4Life in Abundance:
Meister Eckhart & the German
Dominican Mystics of the 14th Century

by Gundolf M. Gieraths, O.P.



Autumn 1986 Vol. 38 Supplement

Fifteenth-Century Dominican Spirituality

We need not delve deeply into the writings of fifteenth-century German Dominicans to discover that, instead of discussing the mystical aspects of prayer as fourteenth-century writers did, they expended their efforts on practical problems of the spiritual life. (1) Fourteenth-century writers such as Eckhart, Tauler, and Suso encouraged, both in theory and practice, the closest possible intimacy with God attainable in the present life. They asked the question: "How can I attain unto God?" And they answered: "Look within yourself, there you will find him." By mystical prayer they looked within; by mystical experience they found God.

But the outstanding fifteenth-century writers, John Nider ( 1438), John Herold ( 1468), John Meyer ( 1458), Mark von Weida ( c. 1516), rarely mention such subjects as rapture in the present life and vision in everlasting bliss. They treat of simpler, more immediate matters, and encourage their readers to strive for those goals which are attainable by all souls even before death. By developing a devotional system based on practical charity they intended to help the faithful reach union with God.

Whereas the mystics approach God through abnegation of self in all its powers and senses, fifteenth-century German Dominican writers point out the road of an actively virtuous life. When the mystics set off on a lofty flight, they frequently soar into rarefied, uncharted regions. But the fifteenth-century Dominicans, eager that their words and requirements do not exceed the capability of ordinary mortals, never pass beyond the borders of the imitable. In reading the writings of the mystics, many statements and formulas elude our comprehension. Fifteenth-century Dominicans of the practical school set forth an ordinary doctrine comprehensible and useful for ordinary Christians.

Mystical prayer shows us man as he should ideally be and act. John Nider and his contemporaries speak of man in concrete situations and direct their teaching and preaching to morality, the care of souls. In short, mystics describe the spirituality of feast days, whereas fifteenth-century writers present the spirituality of everyday life. Mystical preaching aims at a few select and well-disposed souls, able to comprehend these sublime thoughts. But the practical, less elevated literature of fifteenth-century Dominicans attracted and influenced the wider radius of the common people.

Merely to read fourteenth-century treatises on devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus brings one into contact with the essence of mysticism. Although this devotion was still very popular in the fifteenth century, it had been stripped of its depth and grandeur, and its hold on the people proved the eloquence and persuasion of Eckhart, Tauler, and Suso. Nider and his contemporaries sometimes used mystical terminology, but a study of the context shows that although they used the same words as their predecessors, they watered down the meaning. One gets the feeling that the writers are trying to explain something they do not understand themselves. They seem to be echoing mystical thoughts from the past, while they themselves are absorbed in ethical, theological questions. They are more interested in the here-and-now problems of everyday living than in sublime mystical flights. We look in vain for such heart-warming fourteenth-century expressions as: mystical union of the soul with God in the present life, God's birth in the soul of man, the doctrine of the soul's abyss, the condition of complete resignation in which the soul is stripped of all images.

INFLUENCE OF THE FRIARS ON THE GERMAN NUNS

The same change occurred in sisters' convents. The mysticism which flourished there during the fourteenth century was the result of the teaching, guidance, and encouragement of the Friar Preachers. When the Friars lowered their doctrine and inculcated a more prosaic, realistic spirituality, the sisters put the change into practice. And so "we read little of mysticism in the lives of fifteenth-century German nuns."(2) On this subject, Jostes says: "The mystic-ecstatic life decreased in depth, originality, and sublimity in proportion to its extension among more people. What hagiographers relate about the lives of these pious people is for the most part shallow, mediocre, monotonous, stereotyped, with very rarely one individual who dared leave the common road and wander into the lush pastures of high spirituality. (3)

We have detailed accounts of the intellectual and spiritual life of various nuns in Dominican convents during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The reform of religious orders then in vogue demanded that both male and female religious be satisfied with a practical sort of spirituality and desist from mystical aspirations. This accounts for the paucity of such extraordinary phenomena as visions, ecstasies, private revelations, and similar occurrences. But we do see shining forth from these staid chronicles glimmers of the delights flooding a soul in the state of grace that cultivates divine union and divine love. The renewal of strict discipline in convents was not limited to such external, but necessary, regulations as conventual silence and attendance at community exercises, but functioned in the deeper realms of interior renewal by detaching the religious from the distractions of worldly interests and possessions.

