OF THE MYSTICAL SPIRIT
not grow when they turn in upon themselves. The late Medieval church focused on its own
development. It focused on material expansion. For example, it broadened papal estates,
acquired kingdoms as vassal states, and grew more ostentatious at court. It focused on
centralizing power. You see this in the Pope's struggle to control both church and state.
Genuine spirituality took a back seat to material interests.
The church desperately needed reform. Conciliarism was an effort to reform
the church. Councils promised to end clerical abuse and while there were corrections they
were few. Councils rebuked clerical immorality, dereliction of duty, and ignorance.
Mendicant friars also attempted reform. By the period's end, however, the world had drawn
mendicancy into its hellish circle.
Other reform efforts followed, but this section concentrates on one
attempt within the church. Mysticism promised a return to genuine spirituality but
ultimately failed. I
I. Mysticism's characteristics
Even in the Middle Ages, mysticism was not new. You could consider
Anthony, the hermit monk, a mystic. His attempts to withdraw from everyone to concentrate
on the contemplative life fit the description of one who is committed to mysticism. A new
upsurge in mysticism occurred in Germany during the fourteenth century. This German
mysticism displayed four major characteristics.
A. Communion with God: A mystic primarily seeks to develop in depth
communion with God. Such communion transcends any human situation and seeks to attain
union with Deity. In some ways it compares favorably with oriental mysticism since there
is an effort to establish an identity of the individual soul with God.
B. Emphasis on the Nothingness of Man: God is everything, man is
nothing. According to mysticism, the Christian life includes absorption into the divine
essence. Platonic ideas emerge here. God gives his divine essence to man and this divine
"spark" seeks to reunite with the divine.
C. Direct Revelation or Inspiration: Many mystics believe God gives
them direct revelation. Some fourteenth century mystics elevated their own writings above
Scripture. Then, too, many mystics made their experiences normative for all believers.
D. Contemplation: Mystic contemplation roots in the Platonic
concept of realism. The "real" exists only in God's mind. As man contemplates he
is absorbed into God and he "becomes that which he contemplates." So, if you
contemplate Christ, you become one with Christ. Some mystics experience the stigmata
(the appearance of Christ's wounds) because they succeeded in their contemplation.
Late Medieval mysticism, then, tended towards Platonic dualism, emphasized
spirituality, gave intensity to certain ascetics and promoted a Pantheistic view of God.
A.A. Newman believes this spirit arose out of a reaction to the intellectualism and
hair-splitting exactness of Aristotelian scholastics, the growth of a formalistic worship
centering on the sacraments, and the growth of a strong clergy which acted as mediator
between God and man. Newman said that such "tended to destroy the immediate communion
of the soul with God, and failed to satisfy those who felt that direct communion with God
is alone efficacious."
II. Significant Mystics
A. Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), a German Dominican friar who taught
at the University of Paris, stands out above all the others. Eckhart purposefully tried to
convey his teaching to as many nuns and monks as possible. He saw God in Pantheistic
terms. He understood salvation as Jesus's begetting in each individual. The church accused
him of heresy but he died before he could be tried. Pope John XXII condemned his views.
More recent scholarship sees Eckhart in Medieval scholasticism's mainstream.
B. Johann Tauler (1300-1361). Tauler, another Dominican, avoided
Eckhart's Pantheism but emphasized that inner truth comes directly from God. He stressed
the value of inner union simply because it produced correct results, particularly charity
and self-sacrifice. Tauler modeled his doctrine when, in 1348, he gave himself to serve
those afflicted with Plague.
Scholars credit Tauler with the period's most famous document, Theologica
Germanica. The piece's anonymous author wrote somewhere near Frankfort and
followed Eckhart's and Tauler's teachings in a presentation of mysticism's whole
framework. Luther read the work and he found it highly influential for his devotional
life. Older scholars considered it Pantheistic but current Catholic scholars now consider
it mystical but orthodox.
