Shortly before the beginning of the present century, Rudolf Steiner arrived in Berlin to assume the post of editor of the well-known Magazin für Litteratur which had been established by Joseph Lehmann in 1832, the year of Goethe's death. Steiner was well qualified for this position, having already edited and written commentary on the natural scientific writings of Goethe for the Kurschner and the Weimar Editions of Goethe's works, a task for which he had been originally recommended by the celebrated Goethe scholar, Karl Julius Schröer, under whom Steiner had studied at the University of Vienna. Steiner also had edited the works of Schopenhauer and Jean Paul Richter for the well-known Cotta Library of World Literature series. Steiner's work as a writer for various periodicals in Vienna, Weimar and Berlin included observations on current affairs, reviews of books and plays, and comment on scientific, social, and philosophical developments.
As an author in his own right, Steiner had already produced his Grundlinien einer Erkenntnistheorie der Goetheschen Weltanschauung, Theory of Knowledge in Goethe's Conception of the World, in 1886 at the age of twenty-five. In this book he revealed his comprehensive grasp of the deeper implications of Goethe's way of thinking. During his Weimar residence while working at the Goethe-Schiller Archives as a free collaborator on the Weimar Edition of Goethe, Steiner developed lines of thought which he later expressed in his Goethes Weltanschauung, Goethe's Conception of the World, published in 1897. These two works, together with his introductions and commentary on Goethe's scientific writings, established Steiner as one of the outstanding exponents of Goethe's methodology.
In 1891 Steiner received his Ph.D. at the University of Rostock. His thesis dealt with the scientific teaching of Fichte, and is evidence of Steiner's ability to evaluate the work of men whose influence has gone far to shape the thinking of the modern world. In somewhat enlarged form this thesis appeared under the title Wahrheit und Wissenschaft, Truth and Science, as the preface to Steiner's chief philosophical work, Philosophy of Spiritual Activity as the title of the English translation of this book.
Steiner's contact with the circle of Friedrich Nietzsche led to his work in the Nietzsche Archives and Library. Out of the profound impression the ideas of Nietzsche made upon him, he wrote his Friedrich Nietzsche, Ein Kämpfer gegen seine Zeit, now published for the first time in English translation as Friedrich Nietzsche, Fighter for Freedom, as a part of the Centennial Edition of the Major Writings of Rudolf Steiner, 1861–1961.
With Steiner's arrival in Berlin, his lecturing activity which had begun years before in Vienna, and had been continued in Weimar, was extended and increased. Eventually this work was to occupy the major portion of his time, and was to take him on repeated lecture tours throughout Western Europe. These journeys extended from Norway, Sweden, and Finland in the north to Italy and Sicily in the south, and included several visits to the British Isles. From about the turn of the century until his death in 1925, Steiner gave well over 6,000 lectures before audiences of most diverse backgrounds and from every walk of life.
Steiner's written works, which eventually included over fifty titles, together with his extensive lecturing activity, brought him into contact with increasing numbers of people in many countries. The sheer physical and mental vigor required to carry on a life of such broad, constant activity is sufficient to mark him as one of the most creatively productive men of our time.
The present book, Mysticism at the Dawn of the Modern Age, is a fruit of Steiner's lecturing activity. The substance of it was contained in a series of lectures he gave in Berlin beginning just after Michaelmas in 1900, when he was thirty-nine. Steiner wrote later, “By means of the ideas of the mystics from Meister Eckhart to Jacob Boehme, I found expression for the spiritual perceptions which, in reality, I decided to set forth. I then summarized the series of lectures in the book, Mysticism at the Dawn of the Modern Age.”
The term mysticism, as Steiner uses it in this book, is a further development of what Goethe indicated in his aphoristic description of mysticism in relation to poetry and philosophy. “Poetry,” said Goethe, “points to the riddles of nature, and tries to solve them by means of the image. Philosophy directs itself to the riddles of reason, and attempts to solve them by means of the word. Mysticism considers the riddles of both nature and reason, and seeks to solve them through both word and image.”
This book is significant in the life-work of Rudolf Steiner because it is a first result of his decision to speak out in a direction not immediately apparent in his earlier, more philosophical writings, mentioned above. Here — particularly in Steiner's Introduction — is to be found a vitally fundamental exposition of the science of the spirit, embracing the path of spiritual knowledge suited to the needs and capacities of modern men and women. This subject occupied Steiner increasingly during the whole of the first quarter of this present century, and to it he devoted his entire talents as lecturer and writer.
Rudolf Steiner indicated that the present book is not intended to be a history of mysticism. It deals with a problem that had occupied him for decades, and which today has become a cardinal concern of all mankind: the impact of modern scientific thinking upon the experiences of man's inner, spiritual life. In the conflict between reason and revelation which reached its climax in the nineteenth century, but which had its origins in much earlier times, Steiner saw the seed of a still greater conflict to come, a conflict which involves humanity's struggle against the sub-human in modern technical developments.
It is now generally realized that the impact of the atomic age challenges man's inner convictions, his spiritual striving, and ultimately his ability to live a truly satisfying life.
In this book Steiner tells how eleven men whose lives bridge the four centuries from the Gothic time to the mid-seventeenth century, solved the conflict between their inner spiritual perceptions and the world of individual freedom, invention, and discovery then coming to birth. He explains the positive contribution of their ideas to an understanding and preservation of the humanity of modern men and women in face of contemporary events.
In order that the reader may better appreciate Steiner's presentation of the leading thoughts of these men, a brief sketch of their times and their life stories is given in the following pages.
The period covered by the lives of the men whose ideas are discussed in this book links such diverse personalities as Dante Alighieri, who expressed the strivings of the Age of Faith in his Divina Commedia, and George Fox, whose experience of the inner light established the spiritual path of the Society of Friends in a century of skepticism and growing materialism. Great changes in human thinking took place in these four hundred years. The world of chivalry and knighthood, of pious hermit and wandering minstrel, of religious pilgrimage and miracle play, so characteristic of the medieval time, gave way to the new learning, the humanism, the centralized governments, the scientific investigation, the expanding horizons, both physical and mental, of the Renaissance. And no single part of human life was untouched by the change. In the political, religious, social, intellectual spheres the Renaissance worked its wonders, and the dream of the Middle Ages awakened to the glorious colors of the dawn of a new world.
The transformation in men's minds included a break with their former way of looking at the earth beneath their feet, at their fellow-men, and at the blue vault arching over their heads. From a conception of nature that saw the animate in everything — even in stones — new systems of classification, ways of analysis, of explanation, based more and more upon the evidence of the physical senses, and less and less upon folk-lore and tradition, came into being. The new cosmopolitanism, the recovery of the art and philosophy of ancient Greece, the breaking up of old parties and practices in the social and political life led ultimately to man's growing consciousness of himself, and of his intrinsic worth as a being among other beings. The discovery of the shape of the earth, the rebirth of geographic learning lost in the dimness of forgotten ages, finally brought men to think of the possibility of worlds beyond this world, of whole solar systems beyond ours, and the word infinite began to assume a new importance. In the genius of language is revealed the momentous change that took place in these centuries. One need only recall that to the medieval mind the word reality referred exclusively to spiritual, heavenly things, to see how far-reaching was the change that occurred at the dawn of the modern world.
Today, when modern technical developments have extended their sphere of activity to include interstellar space, and space travel is regarded as a rapidly approaching accomplishment, one can recall that to men of the Middle Ages even the high places of the earth itself were regarded with reverence as dwelling-places of Divinity. Medieval man disliked even to approach high mountains, and to climb them would have required a daring inconceivable to him. As Ruskin said, “Men of the Middle Ages believed that mountains were agreeable things enough, so long as they were far away.”
With the rise of the new thinking of the Renaissance, however, men began to lose their awe of high mountains, and one of the pioneer mountain climbers was Petrarch, the Italian poet. With his brother Gherado, Petrarch climbed Mount Ventoux, a six thousand foot peak near Avignon, on April 26, 1336. All seems to have gone well until at the summit Petrarch discovered that the very clouds of heaven were beneath his feet. Overcome with excitement not unmixed with concern, he took out of his pocket a copy of Augustine's writings he always carried with him. Opening the book at random his eye fell upon a sentence which struck through him like lightning, for it sternly warned man never to lift his head out of the dust of earth, but always to remember his entire subservience to his Maker. Deeply moved, Petrarch descended the mountain filled with secret shame that he had had the temerity to trespass upon a place denied man by the teaching of the Church Fathers.
As men of the Middle Ages believed the mountains to be sacred, so they also regarded the human body as something set apart as the dwelling-place of man's immortal soul. Therefore to them the anatomical studies practiced by Renaissance investigators like Leonardo da Vinci would have seemed blasphemous in the highest degree.
As Renaissance man learned to take possession of the earth with his thinking, he reached out to embrace its far places physically as well. The age of discovery and exploration was followed by a period of conquest and colonization.
Parallel with the humanistic impulses of the Renaissance ran the current of the Reformation, with the accompanying strife and violence of the Counter-Reformation. Finally, as the four centuries covered by the lives of the men considered in this book drew to a close, strong national states emerged, with cultural, political, and social activities closely interrelated.
The year Meister Eckhart was born, Louis IX, known to posterity as Saint Louis of France, leader of the last Crusade, died. When Angelus Silesius died, the Grand Monarque, Louis XIV, destined to rule France for seventy-two years, was thirty-nine years of age, in the full strength of his manhood.
From the foregoing can be seen that the period covered by the lives of these men is the time when humanity, particularly in the Western world, evolved into a condition of consciousness in which the things of the sense world dominate all other considerations, in contrast to the preceding age, when the things of the spirit prevailed to such an extent that no sacrifice of earthly things was considered too great if, for example, it would enhance the miraculous, heaven-aspiring glory of a rising Gothic cathedral.
In year 1260 while Marco Polo was on his way to China thus giving birth to new East–West relationships, and Niccolo Pisano was calling deathless beauty to life in his sculpture in Pisa, Johannes Eckhart was born in the little Thuringian village of Hochheim near Gotha, in Germany. His father was a steward in a knight's castle, hence Johannes' boyhood was passed in the midst of the then fading pageantry of medieval life.
Eckhart was born in the time of transition between the end of the Hohenstaufen rule and the beginning of the reign of the Austrian Hapsburgs in Germany. The one hundred and sixteen years of Hohenstaufen rule (1138–1254) was probably the most interesting period in medieval Germany, and its influence was still active during Eckhart's boyhood, though the last Hohenstaufen had died six years before Eckhart's birth.
This was an age of great contrasts. On the one hand were men of strong, vigorous mind, filled with love for all that the world contained of beauty and adventure. On the other were men whose character was equally strong, but whose lives were spent in a continual struggle of rejection of the world and all its gifts. These were the years when these two opposed attitudes toward the world began a conflict which was to lead to the Renaissance in Germany, and at last to the Reformation. Typical of the Hohenstaufen rulers was Frederick II, considered the most brilliant of all German kings. He was a lover of poetry, art, literature, and was a most capable ruler as well. Crowned at Aix-la-Chapelle in July, 1215, Frederick combined the traditional knightly ideals with worldly activity. The rule of the Hohenstaufens corresponded with the golden age of the German Minnesinger, and was a time of architectural development, which included many beautiful churches as well as the famous castle of the Wartburg.
At about the age of fifteen, around the year 1275, Eckhart entered the Dominican monastery at Erfurt, where he remained for nine years in preparation for the priesthood. He completed his studies in the year that Philip IV, known as “the Fair” began his fateful reign in France.
From Erfurt, Eckhart went to Cologne to take the studium generale at the Dominican institution where the eminent scholastic, Albertus Magnus was a leading teacher until his death in 1280. Through his instructors at Cologne, Eckhart came under the influence of Albertus Magnus' ideas, as well as those of Thomas Aquinas, whose work had advanced Scholasticism to a place of first importance within the Dominican Order.
The year 1300 was famous as the Year of Jubilee proclaimed by Boniface VIII, whom Dante criticized by placing him in the Inferno during the Pope's lifetime. In this same year Eckhart is mentioned as “Brother Eckhart, Prior of Erfurt, Vicar of Thuringia” in Dominican records. He was now in his fortieth year, and about this time he produced a little book which bears the charming title, Daz sint die rede der unterscheidunge, die der Vicarius von Düringen, der prior von Erfort, bruoder Eckehart predier ordens mit solichen kinden hete, diu in dirre rede frâgten vil dinges, dô sie sâzen in collationibus mit einander, These are the Instructions which the Vicar of Thuringia, Prior of Erfurt, Brother Eckhart of the Preaching Order, gave for those of his flock who asked him about many things as they sat together at the evening meal.
At this time Eckhart was sent to one of the colleges in Paris, where he frequently entered into disputation with Franciscans in defense of Dominican points of view in theology. In his disputations he had to defend the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus against any charges of heresy which the Franciscans chose to bring forward against them.
Thirteenth century Paris was a place of great attraction for scholars, and was the center of European cultural life. Over one hundred fifty years before, Pierre Abèlard had written of his intense desire to visit Paris, the city where logical argumentation, beloved by the medieval scholarly mind, had been raised to the level of a fine art. John of Salisbury, Bishop of Chartres, eminent as a humanist long before the Renaissance, the secretary and counsellor of Thomas Becket of Canterbury, whose assassination he witnessed and whose life he recorded, loved Paris for its generous supply of food, the gaiety of its inhabitants, their appreciation of culture and religion, and the atmosphere of scholarship he found there. He summed up his feelings about Paris in the exclamation, “Indeed the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!”
