Anyone who endures dryness at prayer or feels abandoned by God will find instruction, and perhaps some relief, in the experience of Henry Suso. A mystic who called himself the “servant of Eternal Wisdom,” he endured long stretches of spiritual darkness interrupted only by occasional bursts of brightness. Henry’s life says to us that in apparent barrenness the soul draws closest to God. And we see him only by learning to look deep within.
Henry Suso was born at Constance, Switzerland, and became a Dominican there at 13. Five years later an extraordinary divine encounter launched him on his lifelong mystical pursuit of God. For the next decade, however, Suso suffered severe depression and doubt. Finally, counsel with Meister Eckhart, the patriarch of 14th-century German mysticism, delivered him from the worst of it.
Like many other mystics, at midlife Henry threw himself into active Christian work. For nearly two decades he traveled throughout the Rhineland preaching, teaching, and giving spiritual direction. He also wrote extensively about the inner life. His work on prayer, The Little Book of Eternal Wisdom, became the most popular Christian book in Europe before The Imitation of Christ appeared. In this excerpt he asks God, the Eternal Wisdom, why he seems to forsake those he loves:
Eternal Wisdom: When I hide myself, only then do you become aware of who I am or who you are. I am eternal Good, and so when I pour myself forth so lovingly, everything I enter becomes good. One can thus detect my presence as one detects the sun by its brightness since one cannot see its essence.
Servant: Lord, I find within myself a great unevenness. When I feel forsaken, my soul is like a sick person to whom everything is repugnant. But when the bright morning star bursts forth in my soul, all gloom disappears. Quickly, however, it is all snatched away and I am again forsaken. But then after intense sadness it returns. What is going on?
Eternal Wisdom: I am causing it, and it is the game of love. As long as love is together with love, love does not know how dear love is. But when love departs from love, then truly love feels how dear love was.
Servant: Dear Lord, teach me how to conduct myself in this game.
Eternal Wisdom: On good days you should consider the bad days, and on the bad days consider the good days. Then neither exuberance at my presence nor despondency can harm you. To find joy on earth, it is not enough that you give me a certain period of the day. You must constantly remain within yourself if you want to find God, hear his familiar words and be sensitive to his secret thoughts.
Suso’s individualistic piety and his association with Meister Eckhart, who was suspected of heresy, won him many enemies. He was accused of theft, sacrilege, fathering a child, poisoning, and heresy, but he was completely cleared of all charges. Toward the end of his life he served as the prior of the Dominican house at Ulm in central Germany. Henry Suso died there in 1366.
from Voices of the Saints, by Bert Ghezzi
Image credit: Saint Henry by unknown artist, unknown date. Public Domain via Wikimedia.