HENRY SUSO AND GOD AS FEMININE

Henry Suso studied theology under Meister Eckhart in Cologne.  But Eckhart was more than a teacher to him: there is a touching account in Suso’s autobiography of how he went to Eckhart when his hypersensitive conscience was tormenting him, and how Eckhart gave him complete peace.  Suso was born Heinrich von Berg, a formidable name for someone so slight and sensitive.  In fact it proved to be altogether too heavy a burden for him, and he changed it for his mother’s maiden name, Sus or Süss.  Perhaps it was the father himself who was too much; Henry described him as “a child of this world,” while his mother was “full of God.”  She suffered greatly “because of a vexing dissimilarity between her and her husband;” she wanted to live in a religious manner, but he “was full of the world and opposed this with unrelenting severity.”

At the tender age of thirteen Henry entered the Dominican Order in his native Constance.  The real beginning of his religious life, however, he places in his eighteenth year; it was then he had his conversion to a life with God.  He had a profound religious experience which he described in great detail.  It was the beginning of a great love story, told with impressive literary skill in the tender language of courtly love.  “Eternal Wisdom (a feminine noun in German, as in most languages with noun-gender) offers herself in the Holy Scriptures very affectionately, as a fair beloved who adorns herself beautifully in order to be well pleasing to all men, speaking gently in the guise of a woman, in order to incline all hearts to herself.”

In light of this it is something of a shock to read in the autobiography his account of his fierce ascetical practices.  Hairshirts, whips, chains, deprivation of food, drink and sleep: he used them all.  He continued his ascetical practices for sixteen years and then suddenly abandoned them.  These practices are shocking to modern sensibility; and we have to adjust our minds to see the meaning of his suffering for love.  The language of chivalry, parodied in a later century by Cervantes in Don Quixote, was still viable in Suso’s century.  “Your young unruly heart,” he said to himself, “can scarcely endure to be without a special object of love.”  So he often “meditated about her, thinking of her lovingly, and liking her full well with all his heart and soul.”  The mediaeval knight delighted to suffer for the lady he worshipped. 

For a time Henry’s work was teaching, then preaching and giving individual guidance.  He seems to have been especially gifted in his apostolate to women – much of his work was with Beguines, nuns and laywomen.  The autobiography is full of stories of unforgettable tenderness.  One of the most beautiful friendships among the saints is surely his with Elsbeth Stagel, a spirited Dominican nun with whom he remained friends till her death.  If all this was the fruit of chivalry, then the plant must have been a healthy one.  “By their fruits you shall know them.”  But the modern reductionist tendency is to judge everything by its psychological origins – which is to judge it by its past.  Henry’s vivid life makes this look pale indeed. 

He is able to speak to us of many things that trouble us today.  We have trouble with exclusive language.  But our trouble goes deeper than pronouns; it is about relationships between the sexes, and about power in the Church; ultimately it is about the ways in which we relate to God.  What kind of love is love of God...?  This is the abiding question of Eros and Agapè.  Our love of God will be a cold unfelt thing unless our affective nature can flow into it.  Henry managed just this by a radical method: he expressed his devotion to God as to a feminine presence.  It is men who should be expected to have trouble with God as masculine!  In the twelfth century, St Bernard solved the problem in the opposite way: he made the disciple feminine, even persuading his robust monks to think of themselves as Brides of Christ!  One way seems as extreme as the other; but perhaps to talk about God at all is to be brought to extremes.

Our thoughts and feelings about God say much about ourselves too.  They are an expression of what we are, and also of what we aspire to be.  A man fighting battles for the exclusive masculinity of God is perhaps in a Nietzschean mode: God as the expression of a people’s will-to-power, an expression of what they are (or rather, pretend to be).  But when a man allows himself to aspire to God, it will also be (by way of consequence) an aspiration to a fuller humanity, which will include so-called feminine qualities too.  The Nietzschean man delights to overcome, even to overcome himself; but he never overcomes his will-to-power, and he never aspires to include ‘feminine’ qualities.  Henry Suso has much to teach us, with his tender-heartedness and his chivalrous love of God.  As we endure our growing-pains in this area, Henry may have something else to teach us, in his other style of writing (he had at least two).  He can teach us how to think and speak in ways that show the influence of Christian charity.  He sounds just like his master Eckhart when he says, “The actions of those who are truly abandoned to God are their inaction...for in their actions they remain at rest, and in their work they remain at leisure.”  Our actions (and our speech) are to fall from us like ripe fruit from the tree; there is to be no will-to-power, no violence; for we are nothing if we are not people in love, aspiring beyond ourselves to God and to the fullest humanity.

Henry died in Ulm on 25 January, 1366, and was buried in the Dominican church there.  His books are regarded as spiritual classics.  He was beatified by Gregory XVI in 1831. 

Donagh O'Shea



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