Eucharistic Theory, Practice and Devotion
of the Brethren of the Common Life
Jackson Snyder, December 3, 1990

 

Part 1

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      In 1967, I found Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ in the pages of a discarded set of Harvard Classics.  I was intrigued by the title, and, as a young Christian, rather startled by the content. As I grew older, I turned to The Imitation occasionally, and came to respect the devotions and ascetic life of the saintly author. As a minister, I have since used several of the devotionals as part of Christian services, especially Communion services. In 1988, I had the opportunity to write a synopsis of the first three sections (books) of The Imitation for the scrutinizing eyes of the great Quaker historian, Hugh Barbour. Now, in this paper, I have the assignment of summarizing 14th century Eucharistic practice among the "Brethren of the Common Life," in which the content of fourth book, On The Sacrament of the Altar, played such a major rôle.

Troubled Times  

The 14th century was unparalleled for pestilence, disease and natural disaster. The first rumors of the Bubonic ("Black") Plague reached Europe around 1330, when contemporaneous historians reported that 13 million had succumbed in China, India had been nearly depopulated, 15 thousand were dying daily in Cairo, and that not one soul escaped the plague on Cyprus. Mt. Aetna erupted violently in 1333. In 1337, continental Europe was overshadowed by an prophetic cloud of locusts, contributing to the worst harvest in the history the history of France the next year. In 1342, hundreds, perhaps thousands, in the Rhine valley were simply swept away with the overflowing of the river. That was the same year the plague reached Constantinople, and within 6 years (1348), Italy and France were likewise affected. The hopelessness of finding a cure for the disease, coupled with the swift and grotesque manner of dying, its worldwide range, not to mention the natural disasters, famine and constant war, created an atmosphere of extreme distrust for authority, rebellion, and religious experimentation.

The Church placed the blame for the death and disaster on God, who was the judge of sin, especially that of "heretics" and Jews.  But the scientists of the medical profession knew better: the plague was caused by "a mist of cosmic influences"; many Doctors grew rich from the sale of cures to the desperate.  As a result of the plague, doctors, clergy, and Jews were relentlessly persecuted by the peasantry, and, in the case of the Jews, were massacred in great numbers beginning as early as 1348. After one year, the plague and its related ills had, for the most part, run their course, and half of the population of Europe had succumbed (Camp 67-69).

By 1349, the survivors in the Low Countries witnessed and often heartily participated in strange and often bizarre forms of religious revival, monistic[2] preaching exhibitions and general rebellion against clerical authority in desperate attempts to placate the angry god by demonstration, enthusiasm and self-destruction. In that year, for instance, the Red Knights of Christ, an apocalyptic ensemble of hundreds of flagellants (lashers), were encamped at Brugges, and there recruiting the hopeless masses to shed their blood as an imitation of Christ. The Knights taught the ritual of severe, stigmatic beatings, meant to unite the victim with Christ through blood-letting and blood-mingling. The Red Knights were welcomed in the towns of the Low Countries and were actually entertained by the town council in Deventer[3]!

In the ensuing decades, the clergy, from the pope to the priest, suffered irreparable damage from schism, immorality and ignorance.  It was not unusual for the Church to have two popes, and sometimes three, competing for authority. Furthermore, there was a constant struggle for power between clerical and secular authorities. Nevertheless, “Europe had sunk too much intellectual, emotional, and material capital into [superstitions][4] to resign them lightly[5].”  

The laity became detached consumers of the perceived benefits of Catholic religion, receiving religious services and eternal benefits in exchange for monetary remuneration, and blessings were bought and sold like any other staple commodity. Peter Dieburg, one of the Devoti (and a church rector), later vented his exasperation in regards to the poor quality of parish priests, much in keeping with the spirit of the general populace[6]:  

For we find many thrusting themselves upon the sacerdotal office who understand little of it or who even are derisive of this inner and principle devotion, sometimes dismissing such piety as that of an ass ... Whoever can found an altar for, as they say, some poor priest - not to say for some friend, son, or nephew - glories in it as in the certain salvation and redemption of his soul! Thus from a multitude of altars arises the need for a plenitude of priests, of whom not a few lack the uprightness required of clerics and some even display a disordered and abounding immorality. When so few men are found worthy of approbation, how finally are so many altars to be filled with worthy priests[7]?[8]  

Troubled Men for Troubled Times  

   Meister Eckhart, the Father of German Idealists[9] and Mystics[10], was born in Germany in 1260 and died 1328, long before the Brethren were even a thought. Eckhart was a mystic of the highest degree, a prolific writer and preacher, and finally and posthumously, a heretic. Eckhart entered the Dominican order in Erfurt as a novice at 15, where he was greatly influenced by Aquinas, the rising star on the religious horizon. He achieved the level of Master at Cologne under Albert Magnus, then returned to Erfurt as prior in 1300, where he wrote many insightful and timeless works, including Das Sint die Rede der Unterscheidunge (which contains descriptions of Eckhart's theology of Eucharist and its practice). He was very widely read and influential among the literati.  

   Through Eckhart's writings, the German language became the popular vehicle for written communication, thus his theology became very influential in the Low Countries, especially among sectarians and would-be mystics, and this influence continued for generations to come. (Dante Aligheri was making similar progress with the Italian language at this time.) Eckhart’s primary heresy, that the "God-conception of life [is] in a seed that is about to burst the shell" within the human soul was a prototype of some Protestant groups (mainly the Anabaptist and, more so, the Quaker).[11] Furthermore, and more importantly for this study, Eckhart’s second generation disciples, Tauler, Suso and Ruysbroek, though not Brethren themselves, would lay the foundation for much of the Brethren's Eucharistic theology and practice by "reworking" the language of Eckhart (if not his theology) to suit their own subjective Christian experience.[12] For this reason, I have (carefully) included excerpts from Eckhart's "talks" in my later analysis.[13]  

   The ministry and ritual of the Church proper became increasingly unsatisfactory to the majority of people by the latter years of the 13th century, as evidenced by the sustained varieties of mysticism and outbreaks of sectarianism.  

Mysticism, like Mother Eve, has two kinds of children, Abel and Cain. For the Abel kind, almost everything good is to be said; for the Cain kind, almost everything evil.[14]  

The Friends of God certainly displayed characteristics of both sons of Eve.

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[1]  Edited September 30, 2000 and dedicated to Mignon Snyder.

[2] "The difficulty with monism is that when everything is treated as one, the over-generalization involved eludes important distinction and so tends to do a reductionist position.  Mind or spirit is reduced to a by-product of physical processes, individuality is diminished, any ultimate distinction between good and evil is eroded, and the transcendence of God is...lost." (Ferguson, 442)

[3] Southern 307, 333.

[4] Such as masses, prayers for the dead, indulgences, good works, and pious donations for the remission of purgatorial pains.

[5] Southern 303.

[6] Here Dieburg defends the Brethren against clerical attacks in 1443.

[7] He echoes the ancient words of Chrysostom, "Every holy person is a priest, but not every priest holy." (Devotio, Dieburg qtd Chrysostom, 240)

[8] Devotio 240- 241

[9] Blakney xiii 

[10] Underhill 133.

[11] Blakney xxv. 

[12] Underhill 136.

[13] I may quote this work and stay within the confines of orthodoxy since the excerpts used were written before Eckhart’s ideas of the monad were articulated in Blakney xvii.

[14] ibid xv.