“Henry Suso (c. 1300 – 1366) studied theology under Meister Eckhart in Cologne. But Eckhart was more than a teacher to him: there is a touching account in Suso’s autobiography of how he went to Eckhart when his hypersensitive conscience was tormenting him, and how Eckhart gave him complete peace. He entered the Dominican Order in his native Constance. Some years later he had a profound religious experience which he described in great detail. It was the beginning of a great love story, told with impressive literary skill in the tender language of courtly love…The language of chivalry, parodied in a later century in Don Quixote, was still viable in Suso’s century. ‘Your young unruly heart,’ he said to himself, ‘can scarcely endure to be without a special object of love.’ So he often ‘meditated about her, thinking of her lovingly, and liking her full well with all his heart and soul.’ The mediaeval knight delighted to suffer for the lady he worshipped. Two of his books are written as dialogue, a favourite literary form in the 14th century.”
~Dominicans of Ireland, “Today’s Good News”
Suso was born Heinrich von Berg, a member of the ruling family of Berg. He was born in either the Free imperial city of Überlingen on Lake Constance or nearby Constance, on 21 March 1295, and perhaps on that date up to 1297. Later, out of humility and devotion to his mother, he took her family name, which was Sus (or Süs). At 13 years of age he was admitted to the novitiate of the Dominican Order at their priory in Constance. After completing that year of probation, he advanced to do his preparatory, philosophical, and theological studies there.
In the prologue to his Life, Suso recounts how, after about five years in the monastery (in other words, when he was about 18 years old), he experienced a conversion to a deeper form of religious life through the intervention of Divine Wisdom. He made himself “the Servant of Eternal Wisdom”, which he identified with the divine essence and, in more specific terms, with divine Eternal Wisdom made woman in Christ. From this point forward in his account of his spiritual life, a burning love for Eternal Wisdom dominated his thoughts and controlled his actions; his spiritual journey culminated in a mystical marriage to Christ in the form of the Goddess Eternal Wisdom.
Suso was then sent on for further studies in philosophy and theology, probably first at the Dominican monastery in Strasbourg, perhaps between 1319 and 1321, and then from 1324 to 1327 he took a supplementary course in theology in the Dominican Studium Generale in Cologne, where he would have come into contact with Meister Eckhart, and probably also Johannes Tauler, both celebrated mystics.
Returning to his home priory at Constance in about 1327, Suso was appointed to the office of lector (lecturer). His teaching, however, aroused criticism – most likely because of his connection with Eckhart in the wake of the latter’s trial and condemnation in 1326-9. Suso’s Little Book of Truth, a short defence of Eckhart’s teaching, probably dates from this time, perhaps 1329. In 1330 this treatise, and another, were denounced as heretical by enemies in the Order. Suso traveled to the Dominican General Chapter held at Maastricht in 1330 to defend himself. The consequence is not entirely known – at some point between 1329 and 1334 he was removed from his lectorship in Constance, though he was not personally condemned.
Knowledge of Suso’s activities in subsequent years is somewhat sketchy. It is known that he served as prior of the Constance convent – most likely between 1330 and 1334, though possibly in the 1340s. It is also known that he had various devoted disciples, a group including both men and women, especially those connected to the Friends of God movement. His influence was especially strong in many religious communities of women, particularly in the Dominican Monastery of St. Katharinental in the Argau, a famous nursery of mysticism in the 13th and 14th centuries. In the mid-1330s, during his visits to various communities of Dominican nuns and Beguines, Suso became acquainted with Elsbeth Stagel (see Addendum), prioress of the monastery of Dominican nuns in Töss. The two became close friends. She translated some of his Latin writings into German, collected and preserved most of his extant letters, and at some point began gathering the materials that Suso eventually put together into his Life of the Servant.
Suso shared in the exile of the Dominican community from Constance between 1339 and 1346, during the most heated years of the quarrel between Pope John XXII and the Holy Roman Emperor. He was transferred to the monastery at Ulm in about 1348. He seems to have remained there for the rest of his life. Here, during his final years (possibly 1361-3), he edited his four vernacular works into The Exemplar.
