Sacred-Texts Christianity Angelus Silesius
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MANY centuries before Frederick the Great's tall grenadiers wrenched Silesia from the grasp of the Austrian queen, Maria Theresa, the German people, by a continuous infiltration of settlers into the wide plain watered by the Oder and its tributaries, had thrust a wedge of Deutschtum into the heart of the Slavonic lands lying to the south-east. Walled in by the high Tarnowitz plateau on the east and the pine-clad peaks of the Riesen Gebirge on the west, the eighteen principalities into which Silesia was parcelled out owned a nominal allegiance first to the kingdom of Poland and then to that of Bohemia; but their sympathies flowed with their rivers and their commerce northwards to the home of the ancestral German stock. From Nuremberg the first impulse of the early Renaissance penetrated up the Oder valley and shortly afterwards from the Warthurg came the Bibles of Luther. The Reformation broke over German Silesia like an inrushing wave. Only in Breslau, the capital city of the province, the powerful prince-bishops still held the fort for the ancient faith.
Lutheranism established itself as the sole recognized faith of the Silesian duchies and rapidly hardened into an orthodoxy as unyielding and intolerant as that which it had recently displaced. Luther, however, had released a spring which immediately reacted with disruptive p. 16 force upon Lutheranism itself. That deep current of vital religion which had manifested itself in the German mystics of the fourteenth century and in those loose associations of spiritually minded laymen known as the Beghards and Brethren of the Free Spirit, driven for a time underground by an angry persecution, once again foamed up to the surface. Perhaps nowhere in Europe was this renaissance of spiritual life outside the pale of the organized churches more vigorous or more adventurous than in the territories of Silesia. The radical tenets of the Anabaptists were welcomed by the common folk of the towns and stamped out only by burnings and banishments. Caspar Schwenkfeld, a scion of a noble family in the duchy of Liegnitz, gained adherents among all classes, and notably among the Silesian nobility, to a purer and more primitive form of Christianity than that of Luther. Here and there in remote country villages "prophets" or Wundermänner, ignorant of the debates of the theologians at Wittenberg or Geneva, but glowing with visions which had surprised them when brooding over their newly translated German Bibles, announced to wondering peasants the proximate end of the world and the advent of the millennium. One of them, a certain cobbler of Görlitz, thinker as well as visionary, hammered out over his last a bizarre but pregnant theosophy which still engages the attention of the world. In the first quarter of the seventeenth century, manuscript copies of the cryptic writings of Jacob Böhme passed from hand to hand in Silesia and opened the eyes of their readers to the divine signature legible in all things.
The aspiration common to all these sectaries, the fanatici Silesiorum as they were termed by the supercilious, was to liberate the spirit of religion from bondage to the letter. They acknowledged no authority, whether of church or synod or even of Scripture, save only the authority of the inward voice. Dismayed by the rigid dogmas and authoritative temper of the new Reformation ecclesiasticism, they sought to revive a freer, less theological, more interior and spiritual type of Christianity. They founded no churches, but grouped together in obscure fellowships they tended in quietness the flame of the spirit, while Catholics and Lutherans contended for thrones and dominions in the long agony of the Thirty Years War.
Such was the spiritual soil in which the author of the Cherubinic Wanderer took root and grew to maturity in the second quarter of the seventeenth century.
Breslau was deemed by the poet, Martin Opitz, writing in the year 1631, to be perhaps the most beautiful of all the German cities. Built originally on a group of islands in the midst of the Oder, it was intersected by numerous streams spanned by graceful bridges. Its forty churches and eleven cloisters, for the most part amazingly lofty constructions of Gothic brickwork, jutted against the skyline a silhouette of crowded spires and pinnacles. As many bells rang from their towers, it was said, as would have sufficed for three cities of equal size. Its Rathaus, with its lavishly ornate balconies and gables, giving expression p. 18 to the extravagant fantasies of the expiring art of the Middle Ages, testified to the wealth of its burghers and their pride in the magnificence of the Silesian capital.
To this flourishing city there came in the early years of the seventeenth century a Polish nobleman, Stanislaus, Lord of Borwicze. As was indicated by his family name of Scheffler, he was of German descent. Born in Kraków in 1562, he had distinguished himself in both the civil and the military service of the Polish crown and had been duly rewarded with the grant of a title and a coat-of-arms. The cause of his self-exile from his native country is unknown; but as the profession of Lutheranism, to which faith he belonged, was still barely tolerated in Poland, it may be conjectured that it was in pursuit of religious liberty that he transferred his residence to a Protestant city.
