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Friends of God


A term that was used in a general sense from ancient times. It is found in the Old and New Testaments, in the works of the Fathers, and in early Christian and medieval writers to designate pious, devout, or saintly persons, such as Abraham, Moses, the Apostles, or martyrs, who gave themselves entirely to the service of God. Although the phrase continued to have a general meaning, during the 14th century, in the vocabulary of the mystics, it took on a more specialized sense, owing chiefly to its frequent use by Johannes tauler. It was used to designate persons who were striving for or had attained mystical union with God, the highest state of the contemplative life. The Friends were not united by any formal ties or organization but were a free association of like-minded people held together by friendship, common aspirations, similar experiences, unity of purpose, and exchange of visits, letters, and spiritual writings. To this last activity are owed various spiritual classics, such as the correspondence of henry suso with Elsbeth stÄgel and that of Henry of Nördlingen, a secular priest, with Margaret Ebner (considered by some authors the oldest collection of letters in the German language), and Margaret's Revelations. In this way the works of Suso and ruysbroeck and the sermons of Tauler gained their widespread circulation.

Under the guidance of experienced and skillful leaders, notably Tauler, Suso, and Henry of Nördlingen, the Friends of God cultivated a life of interior devotion, intense prayer, austerity, and self-renunciation. By their edifying lives and spiritual practices, they hoped to reach intimate friendship with God and to counteract the political and moral evils of an age that was experiencing earthquake and famine, as well as political and religious strife between popes and emperors, the scandal of the papal residence at Avignon, chronic civic disorder in Italy, war between England and France, and would soon witness the Black Death and the consequent moral decay of Christendom. The Friends were heavily concentrated in Bavaria, Switzerland, the Rhineland, and the Low Countries (see spirituality of the low countries). Some of them lived alone, others in small groups, as at the former Benedictine monastery of Grüner Wörth near Strasbourg. Their principal centers were Strasbourg and Basel, with lesser areas of influence in Cologne and Constance, and at many of the Dominican monasteries of nuns, such as maria-mÖdingen near Nuremberg, Töss and Oetenbach in Switzerland, Adelhausen near Freiburg im Breisgau, and Unterlinden in Colmar.

Men and women of all ranks of society and every state of life, "filled with a living love of God," moved with "compassion for their fellow-men in affliction," and "concerned about the corruption of the world and the faults of men which awakened the wrath of God" (Tauler), embraced the ideals of the Friends and sought direction from their leaders. There were the friar and priest leaders; nuns, such as the Dominicans Margaret Ebner of Maria-Mödingen and Christine Ebner of Engelthal; layfolk, such as Margaret of the Golden Ring, Herman of Fritzlar, and Rulman Merswin (founder of the Grüner Wörth center); knights and ladies, such as Queen Agnes, widow of King Andrew III of Hungary, who had retired to a German monastery (see spirituality, rhenish).

The Friends of God were entirely orthodox in their beliefs and were devoted to the Church. Even when they venerated outstanding lay members of their company, they manifested no distrust of the hierarchy or the priesthood, nor did they exhibit any trace of ecclesiastical separatism. They set themselves apart from other clergy and layfolk in the Church only in their spiritual ideals, in their desire to live a truly spiritual life under the guidance of a spiritual master, and in their hope to rescue the Church and society from contemporary evils. They must also be clearly distinguished from the Brethren of the Free Spirit, waldenses, and heretical beguines, who, glorying in a false liberty and preaching emancipation from the Church, concealed their heretical and separatist tendencies by assuming the name Friends of God.

The term "Friends of God" began to fall into disuse toward the end of the 14th century, probably because of the general decline of mysticism and its terminology.

Bibliography: a. chiquot, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932) 1:493500. j. m. clark, The Great German Mystics (Oxford 1949) 7597. a. g. seesholtz, Friends of God: Practical Mystics of the 14th Century (New York 1934). r. m. jones, The Flowering of Mysticism: The Friends of God in the 14th Century (New York 1939).

[w. a. hinnebusch]

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