Unpacking the Rhineland Mystics
Books on spirituality and “self help” line the shelves of bookstores, stories on the same topics call at people from the magazine racks. The millions of readers of these books and articles seem to end up fluttering from one theory, one cure, even one culture, to the next like moths off to the next bright light. Many seem to get some peace of mind from the busyness of the chase but, given all the activity, the background anxiety must never go away. Perhaps because they are looking in all the wrong places.
Much of this, of course, is that recent generations have been trained to have almost no attention span, but another important component is the simple fact that spirituality without religion is an empty vessel. It is a bright, festively wrapped box with a large bow and nothing inside.
So they flutter on.
Deep down, though, the whole culture sometimes seems to be begging for connection to its soul, a way to understand its spiritual side. It wants meaning from its own culture, a connection to its own past. The modern culture teaches, through scientism, to disconnect from prior beliefs, and through modernism, to aspire to a future which promises the most glittering, colorful and exciting line of empty boxes, stretching toward the horizon as far as the eye can see.
Meanwhile, the Church, with over two millenia of experience of providing meaning, is trying in frustration to evangelize that culture. Despite the questions of one side, and the rich history of answers on the other, the chasm between the culture and the Church seems to be ever widening, and altogether perplexing.
At this moment there is hope that a new pope will be able to bring these sides together. He seems to have a connection to the people, a charisma, an ability to inspire. But has the culture given him its attention because he is the next big thing, and already hinted that they will flutter away from when the next bright light appears?
If this Pope does not bring the precise style of change that people’s personal politics desire, then they will certainly press on to the next sensation that appears in the spotlight, as if they are not running all the while from themselves.
But within the great traditions of this very culture are the truths that can nourish and sustain. The frenzied desperation of believing in self alone offers no peace, and each individual, should they consider it, knows this in their heart. While they keep following from one bright light to the next, they all, deep in their souls, want to stop the chase, embrace peace and stay in the light.
Abandon yourself utterly for the love of God, and in this way you will become truly happy.
— Henry Suso
I. WHAT IS NEEDED?
What is needed at this time are the spiritual teachings. There is an undeniable role for rules and discipline, but there is now also a profound need in the culture to be re-introduced to the soul, to the touch and feel of God in everyday life. As funny as it may sound in the midst of a culture that thinks it sits atop all the knowledge of history and demands absolute proof of every little thing, there is right now a great need for the mystics.
When God made man he put into the soul his equal, his active, everlasting masterpiece. It was so great a work that it could not be otherwise than the soul, and the soul could not be otherwise than the work of God.
— Meister Eckhart
To find the soul in ourselves is the purview of the mystics, it requires the teachings of those great men and women of history who knew that if we are quiet enough, within and without, we can feel its stirrings. If we can sort through the distractions of this life, and our ego’s never-ending responses to these distractions, and reach the quiet ground, perhaps we can then make the space we need to contemplate God, and begin to see and feel Him in this world.
To discern what weaknesses and faults separate you from God, you must enter into your own inward ground and then confront yourself.
— John Tauler
Modern parlance might call the process of noticing that you are not necessarily your thoughts a detachment from ego. Whatever you call it, many throughout history have pointed to it as the first step of the retreat to the spirit that often peels away anxieties about the past, or worries about the future, by focusing on and abiding in, the eternity of the now. That is, by gently placing your mind on what is before you, you get into contact with a piece of you that can experience a wider world than you ordinarily notice.
There exists only the present instant . . . a Now which always and without end is itself new. There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence.
— Meister Eckhart *1
By doing this, by sitting and watching with appreciation the leaves of of a tree stir in the breeze, or by watching the waters of a river flow by, you begin to live in the present moment. Some in history have believed that this is where your soul calls to you. And your soul is your connection to God.
A man may go into the field and say his prayer and be aware of God, or, he may be in Church and be aware of God; but, if he is more aware of Him because he is in a quiet place, that is his own deficiency and not due to God, Who is present in the same way in all things and places, and is willing to give Himself everywhere what is in Him. He knows God rightly who knows Him everywhere.
— Meister Eckhart *1
While these are Christian principles, and they abound in the Bible, in the writings of the great saints of the Church, and in the Mass itself, it is historically the role of the mystics to speak to them. But the word “mystic” itself sounds odd in this age–it has the ring of another, more benighted time. But, whatever you call them, the Church has had many who followed this path. And while they all deserve attention, it may be instructive here to focus on one point in history, one place in time, where these ideas were prominent not because they were novel or foreign, but because they were eternal and familiar. Central to what these particular individuals preached was the idea that the degree to which one lets oneself go is the degree to which God is let in.
It is a fair trade and an equal exchange: to the extent that you depart from things, no more and no less, God enters into you with all that is his, as far as you have stripped yourself of yourself in all things. It is here that you should begin, whatever the cost, for it is here that you will find true peace, and nowhere else.
