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Blessed Henry Suso (1290-1365)

 

Henry Suso is a bundle of contradictions, and a person, moreover, who has gathered legends about him like a snowball rolling downhill. He was a poet, which is not always a key to happiness in this world; a mystic of the highest order; a hard working Dominican; and a man with a positive genius for getting into embarrassing situations. He has suffered at the hands of chroniclers who dislike his followers, or his tactics, or his poetry; he is all but canonized by those who see in him the Dominican mystic. It will require many years of exhaustive research to sort out the diverse elements in his personality, if, indeed, it can ever be accomplished. Poets are not easy to analyze, and Henry, before all else, was a poet.

Henry was born in Switzerland, in 1290, the son of a warlike family of counts and crusaders. His father said more than once that he wished Henry had been a girl and some of his spirited daughters had been boys; for Henry was not a type to carry a sword. Henry was a gentle, dreamy lad, who liked to accompany his mother on pilgrimages and read about heroic deeds. He had taken his mother's name of Suso, perhaps out of sheer inability to live up to the warlike title of the Count von Berg.

After a number of unsuccessful attempts to make a soldier out of Henry, his father abandoned the task and sent him, when he was barely thirteen years old, to the Dominican convent near Lake Constance. At the convent, Henry found a happy life, one that he did not know existed. Like a starved child who has had no happiness before, he revelled in the companionship of friendly people and the beauty of community prayers. For five years it did not occur to him that there was anything more to religious life than the gay and irresponsible way he lived. This brief paradise came to an abrupt end when he was eighteen. He sat one day in chapel, restless and worried, because suddenly it had dawned upon him that he was not really getting anywhere, and without warning he fell into an ecstasy that lasted more than an hour. Arousing from the ecstasy, he was a different person, and a whole new life began.

First of all Henry looked with wide opened eyes on the lukewarm life he had been living. Considering his age, we would be inclined to suspect that it was not so much lukewarm as adolescent, but it appeared to him that he was a great sinner and should do great penance. The penance he performed for the next sixteen years became notorious, even in that age of extremes; an iron chain, and an undershirt studded with nails, were the most mentionable of the methods he used. At night, he tied his hands so that he could not slap at the mosquitoes that infested his room. Out of determination to overcome his natural taste for cleanliness, he bent over backwards in the opposite direction to torture himself into submission and to make himself ready for the grace of God, which he felt that he so little deserved. At the end of sixteen years, he was favored with another vision, telling him that the physical phase of his suffering was over, but to be prepared for mental torments.

While all this interior purification was being accomplished in his soul, Henry was busy about the ordinary work of a priest. He preached and taught and heard confessions, never absenting himself from apostolic work under the impression that pure contemplation would be better. Some of his travels got him into weird situations, and legends began building up around the strange young priest whose penances had already earned him the name of eccentric. Things happened to him that just never happened to other people.

One time ha was on a journey with a lay brother who was not very bright. While Henry was looking for lodgings in a strange village, the lay brother went into a tavern, and, with the help of some of its customers, rapidly got out of hand. In order to direct attention away from himself, he told the men they should go after the priest who was with him; he said that the Jews had hired Henry to poison their wells, and that he was now out investigating how it could be done. It was possibly only the lay brother's heavy humor, but the townspeople did not think it was funny, and they went in pursuit of Henry. Seeing himself chased by men with clubs, Henry did what most people do he ran. He hid all night in a hedge, and the next day he had to get the lay brother out of jail.

He fell into rivers and almost drowned. He became innocently involved in family feuds and was nearly killed for interfering. People tried to poison him. As prior, he ran the house finances into such a snarl that no one could untangle them. As if he did not have enough trouble, one of his penitents at least he thought she was penitent decided to blackmail him, and told all over town that he was the father of her child. To clean up the ensuing scandal, he stood formal trial with his superiors, and was, of course, proved innocent but no one could stop the scandal which had by this time gone to the four winds.

As a last terrible trial, his own sister, who had gone into religion against her will, fell into serious sin and ran away from the monastery. The convent from which she had escaped was a relaxed and worldly place, but she was legally a fugitive. Henry got permission to go and look for her, and, after a long search, he found her repentant, penniless, and terrified in a tavern. He brought her to another monastery, where a strict rule was observed, and he stayed until she was firmly settled and living a good religious life. How any man could write poetry while trying to keep up with such events is hard to say, but some of the finest poetry in medieval German poured from the pen of this gifted man during the years when life was most difficult for him. His prose, too, was almost poetry perhaps this is why his writings have always been so popular with women.

We are indebted to the sisters whose consciences Henry directed for all that we know of his writing. They kept careful track of all of it and made copies to circulate among a discreet circle of friends. In fact, it is from this circumstance that the unhappy charges against Suso stem. Some of the sisters, making their personal copies, took down notes indiscriminately from Suso, Tauler, and Master Eckhart and it was practically impossible to untangle them. Only the persistent scholarship of Father Denifle, in the past century, has identified the writings of each of these men, and exonerated both Tauler and Suso of the charges that caused Eckhart to be censured.

The best known work of Henry Suso is his Little Book of Eternal Wisdom, which is a classic of spiritual writing. He also composed many other short treatises on the mystical union of the soul with God, all written with the same poetic language and the same intensity of feeling. The man who had carved "the lovely name of Jesus" into the flesh over his heart was just as intense in his spiritual life. He had an outstanding devotion to the Mother of God, which he expressed very beautifully.

Henry died in 1365, in Ulm, and was buried there in the convent of St. Paul. However, in spite of the fact that his body was found intact and giving forth a sweet odor two hundred and fifty years later, the beatification was delayed until 1831. The relics, meantime, had disappeared entirely and have never been recovered.

(Source : Dorcy, Marie Jean. St. Dominic's Family. Tan Books and Publishers, 1983)

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