Suso died in Ulm on 25 January 1366.
Early in his life, Suso subjected himself to extreme forms of mortifications; later on he reported that God told him they were unnecessary. During this period, Suso devised for himself several painful devices. Some of these were: an undergarment studded with a hundred and fifty brass nails, a very uncomfortable door to sleep on, and a cross with thirty protruding needles and nails under his body as he slept. In the autobiographical text in which he reports these, however, he ultimately concludes that they are unnecessary distractions from the love of God.
Suso and Johannes Tauler were students of Meister Eckhart. The three form the nucleus of the Rhineland school of mysticism. As a lyric poet and troubadour of divine wisdom, Suso explored with psychological intensity the spiritual truths of Eckhart’s mystical philosophy. Suso was very widely read in the later Middle Ages. Among his readers and admirers were Thomas à Kempis and St. Peter Canisius.
Wolfgang Wackernagel and others called Suso a “Minnesinger in prose and in the spiritual order” or a “Minnesinger of the Love of God” both for his use of images and themes from secular, courtly, romantic poetry and for his rich musical vocabulary.The mutual love of God and man which is his principal theme gives warmth and color to his style. He used the full and flexible Alemannic idiom with rare skill, and contributed much to the formation of good German prose, especially by giving new shades of meaning to words employed to describe inner sensations.
In “Christian Mystics: Their Lives and Legacies Throughout the Ages“, Ursula King wrote:
“Among all the medieval mystics, the Rhineland mystics are perhaps the ones best known today. They are widely accessible and cited more frequently than any others. Their message has a directness and freshness of expression that communicates itself across the centuries…Initially one might expect that all mystics from the Rhine region would be counted as Rhineland mystics…But the term “Rhineland mystics” is customarily used in a more restricted sense. It refers only to the mystics of the fourteenth century who lived in Germany and the Low Countries. It applies particularly to a group of several men—Meister Eckhart, Henry Suso, Johannes Tauler and Jan van Ruusbroec…The most daring and original of the Rhenish mystics was Meister Eckhart, whose disciples were Johannes Tauler and Henry Suso. These three Germans all belonged to the Dominican order. Suso is seen as the most intimate and personal mystic, Tauler was known as an inspiring preacher, whereas the Flemish mystic Jan van Ruusbroec was probably the most profound. These men, deeply involved in the theological debates of their own age, describe the deepest levels of inward experience where God is known in the inner recesses of the human soul, a most intimate presence that is also a transcendence. Their message addresses us so directly because it relates to a search for what is most essential to religion, its deepest, most inward dimension, and it emphasizes a real indwelling of ourselves in God and of God in us. The mysticism of the Rhineland is known in German as Wesensmystik, a mysticism of being or essence.”
“Another Dominican mystic of this period is the Blessed Henry Suso, or Heinrich Seuse, to give him his original German name. The son of a noble Swabian family, he was born near Lake Constance, on the border between Switzerland and Germany. His father was very worldly, his mother deeply devout. As he tells us in his own Life, written in later years, one of his earliest memorable experiences occurred on the death of his mother when he was still young. She appeared in a vision and told him to love God, then kissed and blessed him, and disappeared. Suso’s sense of loneliness and abandonment, his excessive asceticism in later life, harshly maltreating his body in imitation of Christ’s suffering, and his expressions of tender love addressed to God may all have been linked to “starved human affections seeking an outlet,” as Evelyn Underhill has suggested. Suso entered the Dominican order at the age of thirteen, but found monastic life rather difficult until he experienced a conversion and spiritual awakening. He subsequently studied under Eckhart in Cologne and became a devoted follower and great admirer of his beloved teacher. By 1326 Suso was back in Constance, where he wrote his famous Büchlein der Wahrheit, or Little Book of Truth, which is full of mystical reflection…Suso experienced intense mystical states and visions that made him see ultimate reality as eternal, uncreated truth in which all things have their source and being. He goes even beyond Eckhart in his understanding of divine and human oneness—a state in which “something and nothing are the same.”…Suso preached widely in the Upper Rhineland and Switzerland, enjoying great popularity wherever he went…The savage asceticism and austerities that he practiced over many years are vividly described in his Life, where he speaks of himself in the third person…But after some twenty years of severe ascetic practices he abandoned them as nothing more than a beginning on the way to the highest knowledge of God, whose overwhelming beauty he praised with great tenderness: “Ah, gentle God, if Thou art so lovely in Thy creatures, how exceedingly beautiful and ravishing Thou must be in Thyself!… Praise and honor be to the unfathomable immensity that is in Thee!” Suso must have left a deep impression on his contemporaries, for the veneration of the “Blessed Henry Suso” began soon after his death, although officially the Church did not beatify him until 1831.”
