How The Brotherhood of the Common Life Educated Orphans

by William F. Wertz, Jr.

Printed in The American Almanac, April 1, 1996.

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On Jan. 29, 1996, Helga Zepp LaRouche, founder of the Schiller Institute, issued a Call to Save the Children in Bosnia-Hercegovina. In that call, Mrs. LaRouche wrote that ``the most destitute losers in this bestial war are the children. In 1992-95, 10.7 percent of all children and young people from one to nineteen years of age were killed or are missing, i.e., every tenth (!) child has lost his life; every fifth child (!), namely, 19.8 percent, has been wounded; and every sixth child (!), namely, 15.3 percent, has been made an invalid. Further, there are thousands of children who have suffered severe psycho-physical injuries.

``But what is to become of the children who have survived the war `unhurt,' who perhaps have lost one parent, or both? Who have become witnesses to the most horrible human degradation, who have experienced in real life all the bestiality which is otherwise imagined only by the sick minds of Hollywood writers? Today many of these children are not only bodily crippled, but they are traumatized. The experience of atrocities has obliterated their childhood.''

In organizing support for the Call to Save the Children of Bosnia, the pressing question of how to educate orphans and other poor children, who have been brutalized by this and other atrocities, has arisen. Dr. Jozef Miklosko, who serves as chairman of the committee, reported that his son is responsible for 17 orphanages in Slovakia. Father Watson of Georgetown University's Center for Peace Studies has indicated that he is working with the Franciscans, who run an orphanage in Medjugorje. Father Hupp, Director Emeritus of Boys Town in Nebraska, who is one of the initiators of the effort, has also had to deal with this question extensively.

In answer to Dr. Miklosko's question about how to approach this difficult problem, Lyndon LaRouche stressed that the model to be employed is the teaching method of the Brotherhood of the Common Life of Gerhard Groote and Thomas à Kempis. The purpose of this article is to examine that method as a means of helping those confronted immediately with the task of educating such children, such that they overcome their traumatization and develop fully as creative human beings, capable themselves of contributing to lasting peace in war-torn, hate-filled areas of the world, such as Bosnia.

The Brothers' Method

As this author has developed more fully in an article entitled ``The Brotherhood of the Common Life,'' which appeared in
Fidelio, Vol. III, No. 2, Summer 1994, the Brotherhood of the Common Life was a teaching order, started in the 1390s and early 1400s in The Netherlands and in Germany. The importance of the Brotherhood's work was that, in focussing on the education of poor children, it began a process that led to a Renaissance throughout Europe in the fifteenth century, through the creation of a national intelligentsia derived from the poor and oppressed, not merely from the ruling elite. In doing so, they laid the basis for the development of the modern nation-state in France, between the years 1461-1483, under Louis XI.

There are two interrelated features to their contribution: First, it was only through mass or relatively universal education that a population could ever be educated sufficiently to practice self-government. Second, it was only this way that modern economy, based upon advances in science and technology, could be fostered, since such an economy requires an educated labor force.

As Lyndon LaRouche has pointed out, ``The idea of a Christian Classical humanist education, such as that of Groote's Brotherhood of the Common Life, or the Schiller-Humboldt reforms, the reliving of moments of great, axiomatic-revolutionary discovery, as if to replicate that moment from within the mind of the original discoverer in one's own mind, is a typification of the relevant way in which the child and youth must be developed morally and formally at the same time.'' He emphasizes that the relevant feature of such education, ``is emphasis upon use of primary sources' representation of processes of great discovery, prompting the student, in this way, to replicate that mental experience of the discoverer in the student's own mental processes.''

In order to demonstrate the approach taken by the Brotherhood, this article will utilize as its source the first part of a book written by Thomas à Kempis entitled, ``Rules to Live Above the World While We Are in It.'' This first part is the ``Children's Manual,'' which contains, according to à Kempis, ``Holy Instructions and Meditations for Forming the Minds of Children According to the True Christian Pattern.'' Included in this manual is the ``Alphabet of a Scholar in the School of Christ.''

An Ecumenical Approach

One might argue that a Christian Classical humanist approach were not practical, especially in an area of the world such as Bosnia, where a large portion of the population is Muslim. However, such an approach is absolutely necessary among Christians in this war-torn area of the world, and an intelligible representation of the method employed by the Brotherhood of the Common Life should be of great value to a Muslim, a Jew, or any other person of good will.