He brought with him a substantial fortune which he husbanded with care and almost, it would seem, with passion. An incident recorded in a lawsuit arising out of one of his financial transactions throws a gleam of light upon his character. Having made a loan to a prominent citizen who died before its repayment, he demanded restitution from the debtor's daughter. The refusal of the latter to acknowledge the liability threw him into a frenzy of indignation. He appears to have created a violent scene, hurling abuse at the young woman and possibly even striking her or attempting to tear from her shoulders a valuable fur to which he also laid claim. The city council was obliged to intervene in the unseemly quarrel. It decreed the repayment of the loan together with the surrender of the p. 19 disputed fur, but at the same time threatened to inflict a penalty upon the irate creditor for his violence and strictly ordered him to refrain henceforth from molesting the young lady and her family by word or deed.
Shortly after this incident the hot-blooded Polish nobleman, to whom years appear not to have brought discretion, married at the age of sixty-two a young woman some forty years younger than himself, Maria Hennemann, a daughter of a physician to the Imperial Court. The marriage took place in February 1624 and on the following Christmas Day a son was baptised in the Lutheran church of St. Elizabeth by the name of Johannes. Two years later followed the birth of a daughter, Magdalena, and in 1630 that of another son, Christian. In 1637 Stanislaus Scheffler died at the age of seventy-five. A specimen of his handwriting a year before his death indicates no declension of vigour through sickness or old age.
The young wife did not long outlive her septuagenarian husband. The church register which records her death on May 27, 1639, makes a curious mention of her "troubled life." As her husband's fortune must have shielded her from material cares, it may be concluded that the allusion is to some form of physical suffering which shadowed her life and cut it short at a premature age.
Johann Scheffler, destined to become known to fame as Angelus Silesius, was fourteen years old when his mother died. A month before her death she had entered him and his brother Christian at the Elizabeth Gymnasium in Breslau. The awakening of interest in p. 20 German poetry which had been brought about in Silesia by the recently published works of Martin Opitz was reflected in the importance given to poetical composition, not merely in the classical languages but in the German tongue, in the school curriculum. The Gymnasium, moreover, possessed a theatre devoted to the representation of plays and masques by the scholars, in one of which, a Masque of May, it is recorded in a programme still extant that Johann Scheffler played the part of a nightingale. One of his masters, Christoph Köler, with whom he appears to have been on specially friendly terms, was himself a poet of some note and encouraged Johann in the practice of verse-making. The few specimens of his youthful compositions which have survived reveal an early acquired mastery of poetic technique without displaying any considerable originality of thought or expression.
The impression derived from the scanty records of the young Scheffler is that of a talented youth, whose gentle nature won for him the name of "angel," studious, pliant and impressionable, of a disposition that both awakened and responded to affection. Christoph Köler spoke of him as "destined to the highest things."
In his nineteenth year Scheffler matriculated at the university of Strassburg, where he studied medicine and law; but after only one year's residence he proceeded to Leyden. It is probable that the two years which he spent at the Dutch university brought him into contact with those religious dissidents for whom in the first half of the seventeenth century the United p. 21 Provinces offered a refuge from persecution. It was in Amsterdam that the works of Jacob Böhme had been first published in 1642. Sects fermenting with the mystical leaven—Anabaptists, Mennonites, Collegiants—abounded in all the principal towns of Holland. In later life one of his controversial opponents accused Scheffler of having been a "free spirit" and a frequenter of sectarian conventicles, to which he replied, not altogether convincingly, that he did not know to that day where a Mennonite or Anabaptist church was to be found in Leyden. He acknowledged, however, that be had read several of Böhme's works, excusing himself on the ground that "when one is in Holland all sorts of things come one's way"; but he thanked God for it, as they were largely the cause of his coming to a knowledge of the truth.
From Leyden, Johann Scheffler proceeded to the great medical school of Padua; where in 1648 he received the degree of Doctor of Philosophy and Medicine. It is possible that a year elapsed between his departure from the Dutch and his matriculation at the Italian university. His assertion in later life that he had visited various "Catholic localities," having resolved to investigate for himself the charges of false doctrine brought against the Catholic Church may have reference to this period; but what these places were, other than Padua, cannot now be determined. The statement is important, however, as evidencing an early preoccupation with the question of Catholicism.
During all this period we know as little of the p. 22 inner workings of his mind as of the outward manner of his life. Only one illuminating datum remains. In 1649, possibly while he was still at Padua, he wrote in a friend's album or remembrance book this significant sentence: "The World is a very beautiful Nothing" (Mundus pulcherrimum nihil). It was the keythought of his life. It expresses at once his sensitiveness to beauty and his acceptance of the "negative way" of mysticism, an inner discord which he was never able to resolve into harmony.
