Henry Suso, Bl.
HENRY SUSO, BL.
Dominican preacher and mystic, and leader of the Friends of God; b. Constance, March 21, c. 1295; d. Ulm, Jan. 25, 1366.
Life and Works. His father was Count Henry of Berg, a worldly minded man; his mother, a saintly woman of the Süse family (latinized Suso, modern German Seuse) probably of Ueberlingen, from whom Henry took his surname and inherited his religious disposition and tender sympathy. He received the Dominican habit at Constance at the age of 13. After 15 years of mediocre piety, he experienced a "conversion" that marked the beginning of a life of heroic austerity, prayer, and solitude. He studied at Constance, probably at Strassburg, and at the general house of studies at Cologne, sometime between 1322 and 1325, under Meister eckhart, for whom he developed an intense veneration. About 1326 Suso returned to Constance as professor of the priory school. He wrote the Little Book of Truth (c. 1327), a speculative treatment of mystical questions, to counter the pantheistic, unsocial, and immoral tenets of the Brethren of the Free Spirit. With marked intellectual vigor, he dealt with profound questions of theology: God's being, Unity and Trinity, creation and Incarnation, man's freedom and moral responsibility, and mystical union with God without loss of personal identity. When the Wild Man whom Henry used as the personification of the heretical brethren misquoted Eckhart in support of false doctrine, Suso replied by placing obscure passages regarding God's immanence and transcendence, presence and concurrence, into juxtaposition with others, also from Eckhart, that were in full harmony with truth.
Suso's masterpiece, the Little Book of Eternal Wisdom (c. 1328), is "the finest fruit of German mysticism" (Denifle), a judgment corroborated by its unbroken popularity until displaced by the Imitation of Christ. It is a practical book containing a minimal discussion of mystical subjects and little theological speculation. "The thoughts expressed here are simple and the words simpler still, because they are from a simple soul and are intended for simple persons who have bad habits to crush" (Prol.). In dialogue (used also in the Little Book of Truth ), Suso spoke "at one time as a sinner, then as a perfect man, sometimes as a loving soul; or, if the subject requires it, as a servant submissive to Holy Wisdom," and is answered by Holy Wisdom, at times by Mary, and once by the soul of one who had died unrepentant. Aiming to rekindle zeal in hearts where it has died, to warm cold hearts, to stir up the lukewarm, to provoke the indevout to devotion, and to awaken the tepid to virtue, Suso leads the reader to the foot of the Cross to ponder the afflictions of Jesus and Mary. He shows him the enormity of sin, the rigor of divine justice, the tawdriness of earthly love and the nobility of the heavenly, and points to the joy of heaven and the treasures hidden in suffering. He instructs how to prepare for death, live inwardly, receive the Sacraments fruitfully, and praise God unceasingly. He concludes with 100 one-sentence meditations on the Passion. Suso's abstruse doctrine and defense of Eckhart in the earlier book brought him a sharp rebuke from a provincial or possibly a general chapter in 1327 or 1330. He also lost his professorship. These events may explain why he sought and obtained approval of the Little Book of Eternal Wisdom from the master general, translating it into Latin under the title Horologium sapientiae, or Clock of Wisdom (c. 1334), a free rendition, rearrangement, and fuller presentation of the same material. That the two books are in reverse relationship has also been held (Gröber).
Suso now developed an active ministry, preaching especially to Dominican nuns and the Friends of God of Switzerland and the Upper Rhine region, but he also ranged as far afield as Cologne and Aachen. During 1343–44 he was prior of the Constance community, in exile at Diessenhoven after 1339, owing to its support of the papal cause against Louis of Bavaria. During these years Suso was purified spiritually by physical hardships, the hostility of others, persecution, and calumny. He was shamefully slandered by an evil woman he had befriended. Even friends turned against him. This crisis forced his transfer to Ulm (c. 1347), where he died. His tomb was destroyed by Protestants in the 16th century. Henry's veneration began immediately upon his death and has continued without interruption. Gregory XVI approved his cult on April 16, 1831.
