“The Surpassing Joy of Detachment and Self-Transcendence:

Bl. Henry Suso’s Spiritual Marriage with Eternal Wisdom”

Br Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP

November 26, 2009

A sublime one I saw today, a solemn one, a penitent of the spirit: Oh, how my soul laughed at his ugliness!…O’er hung with ugly truths, the spoil of his hunting, and rich in torn raiment; many thorns also hung on him—but I saw no rose. Not yet had he learned laughing and beauty. Gloomy did this hunter return from the forest of knowledge.[1]

            One does not have to be a Friedrich Nietzsche to bring such a charge against various forms of asceticism found in the history of Christian spirituality, for many others today see much of it as all too grim and life-denying. Bl Henry Suso, OP might be seen as a prime candidate for such an accusation as he is often known for his excesses in penance and self-denial. For instance, while it is common today to correct certain misunderstandings of resignation and meekness with the phrase “You don’t have to be a doormat!” we find in Suso the exact opposite advice: “See how without a word the mat lets itself be ill-treated. Do the same yourself!”[2] It would seem then that Suso would be a prime target for a contemporary Christian critique similar to Nietzsche’s own biting remarks. We will claim the opposite, however. Although we will not endorse Suso’s excesses, we will claim that a sane theology of Christian perfection underlies his thought. In some ways, he is a prime candidate to offer a rejoinder to a Nietzsche-like critique because despite Suso’s severity there is something essentially life-affirming and life-giving about his approach. Even his excessive self-denial is mingled with joy. The key to understanding Suso’s view of detachment is found in his more primary love for God as Eternal Wisdom.

            First, we will consider what Garrigou-Lagrange has to say about the trend we have described above and why mortification is needed in the first place. We will also make some general comments about Suso’s spirituality and detachment with the help of Bernard McGinn.  Second, we will consider how Suso’s intense love for Eternal Wisdom determines and shapes his subsequent detachment from created things. Third, as Suso approached God particularly as Divine Wisdom, we will see how this engenders in Suso a detachment even from his very self. Fourth, since the Divine Wisdom that Suso loves is Eternal, we will see how an eternal perspective further offers a degree of detachment from the pressing concerns of the moment so that God can be found even in difficulties. It is here that Suso’s comment about the doormat will be seen in its proper context. In the end, we will see how Bl Henry Suso’s teaching on detachment, far from being a denial of life and joy, is rather the means of entering most deeply into it, into a happiness that surpasses all human bounds even in this life.

I. Detachment and Suso’s Spirituality   

            Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange has described the trend we have noted above as a “practical naturalism”. It asks, “Why speak so much of mortification, if Christianity is a doctrine of life; of renunciation, if Christianity ought to assimilate all human activity instead of destroying it; of obedience, if Christianity is a doctrine of liberty?…Is our nature not good, does it not come from God, is it not inclined to love Him above all else?”[3] Garrigou-Lagrange notes that there are elements of truth to each of these objections. They hold true especially on the abstract philosophical level of pure nature. Yet in the concrete situation in which we find ourselves, Garrigou-Lagrange insists that mortification is needed for four key reasons, namely, to respond to original sin, personal sin, the loftiness of our supernatural end, and the imitation of Christ-crucified.[4] The first two result in a fallen human nature that is inclined to excess with respect to pleasure and self-importance. Sin reorders human nature so that it tends away from God, although not absolutely so. In cooperation with grace, mortification is required to reorient oneself entirely to God. This often calls for renunciation of even legitimate goods to offset the damage done. The third reason for mortification, the loftiness of our supernatural end, indicates that since our supernatural calling is so beyond us, we must be stretched beyond what we naturally find comfortable and pleasing. Fundamentally, only grace expands our capacities to be able to attain this supernatural end, but since grace inherently transforms our whole being, it also involves some growing pains as we consent to the work of grace and act according to God’s will. Finally, the need to imitate Christ-crucified comes from the command of Jesus himself, “If anyone comes after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). In light of the world’s sin, the way of the Cross has been instituted by God himself as the best way for achieving our salvation. It remains so as we work both for our own and other’s salvation. Mortification, exterior and interior, is part and parcel of denying oneself and bearing the Cross of Christ. Garrigou-Lagrange insightfully notes that the need for mortification appears already in the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus lays out the highest call for perfection and the decisive measures one needs to take to achieve it.[5]  Garrigou-Lagrange concludes, “The true answer to practical naturalism is the love of Jesus crucified, which leads us to resemble Him and to save souls with Him by the same means as He used. Mortification or abnegation thus understood, far from destroying nature, liberates it, restores it, heals it.”[6]

