The Brethren of the Common Life

When I arrived at the Hog’s Snout, everyone was there.  Rain had fallen for three days, and the sputtering fire did little to dispel the humid miasma that hung over the room crowded with steaming coats and soaked shoes.  I added my cloak to the souring pile.  As I took my chair, Fabri said, “He was years ahead of his time.”

Bread and a tongue that must have weighed ten pounds lay upon the table.  The tongue’s dark aspect was unappealing, but my growling stomach prompted my knife to join the others.  “Who was ahead of his time?”

“Gerard Groote,” Fabri said, “of the Brethren of the Common Life.”

Originating in the Low Countries a century before I was born, the Brethren were well known.  Groote, wealthy and educated, gave his money to the poor and worked for education for all classes of men and women.  Others of like mind joined him.  Brethren schools became famous for their unusual methods, such as mild discipline and the use of the rapiaria.  They provided poor students with food, books, paper, and lodging rather than forcing them to beg, as is normal even now.  The Brethren taught a new form of piety known as the Devotio Moderna, the modern devotion.

Hubmaier took a bite.  “We’d better eat this thing quick.  It’s turning right in front of us.”

“My novice master, Brother Bartholomous, was educated in a Brethren school,” the young monk Michael said.  “He’s very devout. . .but also. . .not.”

Rain still clung to the ends of Hubmaier’s long hair, and it sprinkled the table as he shook his head.  “Groote was under edict of Pope Urban VI, who stopped him from preaching, for he harshly criticised the clergy.”

“But his ideas spread,” Fabri said, “and even influenced art in the Low Countries and beyond.  Erasmus was educated in a Brethren school.  He, too, is devout. . .but also. . .not.”

De Re Metallica--1556

Fabri cut away a patch of thick skin left on the tongue by a careless cook and tossed it to a dog prowling under the tables.  “What good does it do, Groote asked, for a man merely to go to church?  He must do more than listen to his preacher.  A man must train his conscience by studying for himself.  To that end, Groote translated the Bible into the vernacular.  Gutenberg trained at least fifty Brethren, and they printed many books and were employed in metallurgy upon which printing depends.”

Hubmaier scowled at Groote or the tongue or both.  “Who is qualified to read the Bible except he who is trained to do so?  That’s why the Church has forbidden Bibles in the common tongue.  If Groote had lived in Spain or Austria or any Hapsburg lands,” Hubmaier said, “he might have paid dearly for his audacity.”

“Or if he had lived in a time other than the Great Schism,” Zell said, and then he laughed.  “With a Pope in Rome and one in Avignon, both Popes had bigger worries than what some Dutchman was teaching the poor.”

The young monk spoke.  “My novice master says that the most important thing in religion is to have a friendly relationship with Christ.  To this end, he prays directly, almost casually, at all times and seasons.  But proscribed rites and customs he often neglects, proclaiming them empty if the heart of the worshiper be not engaged.”

Fabri nodded.  “That’s the heart of the Devotio Moderna.  True spirituality is within us, not in religious customs, for did not Jesus say, “The kingdom of heaven is within you?’  In the inmost depths of our hearts, we may hear the voice of God.

“Groote also said that devout women who serve God in the privacy of their homes, without taking monastic vows, are just as religious as nuns in their convents.  To love God and worship him is religion–not the taking of special vows.  If one’s goal is to live a religious life, then his life becomes religious in God’s opinion and according to the judgment of conscience.  It all comes down to two things: Love God and love man.”

“What!” said Hubmaier.  “Shall we despise vows, confession, sacraments, and fifteen hundred years of Church doctrine?”

“They even took in lepers,” Michael said, “and had them bathe in special herb water and gave them clean beds.”

Someone in a nearby rowdy crew began to play a fidel, and Fabri changed to his orator’s voice.  “Groote took plague after visiting the infected and died when he had little over forty years.  But his followers carried on his work.”

That night, the rain stopped, and, walking with the others, I fell back for a while.  My shadow blackened the reflection of the lamps in the Bächle and the pools of water in the street.  How much of my life I spent in religious activity.  Was I not a priest?  Would I not soon have a Doctorate in theology?  Did I not speak constantly of the Church and her laws?

But did that compare to educating orphans or bathing lepers?  Perhaps, I thought, what the Church needs–what I need–is less religion. . .and more Christ.



Many thanks to David Henry for the picture of Clement VII from the Musée de Petit Palais in Avignon.  Visit his most excellent site, and you will be whisked to many places faster than a Hungarian coach. 

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Great picture of the tongue. Great post.

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