Although after his departure from Padua we are again without precise information as to Scheffler's movements, various circumstances point to the probability of his return to Breslau. His sister Magdalena was now married to a doctor named Tobias Brückner, who resided at Bernstadt near Breslau and held an appointment as physician to the Duke of Oels. In the preceding December the guardians of the children of Stanislaus Scheffler had disbursed to the elder brother and sister their shares of the paternal inheritance. Johann's portion had been entrusted provisionally to his brother-in-law Brückner, with whom it was natural that be sbould now seek a settlement. The condition of his brother Christian, now in his twentieth year, must also have claimed his attention. From a document of the year 1665 we learn that be was then insane; we may infer, however, that his malady dated back to a much earlier period, since his estate was never made over to him on his coming of age but continued throughout his life to be administered by guardians. It is natural to suppose that during his stay in p. 23 Breslau, Scheffler renewed his friendly intercourse with his old schoolmaster, Christoph Köler. An important significance attaches to this relationship, for Köler was intimately connected with a group of Silesian Protestants who, finding it impossible to nourish their spiritual life upon the dry husks of Lutheran orthodoxy, discovered a richer sustenance in the writings of the pre-Reformation mystics. Scattered among the various Silesian duchies, these friends kept in touch with one another by correspondence and from time to time met together at Breslau. Two of the leaders of the movement, Dietrich von Tschesch and Daniel Czepko, were poets; both were deeply steeped in the thought of the fourteenth-century mystics. Whether Scheffler at this time actually became acquainted with these spiritual reformers cannot be distinctly ascertained, but it cannot be doubted that directly or indirectly he was initiated into their teaching.
In November 1649, thanks undoubtedly to his brother-in-law's influence, Johann Scheffler was appointed Court Physician to the Lutheran Duke Sylvius Nimrod of Würtemberg-Oels. He received an annual salary of 175 thalers and was granted a licence to carry on a private practice within the limits of the Duchy.
When the young physician rode into Oels through the Breslauer Tor after his twenty-mile journey from Breslau he may well have reflected how little either the Catholics or Lutherans of his day were animated p. 24 by the spirit of the religion of peace. Repeatedly cannonaded, stormed and plundered by both parties in the Thirty Years War which had ended only the previous year, the little country town was now scarcely more than a heap of ruins. Its former population of four thousand inhabitants had been reduced to less than half by slaughter, famine and disease. Most of the houses were uninhabitable. The ducal castle at which he presented his credentials, with its steep-pitched roof, its tall octagonal tower, its balconied Renaissance court yard, still stood intact on the outskirts of the town, overlooking a pleasant stretch of water-meadows backed by low wooded hills.
About the time when Scheffler arrived at Oels to take up his appointment at the Court, another and older traveller was returning after a long absence to the town in the neighbourhood of which he had been born fifty-six years before. The friendships which he was destined to make exercised a strong influence on Scheffler's sensitive nature and perhaps afford a clue to the evolution of a character which otherwise presents a baffling problem in psychology. Of him it may be said that there were friends by whom he was saved and friends from whom the pity of it was that he could not be saved. Chief among the former was Abraham von Franckenberg, the man who in the following brief but critical years of his inner development was to guide him in his spiritual wayfaring.
Like Scheffler, Franckenberg belonged to the class p. 25 of the lesser nobility. He rejected, however, the brilliant career which his birth and talents opened up to him and even renounced the inheritance which fell to him as the eldest son, reserving for his own use only one or two rooms in the ancestral castle of Ludwigsdorf, where he gave himself up to a life of study and meditation. He emerged only occasionally from his retirement to minister to the sick in time of plague or to visit a circle of friends who were engaged like himself in the quest for truth. It was on one of these visits that he first met Jacob Böhme, whose writings he had long cherished and some of which he had caused to be printed at his own expense. He was in closest sympathy with the thought of the visionary of Görlitz, and it became one of the chief aims or his life to make it known to the world. He wrote two lives of Böhme, and he it was who undertook the publication of his works at Amsterdam in 1642.
Franckenberg aspired to the most comprehensive world-view which the quasi-scientific knowledge of his day permitted. He availed himself of every key, no matter how questionable its shape, to unlock the universal mystery. He studied the Cabala and was deeply learned in the lore of Alchemy, that semi-mystical system which contained within itself the seeds of an experimental science. He eagerly absorbed the ideas of Giordano Bruno, though not without a certain shrinking from their pantheistic tendencies. In the discoveries of Copernicus he became aware of the melting into infinity of the static universe of medieval tradition, with its fixed spheres and local heaven.
