The fourteenth century was an era of singular richness in the history of Christian mysticism. Frank Tobin, Henry Suso, The Exemplar, with Two German Sermons.
The 1300s. Europe in the grips of economic depression, war, and natural catastrophes. Europe still experiencing the spiritual wake left by the lives of Saints Francis and Dominic. A deep concern with the interior life seized large numbers of people, both clergy and laity, and the pursuit of inwardness became an intense and exclusive goal of many.
The ones who made the most progress were like today’s American Idol contestants. They made it to the top and everyone wanted to listen to them.
10. Richard Rolle (1300-1349)
“Little wonder when a man is first made a true contemplative, and tastes the sweetness and then feels the warmth, that he almost dies through excess of love.”
Richard Rolle: ladies’ man. Women were a source of temptation in his youth, an object of tender concern as a spiritual father in his prime. Most of his written works are devotions for his female listeners. Our culture can’t imagine this, of course. Or rather, our culture can imagine this only too much, letting its imagination run to the lascivious. He lived 31 of his 49 years as a hermit. The only Englishman on this list. Never canonized, but inspired a flourishing cult in England, where his books were more widely read than Chaucer’s in the 1400s. Sometimes credited as the first master of English prose.
9. Gerard Groote (1340-1384)
“It is the highest of all learning to know that one knows nothing.”
At age 35, Gerard Groote was independently wealthy, well educated, and ambitious. But he pivoted. He donated his house for the use of poor religious women, retreated to a Carthusian house, and read widely. After five years, he became a deacon with a license to preach. He preached conversion and repentance . . . and attacked corrupt clergy. The ecclesiastical authorities shut him down. But people kept coming. They gathered in private house to hear about this “New Devotion” (Devotio Moderna). The movement spread throughout lower Germany. It was a “back to the Gospels” movement, which paralleled the Renaissance’s“back to the Classics.” It focused on simple faith as opposed to the rigorous Scholasticism. Groote would inspire many mystical writings, including The Imitation of Christ (see Mystic #3).
8. Anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing
“[O]f God himself can no man think.”
We can only know the Absolute when we know we don’t know the Absolute. The cloud of unknowing is a dark cloud full of light. The anonymous author might have called his book The Cloud of Paradox. Who was he? We don’t know. To add to the intrigue: The author’s chief influence was the Pseudo-Dionysius and no one knows who he was either.
[Aside: Notice the dates of these next three: they’re related chronologically and mystically. They’re all tinged with a slice of Zen, which has brought them a fair amount of criticism, though the greatest mystic of all, John of the Cross (whom Tauler influenced), was also tinged with Zen thinking (as evidenced by the verses at the end of Chapter 13, Book 1, of The Ascent of Mt. Carmel).]
7. Johann Tauler (1300-1361)
“[T]hose who truly love God judge only themselves.”
Tauler was a Dominican who spent his life in Strausbourg, though he traveled extensively toward the end of his life. There must be something in the water of the Rhine. Mystics flourished along there, so much so that there is a group called “The Rhineland Mystics,” which includes Mystics #7 through #4, who in turn influenced Mystic #3.
6. Heinrich Suso (1295-1366)
“Suffering is the ancient law of love.”
Henry Suso: recluse, ascetic, and visionary. Very introspective. Although he was trained as a philosopher and theologian, he was deeply interested in his own soul and relationship to God. To him, mysticism wasn’t a doctrine or belief but a personal adventure. He raised a lot of eyebrows in later life when he put aside his ascetic practices, especially since he lived in Cologne, a stronghold of the notorious Brethren of the Free Spirit, prompting Norman Cohn to insinuate Suso had embraced the sect’s antinomian ways but that simply didn’t happen.
5. Meister Eckhart (1260-1327)
“If mankind could have known God without the world, God would never have created the world.”
