1Life in Abundance:
Meister Eckhart & the German
Dominican Mystics of the 14th Century

by Gundolf M. Gieraths, O.P.

Autumn 1986 Vol. 38 Supplement

Life in Abundance


From its earliest days the Dominican Order has placed great emphasis on study and the intellectual development of its members. In the earliest Constitutions, those of 1228, the particular significance of study is clearly emphasized. (1) The Dominican Order was in fact the first not only to recognize study as an essential and even a pre-eminent means, but also the first to regulate it through precise and wise legislation. This strong emphasis on study arose from the very objective of the Order, from its apostolic mission. In contrast to the older orders which sought the sanctification of individuals and society through monastic isolation, St. Dominic conceived the ideal of his order as the care of souls, particularly the care of souls in the newly urbanized society, beset with the new problems of urban life -- since the twelfth-century cities and towns had become centers of activity. Moreover, there had been an awakening of interest in profounder and more intellectual problems, due especially to contact with Eastern culture which had resulted from the Crusades and from trade with the Orient. But the cities were also centers of interest for the heretics. From the Byzantine East came the dualistic error of the Cathari (Albigensians). The city of Lyons became the

center of a religious movement known as Waldensianism, which probably began with good intentions, but which eventually came into sharp conflict with the Church because of its hatred for the hierarchy. These two heresies gave St. Dominic the stimulus to found his order. Dominic wanted to lead those who had gone astray back to the true Church; in establishing his order of priests he wanted to labor first and foremost for the salvation of souls. This goal was to be attained through preaching and teaching, which presuppose thorough study. Consequently, St. Dominic sent his brethren to the universities, and there also he sought his first disciples. In this way the Order of Preachers became associated with the intellectual movements of the period.

Precisely here, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Order encountered a unique and difficult situation. The opposition between theology and secular learning which had prevailed since the eleventh century had not yet disappeared. A reserved and more or less critical attitude toward secular learning appears in the first legislation of the Dominican Order concerning study in 1228: "They shall not study the books of pagans and philosophers, although they may occasionally spend an hour leafing through such works. They shall not engage in the study of secular learning, nor in the so-called liberal arts, unless the General of the Order or a general chapter of the Order make exception for some." (2) Thus, study was to be confined to theology as it had always been taught by the Fathers, especially by St. Augustine.

These provisions, viewed in their historical context, were primarily pedagogical measures taken by the Order against the new learning, which more and more inundated the Christian West from Sicily and Spain in the writings of Constantine the African, Avicenna, Averroes, Moses Maimonides, Algazel, and especially Aristotle. Prior to this time the West knew Aristotle only through his writings on logic, transmitted largely by Boethius. With the beginning of the thirteenth century the West became increasingly acquainted with the "new" Aristotle (through his writings on the natural sciences, ethics, and metaphysics), not always, to be sure, in a pure form, for his works were often distorted and corrupted by translators, that is, by the interpretations and commentaries of Arabs and Jews. These perversions incurred ecclesiastical censure until Aristotle was disengaged and restored to his authentic position. This purification, in the strict sense of the term, was first effected by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, who secured for Aristotle the position of a recognized authority, thereby gaining recognition for philosophy and for the profane sciences corresponding to that of theology. By means of these two great scholars of the Dominican Order medieval thought for the most part was given an Aristotelian orientation.


Upon the writings of the Fathers and Aristotle, interpreted in a Christian sense, St. Thomas Aquinas built his own intellectual structure. This was only gradually accepted, even within the Dominican Order. Even though many general and provincial chapters decreed that the doctrine of St. Thomas should be the accepted teaching in studia of the Order, (3) there were still supporters of the older tradition which went back to Plato and to St. Augustine. The older tradition had become much too familiar. Augustine, pseudo-Denis, and later the Arabs, together with their ideas, which partly concealed neo-Platonic elements, had become so fully incorporated in theology that, even at the height of Scholasticism, the neo-Platonic tradition is conspicuous alongside the pure Aristotelian doctrine. Toward the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth century this neo-Platonism is particularly evident among the German Dominicans. St. Thomas himself is not entirely free of neo-Platonic elements. (4) But above all one notices that the neo-Platonic influence