Among the nuns, the usual ascetical practices of vigils, fastings, scourgings, and hairshirts were combined with prayer and work in order to lead the whole person, soul and body, to God. But the emphasis was more on a change of heart than on mortification of the body. Spiritual directors tried to guide the nuns in the paths of "divine love and fidelity to their vows, toward humble resignation in true patience and obedience to all the demands of community life, rather than in the ways of excessive severity which often are contrary to the rule of the Order. (4)

We are given a deep insight into the religious discipline observed in St. Catherine's Convent at Nürnberg by the fact that the fairest treasures of German mysticism were preserved there. They possessed at least the principal works of Eckhart, Tauler, and Suso, as well as other fourteenth-century mystical literature. Of one of Eckhart's sermons we read: "This should be read in the refectory on Our Lady's feast in Lent." (5) Around the middle of the fifteenth century, the works of Tauler and Suso were transcribed along with those of Eckhart. But one of the sisters felt ill at ease in this rarefied atmosphere and described the doctrine as "heavy and obscure."(6) No doubt, this mystical literature was supplemented with the writings of contemporary authors, such as Nider and Herold, with whom the sisters were personally acquainted.

The spiritual life of fifteenth-century nuns followed a different course from that of their predecessors. Even the isolated examples of mystic-minded religious strengthens our conviction that they were the exception, not the rule as formerly. We may say that these pre-reformation German nuns strove to do the right thing in the right way. This shifting from mystical union with God to practical asceticism is exemplified in a booklet written by Sister Catherine Eder in 1515: A Pattern and Rule for Novices. (7) The novices are taught sound principles concerning the purpose of religious life, their conduct towards superiors and equals, their behavior at table, in choir, in the cell, and at work. They are told to prove their appreciation of spiritual values by their adherence to perfect poverty, humble obedience, continual prayer, strict mortification, and zeal in the liturgical offices. These lessons are exemplified in John Meyer's account of nineteen reformed Dominican convents. Because of the force of example, these reformed convents suffered no dearth of vocations. New convents were constructed; abandoned ones were reopened.

Meyer describes the effect of spiritual resurgence on the laity and on non-reformed convents: "These convents (of strict observance) have a surplus of vocations; ladies beg and plead to be admitted. As soon as a community adopts the reform, ladies of

the world vie with sisters from relaxed communities for admission, which is often refused because of crowded conditions. All this proves that the desire to love and serve God in religious life is innate in the female sex."(8)

THE MODERN DEVOTION

The altered spirituality of both men and women religious of fifteenth-century Germany followed the change from mystical prayer to a practical, petitionary form of prayer. As was to be expected, there appeared at the same time and in the same country many doctrinal treatises concerned more with the concrete and particular than with the abstract and universal. Perhaps the foremost among these writers was Henry von Langenstein ( 1397), professor of theology at Paris and Vienna, who composed many books on philosophy, science, exegetics, dogma, church history, and asceticism, and was renowned as a preacher throughout Austria and southern Germany. Another outstanding preacher was Matthew of Cracow ( 1410), professor, diplomat, and preacher at Prague, Paris, and Heidelberg who died as Bishop of Cracow. And Münster gave to the Church Dietrich Coelde ( 1515), renowned Franciscan writer and missionary. These three men may be said to have joined forces with the contemporary German Dominicans in fostering the spiritual movement inaugurated in the Netherlands, the Devotio moderna, which had profound repercussions on the religious life of the century. (9) The popularity of this spirituality is proved by the fact that even contemporary writers styled it "the modern devotion." Although the Devotio moderna claimed to follow Ruysbroeck's teaching, it was a very practical, down-to-earth sort of spirituality. It dealt with "applied mysticism ... contemplation applied to life." (10) It's purpose was sanctification of the individual in his ordinary secular life. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis exemplifies this doctrine. Devotio moderna sought "to transplant the spirit of the cloister into secular life . . . to strive for evangelical perfection while living in worldly surroundings."(11) Far from being extraordinary, this is an ordinary and wholesome condition, attainable by all. And so we may justly consider this offshoot of Devotio moderna, a deep, simple, sincere sort of piety, as the religious ideal of medieval layfolk. Its champions were practical men.

We find a similar adherence to practical principles among contemporary German Dominicans. But some differences are distinguishable. While the Devotio moderna, exemplified by the Imitation of Christ, held on to some mystical principles even though in practice active asceticism guided the conduct, the German Dominicans were out-and-out practical activists. As preachers and missionaries to the laity, their outlook on life was wholly practical.

