2Life in Abundance:
Meister Eckhart & the German
Dominican Mystics of the 14th Century

by Gundolf M. Gieraths, O.P.

Autumn 1986 Vol. 38 Supplement

The Elements of German Dominican Mysticism

Christian mysticism, both in theory and in practice, tries to fathom how the baptized soul becomes directly aware of God. In the history of this interior experience of God, we speak of a "German mysticism." By this expression we mean the manifestation of

mystical devotion and the accounts of mystical speculation which appeared in German-speaking countries, particularly in its golden age, namely, the fourteenth century. "It is one of the great universal cultural creations of the German people; it is the literary

expression of a spiritual movement, being essentially a philosophical, ascetic, and poetic type of literature in the German language, written by and for nuns and their associates, under Dominican inspiration." (1) This is especially true of the golden age. However,

besides prominent Dominicans, there are many members of other religious orders as well as members of the diocesan clergy who belong to the full picture of German mysticism, for example, the diocesan priest Henry of Nördlingen, the Benedictine John of Kastl, the Augustinian Ruysbroeck, and many others. The expression "German mysticism" in no way implies that we are dealing with a completely isolated, unique creation of the Germans, nor, on the other hand, that we are dealing with a mere segment of medieval European mysticism in general. Obviously, "German mysticism," as all mysticism, developed out of ancient Christian mysticism and, in fact, depends upon it. Nevertheless, medieval mysticism in Germany, particularly in important centers along the Rhine (Cologne, Strasbourg, Basel, and Constance) developed into a unique and unequaled cultural manifestation, permeated by the atmosphere, spirit, and language of Germany, the like of which, because of its particular tinge and emphasis, was not to be found in the rest of Europe.

German mysticism is essentially characterized by the harmonious blending of four elements: (1) scholastic origin, (2) neoplatonic tinge, (3) use of the German language, and (4) emotional sensitivity.


Scholasticism and mysticism are not opposing forces. In the great scholastics, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Bonaventure, one finds the ideal synthesis of the clearest conceptual thought and intense devotional ardor. This combination of scholasticism and mysticism is typical also of German mysticism. Its mysticism cannot be understood apart from scholasticism. "Whoever wishes to understand German mysticism must be thoroughly versed in scholasticism, particularly in the works of St. Thomas, otherwise he will necessarily tear the German mystics from the historical context in which they are rooted; he will necessarily deny them every kind of development, even though it exists, and he will never acquire a correct understanding even of their terminology, to say nothing of their doctrine." (2)

How did this union of scholasticism and mysticism come about in German mysticism? The German Dominicans were given an assignment of a special kind. The Order was given the duty of providing for the spiritual direction of the sisters in the convents entrusted to its care. It is true that for a time the Order tried to resist such assignments, because they often took the most gifted individuals away from philosophical and theological studies. (3) Popes Gregory IX and Innocent IV had released the Dominicans from these pastoral responsibilities, but in 1267 Pope Clement IV again assigned the spiritual care of sisters to the Dominicans, and this time definitively. Henceforth the Dominicans accepted the obligation with full zeal. Normally masters and lectors were entrusted with this task. In most cases these masters and lectors did not live in the sisters' convents, but rather visited them from time to time. For daily Mass and the ordinary duties there was usually a diocesan priest assigned as chaplain.

It is understandable that these theologians, thoroughly trained in scholasticism, would use in their sermons and conferences the material they themselves had learned and expounded in the schools. This is indicated by the directive of the provincial, Henry of Minden (1286-90), to the brethren entrusted with the direction of sisters. The word of God, he said, should be preached to the sisters often "by learned friars in a manner suited to the training of sisters." (4) They should exhort the sisters to be detached from themselves and from all earthly things, and to strive for mystical union with God. Denifle showed -- it is one of his great contributions -- that the spiritual care of nunneries contributed immensely to the flowering of the mystical type of preaching in Germany. (5) Here we wish to insist that these mystics were first and foremost scholastics; they were "incidentally" mystics. Although Hollnsteiner's view, (6) that the decree of Clement IV founded German mysticism, may be an exaggeration, nevertheless the spiritual direction of the nuns did have a determining influence on the rise of mysticism.

An extremely fruitful apostolate had been undertaken in the spiritual care and direction of the sisters. German mystics of the Dominican Order made scholastic doctrine accessible to wider circles, since they expressed their teachings in the vernacular. Herein lies one main contribution of the German Dominican mystics. Whereas previously the teachings of scholasticism had been more or less the heritage of a special class, now scholasticism was brought to the attention of a larger public. At the same time, a whole new world was opened up for that public. The high spiritual fervor, which at that time flourished in many convents of sisters, helps us to see why these mystical sermons were particularly devoted to speculation, to the knowledge of divine mysteries. From the vast riches of scholastic thought certain doctrines were particularly favorite themes, such as the scholastic doctrine on the nature of God; the Trinity; the divine ideas; the divine Word; the relation of creatures, and especially of man, to God; the doctrine of human knowledge; and the efficacy of grace. On this solid foundation they built the spiritual doctrine of the soul's depths, the doctrine of God's birth in man, and so forth.