Excerpts from his writings:
“An unloving heart can no more understand a love-filled speaker than a German an Italian.”
“Be steadfast and never rest content until you have obtained the Now of Eternity as your present possession in this life.”
“This is the highest goal and the ‘where’ beyond boundaries. In this the spirituality of all spirits ends. Here to lose oneself forever is eternal happiness.”
“To lose oneself forever is eternal happiness.”
“Here in this region beyond thought the human spirit actively soars.”
“In this wild mountain region of the ‘where’ beyond God there is an abyss full of play and feeling for all pure spirits. It is hidden for everything that is not God, except for those with whom he wants to share Himself.”
“In a detached person nothing merely temporal is born in possessiveness. His eyes are opened. He becomes fully aware and, receiving his blessed existence and life, is one with Him; for all things are here one in the One.”
“He becomes fully aware and, receiving his blessed existence and life, is one with Him; for all things are here one in the One One. No one can explain this to another just with words. One knows it by experiencing it.”
“In order to attain perfect union, we must divest ourselves of God.The common belief about God, that He is a great Taskmaster, whose function is to reward or punish, is cast out by perfect love; and in this sense the spiritual man does divest himself of God as conceived of by most people.”
“Eternity is life that is beyond time but includes within itself all time but without a before or after. And whoever is taken into the Eternal Nothing possesses all in all and has no ‘before or after’. Indeed a person taken within today would not have been there for a shorter period from the point of view of eternity than someone who had been taken within a thousand years ago. These people who are taken within, because of their boundless immanent oneness with God, see themselves as always and eternally existing.”
“You and I do not meet on one branch or in one place. You make your way along one path and I along another. Your questions arise from human thinking, and I respond from a knowledge that is far beyond all human comprehension. You must give up human understanding if you want to reach the goal, because the truth is known by not knowing.
After this the disciple turned again in all seriousness to eternal Truth and asked for the power to discern by outward appearance a person who was truly detached. He asked thus. Eternal Truth, how do such people act in relation to various things?
Answer: They withdraw from themselves, and all things withdraw along with this.
Question: How do they conduct themselves with respect to time?
Answer: They exist in an ever-present now, free of selfish intentions, and they seek to act perfectly in the smallest thing as in the greatest.
Question: Paul says that no law is made for the just.
Answer: Just persons, by becoming so, conduct themselves more submissively than other people because they understand from within, in the source, what is proper outwardly for everyone, and they view all things accordingly. The reason that they are unfettered is that they do (freely) out of an attitude of detachment what ordinary people do under compulsion.
Question: Is not the person who has been transported to interior detachment freed from external exercises?
Answer: One sees few people reach the condition you describe without their strength being wasted. The efforts of those who really achieve it affect them to the marrow. And so, when they realise what is to be done and left undone, they continue to practise the usual exercises, performing them more or less frequently as their strength and the occasion permit.
Question: Where do the pangs of conscience and other anxieties of seemingly good people come from, as well as the unrestrained latitude (of conscience) in other people?
