Epilogue by Hans Urs von Balthasar
This selection from Scheffler’s almost 1700 couplets is meant first of all as a gift and a help for prayerful reflection and contemplation. Certainly Scheffler is in this work one of the greatest poets of the West; but he writes poetry because he loves God and is enthralled and enraptured by God. Thinking about God and the divine takes him out of himself. God is for him the eternally new wonder. Every grain of divine truth blossoms for him into a tree that reaches to heaven and grows into a magic garden in whose splendor he wanders like a child in a fairy tale.
He is not a melancholic but a troubadour consumed by love. This love is the spark that inflames his art, which is all the more amazing in that it does not portray the song of the heart in its endless outpouring, but only in repeated sudden flashes, since the beloved truth overwhelms anew and as if for the first time, the heart stops and is exposed, for love threatens to destroy.
Whoever does not see this love everywhere is not worthy to read these verses. Here as hardly ever before is art derived from the urgent imperative: Pray!, so that with the sacrifice of reason (in an apparent paradox that cannot be mastered by the understanding) at the same time the highest achievement of reason and of art can be offered to the Beloved. Everything else—the literary influences, the Baroque coloration of the period, the underlying biography—are entirely secondary compared to this. What love has brought to flower is so fresh, so pure, so rich, so true even now, that we, in our barren time should without hesitation reach out for it and immediately make use of it in the way the poet wanted it to be used: as a kind of contagious prayer. We must fall on our knees. For what can we be more thankful for in our harried daily routine than these briefest of signposts to God, which not only direct us to God but provide nourishment for the journey: real bread and wine. And beyond that: a scintillating spirit and beauty and the promise that nothing is more adventuresome and less boring than loving intimacy with God.
Perhaps no great poet has been the object of more empty chatter by literary historians than has Angelus. Perhaps about no one is Paul’s statement more true: “The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.” Starting from a total misunderstanding particularly of the first two parts—which are usually characterized as pantheistic, fanatical, anti-establishment—people rack their brains over how the poet could, one or two years later, could go over to the Catholic Church. They accuse him of having in his breast two completely opposed, irreconcilable souls. They bemoan the fall of such a noble spirit from its sublime intuitions and his descent into a spiritless orthodoxy, worse than the Lutheran orthodoxy from which he sought to flee by his conversion. But then how is it that almost at the same time as the Angelic Pilgrim, that other book, the Soul’s Spiritual Delight [Geistliche Seelenlust, a book of mystical songs], appeared, that stands with both feet planted in Baroque Jesus-mysticism?
We need, briefly, to see two things: First of all, that the Pilgrim is the work in which and with which Scheffler interiorly made his way to the Church: it is a book of conversion from first to last, and absolutely in the first two parts in which are found most of the sayings that sound disconcertingly heterodox to unfamiliar ears. For it is certain that when the young Scheffler was twenty years old, he went to Leyden as a student of medicine and encountered Mennonites and Collegiants [a Dutch sect, offshoot of the Arminians] and came to know Tauler and Böhme. On his return to his Silesian homeland—after he acquired a doctorate in medicine in Catholic Padua—he was in touch with the very lively circles of Boehmian mysticism at that time, which included: Johann Dietrich von Tschesch, for whom religion was pure interiority, surrender of one’s own will, experience of the interior heaven and the interior hell; Daniel Czepko, whose Sexcenta Monadisticha Sapientium clearly inspired Scheffler deeply, both in its form and in its content; Abraham von Franckenberg above all, who strove for a supra-confessional religion based in mysticism, and whose extensive library of mystical works Scheffler used and, after his friend’s death, inherited. But so, what did these friends transmit to him if not—beyond the Lutheran orthodoxy they had rejected—the ancient Catholic heritage, that immense flood, unbroken for a thousand years, in which scholasticism and mysticism, philosophical and theological mysticism, utterly inseparable, battered him in powerful waves?
One must be clear: whoever characterizes the mystic Eckhart as “anti-establishment” [unkirchlich], and sets him against the Eckhart of the Latin writings, the schoolman; whoever splits into two this incredibly unified personality on the basis of prejudices; whoever sets Eckhart against his revered teacher Thomas Aquinas as if the two were irreconcilable; will finally also have to drive Dionysius the Areopagite out of the Catholic Church, who was nevertheless precisely for the great schoolmen the greatest authority of the patristic period next to Augustine. He will, again on the basis of the same prejudices, likewise accuse Scotus Erigena, as a “pantheist”, of being anti-establishment. But then he will have to be clear that with the same accusation he will have to banish Scotus’ major sources, Maximus the Confessor and Gregory of Nyssa, from the Church’s realm. With what right, by what criteria, do these clueless icono- or mytho-clasts lay waste the ancient, holy unity of Church Tradition?