It is not surprising that in these conferences the mystical elements of the older theology should predominate, particularly those from St. Augustine and from pseudo-Denis. It was here that the way was open to neo-Platonic thought as transmitted especially by Albert the Great, Ulrich Engelbert of Strasbourg, and Dietrich of Freiberg. Thus neo-Platonism was not taken over in its pure form. The neo-Platonic theory of emanation from the All-One was interpreted in a Christian sense. The world and the human soul do not emanate from the All-One, but are created by him. By the All-One, moreover, was not meant the Infinite in the sense of a pantheistic universal spirit, but simply the Infinite in the sense of the Catholic concept of God. Man is snatched up in the dynamic immanence of God within temporal processes. Indeed everything said about the "deification" of the human soul is directed to one end, that God may be born in the soul, that the soul may be born in God. But this "deification," this participation in the uncreated life of God -- notions which can lead and have led to fateful errors -- is to be understood in the sense that through Christ the soul participates in the supernatural realm of grace.

In any case, it is not surprising that the sensitive and naturally joyous temperament of the Germans should be receptive to this vital form of thought, and should find in it a special consolation.


The essential feature of German mysticism, however, lies in the fact that for the first time this doctrine was expressed in the German tongue; this required an entirely new vocabulary and technique of expression. It presented a challenge, quite a fascinating one, of disengaging truths from their ancient impersonal formulas, and of clothing them in attitudes and expressions familiar to the hearer. The German tongue was thus placed at the service of a genuinely profound religious life.

Mystical literature in the vernacular was, of course, widespread in Europe. One need only recall the works by and about Francis of Assisi, Jacopone da Todi, Catherine of Siena, Bridget of Sweden, Richard Rolle of Hampole, and Juliana of Norwich. But there is a vast difference between the German and non-German mystical literature of the period. Although mystical works composed in Italian are outstanding, they were intended for the general laity. Moreover the writings of the women are little more than literary expressions of their personal devotion. This is true, for example, of the edifying meditations of St. Bridget of Sweden. In German mysticism, on the other hand, we are not dealing with popular devotional literature or the simple expression of supernatural revelations and experience. Rather, we are dealing with a serious attempt to express in the vernacular the most sublime and mysterious truths of faith in concrete, meaningful expressions in order to implant these in the hearts of the German people. For this reason the whole manner of presentation could be and had to be particularly vital and personal. This manner was more expressive, and consequently it evoked a greater response in the hearts of the listeners. This explains why mystical literature in the vernacular reached such a high level in German-speaking countries. In no other country does one find mysticism belonging so much to the period, touching great masses of people, especially in the cloister, and bestowing on an epoch of literary history its distinctive character, and expressing itself in such varied literary forms as sermons, treatises, essays, allegories, legends, poetry, letters, biographies, prayers, and sayings.

The aura of mystery, which surrounds all mysticism, was heightened by this unprecedented expression of scholastic teaching in lie German language and by the desperate search for expressions that would describe realities themselves indescribable, since they can only be experienced by grace. The German language was indeed now opened to the suprasensible, abstract world of ideas, and it was indeed enriched by a scientific, philosophical vocabulary. But we should not overlook the difficulties involved. In the learned Latin language of the school, technical terms had been established for centuries, but they had to be coined for the German philosophy created by speculative mysticism. Earlier German preachers could offer no help here, for they had not dealt with Philosophical concepts. As no one had pioneered the way, everything had to be created for the first time. The existing vocabulary was certainly not adequate to express the new mystical ideas, many of which were already dangerously close to pantheism. The danger to which orthodoxy was exposed was certainly not lessened if one failed to come up with a correct, precise, felicitous expression; or if this expression, though accurate in itself, was not correctly understood by listeners; or if mystical preachers overreached the expression in their enthusiasm.

It is not surprising that occasions arose for misunderstanding. Eckhart's sermons, for example, were recorded for us by nuns, before whom they were undoubtedly preached. Not even the high educational level of these nuns could prevent these transcriptions from being incomplete and at times even erroneous. Moreover, the sermon material itself was not infrequently modified by the transcriber. All of these factors must be taken into consideration. In view of these difficulties, one can understand why this mystical literature often appeared strange to foreign theologians, and why it was suspect, and, consequently, why it actually gave a distorted impression, particularly as it was not the original text which circulated outside of Germany, but rather erroneous Latin translations.

Despite the proximate dangers and despite the occasional real inexactitude of doctrine and expression, German mysticism contributed immensely to the deepening of spirituality and interior perfection, and it does hold a unique place in the history of Catholic devotion. Finally, the German mystics can be credited with having contributed greatly to the development of the language, particularly with having vastly enriched German prose.


From the viewpoint of content we likewise notice a unique quality about German mysticism: within it lives the German soul. Beneath the theological garb there is the German temperament with its strong tendency to reflection and introspection. Mystics conditioned by the Latin mentality, for example, Rupert of Deutz and the two great Victorines, always wrote as systematic theologians, and they always conceived the divinity, which they strove to attain, in rather abstract, suprasensible terms, while is German mysticism, especially in the fourteenth century, spoke much more to the heart. It pierced the soul, and in the spirit of St. Augustine it sought God within the soul itself, in the hidden corners of sensitivity, in the very abyss of the soul. God is not to be found somewhere outside of us, but rather within us, there where he, thrice real, is closest to us in the highest sphere of the soul and in the depths of the soul elevated by grace. In this ground, or abyss of the soul, in this "luminous spark of the soul," the mystical union of man with God is consummated. A system thus emerges in which German mysticism joins forces with universal mysticism. We shall try to describe this association.