"originates with Albert the Great, who in his comprehensive selection of material, in his scientific integration and adaptation, also included a wealth of neo-Platonic teaching in his writings. However, two points ought not to be overlooked: first, that Albert definitely rejects neo-Platonic doctrines, and second, that now, quite independent of Albert, the leaning toward neo-Platonism is found in connection with mathematical-physical studies, especially in the optical works of the Silesian Witelo and in the anonymous treatise, De intelligentiis (On the nature of the intellect ), which appeared during the first half of the thirteenth century." (5)

Considering the exalted position Albert occupied in medieval thought, and particularly in the Dominican Order, it is understandable that his doctrine and views were not devoid of influence. Above all he had a lasting influence in Germany where he established neo-Platonism in German Dominican Scholasticism, thereby exercising a determining influence on German mysticism of the fourteenth century, which reached its highest development in the Order of Preachers. German neo-Platonism, originating in Albert's teaching, was first developed in the theological Summa of his favorite disciple, Ulrich Engelbert of Strassburg, who was provincial of the German province from 1272 to 1277. Ulrich's teaching concerning God is closely allied to Albert's unpublished commentary on The Divine Names of pseudo-Denis. Similarly, we find great sympathy for neo-Platonism in the philosophical and scientific writings of the provincial and Master of Theology, Dietrich of Freiberg in Saxony ( after 1310), even though he clearly disagreed with some of Albert's doctrines. Although Thomistic philosophy had broken with neo-Platonism, Dietrich embraced it with all its implications. Krebs (6) considers that one of Dietrich's principal contributions was to show that a Christian neo-Platonism is possible, that is, one which is reconcilable with pure monotheism, including the concept of creation ex nihilo, and compatible with the Church's teaching on grace. This position is most significant, because it was put forth at a time when the danger of pantheism and the denial of the supernatural goal of man were becoming very real. Among the Thomists influenced by neo-Platonism was Meister Eckhart ( 1327), whose works stood very high in German Dominican theology. Likewise Tauler ( 1361) was not entirely free of neo-Platonic ideas. The Dominican, Berthold of Moosburg, who is mentioned as lecturer in the Regensburg convent in 1327, raised a literary Monument to tills neo-Platonic current of the fourteenth century in his huge commentary on the Elementatio theologica of Proclus. A dependence on Meister Eckhart and Berthold of Moosburg can clearly be seen in Nicholas of Cusa. At Cologne the most important representative of the Albertine school at the university, Heimerich of Kampen ( 1460), was influenced by neo-Platonism.

While neo-Platonic tendencies were in the fore in German Dominican theology up to the beginning of the Order's reform toward the end of the fourteenth century, there were several Dominicans at the beginning of this century who were mainly oriented toward Thomism. To this Thomistic current of thought belong John Picardi of Lichtenberg, provincial of the German province of the Order from 1308 to 1310, Henry of Lübeck, who was provincial from 1325 to 1336, the mystics John of Sterngassen, lecturer at Strassburg and at Cologne ( 1314), his brother Gerhard of Sterngassen, who is mentioned as a preacher in Cologne at the beginning of the fourteenth century, and a contemporary, Nicholas of Strassburg, lecturer in the higher faculty at Cologne. It has now been established from manuscripts discovered by Grabmann,(7) that a definite Thomistic current of thought is to be found in the Latin writings of the two Sterrigassens and of Nicholas of Strassburg, and that in these three mystics there is no trace of neo-Platonism. In metaphysics Nicholas of Strassburg depends heavily on St. Thomas, while in his extensive investigations of the natural sciences, he follows the doctrine of St. Albert. As for John of Sterrigassen, it is not improbable that he was an immediate disciple of St. Thomas. Finally, the most beloved of the German mystics of the fourteenth century, Blessed Henry Suso ( 1366), was also a faithful adherent of Thomistic teaching; for him St. Thomas was "the foremost teacher among all teachers." (8)

Thus, two currents of theological thought can be discerned among the German Dominicans of the late thirteenth and the early fourteenth century, two currents which occasionally intermingle: the neo-Platonic current which began with St. Albert the Great and led through Ulrich Engelbert of Strassburg and Dietrich of Freiburg to Meister Eckhart, and the Thomistic current which gathered greater force after the fourteenth century. Both of these two currents, Thomism and neo-Platonism, must be taken into account in order to understand "German mysticism" in the Dominican Order. However, one must remember that "German Mysticism" did not arise from entirely new roots. Rather, the ultimate source was the universal Christian mysticism of earlier centuries. Only in this way can mysticism be seen as an element Of the devout life. Only in this light can we appreciate the particular characteristics of "German mysticism" among the Dominicans of the fourteenth century. We shall now consider the flowering and the decline of German Dominican mysticism.