In 1453, Nicolaus of Cusa, who was himself educated by the Brotherhood of the Common Life, wrote a dialogue entitled ``On the Peace of Faith.'' While attempting to render the Christian faith intelligible to those of other faiths, he stresses in the dialogue that the foundation for peace among peoples of different religious faiths is the fact that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus have the natural law of love imprinted upon their minds through participation in God's Eternal Law. Thus, in this dialogue he writes as follows:

``The divine commandments are very brief and are all well known and common in every nation, for the light that reveals them to us is created along with the rational soul. For within us God says to love Him, from whom we received being, and to do nothing to another, except that which we wish done to us. Love is therefore the fulfillment of the law of God and all laws are reduced to this.''

An orphan or other child traumatized by war is confronted with the most profound questions of life and death at an early age. The questions such a child necessarily has are those which many adults have difficulty resolving for themselves, if they have not already resolved them at an early age.

Deprived of familial love, confronted with injustice and evil, the child must be given a sense of his own value in the eyes of a merciful God. He must also come to understand internally, rather than merely outwardly, the importance and the very possibility of overcoming suffering and tribulation.

The approach taken to these problems by the Brotherhood of the Common Life is based upon the healing power of imitating Christ and imitating those who imitate Christ. Christ, who is the Word or Wisdom, must in fact be such a child's Schoolmaster.

The Apostle Paul wrote: ``Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.'' 1 Cor. 11:1 Ultimately this is the method of the Brotherhood of the Common Life. The child must replicate in his own mind the lessons of Christ; these must be engraved on his heart. His heart must become the very Book of Life. Those teaching the child must be imitators of Christ themselves. And what the child must come to know, not merely learn externally, is the agapic, creative love of Christ and of those who imitate Christ in such works of creative love.

As the Apostle Paul also emphasized, by so doing, all of God's children can become ``adoptive sons'' of God. This is an extremely important concept to the orphan. It means that he has a Father, and that all human beings, whether they have living biological parents or not, are equal in God's eyes, as adoptive sons.

The Crucifixion of Christ, His cross and His call that we all carry His cross, is the key to helping the child, traumatized by the loss of parents in war or under other conditions, to understand the importance and possibility of overcoming suffering through love. He must come to see his own tribulation as a cross that he must bear and that if he bears this cross willingly he will have much to offer other human beings.

Such a child needs to understand that Creation is good, despite evil. He needs to know that the universe is well-ordered, not disordered and that the ordering principle of the universe is agapic creativity. He needs to experience this directly in his own mind.

Musical Memory

What the Brotherhood of the Common Life discovered in teaching such children, is the importance of an educational principle, which Lyndon LaRouche has described as musical memory. They must learn to subsume the multiplicity of their experiences in life, which in the case of an orphan must be shattering, under the One, Who is Love.

In the Brotherhood school lessons, this was done through the memorization by heart and the constant reflection upon an alphabetical poem entitled, ``Christ's Cross-Row.'' This poem is presented in a ``Children's Manual,'' which, it is believed, Thomas à Kempis wrote shortly after he joined the Brotherhood.

The Children's Manual begins with a number of Biblical citations: ``I write unto you, little Children; because your sins are forgiven you for his Name's sake,'' 1 John 2:12. And ``Because you have known the Father,'' v. 13. ``Be not Children in your thinking. In respect to evil be like infants, but in your thinking be mature,'' 1 Cor 14:20. ``Verily I say unto you; except you be converted, and become as little Children, you shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven,'' Matthew 18:3.

In the introduction, à Kempis writes that he intends to teach the fundamental lessons in the School of Christ, beginning with humility and love. The method he will employ is the method of ``examples,'' rather than ``precepts.'' In other words, the pedagogy employed is exemplary rather than didactic. The examples he employs are those of Christ and his Apostles, and particularly St. John and St. Paul.

In order to accomplish this education, à Kempis relies heavily upon memory. Specifically, he uses an Alphabetical Method to help the child replicate in his own mind and heart the example of Christ as the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and end, of his own and all existence. Rev. 1:8, 22:13.

This concept of Christ, the Alpha and Omega, is ultimately the basis of human creative love. Christ is the Creator of the World. The imitation of Christ is, therefore, the replication of the creative method of composition of the world. Through the mnemonic device of engraving the alphabetical poem of Christ's example of the Cross on his heart, the child's mind and heart are lifted above the insecurity and fear associated with his sense of loss and forsakenness, to a mental state based upon loving creative reason.

As Lyndon LaRouche has explained, even before the first line of a poem or the first notes of a musical composition, the composer must have recollected in his own mind the relatively absolute One or unifying concept of the composition as a whole. He must know in advance the end or purpose of the whole composition. In a sense, the composition is enfolded, as Nicolaus of Cusa would say, by its end or terminus. The unfolding or development of the multiplicity in the realm of the Becoming of the poem or musical work from its very beginning, must proceed lawfully from the concept of the work as a whole. All variation, every discontinuity, each dissonance, from the very beginning of the piece, must be subsumed by and lead to the end of the work. For the creation, or performance, of the work to reflect the principles of the creation of the universe, its unity must be ever-present in the mind or memory of the composer or performer. In this sense, its eternity must be the terminus of its temporal unfolding.