We have seen how mortification is required to overcome the effects of original sin and personal sin, as well as to attain the loftiness of our supernatural end and to imitate Christ. In this context, some insights of Bernard McGinn can help illumine Suso’s teaching on detachment. McGinn notes that in translating Suso’s works there are two German words that normally are both translated as “detachment.” Frank Tobin’s translation in the Classics of Western Spirituality does just that. McGinn holds that while “detachment” is a good translation of abgescheidenheit, the other German word gelassenheit would better be translated as “releasement”. This latter word is used more frequently in Suso’s work (fifty times compared to twenty times).[7] Although McGinn does not think there is much difference in Suso’s use of these two terms and does not comment much more on it, we think that the translation “releasement” better touches on the essence of Suso’s teaching. “Detachment” carries a sense of denudation, non-movement, or even apathy; it has more of a negative sense in what one does not do. “Releasement,” however, implies that one is released for something. What once bound someone is now removed so that he is free to accomplish something. It implies something of Servais Pinckaer’s “freedom for excellence”. “Releasement” also captures better what Garrigou has said mortification does for human nature, it “liberates it, restores it, heals it.” One is released from the confines of a false self in order to be who he, in grace, is called to be. In what follows, we will sometimes continue to use the more common English word of “detachment” while remembering this added nuance. However, in quoting Suso we will edit Tobin’s translation to read “releasement” where we know it applies.

We should also mention now that the practice of Suso’s own detachment, as recorded in his Life may be exaggerated.[8] For instance, the constant blood lost, open wounds, and vermin crawling about him would seem to be a recipe for a life-ending infection, unless of course God miraculously preserved him. That the extreme penances in this work should be seen under the genre of hagiography, as Frank Tobin suggests, gains more merit when one considers that one of his spiritual daughters Elsbeth Stagel probably wrote most of the first part, as the opening of the text itself suggests.[9] She would probably have been more likely to exaggerate the feats of her director, than he would of himself. Whatever the case may be, the text seems to have the opposite affect on readers today than it was intended to have among its original audience. Readers of Suso’s day would have expected extreme feats of penance in the biographies of holy persons, it would have been a given. The surprise for them would have come in chapter 19 of the Life, where God instructs Suso to give up the severity of external penances—for they were merely a good beginning—for an even higher manner of advancement through interior detachment. This seems to be the main lesson of the text, and the excessive penances serve to emphasize it all the more, as if to say, “Even if you go this far with penances, they will not bring you to perfection.” Yet for most modern readers, we can miss the main point of the Life by getting caught up in the descriptions of the excessive penances. The severity of penance then leaves the lasting impression on us and shapes what we think Bl Henry was all about. Whatever Suso’s practices really entailed, he is clear in his advice to others that although external penance is needed, moderation is better than excess.[10]  

 McGinn offers another helpful insight when he characterizes Suso’s writings as synthesizing four elements of German medieval spirituality: the spirituality of the desert fathers, the imitation of Christ’s Passion, motifs of courtly literature, and the mysticism of the ground. These four elements seem especially equipped to achieve the goals of detachment or releasement. First, the desert fathers through their unceasing prayer and guarding of the mind and heart sought to uproot all allurements and distractions even from their consciousness in order to pursue God whole-heartedly. Second, a devotion to Christ’s passion and seeking to imitate it interiorly, helps one face the sufferings that will come through the path of detachment and conformity with Christ-crucified. Third, the courtly literature motifs add an accent of ardent love and exclusivity in one’s love for God, the positive thing for which detachment frees someone. Fourth, the mysticism of the ground insists on the closeness of God hidden in the depths, or the ground, of the soul. As this God is more intimate than one’s very self, detachment from one’s very self is seen as a real possibility as one sinks beyond oneself into the depths of God (in a moral and conscious sense and not metaphysically). These four characteristics of Suso’s spirituality in general set an especially robust framework for his understanding of detachment. The courtly love motif will come to the fore as we now turn to consider Suso’s account of his spiritual marriage to Eternal Wisdom        

