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§ 32. The Friends of God.

The Friends of God attract our interest both by the suggestion of religious fervor involved in their name and the respect with which the prominent mystics speak of them. They are frequently met within the writings of Eckart, Tauler, Suso, and Ruysbroeck, as well as in the pages of other writers of the fourteenth century. Much mystery surrounds them, and efforts have failed to define with precision their teachings, numbers and influence. The name had been applied to the Waldenses,487487    Preger, III. 370; Strauch, p. 205. but in the fourteenth century it came to be a designation for coteries of pietists scattered along the Rhine, from Basel to Strassburg and to the Netherlands, laymen and priests who felt spiritual longings the usual church services did not satisfy. They did not constitute an organized sect. They were addicted to the study of the Scriptures, and sought close personal fellowship with God. They laid stress upon a godly life and were bent on the propagation of holiness. Their name was derived from John 16:15, "Henceforth I call you not servants, but I have called you friends." Their practices did not involve a breach with the Church and its ordinances. They had no sympathy with heresy, and antagonized the Brethren of the Free Spirit. The little treatise, called the German Theology, at the outset marks the difference between the Friends of God and the false, free spirits, especially the Beghards.488488    See Rulman Merswin’s condemnation of the Beguines and Beghards in the Nine Rocks, chs. XIII., XIV.

A letter written by a Friend to another Friend489489    As printed by Preger, III. 417 sq. represents as succinctly as any statement their aim when it says, "The soul that loves God must get away from the world, from the flesh and all sensual desires and away from itself, that is, away from its own self-will, and thus does it make ready to hear the message of the work and ministry of love accomplished by our Lord Jesus Christ." The house which Rulman Merswin founded in Strassburg was declared to be a house of refuge for honorable persons, priests and laymen who, with trust in God, choose to flee the world and seek to improve their lives. The Friends of God regarded themselves as holding the secret of the Christian life and as being the salt of the earth, the instructors of other men.490490    See the last chapter of R. Merswin’s Nine Rocks.

Among the leading Friends of God were Henry of Nördlingen, Nicolas of Löwen, Rulman Merswin and "the great Friend of God from the Oberland." The personality of the Friend of God from the Oberland is one of the most evasive in the religious history of the Middle Ages. He is presented as leader of great personal power and influence, as the man who determined Tauler’s conversion and wrote a number of tracts, and yet it is doubtful whether such a personage ever lived. Rulman Merswin affirms that he had been widely active between Basel and Strassburg and in the region of Switzerland, from which he got his name, the Oberland. In 1377, according to the same authority, he visited Gregory XI. in Rome and, like Catherine of Siena, petitioned the pontiff to set his face against the abuses of Christendom. Rulman was in correspondence with him for a long period, and held his writings secret until within four years of his (Rulman’s) death, when he published them. They were 17 in number, all of them bearing on the nature and necessity of a true conversion of heart.491491    The two leading writings are Das Buch ron den zwei Mannen, an account of the first five years immediately succeeding the author’s conversion, and given in Schmidt’s Nic. von Basel, pp. 205-277, and Das Buch von den fünf Mannen, in which the Oberlander gives an account of his own life and the lives of his friends. For the full list of the writings, see Preger, III. 270 sqq., and Strauch, p. 209 sqq.

This mystic from the Oberland, as Rulman’s account goes, led a life of prayer and devotion, and found peace, performed miracles and had visions. He is placed by Preger at the side of Peter Waldo as one of the most influential laymen of the Middle Ages, a priest, though unordained, of the Church. After Rulman’s death, we hear no more of him.

