Angelus Silesius

views updated Jun 11 2018


German mystic and religious poet of the baroque period; b. Breslau, December 1624; d. there, July 9, 1677. He was born Johannes Scheffler, the son of a Protestant landowner who had emigrated from Poland for religious reasons. Johannes studied philosophy and medicine at the Universities of Strassburg, Leyden, and Padua and was appointed court physician by Duke Sylvius Nimrod of Württemburg in 1649. Disgusted by the court chaplain's religious intolerance, Johannes resigned his post in 1652 and became a Catholic in 1653, taking the name Angelus Silesius; the conversion made him the target of vicious attacks and ridicule. After six years in Vienna, where he was court physician to Emperor Ferdinand III, he returned to Breslau, entered the Franciscans, and was ordained in 1661. From 1664 until his retirement in 1671, he held high positions in the service of his friend Sebastian Rostock, the prince-bishop of Breslau. Angelus then lived in ascetic seclusion until his death at St. Matthias monastery.

While studying in Holland, Angelus had read and admired the writings of another Silesian mystic, Jakob bÖhme, the cobbler of Görlitz. But while Böhme, though uneducated, approached the object of his quest through intuition and an impressive poetic talent, Angelus founded his ideas on a continuation of early Christian mysticism. In 1657 Angelus published the five-volume Geistreiche Sinn-und Schlussreime. For his aphorisms (1665) he used the verse form of the contemporary French drama, the Alexandrine, in which another Sile-sian, Daniel Von Czepko (160560), had written his mystical-theosophical Monodisticha sescenta sapientium. With extraordinary creative power Angelus molded the experience of God in mystical absorption into the pointed and often paradoxical form of the epigram, in which he fused antitheses of visio and ratio, the mystical and the conceptual, since, to him, antithesis was the most significant expression of the deity who reconciles and resolves all contradictions. Angelus' theme was not meditation on or adoration of the suffering Christ or the ascent of the soul to God, but rather God's descent to the soul: "I am as great as God, He is as small as I am"; "I know that God cannot live a moment without me; if I perish, He must needs give up the ghost."

Such ambiguous expressions made Angelus suspect of pantheism, which probably accounts for the esteem in which he was held by romantics and such moderns as R. M. Rilke. But Angelus' spiritual-intellectual epigrams must be understood as a new variety of Christian mysticism, as the continuation of a tradition that cannot be interpreted by more recent concepts. His censor, the Jesuit N. Avancini, dean of the faculty of theology at the University of Vienna, not only gave permission for publication but wrote a highly commendatory preface to the work, which in its second edition (1674) and with the added sixth volume became known as Cherubinischer Wandersmann. Heilige Seelenlust oder Geistliche Hirtenlieder der in ihren Jesum verliebten Psyche, a collection of 205 songs (1657), revealed the zealous convert who, in the spirit of the Song of Songs and of contemporary bucolic poems, wanted to testify to his love for Jesus. Some of these poems are profoundly moving and have become favorites in both Protestant and Catholic churches.

Apart from a number of apologetic writings or "Lehrtraktätlein," as he called them, Angelus engaged also in spiteful religious polemics. Spurred on by his friend, the prince-bishop of Breslau, who was very active in the counter reformation movement, and constantly provoked by his own detractors, Angelus published 55 pamphlets in which he battled with Protestant theologians, such as Chemnitz, Strauch, Scherzer, and Alberti. Two years before his death he published Sinnliche Beschreibung der vier Letzten Dinge (1675), a phantasmagoria on the four last things, meant to terrify men into abjuring sin. But he is best remembered for Cherubinischer Wandersmann and a few beautiful religious songs.

Bibliography: w. kosch, Deutsches Literatur-Lexikon, v.3 (2d ed. Bern 1956), 2431, with bibliog. h. gies, "Ein Dichter und Mystiker des Barock," in Literaturwissenschaftliches Jahrbuch der Görresgesellschaft 4 (1929), 129142. m. h. godecker, Angelus Silesius' Personality through His Ecclesiologia (Washington, D.C. 1938). w. stammler, Von der Mystik zum Barock: 14001600 (Stuttgart 1927; 2d ed. 1950), with extensive bibliog.

[s. a. schulz]

Angelus Silesius

views updated May 18 2018

Angelus Silesius (1624–77). Joannes Scheffler, Christian mystical writer and controversialist. A Lutheran who, in 1653, became RC, he was ordained priest in 1661. Remembered for his mystical poems, the collection Heilige See-lenlust (1657) interprets the mystical life in the imagery of the Song of Songs; and Der Cherubinische Wandersmann (1675) is deeply influenced by the tradition of German mysticism inspired by Eckhart.