The model à Kempis uses for this Alphabetical Method is that employed in Psalm 119, in which each of the eight verses of the first strophe begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, each verse of the second strophe with the second letter, and so on for all the twenty-two letters.

Children's Manual

Before discussing what à Kempis calls the ``Little Alphabet'' or the ``Christ's Cross Row,'' and the lesson plan based upon it, entitled ``The Alphabet of a Scholar in the School of Christ,'' let us review briefly the beginning of the Children's Manual, which consists of 15 chapters.

Each of the 15 chapters begins with a citation from the Bible. The first chapter is a call and invitation to little Children by Christ to enter His school. In this chapter, Christ is described as the Teacher and the Schoolmaster, a concept which St. Augustine, for example, developed in a dialogue entitled, The Teacher. The children are urged never to depart from humility and to be animated with charity.

The second chapter emphasizes that the first lesson in Christ's School is humility, the path of Christ. In the third chapter, the second lesson is love. Reference is made to the example of St. John, who is described as Christ's beloved Scholar. From that standpoint, St. John is a model for the child-scholar in the School of Christ.

The fourth chapter focuses on the lesson of the Crucifixion. The example given is that of St. Paul, who was made so Great and High with God through his perfect love of God and of his neighbor and who taught one thing: Jesus Christ and Him Crucified for us.

The lesson in chapter four is how to overcome temptation with vigilance. The soldier of Christ is encouraged to speak the words of Christ: ``Get thee behind me, Satan.''

In chapter 6, à Kempis addresses the same issue, which Friedrich Schiller does in his ``Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Man.'' How we spend our leisure hours will determine the direction of our hearts. The child is encouraged to read the Holy Scriptures and other books written with the finger of the Holy Spirit. These are comforts of a faithful Soul in tribulation.

Chapter 7 emphasizes the need to consider mortality and the vanity of human life. ``All things fade away, and are lost, besides the Love of God, and the life of righteousness. In chapter 8, à Kempis stresses the way of David: Gratitude for grace as the means by which one guards against pride.

In Chapter 9, he focusses on the way of the Apostles, which is following Christ in poverty of Spirit. Again, he stresses that, for the sake of Christ crucified, one should fully deny oneself even to the death and that this gives one great security of conscience and also pleasantness of heart.

In chapter 10, à Kempis says: ``Let the life of Christ be thy constant Book to read in.'' Here, he also polemicizes against learning, which is undertaken ``without the praise and glory of God,'' as in vain.

Citing the Apostle Peter in chapter 11, à Kempis stresses the need to lay aside all guile. Most greatly pleasing to God and his Angels is charity with humility, science without conceitedness, sorrow without bitterness, etc.

In chapter 12, he writes: Blessed is he, who casts far away from him all unclear idols of the ancient enemy; and in all straits humbly flees to the arms of Christ crucified. He describes Christ as the hope of the needy, the health of the infirm, and the comforter of all that are in tribulation.

In chapter 13, he addresses the necessity of a clean heart and the importance of guarding the mouth from idle words.

The fourteenth chapter emphasizes the necessity of constant prayer and addresses the question of how to pray always: ``For he prays to God always, who always or habitually thinks on good things: And not only thinks, but speaks them also forth, and acts the same continually to the Divine Honor.''

Chapter 15 concludes by emphasizing that Heavenly Life can be achieved if one takes Christ into one's heart, if his wisdom and love dwell within one and one's mind becomes one with Christ.

Christ's Cross Row

At this point, à Kempis writes: Here follows now the Little Alphabet, or the Christ's Cross Row, that is by every Scholar in Christ's School to be learnt by Heart.

Apply thine Heart unto Instruction.

Boast not thy self of the Morrow.

Cease from thine own Wisdom.

Despise not the Poor.

Envy not the Rich.

Follow Christ.

Go not after a Multitude.

He that walks uprightly, walks surely.

Judge not, that thou be not judged.

Knock, and it shall be opened.

Labor not after that which perishes.

Much given, much required.

No Man can serve Two Masters.

One thing necessary.

Pray always.

Quench not the Spirit.

Rejoice always.

Seek, and find.

Take the whole Armor of God.

Use this World, as not abusing it.

Walk honestly as in the Day.

Yield your self up to God.

Zealously affect a good thing.