Rulman Merswin, the editor of the Oberland prophet’s writings, was born in Stra6sburg, 1307, and died there, 1382. He gave up merchandise and devoted himself wholly to a religious life. He had undergone the change of conversion—Kehr. For four years he had a hard struggle against temptations, and subjected himself to severe asceticisms, but was advised by his confessor, Tauler, to desist, at least for a time. It was towards the end of this period that he met the man from the Oberland. After his conversion, he purchased and fitted up an old cloister, located on an island near Strassburg, called das grüne Wört, to serve as a refuge for clerics and laymen who wished to follow the principles of the Friends of God and live together for the purpose of spiritual culture. In 1370, after the death of his wife, Rulman himself became an inmate of the house, which was put under the care of the Knights of St. John a year later. Here he continued to exhort by pen and word till his death. He lies buried at the side of his wife in Strassburg.

Merswin’s two chief writings are entitled Das Bannerbüchlein, the Banner-book, and Das Buch von den neun Felsen, the Nine Rocks. The former is an exhortation to flee from the banner of Lucifer and to gather under the blood-red banner of Christ.492492    See Preger, III. 349 sqq. C. Schmidt gives the test, as does also Diepenbrock, H Suso, pp. 505-572 The Nine Rocks, written in the form of a dialogue, 1352, opens with a parable, describing innumerable fishes swimming down from the lakes among the hills through the streams in the valleys into the deep sea. The author then sees them attempting to find their way back to the hills. These processes illustrate the career of human souls departing from God into the world and seeking to return to Him. The author also sees a "fearfully high mountain," on which are nine rocks. The souls that succeed in getting back to the mountain are so few that it seemed as if only one out of every thousand reached it. He then proceeds to set forth the condition of the eminent of the earth, popes and kings, cardinals and princes; and also priests, monks and nuns, Beguines and Beghards, and people of all sorts and classes. He finds the conditions very bad, and is specially severe on women who, by their show of dress and by their manners, are responsible for men going morally astray and falling into sin. Many of these women commit a hundred mortal sins a day.

Rulman then returns to the nine rocks, which represent the nine stages of progress towards the source of our being, God. Those who are on the rocks have escaped the devil’s net, and by climbing on up to the last rock, they reach perfection. Those on the fifth rock have gained the point where they have completely given up their own self-will. The sixth rock represents full submission to God. On the ninth the number is so small that there seemed to be only three persons on it. These have no desire whatever except to honor God, fear not hell nor purgatory, nor enemy nor death nor life.

The Friends of God, who are bent on something more than their own salvation, are depicted in the valley below, striving to rescue souls from the net in which they have been ensnared. The Brethren of the Free Spirit resist this merciful procedure.

The presentation is crude, and Scripture is not directly quoted. The biblical imagery, however, abounds, and, as in the case of the ancient allegory of Hermas, the principles of the Gospel are set forth in a way adapted, no doubt, to reach a certain class of minds, even as in these modern days the methods of the Salvation Army appeal to many for whom the discourses of Bernard or Gerson might have little meaning. 493493    l Strauch, p. 208, and others regard Merswin’s works as in large part compilations from Tauler and other writers. Strauch pronounces their contents garrulous—geschwätzig. The Nine Rocks used to be printed with Suso’s works. Merswin’s authorship was established by Schmidt.

Rulman Merswin is regarded by Denifle, Strauch and other critics as the author of the works ascribed to the Friend of God from the Oberland, and the inventor of this fictitious personage.494494    Rulman hat den Gottesfreund einfach erfunden. Strauch, p. 217. The reason for this view is that no one else knows of the Oberlander and that, after Rulman’s death, attempts on the part of the Strassburg brotherhood to find him, or to find out something about him, resulted in failure. On the other hand, it is difficult to understand why Rulman did not continue to keep his writings secret till after his own death, if the Oberlander was a fictitious character.495495    Preger and Schmidt are the chief spokesmen for the historic personality of the man from the Oberland. Rieder has recently relieved Rulman from the stain of forgery, and placed the responsibility upon Nicolas of Löwen, who entered das grüne Wört in 1366. The palaeographic consideration is emphasized, that is, the resemblance between Nicolas’ handwriting and the script of the reputed Oberlander.

Whatever may be the outcome of the discussion over the historic personality of the man from the Oberland, we have in the writings of these two men a witness to the part laymen were taking in the affairs of the Church.


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