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Thread: Light, Life and Love: Selections from the German Mystics of the Middle Ages

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    Light, Life and Love: Selections from the German Mystics of the Middle Ages


    Selections from the German Mystics of the Middle Ages


    W. R. Inge

    TO most English readers the "Imitation of Christ" is the
    representative of mediaeval German mysticism. In reality, however,
    this beautiful little treatise belongs to a period when that
    movement had nearly spent itself. Thomas a Kempis, as Dr. Bigg has
    said,[1] was only a semi-mystic. He tones down the most
    characteristic doctrines of Eckhart, who is the great original
    thinker of the German mystical school, and seems in some ways to
    revert to an earlier type of devotional literature. The "Imitation"
    may perhaps be described as an idealised picture of monastic piety,
    drawn at a time when the life of the cloister no longer filled a
    place of unchallenged usefulness in the social order of Europe. To
    find German mysticism at its strongest we must go back a full
    hundred years, and to understand its growth we must retrace our
    steps as far as the great awakening of the thirteenth century--the
    age of chivalry in religion--the age of St. Louis, of Francis and
    Dominic, of Bonaventura and Thomas Aquinas. It was a vast revival,
    bearing fruit in a new ardour of pity and charity, as well as in a
    healthy freedom of thought. The Church, in recognising the new
    charitable orders of Francis and Dominic, and the Christianised
    Aristotelianism of the schoolmen, retained the loyalty and profited
    by the zeal of the more sober reformers, but was unable to prevent
    the diffusion of an independent critical spirit, in part provoked
    and justified by real abuses. Discontent was aroused, not only by
    the worldiness of the hierarchy, whose greed and luxurious living
    were felt to be scandalous, but by the widespread economic distress
    which prevailed over Western Europe at this period. The crusades
    periodically swept off a large proportion of the able-bodied men, of
    whom the majority never returned to their homes, and this helped to
    swell the number of indigent women, who, having no male protectors,
    were obliged to beg their bread. The better class of these female
    mendicants soon formed themselves into uncloistered charitable
    Orders, who were not forbidden to marry, and who devoted themselves
    chiefly to the care of the sick. These Beguines and the
    corresponding male associations of Beghards became very numerous in
    Germany. Their religious views were of a definite type. Theirs was
    an intensely inward religion, based on the longing of the soul for
    immediate access to God. The more educated among them tended to
    embrace a vague idealistic Pantheism. Mechthild of Magdeburg (1212-
    1277), prophetess, poetess, Church reformer, quietist, was the
    ablest of the Beguines. Her writings prove to us that the technical
    terminology of German mysticism was in use before Eckhart,[2] and
    also that the followers of what the "Theologia Germanica" calls the
    False Light, who aspired to absorption in the Godhead, and despised
    the imitation of the incarnate Christ, were already throwing
    discredit on the movement. Mechthild's independence, and her
    unsparing denunciations of corruption in high places, brought her
    into conflict with the secular clergy. They tried to burn her books--
    those religious love songs which had already endeared her to German
    popular sentiment. It was then that she seemed to hear a voice
    saying to her:

    Lieb' meine, betrŸbe dich nicht zu sehr,

    Die Wahrheit mag niemand verbrennen!

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