The soul attains the highest degree of union with God only by entering within itself after it has turned away from its lower part, which it must "renounce" together with the world. But this can be attained only through suffering. "Renunciation of the world, which is the first stage of all mysticism, is hatred for the world at least this is the way it turns out. The predominant mysticism of the Middle Ages solved the mind-body problem without compromise. Uncompromising was its view of affection, and uncompromising its love of suffering."(7) In order to appreciate this estimate, one must remember the following points. Mystics admire only those who reject half measures and who, with a restless dedication inspired by grace, are serious about the words: "Be ye perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). Mystics are not pessimists or misanthropes, but they know that danger lies deep in the heart of man because of original sin. Sentimentality and human weakness tend to drag man away from his rightful place in God. Consequently their spirituality bears a strong ascetic stamp. Three points emerge from this:

1. The way to union with God was seen to lie in a gradual emancipation of the soul from emotional tendencies. Turning toward contemplation is proportionate to abandoning the things of this world. Just as a neo-Platonic mystic recognizes no perfection of virtue without purgation of the emotions, so contemplation is unthinkable without asceticism for the Christian mystic. Hence the medieval mystics emphasized those very truths which are less commonly considered today, namely sin, hell, and penance. Only when we begin at the lowest step, shall we reach our goal, "attaining union with the Blessed Trinity." (8)

2. Suffering is not an end in itself. It is a means of freeing our true self from the ego and its baser tendencies and desires. Time and again we find the theme of mystical suffering expressed. In Sermon 104 Eckhart says: "If there were anything nobler than suffering, then God would have redeemed man by means of that." And again: "If suffering were not the noblest of all things, the Heavenly Father would have allowed his Son to live on earth without suffering for some hours at least.... But Christ did not dwell a single hour on earth without suffering."

3. Intimately associated with this asceticism in German mysticism, there is a special attraction for Christ crucified, the mediator. From the initial God-centered mysticism there arises a Christ-centered mysticism. It takes as its motto, "Through Christ-man to Christ-God," a frequently recurring theme in the Fathers. Without Christ and his suffering no one can have union with God. "If you wish to contemplate me in my uncreated divinity, then you must learn to know and love me in my suffering humanity, for this is the surest way to eternal happiness." (9)

Under various considerations German mysticism manifests a unique character, and so it has a special place in the history of Christian mysticism. Scholastic teaching, a neo-Platonic dynamism, and the German language blend in a new synthesis, which not only points the way to God and union with him, but does so in a way congenial to the German temperament with its propensity for introspection and abstract thought. Various historical factors contributed to the flowering of mystical teaching and fervor in the fourteenth century, and to the decisive role of the German Dominicans, as we shall see.


A tendency toward mysticism can be noted even among the earliest German Dominicans. We know that St. Albert the Great knew how to combine his manifold external activities in all the fields of science and Church administration with a real striving for internal solitude, a real striving for union with God. St. Albert was meditative by nature. Because of his exceptional talents, he was given responsibilities and offices which in themselves were enough to occupy him completely. But neither his scientific and literary labors nor his frequent assignment to the necessities of practical affairs could distract his spirit, or divert him from the life of faith. In the midst of external distractions he turned his eyes to the center of all being and truth; his heart belonged to him who alone is love. Albert wrote his works in Latin, but almost immediately his ascetico-mystical writings were translated into German, and through this medium of the vernacular they influenced a larger audience.

As evidence of Albert's special position in mysticism, a Marian sermon preached to the canons of the Liebfrauenkirche at Trier and his Mariological and Eucharistic writings used to be cited. Unfortunately, we can no longer offer these as evidence, since the strongest indications are against their authenticity. (10) But even if we must set aside many familiar passages testifying to his love, there are still many genuine sources proving Albert's mysticism, namely, his commentaries on Scripture, on pseudo-Denis, and the unpublished treatise On the Nature of the Good. These works manifest a very genuine mystical personality and sensitivity. Through works such as these Albert exercised an undoubted influence on the ascetico-mystical literature of the Middle Ages. Thus, by means of his religious and scholarly personality, by means of his promoting the spiritual life in sisters' convents, as well as through his neo-Platonically orientated school of philosophy and theology (whose principal representatives are Ulrich of Strasbourg and Dietrich of Freiberg), Albert contributed to the development of German mysticism within the Order of Preachers.