II. Suso’s Love for Eternal Wisdom

            At age eighteen, five years after entering the Dominicans, Henry Suso had a mystical experience he described as a marriage with Eternal Wisdom. Already in his description of this encounter in the early chapters of his Life, we find the foundation for his thought on detachment. The notion of God as Eternal Wisdom first comes to him through the Scriptures. In the Bible he hears of Wisdom’s attractiveness and “how deceiving other lovers are but how loving and constant she is.”[11] In the Bible, Wisdom’s faithful constancy is contrasted with the deceptiveness of other loves, already indicating the need not to be allured and led astray. Interestingly, as the Bible describes Wisdom in feminine terms, Suso often views Eternal Wisdom as such, which also suits well the application of courtly motifs to his relationship with God. Yet he also maintains the more primary address of God on masculine terms. We do not make much of the intermixing of genders as Suso’s apophaticism would tend to go beyond the metaphor or even the analogy. Here, in view of the courtly love themes, Suso’s marriage to Eternal Wisdom is sought out in terms of his young and restless heart. He would say to himself, “‘Your young untamed heart certainly cannot long remain without its own object of love.’ Often in looking at things he would become aware of her.”[12] Suso realizes that his heart is made for love and some object of love is necessary to satisfy it. Moreover, he discerns his Beloved through created things as he would become aware of her in looking at things. And so, he recognizes that Eternal Wisdom is the source of all that is good and pleasing in the world, while she herself is beyond all things. He exclaims, “Alas, dear heart, tell me, where is the source of all love and charm? Whence arises gentleness, beauty, heartfelt joy, and all endearing qualities? Does not all this gush forth from the spring of the naked Godhead? Onward, then, dear heart, mind and spirit, into the endless abyss of all charming things!”[13] Far from rejecting the created world as evil, Suso finds in creation a means for entering more deeply into creation’s ultimate source, God himself. All that he found to be beautiful in creation, he finds in God super-abundantly and beyond all concepts.

Although creation provided a way to God, Suso also noted how it could easily lead him astray from his beloved. Time and time again, he noticed the same pattern, “Sometimes he kept his firm resolve, and then again he would let his heart pursue transitory love.”[14] This then motivates Suso’s life of asceticism and detachment from creatures. He has a great love for Eternal Wisdom but finds that created things often draw him away from pursuing the one thing necessary. It is the goodness and life that he discovers in God that motivates his detachment from lesser things. God has often compared himself to a jealous lover in the prophets and Suso yields to this call for exclusivity in his relationship with God.

After this spiritual marriage, in which Suso became the servant of Eternal Wisdom, similar themes are developed elsewhere in his writings. While created things often showed themselves to be ultimately lacking, Suso finds in Eternal Wisdom “Beauty boundlessly attractive, Grace wedded to form, Word joined to melody, Nobility to virtue, Riches to power, internal Freedom with external brilliance—something I never found on earth: a proper balance satisfying the capabilities, capacities and the longing of the will of a truly loving heart…Oh, you false lovers, flee far from me! Never come near me again…O Lord, if I could only inscribe you on my heart!”[15] So again we see that in Suso’s effort to dedicate his heart totally to God, he shunned other things that he had found in the past could allure him away. In a letter to one of his spiritual daughters, he challenges her not to let her heart become a tavern where anyone can come and go and do as he pleases. She is to drive them out since she has become a bride of Christ and not a barmaid.[16] It is the fallen soul’s tendency to gravitate to goods lesser than itself that demands detachment if one is going to cling to God. Being released from the enticement of these lesser goods comprises the ultimate basis for Suso’s teaching on detachment.

Yet the joy of this pursuit does not have to wait for the afterlife, but begins even here. In another letter, Suso notes that “If one has found something better to devote oneself to, one can cheerfully leave what is pleasant.”[17] Not only does the hope of finally possessing God perfectly in heaven bring joy, but there is a foretaste of it even on earth. Shortly after his marriage to Eternal Wisdom in his Life, Suso describes how God already dwells with him in the depths, or ground, of his soul. In a mystical experience where he was intensely conscious of this indwelling, Suso describes how he was drawn outside of himself. As we will see later in Suso’s thought, to be drawn beyond himself is to be drawn within and through the ground of his soul, for it is there that God abides. An angel appears and Suso asks to see what God’s hidden dwelling looked like. The angel replied, “Look with joy into yourself and see how dear God plays his games of love with your affectionate soul.” Suso looked and saw that there was a clear crystal where his heart was and he saw Eternal Wisdom with the soul of the servant at his side: “It [the soul] was inclined in love at God’s side, embraced by his arms, and pressed to his divine heart. There outside itself and immersed in love it lay in the arms of its beloved God.”[18] The soul was brought outside itself as it gazed upon God, hidden in the depths of his soul by grace.

