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§ 28. The New Mysticism.

In joy of inward peace, or sense

Of sorrow over sin,

He is his own best evidence

His witness is within.

—Whittier, Our Master.

At the time when the scholastic method was falling into disrepute and the scandals of the Avignon court and the papal schism were shaking men’s faith in the foundations of the Church, a stream of pure pietism was watering the regions along the Rhine, from Basel to Cologne, and from Cologne to the North Sea. North of the Alps, voices issuing from convents and from the ranks of the laity called attention to the value of the inner religious life and God’s immediate communications to the soul.

To this religious movement has recently been given the name, the Dominican mysticism, on account of the large number of its representatives who belonged to the Dominican order. The older name, German mysticism, which is to be preferred, points to the locality where it manifested itself, and to the language which the mystics for the most part used in their writings. Like the Protestant Reformation, the movement had its origin on German soil, but, unlike the Reformation, it did not spread beyond Germany and the Lowlands. Its chief centres were Strassburg and Cologne; its leading representatives the speculative Meister Eckart, d. 1327, John Tauler, d. 136l, Henry Suso, d. 1366, John Ruysbroeck, d. 1381, Gerrit Groote, d. 1384, and Thomas à Kempis, d. 1471. The earlier designation for these pietists was Friends of God. The Brothers of the Common Life, the companions and followers of Groote, were of the same type, but developed abiding institutions of practical Christian philanthropy. In localities the Beguines and Beghards also breathed the same devotional and philanthropic spirit. The little book called the German Theology, and the Imitation of Christ, were among the finest fruits of the movement. Gerson and Nicolas of Cusa also had a strong mystical vein, but they are not to be classed with the German mystics. With them mysticism was an incidental, not the distinguishing, quality.

The mystics along the Rhine formed groups which, however, were not bound together by any formal organization. Their only bond was the fellowship of a common religious purpose.

Their religious thought was not always homogeneous in its expression, but all agreed in the serious attempt to secure purity of heart and life through union of the soul with God. Mysticism is a phase of Christian life. It is a devotional habit, in contradistinction to the outward and formal practice of religious rules. It is a religious experience in contrast to a mere intellectual assent to tenets. It is the conscious effort of the soul to apprehend and possess God and Christ, and expresses itself in the words, "I live, and yet not I but Christ liveth in me." It is essentially what is now called in some quarters "personal religion." Perhaps the shortest definition of mysticism is the best. It is the love of God shed abroad in the heart.428428    See Inge, Engl. Mystics, p. 37. This author, in his Christian Mysticism, p. 5, gives the definition that mysticism is "the attempt to realize in the thought and feeling the immanence of the temporal in the eternal and of the eternal in the temporal." His statements in another place, The Inner Way, pp. xx-xxii, are more simple and illuminating. The mystical theology is that knowledge of God and of divine things which is derived not from observation or from argument but from conscious experience. The difficulty of giving a precise definition of mysticism is seen in the definitions Inge cites, Christian Mysticism, Appendix A. Comp. Deutsch, p. 632 sq The element of intuition has a large place, and the avenues through which religious experience is reached are self-detachment from the world, self-purgation, prayer and contemplation.

Without disparaging the sacraments or disputing the authority of the Church, the German mystics sought a better way. They laid stress upon the meaning of such passages as "he that believeth in me shall never hunger and he that cometh unto me shall never thirst, " "he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father "and "he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness." The word love figures most prominently in their writings. Among the distinctive terms in vogue among them were Abgeschiedenheit, Eckart’s word for self-detachment from the world and that which is temporal, and Kehr, Tauler’s oft-used word for conversion. They laid stress upon the new birth, and found in Christ’s incarnation a type of the realization of the divine in the soul.