Henry Suso had summarized mysticism in the aphorism: "A recollected person must be unformed of the creature, become informed with Christ, and transformed into God."(12) But John Nider and his contemporaries directed their attention elsewhere, to something equally important but closer at hand. They prepared men for the daily struggle, to live a truly Christian life while buffeted by temptation and distractions from within and without. Only from this standpoint do the fifteenth-century Dominicans make sense. True, they are no longer mystics, but this does not qualify us to condemn them as heretics. Not to have a mystical attitude does not make a person anti-mystical or spiritually relaxed. Those who desert mysticism are not apostates, but realists.

We must remember that man does not live in a vacuum or on a barren mountain top, but in human society, surrounded by other human beings. And although human needs are basically the same in every century, yet in accidental matters these needs vary. Therefore, if man lives in an age of tension, dissolution, and transition, he can best serve his contemporaries by adapting his teachings to their needs. This is a sign of salutary, inexhaustible vitality. He combines what is new with what is old and introduces a fresh era.

ALTERED SPIRITUAL OUTLOOK

Various reasons have been adduced for the transition from mysticism to practical spirituality among fifteenth-century German Dominicans and the nuns whom they directed. We have already touched upon one reason: the tendency among religious persons of the later Middle Ages to leave the universal in favor of the specific, the abstract in favor of the concrete. Among German Dominicans this inclination took the form of discouraging mystical union with God, and of encouraging the perfection of good ethical conduct.

INTERNAL CAUSES

Alongside these spiritual and historical factors we detect certain internal and external causes. The most important of the internal causes is a certain psychological impetus inherent in the very term "mysticism." To be a mystic, a man must dedicate all his faculties to God. The Augustinian neo-Platonic system demanded that a mystic remain constantly on this superior plane. But in actual life, no man can live permanently in this rarefied atmosphere of the spiritual mountain peak. Even a mystic's zeal and enthusiasm have limits. Man's faculties, especially the physical, cannot long endure under severe strain. Therefore, mystical nuptials are summits where man can live for a time, but then he must descend to the valley and inhale the normal air of ordinary spiritual life. Although theoretically the summit of mystical contemplation is a peak within the reach of every individual, yet in reality only a few, the elite, attain it. Mystics are always in the minority, the silent, unknown ones. The majority never scale the mystical mountain peak, much less feel at ease there.

A second factor to be considered is that mysticism, because its assumptions are not always in accord with a healthy rational attitude, bears within itself the seeds of disintegration. A mystic is prone to confuse he products of his imagination and subjective experience with mystical revelation and divine contemplation, to be guided by personal emotions rather than by theological knowledge, to drift into the sphere of purely personal experience, and to forget the distinction between the human and the divine, between true revelation and imaginative fancy. Th is was sadly exemplified in certain fourteenth-century women mystics who were guided by theologians of the Augustinian neo-Platonic school. Affective, enthusiastic, spontaneous, and arbitrary aspirations frequently took precedence over spiritual zeal, guided and enlightened by faith. This resulted in the unbalanced and exaggerated digressions which made an unfavorable impression on contemporary Christians as well as on modern, more critical and prosaic readers, and sometimes turned the mystics into antisocial beings.

Although it is true that man's entire being, heart included, worships God, yet the emotions must be kept in check. Stability results when the intellect holds the reins and governs the individual's spirituality according to sound rational principles. Consequently, we can point out two tendencies in mysticism: one based on reason enlightened by faith, the other on experience dominated by emotions. Mysticism based on emotion strays into dangerous heresies, a rational, practical attitude toward piety guards the mystic from aberration.

We must remember that mystics, being athirst for lofty theological truths, are always in need of encouragement, instruction, and direction. In the fourteenth century, Dominican masters and lectors of theology exercised great influence on the spiritual life of the nuns and so were responsible for the rare flowers of mysticism. But the decline of scholasticism, accompanied by a lack of theological instruction and spiritual vigor, had sad repercussions in the realm of fifteenth-century piety. As spiritual directors became more engrossed in practical problems, they became less concerned about divine truths.

To understand the decline of mysticism we must remember that not all Germans had become mystic-minded; the mystical preachers had only spoken to and influenced a small minority. These preachers appealed to a select audience, capable of following their lofty flights of speculation and their stringent demands for self-discipline. Because this audience was usually composed of nuns, members of the Dominican or other orders, we may say that in the fourteenth century mysticism was preached in cloisters, whereas in the thirteenth and fifteenth, preachers addressed popular sermons to Catholics at large.

