Great Dominicans: Bl. Henry Suso – The Acceptable Face of German Mysticism?
The Fourteenth Century Dominican, Henry Suso, is one of a trinity of famous Dominican “Founding Fathers” of German Mysticism, a form of spirituality prevalent in German speaking lands 1250-1470. The other two “Founding Fathers” were his teacher, Meister Eckhart, and his contemporary John Tauler. Of the three, Suso is the only one to have been Beatified: Pope Gregory XVI confirmed his veneration in 1831 on account of sustained popular devotion. Who was this German mystic? What makes him different to Meister Eckhart? Is he anything more than the acceptable face of German mystical theology?
Suso was born in Constance, we think, but he might have been born on the other side of the lake at Ueberlingen in Swabia. His father was Count von Berg but he took his Mother’s name instead and seemingly eschewed the more obvious worldly path as a courtier before him. One is tempted to think of him as something of a “mummy’s boy”. Yet what “mummy’s boy” would leave the comfort of his home and enter a fairly austere life with the Dominicans at the young age of 13, some two years earlier than the stipulated age? Suso, it seems, had was made of strong mettle. Indeed, in his early life, he would subject himself to eye-watering practices such as lying of a bed of thirty nails in cruciform shape.
At the age of about 18 he experienced a deeper form of spiritual conversion. From 1324 to 1327, he studied at the studium generale in Cologne. It was at Cologne that Suso fatefully came into contact with Eckhart, shortly before the latter’s death in c.1328. After Cologne, Suso returned to his home Priory at Constance. He became a lector but found himself in hot water over his defence of Eckhart, such as can be found in his “Little Book of Truth”, a short defence of Eckhart’s teching. He defended himself at a General Chapter of the Order at Maastricht in 1330. Luckily for Suso, the General Chapter seemed more concerned about the problems within the Franciscans and the schismatic acts of fr. Michael of Cesena than suspect theology from within their own ranks.
The Dominicans left Constance in 1348 in order to avoid swearing allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor, Louis of Bavaria, in the midst of a feud between the Empire and Pope John XXII. After nearly being murdered in a Rhineland village in a bizarre affair in which he was accused of poisoning the village well, he finally settled at Ulm, where after serving as Prior, he later died on 25th January 1365.
In his writings, Suso bequeathed us with a rich and intensely personal spirituality in which he stresses a self-emptying of oneself in order to allow the pouring in of God. Acts of self-surrender make us more like Christ, who made the ultimate sacrifice for our redemption. I couldn’t help think in reading Suso that there is much in his thinking that could be considered a precursor to St. John of the Cross; they explore similar themes of spiritual darkness in poetic form. Frank Tobin has described Suso, as having the ultimate aim of putting spiritual truths in literary form. His Vita, which despite its Latin title was written in German and is known in English as “The Life of the Servant”, can be seen as a continuation of an autobiographical tradition in spiritual writing that has strong echoes of St. Augustine’s Confessions. It should be said, however, that the work is said to be a joint-enterprise with Elisabeth Stagel, Dominican Nun and friend to Suso, who was sometime Prioress at Toss. Some doubt whether Suso had any hand in the work at all.
Suso was altogether more qualified and guarded than Eckhart. After an early scare with suspicion, he seems to have taken greater care not to be misconstrued or misunderstood, whilst retaining a focus on the interior life, and themes of detachment, discernment, freedom and mystical union. He was, we might say, less speculative than Eckhart, and more careful. In striving to combine mystical devotion with sound doctrine, Suso is much more than simply the acceptable face of German mysticism; his writings are a treasury for us to mine and his life. And if like me, you find the Swabian dialect of High Medieval German rather taxing, there are some excellent translations.