Of course, there has always been in this unity a more Platonic-mystical and a more Aristotelian-scholastic mode of thinking; but how much they enriched each other again and again! As for the mystical current, it flowed uninterrupted within the Catholic Church from antiquity to the Middle Ages. It reached its high point in Eckhart and then through a thousand channels poured into the thirsty soul of the young Angelus. He read Mechtild and Gertrude, Tauler and Bridget, Rulman Merswin, and Sandaeus; and in the Franckenberg library he had access to Ruysbroeck, the German theology, Thomas a Kempis, Staupitz, Boehme, Weigl, Arndt, Sebastian Franck, Paracelsus, and many others. It is true that this mystical current reached him at first through less than recommended, not completely pure river beds. But what did it matter, as the poet’s heart in its Parsifalian purity was the filter that let pass only what was genuine? In fact, we find nowhere in him traces of the murky, almost demonic broodings of Jakob Boehme and Weigl; rather we find at once and everywhere discernment, a return to the great tradition coming from Tauler and Ruysbroeck, and with an unerring grasp he places at the center the central teaching of Meister Eckhart on the soul’s birth in God. (Hugo Rahner has shown how much this itself was again the best tradition of the Church, indeed, even of the primitive Church. See his “Die Gottesgeburt”, Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie, 1935: 333-418, and Alois Dempf’s Meister Eckhart, 1934.) The adoptive sonship of grace is for Eckhart and his sources the creature’s being drawn into the eternal procession of the Son from the Father—by grace!—and again into Mary’s prototypical being as womb [Schoßsein, lit.: womb-being] for the Incarnation of the Son of God on earth. There is nothing pantheistic in all that. Of course, the great Christian mystics have always used the loftiest images and concepts of universal mysticism to express their thoroughly Christian and ecclesial insights; and in using them they (like the theologians, for their part) have correspondingly transcended, exploded, and refashioned them.
Throughout these thousand years there has been in the West a kind of fundamental mystical language and grammar that was coined by Plato and the Stoa, by Plotinus and Proclus, and in a kind of neutrality used in the same way by Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, a harp that still, every time it is touched and plucked by a Christian truly possessed by God, begins to produce music in a new, unmistakably ecclesial way. So it is with Simeon, with the Victorines, with Rupert and Albert, with Eckhart, Seuse, and Ruysbroeck. The young Scheffler entered into this great tradition amazed and overwhelmed: he let it shower him with its gifts, almost indiscriminately; and yet he left his characteristic imprint on everything he appropriated. There is hardly a saying that cannot be substantiated by the Church’s scholastic and mystical tradition; and this holds true precisely for the seemingly most esoteric and disconcerting ones. Let’s take one statement at random:
In hell there is no eternity.
Looked at in reality, eternity is with God,
With the devil in hell, it is an eternal time. (V, 74)
The farther one is from God, the deeper he is in time,
So for those in hell one day is an eternity. (V, 341)
And let us compare it with Thomas Aquinas: “In hell there is no true eternity, but rather time” (S.Th. I, 10, 3 c. et ad 2), where the same reason is given: Only God is eternal. Only by participation in God can a creature be truly eternal; the affinity is strikingly evident. Silesius does not copy; he grasps something and passes on in his own way what he has understood. In this he becomes—finally and authentically—the great reservoir of Western mysticism. For this relationship between the “Angelic Pilgrim” and the earlier Catholic tradition, one can refer to the masterly and still relevant work of C. Seltmann, Angelus Silesius und seine Mystik (Breslau, 1896). Seltmann absolves the author, through parallels with Scripture, the Greek and Latin Fathers, the Schoolmen, and modern theology from every suspicion of heterodox pantheistic tendencies. There is no saying of the poet’s that could not find its justification by this method. The only drawback to this work—which nevertheless does not call into question its conclusions—is that it does not sufficiently include the immediate sources of the Late Middle Ages.
Our selection has brought a very loose order to the poet’s thoughts which themselves—while having a deep inner order—are just as loosely ordered. One can in no way speak of a “system” with him, but neither can one speak of aimlessness and sporadic and superficial aestheticism. This inexhaustible source has solidity and form. In the selection we have consciously bypassed the overly sharp formulations in the first two parts, since—as Silesius himself knew, and as he said in his preface—they can be misunderstood and need clarification and justification, which could, however, from the point of view of Eckhart’s “birth in God”, absolutely give them a fully ecclesial sense. Nevertheless, the reader loses nothing essential without them, since all that is most crucial will become clear in the sayings of our third chapter.
Silesius has provided a couple of very instructive—though casually dispersed—annotations to individual verses. They are not, as some have said, anxious later attempts at an ecclesial meaning; rather they are references to Church sources that are always at hand. For the thought that man must become “a word in the Word”, he refers to Tauler; to show that man must become God in order to apprehend God, to Ruysbroeck; for the prayer of quiet, to the Jesuits Sandaeus and Balthasar Alvarez. More important are the annotations to the two following stanzas:
Man was God’s Life,*
Before I yet was, I was God’s life,*
Therefore has he also given himself entirely for me.
* Jn 1: Quod factum est, in ipso vita erat. [What was made, in him was life.]