Ulrich Engelbert of Strasbourg discussed questions dealing with the mystical life of prayer in his unpublished theological Summa. His Summa was found in the library of the Dominican convent of nuns at Adelhausen. And at the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Dietrich of Freiberg is mentioned as a mystical preacher in German nunneries. Of his works only the Latin Writings have been found, and these are strongly neo-Platonic treatises on metaphysics and natural philosophy. His writings give the impression that, misled by practical mysticism, he wanted to see God more intimately and more quickly in this life than is really possible according to St. Thomas. Undoubtedly his audience did not notice the questionable aspects of his teaching, since no shadow of doubt ever fell on his person or his writings. "He never lost any of that noble modesty which characterizes his fellow Dominicans and fellow mystics. On difficult questions he writes with awe, and he states that only the grace of God enables him to continue further. (11)


German mysticism reached its highest peak in the fourteenth century in the renowned trio of Eckhart, Tauler, and Suso. Meister Eckhart is undoubtedly the most important and most genial representative of German mysticism. Born about 1260 of noble stock in Hochheim near Gotha, he entered the Dominican Order at Erfurt about the age of eighteen. After his education at the Erfurt priory and at the general studium in Cologne, he became prior of Erfurt and vicar-provincial of Thuringia in 1290. In 1302 he obtained the degree of Master of Sacred Theology at the University of Paris. He energetically defended Thomistic teaching against Duns Scotus. In 1303 he was elected provincial of the province of Saxony, and in 1307 he was appointed vicar over the Bohemian province. Three years later he was elected provincial of the German province of Teutonia, but the General Chapter of Naples in 1311 did not confirm this; instead he was assigned to Paris for a second term as professor of theology -- certainly a special mark of confidence. In 1313 he was active in Strasbourg, the center of the growing movement of mysticism. The seven convents of Dominican sisters in the city constituted a rich field of labor. Later we find him at Cologne, where, while probably busy with his Order's development, he gained a wide reputation as a preacher and spiritual director.

The fact that Eckhart held the highest offices is evidence of his high reputation in the Order. However, as he was more mystical than catechetical in his sermons and conferences, more inclined to lofty mysticism than to practical asceticism, and sometimes theologically inaccurate and verbose, his teachings repeatedly came under suspicion and were, for that reason, subjected to careful scrutiny. The heretical views of fanatical Beghards and Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit forced the Inquisition to take a firm, vigilant stand. Consequently in 1326 the Archbishop of Cologne submitted a list of forty-nine statements taken from Eckhart's sermons and other writings. Later an additional list of fifty-nine propositions was submitted. Eckhart defended himself on numerous occasions, and in the Dominican Church at Cologne, on February 13, 1327, he solemnly and unconditionally retracted all statements which might have a questionable meaning. Having defended his position at the papal court in Avignon, he submitted himself to the decision of the Holy See. But before a final, decision could be given, Eckhart died in 1327. Following a lengthy investigation, Pope John XXII condemned twenty-eight propositions of Eckhart in a bull promulgated at Avignon on. March 27, 1329. Of these, seventeen propositions were declared, heretical, and eleven pronounced rash and suspect of heresy. However, at the end of the bull the Pope drew attention to Eckhart's unconditional submission. Further, it should be noted that, this condemnation was directed not only against Eckhart, but, also against current heresies of the day.

Eckhart left behind a mass of writings which only gradually have come to light. Even today not all of them have been fully recovered or authenticated. Eckhart is thoroughly scholastic, and indeed Thomistic, in his Latin writings (Opus tripartitum, containing philosophical and theological treatises, his sermons and commentaries on the Bible, and a portion of his theological Quaestiones, dating from his Paris professorship). On certain crucial issues, however, he sometimes gives the doctrine of St. Thomas a neo-Platonic turn. His great reputation, however, rests on his German sermons and treatises given as conferences to Dominican sisters and the Friends of God; therein lies their real importance. In these conferences he reveals himself "as a theologian with a genial personality, a mystic with the loftiest flight. of soul, and an aristocrat with fine sensitivity." (12)

The charges brought against him for deviating from orthodox doctrine had to do mainly with two problems: how and when the world was created, and the nature of created being. In all probability Eckhart did not teach the eternity of the world. But he stressed so strongly the eternity of the creative act and so frequently neglected the temporality of the effect, that he could very easily be misunderstood when he spoke of the intimate union of the world and self with eternity. In his early Latin writings he had emphatically stressed the essential difference between God and creatures. But his later mystical speculations bordering on pantheism led him to regard the dividing line between created and uncreated being somewhat vaguely, and so he seems to be reflecting Oriental and Hellenistic neo-Platonism.

Starting with the essential being of creatures, Eckhart reduces creatures to their ideal oneness in the mind of God. The essential core of the intellective soul, which in Eckhart's mysticism is the important and truly immortal part of the soul, is the "spark of the soul" (scintilla animae), also known as the soul's light, the soul's castle. It is the noblest spiritual gift which could have been given to man. This flickering of the spark from nature upward to God is a kinship with God; it is his image in the abyss of the soul. In this spark of the soul is to be found the intimate conversation about the good, the holy, and the true; here ensues the contemplation of eternal truths (St. Augustine's illumination); here is found the participation in the life of the Trinity, the mystical union, the birth of God in the soul. The notion of God's birth in the soul is an ancient theme in Christian mystical literature. It came into Dominican mysticism from Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, Scotus Erigena, Richard of St. Victor, and Bernard of Clairvaux. This birth of God, this creation of the kingdom of God within man, is Eckhart's principal theme. For Eckhart, as for all mystics, the ultimate goal is man's union with God, the emptying out of all creatureliness, the renunciation of one's will, thoughts, and individuality. This is the detachment, the poverty, in which God will be born within the soul.