The word "mysticism" is derived from the Greek verb (myein), meaning to close oneself off, to shut the eyes, or quite generally a closing off of all the senses. From the word itself one would understand a "mystic" to be a person who frees himself from all external impressions, one who severs all channels to the outside world, one who turns away from all perceptions of sense, in order to submerge himself completely in the infinity of God and to hold therein intimate conversation with him.

The function and aim of all mysticism is the union of the soul with God. Mysticism turns around the central theme of "God and the soul"; it is concerned with the possession of God within the very depths of the soul. According to Krebs it is "the realization or experience of the soul's union with God through grace, in which, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially the gifts of understanding and wisdom, the knowledge of divine truths is deepened and clarified to the point of simple intuition or contemplation of the truth, the love of God and man is wondrously increased and inflamed, often inflamed to very heroic purposes, and joy in God is intensified to a foretaste of eternal happiness." (9) Common to all the mystics is a passionate pursuit of God. Speculative mysticism is intent on studying the union of the soul with God, while practical mysticism tries to attain this union. Sacred Scripture forms the foundation of mysticism, the Fathers of the Church, especially St. Augustine and pseudo-Denis, give it support, while practical information is to be found in the autobiographical descriptions of those who have experienced this union.


Starting with the fact that our earthly life is a pilgrimage, a journey from a foreign land to our homeland, the program of the mystical life was seen to lie in renunciation of all earthly goods (Luke 14:33), in universal denial of self, bearing the cross patiently and following Christ (Matt. 16:24), in order to arrive at that final goal where God is seen face to face, just as he is (I Cor 13:12; 1 John 3:2). In keeping with many of the Church Fathers, this pilgrimage toward our true home was divided into three stages, which were generally described as the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive ways according to the classification of pseudo-Denis. By the purgative way is understood the active and passive detachment from all worldly things, the illuminative way is contemplation through the grace of wisdom, and the unitive way is none other than the volitional and intellectual union with God in the soul's innermost depths. Briefly and with classic perfection Suso describes the mystical way in the well-known phrase: "A recollected person must be unformed of the creature (purgative way), become informed with Christ (illuminative way), and transformed into God (unitive way)." (10) In another passage Suso says: "You should desire nothing else except that God should remove all impediments from your path, and that he should unite you to himself at all times without impediment." (11)The way in which Eckhart summarizes the process and goal of the mystical life is likewise characteristic: "If God is to enter, the creature must get out." (12) Quotations such as these could be multiplied indefinitely. Repeatedly the mystics present the challenge, namely, of wrenching the heart free of all inordinate attachment to the world, self-denial and tranquility in the face of all earthly things, that the soul may be free and open to God.

In their description of the three stages the mystics appealed especially to the will. But they did not stop with a mere description of mysticism as a manner of living; they went further and tried to establish the scientific foundations of mystical experience. Thus, we find in their writings a number of speculative discussions. Particularly prominent in these scientific studies were a clear concept of God, the doctrines of redemption, grace, and the notion of soul, as well as a detailed explanation of cognitional processes -- teachings which had become the common property of theologians through Scholasticism with its theology constructed upon Aristotelian philosophy. In the forefront of all mystical speculation we find the indwelling of the Godhead in a favored soul. Perfect union is found in heaven through the beatific vision, but even now in the present state of life man is called to strive for the highest possible union with God through knowledge and love.

