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§ 31. Henry Suso.

Henry Suso, 1295?-1366, a man of highly emotional nature, has on the one hand been treated as a hysterical visionary, and on the other as the author of the most finished product of German mysticism. Born on the Lake of Constance, and perhaps in Constance itself, he was of noble parentage, but on the death of his mother, abandoned his father’s name, Berg, and adopted his mother’s maiden name, Seuse, Suso being the Latin form.480480    Bihlmeyer, p. 65, decides for 1295 as the probable date of Suso’s birth. Other writers put it forward to 1300. At thirteen, he entered the Dominican convent at Constance, and from his eighteenth year on gave himself up to the most exaggerated and painful asceticisms. At twenty-eight, he was studying at Cologne, and later at Strassburg.

For supporting the pope against Lewis the Bavarian, the Dominicans in Constance came into disfavor, and were banished from the city. Suso retired to Diessehoven, where he remained, 1339–1346, serving as prior. During this period, he began to devote himself to preaching. The last eighteen years of his life were spent in the Dominican convent at Ulm, where he died, Jan. 25, 1366. He was beatified by Gregory XVI., 1831.

Suso’s constitution, which was never strong, was undermined by the rigorous penitential discipline to which he subjected himself for twenty-two years. An account of it is given in his Autobiography. Its severity, so utterly contrary to the spirit of our time, was so excessive that Suso’s statements seem at points to be almost incredible. The only justification for repeating some of the details is to show the lengths to which the penitential system of the Mediaeval Church was carried by devotees. Desiring to carry the marks of the Lord Jesus, Suso pricked into his bare chest, with a sharp instrument, the monogram of Christ, IHS. The three letters remained engraven there till his dying day and, "Whenever my heart moved," as he said, "the name moved also." At one time he saw in a dream rays of glory illuminating the scar.

He wore a hair shirt and an iron chain. The loss of blood forced him to put the chain aside, but for the hair shirt he substituted an undergarment, studded with 150 sharp tacks. This he wore day and night, its points turned inwards towards his body. Often, he said, it made the impression on him as if he were lying in a nest of wasps. When he saw his body covered with vermin, and yet he did not die, he exclaimed that the murderer puts to death at one stroke, "but alas, O tender God, — zarter Gott,—what a dying is this of mine!" Yet this was not enough. Suso adopted the plan of tying around his neck a part of his girdle. To this he attached two leather pockets, into which he thrust his hands. These he made fast with lock and key till the next morning. This kind of torture he continued to practise for sixteen years, when he abandoned it in obedience to a heavenly vision. How little had the piety of the Middle Ages succeeded in correcting the perverted views of the old hermits of the Nitrian desert, whose stories this Swiss monk was in the habit of reading, and whose austerities he emulated!

God, however, had not given any intimation of disapproval of ascetic discipline, and so Suso, in order further to impress upon his body marks of godliness, bound against his back a wooden cross, to which, in memory of the 30 wounds of Christ, he affixed 30 spikes. On this instrument of torture he stretched himself at night for 8 years. The last year he affixed to it 7 sharp needles. For a long time he went through 2 penitential drills a day, beating with his fist upon the cross as it hung against his back, while the needles and nails penetrated into his flesh, and the blood flowed down to his feet. As if this were not a sufficient imitation of the flagellation inflicted upon Christ, he rubbed vinegar and salt into his wounds to increase his agony. His feet became full of sores, his legs swelled as if he had had the dropsy, his flesh became dry and his hands trembled as if palsied. And all this, as he says, he endured out of the great inner love which he had for God, and our Lord Jesus Christ, whose agonizing pains he wanted to imitate. For 25 years, cold as the winter might be, he entered no room where there was a fire, and for the same period he abstained from all bathing, water baths or sweat baths—Wasserbad und Schweissbad. But even with this list of self-mortifications, Suso said, the whole of the story was not told.

In his fortieth year, when his physical organization had been reduced to a wreck, so that nothing remained but to die or to desist from the discipline, God revealed to him that his long-practised austerity was only a good beginning, a breaking up of his untamed humanity,—Ein Durchbrechen seines ungebrochenen Menschen,—and that thereafter he would have to try another way in order to "get right." And so he proceeded to macerations of the inner man, and learned the lessons which asceticisms of the soul can impart.