When I preach I am accustomed to speak, first of all, of detachment, and that one must renounce self and all things; secondly, that one must be again incorporated into the sole good, which is God; thirdly, that one should consider the great nobility which God confers on the soul whereby man enters into the wonderful life of God; fourthly, of the splendor of the divine nature-the brilliance of the divine nature is ineffable. (13)

When the soul is touched by God, it receives divine life; through this participation in the divine nature, the soul itself becomes divine. Here all the senses are still; understanding, memory, and will are still. Then, in the spark of the soul one experiences a pure, completely non-conceptual knowledge of God and the most intimate oneness of desire with him. This knowledge extends to the divine essence, at least insofar as the soul perceives the divine Persons and divine attributes as "pure unity." But this experience does not last long. In this life an uninterrupted union is not possible for the soul, since it is still wrapped in the darkness of faith and can have only a foretaste of the beatific vision reserved for the next life. Thus Eckhart's mysticism operates entirely on the spiritual level and is not bound up with visions, apparitions, stigmata, and the like.

In his speculations Eckhart tended to use doubtful, original expressions, hitherto unheard-of phrases, which seemed to endanger the Christian faith. Radicals twisted his phrases in favor of their ethical and religious free-thinking, while opponents snatched up his most extreme expressions in order to denounce him to the Archbishop. Nevertheless, it is certain that at all times Eckhart wanted to be orthodox; subjectively he was no heretic. In any case, we must first have a critical edition of all his works in order to evaluate these statements in their proper context and in their intended meaning. Whatever may be the ultimate evaluation of these statements, Eckhart must be recognized as an exceptionally inspired leader in the spiritual movement. He was a master of the spiritual life not only for his own age, but also for later generations. His disciples in the Order avoided the censured propositions of the master, and transmitted his mystical train of thought to a wider circle. His foremost disciples were Tauler and Suso.


The most deeply affected by Eckhart was John Tauler. For Tauler's biography we must rely on meager and inadequate sources. He came from the respected and wealthy, but non-aristocratic family of Strasbourg named Taler, Taweler, or Tauler. is date of birth seems to be after, rather than before, 1305. When still a young man he entered the Order of Preachers in is native city. There he could have completed his seven or eight years of philosophical and theological study. Afterwards he was sent to the Dominican studium at Cologne to pursue higher studies for three years. Although he did not sit at the feet of Eckhart, he was truly his disciple.

Between 1330 and 1360 Tauler was lector in the Dominican school in his native priory of Strasbourg, and he was engaged in preaching and spiritual direction within the city and beyond. In this work he gained a wide reputation as a divinely gifted director of souls and a patron of the spiritual life. To his friends and followers (Henry of Nördlingen, Margaret and Christina Ebner) he was "our good and faithful father, Tauler," who "teaches the truth and lives for it entirely," one "whom God considers the most beloved man he has on earth," and one "whose name is written in heaven." Besides Strasbourg, the privileged areas of his activity were Basel and Cologne, the main centers of the mystical movement. At that time Basel was the headquarters of the Friends of God. On June 16, 1361, Tauler died in Strasbourg at the height of his fame; today his tombstone can be found in the recently built Protestant church. No more appropriate epitaph could have been composed for him than the words which the gentle Dominican nun Christina Ebner heard about him from our Lord in a vision: with his fiery tongue he had set the world on fire, and God dwells in him as in a sweet-sounding harp.

G. Théry calls Tauler the truest heir of the best that can be found in the thought of Meister Eckhart.(14) Tauler was anxious to interpret the questionable and condemned passages of Eckhart in as orthodox a sense as possible. During his years of study at Strasbourg Tauler had heard the doctrine of St. Thomas, according to the directives of the Order. But in many instances he consciously departed from St. Thomas. Even on the question of whether the intellect is a higher faculty of the soul than the will, he did not speak out clearly and unequivocally for the Thomistic position on the primacy of the intellect. Moreover, in certain passages of Tauler's writings there is a clear dependence on German neo-Platonism.

In Tauler's mysticism there is more emphasis on ethical and spiritual direction than on speculation. He has practical and ascetical aspects uppermost in mind even when he speaks of rational, supernaturally revealed, and mystical knowledge of God, the processions in the Trinity, purgation and self-denial, spiritual asceticism, contemplation, and the activity of love. He is mainly interested in the practical aspects when he deals with renunciation of all that is not God, the union with the divine will, man as the image of the Trinity, the three ways of arriving at union with God, visions and ecstasies as mere accidental manifestations, and the meaning of suffering. For Tauler true mysticism involves the steep path of purification; it requires discipline and self-denial; it allows the use of, but not indulgence in worldly things; it rewards superabundantly by a transformation whereby the self is lost in God. In a sermon on the text, "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see" (Luke 10:23), Tauler deals with a central theme of mysticism, the abyss of the soul, the spark of the soul, the innermost sanctuary where the soul enters into a mysterious, intimate relationship with God. (15) This mystical union consists in the closest possible contact with the divine will. There is no mention in Tauler, however, of a substantial oneness with God or of an ascent or descent into the divine abyss.

