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Spirituality of the Low Countries


Whether there is spirituality peculiar to the Low Countries is disputed. Some regard Devotio Moderna as the sole distinctive spirituality of the Low Countries. They assign Bl. Jan van ruysbroeck to the Rhenish school and limit his influence in the Netherlands to the introduction of Flemish as a medium of mystical expression (e.g., J. Huijbens). Writers after Ruysbroeck represent an affective, ascetic, moralizing, even anti-speculative doctrine scarcely influenced by him. When he is claimed for Low Countries spirituality, two divergent trends are found, his speculative system and the ascetico-practical teaching of the devotio moderna. A third opinion considers Ruysbroeck a central figure who, inheriting spiritual elements from Flemish predecessors, developed an ordered spirituality that served as a cohesive principle uniting writers of the region, despite differences of sensibility and emphasis in their teaching, into a distinct school for centuries thereafter. Even writers of the Devotio Moderna owed much to his mysticism. Ruysbroeck's essential ideasa trinitarian-inspired exemplarism, introversion, and the life of unionkeep reappearing subsequently in the works even of writers such as Gerlac Peters, manifesting strong ascetical tendencies (S. Axters).

Origins. Low Countries spirituality, which gave the Church the feasts of the Trinity and Corpus Christi and the final forms of the rosary and the Way of the Cross, originated in the hagiographical literature of the Merovingian age. The Carolingian period produced a spiritual literature of striking liturgical inspiration and developed the literary genre of "spiritual elevations" (St. Anscar, d. 965, and Rather of Verona, a monk of Lobbens, d.974). The 11th-and 12th-century Benedictines, e.g., Lawrence of Liège, Rudolph of St. Trond, and especially rupert of deutz, whose spirituality centered on Christ triumphant, taught a hieratic spirituality redolent of the spirit of the Fathers. From the late 12th into the 13th century, under Cistercian influence, the spirituality of the Low Countries became intimate and warmhearted, concerned with the problem of divine love. It manifested itself in Ida of Nivelle's (d. 1231) devotion to the Trinity, in lutgardis of Tongres's (d. 1246) devotion to the Sacred Heart and, with beatrice of nazareth (d. 1268), to Our Lady, and in the devotion of Juliana of Cornilion (d. 1258) and Ida of Louvain (d. 1300) to the Eucharist. Elias of Coxide (d. 1203) found in Christ Crucified all his logic, all his physics, and all his ethics. The Quinque incitamenta of Gerard of Liège (c. 1250) is, from a psychological point of view, an extremely penetrating treatise on the love of God.

With Beatrice of Nazareth's autobiography (which is entire in the Latin version of William of Afflighem and which comprises one chapter in the vernacular Seven Ways or Degrees of Love ), a trend toward introversion and speculative mysticism entered the spirituality of the Low Countries; yet her teaching preserved a nuptial emphasis. The mid-13th century Hadewijch, whose letters, poems, and accounts of her visions are still stamped with Beatrice's idea of love and an authentic Christocentrism, developed a metaphysical exemplarist spirituality of the soul's return to God, a progress motivated by the search of the soul for the divine Threefold. Gerard Applemans' commentary on the "Our Father" carried Hadewijch's introversion and exemplarism forward: all creation returns to God; the Father begets the Word in the depths of the soul, which grasps His message only when it listens spiritually. Ruysbroeck, taking the metaphysical intuitions of Hadewijch and Applemans, built a trinitarian exemplarism by which the soul attains consciousness through introversion and flowers in a union with the Triune God that he called the "common life."

Currents. Just before Ruysbroeck's death, the spirituality of the Low Countries divided into two streams, one marked by speculative interest in mysticism, the other by concern with the ascetical life. The latter blossomed in Devotio Moderna, a spirituality that influenced most contemporary and subsequent schools. The Dominican Dirk van Delf (d. after 1404) went his own way. His Table of Christian Faith, one of the first vernacular summas, scarcely bothered with speculative themes and was content to describe the mystical state on the basis of experience.

The representatives of the mystical current were effected by the ideas of Ruysbroeck, especially his disciple John of Leeuwen (d. 1374), who produced a score of tracts that clarified his master's doctrine. John of Schoonhoven (d. 1432), after an initial interest in speculative mysticism, turned toward asceticism, perhaps under the influence of Windesheim. The Carthusian Gerard of Hérinnes (or of Sainctes), in a prologue to a collection of five of Ruysbroeck's works, expounded some of his most difficult pages. denis the carthusian (van Rijkel or van Leeuwen, d. 1471, the most scholastic of the Flemish mystics, gave special place in his De fonte lucis to the doctrines of Ruysbroeck. The Franciscan henry of herp, (d. 1477) in his Mystica theologia and Mirror of Perfection, handed on in an affective manner the speculative ideas of Ruysbroeck, especially his exemplarism, introversion, and Trinitarian orientation. His personal contribution was a theory of the efficacy of repeated aspirations of faith and love, and the development of the doctrine of mortification and renunciation. Herp exercised an influence well into the 17th century, especially on his fellow Franciscan Francis Vervoort (d. 1555), who mourned over the suffering Christ, as did the earlier unknown author of Indica mihi and John Brugman, OFM (d. 1473), in his meditations on the life of Christ. The Capuchins John Evangelist (d. 1635) and Luke of Malines (d. 1652), whose works are marked by strong introversion, also were influenced by Herp.

The writings of the 16th-century beguines, notably The Gospel Pearl, written before 1540, bear a strong Christiform stamp. Christ is born mystically in the soul, which lives His various states and conditions in faith and love. Claesinne of Nieuwlant (d. 1611) spoke of self-emptying and a corresponding unreserved union with Christ. Her director, Peregrine Pullen (d. 1608), wrote of identification with Christ, of contemplation achieved in Him, of seeing God in and through Him.

Francis Louis Blosius (de Blois; d. 1566), on a basis of introversion, developed a simple, warm, Christocentric spirituality that stressed the Eucharist as the indispensable food for the journey toward the Trinity. The Carmelite mystics, Mary of St. Teresa (d. 1677) and Michael of St. Augustine (d. 1684), taught a Mariform doctrine that contemplated Mary's life and virtues and brought the soul through her to union with Christ and God.

Bibliography: s. axters, The Spirituality of the Old Low Countries, tr. d. attwater (London 1954). j. huijben, "Y a-t-il une spiritualité flamande?" La Vie spirituelle 50 (Paris 1937) 129147. j. leclercq et al., La Spiritualité du moyen-âge (Histoire de la spiritualité chrétienne 2; Paris 1961) 430438, 478481. s. murk-jansen, Brides in the Desert: The Spirituality of the Beguines (Maryknoll, NY 1998). p. verdeyen, Ruusbroec and His Mysticism, trans. a. lefevere (Collegeville, MN 1994). l. duprÉ, The Common Life: The Origins of Trinitarian Mysticism and its Development by Jan Ruusbroec (New York 1984).

[w. a. hinnebusch]

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