Suso nowhere has words of condemnation for such barbarous self-imposed torture, a method of pleasing God which the Reformation put aside in favor of saner rules of piety.

Other sufferings came upon Suso, but not of his own infliction. These he bore with Christian submission, and the evils involved he sought to rectify by services rendered to others. His sister, a nun, gave way to temptation. Overcoming his first feelings of indignation, Suso went far and near in search of her, and had the joy of seeing her rescued to a worthy life, and adorned with all religious virtues. Another cross he had to bear was the charge that he was the father of an unborn child, a charge which for a time alienated Henry of Nördlingen and other close friends. He bore the insinuation without resentment, and even helped to maintain the child after it was born.

Suso’s chief writings, which abound in imagery and comparisons drawn from nature, are an Autobiography,481481    It contains 53 chapters. Diepenbrock’s ed., pp. 137-306; Bihlmeyer’s ed., pp. 1-195. Diepenbrock’s edition has the advantage for the modern reader of being transmuted into modern German. and works on The Eternal Wisdom—Büchlein von der ewigen Weisheit — and the Truth—Büchlein von der Wahrheit. To these are to be added his sermons and letters.

The Autobiography came to be preserved by chance. At the request of Elsbet Staglin, Suso told her a number of his experiences. This woman, the daughter of one of the leading men of Zürich, was an inmate of the convent of Tosse, near Winterthur. When Suso discovered that she had committed his conversations to writing, he treated her act as "a spiritual theft," and burnt a part of the manuscript. The remainder he preserved, in obedience to a supernatural communication, and revised. Suso appears in the book as "The Servant of the Eternal Wisdom."

The Autobiography is a spiritual self-revelation in which the author does not pretend to follow the outward stages of his career. In addition to the facts of his religious experience, he sets forth a number of devotional rules containing much wisdom, and closes with judicious and edifying remarks on the being of God, which he gave to Elsbet in answer to her questions.482482    A translation of these definitions is given by Inge, in Light,Life and Love, pp. 66-82..

The Book of the Eternal Wisdom, which is in the form of a dialogue between Christ, the Eternal Wisdom, and the writer, has been called by Denifle, who bore Suso’s name, the consummate fruit of German mysticism. It records, in German,483483    Suso made a revision of his work in Latin under the title Horologium eternoe sapientiae, a copy of which Tauler seems to have had in his possession. Preger, II. 324 meditations in which use is made of the Scriptures. Here we have a body of experimental theology such as ruled among the more pious spirits in the German convents of the fourteenth century.

Suso declares that one who is without love is as unable to understand a tongue that is quick with love as one speaking in German is unable to understand a Fleming, or as one who hears a report of the music of a harp is unable to understand the feelings of one who has heard the music with his own ears. The Saviour is represented as saying that it would be easier to bring back the years of the past, revive the withered flowers or collect all the droplets of rain than to measure the love—Minne — he has for men.

The Servant, after lamenting the hardness of heart which refuses to be moved by the spectacle of the cross and the love of God, seeks to discover how it is that God can at once be so loving and so severe. As for the pains of hell, the lost are represented as exclaiming, "Oh, how we desire that there might be a millstone as wide as the earth and reaching to all parts of heaven, and that a little bird might alight every ten thousand years and peck away a piece of stone as big as the tenth part of a millet seed and continue to peck away every ten thousandth year until it had pecked away a piece as big as a millet seed, and then go on pecking at the same rate until the whole stone were pecked away, so only our torture might come to an end; but that cannot be."

Having dwelt upon the agony of the cross and God’s immeasurable love, the bliss of heaven and the woes of hell, Suso proceeds to set forth the dignity of suffering. He had said in his Autobiography that "every lover is a martyr,"484484    Bihlmeyer’s ed., p. 13. and here the Eternal Wisdom declares that if all hearts were become one heart, that heart could not bear the least reward he has chosen to give in eternity as a compensation for the least suffering endured out of love for himself .... This is an eternal law of nature that what is true and good must be harvested with sorrow. There is nothing more joyous than to have endured suffering. Suffering is short pain and prolonged joy. Suffering gives pain here and blessedness hereafter. Suffering destroys suffering—Leiden tödtet Leiden. Suffering exists that the sufferer may not suffer. He who could weigh time and eternity in even balances would rather he in a glowing oven for a hundred years than to miss in eternity the least reward given for the least suffering, for the suffering in the oven would have an end, but the reward is forever.

