The 14th Century Dutch Benedict Option
For a little perspective on the Benedict Option, check out this passage from Barbara Tuchman’s classic, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century:
Churches were empty and mass meagerly attended, wrote Nicolas de Clamanges in his great tract De Ruina et Reparatione Ecclesiae (The Ruin and Reform of the Church). The young, according to him, rarely went to church except on feast days and then only to see the painted faces and decollete gowns of the ladies and the spectacle of their headdresses, “immense towers with horns hung with pearls.” People kept vigils in church not with prayer but with lascivious songs and dances, while the priests shot dice as they watched. Gerson deplored the same laxity: men left church in the midst of services to have a drink and “when they hear the bell announcing consecration, they rush back into the church like bulls.” Card-playing, swearing, and blasphemy, he wrote, occurred during the most sacred festivals, and obscene pictures were hawked in church, corrupting the young. Pilgrimages were the occasion for debauchery, adultery, and profane pleasures.
Irreverence in many cases was the by-product of a religion so much a part of daily life that it was treated with over-familiarity, but the chorus of reproof at the end of the century indicated a growing element of disgust. “Men slept in indifference and closed their eyes to the scandal,” mourned the Monk of St. Denis. “It was a waste of time to talk of ways to reform the Church.”
But there emerged a Benedict Option-like idea:
Indifference, however, like a vacuum in nature, is not a natural condition of human affairs. A new devotional movement arose at this time in the small trading towns of northern Holland, between desolate marshland and moor near the mouth of the Rhine — as if only in a remote corner of strife-torn Europe could fresh piety find a place to sprout. Because the members lived communally, they came to be known by their neighbors as the Brethren of the Common Life, although they referred to themselves simply as “the devout.” Their purpose was to find direct union with God, and through preaching and good works create a devout lay society. They were not extremists like the earlier Brethren of the Free Spirit but simply, as they said, “religious men trying to live in the world” — meaning the lay world as distinct from the cloistered.
Like Benedict of Nursia centuries before, and Francis of Assisi closer to his own time, Geert Groote, founder of the movement, was the son of a well-off merchant. He lived a dissolute life before experiencing a profound religious conversion. Soon, crowds following him “overflowed the churches,” Tuchman writes. Groote spent time “lamenting the corrupt and predicting the impending collapse of the Church,” and gathered around him a movement of disciples in his voluntary movement. Tuchman says their association did not require binding vows, as did the monastic orders. They lived together in single-sex communities, practiced poverty and chastity, and made their livings by teaching and doing work not controlled by the guilds.
By the time he died of an illness in 1384, his followers’ houses in Holland and the Rhineland numbered well over a hundred, with those for women being three times as many as those for men.
They eventually petered out, but not before producing Thomas à Kempis, whose book The Imitation of Christ was in its time the most widely read religious book in the West after the Bible. It is still read today.
There’s reason to hope! But the churches aren’t going to fix themselves. #BenedictOption