Years later Eckhart described his Paris activities in terms which perhaps explain why the Franciscans cherished no particular liking for him. With regard to his disputations with the Franciscans, Eckhart said, “When I preached at Paris, I said, and I dare repeat it now, that with all their learning the men of Paris are not able to conceive that God is in the very least of creatures, even in a fly!”
Words like these help one to understand Eckhart's popularity with the public of his time. For above all, Eckhart wished to reach the man in the street, the humble peasant, the shepherd from the mountains, the charcoal burner from the forest, the simplest of the simple, rather than the scholar in the cloister. Therefore he used colloquial German in all his writings and discourses rather than the usual theological Latin. Thus the German language was enhanced by the writings of this Dominican, just as the Italian language was enriched by his contemporary, Dante Alighieri.
Eckhart was always conscious of his indebtedness to the other great Dominicans who had preceded him, and although he did not follow their learned forms in his sermons and books, he never failed to recognize their superiority in learning. For example, his frequent quotations in his oral and written discourse were invariably introduced by the words, “A Master says,” and the “Master” almost always meant Thomas Aquinas, whom he looked upon as a spiritual father. Though his genius for adapting learned, subtle arguments to simple, aphoristic form resulted in his being understood by the every-day mind, nevertheless this ultimately led to the condemnation of his teaching as heretical.
In 1302, the year after the famous Duns Scotus became professor of theology at Oxford, Eckhart received the Licentiate and Master's degree from the University of Paris. Ever since then he has been known as Meister Eckhart.
At this time Boniface VIII, who had been informed of the brilliant preaching of this Thuringian Dominican, invited Eckhart to Rome to defend the cause of the papacy against the attacks of the French king, Philip the Fair, which were soon to result in the “Babylonian Captivity” of the Popes at Avignon.
In 1304, the year of the birth of Petrarch, Eckhart was appointed provincial of the Dominicans for Saxony. Three years later he was appointed vicar-general for Bohemia, at the moment the arrest and terrible persecution of the Order of the Knights Templar began in France under the direction of Philip the Fair, and with the passive agreement of the French-born Pope, Clement V, who in the meanwhile had succeeded Boniface VIII in the papacy.
This was a busy period in the life of Meister Eckhart. His burden of administrative work in the service of the Church and of his Order was increased by his activity as a writer. At this time he composed one of his best-known works, Das Buch der Göttlichen Tröstung, The Book of Divine Comfort, supposedly written to bring consolation to Agnes, daughter of the King of Hungary, whose mother and sister-in-law died and whose father was murdered — all within the space of a few years.
The Book of Divine Comfort opens with an enumeration of the three kinds of tribulation Eckhart conceives may happen to one: damage to external goods, to friends near one, to oneself, bringing “disgrace, privation, physical suffering, and mental anguish” in their train. As “comfort” in the midst of such tribulation, Eckhart sets forth “certain doctrines” from which he derives “thirty teachings, any one of which should be enough to comfort.” Whether the suffering of the Queen of Hungary was assuaged by Eckhart's effort in her behalf is not known, but the book brought Eckhart himself considerable tribulation, for it is his one work most strenuously attacked by the Inquisition. This book is evidence of Eckhart's careful study of the famous classic born in the twilight of the ancient Roman world, De Consolatione Philosophiae, The Consolations of Philosophy, by Boethius, loved by Alfred the Great, who translated it into Anglo-Saxon; by Chaucer, who was to translate it into English before 1382; by Queen Elizabeth, who rendered it in the English of her time, and by many others. Aside from its theological teachings, his Book of Divine Comfort shows Eckhart's appreciation of Boethius and other classical writers.
The constant travel necessitated by his administrative work brought Eckhart into contact with people and events in central, southern and western Germany, in France, and in Italy. As a result, it is natural that the heads of the Order felt that Meister Eckhart was the ideal man to assume the post of Superior of the entire Dominican Province in Germany. However, a certain conservatism within the Order itself, apparently based on fear of Eckhart's skill as an orator and disputant, his broad knowledge of places, and familiarity with the ways of men in all walks of life prevailed, and his nomination was never finalized.
In 1318, the year that Dante completed his Divina Commedia, Eckhart seems to have reached the summit of his development as a preacher. He was in Strassburg at this time, where he served as a preacher and prior. Two years later, in 1320, at the age of sixty, Eckhart received a most important honor: he was called by the Franciscan, Heinrich von Virneberg, Archbishop of Cologne, to assume a professorship in the college there. However, the brightness of this distinction was not long to remain undimmed. Already in the shadows the agents of the Inquisition waited, listening, watching, preparing for the day when this eloquent preacher of the Gospel, this scholar and author, so beloved by the common people who flocked to his sermons, would overstep the limits of prescribed dogma. And it was not long before they believed that they had evidence sufficient to convict him of heresy.
By 1325 several charges had been brought against Meister Eckhart in letters addressed to the Superiors of the Dominican Order at its headquarters in Venice. A few months later, the Archbishop of Cologne who already had had sufficient trouble with so-called “mystical societies” which had sprung up along the Rhine in areas under his jurisdiction, decided that heresy certainly could not be allowed to set foot within the precincts of the college itself. Therefore he agreed that the moment had arrived when charges against this too-popular preacher should be laid before the Inquisition. However, a Dominican managed to obtain the task of investigating Meister Eckhart, and naturally it did not take long for the former to report that he found his fellow-Dominican entirely without guilt or taint of heresy.
But the matter did not stop there. Perhaps sensing that if Franciscans had undertaken the examination things might have turned out differently, the Archbishop called in two experts in heresy, the Franciscans Benherus Friso and Peter de Estate. They were given the task to thoroughly examine Eckhart's writings and the reports of his sermons. It was not long before an extensive list of “errors” in doctrine had been assembled, and Eckhart in turn replied by means of his famous Rechtferigungsschrift, Defense.
On January 24, 1327 Eckhart was required to answer the charges brought against him before the court of the Archbishop of Cologne. About three weeks later he preached in a Cologne church in defense of his ideas, and said that if there were any errors of faith in his writings or sermons, he would retract them gladly, for he certainly considered himself no heretic, and he appealed to Rome, as he was entitled to do under the rights of his Order. However, on February 22, Eckhart was informed that his application to Rome had been refused.
On March 27, 1329 Pope John XXII issued a bull describing certain of Meister Eckhart's teachings as contrary to church dogma. But Eckhart was no longer alive to know of his condemnation as one who had been led astray “by the father of lies, who often appears as an angel of light.” This official fiat would doubtless have seriously shaken the soul of one whose life had been devoted to a defense and practise of the tenets from which that organized power had drawn its life-breath.
When Meister Eckhart was forty years of age, Johannes Tauler was born in the city of Strassburg in the Papal Jubilee year of 1300, two years before the death of the painter, Cimabue. At the age of fifteen he entered the Dominican monastery where Eckhart was professor of theology. One can imagine the effect of the older Dominican teacher upon the impressionable mind of the young student, who well may have listened to those evening mealtime conversations Eckhart brought together in the little book mentioned above. Eventually Tauler entered the Dominican college in Cologne not long before Eckhart was named professor in that institution.
The year 1324 saw the climax of a struggle between Louis IV, king of Germany, and Pope John XXII, which had been increasing steadily for nearly a decade. Fearing that the German king's policy of personal ambition would lead to a weakening of the papal position in France as well as Germany, the Pope called upon the German ruler to abdicate, saying that no one could rightfully wear the German crown who did not have the Pope's express approval to do so. Louis angrily refused, with the result that the Pope declared him deposed and excommunicate. Therefore, in this year 1324, Strassburg, along with other cities and towns of Germany, was placed under a papal interdict.
But the times were against the Pope and his French ally, Charles IV, whom he hoped to see on the German throne. The German princes condemned in no uncertain terms the papal interference in German affairs, and the Electors sided with the princes. This attitude was also shared by many of the clergy in Germany, for despite the papal ban, church services continued in some places, and the sacraments were administered to the people.
Johannes Tauler was among those in Strassburg who refused to discontinue their priestly functions of celebrating the Mass and preaching to their congregations. With great courage, in defiance of both papal ban and agents of the Inquisition, he said, “While the Church can refuse us the sacrament externally, nobody can take away the spiritual joy of our oneness with God, and nobody can rob us of the privilege of taking the sacrament spiritually.”
In 1339, the year before the birth of Geoffrey Chaucer in London, Tauler left Strassburg for a journey which was to have important results for his life work. On his travels he came into contact — particularly in Basel — with Swiss and German members of the famous group of mystics called the Gottesfreunde, The Friends of God.
The struggle for power between rival rulers in Germany, together with the interdict of the Pope, brought great hardship to the people. Some areas of the country were not freed from the papal ban for as much as twenty-six years, and the people were in great distress for lack of spiritual help and consolation.
Abnormal natural phenomena also began to appear, as though the forces of Nature had joined with spiritual and temporal rulers to make the lot of men as hard as possible. Torrential rains repeatedly destroyed the crops, just before harvest time. The rivers rose in devastating floods several years in succession, making spring planting difficult if not impossible. The winters were severely cold, so that men and animals suffered exceedingly. As a consequence, a series of famines swept the countryside, taking, dreadful toll of human life.
Convinced that they were living in the “last days” of the earth, men saw in all the events around them the fulfillment of prophecies of the Apocalypse of John. During these years southern Germany and Switzerland were visited by repeated earthquakes, one of which shook Basel with such force that the city was reduced to a heap of ruins. In the heavens appeared “signs and wonders” prophesied by the Scriptures: mysterious lights flashed upon the skies, men reported strange conditions of cloud and mist, and the stars seemed about to cast themselves upon the earth.
Visited by these dire external events, harassed by doubt and insecurity on every side, men withdrew more and more into themselves, seeking the sources of piety and devotion in their hearts. Lacking spiritual consolation from the church, suffering the desolation wrought by food and famine, sword and fire, the people sought the essential truths of life in their personal experience. And in their search for the verities of existence, men reached out to one another in fraternal love and a spirit of true humanity.
Thus the Friends of God came into being. It was a free association of human beings in the sense that it was not a sect, had no dogma, no common form of religious devotion or practice, no common political outlook. The only desire the Friends of God shared in common was to strengthen one another in their living relationship with God and the spiritual world. They established “brotherhood houses” as retreat centers in certain areas where a number of the Friends of God were living.
One of the outstanding figures among the Friends of God was the wealthy banker of Strassburg, Rulman Merswin. His story is somewhat typical of that of many another layman who found himself drawn to the Friends of God. Born of a good family of Strassburg in 1307, Rulman Merswin was a man of business and high moral and ethical principles. By the time he was forty, due to his business acumen he had amassed a considerable fortune, and had married the daughter of one of the leading families of Strassburg. But although he had everything to give him pleasure, he was far from happy, and just after his fortieth birthday he decided that the time had come for him to take leave of the world, to devote himself and his wealth to the service of God, and to live as a celebate. His wife joined him on his mystical path. A few months later, on the day of Saint Martin, November 1l, 1347, Merswin was walking in his garden in the evening, meditating on the way he and his wife had chosen, when suddenly he experienced a tremendous feeling of exaltation so that, as he later described it, it was as though he was whirled round and round his garden for sheer joy. But as quickly as the mood of exaltation came upon him, it left, and he slipped into a condition of despondency bordering upon despair. He began severe ascetic disciplines with the thought that these might relieve his inner struggle, but no light came.
At this time Johannes Tauler became his confessor, and Merswin told him of his suffering and his ascetic practices. Tauler at once forbade him to continue his self-imposed tortures, saying, “We are told to kill our passions, not our flesh and blood.” Merswin obeyed, and only a short while later a Friend of God came to him and led him forward on the road to the spirit. He learned to depend quietly upon the guidance of the spirit alone, to subject himself to no code or rule of conduct, but to cultivate true humility, to seek anonymity, to cease self-assertion, to regard himself as a “captive of the Lord,” to preserve the calmness of his soul like a stainless mirror, to attach less and less importance to himself in a worldly sense, and to think of himself only as “a hidden child of God.”
On October 9, 1364 Rulman Merswin had a dream in which he was told that a most important man would shortly visit him, and that in three years he would purchase land which would make a home of peace and rest for the Friends of God in Strassburg. Not long after this, Merswin was visited by a mysterious man whose name is most intimately connected with the whole story of the Friends of God. Called simply, “The Friend of God from the Oberland,” he was long identified with the famous Nicholas of Basel, a noted Friend of God, who suffered martyrdom at the stake in Vienna for his convictions. Others have identified him with Rulman Merswin himself, as a sort of “double,” while others believe that he never lived at all, but was a kind of ideal portrait of what the true Friend of God should be.
In any case, The Friend of God from the Oberland visited Merswin and told him that he had had a dream that Merswin would establish a retreat for the Friends of God at Strassburg. Merswin told him that he himself had had the same dream, and the Friend of God from the Oberland told him to wait quietly, to listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and that at the end of three years he would know what was to be done.
In the Ill River near Strassburg was a little island called daz Grüne Woerth, The Green Island. In the twelfth century a convent had been established there, but had long since been deserted and had fallen into ruins. Early in October, 1367, just three years after his dream and his talk with the Friend of God from the Oberland, Merswin was walking by the river and saw the little island. Suddenly the realization flashed through him that this was the place he was to buy, that here he was to establish a house for the Friends of God. He promptly sought out the owner, paid him five hundred ten silver marks as the purchase price, and soon the convent building was repaired and a little chapel was constructed. Finally, on November 25, 1367 Merswin opened the house of the Friends of God on the Green Island, which became the center of a group of laymen who wished to live a purely mystical, religious life but without subjecting themselves to any external rule or official religious Order. Five years later Merswin completed arrangements whereby the group was acknowledged as a branch of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, and the place became known as “The House of Saint John of the Green Island.” Not long after this Merswin's wife died, and he spent his remaining years on the Green Island, devoting himself to the Friends of God who came there from far and near. Rulman Merswin died in the House of St. John of the Green Island on July 18, 1382. Four days after his death a sealed chest was opened which had been discovered in his room. Inside was a collection of manuscripts and letters, many of them in an unknown handwriting, giving details of instructions and advice by the Friend of God from the Oberland.