Although something like a rapture might be portrayed here, it also seems something else is at play. For, already in his description of his spiritual marriage, he described how this sort of thing occurred on a regular basis, namely that “his heart and mind were suddenly transported by a detached gazing at his most dearly beloved from whom all good flows.”[19] It seems like Suso’s focus on God in his detached gazing makes his concern for and consciousness of himself quietly slip away into the background. This, we believe, is essential to, or at least the beginnings of, what Suso means by being detached even from one’s very self. So for Suso, there is a detachment from creatures, which we have focused on in this section, but an even further detachment from oneself. This brings us to the next section where we will consider this detachment from self in terms of Eternal Wisdom since “wisdom” precisely is seeing all things in the light of God and from God’s perspective. For, it seems that this mental absorption in God’s perspective could occur to such an extent that one’s own perspective and self-concern quietly slips away into the background for a time and to a certain degree.

III. Wisdom and Seeing Everything in the Light of God

            Philosophical wisdom is the knowledge of the highest causes, and it sees all things in light of these causes. God is ultimately the highest cause of all things, so wisdom really concerns seeing and judging all things in the light of God. In the climatic last chapter of the first part of his Life (chapter 32), Suso refers to such notions in describing the “breakthrough.” The breakthrough is a work of grace. It consists of achieving a detachment even over oneself and becoming grounded (consciously) in God in such a way that one is able to more or less habitually perceive God’s hidden presence in all things. The breakthrough marks a decisive transition but is really a matter of degree. Like the detachment from creatures, it is always partial and a work-in-progress. It is striking how Suso’s account of the experience resembles this notion of “wisdom”: “People who are successful in the breakthrough, which one must anticipate by withdrawing from oneself and all things—not many succeed—such people’s minds and hearts are so completely lost in God that they somehow have no conciousness of self except by perceiving self and all things in their first origin.”[20] God’s perspective has so predominated one’s conscious life that attention to oneself fades away. One’s mental life is absorbed in divine wisdom, God’s own perspective, so that there is a certain detachment from oneself. Such self-transcendence could also be described as overcoming one’s false self for the true one intended by God. 

Naturally, one experiences himself as the center of the world as his experience of everything revolves around the locus of his own “I”. Furthermore, there is a tendency, especially because of sin, to over-estimate one’s self-importance, to be overly concerned with oneself, to put up false fronts in order to appear better before others, and to want to possess an excess of things or pleasures for oneself. From this “ego-mania” flow vices such as pride, vanity, envy, greed, and sensuality. Achieving detachment from oneself hence releases one from a host of anxieties, fears, and tensions. As a result of this self-transcendence, one sees himself and all things in the light of God, and so receives his self-worth from God, focuses more on God than himself, and finds his happiness in God. And he does these things not to the exclusion of others, since there is enough of God to go around, but in a way that appreciates others as persons with their own desires, hopes, and concerns, with equal value in God’s eyes. He looks at himself from a detached perspective, almost from a third person perspective. All other people’s existence is as precious as his own. His own personal needs and desires are still important, but not to the exclusion of others and only in accord with God’s perspective, for his very being belongs more to God than to himself. In short, one could describe a detachment from oneself as an essential element of charity insofar as it directs one away from himself to others and to God. In a devotion to Eternal Wisdom, God’s broader perspective replaces one’s own insofar as faith and reason give one insight into it. Eternal Wisdom replaces one’s own natural perception as the standard of reference and judgment, and so helps engender the disposition of being detached from oneself.  