Answer: Both types are focusing their attention on their own image but in different ways; the one group spiritually, the other bodily.
Question: Does a detached person remain unoccupied all the time, or what does he or she do?
Answer: The activity of really detached people lies in their becoming detached, and their achievement is to remain unoccupied because they remain calm in action and unconcerned about their achievements.
Question: What is their conduct toward their fellow human beings?
Answer: They enjoy the companionship of people, but without being compromised by them. They love them without attachment, and they show them sympathy without anxious concern – all in true freedom.
Question: Is such a person required to go to confession?
Answer: The confession that is motivated by love is nobler than one motivated by necessity.
Question: What is such people’s prayer like? Are they supposed to pray, too?
Answer: Their prayer is effective because they forestall the influence of the senses. God is spirit and knows whether this person has put an obstacle in the way or whether he or she has acted from selfish impulses. And then a light is enkindled in their highest power, which makes clear that God is the being, life and activity within them and that they are merely instruments.
Question: What are such a person’s eating, drinking and sleeping like?
Answer: Externally, and in keeping with their sensuous nature, the outward person eats. Internally, however, they are as if not eating; otherwise, they would be enjoying food and rest like an animal. This is also the case in other things pertaining to human existence.
Question: What is their external behaviour like?
Answer: They have few mannerisms, and they do not talk a lot; their words are simple and direct. They live modestly so that things pass through them without their involvement. They are composed in their use of the senses.
Question: Are all detached people like this?
Answer: More so or less so, depending on accidental circumstances. Essentially, however, they are the same.
Question: Do such people come to a full knowledge of the truth, or do they remain in the realm of opinion and imagining?
Answer: Since they remain basically human, they continue to have opinions and imaginings. But because they have withdrawn from themselves into that which is, they have a knowledge of all truth; for this is truth itself and they ignore themselves. But let this be enough for you. One does not arrive at the goal by asking questions. It is rather through detachment that one comes to this hidden truth. Amen.
Disciple: Lord, what is true detachment?
Truth: Take note with careful discrimination of these two words: oneself and leave. If you know how to weigh these two words properly, testing their meaning thoroughly to their core and viewing them with true discernment, then you can quickly grasp the truth.
Take, first of all, the first word — oneself or myself — and see what it is. It is important to realize that everyone has five kinds of self. The first self we have in common with a stone, and this is being. The second we share with plants, and this is growing. The third self we share with animals, and this is sensation. The fourth we share with all other human beings: we possess a common human nature in which all are one. The fifth – which belongs to a person exclusively as his or her own – is one’s individual human self…
Now what is it that leads people astray and robs them of happiness? It is exclusively this last self. Because of it a person turns outward, away from God and toward this self, when he or she should be returning inward. Thus they fashion their own selves according to what is accidental. In their blindness they appropriate to themselves what is God’s. This is the direction they take, and they eventually sink into sinfulness.
Disciple: The truth be praised! Dear Lord, tell me, does anything (of this self) still remain in the happy, detached person?
Truth: Without a doubt it happens that, when the good and loyal servant is led into the joy of his Lord, he becomes drunk from the limitless overabundance of God’s house. What happens to a drunken man happens to him, though it cannot really be described, that he so forgets his self that he is not at all his self and consequently has got rid of his self completely and lost himself entirely in God, becoming one spirit in all ways with him, just as a small drop of water does which has been dropped into a large amount of wine. Just as the drop of water loses itself, drawing the taste and colour of the wine to and into itself, so it happens that those who are in full possession of blessedness lose all human desires in an inexpressible manner, and they ebb away from themselves and are immersed completely in the divine will. Otherwise, if something of the individual were to remain of which he or she were not completely emptied, scripture could not be true in stating that God shall become all things in all things. Certainly one’s being remains, but in a different form, in a different resplendence, and in a different power. This is all the result of total detachment from self.