The mystic is convinced that God enters the innermost recesses of the soul and acts therein. (13) The real life task which the mystic sets for himself is the winning of God. There are two ways in which this is possible: God could come to the soul suddenly and immediately, or the soul could reach out to God. In the former case God reveals his presence through a special gift of grace; in the latter, the soul has to remove all personal impediments in order to discover God dwelling within him. Both ways were trodden by the great Dominican mystics.(14) With brilliant colors the mystics describe the workings of divine love, and paint a picture of those mysterious states wherein the human soul, filled with supernatural life far beyond the ordinary experiences of divine bounty, experiences God immediately within itself and attains such an intimate union with him that the image of God in the soul reaches its highest perfection. The soul abandons itself uniquely to the contemplation of God, without reflection and eventually even without representative images. "The description of this highest act of imageless contemplation in the blinding cloud of the divine essence, together with the unconditional union of the divine and human wills, is the central thought of Mysticism." (15) In this imageless vision the soul forgets the essential difference between God and itself, even though this difference continues to be real. The accent is no longer on the difference and antithesis between Creator and creature; it is a union with the Creator. In no sense, however, is this a pantheistic fusion of natures; the experience of the soul's union with God by means of grace is not a disappearance in God; rather it is a nuptial union through love and grace. In this experience created nature is never completely passive in the sense of a quietistic absence of activity, not even when it has the feeling of passivity; intellectual consciousness and moral responsibility remain, and the soul continues to be active under the influence of grace. Thus Eckhart remarks: "Since a man dedicated to the contemplative life can no longer restrain himself because of the very fullness he experiences, he must overflow and engage himself in the active life." (16)

When mystics come to speak of this experience, they make free use of poetic analogies and seem disinclined to attempt any rationalistic explanation of this process. It is not only that these experiences are mysterious and ineffable to them, but also that the very recollection of these events is nebulous and unclear. (17) If they persist in their attempt to penetrate and explain these mysteries, they run the risk of becoming heretical. In explaining intellectual contemplation one could end up in real pantheism by constructing extremely daring systems which would eliminate the distinction between God and the soul. And if the union of wills is emphasized, then one must guard against two other extremes: first of all rigorism, into which the fanatical Fraticelli fell by exaggerating the renunciation of self-will in externals, and secondly, the falsely understood freedom of the heretical Beghards and the "Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit," who permitted a soul once united to God to indulge in anything, believing that nothing could ever separate that soul from God; the perfect man, according to them. could be so transformed into God that no sin could harm him.

The essence of mysticism in no way lies in ecstasy, visions, and the like; these could just as well be absent. They are only particular, proximate manifestations accompanying mysticism. To be sure, they may be associated with mysticism, and they were in fact present in not a few of the great mystics, but they are not essentially connected with mystical experience, rather they belong to the fringes of devotion.

To define Christian mysticism as "the Christian teaching on ecstasy," (18) is to give a dangerous, one-sided, not to say false definition, one which is possible only where the fact of revelation is not known and stated. It is to fail to see, beyond the insignificant Gnostic and neo-Platonic elements and expressions in mysticism, the radical uniqueness of Christian mysticism, namely, that in Christian mysticism it is not the divine or a being of divine origin which is manifested, but rather God . . . who reveals himself unmistakably without words or images in the mystical union. Furthermore, it is to overlook the fact that in the last analysis Christian mysticism, or rather, the self-manifestation of God and the actual experience of this, in which mysticism simply and essentially consists, is not only man's "venture," but it is first and foremost, if one may so express it, God's "venture," for as the first mover, of himself, by his own free will, he makes himself known, and man responds. This is true even if the invitation and the response, the subject and the object, intertwine in the consciousness and experience of the mystic in the union. (19)

In mysticism it is ultimately a question of winning God, of embracing him in the very depths of the soul. This highest happiness is available to every man, for all are ordered to the mystical life. (20) However, the grace of mystical experience is in fact something extraordinary; it is evidenced only in exceptional in stances. This rarity is not due to a stifling of the call on God' part, nor to a faltering of his willingness to lead all men to the fullness of perfection. Together with sanctifying grace and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, God gives to all men of good will this special preparedness for mystical experience. He who wills this preparedness also gives the accomplishment and intends the completion. The actual rarity of the mystical gift lies solely in the niggardliness, indifference, and laziness of the majority, who are content with the bare minimum. Nevertheless, genuine mystical experience is not absent from the Church, and history points to glorious periods of outstanding mystical gifts. One such flowering of mysticism is to be found in the later Middle Ages.