            Suso insists that sin consists in receiving one’s being from God and claiming it as his own in a self-centered possessiveness. He says, “Because a rational creature is supposed to withdraw from itself and return to the One, and yet it remains outward, looking with unjustified possessiveness at its own self—this is where the devil and all evil come from.”[21] It is through this unjustified possessiveness of self that one makes himself the center of the universe with an undue self-importance and self-concern. Yet in reality, his very being belongs more to God than to himself. He is not his own. Later, Suso makes it clear that this “breakthrough” and detachment from oneself comes only through Christ: “Whoever want to achieve a true return and become a son in Christ, let him in true releasement turn to him and away from self.”[22] This constitutes a releasement because one is no longer confined to the cramped restraints of his own mental life. He has rather transcended himself and adopted God’s perspective or what we might call the mind of Christ. 

            In viewing himself and all things from God’s perspective and so being released from himself, Suso’s vision is widened to embrace all humanity. In commenting on what goes through his mind at the sursum corda at mass, he explains how he places himself within the context of all people and all creation and so no longer perceives himself as of particular concern. In other words, he has adopted something of a third person perspective: “Before my inner eyes I placed myself along with all that I am, with my body, soul and all my powers; and around myself I placed all creatures that God ever created in heaven, on earth, and in the four elements, each with its own name…And then in joy the loving arms of his soul stretched out and reached toward the countless numbers of all these creatures…to raise up their hearts to God: sursum corda![23] He sees himself as just another creature among the many of God’s creatures, each with their own unique name. An unjustified possessiveness of his own self has been, at least momentarily, overcome. From the perspective of eternal wisdom, all others are as valued as he himself is. A detachment form himself has led to a greater love for others as he stretches out “the loving arms of his soul” to others. In transcending himself, his heart has enlarged.

Later, Suso does a similar thing with his sufferings. In a transport “into himself and beyond himself,” that is in detachment from himself, he offers his sufferings in the context of all peoples’ sufferings. He even offers to God, on their behalf, the sufferings of those who might not know how to offer them to God in praise.[24] By placing his own sufferings in the larger context of the suffering of all, his own are relativized. Moreover, he acts as a subordinate co-mediator as he unites them to the Son’s own offering to the Father. These instances of a releasement of self and seeing himself as just another creature in the midst of a choir of praise may be a result of a detachment from self, or they may, on the other hand, be ways of engendering such a releasement. Taking a step back and seeing all things from a wider perspective, from a more divine perspective, was just in keeping with his devotion to Eternal Wisdom. And this devotion also led to a breadth of vision and self-transcendence with respect to time as we shall now see.

IV. Eternity and Seeing Everything in the Light of God’s Providence

            That Suso’s devotion is not just to Divine Wisdom, but more particularly to Eternal Wisdom indicates something of a temporal dimension. This too will affect Suso’s understanding of detachment, especially in embracing God’s will at every moment. We saw how Suso described his marriage to Eternal Wisdom at the beginning of his Life. He does a similar thing at the beginning of the Little Book of Wisdom, but here he goes more into the long search that preceded his eventual marriage with Eternal Wisdom. It seems Suso’s account is fashioned after Augustine’s. Suso, like Augustine, sought in vain for ultimate happiness among creatures, as they each eventually seemed to say, “This is not what you are searching for,” for only in God did his restless heart come to find rest. Suso insists that things did not begin well for him, but God’s providence directed him by both pleasantand unpleasant means to arrive at this marriage. Eternal Wisdom explains this to Suso, “It is I, eternal Wisdom, who chose you for myself in eternity with the embrace of my eternal providence. I have blocked your path whenever you would have been separated from me if I had let you be. You always found something repugnant in all things. This is the surest mark of my chosen ones, that I want them for myself.”[25] Suso’s experience of God’s providence in the past gives him confidence that God continues to guide him. When God blocked his paths in the past and left him with a repugnance toward a created thing, it must have seemed like something bad was happening, yet after enough time has unfolded, Suso can see the wisdom of it all—or rather, he can see Eternal Wisdom behind it all. This allows him to bring a similar perspective to every moment of time. Being detached and removed a bit from the pressing moment allows God’s eternal perspective to enlighten things, even though Suso may not be able to grasp it all immediately. What seems bad at the present moment can easily turn out for the better through God’s action and in the scope of eternity.

