Spirituality, Rhenish

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Though there were other German mystics, such as hildegarde (d. 1179), this term is applied to the school inaugurated by Meister eckhart and represented by him, Johannes tauler, henry suso, and their disciples, mostly Dominicans but also other religious, secular priests, and laymen. In addition to relying on the thought of St. Thomas, the masters of this school were strongly influenced by Neoplatonic ideas. Their mysticism, preoccupied with supernatural contemplation, has been called speculative, or mysticism of the essence, since, through speculation on man's experience of God and his union with Him, it sought to express in rational terms spiritual truths that transcend reason, namely, what God is, what His life consists of, what His relations to the world and the soul are, what the soul is and how it is united to God. These mystics speculated in view of practice; union with God was attained by the double way of theoretical abstraction and practical self-abnegation.

The doctrine of the school is trinitarian, based on the idea of God's transcendence. The absolute and infinite being of God, being in its purity and plenitude, lies at the heart and source of being in all other things, particularly the human soul. United in its profoundest depths to God; the soul can never be entirely outside Him; yet it may choose to concentrate on itself and withdraw from God, or it can renounce itself and turn totally toward Him. To achieve union with God, it must seek Him beyond creatures and itself. In renouncing self and clinging to God, the soul finds itself and true liberty and reaches its own purest essence. This is achieved in the "spark" or "ground" of the soul, its highest or innermost part, the point of intimate contact with God. Total stripping of self, abandonment of one's will, and perfect submission to God dispose the soul for union. Nudity of intelligence, i.e., complete turning away from all sensible and intellectual images, is the condition of union, which is reached when the soul returns to God, the One.

Exponents. In each of the masters of the school, these ideas had a distinctive coloring. Eckhart was the most speculative; Tauler, the most practical. Even while acknowledging the passive elements of mystical life, Tauler inculcated a laborious, prayerful, and charitable life. Suso was both speculative and practical, but above all affective. His Little Book of Truth, an introduction to speculative mysticism, is the only ex professo treatise of the school's spirituality. In Suso tender devotion to Christ expressed in the language of human love (a characteristic almost absent from the works of Eckhart and Tauler) finds its poet.

The teaching of Eckhart, Tauler, and Suso influenced the nuns of the Dominican monasteries of the Rhineland, Switzerland, and Upper Germany. Under the direction of such masters, the spiritual life of these monasteries came to maturity in the early 14th century. The intensity and character of the mysticism of the nuns was expressed in a series of works and chronicles. From the monastery of Maria-Mödingen in Bavaria came the Revelations of Margaret Ebner (d. 1351); from Engeltal in Swabia, those of Adelaide Langmann (d. 1375) and the Visions and Revelations of Christine Ebner (d. 1356), who probably also wrote the Little Book of Grace, recording the biographies of the nuns. Similar "Lives" under slightly varying titles were written at Adelhausen by Anna of Munzingen (1318), at Unterlinden by Catherine of Guebwiller (d. 1330), and at Katharinental in Diessenhoven, Ottenbach near Zurich, Kirchberg near Sulz, Weiler near Esslingen, and Töss in Switzerland. The latter "Lives" were written by Elizabeth Stagel (d. 1360), the spiritual daughter and biographer of Suso. Many of the nuns experienced visions, ecstasies, and private revelations, but unlike that of the friars their mysticism was affective rather than speculative.

Friends of God. Closely allied to the school were the friends of god, pious folk of all ranks of society: laymen, diocesan priests, monks, friars, and nuns. Held together in loose association by their spiritual interests and by their distress at the political and social evils of the day, they sought to live lives of intense union with God. Through Suso and Tauler, their two most prominent leaders, the Friends of God also came indirectly under the influence of Eckhart's spirituality. Notable among them were the two Ebners and their spiritual director Henry of Nördlingen, the friend of Suso and Tauler. His exchange of letters with Margaret Ebner is the oldest collection of letters in the German language and a monument of Rhenish spirituality. Also prominent among the Friends of God was Rulman Merswin (d. 1382), a rich merchant of Strassburg and one of Tauler's penitents. He composed pious romances and a partial autobiography, which was his only original work. His language and imagery owed much to Eckhart and Tauler, but his manner of borrowing discolored much of their teaching. The enigmatic Friend of God of the Oberland, who figures in documents and was the reputed author of spiritual treatises, was a fictitious character created probably by Merswin to symbolize God's voice.

The anonymous Book of Spiritual Poverty, long attributed to Tauler, developed the Rhenish themes of spiritual detachment as a way to true liberty, imitation of Christ, and union with God. The theologia germanica written toward the end of the century, though sometimes suspected of pantheism and quietism, actually presented the classical themes of the school without much originality but with more insistence on Christ's mysteries. Jan van ruysbroeck (d. 1381) was much influenced by Eckhart. Though he has usually been catalogued under the Rhenish school, there are solid reasons also for labeling him the founder of the spirituality of the low countries.

Orthodoxy. With the papal condemnation in 1329 of propositions drawn from Eckhart's writings, the suspicion of pantheism and quietism fell over the Rhenish school. These doubts have been persistent and have involved not only Eckhart but also Suso and Tauler, who defended and handed on the master's basic doctrines, though purged of his exaggerated formulas. The reputation of the school suffered again when Luther unjustifiably appealed to the Theologia Germanica and Tauler in support of his attack on good works. Apart from certain passages in Merswin, the Book of Spiritual Poverty, and Theologia Germanica, and obscure, exaggerated, or illsounding expressions in Eckhart, who was certainly orthodox in intention, the Rhenish school was orthodox. Eckhart's works can be safely read when accompanied by adequate explanations. The doctrine of Suso, Tauler, and the Dominican nuns is above challenge.

The doctrines of the school exercised a wide influence. nicholas of cusa was much attracted to the thought of Eckhart. Through Tauler and Suso, Eckhart's ideas reached the Dominicans venturino of bergamo and Louis chardon, the Carmelites john of saint-samson and john of the cross, the Jesuit Peter canisius, and the Capuchin Benet of Canfield, the Benedictines John of Castel and blosius, the Carthusians Denis of Rijckel (see denis the carthusian), ludolph of saxony, and Lawrence surius, the Spanish Franciscan juan de los angelos, and paul of the cross, founder of the Passionists.

Bibliography: j. m. clark, The Great German Mystics (Oxford 1949). j. ancelet-hustache, Master Eckhart and the Rhineland Mystics, tr. h. graef (pa. New York 1958). p. pourrat, Christian Spirituality, tr. w. h. mitchell et al., 4 v. (Westminster, MD 195355) 2:213251. j. leclercq et al., La Spiritualité du moyen âge (Histoire de la spiritualité chrétienne 2; Paris 1961) 448486. É. h. gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (New York 1955) 438446. a. weeks, German Mysticism from Hildegard of Bingen to Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Literary and Intellectual History (Albany 1993). h. grundmann, Religious Movements in the Middle Ages: The Historical Links between Heresy, the Mendicant Orders, and the Women's Religious Movement in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Century, with the Historical Foundations of German Mysticism, trans. s. rowan (Notre Dame, IN 1995). a. de libera, Introduction à la mystique rhénane: D'Albert le Grand à maître Eckhart (Paris 1984).

[w. a. hinnebusch]