Henry Suso (also called Amandus, a name adopted in his writings, and Heinrich Seuse in German) was a German mystic, born at Überlingen on Lake Constance, certainly on 21 March, and perhaps between 1295 and 1297, or c.1300; he died at Ulm on 25 January 1366.
Suso's original name was Heinrich von Berg, his father being a Herr von Berg who belonged to the noble family of Berg. Later, out of veneration for his mother, he took his mother's family name, which was Sus (or Süs). When thirteen years of age he entered the Dominican convent at Constance, where he made his preparatory, philosophical, and theological studies.
In the prologue to his Life, Suso recounts how after about five years in the convent (in other words, when about eighteen), he experienced a conversion to a deeper form of religious life through the intervention of Divine Wisdom. He made himself "the Servant of the Eternal Wisdom", which he identified with the Divine essence and, in a concrete form, with the personal Eternal Wisdom made man. Henceforth a burning love for the Eternal Wisdom dominated his thoughts and controlled his actions. He had frequent visions and ecstasies, practised severe austerities (which he prudently moderated in maturer years), and bore with rare patience corporal afflictions, bitter persecutions, and grievous calumnies.
He was then sent on for further studies in philosophy and theology, probably first at the Dominican house in Strasbourg, perhaps between 1319 and 1321, and then from 1324 to 1327 took a supplementary course in theology in the Dominican studium generale at Cologne, where he would have come into contact with Meister Eckhart, and probably also Johannes Tauler, both celebrated mystics. Returning to his home convent at Constance in about 1327, he was appointed to the office of lector. 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 travelled 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 convents of women, particularly in the Dominican convent of Katharinental, a famous nursery of mysticism in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In the mid-1330s, during his visits to houses of Dominican nuns and beguines, Suso became acquainted with Elisabeth Stagel, a young woman who had joined the convent at Töss. The two clearly became close friends. Elisabeth turned some of his Latin 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. We know he was transferred to the convent at Ulm in about 1348. He seems to have remained here for the rest of his life. Here, during his final years (possibly 1361-3), he edited his four vernacular works into The Exemplar. He died on 25 January 1366.
In the world he was esteemed as a preacher, and was heard in the cities and towns of Swabia, Switzerland, Alsace, and the Netherlands. His apostolate, however, was not with the masses, but rather with individuals of all classes who were drawn to him by his singularly attractive personality, and to whom he became a personal director in the spiritual life.
It has often been incorrectly said that he established among the Friends of God a society which he called the Brotherhood of the Eternal Wisdom. The so-called Rule of the Brotherhood of the Eternal Wisdom is but a free translation of a chapter of his Horologium Sapientiae, and did not make its appearance until the fifteenth century.
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Suso and his friend 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.
The first writing from the pen of Suso was the Büchlein der Wahrheit (Little Book of Truth) written between 1327 and 1334 in Constance. This was a short defence of the teaching of Meister Eckhart, who had been tried for heresy and condemned in 1326-9. In 1330 this treatise and another (possibly the Little Book of Eternal Wisdom) were denounced as heretical by Dominican opponents, leading Suso to travel to the Dominican General Chapter held at Maastricht in 1330 to defend himself.
Suso's subsequent book, Das Büchlein der ewigen Weisheit (The Little Book of Eternal Wisdom), published c1328-1330, is less speculative and more practical. At some point between 1334 and 1337 Suso translated this work into Latin, but in doing so added considerably to its contents, and made of it an almost entirely new book, to which he gave the name Horologium Sapientiae (Clock of Wisdom). This book was dedicated to the new Dominican master general, Hugh of Vaucemain, who appears to have been a supporter.
At some point in the following decades, Elisabeth Stagel formed a collection of twenty-eight of Suso's letters (Grosses Briefbuch/Great Book of Letters) which survives. Also, Suso wrote the story of his inner life (variously referred to as his Life of the Servant, Life, Vita, or Leben Seuses), and revised the Büchlein der Wahrheit, and the Büchlein der ewigen Weisheit. At some point in his later years, perhaps 1361-3, he edited these works, together with eleven of his letters (the Briefbüchlein, or Little Book of Letters, a selection of letters from the Grosses Briefbuch), and a prologue, to form one book known as the Exemplar Seuses (The Exemplar).
There are also various sermons attributed to Suso, although only two appear to be authentic. A treatise known as the Minnebüchlein (Little Book of Love) is sometimes, but probably incorrectly, attributed to Suso.