The rose, which here your outer eye sees,
Has also blossomed from eternity in God.*
* idealiter [ideally]
The interpretation of the verse from St. John given in the annotation is almost as old as the Church. Handed on by the Fathers, it will be taken up by the Church’s schoolmen and mystics: In God, the primordial Life, things are already essentially alive, before they are established in external existence through creation. Yes, even after they come into being they are more real and more alive in God than they are in themselves and therefore should, in order to be themselves fully and eternally, make every effort to dispossess themselves of themselves in order to find themselves in God. Nevertheless, with respect to existence, this being alive in God is meant idealiter and not realiter; this presupposes, of course, that one does not import man’s frailty to the eternal Thought and Word, but allows the latter to retain its eternal fullness and truth. The truth of our existence—indeed, even our bodily resurrection—will not be dismissedwhen we are exhorted to return from what is outwardly empty and transitory to the silence of eternity, to the place of our eternal birth out of God[A1] , our eternal predestination “in Christ before the foundation of the world” Eph 1).
What is marvelous about Silesius is that in taking up this entire tradition into his fervent soul he does not flee the world but, rather, maintains the tension between the incarnate God and the Communion of Saints, which constitutes the Christian’s fundamental trait, between loving the world and leaving the world, between loving God in himself and loving God in all things. As a student in Padua he wrote three words in a friend’s album: Mundus pulcherrimum nihil, the world is a most beautiful nothing. This remains his experience in The Pilgrim. What constitutes the originality of the book is not his development of the thought, but the inconceivable élan of the heart through which the whole tradition, already gathering dust, once again comes alive as on the first day, with the freshness of an early May morning. All is spontaneous prayer—and what pantheist can then pray? This Christian-mystical world will definitively collapse only in German idealism, where instead of praying one begins “to make poetry and to think” and so also profoundly to misunderstand Scheffler.
His book appeared in Vienna in 1657, with ecclesiastical approval. It was recommended and praised especially by the Jesuits, who clearly recognized in it their own concerns and origins. Did did not Ignatius himself have roots in “Tauler” (his grounding of all devotion in indifference or equanimity; his imitation of the poor Christ; his gazing at the stars, which alone are pure; his daily reading of Thomas à Kempis)? But even Leibniz recognized the value of the poet, and from then on his fame has never faded. He had a profound influence on Arnold and Tersteegen; Friedreich Schelegl made him newly accessible; Hegel, Schopenhauer, Droste, Rückert, Gottfried Keller, and countless others are faithful to him.
But the poet had to pay dearly for his fame, as he certainly could have foreseen. In a way unprecedented in all of history the convert and later priest became a target for mockery, the basest suspicions, slander, and smears in every conceivable form. He did defend himself in many polemical writings, but every stroke was repaid a hundredfold. Moreover the convert and zealous proponent of the Catholic cause was never able to acquire in controversy an ultimate confidence and his own voice. He died in 1677, lonely and impoverished, and left to the world nothing but the cornucopia of his imperishable verse.
To the reader who, after these clarifications, still experiences discomfort with individual sayings, I say that the—typically Baroque—joy of the poet in the Mystery finds expression by dialectically intensifying individually true statements as much as possible, in order to elicit from them a new brilliance, of the utmost content. One should therefore never read one saying without the complementary “counter-saying”, even immersing it in the total context and interpreting the more daring saying by the more measured ones.
Examples of the dialectical form of speech would be: page 12, no. 35 and page 13, no. 36, and also page 85, nos. 15 and 16. [Translator’s note: These refer to poems as they are found in the German original. They will (eventually) be found on this blog as, respectively: Wisdom: 35, 36; The World in God: 15, 16.]
The isolated expressions of “negative theology” such as no. 3 on page 21 [God: 21] and related sayings are found embedded (following the traditional sequence: via positiva, negativa, eminentiae) in many sayings of the same chapter (page 21, no. 2; page 22, nos. 7, 8, etc. [God: 7, 8, 15, etc.]).
The Johannine-Eckhartian sentences on divinization through grace and the “impossibility” of losing it (because grace is eternal life) (page 33, no. 13 [In God’s Son: 13]) find their counterbalance in the strong emphasis on freedom and man’s cooperation (page 35, nos. 28, 29; page 36, no. 35, etc. [In God’s Son: 28, 29, 35]).
Page 43, nos. 3 and 5 [Poor Love: 3, 5] are clarified by nos. 2 and 4. Page 45, no. 18 [Poor Love: 18] is only the intensification of nos. 16 and 17. Page 47, nos. 26 and 29 [Poor Love: 26, 29] need to be read in conjunction with no. 25. Page 49, no. 41 [Poor Love: 41] provides the key for the “divinization sayings”; page 51, no. 49 [Poor Love: 49] is the key for the stress on God’s immanence in the soul. Page 78, no. 32 [Church: 32] is clarified by the following verses; page 79, no. 36 [Church: 36] is clarified by the preceding verses. The sayings on page 87 [The World in God: 25-30] should be read together. Page 89, no. 41 [The World in God: 41] only needs to be taken literally (in the sense of nos. 40 and 42 and it will no longer be disconcerting. Finally, page 90, no. 44 [The World in God: 44] should be taken as a key statement that explains many of the verses surrounding it.