Lots of controversy with Eckhart. Equal parts intellectual and mystic, he couldn’t leave well enough alone. He delved into the ground, the ineffable All, then came back up and insisted on trying to articulate what he saw (Thomas Aquinas had the good sense to stop talking after he saw it). The result? A lot of sermons soaked in paradox and pantheism. The latter didn’t sit well with the ecclesiastical authorities, who condemned a number of propositions from his writings.
4. Jan van Ruysbroeck (1293-1381)
“The depths themselves remain uncomprehended. This is the dark silence in which all lovers are lost.”
The 20th-century authority on the mystical life, Evelyn Underhill, called Ruysbroeck “one of the greatest mystics whom the world has yet known.” A priest in his young years; a forest hermit in his elder years. Inveterate foe of The Brethren of the Free Spirit. He profoundly influenced Gerard Groote, who in turn influenced Thomas a’Kempis.
3. Thomas a’Kempis (1380-1471)
“When a man desires a thing too much, he at once becomes ill at ease.”
Thomas a’Kempis: everyone’s favorite spiritual writer. He’s a great bridge between Protestantism and Catholicism. Etienne Gilson called a’Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, “a late medieval protest against the vanity of all philosophy.” He quickly added that the book’s greatness doesn’t lie in the protest, but still, that’s not far removed from Luther calling Thomas Aquinas a “chatterbox.” There’s much in this lovely devotional for Christians of all stripes.
2. Julian of Norwich (1342-1415)
“Between God and the soul there is no between.”
Julian of Norwich, the second Brit on this list (Richard Rolle was the first). I’m not sure she deserves such a high rating, but eight of the ten mystics on this list are men, and I wanted to be politically correct somehow. Julian wrote Revelations of Love, which Evelyn Underhill called “the most beautiful of all English mystical works.” Julian, Underhill said, “closes and crowns the history of English medieval mysticism . . . She was a seer, a lover, and a poet.” High praise indeed.
1. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380)
“The human heart is always drawn by love.”
Catherine of Siena competes with St. Francis of Assisi as the greatest Italian mystic of all time (such things are hard to measure, count, and rank . . . this entire list, if you haven’t figured out already, is ironical at the metaphysical level). She brought an end to the Babylonian Captivity, convincing the Pope to throw off the French yoke in Avignon and return to Rome. She might be the exemplar of balancing the active and contemplative lives, something every person struggles with, no matter how weighted a person’s active side. She’s called “the mother of thousands of souls” for a reason: she influenced legions with her life, example, and her Divine Dialogue.
Angela of Foligno (1249-1309), Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373), Walter Hilton (1340-1396), the anonymous author of Theologica Germanica (c. 1350), Florens Radiwijns (1350-1400), and Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464).
Why This List?
The point of this list is: There is such a list.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a list of ten recognizable mystics, much less great ones, from any other century. Every century has lots of mystics, just like every century has lots of saints, but they’re not recognized because society as a whole doesn’t even know what to look for. The 14th century produced a parade of men and women who plunged into the most profound reality and emerged from the plunge to write and talk about what they saw (to the extent it’s even possible: cue the ghost of Eckhart) because there was a society that appreciated the effort.
Think of today’s golden age of television that started with the cable show Sopranos in 1999. Some would argue the golden age started with Hill Street Blues in 1981, with its cutting-edge multi-story line approach.
No matter when it started, late 20th-century America was a society that appreciated TV (the term “couch potato” had been in use since the 1970s). It produced a parade of men and women who plunged into the medium, looking for ways to improve it. The result was the cutting-edge multi-story lined shows (Hill Street Blues) combined with the new medium of cable TV, which led to The Sopranos, The Wire, Dexter, and hundreds of other series.
Today, the question for almost everyone isn’t whether to watch TV, but rather, what to watch: on-demand movies, mini-series, sit-coms, documentaries.
That was the 14th century and spirituality. The question wasn’t whether to be spiritual but, rather, what kind of spiritual: magic, black magic, antinomianism, mysticism. And within each kind, there were many types.
Some of it was good. Some of it was bad.
But it was all spiritual.