— Meister Eckhart *1
The area surrounding the Rhine River as it flows south through western Germany is called the Rhineland. It has historically been Germanic, even in the face of Roman attempts to conquer the area. In more modern times, the French have taken some of these lands, but have not held them. Still, its proximity to France and its place on the western side of Germany has historically made it more Catholic, less Prussian, and a somewhat unique culture: A little German, a little French. In the late middle ages, a chaotic time still boiling with the ideas of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominic de Guzman, St. Thomas of Aquinas and many others, a kind of common tranquility had great appeal there, and the way to achieve it was actively taught. The practice later took on the name of the area, and is looked back on as Rhineland Mysticism. It is also known as German Mysticism, and occasionally Dominican mysticism.
Often when He comes, He finds the soul occupied. Other guests are there, and He has to turn away. He cannot gain entry, for we love and desire other things; therefore, His gifts, which He is offering to everyone unceasingly, must remain outside.
– John Tauler
The Dominicans, of course, began with St. Dominic in Spain, but in the following centuries this Order of Preachers grew. With an adherence to the tenets of the faith, the Dominicans sought to bring people to the true teachings of the Church through education and by going out among the people instead of cloistering behind closed doors. While some of the later inquisitors were Dominicans (Tomás de Torquemada in Spain was a Dominican friar), in Italy Dominicans were some of the most educated people in the world (St. Thomas Aquinas comes to mind here). In the Rhineland what arose from the Dominican influence was a culture which sought to get right to the point of things—to the individual’s relationship with God.
God is at home, it’s we who have gone out for a walk.
– Meister Eckhart
Mysticism, of course, is mystery, and for that reason it is hard to define. But all of the Christian ideas of mysticism involve the idea that human beings can become close to God, know God, intuit God, feel the presence of God—that by some way, normally contemplative prayer, they can open themselves up and listen to God. While anyone with a dedicated prayer life can rightly claim these things, the idea of even paying attention to them is foreign to many.
Everyone should find some suitable time, day or night, to sink into his depths, each according to his own fashion. Not everyone is able to engage in contemplative prayer.
– John Tauler *3
Mystics are often not treated well in their own times. It is normally later that they are officially attributed the special grace of God to have been so close to Him. But mysticism itself is not outside the boundaries of Church belief. While more personal in the Eastern churches, in the West it is for the most part celebrated in the sacraments, and rightly so.
Spiritual progress tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ. This union is called “mystical” because it participates in the mystery of Christ through the sacraments – ‘the holy mysteries’ – and, in him, in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. God calls us all to this intimate union with him, even if the special graces or extraordinary signs of this mystical life are granted only to some for the sake of manifesting the gratuitous gift given to all.
Liturgical catechesis aims to initiate people into the mystery of Christ (its “mystagogy”) by proceeding from the visible to the invisible, from the sign to the thing signified, from the “sacrements” to the “mysteries.”
A casual reading of the words of John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, and indeed the Gospel of John seems to indicate that this connection may be offered by the Creator in the most generous manner. Still, people who make such a claim are rightly greeted with skepticism since history is filled with people who thought they alone knew God through some direct connection that got around the great traditions, the language of the Bible, the authority of the Church, or even of Christ’s message itself. And they were, of course, wrong. Looking back at Church history, the true mystics have claimed no such thing. Still, this ambiguity was evident at the time of the most noteworthy Rhineland mystic.
We are sad to report that in these days someone by the name of Eckhart from Germany, a master of sacred theology (as it is said) and a teacher of the Order of Preachers, wished to know more than he should, and not in accordance with sobriety and the measure of faith, because he turned his ear from the truth and followed fables.
Pope John XXII, 1329
I think of the marvelous history of Rheno-Flemish mysticism of the thirteenth and especially of the fourteenth centuries. Did not Eckhart teach his disciples: “All that God asks you most pressingly is to go out of yourself – and let God be God in you”? One could think that in separating himself from creatures the mystic leaves his brother humanity behind. The same Eckhart affirms that on the contrary the mystic is marvelously present to them on the only level where he can truly reach them, that is, in God.
Pope John Paul II, 1987 *2
Eckhart von Hochheim was born near Erfurt, Germany around 1260 to a landowning family of which little is known for certain. He joined the Dominican Order in Erfurt in his teens, and studied in Cologne, then in Paris where he lectured and was educated, earning the right to be called a master of theology. While he traveled more extensively, he returned to Erfurt and then to Cologne, where he lectured, gave sermons, wrote and taught.