The Life of the Servant, "one of the most charming of Christian biographies" (Preger), had its origin in correspondence and conversations between Suso and Elsbethe stÄgel, his spiritual daughter. Suso reworked her notes of the conversations with great literary skill and incorporated some of the letters. More the story of a soul than an autobiography, it recorded his spiritual development (part 1) and instructed Elsbethe how to advance in the spiritual life (part 2). Four extant sermons are attributed to Suso, only two of which are certainly genuine. His 27 or 28 spiritual letters (existing also in an abridged form that constitutes a miniature spiritual treatise) have been judged "the choicest spiritual letters written during the Middle Ages" (Preger). The brief Soul's Love-Book (in which Christ is the great book of love) is of doubtful authenticity. Suso collected his Middle High German works in an Exemplar (c. 1362), containing the Little Book of Truth, the Little Book of Eternal Wisdom, his Life, and abridged letters. Some scholars deny that he made the Exemplar, composed the Life, or abridged the letters, holding that the Life contains, besides a nucleus of truth, a large content of fictional anecdote, cloister legend, and hearsay. The traditional view, upheld by other scholars, is still preferred.
Doctrine. Suso's teaching, a milder, more cautious form of Eckhart's speculative doctrine, is corrected by that of Thomas Aquinas and colored by the effective mysticism of Bernard and Bonaventure. He developed a tender personal love for Christ, the Eternal Wisdom, the Eucharist, the Sacred Heart and the Heart of Mary, and the Holy Name, which he cut on his breast. Imitation and contemplation of Christ's sufferings was basic to Suso's doctrine. It leads to conformity with Christ and to the highest reaches of mystical union. Illustrated by constant references to his own experiences, Suso's teaching is psychological, practical, and largely ascetical, but touches at times on profound speculative points. He taught passivity (yet not quietistic) achieved by corporal mortification, acceptance of interior and exterior trials, total detachment from creatures, self-renunciation, and complete abandonment to God's will. Contemplation occurs through an intuition beyond created images in a union with the Divinity beyond comprehension, where the soul, losing all sense of its own identity yet remaining distinct from God, knows and loves Him without knowing that it does so.
Feast: March 15; formerly March 2.
See Also: mysticism; contemplation.
Bibliography: Editions. German works. Heinrich Seuse: Deutsche Schriften, ed. k. bihlmeyer (Stuttgart 1907), standard ed. Modern German. n. heller, ed., Des Mystikers Heinrich Seuse deutsche Schriften: Vollständige Ausgabe auf Grund der Handschriften (Regensberg 1926), Eng. The Exemplar: Life and Writings of Bl. Henry Suso, O.P., tr. sister ann edward, 2 v. (Dubuque 1962). The Life of the Servant, abr. tr. j. m. clark (London 1952). The Little Book of Eternal Wisdom and The Little Book of Truth, ed. and tr. j. m. clark (New York 1953). Horologium sapientiae, ed. j. strange (Cologne 1861); ed. k. richstÄtter (Turin 1929). Literature. j. ancelet-hustache, Master Eckhart and the Rhineland Mystics, tr. h. graef (pa. New York 1958). j. bÜhlmann, Christuslehre und Christusmystik des Heinrich Seuse (Lucerne 1942). j. m. clark, The Great German Mystics (Oxford 1949). h. denifle, Die deutschen Mystiker des 14. Jahrhunderts. Beitrag zur Deutung ihrer Lehre, ed. o. spiess (Fribourg 1951). c. grÖber, Der Mystiker Heinrich Seuse (Freiburg 1941). d. planzer, "Des Horologium sapientiae und die Echtheit der Vita des H. Seuse," Archivum Fratrum Praedicatorum 1 (1930) 181–221; "Henry Suso on the Spiritual Life," Cross and Crown 2 (1950) 58–79; Heinrich Seuses Lehre über das geistliche Leben (Freiburg 1960). r. senn, Die Echtheit der Vita Heinrich Seuses (Diss. Bern 1930). sister mary catherine, Henry Suso: Saint and Poet, a Study (Oxford 1947). u. weymann, Die Seusesche Mystik und ihre Wirkung auf die bildende Kunst (Berlin 1938). f. tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, with Two German Sermons (New York 1989).
[w. a. hinnebusch]