Mysticism has always been fostered in the Dominican Order This follows from the very ideal of the Order, which, in contrast to the older orders, embraces two essential aspects: apostolic activity and mystical immersion in God. St. Dominic was fully aware that a fruitful apostolate is possible only when it is rooted in contemplation. Apostolic labor for the salvation of souls was to flow from the fullness of contemplation. In their striving to draw nearer to God, the Friar Preachers at the outset took as their inspiration and model the great mystics of all ages: St. Augustine, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Rupert of Deutz, and the Victorines. With the revival of Aristotelianism and the accompanying growth of Scholasticism, there occurred a deepening of speculative mysticism while at the same time some of the previously accepted principle of speculative mysticism were called into question. The conservative theological element in the Dominican Order at first held out against the "new doctrine" of their confrère Thomas Aquinas Yet it was he, in fact, who laid the scientific foundations of mysticism, safeguarding it from errors and exaggerations. Wherein previously an unnaturally rigorous asceticism had prevailed through the doctrine of the plurality of substantial forms, St Thomas with his doctrine of the unicity of the substantial form in man (the human soul) now laid the foundation for a prudent moderated ethics. (21) Whereas previously the doctrine of innate ideas and the immediate intuition of self had prevailed in psychology -- doctrines which accounted for our first spontaneous knowledge of God -- St. Thomas showed that man's natural process of knowledge depends entirely on sense images, but that these can be wanting in exceptional supernatural activities of the intellect. (22) Thus St. Thomas distinguished mystical illumination from natural knowledge and emphasized more sharply its supernatural character. Whereas previously primacy had been given to the will, St. Thomas now recognized the primacy of the intellect, without, however, denying the primary role of love in this life. His teaching on love, on knowledge derived from love, on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, on the secret movements of grace, on visions and ecstasies, his prayers, and the Office composed for the Feast of Corpus Christi, all reveal St. Thomas to have been a true Mystic, not only speculatively, but also practically. (23)

The Dominican Order has always remained faithful to the teaching of its most learned men, and it has always regarded the practical manifestations of mysticism with sympathy, not disdain. The great men and women mystics of the Order bear sufficient witness to this. Nevertheless, it is still true, as noted earlier, that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the neo-Platonic element was strongly in evidence along with the Thomistic, particularly in Germany; indeed the Platonic view exerted a decided influence on the development of mysticism within the German Dominican provinces, a development which reached its highest peak in the fourteenth century.


1 H. Felder, Geschichte der wissenschaftlichen Studien im Franziskanerorden bis um die Mitte des 13. Jahrhundert (Freiburg i. Br.: 1904), p. 76: See also E. Filthaut, Roland von Cremona und die Anfänge der Sc olastik im Predigerorden (Vechta: 1936), the Introduction entitled "The Intellectual Ideal of the Early Friars Preachers."

2 H. Denifle (ed.), Archiv für Literatur- und Kirchengeschichte des Mittelalters Archiv (Berlin: 1885), 1, 223. See M. Grabmann, Die Kulturphilosophie des hl. Thomas v. Aquin (Augsburg: 1925), p. 115 ff. and the notes on p. 205 f.

3 The general chapter at Milan, 1278, bound the Dominicans to the teaching of St. Thomas and appointed inquisitors who were to punish non-Thomists, expel them from their province, and strip them of every office. (Monumenta Ord. FF. Praed. Historica, ed. B. M. Reichert [Rome: 1898] III, 199). Similar ordinations were enacted by the general chapters of 1279, 1286, 1309, 1313, 1329, 1342, 1344, and others -- proof that such ordinations were not always carefully observed, and that the anti-Thomist tendency within the Order of Preachers was not insignificant.

4 "Even in the most consistent representative of the Aristotelian tradition, Thomas Aquinas, there are found neo-Platonic elements of no little importance, and notably, these appear in his later writings in ever increasing frequency." Ueberweg-Geyer, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie: Die patristische und scholastische Philosophie, 12th ed. (Basel: 1951), 6, 551.

