Feast of Geert Groote (August 23)   Leave a comment

Above: Part of Europe in 1360

Image in the Public Domain

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GEERT GROOTE (1340-AUGUST 20, 1384)

Founder of the Brethren of the Common Life

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Always put more hope in eternal glory than in fear of hell.

–Geert Groote, quoted in Robert Ellsberg, All Saints:  Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (1997), 360

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Geert Groote comes to this, A Great Cloud of Witnesses:  An Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days (1997), via Ellsberg, All Saints (1997).

Before I write about Groote’s life, I ground this post in geography and history.  Know then, O reader, the following:

  1. During Groote’s lifetime, the city of Deventer was within the frontiers of the Bishopric of Utrecht (extant 1024-1528), within the Holy Roman Empire.  The leader of the Bishopric of Utrecht.
  2. Deventer is in The Netherlands in 2021.
  3. The Black Death (1347-1351), the most notorious and historically significant outbreak of the Bubonic Plague, occurred during Groote’s lifetime.  The rebuilding of civilization after the Black Death led to the beginning of the modern world, gave rise to many oppressed people rising up, and planted many seeds of the Protestant Reformation.  (As Norman Cantor, that great historian of the Middle Ages wrote, we live in the world the Black Death made.)  After at least half of the population of Europe had died within four years, societies were ready for revolutions.  There was no turning back the clock to the way Europe had been.

Groote, born in Deventer in October 1340, came from a secure and wealthy family .  He received a fine education, by the standards of the time, although portions of the curriculum would not have met the standards of 2021.  Our saint’s father worked in the municipal government of Deventer.  Groote, educated at the Sorbonne, Paris, emerged well-versed in topics ranging from theology and philosophy to astronomy and canon law.  He graduated in 1358.

Groote became a teacher.  He taught in Deventer (1362f) then in Cologne.  Via family connections, he received some ecclesiastical benefices.  The young and wealthy scholar led a selfish life.  Our saint, convicted of this sin at the age of 34 years, in 1374, gave up everything and became a guest at a Carthusian monastery near Arnhem.

The year 1374 took place during a revolutionary age in Western Europe.  The Black Death had not discriminated; it had killed many able churchmen.  Many of the replacements were of a lesser caliber.  In England, John Wycliffe (circa 1320-1384) had become a revolutionary in his later years.  He was well on the way to becoming the “Morning Star of the Reformation.”  Men who read his works in subsequent years and agreed with him included Jan Hus (1371-1415) and Martin Luther (1483-1546).

In 1374, when Groote became a guest at a Carthusian monastery, he converted his family home in Deventer into a shelter for impoverished women.  Our saint, who took his new, religious life seriously, became a Roman Catholic deacon.

Groote started preaching in the Diocese of Utrecht in 1379.  He traveled and preached for four years, until the Bishop of Utrecht revoked our saint’s preaching license by ordering that only priests could preach.  Groote made himself extremely inconvenient to many powerful, wealthy people.  He preached interior spiritual renewal.  Our saint encouraged meditation on the life of Jesus as the model of Christian virtue.  He also denounced ecclesiastical abuses.  These included greed, simony, and sexual misconduct.  Finally, in 1383, the Bishop of Utrecht halted Groote’s preaching.  The gag order remained effective until the final year of our saint’s life.

Communities of the “Devout,” or formally, the Brethren of the Common Life, practiced their faith “in the world,” not in a monastery or a convent.  They practiced the Devotia Moderna, which entailed being silent and alone, and meditating upon the Passion of Christ, on redemption, on one’s death, on the Last Judgment, and on Heaven and Hell.  The movement spread throughout the Low Countries and Germany.  One subsequent member of the Brethren of the Common Life was the great spiritual writer Thomas à Kempis (circa 1380-1471).  Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) also drank deeply of the legacy of our saint.  Erasmus, alive when the Protestant Reformation began, remained within the Roman Catholic Church, of which he was also sharply critical.

Groote resumed preaching in the final year of his life.  He also continued to minister to the sick.  By tending to a patient suffering from the Bubonic Plague, our saint contracted that disease, which caused his death.  Groote died in Deventer on August 20, 1384.

I harbor great respect and much affection for Holy Mother Church.  I, raised a Protestant, feel drawn to her.  Yet I remain on the banks of the Tiber River, so to speak; I have chosen not to cross that river.  I acknowledge that the Roman Catholic Church has been its own worst enemy, stifling reforms that would have staved off revolutions and schisms.  

  1. The Roman Catholic Church forbade Groote from preaching.
  2. The Roman Catholic Church executed Jan Hus as a heretic.  That execution was heretical.
  3. The Roman Catholic Church exhumed and burned the corpse of John Wycliffe.
  4. The Roman Catholic Church tried to have Martin Luther killed.  The Pope excommunicated Luther, whose Plan A did not include committing schism.  Then the Church blamed Luther for committing schism.

The Roman Catholic Church is not unique in being its own worst enemy, of course.  The other Christian communions have been their own worst enemies from their inception, too.  They also have blood on their institutional hands.  Do I need to write about the people John Calvin (1509-1564) and Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) had executed, for example?  And do I need to explain the witch hunts that members of various denominations committed in the Old and New Worlds?  Do I need to explain about Protestants martyring each other as well as Roman Catholics?  Do I need to list examples of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox attacking and killing each other? I am not picking on the Roman Catholic Church and ignoring the sins of other Christian denominations and traditions.

Institutionalization, combined with a defensive attitude, has proven detrimental to the Church fulfilling its potential.  Geert Groote understood this truth.  His life testified to that fact.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

MARCH 7, 2021 COMMON ERA

THE THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT, YEAR B

THE FEAST OF JAMES HEWITT MCGOWN, HUMANITARIAN

THE FEAST OF SAINTS DRAUSINUS AND ANSERICUS, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOPS OF SOISSONS; SAINT VINDICIAN, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP OF CAMBRAI, AND SAINT LEODEGARIUS, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP OF AUTUN

THE FEAST OF EDWARD OSLER, ENGLISH DOCTOR, EDITOR, AND POET

THE FEAST OF SAINT MARIA ANTONIA DE PAZ Y FIGUEROA, FOUNDRESS OF THE DAUGHTERS OF THE DIVINE SAVIOR

THE FEAST OF SAINTS PERPETUA, FELICITY, AND THEIR COMPANIONS, MARTYRS AT CARTHAGE, 203

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Almighty God, we praise you for the men and women you have sent

to call the Church to its tasks and renew its life [such as your servant Geert Groote].

Raise up in our own day teachers and prophets inspired by your Spirit,

whose voices will give strength to your Church and proclaim the reality of your kingdom;

through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm 46

1 Corinthians 3:11-23

Mark 10:35-45

–Adapted from the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), 37

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