Thus far, our description of attaining detachment from oneself has focused on the intellect, perceiving all things in the light of God, yet there is also a volitional aspect. Returning to chapter 32 on the “breakthrough,” we see that essential to finding God in all things is the self-releasement that comes from surrendering one’s will to God. “And this all comes through losing one’s own will, for such people are driven out of themselves by a terrible thirst for the will of God and his justice. And the will of God tastes so good to them, and they attain such majesty from it, that everything God has ordained for them is so welcome to them that they neither want nor desire anything else.”[26] Experience has already shown Suso that God’s ways have led to his greatest good and so he can make the act of faith that God will continue to bring about such wonders. Trusting that God has ordained his good from all eternity brings an eternal vantage point into the flux of time. It allows Suso to be detached from himself and the many concerns that press in on him in the moment of trial, trusting in the Wisdom that has planned marvelous things for him from all eternity. Suso admits that externally such people still feel pleasure and pain like the rest, but in the depths, an abiding peace remains: “Because they have withdrawn from self, they are lifted up, as far as this is possible, so that their joy is whole and constant in all things. For in the divine being, where their hearts have lost themselves, there is no place for suffering or sadness, but only for peace and joy.”[27] They have so relativized their own perspective in favor for God’s perspective and have so centered their love in God that his abiding happiness overflows into the ground of their soul.

In a chapter on the difference between true and false releasement, Suso speaks of the detached person who “by giving up his free will surrenders himself to God in every moment where he finds himself, as though he knew nothing of himself and God alone is the Lord.”[28] Again, we see how surrendering one’s will is part of being detached from oneself, knowing “nothing of himself” but God alone as the Lord. God’s own perspective has overridden and surpassed his own as primary to the point of self-forgetfulness. Later in this chapter, Suso insists that this releasement from self is never permanent in this life, but must constantly be renewed. Moreover, it is a matter of being detached to a greater or lesser degree rather than completely or not at all.

A warm devotion to Eternal Wisdom would certainly strengthen one’s confidence in divine providence. And with the overtones of courtly love, this devotion would embolden one to turn from an excessive self-concern to a releasement that entrusts himself into God’s hands. He would begin to see the unfolding of events in his daily life as orchestrated by his Beloved, Eternal Wisdom, who from all eternity has fashioned a beautiful plan, shaped by her own glorious wisdom. Eternal Wisdom’s very allusiveness and unpredictability in the unfolding of time is part of the allure of her charm. The small troubles that arise are then seen as small twists in the adventure with his Beloved. As a result, the manifestation of eternal wisdom in creation is not just in the beauty, order, and harmony of things as they now exist, but also in the unfolding of God’s plan through the successive events of time, as Wisdom orders all things sweetly. Eternal Wisdom’s wonderful pattern is impressed on created things not only spatially but also temporally. Something like this perspective allows Suso to embrace God’s will and to see in everything an opportunity to discover and love God. Suso insists that a detached person “exists in an ever-present now, free of selfish intentions and perceives his perfection in the smallest thing as in the greatest.”[29] In such releasement, everything exudes the fragrance of eternal wisdom. This “breakthrough,” then, allows one to find God in every situation and at every moment.

The Tattered Doormat, the Mere Plaything

It is in the context of this detached view of oneself that the comments of Suso concerning the doormat can be rightly understood. When the decisive vision informs him that his twenty-two years of severe external penance were but “a good beginning,” he entered the “advanced school” of interior detachment. In the next chapter, he is told how this will take place. Suso will undergo involuntary sufferings that will be a great trial interiorly, but will seem small in the eyes of men—notice how even the outward ordinariness of his trial will help diminish his ego. He will experience the loss of his good reputation, disloyalty from friends, and seem to be abandoned by God and man. In imitation of Christ at Gethsemane, a frightened Suso falls to the ground and prays that he might be spared these future sufferings, but a voice responds, “Pull yourself together! I shall be with you myself and shall graciously help you to conquer these prodigious visitations.” It is Eternal Wisdom who speaks. It is after surrendering to God’s will that Suso sees a dog playing vigorously with a tattered doormat and tearing holes in it. Suso concludes to himself, “Since it cannot be otherwise, surrender yourself to it. See how without a word the mat lets itself be ill-treated. Do the same yourself!”[30] As it is in conformity with God’s will, Suso resigns himself to the lot of the doormat, the mere plaything of dogs. This attitude helps Suso to be released from a self-importance and self-concern that would hinder God’s will. Furthermore, as it is in the context of play, a light-hearted joy imbues the whole situation as Suso accepts his littleness. He later retrieves the doormat from the dog’s mouth and keeps it as an “exquisite jewel.”