The age was a tense one. The papacy had moved to France for a time, and the Church had acquired great wealth in a diseased and impoverished age by the time of Pope John XXII. Many of the older, cloistered orders had found prosperity by being the only structure in a society otherwise awash in chaos. The Franciscans came into this culture asserting simplicity and poverty as the practice of the Apostles. Meanwhile the Dominicans sought to bring around the culture by education and an adherence to the tenets of the faith. The more zealous of the Dominicans and Franciscans saw heresies in the teaching of the other. Eckhart lived near, or in, Cologne, and thus he, a Dominican, was under the Franciscan Heinriech II, who did not like his ideas one bit.
When I preach, I usually speak of detachment and say that a man should be empty of self and all things; and secondly, that he should be reconstructed in the simple good that God is; and thirdly, that he should consider the great aristocracy which God has set up in the soul, such that by means of it man may wonderfully attain to God; and fourthly, of the purity of the divine nature.
– Meister Eckhart *1
His ideas, while ancient, were not ordinary. He appealed to the masses by being one of the first to preach in the vernacular, the language of the people, in his case Middle High German. He spoke it without shame from the pulpit in Cologne. Similarly, his teachings had an edge that attracted followers, but which also would cost him.
God is nameless, for no man can either say or understand anything about Him. If I say, God is good, it is not true; nay more; I am good, God is not good. I may even say, I am better than God; for whatever is good, may become better, and whatever may become better, may become best. Now God is not good, for He cannot become better. And if He cannot become better, He cannot become best, for these three things, good, better, and best, are far from God, since He is above all.
– Meister Eckhart *1
Naturally, to be able to be quoted as saying “God is not good,” however out of context it might be, was reckless in an Age where the power of ideas was taken quite seriously. Things such as this would cost him.
The Archbishop of Cologne accused Eckhart of heresy more than once, but the charges from him did not stick. Finally, at the archbishop’s urging, Pope John XXII himself, then in Avignon, France, asserted on March 27, 1329 in the Bull In Agro Dominico, that some of what Eckhart had said was heretical. Eckhart, who had already been before the pope to discuss these accusations, asserted that he never intended heresy, and took back any wording that was seen as heretical. He then basically disappears from history.
If, however, anything in the aforesaid, or in other statements or writings of mine should be false, which I do not see, I am always willing to yield to a better understanding. . . . For I am able to err, but I cannot be a heretic, since one has to do with the intellect and the other with the will.
— Meister Eckhart, Defense *1
While some of his particular phrasings were found heretical in his age, he himself was never judged to be. But even he had admitted his choice of wording was not always wise. After Eckhart disappears from history, his final fate in the inquisition into his activities is not referred to. There is no historical record of his death and no burial plot has ever been found. Still, his ideas did not disappear.
The Dominicans in and around the Rhineland would go for their education to the Dominican Studium Generale in Cologne. There they would learn from the masters. Blessed Henry Suso was born on or about March 21, 1300. Not suited to be the soldier his parents wanted, he joined the Dominican order and from 1324 to 1327 he studied theology in Cologne at the feet of the master, Eckhart von Hochheim. It is likely Suso attended with John Tauler (see below). Suso learned Eckhart’s teachings well, but spoke from his own heart.
Keep yourself free from the influence of all external things, disenthrall yourself from all that depends on chance or accident, and direct your mind at all times on high in secret and divine contemplation . . . then you will attain the loftiest pitch of perfection, which not one person in a thousand comprehends, because, with their own goals in view, they all continue in other matters, and so go astray the long years. . . . This has been said to you only so you will know where you should aim, after what you should strive, to what you should turn your heart and mind . . . . If you don’t yet have an abiding place in divine contemplation, let the repeated collecting of your wandering thoughts, and the withdrawing of yourself to do so, bring you faithfulness as much as constancy requires.
– Henry Suso *4
He would become the prior of a convent, and reached the world through his writings such as the Little Book of Truth and the Little Book of Eternal Wisdom. Those writings inspired many and he would travel and preach on the ideas in them, becoming a kind of spiritual adviser to many souls in the region. He pondered and wrote of Wisdom, personified as it is in the wisdom books of the Bible, and his writings were at times styled as a conversation with Wisdom. His writings were so widespread it is said that they contributed to the development of the German language itself.
Suso, clearly another appealing personality, would develop his own voice which was gentler, and did not provoke the ire of those in authority. Every once in a while he would show that his beliefs mirrored those of Eckhart, but for the most part he tacked closer to the mainstream of his day in his public preaching. He pondered the wisdom books of the Bible, and his writings had great influence in the late middle age. Pope Alexander XVI would later beatify him. He died in 1366.
If you find yourself falling short, make not too much of this cross, let rather divine truth measure it out, and show contrition in your heart.
– John Tauler *3
It’s unclear if Johannes Tauler was directly a student of Meister Eckhart, but he certainly knew and appreciated him, and shared and developed Eckhart’s viewpoint a great deal. He, too, was a Dominican from a better-off family, who devoted his life to his order, but his sermons often seem to speak to secular audiences more than just those who had taken vows. Most certainly Tauler became a friend of Suso, and they joined or developed a group called the Friends of God (likely a reference to John 15:15) who shared similar views.