When reading the writings of fifteenth-century German Dominicans we are struck by the numerous quotations from Tauler and Suso, but few from Eckhart. What is the reason for this? It is attributable to the condemnation of certain of Eckhart's propositions, and to the abstract character of his speculations, comprehensible only to those who had been previously prepared for his doctrine. Even the natural attraction of the human mind, especially woman's, towards occult secrets, did not overcome this obstacle. (13) But the practical, realistic piety of the fifteenth century departed from this mystical vein. No doubt, the condemnation of Eckhart scared people away from his line of thinking. The very terminology which he used in describing the sublime degrees of mystical union with God exposed the reader to the danger of misinterpretation. Sometimes he used a word in its strict literal meaning, then again in a metaphorical sense. Such vague expressions as "In God there is neither good, nor better, nor best," (14) "God is all things," (15) "God is neither being nor intellect," (16) are perplexing in context, but absolutely disconcerting out of context. Even Eckhart's defender, Cardinal Nicholas of Cues, expressed the wish "that Eckhart's writings be removed from general circulation because what he had written for the use and instruction of the intellectual class was incomprehensible to the common people."(17) Denifle remarks pertinently: "Even the intellectuals preferred those writings wherein they found more wholesome nourishment for their souls." (18) It is not surprising that they avoided Eckhart's writings (19) and preferred Tauler's and Suso's so as not to endanger their own orthodoxy.

EXTERNAL CAUSES

To these internal causes for the decline of German mysticism we must add certain external factors, incapable in themselves of bringing about a change, but potent when acting in connection with the internal: (1) the reform movement in religious orders occasioned by the relaxation of discipline; (2) the shortage of vocations and the acceptance of aspirants of inferior character or spirituality.

The spirit instilled into the orders by their founders cooled because of human weakness and worldly considerations. Even Suso, who lived in the golden age of monasticism, paints a depressing picture in his Horologium sapientiae. He depicts many religious who pursued distinctions, posts of honor, and unnecessary dispensations, neglected their sacred duties, and ridiculed their zealous companions. But the supreme evil infecting religious houses was the "private life." (20) Masters general and general chapters repeatedly urged universal reform movements, (21) but only a few isolated convents returned to the primitive observance of the rule.

The real internal reform of the Dominican Order began with the election of Raymond of Capua as Master General at the General Chapter of Bologna in 1380. He ordained that in every province at least one convent of primitive observance be established. For this project, Raymond found an energetic supporter in Conrad of Prussia, whom he appointed prior of the convent of Kolmar in Alsace where with thirty friars he adopted the primitive rule in all its rigor. A few years later he established a monastery of strict observance for the nuns of the Order at Schönensteinbach near Kolmar. A salutary reform current flowed from these two sources across Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Thirty-four convents of men and many monasteries of nuns of the German province adopted the reform by 1483 (Nürnberg in 1397 and Bern in 1419). This reform movement was propelled by many saintly fifteenth-century German Dominicans. So busy were they in this struggle to revive the ideals of the early brethren that they had no time to encourage the aspirations of any individual who may have been led on mystical paths. They devoted all their energies to one purpose: to prevent the disintegration of the whole Order by laxity of discipline. In his book Concerning the Reform of Religious, Nider pleads with religious to fight against relaxation, to return to the ideals of their founder, to cherish their vows and customs. He made no mention of mystical union with God, because this was not his purpose in writing. He restricted himself to the essentials. This basic tendency explains why all the writings of fifteenth-century Dominicans, whether directed to the laity or to religious, are primarily practical, educational, reformative.

Other circumstances also played a part in the diminution of mysticism in the latter part of the fourteenth century. A terrible earthquake at the beginning of 1348 killed many people. In Asia, the Black Death began its ravages. Italian ships carried the contagious germs to Sicily, Pisa, Genoa, and Marseilles. From there the epidemic spread across the Alps and invaded all of Europe. Primitive hygienic conditions encouraged the rapid spread of infection wherever people lived in close proximity. So we can see how in convents the plague had devastating effects. Contemporary records reveal that the Black Death claimed 60,000 victims in Florence, 100,000 in Venice, 50,000 in Paris, 16,000 in Strasbourg, 16,000 in Erfurt, 12,000 in Basel, 9,000 in Lübeck, and 5,000 in Weimar. (22) Granted that these numbers are probably exaggerated, the casualties were undoubtedly very high.

The Dominican Order was not spared its high quota of deaths, and of those religious who survived, men and women, many returned to secular life. The resulting scarcity of religious left behind to carry on the work of large convents was in itself an obstacle to the development of the mystical spirit. Many years would pass before an atmosphere conducive to contemplation could be renewed. And by then the age of mystical fervor had passed.