Suso’s approach is very similar to St. Therese of Lisieux’s in her image of being the little ball that Jesus tosses around as he plays. It helps one accept his littleness in joy within the larger context of God’s ways and his eternal perspective. The similarity continues later in the chapter as the Child Jesus chides Suso for complaining and advises him to see his sufferings as little flowers: “You should do as a young girl does who is picking roses. When she breaks off one rose from the bush, she is not satisfied, but takes it into her head to pick more of them.”[31] A woman then tells Suso of an experience she had while praying for him: “it seemed to her in a vision that she was led to a place where the servant was. And she saw that above him a beautiful rosebush had begun to bloom. It was full on all sides; it was beautifully formed and covered with fair red roses.”[32] The earthly flowers that Suso plucked in embracing God’s will in sufferings have already begun to blossom in the roses above, probably both with regard to a future heavenly reward and the present transformation produced through such suffering. So even now, having adopted the perspective of Eternal Wisdom, Suso can discern the fair red roses with the eyes of faith. Whereas Nietzsche saw in the Christian ascetic the thorns but no rose, Eternal Wisdom has illumined the mind of Suso to see the roses and so find a deep joy even among the thorns.

Concluding Remarks

            Friedrich Nietzsche, against what he perceived as a gloomy and life-denying Christian penitence, insisted, “I should only believe in a God that would know how to dance.”[33] Suso’s severe penance, however, did not stem from a glum view of God, but quite the opposite. As Suso writes about the inner life of the Trinity, he himself discerns a playful joy and even something of an exhilarating dance. Eternal Wisdom speaks these words to Suso:

Now listen to me: I am highborn, of a noble family. I am the lovable Word of the Father’s heart. There, because of the abundance of love in the abyss of my being the Son by nature, the loving eyes of his pure fatherhood find exquisite delight in the sweet flaming love of the Holy Spirit. I am the throne of delight. I am the crown of happiness…In the Godhead I play the game of joy that gives the host of angels such joy that a thousand years are for them like a short hour…Happy is the one who shall enter the game of love, the dance of joy in heavenly bliss at my side, holding my fair hand, eternally secure.[34]

In a way, Suso and Nietzsche are in agreement in wanting a God that dances, i.e. a God that lives in abundant joy and wants to bless us with such happiness. Suso’s asceticism and detachment do not flow from a rejection of this. Rather Suso discerns the way of the Cross as being the best way to truly achieve this exalted goal of perfect happiness.

Of Garrigou-Lagrange’s four reasons for mortification—original sin, personal sin, the loftiness of our supernatural end, and the imitation of Christ-crucified—the third especially provides a good response to Nietzsche, and by implication to other forms of practical naturalism not unknown to Christians. Suso’s practice of denying various good things of this life stems not from a denial of life and joy, but rather from a desire for a greater life and joy. The supernatural end of sharing in the life of the Blessed Trinity brings with it a joy that surpasses anything imaginable in this earthly life. The Blessed Trinity is the Happy Trinity. Yet since this joy is so beyond our nature, grace must elevate us. In cooperating with grace some of our natural desires must be denied so that our intellects and wills may be united more completely and intensely with God. We need to achieve a detachment or releasement from certain lesser goods that hinder this whole-hearted pursuit of God. Sin and the effects left from previous sin further complicates matters. Sin constrains us from reaching the heights of excellence and hence of joy, even naturally but more so supernaturally.

Even on a natural level, achieving higher pleasures often requires sacrifice. To enjoy playing Mozart on the piano involves much time and effort in training oneself to even have the capacity for this refined joy. Moreover, developing oneself to be a skilled pianist means that one will not be as suited for other activities. The slender and agile fingers of the skilled pianist will not be so suited for working in a steel mill, where big and firm hands are needed. Every choice involves a renunciation. Similar principles are at work with our spiritual capacities of intellect and will. In order to develop an intellect and will that can enjoy union with God in an ever greater love demands orienting ones’ whole being to God and, as a result, away from other lesser goods. Suso’s detachment from certain goods of creation and of self-advancement should be seen in this perspective. It is a choice for developing himself to be someone who is open and sensitive to the subtle joys of the spirit in loving union with Eternal Wisdom. His detachment from lesser goods have helped him develop the “slender and agile fingers” of the spirit. This greater capacity for God and supernatural joy began even in this life, but would have to wait for heaven to reach its fulfillment.

