However, the history of Christian spirituality prior to the collapse of the medieval synthesis was itself marked by a shift towards individualism and pseudo-interiority. In the West, while the fourteenth century saw both a flowering of mysticism and a rebirth of the radical Christian tradition of social protest, there was a marked tendency towards an individualistic and passive approach from the twelfth century onwards. We can already see the beginnings of the split between spirituality and action in the devotional life of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Flemish mystic Ruysbroeck speaks harshly of what he terms 'false vacancy':
It is a sitting still, without either outward or inward acts, in vacancy, in order that rest may be found, and may remain untroubled. But a rest which is practised in this way is unlawful: for it brings with it in men a blindness and ignorance and a sinking down into themselves without activity. Such a rest is nought else than an idleness into which the man has fallen and in which he forgets himself and God and all things in all that has to do with activity. The rest is wholly contrary to the supernatural rest which one possesses in God.
Rarely has a mystic spoken so strongly against the false subjectivism of interior passivity when cut off from communion with God and humankind.
As a wedge came to be driven between heart and head, affections and intellect, there was a further decline into subjective pietism in the fifteenth century. This was evident in the Free Brethren of the Netherlands, in the
Waldensians and Huttites, in some of the German mystics, the devotio moderna, and many devotional writers. It reached its peak in the Imitatio Christi of Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471), which, while it reflected the deepest experience of the sacramental piety of the later Middle Ages, was 'individualistic through and through' (Ramsey 1956:168). In a Kempis's thought, concern for the needs of the body constituted a burden on the inner self. The passions, the emotions and desires, even the body itself, were enemy forces, hindrances to the attainment of salvation. His focus is on the wretchedness of life and on the need for withdrawal from the world and from humankind in order to attain union with God. This book has been tremendously influential throughout the Christian West and was more popular than the Bible among Roman Catholics before the Second Vatican Council. Along with individualism there was an increasing stress at this time on passivity and reliance on the action of God in the soul. Thus John Tauler (1300-61) compares such spiritual reliance to the state of sleep: 'Joseph', he reminds his readers, 'was asleep when the angel called him.' The Beghards, condemned by the Pope in 1312, held that meditation on Christ's humanity was a descent from the pure spirituality of contemplation. In addition, in much devotional writing, the activity of God comes to be located in 'the soul' which is seen in ahistorical terms and as somehow separate from the totality of the human person in community. This dualistic and private focus has made its impact on many of the manuals of devotion down to the present day (Miles 1988).
Was this article helpful?