name is once again heard, is once again reminiscent of the time in which he lived and of what he did in order to evoke new life in his time.
Our time has important points of contact with the time in which Geert Groote lived. There are remarkable points of agreement.
There is today, as there was then, a remarkable longing for a life directed more to the deed than to reflecting to it. A more static and atomistic notion has made way for a more dynamic and mechanistic. That is to say that one is less concerned about how it is or should be but rather asks what human nature and the need of the present time is urging on humanity. A certain anti-intellectualism has arrived in the world, I will not speak of a contempt towards knowledge, but of a lessening of appreciation for it, at least for the more reflective, theoretical knowledge. People attach more to predisposition and intuition, than to knowledge acquired through practice and reflection. The intellect, for a long time seen as the first, the highest, the only guide in the human being – sometimes elevated too highly – is seen as one of the gifts of nature, which has very many other gifts and in its inner urging, gets more safely to the truth than on the basis of pure intellectual reflection. Next to the intellect, next to knowledge, emerges the striving, the desire for, the will as a major factor in our actions.
What Schopenhauer, who ushered in a first reaction against intellectualism, sharply stated by saying that instead of “In principio erat verbum”, “In the beginning was the Word”, it could better be stated as: “In the beginning was the deed”, which to many at the present time brings to mind a fundamental truth. Has this more dynamic, more to the will, to the deed, to the natural urge directed world view and outlook on life, not driven to the ultimate extreme and not partially interpreted, led in our time to the stimulation of energy, increased vigour, awakened life that has many beautiful manifestations, also in the time of Geert Groote, that is to say in the latter half of the 14th century, after the development of the strongly intellectual mind of Eckhart, originating as a reaction to this, there was a noticeably higher appreciation of the will, of power and of the deed. The new direction in philosophy, under the influence of Occam and his pupils, of whom a Marsilius of Inghen was in Paris with Geert Groote, advocated sensory experience over reflection, higher appreciation of human kind’s earthly nature, more recognition for the indirect leading of God in the world, independently created by Him.
It would be completely unjust, although we cite Geert Groote the Father of the modern devotion, to see this as revealed by him to the world as a personal discovery. Geert Groote and the movement which through his appearance was set in motion, are both children of the time in which we see him acting. But nevertheless, it is a great personal merit of Geert Groote that he understood the time and acted in need of the times in order to give what it needed and demanded.
Geert Groote is a renewer! a reformer who possessed the failings against which he acted, not to a limited extent in himself. He is a convert and his reforming work therefore bears to a high degree the characteristic of a work of conversion. I should like to go further and say that it has the good but also the dubious qualities of a conversion, of a reaction.
It makes no sense to place Geert Groote in a fiercely blinding light whereby the shadows in his figure cannot be seen. It is very useful to consider him, especially in this time, but let us look at ourselves in him, not only to learn a great deal from him, but also to learn to know the movement which gradually more harmoniously and more gloriously blossomed in men such as Gerard Zerbolt van Zutfen, as Thomas à Kempis, in one word in his immediate and next followers. He formed a school, awakened a movement. In this way we need to see him, in order to also participate in the swell of that beautiful movement, to further sustain the waves pushed upwards by him in the sea of this time, with adjustment to the characteristics of our time, taking on the good which in his time evoked so much glorious new life. Geert Groote did not live a long life.
His short life, inspired in his first years wholly by the spirit of the time with all the failings which belong to this. Only the last twelve years of his forty four year existence merit special appreciation and were the fierce response to what the first thirty two years show us.
The time that Geert Groote spent in Paris can not be established with certainty. (…)
It is as good as certain that after Geert Groote had left Paris he spent some time at the university of Prague and also stayed in Cologne for the sake of pursuing the study of science. The sojourn in those cities may not have been edifying for Geert Groote but whilst there, he nevertheless became acquainted with virtuous men who brought him back to the good way or followed him on that way. Thus, among his fellow students in Paris was the later Carthusian Hendrik Eger van Kalkar, in God’s hand the man who led him back to God. In Prague we see together with him at the university, the famous Floris Radewijnsz, his later faithful companion in Deventer and the one who continued the work which he started.
In Prague he has already started to reflect. In Cologne strong pressure was once again exerted on him but it appears to have taken until 1372, in Utrecht, before Hendrik van Kalkar managed to reel him in, to use a term of Thomas à Kempis, and was able to catch this large fish in the net of Jesus Christ. But now it was serious.