One thing you must know: Just as there is no comparison between actually hearing the sound of harp-strings sweetly plucked and listening to someone talking about it, so too there is no comparison between words which are received in pure grace, issuing from a living heart, spoken by living lips, and those self-same words committed to dry parchment — especially words in German. For these somehow grow chill, losing their vitality like roses cut. For the enchanting melody which, more than anything else, moves human hearts, then fades away, so that the words are received now into the dryness of dry hearts. No harp-strings were ever so sweet but, when stretched across dry timber, they fall silent. An unloving heart can no more understand a love-filled speaker than a German an Italian. Therefore, an eager enquirer should hasten to the out-flowing streams of these sweet teachings so that she may see and observe them at their source in all its living and wondrous beauty – that is, the in-flowing of present grace which is able to restore dead hearts to life.”
Elisabeth or Elsbeth Stagel (c. 1300 – c. 1360) was a Dominican nun and prioress of the Töss Convent. She developed a deep friendship with Henry Suso, and the two remained in active correspondence. Suso considered Stagel his spiritual daughter. During their meetings, Stagel asked Suso to help her understand the pathway to God by sharing with her his own experiences. However, Suso did not know that the well-educated nun was keeping the letters he was sending to her and writing down all that Suso was telling her, which did not include only theology, but also his extreme practices of penance. Stagel gave him her writings when he learned about them and he proceeded to burn them, saving only the second installment of manuscripts for the sake of educating other religious persons. Suso forbade Stagel to imitate him by engaging in extreme asceticism, fearing for her health.
A fourteenth century account of a NDE was recorded in a sister-book of the Toss Convent near Winterthur in Switzerland. This book was the property of Elsbeth Stagel, who may have been its author. It had biographical data of thirty-nine of the nuns who resided there. It was considered a comprehensive insight into mysticism during that time period.
When she was quite elderly, Sofia von Klingnau, one of the nuns mentioned in the sister-book, gave a fellow nun an intimate story of what consoled her in times of strife.
“In the second year after I had taken the vow of obedience, at the feast of the holy nativity, I stayed after midnight Mass in the choir and went behind the altar and leaned against a prayer stand and tried to say my prayers as I was accustomed to doing….And when I reached my bed, I was so very sick that I thought, ‘You are ill again, you had better rest a while.’ And therefore I made the sign of the cross before me and wanted to lie down to rest and said the verse’‘In manus tuas.’
And when I had said it, I saw that a light, beautiful and blissful beyond measure, was coming from heaven, and it surrounded me and shone through me and illuminated me entirely, and my heart was transformed all of a sudden and filled with an unspeakable and strange joy, so that I utterly and completely forgot all the misery and torment that I had even known until this time.”
“The soul is so entirely spiritual a thing that one cannot really compare it to any physical thing. But because you desire it so much, I will give you a parable which may help you understand a little how its form and shape was. It was a round, beautiful, and illuminating light, like the sun, and was of a gold-colored red, and the light was so immeasurably beautiful and blissful that I could not compare it with anything else. For if all the stars in the sky were as big and beautiful as the sun, and if they were all shining together, all their splendor could not compare with the beauty my soul had.”
“And now, when I was in the best and highest joy, my soul began to sink down again, as God willed, until it hovered over the body, which was lying beside the bed like a corpse, and it was granted a delay, so that it did not have to reenter the body immediately, but had to hover for a considerable time over the body, until it had well seen how ugly and ill-formed the body was. And when the soul had gotten a good look at the body, and had seen how deathlike and wretched it was, and how its head and hands and all its limbs lay there like those of a dead person, it pleased her very ill, and seemed to her most loathsome and horrible. And very soon, the soul turned its gaze from the body and gazed on itself. And when it saw itself again and found itself so beautiful and noble and dignified in contrast to the body, it hovered over it, playing with such joy and delight that all hearts together could not imagine it. And just as I was feeling happiest and enjoying itself and God, with whom it saw itself united, it went back into the body, without knowing how.”