Such freedom of thought, verging indeed upon heresy, necessarily rendered Franckenberg obnoxious to the Lutheran clergy, of whose bigoted dogmatism he on his part only expressed his abhorrence. Rather, however, than embroil himself in a controversy which was repellent to his peace-loving nature he quitted Ludwigsdorf in 1641 and passed the greater part of the next eight years at Danzig, where he was the guest of the astronomer Helvelius. It was from this sojourn that we find him returning home in the early winter of 1649.
If this student of science laboured so hard to win the secrets of the temporal world, it was in order to find through them a doorway into the eternal. The rending of the veil, so dense and yet so fragile, that hangs between the seen and the unseen was the supreme object of his endeavour. The results of his researches never disturbed his faith in the fundamental truth of the Scriptures and the Christian scheme of salvation. If he could not comprehend the whole of the mystery, he was content to hold fast to what he deemed to be the master-truth, the possibility in this life of the perfect union of the soul with God. This union was conditioned not by belief but solely by purity of heart. "God is not the God of Jews and Christians alone," he declared—and the utterance was far from being a colourless truism in mid-seventeenth-century Germany—"but also of the heathen, yea, of all peoples;" and when asked by the Duke Sylvius Nimrod to what faith he belonged, Catholic, Lutheran p. 27 or Calvinist, he replied, "I am the Heart of these religions."1
The effect upon Scheffler's responsive nature of such a personality as that of Abraham von Franckenberg can be conjectured but scarcely overestimated. The mystical doctrine, with which he was already familiar in the writings of Böhme, Czepko and others of the group of Silesian spiritual reformers, was now discovered to him in its operative force in a man of purified character, of breadth of mind and largeness of heart, perfected in self-renunciation. In Franckenberg's portrait we see a man of middle age with thick hair brushed back from a high forehead, short neatly trimmed beard, sensitive and finely modelled features, the gravity of the clear, sad eyes contrasting with an amused and kindly smile. It is a face that combines in a singular harmony the expressions of thoughtfulness, assurance, benevolence and inward peace. It is not difficult to imagine its mobility lit up with the glow of enthusiasm as he conversed with the young doctor in his lonely room at Ludwigsdorf on the matters that lay nearest to his heart—relating his reminiscences of his beloved p. 28 Böhme, speculating upon the mysteries of Alchemy and the Cabala, imparting the astronomical knowledge that he had gained in the observatory at Danzig or unravelling the paradoxes of Eckhart and the Rhineland mystics. And with what burning thoughts must the poet-physician have walked back in the dusk over the low swell of meadow-land beyond which were disclosed the lighted windows and fantastic gables of the castle of Oels!
The positive record of the friendship existing between these two men is to be found in Franckenberg's gift of books to Scheffler and in the moving verses in which the poet commemorated the death of his "dearest friend," which occurred only two-and-a-half years after their simultaneous arrival in Oels. The only worldly possessions in which Franckenberg was wealthy were his books and manuscripts. His library—"a real pharmacy of the soul" he called it—evidences his familiarity with the works of the medieval mystics, his predilection seemingly having been for Tauler and the unknown author of the Theologia Germanica, from whose writings he had compiled an anthology. As indicative of the sources which Scheffler was enabled to draw upon it is of interest to note, apart from the earlier mystical writers, the works of Böhme, Valentine Weigel, Sebastian Franck, Johann Arndt, Paracelsus, Bruno, Reuchlin, Daniel Sudermann and the manuscripts of von Tschesch. Two volumes are still extant which Scheffler rcceived as gifts during his friend's lifetime. One of them consists of the Revelations of St. Gertrude and St. Mechtild bound up with Tauler's p. 29 sermons. That it was highly prized by Scheffler is manifest from the Latin inscription, written in his precise and shapely script and dated March 1652, in which he recorded that he had received it from his "faithful friend Abraham von Franckenberg" and had had it rebound in a new and handsome binding. Another volume, containing Rulwin Merswin's Book of the Nine Rocks and the Revelations of St. Bridget, is filled with cabalistic annotations in Scheffler's hand.
Franckenberg died on June 25, 1652, but his burial in the castle-church of Oels did not take place until six months later. The funeral sermon was preached by the Court Chaplain, Christoph Freytag, who had regarded Franckenberg during his lifetime as a semi-heretical fanatic. On this occasion, however, he repressed his theological hatred and paid his tribute to the well-known virtues of his former enemy.