There is now, all of a sudden, a reversal in his life.
In the scholarly domain he must have had a good name because people thought and said that his scholarship must have affected his mind that he so suddenly fell into another extreme.
He took off his rich attire and clothed himself in the simplest manner, in the way of poverty.
Be broke with all worldly customs and finally crowned his conversion by distancing himself from both his benefices in Utrecht and Aachen and withdrew to his house in Deventer. There also he now lived a very simple life and withdrew from the world. In order to show more clearly that he had not only resigned from the not yet fulfilled ecclesiastical benefices, but also renounced sham science, he took his books on astrology to the marketplace one day and burned them in public.
Such an about-turn by a man of standing made an impression. He was, of course, mocked and condemned, but some were deeply affected by it and felt themselves attracted to his radicalism. Gradually he found himself with associates. Especially when he placed his house and his wealth in the service of people who were in significant need of help and set in tow an organisation to provide the means to help especially the poor students in the Deventer school to live in an orderly way, some other well-disposed people soon joined him. (…)
Thus, the Brothers and also the Sisters of the Common Life gradually came into being. First, the dwelling place of Master Geert, or the Master Geert house, was the house where the first brothers lived, when Floris Radewijnsz also opened his house, the Master Geert house became the dwelling place of the first Sisters. Other houses also quickly appeared, the Brande house, the Lammekens house, and so forth. The Sisters sought the means for their existence not so much from transcribing books, the principal activity of the Brothers though teaching was soon added to this, the women hired themselves out as workers in the city or did more female tasks at home.
Geert Groote kept only a small part of his house for himself and lived there entirely away from the rest. He maintained community with the women only through a small hatch and received what he needed from it via a pulley system.
All of this happened during the years 1372-75. During those years, the first brotherhoods of the Common Life were established for men and for women.
Geert Groote also experienced the call of preacher and reformer. He was radical enough to stand in opposition to the world and strong enough to defy its ridicule and condemnation, to do it intimately in the true spirit of union with God. The three years in Monnikhuizen had made him ascend. It is not the first time that a sojourn with the Carthusians has cultivated a mystical reformer. Was Ruusbroec not formed in their school and was not the abbot of Herne for him what the prior of Monnikhuizen was for Geert Groote? Jacobus de Voecht sketched out for us in a few words the whole of this ascent of Geert Groote in Monnikhuizen. He arrived there as a repentant sinner, he left it as a mystical observer, burning from love and glowing with fervour to share that fire which burned in him, with others. In his story about the founding of the cloister in Zwolle he speaks, by way of introduction, also about the founder of the movement, of which the house in Zwolle would be home to the eloquent spokesman in Thomas à Kempis. He recounts how in Monnikhuizen Geert Groote intensely practised abstinence and mortification in order to cast off and up-root all failings, which he possessed; how he subsequently applied the same intensity to practicing the virtues, which he had to make his own, and eventually ascended into the contemplation of divine mysteries.
We also have from Geert Groote himself extensive communications concerning the decisions which he especially at that time had to make and lay down. These are not vows but fixed resolutions and decisions concerning the reforming of his life; Conclusa et propodita non vota, is the title he gives it. With this, he breaks radically with the past and henceforth wishes to concern himself solely with the eternal, but he also speaks expressly of a new calling, given to him by God. He renounces all benefices and everything which provides him with temporal profit. He will no longer serve two Lords and dedicates himself to God and expects his salvation and happiness to come only from Him. He therefore completely gives up astrology and will trust only in God and surrender himself to Him. He also gives up studying law or medicine.
I have lingered for some time over this more intimate part of Geert Groote’s life. Others would put more emphasis on the history of his deeds in the outside world. It is, however, of the greatest importance to know the inner man, who exercised such great influence. There lies the mystery of his influence. There we see him before us as the convert, determined to first fundamentally reform himself before setting out to preach to others.
There we see how deeply he was convinced of the longing, to set the eternal over the temporal, the divine over the human and thus to evoke a conversion in himself and then, as much as possible, in others. And the latter was not driven by a desire to judge others, but chiefly so that others might share in the glory of a more spiritual life, to enable others to taste the sweetness of an intimate association with God.
Translation: Susan Verkerk-Wheatley / Anne-Marie Bos
© Titus Brandsma Instituut 2019