We have already noted that Tauler's main strength is not his speculation, but his application of mystical doctrine to life. It is said that Eckhart viewed mysticism more from the side of the intellect, Suso more from the sense of feeling, and Tauler more from the will. Tauler's impressive clarity and his great power inflamed with zeal marked him as a most remarkable orator and preacher. He was not a popular preacher in the sense of preaching to great masses of people. His preaching was more aristocratic; his hearers were the select group called the Friends of God, who by calling or inclination were already prepared for the spiritual life and were receptive to it. His domain was the mysterious experiences of the spiritual life, the inner man with his struggles and victories. Alongside the contemplative life, Tauler recognizes the active life, the divinely willed temporal calling, the married life, the daily labors, and the simple carrying out of one's vocation in life.

Today to a great extent the life of perfection is inverted and distorted so that many who have an appearance of spirituality have worldly hearts, and many living in the world have spiritual hearts.... I declare to you that there are many women living in the midst of the world with husband and children, and many men sitting in the shop and making shoes, and their minds are on God and on feeding their children. And there are many poor peasants in the village gathering dung and earning their daily bread with hard toil. It may very well be that all of these are faring a hundred times better than you nuns, for they are following their simple vocation, and yet it is galling for you.... The highest and sublimest form of this vocation is to imitate the inspiring example of his most beloved Son, inwardly and outwardly, actively and passively and imaginatively in contemplation or in that piercing contemplation which transcends all images. Whoever follows this path with purest motives and with fullest detachment will attain the loftiest point of perfection. (16)


Another center of mysticism was Constance, because of the person and labors of the mystic Henry Suso (Seuse). Born of an aristocratic family in Constance, he found his way to the Dominican Order while still quite young. By coincidence he became acquainted with Eckhart at the Dominican studium in Cologne. He witnessed the indictment, condemnation, and death of his master, and all his life he cherished a loyal memory. His first work, The Little Book of Wisdom, was written in 1327 entirely under the influence of Eckhart. In it he draws a sharp distinction between the teachings of his master and the frequently useless speculations of the Beghards and the Brethren of the Free Spirit. That same year he completed his studies in Cologne and returned to his native priory at Constance, where he was active as lector for the priory and spiritual director for the neighboring convents of women. On his journeys, which took him as far as Holland, he became acquainted with his disciple and biographer, Elsbeth Stagel, at the Dominican convent of Tösz near Winterthur. He also had association with Henry of Nördlingen. Between 1327 and 1334 he wrote The Little Book of Eternal Wisdom and The Timepiece of Wisdom (Horologium sapientiae). In 1343 or 1344 Suso became prior of the house at Constance. From 1349 onward he labored in Ulm, where he died in 1366.

Suso was a man of speculative ability, poetic sensitivity, and a richness of feeling. He has been called "the minnesinger in prose of the spiritual realm," (17) inasmuch as he wanted to establish a spiritual knighthood devoted to "Eternal Wisdom." He described the mystical way in the well-known expression already quoted: "A recollected person must be unformed of the creature, become informed with Christ and transformed into the divinity." (18) This goal is reached through mortification, purification, and detachment from the things of this world; in this way one follows Christ and is disposed for contemplation of the highest kind, the contemplation of the Blessed Trinity. In his speculation about God and the Trinity, he relies partly on St. Thomas and partly on the school of Augustine and Bonaventure. He sees the peak of mystical union to consist in the loss of oneself in the divine being.

Typical of Suso's mysticism is a theology of the Cross, in which Christ's sufferings and death stand as the central theme: through Christ-man to Christ-God. "No one can arrive at divine heights or taste mystical sweetness without passing through my human bitterness. The higher anyone climbs without passing through my humanity, the deeper will be his fall. Anyone who wishes to attain what you are seeking must tread the road of my humanity and pass through the gate of my suffering." (19) "Eternal Wisdom" became for him an object of special devotion in the form of the child Jesus with whom he engaged in loving conversation. His Christ-centered mysticism finds its crowning perfection in the bridal love for Jesus. (20)

Suso was a mystic in word and in deed. He labored more through what he was than through what he taught. Suso is the only German mystic whose personality we can clearly picture to ourselves. Much more than in the case of Eckhart or Tauler, of whose personal sanctity we cannot be certain, the interior experiences cry out from the writings of Suso and they clearly influence his speculation. The present age may not appreciate the occasionally frightful self-torture and excessive asceticism of Suso, but even today he is "the most lovable and most attractive of the German mystics." (21) Suso later realized the excess of his penances and never required such practices from his penitents and disciples. The distinctive marks of his personality -- his love, his mysticism of suffering, his profound sensitivity, his romantically chivalrous spirit -- had a tremendous influence not only in his own age, but also in the following centuries. "He still stands in our day as one who makes us spiritually more free, spiritually more profound, spiritually more rich." Whoever reads his works will "find that in the spiritual life there is nothing depressing, nothing small, and nothing of stark pauperism, but rather that here everything leads to freedom, to loftiness, to openness, and to a healthy fullness of life." (22)

St. Thomas is the principal scholastic source for Suso to a much greater degree than for Eckhart or Tauler. At the same time, however, Suso is decidedly a disciple of Eckhart; he follows him, but only so far as he can be reconciled with the teachings of the Church, and he carefully avoids the reefs on which Eckhart crashed. There can be no question of pantheism or quietism in Suso. He clings fast to the immanence and transcendence of God, and against the Beghards he defends the essential distinction between God and the human soul, even in the loftiest contemplation.


