“The Fourteenth Century Dominican, Henry Suso, is one of a trinity of famous Dominican “Founding Fathers” of German Mysticism, a form of spirituality prevalent in German speaking lands 1250-1470. The other two “Founding Fathers” were his teacher, Meister Eckhart, and his contemporary John Tauler. Of the three, Suso is the only one to have been Beatified: Pope Gregory XVI confirmed his veneration in 1831 on account of sustained popular devotion. Who was this German mystic? What makes him different to Meister Eckhart? Is he anything more than the acceptable face of German mystical theology?
Suso was born in Constance, we think, but he might have been born on the other side of the lake at Ueberlingen in Swabia. His father was Count von Berg but he took his Mother’s name instead and seemingly eschewed the more obvious worldly path as a courtier before him. One is tempted to think of him as something of a “mummy’s boy”. Yet what “mummy’s boy” would leave the comfort of his home and enter a fairly austere life with the Dominicans at the young age of 13, some two years earlier than the stipulated age? Suso, it seems, had was made of strong mettle. Indeed, in his early life, he would subject himself to eye-watering practices such as lying of a bed of thirty nails in cruciform shape.
At the age of about 18 he experienced a deeper form of spiritual conversion. From 1324 to 1327, he studied at the studium generale in Cologne. It was at Cologne that Suso fatefully came into contact with Eckhart, shortly before the latter’s death in c.1328. After Cologne, Suso returned to his home Priory at Constance. He became a lector but found himself in hot water over his defence of Eckhart, such as can be found in his “Little Book of Truth”, a short defence of Eckhart’s teching. He defended himself at a General Chapter of the Order at Maastricht in 1330. Luckily for Suso, the General Chapter seemed more concerned about the problems within the Franciscans and the schismatic acts of fr. Michael of Cesena than suspect theology from within their own ranks.
The Dominicans left Constance in 1348 in order to avoid swearing allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor, Louis of Bavaria, in the midst of a feud between the Empire and Pope John XXII. After nearly being murdered in a Rhineland village in a bizarre affair in which he was accused of poisoning the village well, he finally settled at Ulm, where after serving as Prior, he later died on 25th January 1365.
In his writings, Suso bequeathed us with a rich and intensely personal spirituality in which he stresses a self-emptying of oneself in order to allow the pouring in of God. Acts of self-surrender make us more like Christ, who made the ultimate sacrifice for our redemption. I couldn’t help think in reading Suso that there is much in his thinking that could be considered a precursor to St. John of the Cross; they explore similar themes of spiritual darkness in poetic form. Frank Tobin has described Suso, as having the ultimate aim of putting spiritual truths in literary form. His Vita, which despite its Latin title was written in German and is known in English as “The Life of the Servant”, can be seen as a continuation of an autobiographical tradition in spiritual writing that has strong echoes of St. Augustine’s Confessions. It should be said, however, that the work is said to be a joint-enterprise with Elisabeth Stagel, Dominican Nun and friend to Suso, who was sometime Prioress at Toss. Some doubt whether Suso had any hand in the work at all.
Suso was altogether more qualified and guarded than Eckhart. After an early scare with suspicion, he seems to have taken greater care not to be misconstrued or misunderstood, whilst retaining a focus on the interior life, and themes of detachment, discernment, freedom and mystical union. He was, we might say, less speculative than Eckhart, and more careful. In striving to combine mystical devotion with sound doctrine, Suso is much more than simply the acceptable face of German mysticism; his writings are a treasury for us to mine and his life. And if like me, you find the Swabian dialect of High Medieval German rather taxing, there are some excellent translations.”
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "“Si comprehendus, non est Deus.” -St Augustine, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "And above all, be on your guard not to want to get anything done by force, because God has given free will to everyone and wants to force no one, but only proposes, invites and counsels." –St. Angela Merici, “Yet such are the pity and compassion of this Lord of ours, so desirous is He that we should seek Him and enjoy His company, that in one way or another He never ceases calling us to Him . . . God here speaks to souls through words uttered by pious people, by sermons or good books, and in many other such ways.” —St. Teresa of Avila, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity… I wish you to enlarge your knowledge, to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, what are the bases and principles of Catholicism, and where lie the main inconsistences and absurdities of the Protestant theory.” (St. John Henry Newman, “Duties of Catholics Towards the Protestant View,” Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England), "We cannot always have access to a spiritual Father for counsel in our actions and in our doubts, but reading will abundantly supply his place by giving us directions to escape the illusions of the devil and of our own self-love, and at the same time to submit to the divine will.” —St. Alphonsus Ligouri, "The harm that comes to souls from the lack of reading holy books makes me shudder . . . What power spiritual reading has to lead to a change of course, and to make even worldly people enter into the way of perfection." –St. Padre Pio, "Screens may grab our attention, but books change our lives!" – Word on Fire, "Reading has made many saints!" -St Josemaría Escrivá, "Do you pray? You speak to the Bridegroom. Do you read? He speaks to you." —St. Jerome, from his Letter 22 to Eustochium, "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, "God here speaks to souls through…good books“ – St Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, "You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP. "Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. Otherwise, prayer is better than reading." –St. Isidore of Seville “The aid of spiritual books is for you a necessity.… You, who are in the midst of battle, must protect yourself with the buckler of holy thoughts drawn from good books.” -St. John Chrysostom