Tauler preached of an inward spirituality and self denial in a time of famine and strife. While it was certainly not typical of the age, he kept his preaching generally within the bounds of acceptable views for the age, and referred to himself as a type of spiritual director and not an academician. Ocassionally he put in his crosshairs the clergy, but only in stating that individuals could wander from what truly mattered. Ultimately his teachings were to directed to everyone–he did not bow to authorities and the elites, but neither did he exclude or blame them.
As with Eckhart, many of his teachings revolved around silence and detachment:
This is the way of all those who are born anew and are strengthened interiorly in true detachment. The more this interior process increases, the more richly the Holy Spirit is given, and more gloriously received.
– John Tauler *3
That silence is necessary to the soul is hardly controversial: “When messages and information are plentiful, silence becomes essential if we are to distinguish what is important from what is insignificant or secondary,” said Pope Benedict XVI. See here. And indeed the purpose of this detachment from the busyness of life, Tauler might argue, is to abide within our God-made souls, and to get, in modern parlance, out of our heads.
Is it not shameful and a great scandal that we . . . should be running around like blind hens, ignorant of our own self and of the depth within us? The reason is that we are so fragmented, so scattered all over the place. We put great emphasis on what appeals to the senses, on our activities and various projects. The number of vigils and psalms and other pious practices occupy us to such an extent that we cannot find the way to our inmost ground.
— John Tauler *3
It appears that Tauler stayed and preached in his beloved Strasbourg when the Black Death came in 1348 and most were fleeing the town. He made personal visits on the sick and lonely and became even more widely known for these acts. He is said to have died in 1361.
V. UNPACKING WISDOM
When one speaks of detachment, being in the moment and stepping back from your thoughts, the modern reflex is to assume that it is based in a belief system of the East. That is because the culture lacks a knowledge of its own history. In a way, the entire Bible is about escaping from ego. In a way, all prayer is a mystic attempt to bridge the gap to God. Where Eastern religions say everything changes, Christian mysticism knows at its core that the Lord lasts.
While it is possible to get mired in rules and guilt (and there is much to be said for both), a careful reading of the Bible and the Magisterium reveal that trust in God is the opposite of worry. To trust in God is to stay with Him in the present moment, and leave the future to Him. A present moment, the mystics might argue, where you notice so much more, feel so much more—where your reactions are to what is actually going on around you, and not to what is going on in your head.
Whatever God ordains or allows in our regard, happiness or misfortune, pleasure or pain, it all contributes to our eternal happiness, for everything that comes to us has been foreseen by God from all eternity. It has always existed in His mind, where it was decreed that things that things should happen in this manner and not another. Thus we should be at peace about it all.
This peace under all circumstances is acquired only by true detachment and inwardness. Whoever wishes to attain it must learn it in this way and seek it in a spirit of inward remembrance, for only then will it establish and take root. . . .
What, then, does true detachment . . . really mean? It means we must turn away and withdraw from all that is not God, pure and simple.
– John Tauler *3
Detachment for its own sake is meaningless. Detachment to trust in God is meaningful. Where the East may have it right, they share their message with these great Christian mystics who knew nothing about the East. But the point of the Rhineland Mystics is to embrace not a sense of emptiness but rather a sense of eternity. It is a teaching that, if re-examined, would undoubtedly benefit the Church and the culture it seeks to evangelize.
When one is looking for something and sees no sign that it is where he is searching, he will keep on looking there only with painful reluctance. If, however, he begins to find traces of it, he will hunt there gladly, freely and in earnest.
– Meister Eckhart *1
The mystics exist throughout all of Christian history, and they teach a truth that is plain, and most certainly a truth of Christianity. If this age thinks that it knows everything, and that it is right to believe in nothing, all the while knowing this is not even enough to help themselves through their days, then perhaps it is time to let loose the mystics. For the help this culture seeks, that we all seek, is right before our eyes.
“Whoever comes after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
Jesus Christ, Mark 8:34
There was a lot of reading and pulling of quotes, this is my attempt to give some accreditation as best I can at this point.
*1 Meister Eckhart, A Modern Translation, Raymon Blakney, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1941.
*2 See The Eckhart Society, Eckhart, the man. http://www.eckhartsociety.org/ eckhart/eckhart-man. See also http://www.eckhartsociety.org/eckhart/his-teachings
*3 Johannes Tauler, Sermons, Maria Shrady, Paulist Press, 1985.
*4 Little Book of Eternal Wisdom, Blessed Henry Suso, Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Selection from Chapter 22: How One Should Live An Interior and Godly Life.
I expect this list to expand. Feel free to comment with suggestions.
Armchair Mystic, by Mark E. Thibodeaux, S.J.
An interesting old thread over at Catholic Answers Forum.