One of these manuscripts contained The Story of the Master of Holy Scripture, later included in a collection titled, The Great Memorial. According to the Story of the Master of Holy Scripture, the Friend of God from the Oberland one day arrived at a great city where a famous preacher was expounding the Bible to crowded and enthusiastic congregations. The Friend of God attended the sermons each day for five days. At the conclusion of the fifth day, he sought out the preacher and asked, “Reverend Sir, will you preach tomorrow on a theme I would suggest to you?” The clergyman agreed, and asked what the subject should be. The Friend of God from the Oberland replied, “How to attain the highest degree of spiritual life.”
The preacher delivered a brilliant exposition the next morning. Starting from the Gospels he branched out into the Church Fathers, dipped deep into Dionysius, and concluded with a tremendous display of erudition. The congregation was enthralled by his words, but at the end of the service the theologian saw the Friend of God walk away silently and alone, with head bowed as though in deep thought.
The next day the Friend of God went to the clergyman and gave him a scathing criticism of the sermon, even saying that if that was the best he could do, then he was not capable of teaching about the spiritual life at all. The preacher's anger knew no bounds, but suddenly an inner voice told him to calm himself and to listen to the stranger's words. Having regained possession of himself once more, he quietly asked the Friend of God what help he could give him. Then the layman gave the Master of the Holy Scriptures twenty-three sentences, saying, “These are the ABC of religion; master these, and events will show their worth.” The theologian withdrew from active service and spent a long time in meditation and prayer. His power of preaching left him, so that he could hardly speak an intelligible sentence, let alone deliver a whole sermon. His congregations deserted him; everywhere he was scorned and ridiculed.
After two years he was led by an inner voice which told him to enter the pulpit to preach during the service. Quietly he did so, noting the scorn and derision on the faces of the people as he faced them. For a long moment there was silence, then suddenly without any premeditation at all he gave out as his text, “Behold the Bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him!” And the spiritual power which flowed with his words was so great that it is said that forty persons fainted from sheer excitement and joy.
Tradition has long connected the “Master of Holy Scripture” with Johannes Tauler, and indicates that this is the account of his meeting with the Friend of God from the Oberland. Tauler became intimately acquainted with leading Friends of God in many places on his travels, and was deeply impressed with their way of life. As he said in a sermon at about this time, “The theologians of Paris study great tomes and turn over many pages, but the Friends of God read the living Book where everything is life.”
Among the Friends of God whom Tauler met were Henry of Nordlingen, one of the outstanding representatives of the mysticism of the time, Hermann of Fritzlar, and two pious nuns, Christina Ebner, prioress of the Engelthal Convent near Nuremberg, and Margaretha Ebner, of the Convent of Maria Medingen in Swabia. One of the letters from the famous correspondence between Henry of Nordlingen and Margaretha Ebner is dated 1348, and asks that she “Pray for Tauler, who lives as a matter of course in the midst of great trial and testing because he teaches the truth and lives in conformity with it as perfectly as a preacher can.”
Having visited Friends of God in many places during his seven years' absence from Strassburg, Tauler was convinced that a layman has tasks to perform which basically are as spiritually important as those of the clergy. In one of his sermons Tauler reflects the religious-social spirit he had found in the way of life of the Friends of God: “One can spin, another can make shoes, and all these are gifts of the Holy Ghost. I tell you, if I were not a priest, I would esteem it a great gift that I was able to make shoes, and I would try to make them so well that they would be a model to all.”
One of the documents which has come down to us from the Friends of God is a public announcement which probably originated in Strassburg, and may have been written by Rulman Merswin himself. It was copied and recopied, and was circulated very widely in southern and western Germany during Tauler's lifetime. It is of interest because it gives a picture of the kind of appeal which was made to the public by the Friends of God in the latters' search for others who might be minded to join them:
“All those in whom the love of God or the terror brought about by the dreadful calamities of the present wakens a wish to begin a new and spiritual life, will discover great advantage in withdrawing into themselves every morning when they waken, in order to consider what they will do during the day. Should they find any evil thought in themselves, any purpose which is contrary to the divine will, let them give it up and cast it aside, to the glory of God. In the evening, upon going to bed, let them consider how they have spent the day. Let them recall what deeds they have done, and in what spirit they have performed them. If they discover that they have done any good, let them thank God, and give Him the glory. If they discover they have done evil, let them take the blame for it themselves, and lay the fault on nobody else, and let them deeply repent before God, saying to Him, ‘O Lord, be merciful to me, and forgive all my sins of this day, for I sincerely repent, and I firmly intend from now on with Thy help, to avoid sinning.’”
In 1348 Strassburg was visited by the Black Death. All who could leave the city fled before the dread disease, and soon few except the sick were left behind. Even relatives, nurses and physicians left for fear of the pestilence. But among those who stayed in the city to care for the sick, to comfort the dying, and to bury the dead, was Johannes Tauler.
Week after week, month after month, this fearless Dominican stood in his pulpit in defiance of papal ban and the Black Death and bore witness to the truth that was in him. In one of his sermons He pointed out that “In all the world God desires and requires but one thing: that He find the noble ground he has laid in the noble soul of man bare and ready, so that He may do His noble divine work therein.” Hence it is necessary that men “let God prepare their ground, and give themselves wholly to God and put away the self in all things.”
But Tauler had no illusions about the trials that await man on his path of purification, on his way to the spirit: “When our heavenly Father determines to grace a particular soul with spiritual gifts, and to transform it in a special way, He does not purge it gently. Instead, He plunges it into a sea of bitterness, and deals with it as He did with the prophet Jonah.”
He knew that “No teacher can teach what he has not lived through himself,” and he continued his work at Strassburg against all odds, encouraging others by his Christianity in action. He had said, “Never trust a virtue which has not been put into practice.” Now he was practicing the virtue of a Friend of God, the virtue of devotion to his fellow-men. It is no wonder that Luther was to write of him, “Never in either the Latin or German language have I found more wholesome, purer teaching, nor any that more fully agrees with the Gospel.” Tauler's words were tried and purified in the fire of personal experience.
It is related that the Friend of God from the Oberland gave Tauler two prayers which he was to use every morning and evening. They are significant examples of the spirit which animated the mystical striving of the Friends of God. “In the morning you are to say, ‘O Lord, I wish to keep from all sin today. Help me to do everything I do today according to Thy divine will and to Thy glory, whether my nature likes it or not.’ In similar fashion every evening you are to say, ‘O Lord, I am a poor, unworthy creature. Be merciful to me, forgive my sins, for I repent of them and sincerely desire Thy help that I may commit no more.’”
Tauler's writings have great appeal even today because of their freshness, their closeness to everyday life, their common sense. They are not primarily Scholastic speculations like much of Eckhart's writing, but are nearer to the vigorous directness of the Reformers. Although Tauler loved, as he described it, “to put out into the deep and let down the nets” into the world of study and meditation, at the same time he cautioned that such “spiritual enjoyments are food of the soul, and are only to be taken for nourishment and support to help us in our active work.” This thought was echoed in the spirit of the Reformation.
In the years following the Black Death and the papal ban, Tauler continued to make Strassburg the center of his work. He kept up his correspondence with many of the Friends of God, especially with Margaretha Ebner. His services were crowded, and his sermons were held in the highest regard by his congregations.
On the fifteenth of June, 1361 in the Convent of Saint Nikolaus in Strassburg, Johannes Tauler died at the age of sixty-one. Tradition relates that for him the moment of death was an experience of pure joy, for as he said in one of his last sermons, “Eternity is the everlasting Now.”
Linked with the name of Johannes Tauler as a Friend of God and a continuer of the work of Meister Eckhart is that of yet another Dominican, Heinrich Suso. Suso was born in 1295, five years before the birth of Tauler, in the town of Ueberlingen on the Lake of Constance. When he was still a small boy his parents decided he should study for the Church, and his preparatory education began at Constance, and was continued at Cologne, where he came under the influence of the teaching of Meister Eckhart.
Suso has revealed himself in his autobiography as a deeply emotional man, with a very unusual gift of expression. In his “glowing, vivid language,” as it has been described, Suso pictures his mystical experiences in great detail, in contrast to the silence in which many other mystics have shrouded their strivings.
At about the age of eighteen, in 1313, the year Boccaccio was born in Florence, Suso entered a monastery in Constance. There he voluntarily subjected himself to the most severe ascetic ordeals. He centered his affection in an ideal which he personified under the name of the Eternal Wisdom. He relates how this figure appeared before him and said, “My son, give me your heart.” He took a knife and cut deep into his chest the letters of the name Jesus, so that the scar-traces of each of the letters remained all his life, “about the length of a finger-joint,” as he says.
Suso once saw a vision of angels, and asked them in what manner God dwelt in his soul. The angel told him to look within. He did so, and as he gazed he saw that “his body over his heart was as clear as crystal, and in the center sat tranquilly, the lovely form of the Eternal Wisdom. Beside her sat, filled with heavenly longing, the servitor's own soul, which, leaning lovingly toward God's side, and encircled by His arms, lay pressed close to His heart.” Suso wrote his autobiography in the third person, and referred to himself as “the servitor of the Divine Wisdom,” much as Swedenborg in a later century was to refer to himself in his writings as “the servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Heinrich Suso took the expression, “No cross, no crown,” with terrible literalness. He imposed fearful penances upon himself, and consumed sixteen long years in cruel austerity. For example, he relates how he donned a hair shirt, and bound himself with a heavy iron chain, but at length he had to give these up, since the loss of blood they occasioned was too much for his strength to bear. Instead he fashioned a crude night-shirt which he wore next to his skin this garment he sewed a series of leather straps in which sharp tacks were fitted to that they pierced his skin with his slightest movement. Later he made a cross of wood as tall as himself, and the cross-beam the length of his outstretched arms. Into this he drove thirty nails, and wore the cross fastened to his bare back, the nails pointing into his flesh. He bore this instrument of torture for some eight years, day and night. Finally, after sixteen years of agony, Suso had a vision at Whitsuntide in which he was assured that God no longer wished him to continue his austerities. Only then did he abate the severity of his asceticism, and threw his instruments of self-torture into a running stream near the monastery.
In his autobiography Suso relates that one time he prayed that God would instruct him how to suffer. In response, he had a vision of Christ on the cross in the likeness of a seraphic being with six wings. On each pair of wings the legend was inscribed, “Receive suffering willingly; Bear suffering patiently; Learn suffering in the way of Christ.”
The result of this almost unbelievable “receiving, bearing, learning” of suffering was a man whose gentleness and calm, lyric beauty of speech won hearts to his teaching. The fires of affliction had nearly consumed him to ashes, yet, phoenix-like, his spirit rose anew in a sweetness of expression and a grandeur of soul which one could scarcely resist. In 1335, the year Giotto began his work on the Cathedral at Florence, Suso set out on his wanderings through Swabia as a traveling preacher. He advanced the spiritual teachings of Eckhart, but through his mystical fervor they were permeated by a newness, a spontaneous grace and a transcendent beauty. And something of this spirit which was reborn in Suso comes down to us today in his autobiography, issued in 1365, which has established itself as a unique work of its kind, and as “one of the most interesting and charming of all autobiographies.” Suso's preaching was especially popular among the nuns of the convents he visited. Their hearts were deeply impressed by the obvious, overwhelming sincerity and fervor of his manner and words.
Heinrich Suso's writings are among the classics of mysticism. His first work, Das Büchlein der Wahrheit, The Little Book of Truth, was written in Cologne in 1329, and springs directly from the mystical teachings of Meister Eckhart. Somewhat later, in Constance he wrote of the more practical aspects of mysticism in his Das Büchlein der Ewigen Weisheit, The Little Book of Eternal Wisdom. This book has been called “the finest fruit of German mysticism.”
Something of the romanticism of the troubadour of the Ages of Faith, the charm of days gone by, the sad evanescence of the dream of chivalry and the heroic ideals of knighthood lives in the mystical expressions of Suso. He develops a mood of gentleness, of tender, delicate imagery which sets him apart from all the other men whose lives we are considering here.
Concerning his books, Suso wrote, “Whoever will read these writings of mine in a right spirit can hardly fail to be stirred in his heart's depths, either to fervent love, or to new light, or to longing and thirsting for God, or to detestation and loathing of his sins, or to that spiritual aspiration by which the soul is renewed in grace.” These words gain “fearful symmetry,” to use Blake's phrase, when we recall that they were written by one who, for example, had practiced such abstinence in eating and drinking, that often as he stood with his brother monks in choir at Compline, when the holy water was sprinkled over the group during the service, he opened his parched mouth toward the aspergillum in the hope that even a single drop of water might cool his burning thirst. Such a man can write about “longing and thirsting” as very few who have walked this earth have been able to do.
About 1348, his wandering in central and southern Germany having come to an end, this love-inspired Swabian poet-knight of the spirit, singer of the glories of Eternal Wisdom, settled at last in Ulm on the river Donau. There he died on the Day of Damascus, the anniversary of St. Paul's first mystical vision of the Risen Christ, January 25, 1366, at the age of seventy-one.
Through the Dominican stream the Scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas came to Meister Eckhart in the form of ideas which he shaped and fashioned into aphoristic expression by means of his remarkable powers of thinking; in the hands of Johannes Tauler Scholasticism was transformed into Christian action, into practical deeds of will; in the golden warmth of his loving, devoted heart Heinrich Suso bathed Scholasticism in a lyric splendor of poetic imagery so that it became a thing of transcendent, eternal beauty.