5 H. Meyer, Die Weltanschauung des Mittelalters, Vol. III of Geschichte der abendländ. Weltanschauung (Würzburg: 1948), p. 296.

6 E. Krebs, "Meister Dietrich. Sein Leben, seine Werke, seine Wissenschaft," in Beitnige z. Gesch. d. Phil. d. M-A., V/5, (Münster: 1906), p. 151.

7 M. Grabmann, Neuaufgefundene lateinische Werke deutscher Mystiker, Sitz. der Bay. Akad. der Wissenschaften, 1921, 3 abh. (Munich: 1922).

8 H. Suso, Horologium sapientiae, ed. J. Strange (Cologne: 1861), p. 151.

9 E. Krebs, Grundfragen der kirchlichen Mystik (Freiburg i. Br.: 1921), p. 36.

10 H. Suso, Leben, c. 49, in Deutsche Schriften, ed. K. Bihlmeyer (Stuttgart: 1907), 168, 9.

11 H. Suso, Predigt III, ed. Bihlmeyer, 523, 29.

12 Eckhart, Predigt II, ed. F. Pfeiffer, Deutsche Mystiker des 14. Jahrh., Vol. II (Leipzig: 1857), 12, 9.

13 Cf. St. Thomas, Summa theol., Ia, q. 43, a. 5 ad 2: "Thus Augustine expressly says that 'the Son is sent, when he is known and perceived by anyone'; the word 'perception,' however, signifies a certain experimental knowledge." In this connection it should be noted that the doctrine of the divine missions is the foundation and justification of mysticism.

14 Cf. St. Thomas, ibid., IIIa, q. 8, a. 8 ad 1: "For 'only the Trinity enters into the mind,' as it is said in the book De ecclesiasticis dogmatibus." IIIa, q. 64, a. 1: ". . . only God enters the soul."

15 Cf. G. Siedel, Theologia Deutsch. Mit einer Einleitung in die Lehre von der Vergöttung in der dominikanischen Mystik (Gotha: 1929), p. 28 ff.

16 E. Krebs, Meister Dietrich, p. 132 f.

17 "Although we retain much of this in our memory and see it as through a veil or in a cloud, yet we are not sufficiently able to understand or recall either the mode or the quality of that vision." Richard of St. Victor, Benjamin maior, IV, chap. 23; PL, 196, 167. The poetic-symbolic description of this state is very illuminating in Richard of St. Victor (ibid., PL, 196, 166 ff.); this is quoted by E. Krebs, Meister Dietrich, p. 133, note 4.

18 W. Muschg, Die Mystik in der Schweiz, (Frauenfeld-Leipzig: 1935), p. 22.

19 H. Kunisch, Anzeiger f. deutsches Altertum, 56 (1937), 166.

20 To this extent F. Heiler (Die Bedeutung der Mystik für die Weltreligionen, 1919) sees in mysticism a primitive form of the religious instinct.-- GarrigouLagrange (Christian Perfection and Contemplation, St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1942, p. 337 ff.) distinguishes a twofold calling, one general and remote, the other immediate and personal. The first is given with sanctifying grace, the second is dependent on personal cooperation with grace.

21 Summa theol., Ia, q. 76, a. 4 and a. 7; Summa contra gentiles, II, c. 71.

22 Summa theol., Ia, q. 84 ff.; IIa-IIae, q. 175, aa. 1, 4, and 5.

23 Cf. J. Bernhart, Die philosophische Mystik des Mittelalters von ihren antiken Ursprüngen bis zur Renaissance (Munich: 1922), p. 150; A. Mager, Mystik als Lehre und Leben (Innsbruck: 1934), p. 325 ff. "In his theological Summa,Thomas Aquinas included a theory of contemplation, mystical experience and many other insights of mystical value; he was, as Thomas of Vallgornera, O.P., expressed it in the title of his Mystica Theologia D. Thomae, 'the prince of both scholastic and mystical theology,' and he became the ultimate philosophical and theological authority especially for the Spanish mystics of the sixteenth and seventeenth century." M. Grabmann, Mittelalt. Geistesl., I, 476 f.