Medieval Mystics

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Giovanni Bonaventure (1217–1274) Giovanni Bonaventure was born in Bagnorea, Italy, around the year 1217. He entered the Franciscan order and was later sent to Paris to complete his education. In Paris he became friends with Thomas Aquinas, one of the great philosophers in the Christian tradition. Bonaventure taught in Paris from 1248 to 1257, when he was elected minister general of the Franciscan Order. He held this position for sixteen years, during which time he wrote his major works, including Life of Francis, a biography of St. Francis of Assisi, and The Soul’s Journey into God. Bonaventure was made a cardinal in 1273; he died the following year, on July 15, while attending the Second Council of Lyons. He was canonized in 1482 and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Sixtus V in 1587.

Catherine of Genoa (1447–1510) Catherine of Genoa was born in 1447 to an aristocratic family. She had a melancholy temperament, which was made more pronounced by an unhappy marriage. A powerful spiritual experience in 1473 transformed her life, and after a period of penance and prayer she began to work among the city’s sick and poor. In 1477, she founded the first hospital in Genoa and was its director from 1490 to 1496. It was during this period, in the summer of 1493, that an outbreak of the plague killed nearly four out of five of those who remained in the city. Catherine herself contracted the disease but recovered. Catherine attracted many followers, and between 1499 and 1507, she discussed her spiritual experiences with them, including the times in which she had experienced union with God. Catherine died on September 15, 1510, and was canonized by Pope Clement XII in 1733.

Catherine of Siena (1347–1380) Catherine of Siena was born in Siena on March 25, 1347, the twenty-fourth child in a lower-class family. Even as a child she exhibited a longing for God, and she refused to marry. When she was about sixteen, she joined the Mantellate, a Dominican body that worked with the poor and the sick. In spite of her lack of formal education, Catherine also became known as a teacher. During her lifetime she attracted a large following, and she also founded a convent. Catherine was active in politics, acting as ambassador between the Papacy and the city-state of Florence. Throughout her life she had unusual spiritual experiences, including visions and ecstasies. In 1368, she experienced a “mystical marriage” to Christ, after which she felt totally given to Christ. She also received the stigmata (the marks of the wounds of Christ). All her life, Catherine practiced severe penance, and often she would eat very little. In 1380, she was unable to eat at all, which led to her death at the age of thirty-three on April 29th of that year. In 1970, Pope Paul VI proclaimed her a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church.

Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–c. 1327) Meister Johann Eckhart, who is widely considered to be the greatest of all the German medieval mystics, was born in the village of Hochheim, near Gotha, Germany in 1260. His father was the steward of a knight’s castle in the Thuringian forest. When Eckhart was about fifteen, he entered the Dominican monastery at Erfurt and remained there for at least nine years. He then studied in Cologne before becoming prior of Erfurt and vicar of Thuringia. In about 1300, he was sent to Paris to teach, where he presented the Dominican theological positions against their rivals, the Franciscans. In 1302, the prestigious Studium Generale in Paris conferred a Master’s degree...

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on him, and since then he has been known as Meister Eckhart. In 1303, he became Provincial of the Dominican order in Saxony, and four years later, Vicar of Bohemia. In 1313, Eckhart, now widely known and respected, lived in Strasbourg, where he preached and was prior of a convent. At some later time, not earlier than 1322, he was invited to take up a professorship at the Studium Generale in Cologne, an extremely high honor. But the Archbishop of Cologne harbored a dislike of all mysticism, and he formally charged Eckhart with heresy. Eckhart denied the charges and made a vigorous defense. He is believed to have died in 1327. In 1329, Pope John XXII condemned many aspects of Eckhart’s teaching as heretical.

Julian of Norwich (1342–c. 1416) There is little information about the life of Julian of Norwich, who was one of the most important figures in medieval English mysticism. She reveals something of herself in her Revelations of Divine Love. She reports that she was given her revelations in 1373, when she was thirty and a half, which would mean she was born in 1342. Since she is named as a beneficiary in a will dated 1416, it appears that she was still living at that time as a recluse in Norwich, supported by the church of St. Julian and St. Edwards in Conisford. This church belonged to the Benedictine community. Julian’s writings show her to be well read in many of the classic texts of Christian spirituality, and it is possible that she acquired her education by entering a religious order, although whether she was in fact a nun cannot be known.

Richard Rolle (c. 1300–1349) Richard Rolle, who was born around 1300 in the Yorkshire region of England, has been called the father of English mysticism. Rolle was a prolific author in both English and Latin and was widely read and admired in his day. He was born at Thornton Dale, near Pickering, in Yorkshire. He studied at Oxford but appears to have abandoned his studies, since he did not receive a degree. Rolle then withdrew from the world and devoted himself to a contemplative life. He had a number of unusual psychic and spiritual experiences, feeling heat in his chest and hearing heavenly music. Some of his acquaintances thought him mad. He described these experiences in Incendium Amoris (c. 1340, trans. The Fire of Love). Rolle’s works are characterized by a love of Christ and especially the power of the divine name Jesus. He emphasized love and a religion of the heart. Rolle died in 1349 at Hampole, near Doncaster. Legend has it that he died after tending to victims of the Black Death.

John Ruusbroec (1293–1381) John Ruusbroec was born in 1293, in the village of Ruusbroec, near Brussels. He became a priest in 1317, when he was twenty-four. For the next twenty-six years he served as chaplain to the church of St. Gudule in Brussels. During this time he wrote treaties opposing the heretical teachings of a woman named Bloemardinne. In 1343, he retired to Groenendael in the forest a few miles from the city with two companions to lead a more solitary life. The small group acquired a few more members and became, with the blessings of the local bishop, an official religious community— canons regular of St. Augustine. Ruusbroec spent the remaining years of his life at Groenendael, where he wrote the most influential of his mystical works. He died December 2, 1381.

Henry Suso (1295–1366) Henry Suso, who with Eckhart and Tauler was one of the three great figures in German medieval mysticism, was born on March 21, 1295, to a noble family. When he was thirteen his parents sent him to the Dominican friary in the town of Constance. After being a member of the Dominican order for five years, he underwent a conversion experience that became the basis for his later life. In 1322 or 1323, he was sent to pursue advanced studies in the Dominican house at Cologne, an honor given to only a few. There he expanded his knowledge of theology and scripture, and his teacher for some of this period was probably Meister Eckhart. Suso remained in Cologne until 1326 or 1327, when he returned to the friary at Constance as a director of studies for the students in the order. Around 1330, Suso was summoned to Maastricht to defend himself against charges of heresy, and he was dismissed from his position at the friary. But he must have emerged unscathed from the accusations, since later he was appointed prior or superior of the house at Constance. He also preached in the countryside and supervised the spiritual studies of Dominican nuns. In about 1348, Suso was transferred to the Dominican house in Ulm, where he lived for the rest of his life. During this time, he edited his works for publication, collecting them under the title Exemplar. Suso died in Ulm on January 25, 1366.

Johannes Tauler (c. 1300–1361) Johannes Tauler was born around 1300 to a well-to-do family in Strasbourg. He began training in the Dominican Order in 1314, and became a preacher and director. In 1339, he moved to Basle because that city sided with Pope John XXII in his dispute with Louis of Bavaria, whereas Strasbourg was loyal to Louis. Tauler remained in Basle for four or five years, where his influence in the spiritual movement known as the Friends of God increased. Tauler was a disciple of Eckhart and a friend of Suso. Tauler became widely known in the vicinity for his preaching, and his teaching has come down to us in the form of sermons. He died in 1361, in the monastery of Saint Nicholas in Undis, during an outbreak of the plague.