Another important factor must be noted. Because of the many men who died in the constant wars and feuds of the period, there did not seem to be enough husbands to go around. So parents practically forced their daughters to enter the convent against their natural inclination. Convenience was considered more important than piety. This custom, a serious threat to exterior discipline and interior prayer, required stern corrective measures.

Many factors contributed to the decline of medieval German mysticism. Among these we have mentioned those which lie in mysticism itself and those which arise from external causes. We should also consider that the fifteenth century was poles removed from the fourteenth in the major areas of life: political, economic, cultural, and religious. And fifteenth-century German Dominicans did recognize and fulfill their Christian obligation to make Christ's spirit and teaching attractive to their contemporaries. German mysticism had passed its apex. Practicality in spiritual matters superseded the former lofty perspective. Only from this viewpoint can we appreciate the life and work of fifteenth-century German Dominicans. However, we should not consider this altered outlook as a sign of spiritual retrogression and decadence, but as a proof of religious health and vigor.

NOTES

1 See G. M. Gieraths, Die Lehre vom Gebet bei der deutschen Dominikanern des 15 Jahrhunderts (Bonn: 1950); John Nider, O.P., and "Deutsche Mystik" des 14 Jahrhunderts, Divus Thomas, 30 (1952).

2 G. Schnürer, Kirche und Kultur im Mittelatter, Bd. 3 (Padenborn: 1929), p. 184.

3 F. Jostes, Meister Eckhart und seine Jünger. Ungedruckfe Texte sur Geschichte der deutschen Mystik. Collectanes Fribugensia, Fasc. IV (Freiburg in Schw.: 1895), p. 17.

4 Quellen v. Forschungen z. Gesch. d. Dominicanerordens in Deutschland (Leipzig: 1907), 2, 36.

5 Cited by Jostes, 107, note 25. Reference to the Annunciation.

6 Jostes, 24, note 2.

7 Published by K. Rieder in Alemannia, XXV, S. 166 ff.

8 Quellen u. Forschungen (Leipzig: 1908) 3, 94.

9 This is an example of how the Dominicans and the proponents of the Devotio moderna utilized the spirit of the age. Because the purpose of Devotio moderna was to spread the monastic spirit among the laity, the Dominicans were at first opposed to the idea. So we find the Dominican Matthew Grabow asking the Bishop of Utrecht and the Council of Constance to condemn the movement. But his efforts failed. See J. Hollnsteiner, Die Kirche im Ringen um die christliche Gemeinschalt (Vol. II, 2 of the Church history ed. by J. P. Kirsch) (Freiburg: 1940), p. 443; R. Langenberg, Quellen und Forschungen zur Geschichte der deutschen Mystik (Bonn: 1902), p. 179f.

10 J. Kuckhoff, Johannes von Rysbroeck (Munich: 1938), p. 25.

11 W. Neuss, Die Kirche des Mittelalters, 2 Aufl. (Bonn: 1950), p. 364.

12 Suso, Leben, c. 49, ed. K. Bihlmeyer, 168, 9.

13 See H. Denifle, Die Deutschen Schriften des H. Seuse (München: 1880), I. p. 143. Concerning Elsbeth Stagel we read: "In her first beginning someone had diverted her thoughts to lofty metaphysical subjects: the naked Godhead, the nullity of all creatures, the submersion of oneself into the nothingness, and the extrication of oneself from all sensible images. She found much pleasure in these and similar ideas, all clothed in dazzling, extravagant terms. Although good in itself, this doctrine proved to be a hindrance to her because lack of education and experience disqualified her for making the necessary distinctions between sense and spirit."

14 F. Pfeiffer, Deutsch Mystiker des vierzehnten Jahrhunderts, Bd. 2 (Leipzig: 1857), 269, 18.

15 Ibid., 282, 31.

16 Ibid., 29.

17 Cited by H. Denifle in Archiv, II, 522, note 1.

18 Ibid.

19 Even though his writings were widely disseminated in Germany and had far-reaching effects in certain spheres.

20 See Henry Suso, O.P., Horologiurn sapientiae, ed. C. (Paris: 1903-1914), (Richstitter, Taurini: 1929), p. 43 ff.

21 See F. D. Mortier, Histoire des Maitres Généraux de l'Ordre des Frères Precheurs, III, 546ff.

22 See J. B. von Weiss, Weltgeschichte, (Graz-Leipzig: 1894), VI.


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