Suso was clearly widely read in the later Middle Ages. There exist 232 manuscripts of the Little Book of Wisdom. The Clock of Wisdom was even more popular: over four hundred manuscripts in Latin, over two hundred manuscripts in translation (the Clock was translated into eight languages, including Dutch, French, Italian and English), and many early printings survive. The Clock was therefore second only to the Imitation of Christ in popularity among spiritual writings of the later Middle Ages. There also survive fifteen manuscripts containing all or part of The Exemplar, 232 manuscripts of the Little Book of Wisdom, and 43 of the Life. Among his readers and admirers were Thomas à Kempis and St. Peter Canisius.
Suso is called by Wolfgang Wackernagel and others a "Minnesinger in prose and in the spiritual order." The mutual love of God and man which is his principal theme gives warmth and colour 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. His intellectual equipment was characteristic of the schoolmen of his age. In his doctrine there was never the least trace of an unorthodox tendency. Suso is the poet of the early mystic movement, "the Minnesinger of Gottesminne." But his faith is purely medieval in tone, inspired by the romanticism of the age of chivalry; the individualism, the philosophic insight and the anti-clerical tendencies which made the mystic movement in its later manifestations so important a forerunner of the Reformation are absent in Suso.
It is said that Suso often subjected himself to extreme forms of mortifications. He devised for himself several painful devices. Some of these were an undergarment studded with a hundred and fifty brass nails, sharpened and so fixed as to pierce his skin, gloves with sharp tacks in order to discourage him from disturbing the noxious insects with which his body teemed; a very uncomfortable door to sleep on and a cross with thirty protruding needles and nails just under his body. In addition, in winters he slept on the bare floor of his cell and froze, his body covered with scars and his throat parched with thirst. Over a period of twenty-five years he never took a bath.
He was declared Blessed in 1831 by Gregory XVI, who assigned his feast in the Dominican Order to 2 March. The Dominicans now celebrate his feast on 23 January, the feria, or "free" day, nearest the day of his death.
- Henry Suso, Das Buch von dem Diener (The Life of the Servant), ed. K. Bihlmeyer, Heinrich Seuse. Deutsche Schriften, 1907; trans. F. Tobin, The Exemplar, with Two German Sermons, New York: Paulist Press, 1989, pp61–204.
- Henry Suso, Das Büchlein der ewigen Weisheit (The Little Book of Eternal Wisdom), ed. K. Bihlmeyer, Heinrich Seuse. Deutsche Schriften, 1907; trans. F. Tobin, The Exemplar, with Two German Sermons, New York: Paulist Press, 1989, pp204–304.
- Henry Suso, Das Büchlein der Wahrheit (The Little Book of Truth), ed. K. Bihlmeyer, Heinrich Seuse. Deutsche Schriften, 1907; trans. F. Tobin, The Exemplar, with Two German Sermons, New York: Paulist Press, 1989, pp305–332.
- Henry Suso, Das Briefbüchlein (The Little Book of Letters), ed. K. Bihlmeyer, Heinrich Seuse. Deutsche Schriften, 1907, pp360–393; trans. F. Tobin, The Exemplar, with Two German Sermons, New York: Paulist Press, 1989, pp333–360.
- Henry Suso, Horologium sapientiae (Clock of Wisdom), ed. P. Künzle, Heinrich Seuses Horologium sapientiae, Freiburg: Universitatsverlag, 1977; trans. Edmund Colledge Wisdom's Watch upon the Hours Catholic University of America Press (1994)
- Henry Suso, The Great Book of Letters, ed. K. Bihlmeyer, Heinrich Seuse. Deutsche Schriften, 1907, pp405–494.
- Sermons 1 and 4 (those now recognised as authentic) are published in English translation in The Exemplar, with Two German Sermons, trans. F. Tobin, (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), pp361–376.
- Bernard McGinn, The Harvest of Mysticism, (2005), p197.
- Bernard McGinn, The Harvest of Mysticism, (2005), p198.
- Bernard McGinn, The Harvest of Mysticism, (2005), p.198.
- Bernard McGinn, The Harvest of Mysticism, (2005), p.204.
- Bernard McGinn, The Harvest of Mysticism, (2005), p.201.
- Bernard McGinn, The Harvest of Mysticism, (2005), p199.
- www.philosophy, r. o. (2004). "Internal Suffering and Christianity." available from http://www.philosophy-religion.org/criticism/suffering.htm
- Haas, A. (1971) Nim din selbes war. Studien zur Lehre von der Selbsterkenntnis bei Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler und Heinrich Seuse, Freiburg: Universitatsverlag.
- Kieckhefer, R. (1984) Unquiet Souls: Fourteenth-Century Saints and Their Religious Milieu, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Filthaut, E.M. (ed.) (1966) Seuse-Studien: Heinrich Seuse. Studien zum 600. Todestag, 1366-1966, Cologne: Albertus Magnus Verlag
- McGinn, Bernard (2005), The Harvest of Mysticism, pp191–239
- Newman, B. (2003) God and the Goddesses, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press
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