In conclusion, we have seen how Suso’s spiritual marriage with Eternal Wisdom established the context and parameters of his life of detachment. First, as every created thing only gave a slight glimpse of the supereminent source of all beauty and goodness, created things were renounced insofar as they might hinder the intensity and purity of his love for Eternal Wisdom. Second, by being devoted to God as Wisdom, Suso came to see all things in light of God; and so, by adopting God’s perspective even concerning himself, he could view himself in a manner detached from any undue self-interest. Third, Suso’s devotion to this Wisdom as Eternal, gave Suso a detachment from the pressing concerns of the present moment so that he could embrace God’s will even in trial, knowing that his Beloved was fashioning something better out of it. Suso was hence able to find his beloved Eternal Wisdom in all things, and from this flowed the unsurpassable joy that knows no end.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra (Trans. Thomas Common. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1999), 78.  

[2] Heinrich Suso, The Exemplar, with Two German Sermons (Trans. Frank Tobin. The Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 101.

[3] Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life: Prelude to Eternal Life (Trans. M. Timothea Doyle. Vol. 1. St Louis: Herder, 1949), 275-276.

[4] Ibid, 385.

[5] Ibid., 282-3.

[6] Ibid., 298.

[7] Bernard McGinn, The Harvest of Mysticism in Medieval Germany (New York: Crossroad, 2005), 218.

[8] See Exemplar, 87-97.

[9] Suso, Exemplar, 63. For Tobin’s discussion see 40-43. McGinn, however, seems to go too far in separating the idealized Servant of the Life from Suso himself. He suggests that while sharing some biographical details with Suso, the Servant “cannot be totally identified with him in any simple way” (Harvest, 196). The major qualifications that McGinn makes even in this short quotation—“totally”, “in any simple way”—indicate that his basic point misses the mark and is misleading. It is one thing to say that certain characteristics are exaggerated and quite another to say that it is a different identity, in this case a fictional one.

[10] Exemplar, 139-40.

[11] Ibid., 67.

[12] Ibid., 67.

[13] Ibid., 69.

[14] Ibid., 68.

[15] Ibid., 231.

[16] Ibid., 345.

[17] Ibid., 335.

[18] Ibid., 73. Emphasis my own.

[19] Ibid., 69. Emphasis my own.

[20] Ibid., 130.

[21] Ibid., 311. Emphasis my own. I also added a comma and “it” to help clarify the meaning.

[22] Ibid., 313.

[23] Ibid., 79.

[24] Ibid., 126-27.

[25] Ibid., 212.

[26] Ibid., 130.

[27] Ibid., 130.

[28] Ibid., 178.

[29] Ibid., 329.

[30] Ibid., 101. Emphasis my own.

[31] Ibid., 102.

[32] Ibid., 102.

[33] Zarathrusta, 24. I will quote the whole passage, not only because it is so well-written but also because it can be instructive. Of course the “God” that Nietzsche rejects is not the true God of the Christian faith. However, it does coincide with certain misconceptions that some Christians have and that can lead to an excessive gravity. Nietzsche’s attack against this false god can hence purify our own perceptions of the true God from the false idols that may still linger. “And to me also, who appreciate life, the butterflies, and soap-bubbles, and whatever is like them amongst us, seem most to enjoy happiness. / To see these light, foolish, pretty, lively little sprites flit about—that moveth Zarathustra to tears and songs. / I should only believe in a God that would know how to dance. / And when I saw my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, solemn: he was the spirit of gravity—through him all things fall. / Not by wrath, but by laughter, do we slay. Come, let us slay the spirit of gravity! / I learned to walk; since then have I let myself run. I learned to fly, since then I do not need pushing in order to move from a spot. / Now I am light, now do I fly; now do I see myself under myself. Now there danceth a God in me.” The sad thing is that what Nietzsche sought here, God really does want to grant us, but not by way of self-assertion, will-to-power, and the new superman, but rather by humility, self-surrender, and obedience to his ways. By participating in the blissful life of the Blessed Trinity, “God dances” in the Saints and he elevates them in a manner that surpasses anything Nietzsche could have dreamed up on his own. Because of this, Suso too preached against an “indiscriminate sadness” that can afflict some Christians and did afflict him early on (Exemplar, 364).  

[34] Exemplar, 229. Emphasis my own. I have also added a comma to help clarify the meaning.

↑ Up