German mysticism had a distinct individuality of its own. On occasion, its leaders quoted Augustine’s Confessions and other works, Dionysius the Areopagite, Bernard and Thomas Aquinas, but they did not have the habit of referring back to human authorities as had the Schoolmen, bulwarking every theological statement by patristic quotations, or statements taken from Aristotle. The movement arose like a root out of a dry ground at a time of great corruption and distraction in the Church, and it arose where it might have been least expected to arise. Its field was the territory along the Rhine where the heretical sects had had representation. It was a fresh outburst of piety, an earnest seeking after God by other paths than the religious externalism fostered by sacerdotal prescriptions and scholastic dialectics. The mystics led the people back from the clangor and tinkling of ecclesiastical symbolisms to the refreshing springs of water which spring up into everlasting life.

Compared with the mysticism of the earlier Middle Ages and the French quietism of the seventeenth century, represented by Madame Guyon, Fénelon and their predecessor the Spaniard Miguel de Molinos, German mysticism likewise has its own distinctive features. The religion of Bernard expressed itself in passionate and rapturous love for Jesus. Madame Guyon and Fénelon set up as the goal of religion a state of disinterested love, which was to be reached chiefly by prayer, an end which Bernard felt it scarcely possible to reach in this world.

The mystics along the Rhine agreed with all genuine mystics in striving after the direct union of the soul with God. They sought, as did Eckart, the loss of our being in the ocean of the Godhead, or with Tauler the undisturbed peace of the soul, or with Ruysbroeck the impact of the divine nature upon our nature at its innermost point, kindling with divine love as fire kindles. With this aspiration after the complete apprehension of God, they combined a practical tendency. Their silent devotion and meditation were not final exercises. They were moved by warm human sympathies, and looked with almost reverential regard upon the usual pursuits and toil of men. They approached close to the idea that in the faithful devotion to daily tasks man may realize the highest type of religious experience.

By preaching, by writing and circulating devotional works, and especially by their own examples, they made known the secret and the peace of the inner life. In the regions along the lower Rhine, the movement manifested itself also in the care of the sick, and notably in schools for the education of the young. These schools proved to be preparatory for the German Reformation by training a body of men of wider outlook and larger sympathies than the mediaeval convent was adapted to rear.

For the understanding of the spirit and meaning of German mysticism, no help is so close at hand as the comparison between it and mediaeval scholasticism. This religious movement was the antithesis of the theology of the Schoolmen; Eckart and Tauler of Thomas Aquinas, the German Theology of the endless argumentation of Duns Scotus, the Imitation of Christ of the cumbersome exhaustiveness of Albertus Magnus. Roger Bacon had felt revulsion from the hairsplitting casuistries of the Schoolmen, and given expression to it before Eckart began his activity at Cologne. Scholasticism had trodden a beaten and dusty highway. The German mystics walked in secluded and shady pathways. For a catalogue of dogmatic maxims they substituted the quiet expressions of filial devotion and assurance. The speculative element is still prominent in Eckart, but it is not indulged for the sake of establishing doctrinal rectitude, but for the nurture of inward experience of God’s operations in the soul. Godliness with these men was not a system of careful definitions, it was a state of spiritual communion; not an elaborate construction of speculative thought, but a simple faith and walk with God. Not processes of logic but the insight of devotion was their guide.429429    It is quite in keeping with this contrast that Pfleiderer, in his Religionsphilosophie, excludes the German mystics from a place in the history of German philosophy on the ground that their thinking was not distinctly systematic. He, however, gives a brief statement to Eckart, but excludes Jacob Boehme. As Loofs has well said, German mysticism emphasized above all dogmas and all external works the necessity of the new birth.430430    Dogmengesch., p. 631. It also had its dangers. Socrates had urged men not to rest hopes upon the Delphian oracle, but to listen to the voice in their own bosoms. The mystics, in seeking to hear the voice of God speaking in their own hearts, ran peril of magnifying individualism to the disparagement of what was common to all and of mistaking states of the overwrought imagination for revelations from God.431431    Nicoll, Garden of Nuts, p. 31, says, "We study the mystics to learn from them. It need not be disguised that there are great difficulties in the way. The mystics are the most individual of writers," etc.