Jan van Ruysbroeck was born in the little village of Ruysbroeck on the Senne between Brussels and Hal in 1293, the year after the death of the English Franciscan philosopher and scientist, Roger Bacon. When Jan was eleven years old he decided to run away from home in order that he might more completely dedicate himself and his life to God. He went to the house of his uncle, Jan Hinckaert in Brussels, and asked if the latter would undertake to educate him to the service of God. The uncle, who was a Canon of the Church of Saint Gudale in Brussels, arranged that the boy would live in his home and study with his friend, the learned priest, Franc van Coudenberg, and himself. Eventually Jan took the four year course in the Latin School of Brussels, and from there he attended the well-known theological school in Cologne.
At the age of twenty-four Jan van Ruysbroeck was ordained a priest, and was appointed chaplain to his uncle in Brussels. His life for the next two decades seems to have been that of a dedicated pastor, who served his congregation to the best of his ability, but was not otherwise particularly distinguished, at least externally.
However, as Jan van Ruysbroeck's fiftieth birthday approached, he had a remarkable experience. He felt that the time had come when he was to withdraw from active work in the world, and that he was called to devote himself entirely to spiritual matters. At about the same time his uncle was deeply confused and depressed one day, and an inner voice directed him to go into the church. As he did so, he saw that a visiting missionary priest had just mounted the pulpit to preach to the congregation. Now the uncle knew that this priest had a serious speech defect. To the uncle's astonishment, as the missionary opened his mouth, the words flowed out in a river of eloquence! At this, the preacher turned to where the uncle was standing and said, “This miracle has happened for the sake of that man standing there, in order that he will repent and turn to God.”
In similar manner, van Coudenberg also had a spiritual experience, and was filled with the deep desire to live a more dedicated life.
At Easter, 1343 the three men resigned their work in Brussels and went deep into the forest of Soignes where they found a deserted hunting-lodge called Grönendal, The Green Valley. The place had not been used for over a generation, and the men set to work to make a home for themselves there, and soon had built a chapel. Others joined them, and before long a small community had developed.
After about six years the community decided to take on the rule and habit of the Augustinian canons. And the moving spirit was Jan van Ruysbroeck himself, who was as devoted to practical tasks as he was to spiritual matters. Whether it was necessary to repair a stove, load a manure cart, discuss deep problems of theology, or nurse the sick, he was always ready and cheerfully willing to do whatever was to be done.
The fame of the little forest community spread, and visitors came from far places to see the life that was being lived there. One day two young priests, theological students from the University of Paris, arrived and asked to speak with Jan van Ruysbroeck. They wished his advice concerning their spiritual development, and begged that he would help them to find the way to the spirit, and would speak with them about the condition of their souls. His reply was to the point: “You are as spiritual as you have the desire to be, that is all.” They were somewhat annoyed at the abruptness of his words, and turned away. At once he spoke to them in a loving tone: “My very dear children, I said your spirituality was what you wish it to be so that you would understand that your spirituality is entirely in proportion to your good will. Then enter into yourselves; don't ask others about your progress. Examine your good will, and from that alone you will discover the measure of your spirituality.”
One of the guests at Grönendal was Johannes Tauler, who was much impressed with the life he saw there. In turn, Tauler doubtless told Jan van Ruysbroeck about his experiences with the Friends of God.
In 1378, the year after Gregory XI condemned John Wycliffe, translator of the Vulgate into English, as a heretic, the famous lay-preacher, Gerard Groote visited the community of Grönendal and had many conversations with Jan van Ruysbroeck.
Gerard Groote was born in the town of Deventer, about sixty miles from Amsterdam in 1340. His parents were wealthy, and at the age of fifteen Gerard was sent to the University of Paris. In three years he was given his Master's degree, and then was called to teach at Cologne, where he was soon advanced to the position of professor of philosophy, and also received important appointments of a civil nature.
One day Groote was standing with a crowd watching a game in a Cologne square when a modestly dressed stranger, with a serious, sincere face approached him and spoke to him softly: “Why are you standing here? You ought to become another man.” Soon after this incident Groote fell seriously ill, and his life was despaired of. However, when matters were at their worst, he recalled the words of the stranger, and at once promised Heaven that he would do everything in his power to become “another man” if he was allowed to regain his health. Groote recovered, and not long after was sought out by his former teacher from the University of Paris, Henry de Kalkar, who for some years had been the prior of a Carthusian monastery near Deventer. This dedicated man had come to Groote, impelled by an inner urge to call the latter to a new life.
Groote retired from the world, and dedicated himself to the pursuit of spiritual things. Eventually the time came when his studies entitled him to be ordained a priest. This he refused, and refused repeatedly to the end of his life.
In 1379 Groote sensed a spiritual call to go out into the countryside as an itinerant lay-preacher. The Bishop of Utrecht granted him a license as a preacher, allowing him to speak anywhere in his diocese.
According to all accounts Groote was a speaker of marked excellence. He differed radically from other preachers of his time in that he never threatened his hearers with punishments of hell nor sought to bribe them with the bliss of heaven. He spoke simply and directly to them of the love of God, the great way of salvation, the search for the good, and always about the wonderful possibilities of a life lived in consonance with God. He spoke only from his personal experience, never used any Latin phrases in his discourses, and employed only the simplest, most direct forms of expression. The result was that for five years people flocked to hear him wherever he went.
In the course of his wanderings Groote visited Grönendal, and was deeply impressed by everything he saw, and most of all by the entirely practical attitude toward life which Jan van Ruysbroeck manifested. The result was that Groote was inspired to form a community, a kind of Christian brotherhood, which would be bound by no permanent vows as were monks, but would consist of individuals who freely chose to live together in poverty, chastity, obedience, simplicity and piety, holding all possessions in common as the early Christians had done, and working together to earn their own livelihood.
Groote was soon surrounded by a group of men who enthusiastically wished to take up this life, and who took the name, “The Brotherhood of the Common Lot” or “the Common Life.” The first community house was established at Deventer, and was called a “brother house.” Soon “sister houses” for women were also established. Groote loved books, and therefore he freely gave his fortune for the purchase of rare books which the brothers and sisters copied by hand — this of course was before the invention of the printing press — and the money received from the sale of these volumes was used for the maintenance of the communities. The Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life mingled freely with the world, and soon came to be recognized everywhere in Holland, Belgium and in the German Rhine valley by their plain grey habit and their simple, unassuming manners. Their life was devoted to the care of orphan children, the spreading of knowledge through the sale of books that they copied, and in the teaching of reading and writing to adults. Their method of instruction of children was based on practical life, and was directed toward moral and spiritual improvement. They taught the children under their care to earn a living, but never encouraged them to enter a profession which would give them undue wealth.
Jan van Ruysbroeck's last days were spent quietly in the community at Grönendal, and many stories were told of his remarkable spiritual development. For example he was missing one day, and at last was found sitting beneath a tree in the forest, sunk in deep meditation, while according to the tale, the tree itself was surrounded by a heavenly brightness of shimmering colors.
He knew the force of directness in conversation. A man once tried to draw him out on the subject of the dreadful wickedness in the world. His only remark was, “What we are, that we behold; and what we behold, that we are.”
Like all mystics, he loved animals and flowers, and his greatest earthly joy was in the song of the birds of the forest. His death took place in 1381, the year of the outbreak of the Peasant Revolt in England under the leadership of Wat Tyler, and the priest, John Ball. Stories tell how at the moment of his death, the bells of the churches in neighboring villages began to toll all by themselves, and how after several years when his corpse was exhumed it showed no decomposition, but gave off a sweet odor which healed the sick who were brought near.
Gerhart Groote survived Jan van Ruysbroeck by three years Meanwhile, a young man had joined the circle of the Brotherhood of the Common Life who is known as the author of one of the most important books of devotion in the world. His name was Thomas a Kempis, and his Imitatio Christi, Imitation of Christ, is a classic which has inspired men throughout the centuries since it first appeared. Thomas also was the biographer of Gerhard Groote, and his impression of the Brotherhood of the Common Life was, “I never before recall having seen men so devout, so full of love for God and their fellow-men. Living in the world, they were altogether unworldly.”
At the conclusion of Thomas' Life of Gerhard Groote is a collection of aphorisms which he attributes to the latter as among the basic teachings of the Brotherhood of the Common Life: “Conquer yourself. Turn your heart from things, and direct your mind continually to God. Do not for any cause allow yourself to lose your composure. Practice obedience, and accept things that are difficult. Continually exercise yourself in humility and moderation. The further one knows himself to be from perfection, the closer he is to it. Of all temptations, the greatest is not to be tempted at all. Never breathe so much as a word to display your religion or learning. Nothing is a better test of a man than to hear himself praised. Above all, and first of all, let Christ be the basis of your study and the mirror of your life.”
Years after the deaths of Jan van Ruysbroeck and Gerhard Groote, a twelve-year old boy was brought to the Brethren of the Common Life at Deventer, and was placed in the school there. Destined to be one of the most important figures of the Reformation period, Desiderius Erasmus, became famous for his modesty, his temperance and wisdom. These qualities are no doubt traceable to the early training he received at the hands of the Brethren of the Common Life. Erasmus of Rotterdam advised moderation and tolerance, even when the opposite qualities ran high, as for example in his famous letter in reply to the Pope's invitation to come to Rome in order to advise him on how to deal with Luther and his followers: “You ask me what you should do. Some believe there is no remedy but force. I do not believe this, for I think there would be dreadful bloodshed ... If you intend to try prison, lash, stake and scaffold, you do not need my help ... Discover the roots of the disease and clean them out first of all. Punish nobody, but let what has happened be considered as a visitation of Providence, and extend a general amnesty to all.” Had the moderation counselled in this letter, typical of the spirit of the Brotherhood of the Common Life, been followed, how different might the course of history have been!
In 1401, when Ghiberti's Baptistry doors, “worthy to be the gates of Paradise,” were first shown to the admiring eyes of his fellow Florentines, and the English Parliament decreed that all proven heretics were to be burned at the stake, Nicolas Chrypffs was born at Cusa on the Moselle River. Nicolas was to be known as “the last great philosopher of the dying Middle Ages,” and was to fling wide the doors of men's minds to the concept of a universe which is infinite. As a student he made a brilliant record in his study of law and mathematics at the renowned University of Padua, and followed this with a course in theology at Cologne where, as we have seen, he was preceded by Meister Eckhart, Tauler, Suso, van Ruysbroeck, and Groote. Eventually Nicolas became Archdeacon of Liege at about the time that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen.
The Council of Basel, which had convened intermittently since 1417, was beginning its last ten years of existence when Nicolas attended its sessions in his official capacity as Archdeacon of Liege, in 1437. These sessions took place at the time when Cosimo de Medici was making preparations for the opening of his famous Platonic Academy in Florence, the institution renowned as a center of the revival of the learning of the classical world.
Shortly after his attendance at the Council of Basel, Nicolas was sent to Constantinople to try his efforts toward the solution of one of the most vexing problems of the time, the reunion of the churches of East and West. His work at Basel and Constantinople attracted the attention of the Pope, so that in 1440 Nicolas was sent to Germany as papal legate at a very critical moment in the relations between Germany and the Church of Rome.
When Nicolas arrived in Germany, Frederick, Duke of Styria was chosen king to rule as Frederick IV. Just at that time the Council of Basel had appointed an “anti-pope,” called Felix V, in opposition to Pope Eugenius IV. In the fact that soon after his election, Frederick decided to extend his influence to the support of Eugenius in opposition to the Council of Basel, one perhaps can see the fruit of the work of Nicolas of Cusa as papal legate in Germany.
It also seems something more than coincidence that in 1448, when Frederick IV and Pope Nicolas V signed the Concordat of Vienna, by which the German church was firmly rebound to Rome, Nicolas of Cusa was raised to the rank of Cardinal. Two years later he was appointed Bishop of Britten.
The reactionary character of the Concordat of Vienna made impossible any reform of conditions within the German church. The clergy in Germany who had hoped for some easing of the repressive measures of the papacy, were doomed to disappointment. On the other hand, the Concordat of Vienna was one of the principal links in the chain of events that finally culminated on All Saints' Day, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, and the German Reformation became a fact.
The sixteen years (1448–1464) of the Cardinalate of Nicolas of Cusa coincide with remarkable developments in the social and cultural life of the Western world. The year 1452 is notable as the year of the birth of two men of marked divergence of outlook. The first was Girolamo Savonarola, the Dominican monk, leader of the reaction against the Renaissance, the dogmatic eschatologist from Ferrara, who as “dictator of Florence” held a brief sway over the minds and bodies of men of his time. Also in 1452 was born the genius of the Renaissance, the archetype of the “new man,” the very incarnation of the spirit of progress, of universality, of investigation, of freedom from traditionalism and conservatism — Leonardo da Vinci. At this same time a host of the world's most famous Greek scholars left Constantinople in fear of the advancing Turks under Mohammed II, who finally took the city the following year, which also marked the end of the Hundred Years' War in Western Europe.
In 1454, as a kind of picture of things to come in the field of technical development and invention, Johannes Gutenberg issued his first texts printed with movable type, and before two more years were completed, published his edition of the Vulgate Bible at Mainz. 1456 is notable as the year the Turks captured Athens and subsequently all Greece, thus marking the end of the last vestiges of classicism remaining in that country.
Pico della Mirandola, famous Renaissance scholar and writer, collector of precious books and manuscripts, master of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Chaldee and Arabic, student of the mysticism of the Kabbalah and other mystical writings, was born in 1463. The following year, on the 11th of August, Nicolas of Cusa died, renowned as a distinguished prince of the Church, and as a diplomat traveling in the service of the Pope.