C. Jan van Ruysbroek (1292-1381) and the Devotio Moderna.
Historians recognize Ruysbroek as Devotio Moderna's head. Devotio Moderna, a
devotional study, creates an entire mystical school of thought based on highly
introspective and personal devotional study. It offers a call to meditate on Christ's life
and sufferings. Since Catholicism stressed the "Passion of Christ," the effort
makes an impact. Ruysbroek's followers head off in two directions.
1. Gerhard DeGroote (1340-1384) represents the first direction.
Influenced by Ruysbroek, DeGroote became a missionary in 1379. The church never ordained
him but he successfully gathered a group at Deventer where he established a semi-monastic
structure known as the Brethren of the Common Life. The Brethren provide a means of
devotion for men unable to enter full monasticism. Intensely interested in education,
DeGroote helped schoolboys with their studies and put them to work transcribing books. By
the sixteenth century the you can not distinguish the Brethren from a genuine monastic
order. In fact, the Brethren establish several hundred schools throughout Europe.
2. The Monastic Congregation of Windesheim, begun by six of
DeGroote's disciples, illustrates the second direction. This movement, established in
1387, soon grew to four houses representing a vibrant and monastic lifestyle. The
congregation's most outstanding individual is Thomas a' Kempis (1380-1471). Born
near Cologne to poor parents, Thomas received his education with the Brethren of the
Common Life but in 1399 he joined a Windesheim Congregation co-founded by an older
brother. He spent most of his life writing, preaching and copying manuscripts. His most
famous work, The Imitation of Christ, first circulated in 1418. It sought to
instruct Christians how to find perfection by seeing Christ as a model.
D. Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380). Catherine dedicated herself to
Christ taking a vow of virginity at age 7. She lived at home in a solitary room and then
became a Dominican tertiary at age 16. At 19, Catherine became a servant of the
sick, poor and plagued. We know her best for her letters. She wrote hundreds of letters
offering advice to Kings, Bishops and Popes. Catherine, for example, urged Gregory XI to
return to Rome during the Avignon period. Even after the schism, Catherine tried to
mediate the disagreements. She tried at 33 during one of her Roman trips attempting to
reconcile the Roman and Avignon Popes. Today Catholicism recognizes her as a saint.
E. Joan of Arc (1412-1431). Joan is the best known of the period's
mystics. Her parents were prosperous French peasants. At age 13, she began hearing voices
she identified as God, angels and saints. She took a vow of poverty and gave herself over
to the church. Her home town, Domremy, remained loyally French although in English
territory. France and England were embroiled in The Hundred Years War at the time; the
French were doing poorly holding only a portion of southeastern France. In 1428, English
and Burgundian soldiers placed Orleans under siege. Joan's voices told her to go to court
seeking permission to save the city. She was mocked when she arrived at court. Seeking to
test her, the Dauphin dressed in another's garb to pass himself off as a court member
while another dressed in royal garb and sat on the throne. When Joan entered the room she
immediately turned to the Dauphin and made her request. She claimed her voices revealed
the Dauphin to her. Finding herself in command of a substantial army, Joan broke the siege
and two months later the Dauphin entered Rheims where he was crowned Charles VIII of
France. France reverted to a "do nothing" policy and refused to support Joan. In
1430, Burgundians captured the "Maid of Orleans" and sold her to the English.
The English tried her as a witch in 1431. When accused, Joan confessed then retracted her
confession. During her imprisonment English authorities refused her adequate clothing
providing instead men's clothes. When she wore them they treated her as a relapsed heretic
and burned her at the stake. Her martyrdom united the French and they expelled the English
from France. In 1453, the war ended and a French court retried Joan clearing her. In 1920
Catholicism canonized her.
Mysticism's major contribution was its effort to restore spirituality to a
worldly church. In that sense it represents reform. It does not represent evangelism. New
worlds must open before that purpose once again comes to the church's attention.