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Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 2.1 (2002) 1-14

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Henry Suso and the Medieval Devotion to Christ the Goddess 1 - [PDF]

Barbara Newman


The fourteenth century, it is fair to say, has not had very good press. It was, after all, the age of the Black Death, possibly the worst pandemic in history before the advent of AIDS. In the wake of this devastation, which carried off one-third to one-half of its populace, Europe was racked by incessant wars, famines, and peasant revolts. Church historians may recall the period as a golden age of mysticism, but they also note the massive credibility gap of the institutional Church, which was only intensified by the popes' "Babylonian captivity" in Avignon and the embarrassing schism that followed their return to Rome. The centuries-old crusading ideal, though militarily doomed, still fired visionary and mercenary hearts. Outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence were on the rise, along with the propaganda to justify them. Heretics went with some regularity to the stake, and the scapegoating psychology so common in times of hardship made life difficult for suspected witches, whose repression heralded the greater persecutions of the early modern era.

In light of these well-known phenomena, it may seem perverse to suggest that in some areas, fourteenth-century Christians were more broad-minded than the mainstream churches of our own day. And it will seem downright incredible to propose gender--specifically the gender of God--as one of those areas. Nevertheless, historical evidence often confounds our preconceived expectations. In this essay I will explore the late medieval devotion to Christ the Goddess, now little known but once hugely popular, promulgated by the mystic Henry Suso. I will conclude with a few speculations as to why the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, not otherwise known for tolerance, welcomed a mode of spirituality that has raised indignant outcries from our contemporary guardians of orthodoxy.

Suso or Seuse, a German Dominican who died in 1366, is hardly an obscure or neglected figure. One of Meister Eckhart's most gifted disciples, he is remembered for his hair-raising ascetic feats, his intense devotion to the suffering Christ, his role in promoting the cult of the Holy Name, and his dedication to the pastoral care of women. Most of Suso's works were written in German for an audience that consisted largely of nuns and beguines--religious women who lived in same-sex communities, small or large, and devoted themselves to prayer and works of charity without taking solemn vows. 2 It was one of Suso's female protégées, [End Page 1] Elsbeth Stagel, who assisted with the writing of his celebrated "autobiography," The Life of the Servant. 3 Ironically, though, the least known of the friar's writings today is the one that enjoyed the most exceptional popularity in the Middle Ages: his sole major Latin work, the Horologium Sapientiae (Wisdom's Watch upon the Hours), completed in 1334. 4

In creating the Horologium, Suso revised and expanded an earlier German work, the Little Book of Eternal Wisdom (Büchlein der ewigen Weisheit, ca. 1330), even as he translated it into Latin. In turning to the universal language of theology and learning, the mystic aimed to reach a much larger, international audience of monks, friars, and secular priests. Both the Horologium and its precursor teach the love of Christ Crucified, whom Suso venerates under the title of Eternal Wisdom. But the Büchlein is a straightforward dialogue on the Passion, while the Horologium interweaves its meditations on the Cross with fervent professions of love to one whom Suso calls "the goddess of all beauty"--none other than Eternal Wisdom (Sophia or Sapientia), acknowledged in her female form as the friar's courtly mistress and spiritual bride. This text was widely copied, cited, illustrated, adapted for liturgical use, and translated into nine vernacular languages before 1500. Through the Horologium and the prayer books inspired by it, Suso fired all Christendom with his devotion to Christ/Sophia, which enjoyed its heyday in...