GROWTH OF THE MYSTICAL SPIRIT
Churches do 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.