What follows the Little Alphabet, as indicated above, is the Alphabet of a Scholar in the School of Christ. After a prayer by the scholar, that is the child, the Master, Christ, proceeds to discuss the lessons to be drawn from each of the above alphebetically ordered lines. The first lesson, for example, is as follows:


Lesson I. Aim not to be Great or Popular in the World; but rather to be unknown, and nothing Accounted of. This is more wholesome and profitable than to be admired and praised of Men. Ambition is the bane of the soul.

As can be seen, each of the alphabetically ordered lessons contains other words which begin with the same letter of the alphabet as a mnemonic device.

Rather than reporting on each of these lessons, it is perhaps more fruitful to bring a few of the most important lessons to the fore.


Lesson X. Know thy self; and learn to know Christ; whom truly to know is a Kingdom. Let the knowledge of his cross be thy constant exercise, that it may keep thee in all thy Ways, and kill in thee all manner of Impatience. This if thou rightly knowest and understand, thou shalt kindly bear injuries, and account them even as thy best Friends and Patrons, who do oppress and slander thee. Since if thou judgest and considerest hereof in Justice, as the Cross will teach thee, thou shalt be sure to gain thereby. For profitable are they to thee in the Good, who withstand thee in the Evil. Keep this as a little key; which will serve to unlock many an hard Lock.


Lesson XI. Lock up thy Heart from creaturely objects; Lay up there for thy self an incorruptible treasure; and labor after the riches that none can take from thee....


Lesson XXII.: 'Xamin thy self by Xrist Crucified. Let Christ be thy Life, thy lesson, thy meditation, thy discourse. Let Christ be thy desire, thy gain, all thy hope and thy reward; and be sure to look on him always, and in all things, both as thy Exemplar and thy End. If thou seekest for any thing else than purely Christ, thou shalt suffer loss; Thou shalt labor, and shalt not find rest. But if thou take Example by his first followers, who excluded all things beside for the sake of Christ, living as exiles in this world, that they might obtain with him a better; and livelily express his Image in thy self; then shalt thou be exceedingly exalted, and shalt enter with Christ into the Excellent glory, by Faith expected.


Lesson XXIII. ... Childhood and Youth are Vanity: But see thou put away Evil from thine Heart, by remembering now thy Creator in the Days of thy Youth, before the years draw nigh, wherein thou canst have but little pleasure; and by taking betimes upon thee the Yoke of Christ, in which thou shalt find thy Soul's true rest. Hymns and Psalms, and spiritual Songs, with the Melody of the heart, are a chief employment of those who bow themselves to this Yoke: Truly light is the burden, and easy the Yoke of these choice devoted Servants of Christ; with whom the Choirs of Angels and all the Company of Heaven do rejoice together, celebrating the name of God their Savior with triumphant Hymns. You must know that the music of the Soul, when in Harmony with God, is the best music: And that he sings the sweetest Hymns to God, who glorifies him in his Life, and in the midst of Tribulation is evermore singing Lauds to his Name....

In the conclusion, à Kempis says: ``Write, O Child, this Alphabet in thine Heart, as in the Book of Life. But keep withall a Memorial hereof upon Paper; and every Day look into it, and by it accustom thyself to form thy Mind and Manners. Consider one Letter at a time, and get it perfectly. Let not one day pass without consulting it, and examining thy self thereby; that the contents thereof may be thoroughly engraven upon thy Heart.... It will be to thee, my good Child, both an ornament without and Rest within.... Lay this to thy Heart.

``Blessed is that Scholar, who, being well instructed in these Lessons, followeth Christ by this Way; and who daily for Christ's sake takes up his cross, that he may reign with Him in Glory Everlasting. Amen.''

The Children's Manual ends with the following poem:

The Call

My Little Children come to me,
And learn the Christian A.B.C.
Thus Jesus would his Children Bless,
And them with Heavenly Sweets caress:
How good He is, O come and See,
Your Jesus calls you to his Knee.
My Little Ones, O come away,
And do not spend your Time in Play.
See what Learning here doth flow!
Let none despise the Christ's Cross Row.
Come now, O come, my Children dear:
Come to my Arms; and do not fear,
Your loving Jesus doth you call:
Come now, O Come, my Children all.
And I will teach you how to live,
If you to Me your selves will give;
You must the Devil now defy,
You must the World and Flesh deny:
With all your Hearts renounce these Three,
And my Dear Children you shall be.
Believe my Gospel; and be wise,
Me always set before your Eyes:
And on your Mind now let me draw,
The Living and Life-giving Law.
In it always be your Delight
To Meditate, by Day and Night.
Let David's Zeal within you burn,
And with my Paul at all Things spurn:
And Loss of all the World count Gain,
So that ye may but me obtain.

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The preceding article is a rough version of the article that appeared in The American Almanac. It is made available here with the permission of The New Federalist Newspaper. Any use of, or quotations from, this article must attribute them to The New Federalist, and The American Almanac.

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