Coming to Terms with Meister Eckhart: Suso’s Büchlein der Wahrheit

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Author: Frank Tobin
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,638 words

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[(essay date 1988) In the following essay, Tobin assesses the influence of Meister Eckhart on Suso’s Little Book of Truth. After demonstrating that pseudo-Dionysus is a stand-in for Eckhart, Tobin argues that, although Suso was deeply affected by Eckhart’s work, he differed from his sometime-mentor when he defined the “central issue of the being of creatures,” insisting, in opposition to Eckhart, that God’s creations are inherently separate from their creator.]

Of the person of the famed Dominican professor, preacher, and mystic Meister Eckhart we know very little. His learned theological tracts in Latin bear witness to the great originality and subtlety of his mind. His sermons in the vernacular reveal his mastery of the art of sacred oratory and the heavy intellectual and spiritual demands he required of his audiences. Yet, aside from an occasional stray remark in a German sermon referring to this or that religious house in Cologne, both his theological treatises and his sermons could just as well have been composed or delivered on the moon as at the university of Paris or in the Rhineland of the mid 1320s; so devoid are they of concrete references to time, place, contemporary politics or society. And they yield absolutely nothing of an anecdotal nature which would contribute to a biography of the man. Apocryphal stories have come down to us; but in them Eckhart is more a legendary figure than a real one. It is therefore of great interest for us to learn of the impact he had not just on the mind but on the interior life of a Dominican mystic of the next generation so different from himself—Henry Suso. As Suso tells us in his Vita, he was tortured by thoughts that his early acceptance into the Dominican order had been secured by simony and that he was therefore damned, no matter what he might do. For ten years, he tells us, he was tormented by these scruples until he unburdened himself to Meister Eckhart and was released from the hell in which he had lived for so long.1 Since scruples are notoriously impervious to rational arguments, we may confidently assume that it was the force exerted by the total personality of the older Dominican upon the younger that effected the latter’s release from torment. The incident provides us with some rare evidence about a dimension of Eckhart to which one can only indirectly gain access through his works.

Suso’s release from scruples most probably occurred in Cologne, where Suso had gone as one of those chosen for further study after completing the course of studies required of all Dominican friars. Eckhart had arrived there from Strasbourg in 1323, or shortly thereafter. We know for certain that his activities there included preaching in the vernacular and that by 1326 he had been accused by local ecclesiastical authorities of disseminating heretical doctrines. However, he almost certainly also held the post of professor at the studium generale, or Dominican house of studies, where Suso would have...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420113334