Grabmann has shown that among the fourteenth-century German Dominicans a branch of mysticism arose from the fertile soil of strict Thomistic theology. The foremost representative is John of Sterngassen, of the family named Korngin. He was a contemporary of Eckhart, but not his disciple, at least not in the sense that he accepted his teaching. After Pfeiffer (23) and Wackernagel (24) had already indicated the mystical trend of John of Sterngassen on the basis of a few fragments written in German, Grabmann discovered a commentary on the Sentences, wherein the great questions of mysticism are discussed entirely in the spirit of St. Thomas. " In regard to content, this work has all the characteristic marks of the Thomistic school as such; to a large extent, as a matter of fact, it is produced from the Summa and the writings and the questions of brother Thomas." (25) What John of Sterngassen develops objectively and impersonally in his Sentence commentary, he expresses in a fascinating and practical manner in his German writings. He is entirely influenced by St. Thomas when he describes the presence and action of God in the innermost recesses of the soul.

He has made us by himself and for himself. He has made us according to his image. It should be clear to you how he has made us: we are a light in his brilliance, we are a word uttered in his intellect, we are a life in his inner nature. Thus he made us according to his image from all eternity. Then for a second time, what we now are in time: within us there is a brilliance in which the light of divinity shines, without ceasing. Within us there is an intellect, to which the Word of the Blessed Trinity speaks without ceasing. Within us there is an inner nature, in which the life of eternity throbs without ceasing. Then for the third time, what we shall be when time has ceased: we will be united to God intimately and uniquely and entirely. How will we be intimately united to God? It will be by contemplation and not by nature. His nature cannot become ours, but it will be our life. As Christ says, If one knows thee, Eternal Father, and thy Son Jesus Christ, that is eternal life. He did not say that it would be one nature. (26)

St. Thomas teaches that all created things are of eternal life in God as the content and image of eternal divine ideas, in the Word, (27) and that this Word expresses not only the divine nature of the Father, but also the created nature of creatures. (28) St. Thomas also champions the view that the soul of man expresses an image of the Trinity. (29) The theological foundation of the mystic's conception of God's activity and presence within us and of our union with God in this life rests on the Thomistic view of divine causality, participation in the divine nature by grace, and the supernatural presence of God in the soul. For John of Sterngassen, as for St. Thomas, the beatific union with God in heaven consists in the immediate vision of God. It is a unique union through knowledge, and not a fusion of natures or a loss of individuality. He emphatically and explicitly rejects the pantheistic suppressing of the distinction between absolute, uncreated Being and finite, created being, between God and the soul. Thus, John of Sterngassen does not belong to the neo-Platonic tradition of Meister Eckhart, whose disciple he was not; rather he attaches himself closely to St. Thomas, in whose heritage he was formed. As a preacher John stands next to Tauler, with whom he shares "a progressive style, a free use of subjectivity, and a richly flowing expression of thought, hence a notable advancement in mystical preaching." (30)


We find the same Thomistic conviction in Gerard of Sterngassen, the brother of John. Gerard discusses problems of mysticism in the second part of his Medela animae languentis (Cure of the Sick Soul) entitled "Pratum animae" or "The little garden of the soul," which was also discovered by Grabmann. (31) In his explanation of the Supernatural union of the soul with God through grace, he follows St. Thomas almost verbatim; in no sense does he interpret this union pantheistically. Particularly detailed and profound is his analysis of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, which loom so high in the doctrine and practice of mysticism. Although mystical contemplation generally had been associated with the gift of wisdom, Gerard of Sterngassen introduces the doctrine of contemplation and his theology of mysticism in general in his discussion of the eight beatitudes. Here he goes beyond the theory of the contemplative life presented by St. Thomas, especially in the chapters dealing with the disposition for contemplation and with the causes and degrees of ecstasy. The fresh, personal voice of the preacher and director of souls rings forth from the work of Gerard of Sterngassen. According to Grabmann, the importance of the Cure of the Sick Soul for our understanding of German mysticism lies "above all in the fact that here we have a systematic presentation and development of the main themes about which other mystics had preached in a practical way. Moreover, we have here, from the pen of a German mystic, a comprehensive explanation of mystical contemplation, the fundamental mystical experience, in which theological aspects are more important than the psychological.... The Medela animae languentis manifests no neo-Platonic tendency.... The principal scholastic authority, giving the whole work its theological tone, is St. Thomas Aquinas, whose theological Summa was utilized in many passages and verbally blended into the whole." (32)


We should also mention the mystic Nicholas of Strasbourg, who, although a friend and defender of Eckhart, completely follows the path of St. Thomas. He is predominantly practical; only rarely are theoretical ideas of mysticism found in his writings, and even then they are quickly dropped. In simple, colloquial, lively, picturesque language he pleads for sincere conversion and the spiritual life, the love of God, and the following of Christ. Bihlmeyer has edited a fragment of a conference, which was certainly given to nuns. 33 In this fragment Nicholas of Strasbourg emerges as an experienced ascetic who placed the greatest emphasis on the fundamental virtues of Christian life, and who avoided all exaggerations. As for the genuine mystical ideas, he emphasizes especially that whoever wishes to lead a spiritual life must transcend purely natural knowledge and rational reflections in order to contemplate, and that he must lose himself in order to find God.