Today Nicolas of Cusa is remembered for his cosmological conceptions, his originality and breadth of thought, and his courage as a thinker at a time when the rationalized dogmatic system of Scholasticism was breaking down in face of the impact of the new age. As the famous French mathematician and philosopher, Renè Descartes was to write nearly two hundred years after Nicolas' death, “The Cardinal of Cusa and several other theologians have supposed the world to be infinite, and the Church has never condemned them for it. On the contrary, it is thought that to make His works appear very great is one way to honor God.” Nicolas of Cusa's work was appreciated by such men as Giordano Bruno, philosopher, poet, and martyr, Johannes Kepler, the astronomer, and Descartes, to name but a few. The courage necessary for a thinker to grasp the implications of the new age was present in Nicolas of Cusa, and the scope of his investigations in the world of thought is evidence of his importance and stature.
The year 1487 is regarded by some as the year of the beginning of the Renaissance. By others it is remembered as the time the Portuguese navigator, Bartholomeu Diaz, sailing along the African coast on a voyage of exploration, discovered the Cape of Good Hope and thereby opened the passage to India and China. Still others recall that this was the year of the birth of one Henry Cornelius, generally known as Agrippa of Nettesheim, in the city of Cologne on September 14, 1487. His family was honored for its service to the royal house of Hapsburg, but little is known of his childhood and youth.
Like others whom we have considered, Henry Cornelius studied at the University of Cologne. He also learned eight languages, and passed some time in France while still a young man.
In 1486, the year before Henry Cornelius was born, the son of Frederick IV, whom Nicolas of Cusa had supported in signing the Concordat of Vienna, came to the throne of Germany as Maximilian I. The latter was heir to great areas of Austria, was administrator of the Netherlands, and not long after he came to the throne of Germany he united the country, and through the marriage of his son Philip to the heiress of the Spanish kingdoms, his influence soon spread to that country as well. Thus Maximilian exercised a power in Europe as had no German ruler for centuries.
While he was still a young man, Henry Cornelius was appointed secretary in the service of Maximilian, and his life of travel and adventure began almost at once. However, the life of the battlefield and he court did not suit him, and not long afterward we find him at the University at Dôle as a lecturer on philosophy. This appointment was made in 1509, the year that Erasmus wrote his Chiliades adagiorum, by which his reputation as an author was established.
But Henry Cornelius' lectures did not long escape the attention of the Inquisition, and he went to England on a diplomatic mission for Maximilian as the result of an attack made upon him by the monk, John Catilinet who was lecturing at Ghent. In London Henry Cornelius was a welcome guest in the home of Dr. John Colet, friend and later the patron of Erasmus, student of the teachings of Savonarola, former lecturer at Oxford, at that time dean of St. Paul's Cathedral. In his later life, Colet was to preach on the occasion of Wolsey's installation as Cardinal, and was to become chaplain to Henry VIII. He did much to introduce the humanist teachings of the Renaissance into England, and was an outspoken opponent of auricular confession and the celibacy of the clergy of the Catholic Church.
After his return to the Continent, Henry Cornelius went to Italy with Maximilian on one of the latter's expeditions against Venice. During his stay in Italy in 1512, the year the Medici were recalled to Florence, and Martin Luther was made a Doctor of Theology, he attended the Council of Pisa as a theologian. This council had been called by a group of Cardinals in opposition to militaristic plans of Pope Julius II who had laid the cornerstone for the new basilica of St. Peter's in Rome six years before.
In all, Henry Cornelius remained in Italy about seven years, and they were a very eventful time, for they coincided with some of the most important events of the Renaissance period. In these years the Aldine edition of Plato appeared in Venice, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince, a landmark in the history of political thought, and Erasmus published his New Testament in Greek. Julius II died during this period, and Giovanni de Medici, made Cardinal at fourteen, now became Pope Leo X, whose famous exclamation, “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it,” set a pattern for the Renaissance, while his permission to sell indulgences for the benefit of the construction of St. Peter's led to the upheaval of the Reformation.
Henry Cornelius was active as a physician during his first years in Italy, first in the household of the Marquis of Monferrato, later in that of the Duke of Savoy. In 1515 he accepted an invitation to lecture at the University of Pavia on one of the works of the ancient world beloved by the adherents of the new learning of the Renaissance, the Pimander of Hermes Trismegistus. This was the year when Sir Thomas More wrote his Utopia, and Leonardo da Vinci left Rome for the last time enroute to his three year exile and death in France.
The university lectures on the Pimander were suddenly broken off as a result of the victorious advance into Italy by the armies of Francis I of France. Henry Cornelius returned to Germany, and in 1518, the year Zwingli began the Reformation among the Swiss, he was appointed town advocate of Metz. But he was not left in peace for long. First, the death of Maximilian at the beginning of 1519 and the subsequent election of Charles V, King of Spain, Naples, Sicily, ruler of the Netherlands, Austria, Burgundy, and of dominions in the New World, to be ruler of Germany brought changes in the life of Henry Cornelius. Second, a woman was tried in Metz for witchcraft. In his position as town advocate Henry Cornelius went to her defense, with the result that he became involved in a serious controversy with one of the most dreaded agents of the Inquisition, the notorious Nicholas Savin. Finally, in 1520, the year of Magellan's voyage around the world, of the death of the painter, Raphael, and of Luther's burning of the papal bull, Henry Cornelius quietly left Metz for Cologne, where he remained in discreet retirement for about two years.
He appeared in public life once more, first in Geneva, afterward in Freiburg, where he practiced as a physician. In 1524, a year before Tyndale's English translation of the New Testament appeared, he went to Lyons to accept a post as physician to Louise of Savoy, mother of Francis I. But the unsettled times — now accentuated by the terrible sack of Rome by the armies of Constable Bourbon in 1527 — caused him to relinquish the position in favor of some post further north which might offer greater security for his study and work.
That Henry Cornelius was considered an able scholar is evidenced by the fact that at about this time he was offered the opportunity to participate in a disputation concerning the legality of the divorce action between Henry VIII of England and Catherine of Aragon, which was then taking place. However, he accepted an offer to be archivist and historian to Charles V, which Louise of Savoy obtained for him.
The death of Louise of Savoy in 1531 weakened his position, and in addition to all of the other ferment of the time, the news that Henry VIII had declared himself “Supreme Head of the Church of England” only increased the uncertainty of conditions. Henry Cornelius also had published several works which had attracted the attention of the Inquisition, and for a time he was imprisoned in Brussels. However, despite the publication of his De occulta philosophia, Concerning Secret Science, written about 1510, printed in Antwerp 1531, which the Inquisition did their best to prevent, Henry Cornelius was able to live for some time at Cologne and Ronn under the personal protection of the great Hermann von Wied, Archbishop of Cologne, who recognized and appreciated his remarkable qualities as a scholar and man.
At the very end of his life, while he was visiting Paris, Francis I had him arrested on the strength of a report that he had spoken badly of the reputation of the queen mother. The charge was proven false and he was released after a brief imprisonment, but the strain of the experience was too great for him to bear, and he died suddenly at Grenoble on February 18, 1535 at the age of forty-nine. His death took place in the same year as that of Sir Thomas More, and five years after that of Erasmus.
Henry Cornelius was married three times, and was the father of a large family of children. His memory — despite attacks on his reputation and teachings by the Inquisition long after his death — has been kept alive through the years because of his writings, mainly his De occulta philosophia. A man of unusual courage and in some ways a kind of universal genius, Henry Cornelius was typical of the men whose lives spanned the period that opened the way to the modern age.
Columbus had reached America on his western voyage; Lorenzo de Medici had died in Florence; the Spaniard, Rodrigo Borgia, along with his mistress and children now inhabited the Vatican as Pope Alexander VI, whose frankly pagan orgies were more fitting to the later Roman emperors than to the Vicar of Christ upon earth; and in the little Swiss town of Einsiedeln in Canton Schwyz, the local physician, illegitimate son of a Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, was in turn the father of a son whom he named Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim. Later the son himself chose the name by which he is known to history — Paracelsus.
The boy's early education was in the hands of his father; at the age of sixteen he entered the University of Basel. However, his restless nature and his independent thinking made formal study most unattractive to him, and he determined to seek an education in his own way.
About this time he heard of the great Benedictine scholar, Johannes Trithemius, originally Abbot of the Monastery of Wurzburg, later of Sponheim near Kreuznach. The Abbot of Sponheim was celebrated for the remarkable library he had collected, for his studies in cryptography, for his writings on history, and for his researches in alchemy and related sciences. This same Abbot of Sponheim had greatly influenced Henry Cornelius in the latter's work on his De occulta philosophia.
Paracelsus decided to apply to the Abbot of Sponheim for the opportunity to study science with him. He was accepted, but the association did not last very long. Led by a desire to learn more about the nature and properties of minerals first-hand, he went to the Tyrolean mines owned by the famous merchant-administrators and bankers to the German Emperors, the Fuggers.
Paracelsus felt at home among the miners. He soon came to the conviction that what he gained through direct observation was the best education of all. He learned about the processes involved in mining operations, the nature of ores, the properties of mineral waters, and the stratification of the rocks of the earth. Meanwhile he came to know the home life of the miners, studied their illnesses and the types of accidents to which they were most prone. In brief, from his experiences in the mines he concluded that formal schooling is not education in the mysteries of nature. He was convinced that only by reading the book of nature first-hand and through personal contact with those who work with nature can one come to anything like truly natural scientific knowledge.
This point of view followed Paracelsus throughout his life, and colored his relationships with those scholars with whom he came into contact. He based his work entirely on the results of his own observation and experience, and not on theories acquired from others.
Paracelsus wandered over a great part of central Europe in order that he might come to a direct personal knowledge of things. He once said that the physician must read the book of nature, and that to do so he must “walk over its pages.” He came to the conclusion that since the temperaments, constitutions and activities of different peoples are different, the diseases from which they suffer must also be different. Therefore he believed that it was incumbent upon the physician to know other peoples as the key to understanding his own.
The summation of Paracelsus' method of study is contained in his questions, “From where do I obtain all my secrets, from what authors? It would be better if one asked how the animals have learned their skills. If nature can teach irrational animals, can it not much more teach men?”
In all, Paracelsus spent nearly a full decade in his wanderings in search of knowledge. At the end of his travels, while the mass of information he had gathered lacked order and coherence, there is no doubt that here was a man whose experiences, observations of peoples, places and events, as well as knowledge of the elements and processes of nature gave his words and deeds the weight of direct evidence. His superiority to his contemporaries was unquestionable.
When Paracelsus returned to Basel in 1527 he was appointed city physician, and also was made professor of physic, medicine, and surgery at the University. He undertook to give a course of lectures in medicine, but the latter provoked a storm of protest because they were so unconventional, as might have been expected from one holding his views on education. First of all, Paracelsus lectured in German, not Latin, which was unheard of in academic circles of the time. Then his lectures were composed of statements derived from his experience, and presented his own methods of cure, based upon his personal points of view. But worst of all to the traditionalists, Paracelsus' lectures dealt with cure of the diseases current among the peoples of Europe in the year 1527, and not only did not include comment on the classic medical texts of Galen or Avicenna, an accepted part of every medical lecture worthy of the name, but they attacked these sacrosanct authorities and ridiculed those who followed their teachings. Above all, Paracelsus plead for a medical practice which met the needs of the time, which followed the results of direct observation, and which did away with the ignorance and greed of physicians which hid behind a mask of pompousness and reliance upon the dicta of men who had been dead for centuries.
Paracelsus also was hard at work proving the practical worth of his knowledge in curing the sick. His success was phenomenal. Maladies previously considered incurable were healed quickly and efficiently by his methods. Case after case which had been given up by other physicians of Basel and the surrounding towns, was brought to him and cured. For two or three years Paracelsus' reputation spread far and wide. Never before had such a physician practiced in Basel!
But this success did not last. At first, his learning, derived from his practical experience, his appeal to the common sense of his hearers, captured the imagination of his students. His successful practice was proof of the correctness of his teaching, and all opposition based on traditionalism was pushed aside.
Slowly, however, the tide began to turn; the waters of opposition gathered their strength. No single detail escaped the vigilant eyes of his enemies; nothing was too insignificant to throw into the scale against him. There was the matter of his having no degree; the conservatives demanded that he be forced to prove his qualifications before continuing his teaching and practice. And his prescriptions were a source of annoyance to the pharmacists of Basel, for Paracelsus had worked out his own system of drug compounding, which differed radically from that generally employed by other physicians. Therefore the apothecaries attacked Paracelsus, because he did not use their products as did the Galenists. On the other hand, Paracelsus requested the city authorities to keep close watch on the purity of the drugs sold in Basel, to be certain that the apothecaries really knew their work, and, above all, to be watchful of the commercial relationships between the apothecaries and physicians.
At last the day came for which the enemies of Paracelsus had long been waiting. Among his patients was one Canon Cornelius von Lichtenfels, who had called upon Paracelsus for professional aid when his own physician had given up his case. Although he had promised to pay Paracelsus' fee in the event of a cure, von Lichtenfels now refused to do so. Eventually the matter was taken into a court of law, where the judges found in favor of von Lichtenfels. Noted for his quickness of temper and outspokenness, Paracelsus candidly told the judges his opinion of them, their conduct of the case, and their method of administering the law. When he left the court, Paracelsus' friends advised him to leave Basel without delay, for his enemies would surely see to it that he be severely punished for his speech before the justices. Paracelsus took this advice, and departed from Basel in haste.