Although the German mystical writers have not been quoted in the acts of councils or by popes as have been the theologies of the Schoolmen, they represented, if we follow the testimonies of Luther and Melanchthon, an important stage in the religious development of the German people, and it is certainly most significant that the Reformation broke out on the soil where the mystics lived and wrought, and their piety took deep root. They have a perennial life for souls who, seeking devotional companionship, continue to go back to the leaders of that remarkable pietistic movement.

The leading features of the mysticism of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries may be summed up in the following propositions.

1. Its appeals were addressed to laymen as well as to clerics.

2. The mystics emphasized instruction and preaching, and, if we except Suso, withdrew the emphasis which had been laid upon the traditional ascetic regulations of the Church. They did not commend buffetings of the body. The distance between Peter Damiani and Tauler is world-wide.

3. They used the New Testament more than they used the Old Testament, and the words of Christ took the place of the Canticles in their interpretations of the mind of God. The German Theology quotes scarcely a single passage which is not found in the New Testament, and the Imitation of Christ opens with the quotation of words spoken by our Lord. Eckart and Tauler dwell upon passages of the New Testament, and Ruysbroeck evolves the fulness of his teaching from Matthew 25:6, "Behold the Bridegroom cometh, go ye out to meet him."

4. In the place of the Church, with its sacraments and priesthood as a saving institution, is put Christ himself as the mediator between the soul and God, and he is offered as within the reach of all.

5. A pure life is taught to be a necessary accompaniment of the higher religious experience, and daily exemplification is demanded of that humility which the Gospel teaches.

6. Another notable feature was their use of the vernacular in sermon and treatise. The mystics are among the very earliest masters of German and Dutch prose. In the Introduction to his second edition of the German Theology, Luther emphasized this aspect of their activity when he said, "I thank God that I have heard and find my God in the German tongue as neither I nor they [the adherents of the old way] have found Him in the Latin and Hebrew tongues." In this regard also the mystics of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were precursors of the evangelical movement of the sixteenth century. Their practice was in plain conflict with the judgment of that German bishop who declared that the German language was too barbarous a tongue to be a proper vehicle of religious truth.

The religious movement represented by German and Dutch mysticism is an encouraging illustration that God’s Spirit may be working effectually in remote and unthought-of places and at times when the fabric of the Church seems to be hopelessly undermined with formalism, clerical corruption and hierarchical arrogance and worldliness. It was so at a later day when, in the little and remote Moravian town of Herrnhut, God was preparing the weak things of the world, and the things which were apparently foolish, to confound the dead orthodoxy of German Protestantism and to lead the whole Protestant Church into the way of preaching the Gospel in all the world. No organized body survived the mystics along the Rhine, but their example and writings continue to encourage piety and simple faith toward God within the pale of the Catholic and Protestant churches alike.

A classification of the German mystics on the basis of speculative and practical tendencies has been attempted, but it cannot be strictly carried out.432432    See Preger, I. 8, and Ullmann, Reformatoren, II. 203. Harnack goes far when he denies all originality to the German mystics. Of Eckart he says, Dogmengesch. III. 378, "I give no extracts from his writings because I do not wish to seem to countenance the error that the German mystics expressed anything we cannot read in Origen, Plotinus, the Areopagite, Augustine, Erigena, Bernard and Thomas Aquinas, or that they represented a stage of religious progress." The message they announced was certainly a fresh one to their generation, even if all they said bad been said before. They spoke from the living sources of their own spiritual experience. They were not imitators. Harnack, however, goes on to give credit to the German mystics for fulfilling a mission when he says they are of invaluable worth for the history of doctrine and the church history of Germany. In the same connection he denies the distinction between mysticism and scholastic theology." Mysticism," he asserts, "cannot exist in the Protestant Church, and the Protestant who is a mystic and does not become a Roman Catholic is a dilettante." This condemnation is based upon the untenable premise that mysticism is essentially conventual, excluding sane intellectual criticism and a practical out-of-doors Christianity. In Eckart and Ruysbroeck, the speculative element was in the ascendant; in Tauler, the devotional; in Suso, the emotional; in Groote and other men of the Lowlands, the practical.


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