1 W. Oehl. "Die rheinische Mystik," Wissenschaftliche Blätter der Germania, 2 (1925), 98.

2 H. Denifle, in Hist.-Pol. Blätter, 75 (1875/1), 684.

3 H. Denifle (Archiv, 11, 645f.) does not say that this obligation was the sole reason why the Order in Germany had no outstanding, productive theologian in the fourteenth century. But he does show that those who were engaged in the care of souls lacked the necessary time and quiet for scholarly work. "It would have been much better if Hermann of Minden had exempted from spiritual direction those who were especially qualified for academic studies and scientific research or if he had laid such spiritual direction and responsibility on them only in emergencies. In this way he could have prevented the decline of studies." (Ibid., p. 64 6, note I).

4 Archiv., II, 650.

5 Ibid., 641-48.

6 J. Hollnsteiner, Die Kirche im Ringen um die christliche Gemeinschaft (vol. II/2 of the Church history ed. by J. P. Kirsch.), Freiburg 1940, p. 455.

7 A. Auer in the introd. to the 9th ed. of H. Denifle, Das geistliche Leben (Salzburg, 1936), p. 23.

8 Suso, Büchlein der Ewigen Weisheit, chap. 21; ed. K. Bihlmeyer, Heinrich Seuse, Deutsche Schriften, (Stuttgart: 1907), p. 278ff.

9 Ibid., chap. 1, ed. cit., p. 203, 7.

10 F. Pelster, review in Zeitschr. f. kath. Theol., 42 (1918), 654-57; A. Fries. "Messerklärung und Kommuniontraktat keine Werke Alberts des Grossen?" Zeitschr. f. Phil. u. Theol., 2 (1955), 28-67: and Die unter dern Namen des Albertus Magnus überlieferten Mariologischen Schriften (BGPMA, Miinchen: 1954), vol. 37/4.

11 E. Krebs, Meister Dietrich, ed. cit., p. 154.

12 Bihlmeyer-Tüchle, Kirchengeschichte, 13th ed. (Paderborn: 1952), pt. 2, p. 425.

13 Sermon 22, ed. Pfeiffer, 91, 24.

14 G. Théry, "Esquisse d'une vie de Tauler," La vie spirituelle, Suppl. 15 (1927), 135.

15 Cf. F. Vetter, Die Predigten Taulers aus der Engelberger und der Freiburger Handschrift (vol. XI of "Deutsche Texte des Mittelalters," Berlin 1910), 347.

16 Ibid., 243, 13.

17 W. Wachernagel, Geschichle der deutschen Literatur (Basel, 1872), p. 336.

18 Suso, Leben, c. 49, ed. Bihlmeyer, 168, 9.

19 Suso, Little Book of Eternal Wisdom, chap. 2, trans. Sister M. Ann Edward, O.P., The Exemplar (Dubuque: The Priory Press, 1962), II, 10.

20 The notion of the mystical bride in the mystical marriage with Christ is found mainly among women mystics, but it is not entirely lacking among the men; inasmuch as every creature, as such, must take the passive role with regard to God, it has the character of a bride.

21 K. Bihlmeyer, Heinrich Souse, Deutsche Schriften (Stuttgart: 1907), p. 141.*

22 W. Lehmann, Heinrich Seuses Deutsche Schriften (Jena, 1911), li-lii.

23 "Predigten und Sprüche deutscher Mystiker," Zeitschrift f. deutsches Altertum, 10 (1851), 251 ff (on John of Sterngassen) ; "Sprüche deutscher Mystiker, "Germania, 3 (1858), 235 ff.

24 Altdeutsche Predigten und Gebeten aus Handschriften (Basel: 1876), p. 163 ff. and p. 544 ff.

25 M. Grabmann, Neuaufgefundene lateinsiche Werke deuticher Mytiker (Sitz. d. Bay. Akad. d. Wissenschaften, Munich 1922), p. 22; Cf. A. Landgraf, "Job. Sterngasse, O.P., und sein Sentenzenkommentar," Divus Thomas, N.F., 4 (1926), 40-54; 207-14; 327-50; 467-80.

26 Cited by Wackernagel, op. cit., p. 164.

27 De verit., q. 4, a. 8.

28 Summa theol., Ia, q. 34, a. 3.

29 Ibid., q. 93, a. 5.

30 Wackernagel, op. cit., p. 435.

31 Grabmann, Neuaufgef. Werke, ed. cit., p. 35 ff.

32 Ibid., p. 42 f.

33 "Kleine Beitrige zur Geschichte der deutschen Mystik," Beiträge zur Gesch. d. Renaissance u. Reformation (Munich-Freising: 1917, Festschrift J. Schlecht), p. 46 ff.