Once again Paracelsus resumed his wandering life. For a brief time he remained in Esslingen, then went to Colmar, but the pinch of poverty drove him from town to town in search of work. Twelve years were passed in these journeyings, Paracelsus never remaining in one place for more than a year.
Finally, in 1541 when Paracelsus was forty-eight, he received an invitation which seemed to be the fulfillment of his longing for a permanent home where he could pursue his work undisturbed and in peace. Archbishop Ernst of Salzburg offered Paracelsus his protection if the latter would come to that city and take up his professional activities there.
But Paracelsus was in Salzburg only a few months when he died at almost the same time Michelangelo completed his painting of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel at Rome.
Even the reports of Paracelsus death reflect the efforts of his enemies to defame him. One tale recounts that his death was caused by a drunken brawl in which he was a participant. A report with sinister implications tells that Paracelsus did not die a natural death, but was thrown over a steep cliff at night by assassins in the employ of the apothecaries and physicians, whose vengeance followed him through all his years of exile.
One of Paracelsus' most far-reaching concepts is that of Signatures, that is, the idea that each single part of the microcosmic world of man corresponds with each single part of the macrocosmic world outside man. This leads directly to his teaching concerning Specifics. He realized that the latter were not to be discovered in the labyrinth of often fantastic nostrums and combinations of substances prescribed in the writings of the Galenists. Through careful observation extending over many years, Paracelsus concluded that mineral, plant and animal substances contain within themselves what he called “active principles.” It was his conviction that if a method of purification and intensification could be discovered whereby these substances could be caused to release their “active principles,” the latter would be infinitely more efficacious and safer in producing a cure than would their crude and often dangerous originals.
Paracelsus died before he could discover the method which could unlock the potency, the healing power latent in mineral, plant and animal substances. This problem was not solved until two and a half centuries later when another physician, Samuel Hahnemann, discovered a method of so handling mineral, plant and animal substances that their innate healing powers were enhanced and made available to a medical practice in line with the highest ideals of cure envisioned by Paracelsus. This method of preparation of substances and the manner of their selection and administration to the sick, Hahnemann called Homeopathy.
The first of Paracelsus' extensive works was published in Augsburg in 1529, memorable as the year when the Reformers' presentation of a protest to the Diet of Spires won them the name of Protestants. Throughout the extensive writings of Paracelsus, repeated again and again in every one of the more than two hundred separate publications of his works which appeared between 1542 and 1845, a single theme is to be observed: The life of man cannot be separated from the life of the universe; therefore, to understand man, understand the universe; to understand the universe, understand man. Only upon such an understanding — universal in its scope — Paracelsus believed a medical art worthy of the name could be built. To the proclamation of such a goal of medicine he devoted his life.
In one of his writings, Paracelsus says, “There is a light in the spirit of man ... by which the qualities of each thing created by God, whether it be visible or invisible to the senses, may be perceived and known. If man knows the essence of things, their attributes, their attractions, and the elements of which they consist, he will be a master of nature, of the elements, and of the spirits.”
Robert Browning expressed Paracelsus' thoughts in the well-known lines:
“Truth is within ourselves; it takes no rise
From outward things, what'er you may believe.
There is an inmost center in us all,
Where truth abides in fullness; and around,
Wall upon wall, the gross flesh hems it in,
This perfect, clear perception — which is truth,
A baffling and perverting carnal mesh
Binds it, and makes all error: and, to KNOW,
Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendor may escape,
Than in effecting entry for a light
Supposed to be without.”
Eight years before the death of Paracelsus, Valentine Weigel was born at Naundorff, near Grossenheim in the district of Meissen. This year 1533 was also the year of the birth of Montaigne, the skeptic, of the completion of the rape of Peru by the most notorious of all Spanish conquistadores, Francisco Pizarro, of the proclamation of Anne Boleyn, soon to be the mother of Elizabeth, as Queen of England by Henry VIII, and of the final preparation of Luther's complete German Bible which was published the next year.
The details of Weigel's childhood are obscure, but in course of time he received his Bachelor's and Master's degrees at the University of Leipzig. He continued his studies at the University of Wittenberg until 1567, three years after the death of Michelangelo. In that year he was ordained a Lutheran pastor and was called to the church at Zschopau, not far from Chemnitz in eastern Germany. His life was passed entirely in this place, and he continued as pastor of this church until his death in 1588, the year the English defeated the Spanish Armada.
While the external events of Weigel's life are few and somewhat unimpressive when compared with some of the biographies discussed thus far, his inner development and his dedication to his pastoral tasks are very remarkable. He is remembered as a loving, devoted man, a true shepherd of his flock, a man whom all his parishioners loved, and who loved them in return.
Twenty-one years after the death of their pastor, his parishioners came to know that in addition to the Valentin Weigel they knew, another man, as it were, had been active all the years in Zschopau. This was Valentin Weigel, student, mystic, and author.
Weigel had long been a close student of the writings of Paracelsus, whose work he deeply admired, but whose fate he was determined not to share. Therefore while he studied and wrote a great deal during his lifetime, he never revealed his interest in mysticism to anyone, and left instructions that his writings were not to be published until sometime after his death. So while Pastor Weigel stood in his pulpit and preached to his flock Sunday after Sunday without interruption for twenty-one years, he never shared his most cherished interests and convictions with them.
Weigel was well acquainted with the works of Eckhart and Tauler and also with such classical mystics as Dionysius and the Neo-Platonists. But with all his study he recognized that the ultimate truth of things is not acquired from without, but is to be found within each man. He wrote, “Study nature, physics, alchemy, magic, and so on, but it is all in you, and you become what you have learned.”
In 1609, twenty-one years after Weigel's death, the year Henry Hudson sailed up the river that now bears his name, Weigel's book that was to greatly influence English mystics after its translation into English in 1648, was published. It bore the title, Von den Leben Christi, das ist, vom wahren Glauben, Of the Life of Christ, that is, of True Faith, and one of its outstanding passages is, “Faith comes by inward hearing. Good books, external preaching, have their place; they testify to the real Treasure. They are witnesses to the Word within us. But faith is not tied to books; Faith is a new birth, which cannot be found in books. The one who has the inner Schoolmaster would lose nothing of his salvation, even though all the preachers should die and all books be burned.”
When one considers the theological ideas prevailing in his time, one of Weigel's interesting concepts deals with the location of heaven and hell. In an age when basically materialistic descriptions of heavenly wonders were contrasted with equally materialistic portrayals of hellish tortures, and men were assured by their pastors that these were definite places, Weigel's conviction, which probably he never voiced from his pulpit, is surprisingly modern. He wrote that “Heaven and Hell are in the soul of man, after all; both Trees of the Paradise, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, as well as the Tree of Life, flourish in the human soul.” (See Weigel's Erkenne dich Selbst, Know Thyself)
Like Luther and others, Weigel prized and edited the little book, Theologia Germanica, or The Golden Book of German Theology, as Henry More called it, and spoke of it as “A precious little book, a noble book.” Weigel also loved the sermons of Johannes Tauler because “they testify to the experience of the Heavenly Jerusalem within us.”
For Weigel, the immanence of the spiritual world was a profound conviction, born of his personal experience. His expression of this is one of the classic statements of mysticism: “God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.”
Jacob Boehme was born on April 24, 1575 in the little German village of Alt Seidenberg on a hillside south of Goerlitz, near the Bohemian border. Jacob was the fourth child of his parents, of old German peasant stock, noted for their honesty and devoutness. The Boehme family were staunch Lutherans, and the children were brought up according to the family faith. Jacob was a sickly child, and was not thought strong enough to work in the fields. Therefore his childhood summers were spent watching the herds, and in winter he received the rudiments of reading, writing, simple arithmetic and a little Latin. His favorite reading was his Bible, which he carried with him in the fields, and came to know as few other men have.
When he was fourteen, his father apprenticed him to the village cobbler for three years, since it was clear that Jacob's health would never permit him to be a farmer. In 592 Jacob Boehme began his journeyman's wanderings.
Abraham von Franckenberg, whom we shall meet again as the friend of Johannes Scheffler (Angelus Silesius), knew Jacob Boehme, and described the latter's appearance in these years: “Jacob's body was worn and plain. He was short, with low forehead, wide temples, his nose slightly crooked, his eyes grey, lighting up at times like the windows of Solomon's Temple. He had a short beard, somewhat thin, a slight voice, but very gentle in conversation. His manner was modest, mild and humble. He was of patient heart, and his spirit was lightened by God beyond anything to be found in nature.”
In the chapter in this book dealing with Jacob Boehme, Rudolf Steiner relates the famous story of the stranger and the pair of shoes, which took place during Boehme's apprentice days, sometime before 1599. In May of that year Boehme was officially made a citizen of Goerlitz, became established as a master shoemaker there, and soon afterward married Catherina Kuntzsch, daughter of a butcher of Goerlitz, by whom he had four children.
In the year 1600, when Jacob Boehme was twenty-five, he had the remarkable spiritual experience which Rudolf Steiner mentions in this book. Boehme saw the sunlight reflected on the surface of a polished pewter dish, and it was suddenly as though he could penetrate into the most secret depths of the universe, could probe the secrets of nature, and could fathom the essential being of everything in creation. This is comparable to Paracelsus' observation: “Hidden things which cannot be perceived by the physical senses may be discovered by means of the sidereal body, through whose organism we can look into nature just as the sun shines through a glass.”
Boehme later explained his spiritual experience or “illumination” in the introduction to his book, Aurora: “In a quarter of an hour I observed and knew more than if I had attended a university for many years. I recognized the Being of Beings, both the Byss and Abyss the eternal generation of the Trinity, the origin and creation of this world and of all creatures through the Divine Wisdom. I saw all three worlds in myself: first, the Divine World; second, the dark world and the source of fire; third, the external, visible world as an outbreathing of the inner or spiritual worlds. I also saw the fundamental nature of evil and good, and how the pregnant Mother, the eternal genetrix, brought them forth. My experience is like the evoking of life in the presence of death, or like the resurrection from the dead. My spirit suddenly saw all created things, even the herbs and grass, in this light. I knew who God is, what He is like, and the nature of His Will. Suddenly in that light my will was seized by a mighty impulse to describe the Being of God.”
For ten long years after this spiritual experience, to which Boehme referred repeatedly throughout the remainder of his life, he meditated on his vision. He came to believe that what he had to tell others was entirely unique with him, and that his mission was to purify Christianity, which he thought had become corrupt once again. He had no use for theology born of reason, nor for creeds and dogmas established on purely intellectual foundations. He was convinced that only one's personal experience of the reality of the spiritual world can enable one to overcome evil and advance into genuine knowledge of the spirit.
In 1610, the year when Galileo discovered the satellites of Jupiter by means of the newly-invented telescope, Jacob Boehme knew that the moment had come when he could write down an account of what he had seen a decade before: “To write these things was strongly urged upon my spirit, however difficult they might be for my outer self to understand, and for my pen to express. Like a child beginning school I was compelled to start my work on this very great Mystery. Within myself I saw it well enough, as in a great depth, but the describing and explaining of it seemed impossible.”
Boehme wrote in the early morning before he went to his cobbler's bench, and in the evening after he returned home from his work. And at last, after two years of diligent effort, Jacob Boehme produced his Aurora one of the masterpieces of mystical literature.
That Boehme knew that the twenty-six chapters of his Aurora are not easy to read, and are not for everyman, is clear from his words: “If you are not a spiritual overcomer, then let my book alone. Don't meddle with it, but stick to your old ways.” “Art was not written here, nor did I find time to consider how to set things down accurately, according to rules of composition, but everything followed the direction of the Spirit, which often hastened so that the writer's hand shook. As the burning fire of the Spirit hurried ahead, the hand and pen had to follow after it, for it came and went like a sudden shower.”
Handwritten copies of the manuscript were made by Carl Ender von Sercha, Boehme's friend and student. Sercha believed that in Boehme's work a prophecy of Paracelsus had been fulfilled, which announced that the years between 1599 and 1603 would bring about a new age for mankind, a time of “singing, dancing, rejoicing, jubilating.” Therefore many who heard of Boehme's remarkable spiritual experience when he had, to use his own words, “wrestled in God's presence a considerable time for the knightly crown ... which later, with the breaking of the gate in the deep center of nature, I attained with much joy,” believed that in him the words of Paracelsus had come true.
Their enthusiasm, however, was not universally shared. A copy of the manuscript of Aurora fell by chance into the hands of the Lutheran Pastor Primarius Gregorius Richter of Goerlitz. After the clergyman read the pages that John Wesley was later to describe as “sublime nonsense, inimitable bombast, fustian not to be paralleled,” and the celebrated English Bishop Warburton characterized as something that “would disgrace Bedlam at full moon,” he went to his pulpit the next Sunday and poured out his indignation upon Boehme's work. Among the congregation that morning sat Jacob Boehme himself, listened quietly and without a shadow of emotion to the stern denunciations of his pastor. Afterward he went to Richter and attempted to explain the passages of Aurora to which the latter took most violent exception. But the clergyman would have neither Boehme nor his book, asked the town council to expel Boehme from Goerlitz. His effort failed, but the justices warned Boehme that since he was a shoemaker, he must abandon writing and stick to the trade for which he was licensed. Boehme, who had said, “In Yes and No all things consist,” accepted their injunction, and entered upon still another time of silence. This period lasted from 1612, the year the King James Version of the English Bible was issued, until 1619, when a Dutch ship landed in Jamestown, Virginia, with the first African slaves to be sold in North America.
Meanwhile, Boehme's fame was spreading as more and more people read the manuscript copies of his Aurora, which were circulated by his admirers. Among the latter were the physician of Goerlitz, the learned Dr. Tobias Kober, the director of the Elector of Saxony's chemical laboratory at Dresden, Dr. Balthazar Walther, the nobleman Carl Ender von Sercha, and the Paracelsus student, who was to be Boehme's biographer, Abraham von Franckenberg.
