Denys the Carthusian (DENYS VAN LEEUWEN, also LEUW or LIEUWE), b. in 1402 in that part of the Belgian province of Limburg which was formerly comprised in the county of Hesbaye l d. March 12 1471.
His birthplace was Ryckel, a small village a few miles from Saint-Trond, whence ancient writers have often surnamed him Ryckel or a Ryckel. His parents, historians say, were of noble rank; he himself says, however, that when a child he kept his father’s sheep. His remarkable aptitude for intellectual pursuits and his eagerness to learn induced his parents to give him a liberal education, and they sent him to a school at Saint-Trond. In 1415 he went to another school at Zwolle (Overijssel), which was then of great repute and attracted many students from various parts of Germany. He there entered upon the study of philosophy and became acquainted with the principles and practice of religious life, which the rector, John Cele, a very holy man, himself taught. Shortly after the rector’s death (1417) he returned home, having learnt all that the masters of the school could teach him. His feverish quest for human science and the success his uncommon intellectual powers had rapidly obtained seem, according to his own account, to have rather dulled his piety. Nevertheless a supernatural leaning to cloistral life, which had taken root in his mind from the early age of ten and had grown stronger during his stay at Zwolle, finally triumphed over worldly ambition and the instincts of nature, and at the age of eighteen he determined to acquire the “science of saints” in St. Bruno’s order.
Having applied for admittance at the Carthusian monastery at Roermond (Dutch Limburg), he was refused because he had not reached the age (twenty years) required by the statutes of the order; but the prior gave him hopes that he would be received later on, and advised him to continue meanwhile his ecclesiastical studies. So he went forthwith to the then celebrated University of Cologne, where he remained three years, studying philosophy, theology, the Holy Scriptures, etc. After taking his degree of Master of Arts, he returned to the monastery at Roermond and this time was admitted (1423). In his cell Denys gave himself up heart and soul to the duties of Carthusian life, performing all with his characteristic earnestness and strength of will, and letting his zeal carry him even far beyond what the rule demanded. Thus, over and above the time—about eight hours—every Carthusian spends daily in hearing and saying Mass, reciting Divine Office, and in other devotional exercises, he was wont to say the whole Psalter—his favorite prayer book—or at least a great part of it, and he passed long hours in meditation and contemplation; nor did material occupations usually hinder him from praying. Reading and writing took up the rest of his time. The list he drew up, about two years before his death, of some of the books he had read while a monk bears the names of all the principal ecclesiastical writers down to his time. He had read, he says, every summa and every chronicle, many commentaries on the Bible, and the works of a great number of Greek, and especially Arab, philosophers, and he had studied the whole of canon as well as civil law. His favorite author was Dionysius the Areopagite. His quick intellect seized the author’s meaning at first reading and his wonderful memory retained without much effort all that he had once read.
It seems marvellous that, spending so much time in prayer, he should have been able to peruse so vast a number of books; but what passes all comprehension is that he found time to write, and to write so much that his works might make up twenty-five folio volumes. No other pen, whose productions have come down to us, has been so prolific. It is true that he took not more than three hours’ sleep a night, and that he was known to spend sometimes whole nights in prayer and study. There is evidence, too, that his pen was a swift one. Nevertheless the mystery still remains insolvable, and all the more so that, besides the occupations already mentioned, he had, at least for some time, others which will be presently noted, and which alone would have been enough to absorb the attention of any ordinary man. He began (1434) by commenting the Psalms and then went on to comment the whole of the Old and the New Testament. He commented also the works of Boethius, Peter Lombard, John Climacus, as well as those of, or attributed to, Dionysius the Areopagite, and translated Cassian into easier Latin. It was after seeing one of his commentaries that Pope Eugene IV exclaimed: “Let Mother Church rejoice to have such a son!” He wrote theological treatises, such as his “Summa Fidei Orthodox”, “Compendium Theologicum”, “De Lumine Christianae Theoriae”, “De Laudibus B. V. Marine”, and “De Prconio B. V. Marine” (in both of which treatises he upholds the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception), “De quatuor Novissimis”, etc.; philosophical treatises, such as his “Compendium philosophicum”, “De venustate mundi et pulchritudine Dei” (a most remarkable aesthetic dissertation), “De ente et essentia”, etc.; a great many treatises relating to morals, asceticism, church discipline, liturgy, etc.; sermons and homilies for all the Sundays and festivals of the year, etc. His writings, taken as a whole, show him to be a compiler rather than an original thinker; they contain more unction and piety than deep speculation. He was no innovator, no builder of systems, and especially no quibbler. Indeed he had a decided dislike for metaphysical subtleties of no positive use, for he was of far too practical a turn of mind to waste time in idle dialectic niceties, and sought only to do immediate good to souls and tend their spiritual needs, drawing them away from sin and guiding and urging them on in the path to heaven.
