(Professor of Church History at Oriens Theological College, Shillong)
The Devotio Moderna is one of the best known and most effective religious reform movements of the late Middle Ages with considerable after-effects in the church. The movement originated in the Netherlands, and spread over large areas of Germany. It has so far proved elusive to locate the precise origin of the movement but it certainly goes back to the work of the Dutch preacher, Gerard Groote (1340-1384) and the community he founded, the “Brethren of the Common Life” and the “Windesheim Congregation”. Groote came from well-established middle-class family, but he experienced a conversion, gave away his wealth and started a movement of reform in the church that almost fifty years after he started it, came to be called Devotio Moderna. His success was based on the power of his spoken word and probably not least on the need for renewal of his time. His model of thinking and his maxims were aimed at a life consecrated to God without a vow, without a monastic bond in the traditional sense. It had a direct link to the widespread dissatisfaction with the state of the church, both in terms of the structure of the church and the personal lives of the clergy in fourteenth-century Europe. Gerard Groote was highly dissatisfied with the state of the church and what he perceived as the gradual loss of the spiritual vision of Christianity, and the lack of moral values among the clergy, and sought to rediscover the genuine spirituality of the early church. Devotio Moderna arose at the same time as Humanism, and was related to German mysticism and other movements which promoted an intense personal relationship with God. Practitioners of the Devotio Moderna emphasized the inner life of the individual and a more individual attitude towards belief and religion.
Thus it was a lay movement of piety seeking a “third way” between secular and monastic life. It not only expressed criticism of existing conditions, but was at the same time an expression of a new spirit, and a pioneer of secular and ecclesiastical renewal. The reasons for its popularity are not far to seek. Widespread spiritual hunger, the need for religious reform, and an increasingly rational Scholastic theology in the 14th century Europe provided a conducive climate for fostering a spirituality outside conventional channels. The church had become a secular enterprise, devoid of the power to renew from within. Devotio Moderna imbibed the spirit of the time, trying to break new ground by returning to the age-old traditions and role models of the church. One had the simplicity of the primitive community and the piety of the “desert fathers,” in mind and tried to encourage a new inwardness, a very personal piety directed to Christ through constant reading and meditation of Scripture. It was an attempt of the laity to take up responsibility for their faith and the time was ready for this new expression of popular piety. They established communal houses for women and men devoted to the experience of imitating Christ. They detested knowledge without virtue, and so established dormitories and schools for the spiritual formation of youth. The movement is best remembered for its great spiritual classic, “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis, the most published Christian text outside the Bible. Meditation on Jesus’ life and death, written in ordinary language, provided the working masses with an accessible means of imitating Christ. This affective meditation undergirded all facets of the movement’s origin, character, development, and considerable legacy in both Catholic and Protestant traditions.
Between the Devotio Moderna and the Reformation there were few personal but many substantive contacts, such as the criticism of the externalization of late medieval piety and as a result, new forms of lay piety emerged. Devotio Moderna introduced the tradition of “methodical prayer” which arranged exercises day by day and week by week. Centuries earlier, spiritual masters had produced structured methods for Christian meditation, but their approaches were less systematic. The methodical approach of Devotio Moderna towards prayer and meditation found significant following in the Catholic Church, as well as later Reformed communities. Their approach and practices significantly influenced the approaches to Christian meditation and still persist in meditative practices such as the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.