Again and again these men urged Boehme to ignore the order of the magistrates of Goerlitz, and to continue his writing, but he consistently refused. However, early in 1619 their urgings met with success, and Boehme resumed his writing, and continued with increasing zeal during the following years. As he wrote, “I had resolved to do nothing in future, but to be quiet before God in obedience, and to let the devil with all his host sweep over me. But with me it was as when a seed is hidden in the earth. Contrary to all reason, it grows up in storm and rough weather. In the winter, all is dead, and reason says, ‘Everything is ended for it.’ But the precious seed within me sprouted and grew green, oblivious of all storms, and, amid disgrace and ridicule, it has blossomed into a lily!”
Through all the following years Boehme remained faithful to his original conviction that everything he wrote was not the fruit of his own intellectual creativeness, but was the gift of the spiritual world. In 1620, the memorable year of the Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth, he said, “I did not dare to write other than as I was guided. I have continued writing as the Spirit directed, and have not given place to reason.”
Boehme was one of those people who suffer much from the enthusiasm and admiration of their friends The latter were responsible for the attack by Pastor Primarius Richter, because of their circulating copies of Aurora, as we have seen. Again, toward the end of 1623, Boehme's friend, Sigismund von Schweinitz published three small works of Boehme, the first of the latter's writings to appear in print. Immediately the enemy in the person of clergyman Richter attacked Jacob Boehme, and once again complained to the magistrates of Goerlitz. This time, since he had broken their injunction against his writing, they ordered Boehme to leave town.
Before receiving the sentence of the magistrates, however, Boehme had been invited to visit the Court of the Elector of Saxony in Dresden. Therefore, early in May the shoemaker, exile from Goerlitz arrived in Dresden to attend “a conference of noble people,” as he described it.
Boehme was fast becoming famous. The second attack upon him by Pastor Primarius Richter was known widely, and the sale of his writings, which were rapidly appearing in print, steadily increased. He was convinced that in only a short time “the nations will take up what my native town is casting away.” He regarded the invitation to the Elector's Court as an opportunity to defend his works before some of the leading theologians and scholars of his time, and he was right.
His devoted student, Dr. Balthazar Walther, had arranged that Boehme was to be a guest in the home of Dr. Benedict Hinckelmann, Walther's successor as director of the Elector's laboratory, and the court physician. Boehme's reception in Dresden was all that his most devoted friends could have desired. He was entertained with consideration and appreciation, and found that important members of the court circle had studied his writings, and welcomed this opportunity to discuss them with him. One of the prominent noblemen of the Elector's household, Joachim von Loss, invited Boehme to visit his castle in order that they might have conversation together. Major Stahlmeister, chief master of horse to the Elector, did everything possible to inform the Elector favorably concerning Boehme's work.
Finally, at the request of the Elector, Boehme was examined orally by six eminently learned doctors of theology, and by two mathematicians. As a contemporary account describes it, “The illustrious Elector found great satisfaction in Boehme's answers. He asked Boehme to come to him privately, spoke with him, extended many favors to him, and gave him permission to return to his home in Goerlitz.”
At the conclusion of his visit, which lasted nearly two months, Boehme left Dresden, his teachings at least partly accepted. He did not return directly to Goerlitz, but visited three of his noblemen friends on the way. At the home of one of them he was taken ill, and as soon as possible, he hastened home to Goerlitz, where his friend and physician, Dr. Tobias Kober undertook his care. It was not long, however, before Dr. Kober, realizing that Jacob Boehme's death was near, arranged that he should receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper after he had made a confession of faith. This was done on November, 15 1624.
It was nearly two o'clock in the morning of the following Sunday that Jacob Boehme asked his son, Tobias, “Do you hear that beautiful music, my son?” Tobias replied that he did not. Then Boehme said, “Open the door then, so we can hear it better.” He inquired as to the hour, and when he was told that it was not yet three o'clock, he replied, “Then my time has not yet come.”
With the first faint touches of Aurora on the eastern sky, Jacob Boehme spoke words of farewell to his wife and children, and with a smile of joyful expectancy on his face, breathed out his spirit with the words, “Now I go to Paradise.”
A great crowd of the everyday people of Goerlitz, the shoemakers, tanners, craftsmen, along with devoted students of Boehme's writings, attended his funeral. The pall-bearers were shoemakers of Goerlitz, and the funeral service was conducted by the Lutheran clergyman who succeeded Richter. On the tombstone of porphyry are inscribed the words, “Jacob Boehme, philosophus Teutonicus.”
Jacob Boehme once described life as “a curious bath of thorns and thistles,” and his experience witnessed the truth of his words. But all the difficulties of his comparatively short life of forty-nine years were more than compensated by his vision of the greatness of man and of man's destiny. As he wrote, “Man has a spark of the spirit as a supernatural gift of God, to bring forth by degrees a new birth of that life which was lost in Paradise. This sacred spark of the divine nature within man has a natural, strong, almost infinite longing for that eternal spirit of God from which it came forth. It came forth from God, it came out of God; therefore it is always in a state of return to God. All this is called the breathing, the quickening of the Holy Spirit within us, which are so many operations of this spark of life, tending toward God.”
In 1548, the year Michelangelo was made chief architect of St. Peter's in Rome, Giordano Bruno was born beneath the shadow of Mount Vesuvius in the little village of Cicala near Nola. His boyhood was passed in the midst of earthquakes, plagues and famine, while robbers and outlaws frequented the hills and fields of his native countryside. His father was a soldier, and the boy was named Philip.
At the age of fifteen he was enrolled in the Dominican monastery in Naples, the same cloister where Thomas Aquinas had lived three hundred years before. There he was given the name Giordano, which had been the name of one of the intimate companions of St. Dominic himself.
For nearly thirteen years he studied in this monastery, and became learned in the works of the ancient philosophers, particularly of Plotinus and Pythagoras. He was of an independent spirit, and gave considerable concern to his censor on this account. For example, he removed the saints' pictures from his cell, leaving only the crucifix on the wall. When he discovered a monk reading The Seven Joys of Mary, he advised him to read something more rational. He also questioned points in the Church dogma such as the Transsubstantiation, the Trinity, and the Immaculate Conception. At an early age he was deeply impressed with the scientific writings of Copernicus, and after some twenty years of reading them recalled that the force of their teaching still worked strongly upon him.
The teachings of the Neo-Platonists and of Nicolas of Cusa formed the basis of his own philosophy, and during his early years he wrote considerable poetry as well.
In 1572, when Bruno was twenty-four, he took holy orders, read his first Mass, and began to perform the other priestly functions. About this time he took some of his companions into his confidence, and frankly told them some of the questions he entertained on matters of Church dogma. They lost no time in informing their superiors, and soon the Holy Office of the Inquisition reprimanded Bruno sharply. Plans were made to bring him before a court of the Inquisition, but Bruno secretly left Naples and went to Rome, where he stayed in the Della Minerva Monastery.
However, he was not long left in peace. Fra Domenico Vito, provincial of the Order, charged him with heresy, and orders for his arrest were sent to Rome. Letters from friends informed Bruno that soon after his departure from Naples his books which he had hidden, had been discovered, including works by Chrisostom and Hieronymous, with notes by Erasmus. Bruno's situation was very serious, and he left the monastery, divested himself of his Dominican habit, and wandered over the Campagna in the vicinity of the ruins of Hadrian's villa dressed as a poor beggar, which indeed he was. These events occurred in 1576–1577, at about the time of the birth of the painter, Peter Paul Rubens.
Now began Bruno's years of wandering, during which he sought to make known the new teachings about the universe as set forth by Copernicus. He also continued his own writings, creating philosophical masterpieces and poetic works of unusual mystical depth and content. He took passage in a ship bound for Genoa, but was unable to land because of the plague and civil war. Therefore he stopped at Noli, on the Riviera, where he taught boys grammar and delivered lectures on the work of Copernicus, the plurality of worlds, and the shape of the earth. But this was too much for the local clergy, and once again Bruno wandered to Turin, where he hoped to obtain an opportunity to lecture in the University through the celebrated patron of scholars, Duke Emmanuele Filberto. However, the latter was under the influence of the Jesuits, and once again Bruno was denied the post he sought.
Bruno reached Venice after traveling across northern Italy from Turin, but here too he found that the deadly plague had done its work as in Genoa, and a large part of the inhabitants — including the painter Titian at the age of ninety-nine — had died. However, Venice was the center of the publishing activities of Italy, and Bruno braved the plague in order to have some of his work printed there. Shortly afterward he visited the Dominicans at Padua, and “they persuaded me to wear the habit again, even though I would not profess the religion it implied, because they said it would help in my travels to be thus dressed. And so I put on the white cloth robe and the hood which I had kept by me when I left Rome.”
When Bruno arrived in Geneva, the Marchese Galeazzo Carraciola, nephew of Pope Paul IV, also a refugee from persecution by the church, and a member of the Calvinist Protestant religion, befriended him. The Marchese asked him to cease wearing the Dominican habit and to assume the usual dress of the lay scholar, and Bruno did so, never again wearing a religious habit. During his stay in Geneva, Bruno found himself in trouble with Antoine de la Faye, a member of the Academy, because he took exception to one of the latter lectures, and attacked some twenty points in it. Bruno was arrested and imprisoned for a short time, and after his release was informed that he must either adopt Calvinism or leave the city.
Shortly after this Bruno entered France, visiting Lyons and afterwards Toulouse. In the latter place he received his Doctors degree, and held the position of professor of philosophy in the university for two years, lecturing to appreciative hearers on astronomy and general philosophical subjects. But again the clergy interfered with his work, and he left Toulouse for Paris, where he arrived in 1581.
Henry III, king of France, had heard of Bruno's great gifts as a lecturer, and of his unusual learning, eloquence and memory. Therefore he wished to appoint Bruno to the faculty of the Sorbonne, but before doing so, it was necessary for Bruno to confess and attend Mass as a professing Catholic. Bruno fearlessly and uncompromisingly refused, and so greatly did his honesty and sincerity impress the king that the latter allowed him to assume the position without regard to his scruples concerning religion.
The Paris lectures of Giordano Bruno were based on his study of the famous treatise, the Ars Magna, which Raimon Lull, the eminent Majorcan author, Arabic scholar, mystic, educational reformer, and traveler, had written in 1275. In addition, Bruno discussed logic, general philosophy, astronomy, the symbolism of Pythagoras, and the teachings of Copernicus.
After two years' teaching in Paris, Bruno was offered the post of secretary to Michel de Castelnau, sieur de Mauvissiere, ambassador to England. Bruno found London in a ferment of excitement, since attempts had recently been made on the life of Queen Elizabeth. Added to this were constant rumors that the Spanish were preparing to launch a massive invasion attempt against the coasts of England, and after Bruno had been in England for about a year, these rumors were confirmed by accurate information that a great Armada was gathering in the Tagus with designs upon England.
But politics, rumors of invasion, and tales of military exploit did not interest Bruno. He visited Oxford, and was disappointed with what he found there. From the time he first landed in the country, he had been repelled by what he considered the brutality of English manners in contrast with those he had known in Italy and France. In Protestant Oxford Bruno found a narrowness and sectarian dogmatism entirely foreign to the ideas of objective freedom he believed should prevail among scholars. The presence of the distinguished Polish Prince Johann a Lesco at Oxford was the occasion for a debate in which Bruno defended his new cosmology based on the teachings of the Polish Copernicus, against a group of theologians. Bruno won easily, but was soon forbidden to continue his lectures in Oxford.
While Bruno found the manners of the British distasteful, and the attitude of the Oxford scholars hopelessly bigoted, in the person of the Queen he found something to admire. He was frequently invited to private conversations with Elizabeth, who was always happy when she could display her knowledge of Italian, and who appreciated Bruno's learning and charm. In London, Bruno met the brilliant statesman, Sir Philip Sydney, to whom he dedicated one of his works, Lord Bacon of Verulam, and other prominent figures of the Elizabethan court. Bruno's duties at the embassy apparently were not arduous, since he seems to have had time to mingle with the court, to form acquaintances with the leading men of the time (there is a tradition that he met Shakespeare in the printing shop of Thomas Vautrollier), to hold lectures at Oxford, and, most important for posterity, to devote himself to writing.
In 1584 while Sir Walter Raleigh's expedition in Virginia was taking place, and the plot involving Mary Queen of Scots was fast coming to a head, Bruno wrote his two most famous metaphysical works, De la Causa, Principio, ed Uno, and D l'Infinito, Universo, e Mondi.
Early in 1585, with the plans for an English invasion of the Netherlands taking shape, and the raids on the Spanish American coasts by Sir Francis Drake making certain a crisis with Spain, the French ambassador decided he should return to France for a time. Therefore Bruno left England, probably not too unwillingly, though the years of his English residence were among the most productive and happiest of his life.
Bruno's ideas were found acceptable to the superiors of the college of Cambrai, and he found a temporary place among the lecturers there. However, his outspokenness brought him into trouble, for he prepared a thesis of one hundred twenty articles, in which he attacked the philosophy of Aristotle. His works and teaching evoked enthusiasm such as had not been witnessed in academic circles in France since the times of Abèlard. Bruno's theses were printed by permission of the censor, and the debate on them was held on May 5, 1588, at Whitsuntide.
At once after his triumph, Bruno left France for Germany, where he hoped to find freedom to lecture. In Marburg he was disappointed, but in Wittenberg he was welcomed, and found the atmosphere congenial to his creative activity. There he produced several more written works.