After dwelling upon the advantages of contemplation as the way of attaining to the heavenly life, the Eternal Wisdom tells Suso how to die both the death of the body and the soul; namely, by penance and by self-detachment from all the things of the earth—Entbrechen von allen Dingen. An unconverted man is introduced in the agonies of dying. His hands grow cold, his face pales, his eyes begin to lose their sight. The prince of terrors wrestles with his heart and deals it hard blows. The chill sweat of death creeps over his body and starts haggard fears. "O angry countenance of the severe Judge, how sharp are thy judgments!" he exclaims. In imagination, or with real sight, he beholds the host of black Moors approaching to see whether he belongs to them, and then the beasts of hell surrounding him. He sees the hot flames rising up above the denizens of purgatory, and hears them cry out that the least of their tortures is greater than the keenest suffering endured by martyr on the earth. And that a day there is as a hundred years. They exclaim, "Now we roast, now we simmer and now we cry out in vain for help." The dying man then passes into the other world, calling out for help to the friends whom he had treated well on the earth, but in vain.

The treatise, which closes with excellent admonitions on the duty of praising God continually, makes a profound spiritual impression, but it presents only one side of the spiritual life, and needs to be supplemented and expurgated in order to present a proper picture. Christ came into the world that we might have everlasting life now, and that we might have abundance of life, and that his joy might remain in us and our joy might be full. The patient endurance of suffering purifies the soul and the countenance, but suffering is not to be counted as always having a sanctifying power, much less is it to be courted. Macerations have no virtue of themselves, and patience in enduring pain is only one of the Christian virtues, and not their crown. Love, which is the bond of perfectness, finds in a cheerful spirit, in hearty human fellowships and in well-doing also, its ministries. The mediaeval type of piety turned the earth into a vale of tears. It was cloistral. For nearly 30 years, as Suso tells us, he never once broke through the rule of silence at table.485485    Autobiog., ch. XIV, Bihlmeyer’s, ed., p. 38 Innocent III. could write, just before becoming world-ruler, a treatise on the contempt of the world. The piety of the modern Church is of a cheerful type, and sees good everywhere in this world which God created. Suso’s piety was what the Germans have called the mysticism of suffering—die Mystik des Leidens. His way of self-inflicted torture was the wrong way. In going, however, with Suso we will not fail to reach some of the heights of religious experience and to find nearness to God.

Suso kept company with the Friends of God, and acknowledged his debt to Eckart, "the high teacher," "his high and holy master," from whose "sweet teachings he had taken deep draughts." As he says in his Autobiography, he went to Eckart in a time of spiritual trial, and was helped by him out of the hell of distress into which he had fallen. He uses some of Eckart’s distinctive vocabulary, and after the Cologne rnystic’s death, Suso saw him "in exceeding glory" and was admonished by him to submission. This quality forms the subject of Suso’s Book on the Truth, which in part was meant to be a defence of his spiritual teacher.

A passage bearing on the soul’s union with Christ will serve as a specimen of Suso’s tropical style, and may fitly close this chapter. The soul, so the Swiss mystic represents Christ as saying—

"the soul that would find me in the inner closet of a consecrated and self-detached life,—abgeschiedenes Leben,—and would partake of my sweetness, must first be purified from evil and adorned with virtues, be decked with the red roses of passionate love, with the beautiful violets of meek submission, and must be strewn with the white lilies of purity. It shall embrace me with its arms, excluding all other loves, for these I shun and flee as the bird does the cage. This soul shall sing to me the song of Zion, which means passionate love combined with boundless praise. Then I will embrace it and it shall lean upon my heart."486486    Von der ewigen Weisheit, Bihlmeyer’s ed., p. 296 sq.


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