The Friend of God from the Oberland

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The Friend of God from the Oberland (Der Gottesfreund vom Oberland, sometimes translated as "the friend of God from the Upland," or "the mysterious layman from the Oberland") was the name of a figure in Middle Age German mysticism, associated with the Friends of God and the conversion of Johannes Tauler. His name comes from the Bernese Oberland.

In Story of the First Four Years of a New Life, Rulman Merswin writes: "Of all the wonderful works which God had wrought in me I was not allowed to tell a single word to anybody until the time when it should please God to reveal to a man in the Oberland to come to me. When he came to me God gave me the power to tell him everything." The identity and personality of this "Friend of God," who looms so largely in the great collection of mystical literature, and is everywhere treated as a half supernatural character, is one of the most difficult problems in the history of mysticism.

The accounts of his life say that about 1343 he was forbidden to reveal his identity to anyone save Rulman Merswin. As all the writings bear the marks of a single authorship it has been assumed, especially by Denifle, that "the Friend of God" is a literary creation of Merswin and that Merswin (and his school) produced the entire body of work as tendency literature designed to set forth the ideals of the movement to which he had given his life. Thus "the great unknown" from the Oberland is the ideal character, "who illustrates how God does his work for the world and for the Church through a divinely trained and spiritually illuminated layman," just as William Langland in England about the same time drew the figure of Piers Plowman. There is much in this contention that is sound, but Rieder seems to go unnecessarily far in denying altogether that Merswin wrote any of the mystical books. The conclusion remains that the literature must be treated as tendency writing and not as genuine biography and history.

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Further reading[edit]

  • Rufus M. Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion, ch. xiii. (London, 1909).
  • Karl Schmidt, Nicolaus von Basel (Vienna, 1866) This book reflects a tradition, dating from the 15th century, which identified the “Friend” with Nicholas of Basel. This tradition is now discredited by all scholars.
  • A. Jundt Les Amis de Dieu (1879) This book shared Preger's view that the Friend was a great unknown who lived in or near Chur (Coire) in Switzerland.
  • Henry Denifle Der Gottesfreund im Oberlande und Nikolaus von Basel (1870) The researches documented here have led to the growing belief that the “Friend” is not a real person at all, but a literary invention.
  • Wilhelm Rath, The Friend of God From the High Lands - His Life According to the Records of the St. John's Hospice, the 'Green Island', in Strasbourg. Translated By Roland Everett. Publisher: Hawthorn Books, Date Published: 1991, ISBN 978-1-869890-34-6, ISBN 1-869890-34-5 (Original German title: Der Gottesfreund vom Oberland, Verlag Freies Geistesleben, 4. Auflage, 1985.) Written from an anthroposophical point of view. Rath was an early follower of Rudolf Steiner, also established one of the first bio-dynamic farms, Gut Farrach, in Carinthia, Austria, in 1935. He was also a friend or even a relative of Walther Eidlitz, who wrote extensively about Theistic Vedanta of the Gaudiya Vaishnava (Krishna Caitanya's acintya bheda abheda).

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