In 1588, with Europe ablaze with the tale of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and with it the hope of Philip II to crush English Protestantism under the tread of invading Spanish Catholic armies, Bruno decided to visit Prague. From there he went to the university at Helmstadt where he remained for a year, but at the end of that time was driven out by the attacks of Boethius, Lutheran Rector of Helmstadt. Bruno decided to go to Frankfort, where he hoped to prepare and publish several works, but he was not allowed to enter the city. Instead he found refuge in a Carmelite cloister just outside the city, through the kind assistance of the famous publishers, Wechel and Fischer. In the cloister he worked with feverish haste, and produced a number of works which were published. The Prior of the monastery recalled Bruno as “a man of universal mind, skillful in all sciences, but without a trace of religion.”
During this period — when he wrote his Seven Liberal Arts — the Frankfort Fair took place, and many publishers from foreign countries were present. There Bruno met the Venetian booksellers, Bertano and Ciotto, and it was the latter who took Bruno's writings to Venice. There these were found by a young nobleman, Giovanni Mocenigo, who read them with great interest, and inquired for details about the author.
Sometime later, when Bruno was in Zurich a letter reached him from the young Mocenigo, inviting him to visit him in Venice, promising him safe conduct for the journey. As soon as Bruno's friends heard of the invitation, they urged him not to accept it, for they feared for his safety at the hands of the Inquisition. But Bruno brushed their fears aside. He had confidence in this young nobleman, a member of one of the finest and most honorable families of Venice. Therefore, Bruno crossed the Alps and descended into Italy, arriving in Venice in October, 1591.
The first months after Bruno's arrival were filled with scholarly activity. He began to tutor the young Mocenigo, and also lectured privately to German students at Padua, where he was soon to be followed by Galileo. Bruno frequented the Venetian philosophical and literary societies, and was welcomed in the home of Andrea Morosini and of his student Mocenigo. Finally, after some time Bruno decided that he would like to return to Frankfort in order to publish some of his works there. But this was not to be.
From the moment he had arrived in Italy the spies of the Inquisition were on his track, and Giovanni Mocenigo cooperated with them. And now that Bruno wished to leave the country, Mocenigo had him arrested, and thrown into the prison of the Inquisition. He was charged with many heresies, most serious being his teaching of the infinity of the universe.
Bruno was kept in the prison at Venice for nine months, and at the end of that time was taken in chains to the Bridge of Sighs, and was conveyed through the lagoons to Ancona, where he remained until he was taken to Rome. After torture and solitary confinement at Ancona, Bruno was turned over to the Roman Inquisition, and for seven years he experienced the terrors of the prison of the Holy Office. To the last he refused to give up his beliefs, and defied his opponents in all they brought against him. On February 9, 1600 Bruno was excommunicated with the cries of “Anathema.”
On February 6th in the Campo dei Fiori, a Roman flower market, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake. He was hardly fifty years of age, and his body showed signs of dreadful torture. With his head erect, his eyes showing full consciousness, he walked unassisted to the stake.
Rudolf Steiner said in a lecture on January 12, 1923, “The flaming pyre in which Giordano Bruno was put to death in the year 1600 was an outer sign of a most significant phase of inner development ... The flames in Rome are a glorious memorial in history, as Giordano Bruno himself indicated. While he was burning, he said, Something will come into being. And what was destined to come into being, what drew forth the cry, You can put me to death, but not through centuries will my ideas be able to be put to death, — that is precisely what must live on.”
Shortly after the beginning of the Thirty Years' War, in the year Virginia became a royal colony, with governor and council appointed by the British crown, and two years after New Netherlands was established as a Dutch colony in America, Johannes Scheffler was born in the German city of Breslau in Silesia, in 1624, the year Jacob Boehme died. When Johannes was five, his mother enrolled him and his brother at the Elizabeth Gymnasium in Breslau, shortly before her death. At the age of nineteen Johannes Scheffler matriculated at the University of Strassburg, where he intended to study medicine and law. After a year at Strassburg, he entered the University of Leyden and remained there two years. While he was at Leyden Scheffler discovered the works of Jacob Boehme, which had been published at Amsterdam in 1642. As he expressed it, “When one is in Holland, all sorts of things come one's way.”
From Leyden, Scheffler went to the greatest medical school at that time, the University of Padua, where he received his degree of Doctor of Medicine and Philosophy in 1648.
At about this time he wrote in the album of one of his fellow students, Mundus nihil pulcherrimum, The world is a very beautiful Nothing. In 1649 Johannes Scheffler was appointed Court physician to the strict Lutheran Duke Sylvanus Nimrod at Oels in Württemberg. Shortly before Scheffler arrived in Oels, the town of four thousand inhabitants had been reduced to less than two thousand, due to an action which had been fought there in the Thirty Years' War. The cattle had been killed, crops destroyed, houses ruined, and even the castle of the Duke was slightly damaged.
At the same time that Scheffler came to Oels, an older man also arrived in the town. He had been born there fifty-six years before, and was destined to play an important role in the life of Scheffler. This man was Abraham von Franckenberg, whom we have already met as the friend and biographer of Boehme; as Scheffler's friend he was to guide the latter on his spiritual path.
Years before, von Franckenberg had given over his estate to his eldest son, and had reserved only two small rooms in the house for himself, where he studied and lived. During the plagues which swept over the district from time to time, he was of great help to the sick. It was at a time of plague that he met Jacob Boehme, and eventually printed the latter's writings at his own expense. Von Franckenberg studied Kaballa, alchemy, the works of Giordano Bruno and Copernicus, with the single aim of solving the secrets of the science of nature. Because of his studies von Franckenberg was attacked by the Lutheran clergy, and finally left Oels in 1641, and went to Danzig where he lived for eight years as the guest of the famous astronomer, Helvelius. From Danzig he returned to Oels in 1649. When he was asked by the Duke if he was a Catholic, a Lutheran, or a Calvinist, von Franckenberg answered, “I am the heart of all these religions.”
Johannes Scheffler was attracted to von Franckenberg at their first meeting, and soon the young physician became the devoted student of the older scientist. Long hours were spent by the two of them in von Franckenberg's little rooms discussing Boehme, alchemy, astronomy, the mystics of medieval times, and so on. Two and one-half years after their meeting, von Franckenberg died, and bequeathed many of his precious books and manuscripts to Scheffler. Among these works, which Scheffler referred to as “a real pharmacy of the soul,” were the Theologia Germanica, the writings of Boehme, Weigel, Paracelsus, Bruno, Tauler and Rulwin Merswin. One volume of this collection is preserved, and bears the date 1652 inscribed on the flyleaf, and in the handwriting of Scheffler, the words, “From my faithful friend, Abraham von Franckenberg.” Another volume from this collection also contains extensive notations in Scheffler's handwriting.
Shortly after von Franckenberg's death, Scheffler decided to write a book composed of passages from his favorite mystical authors. This he intended to issue as a New Year gift volume. As a matter of course the printer submitted the book to Christoph Freytag, court chaplain and censor. Freytag struck out long passages, and not only refused to give his imprimatur, but also declined to so much as speak with Scheffler about it. This was a turning-point in Scheffler's spiritual life. He realized that the Lutheran church could no longer be his religious home. He resigned his post, left Oels immediately, and returned to Breslau.
Among the writers whom Scheffler had quoted in his book, many were Catholic. Now he began to read Catholic books more and more, spending some months in Breslau in thorough study of them. On June 12, 1653 Johannes Scheffler embraced the Roman Catholic faith.
As Abraham von Franckenberg had been a strong influence in Scheffler's life at one point, now a second man exerted a powerful effect upon him. This was Sebastian von Rostock, born the son of a poor ropemaker, now the vicar general of the diocese of Breslau. As a simple parish priest in the village of Niesse he had witnessed the hardships of the Thirty Years' War. For example, when the Lutheran armies rounded up many Catholics and imprisoned them in buildings, he risked his life by climbing in the windows to give them spiritual consolation. One day while he was walking through the forest, he was set upon by a Lutheran cavalryman. He drew his sword, which all men, clergymen or not had to wear at that time for self-protection, returned the attack, and killed his opponent. However, the instant the cavalryman fell from his horse, von Rostock rushed to him in order to give him absolution that he might die in a state of grace. In the Catholic Counter-Reformation of 1653–1654, von Rostock was extremely severe on the Lutherans, with the result that over two hundred fifty churches were returned to Catholic use in Silesia alone.
At this point, however, von Rostock wished to have some proof that Lutherans were finding it possible to embrace the Catholic faith without pressure or force. Therefore the free conversion of the celebrated former court physician, Johannes Scheffler, was precisely the example he was looking for. He sought out Scheffler, who by this time had decided to change his name. First he adopted the name of Johannes de Angelis, a Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century, calling himself Johannes Angelus. But he discovered that there existed a certain Protestant doctor of theology, Johannes Angelus of Darmstadt, so he added “Silesius” from his birthplace, calling himself Johannes Angelus Silesius, by which he is known to posterity.
Sebastian von Rostock invited Angelus Silesius to his palace, and after talking with him arranged that the Austrian Emperor, Frederick III would give him the title of Court physician, but without either duties or salary. Nevertheless the title alone gave Angelus Silesius good reputation in Catholic circles particularly. More important, however, is the fact that von Rostock give his imprimatur to Angelus Silesius' Geistreiche Sinn und Schlussreime, Witty Sayings and End-Rhymes, which, when it was reprinted in 1674 was given the name by which it has since become famous, Cherubinischer Wandersmann, The Cherubinean Wanderer. The book was approved in July, 1656, but was not published until 1657, the year before the birth of the English composer, Henry Purcell. In 1674 Angelus Silesius' collection of some two hundred poems was published under the title, Heilige Seelenlust, oder geistliche Hirtenlieder der in ihren Jesum verliebten Psyche, Holy Ecstasies, or Sacred Shepherd Songs in Adoration of Jesus. From this collection, several poems were eventually included in the Lutheran hymnal, and today are among the best-loved hymns of the Protestant church.
Angelus Silesius became extremely zealous in developing the activities of the Catholic church in Breslau. Now a Franciscan priest, he organized the first Catholic procession held in Breslau for well over a century. And to drive the lesson home to observers, Angelus Silesius himself carried the cross and wore the crown of thorns in the procession. The next twelve years were a period of intense controversy, for in that time Angelus Silesius wrote and published some fifty-five attacks on Protestantism, most of them extremely bitter. Finally he was persuaded to give up this activity by the superior of his Order.
In 1664 Angelus Silesius was appointed marshal and counsellor to Sebastian von Rostock, who meanwhile had become Prince-Bishop of Breslau. Seven years later the Prince-Bishop died suddenly, and a sadness settled upon Angelus Silesius which did not leave him until death.
Just as Sebastian von Rostock had appeared after the death of Abraham von Franckenberg, now a third man befriended Angelus Silesius. This was Bernard Rose, Abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Grüssau, and Vicar General of the Cistercians in Silesia. Abbot Rose was a man of great strength, kindness of heart, a stern disciplinarian in his monastery, and a firm supporter of the Counter-Reformation. The monastery of Grüssau was located about fifty miles from Breslau, and was noted for its hospitality to all who knocked at its gates.
Angelus Silesius was received with warmth and kindliness at Grüssau. He found understanding, support, and comfort, of inestimable value to him, since now he was a dying man. The months he lived at Grüssau were spent in writing, meditation, and prayer. There he completed his last work, the Ecclesiologia, which he dedicated to Abbot Bernard Rose, his friend. The last three months of Angelus Silesius' life were marked by severe suffering, but through it all he was able to maintain an attitude of inner calm, of lofty spiritual vision, and of clear consciousness. He died on July 9, 1677, and to the last moment of his life he never ceased to manifest the spirit of love and peace which had settled upon him during his severe illness. In his last days Angelus Silesius repeated again and again, “Tranquillity is the best treasure that one can have.”
In the Loggia di San Paolo on the south side of the square, opposite the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence is a famous terra cotta relief created by Andrea della Robbia sometime around 1492. Influenced by a work of Fra Angelico, it depicts the historic meeting between St. Francis and St. Dominic. When one contemplates what is represented there, one is reminded of the Scripture, “Mercy and truth are met together.” An Italian, whose life-work was centered in a love which is ever merciful, embraces a Spaniard, whose striving for truth was expressed in knowledge of the eternal spirit.
Rudolf Steiner once observed that “External events, which at first glance seem to be trifling occurrences in the course of history, are deeply and inwardly rooted in the evolution of mankind.”
In this sense, this artistic creation, fashioned at the moment of emergence of the modern world, portraying the meeting of the founders of two great streams of spiritual aspiration which arose in the Middle Ages, bearing the classic Platonic and Aristotelian impulses into later times, expresses their significance in the development of mankind.
The series of eleven men around whom this book is created, begins with Meister Eckhart, a Dominican, and concludes with Angelus Silesius, a Franciscan. Midway between the two Rudolf Steiner places Henry Conelius, Agrippa of Nettesheim, typical of the “new man” of the Renaissance: scholar, courtier, diplomat, physician, master of the “new learning” which came to the fore at the dawn of the modern age. Between the Dominicans, for whom the ideal picture of the world was embodied in the word Order, and the Franciscans, for whom the essence of creation was expressed in the word Love, Rudolf Steiner has placed the figure whom he calls “a protagonist for a genuine science of nature.”
In the lives of these eleven men is united the progressive unfoldment of ideas and events at a moment of supreme importance in the course of man's life on earth. Their struggles, tensions, and resolutions epitomize the historical process as it unveiled itself in the important development then taking place in the evolution of humanity. In their life-experiences we see the birth-pangs of the appearance of a new stage in the life of mankind — the dawn of the modern age.