As an expounder of Scripture, he generally does no more than reproduce or recapitulate what other commentators had said before him. If his commentaries bring no light to modern exegetics they are at least an abundant mine of pious reflections. As a theologian and a philosopher he is a servile follower of no one master and belongs to no particular school. Although an admirer of Aristotle and Aquinas, he is neither an Aristotelian nor a Thomist in the usual sense of the words, but seems inclined rather to the Christian Platonism of Dionysius the Areopagite, St. Augustine, and St. Bonaventure. As a mystical writer he is akin to Hugh and Richard of St. Victor, St. Bonaventure, and the writers of the Wildesheim School, and in his treatises may be found summed up the doctrine of the Fathers of the Church, especially of Dionysius the Areopagite, and of Eckart, Suso, Ruysbroeck, and other writers of the German and Flemish Schools. He has been called the last of the Schoolmen, and he is so in the sense that he is the last important Scholastic writer, and that his works may be considered to form a vast encyclopedia, a complete summary of the Scholastic teaching of the Middle Ages; this is their primary characteristic and their chief merit.
His renown for learning, and especially for saintliness, drew upon him considerable intercourse with the outer world. He was consulted as an oracle by men of different social standing, from bishops and princes downwards; they flocked to his cell, and numberless letters came to him from all parts of the Netherlands and Germany. The topic of such correspondence was often the grievous state of the Church in Europe, i.e. the evils ensuing from relaxed morals and discipline and from the invasion of Islam. Deploring those evils he exerted himself to the utmost, like all pious Catholics of that day, to counteract them. For that purpose, soon after the fall of Constantinople (1453), impressed by revelations God made to him concerning the terrific woes threatening Christendom, he wrote a letter to all the princes of Europe, urging them to amend their lives, to cease their dissensions, and to join in war against their common enemy, the Turks. A general council being in his eyes the only means of procuring serious reform, he exhorted all prelates and others to unite their efforts to bring it about. He wrote also a series of treatises, laying down rules of Christian living for churchmen and for laymen of every rank and profession. “De doctrines et regulis vitae Christianae”, the most important of these treatises, was written at the request, and for the use, of the famous Franciscan preacher John Bruginan. These and others which he wrote of a similar import, inveighing against the vices and abuses of the time, insisting on the need of a general reform, and showing how it was to be effected, give a curious insight into the customs, the state of society, and ecclesiastical life of that period. To refute Mohammedanism he wrote two treatises: “Contra perfidiam Mahometi”, at the request of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa. The latter, named papal legate by Nicholas V to reform the Church in Germany and to preach a crusade against the Turks, took Denys with him during a part, if not the whole, of his progress (January, 1451-March, 1452), and received from his tongue and his pen valuable assistance, especially in the work of reforming monasteries and of rooting out magical and superstitious practices. This mission was not the only charge which drew Denys from his much-loved cell. He was for some time (about 1459) procurator of his monastery, and in July, 1466, was appointed to superintend the building of a monastery at Bois-le-Duc. A three-year struggle against the inextricable difficulties of the new foundation broke down his health, alre Idy impaired by a long life of ceaseless work and privations, and he was obliged to return to Roermond in 1469. His treatise “De Meditatione” bears the date of the same year and was the last he wrote.
The immense literary activity of Denys had never been detrimental to his spirit of prayer. On the contrary he always found in study a powerful help to contemplation; the more he knew, the more he loved. While still a novice he had ecstasies which lasted two or three hours, and later on they lasted sometimes seven hours and more. Indeed, towards the end of his life he could not hear the singing of “Veni Sancte Spiritus” or some verses of the Psalms, nor converse on certain devotional subjects without being lifted off the ground in a rapture of Divine love. Hence posterity has surnamed him “Doctor ecstaticus”. During his ecstasies many things were revealed to him which he made known only when it could profit others, and the same may be said of what he learnt from the souls in purgatory, who appeared to him very frequently, seeking relief through his powerful intercession. Loving souls as he did, it is no wonder that he should have become odious to the great hater of souls. His humility responded to his learning, and his morti fication, especially with regard to food and sleep, far excelled what the generality of men can attain to. It is true that in point of physical austerities, virtue was assisted by a strong constitution, for he was a man of athletic build and had, as he said, “an iron head and a brazen stomach”.
During the last two years of his life he suffered intensely and with heroic patience from paralysis, stone, and other infirmities. He had been a monk for forty-eight years when he died at the age of sixty-nine. Upon his remains being disinterred one hundred and thirty-seven years after, day for day (March 12, 1608), his skull emitted a sweet perfume and the fingers he had most used in writing, i.e. the thumb and forefinger of the right hand, were found in a perfect state of preservation. Although the cause of his beatification has never yet been introduced, St. Francis de Sales, St. Alphonsus Liguori, and other writers of note style him “Blessed”; his life is in the “Acta Sanctorum” of the Bollandists (March 12), and his name is to be found in many martyrologies. An accurate edition of all his works still extant, which will comprise forty-one quarto volumes, is now being issued by the Carthusian Press at Tournai, Belgium.