Shortly afterwards Scheffler published a poem of twenty-eight stanzas in honour of his friend's memory, the first to appear in print since his juvenile compositions. In this noble and moving elegy he stressed the heavenly principles which underlay the nobility of his friend's character and which enabled him, while still in this life, to pass beyond the dominion of chance and time and place into the "state" of eternity, becoming "one spirit, one light, one life with God." Here the central doctrine of mysticism is announced in the boldest terms. The stately march of the alexandrine quatrains, reverberating like the roll of drums, envelops p. 30 the tenderness of the elegy with the firm resonance of a hymn of triumph.1
Franckenberg's death left Scheffler without a companion for his spirit. Doubtless he was not without an outer circle of friends, among them being Johann Dirix, the ducal secretary, for whom about this time he wrote a consolatory poem on the death of a young daughter. Neverthless his close association with the sage of Ludwigsdorf and his final preoccupation with p. 31 alchemical and cabalistic mysteries must have attracted to him the suspicion of the orthodox society of the small town dominated by the pious but narrowly Lutheran Duke Sylvius and his still more bigoted chaplain.
But if in Oels itself he was starved of companionship, he still remained in touch with those friends of the life of the spirit, scattered throughout Silesia, who had looked up to Franckenberg as their spiritual guide. To them Scheffler now turned in his loneliness and conceived the idea of presenting them with a New Year's gift in the form of an anthology of passages from his favourite mystical authors. The censorship of all books printed within the Duchy was in the hands of Christoph Freytag, to whom, as a matter of course the printer submitted Scheffler's anthology for approval. The occasion presented him with an opportunity of marking his disapproval of the mystical trend of the Franckenberg circle. In high-handed fashion he struck out in red ink the passages in which he detected an unorthodox flavour and returned the book to the printer with an unqualified refusal of his imprimatur. With Scheffler himself he declined to enter into any discussion.
Scheffler's reaction to this repulse had swift and unforeseeable consequences. What appears to have shocked him most was the discovery that these extracts from the rapt meditations of Catholic saints, of which his anthology consisted, were obnoxious to Lutheran orthodoxy. In a letter to a friend he freely expressed his bitter opinion of the Lutheran clergy: "What sort p. 32 of a priestly judgement and apostolic procedure this is, I leave each one to judge for himself. I know now exactly what I am to think of them." They were, so he affirmed, "inexperienced and unversed in the whole body of ancient piety and destitute of the true and living theology." The Court Chaplain's censure revealed to him with the harshest clarity what he must long before have more or less dimly recognized, the fact, namely, that the inner faith by which he lived was incompatible with the creed and temper of Lutheranism. For Luther himself he appears never to have had any great love. He was repelled by the strain of coarseness in his nature and by his contempt of asceticism. Although in his early days Luther had come under the spell of the mystics, especially of Tauler and the author of the Theologia Germanica, he reverted later to a rigid and more external theology and exceeded his wonted violence in his attacks on the Schwenkfeldians and kindred sects that laid emphasis on a more mystical interpretation of religion. But in rigidity of creed and anti-mystical bias the Lutheran pastors of the seventeenth century far out-Luthered Luther. As in a flash Freytag's condemnation of his anthology made it vividly clear to Scheffler that the Lutheran Church could never be his spiritual home.
As soon as his resolution was taken, Scheffler acted without hesitation. He left Oels immediately and returned to his native Breslau. There he occupied himself for some months in a study of the works of Catholic apologists. The religious world of Silesia was startled p. 33 to learn that on June 12, 1653, the ex-physician of the Lutheran Court of Oels had been received into the Roman Catholic Church. At his confirmation he assumed the name of Angelus.1
His change of faith at once brought Scheffler into the full blaze of notoriety and was the signal for the outbreak of those venomous attacks of which he was the object throughout his life. At this time religious passions were inflamed by an intensification of the feud between Reformation and Counter-Reformation. In Silesia the Catholic Church was launching a successful offensive movement. The defeat of Frederick of the Palatinate at the battle or the White Mountain in 1620 had weakened the position of Protestantisin in the Silesian duchies. The Jesuits re-establisbed themselves in Breslau. The withdrawal of the Swedish troops at the close of the Thirty Years War cleared the way for a militant campaign, supported by the Emperor, for the restoration of Catholicism. As the road to office and promotion was conditional on communion with Rome, numerous conversions took place which were dictated solely by self-interest. In these circumstances the change of faith of a private individual, which might have passed unregarded in more normal times, was lifted from obscurity into the arena of public p. 34 debate, to be hailed by one party as an addition to its forces and to be reviled by the other as a treasonable desertion.
Scheffler's resolution to embrace Catholicism, so astonishing to his contemporaries, remains still not fully explicable when viewed in perspective. That the immediate cause of his defection from the church of his fathers was the censureship of his mystical anthology, he himself was ready to admit.1 But this incident in itself is not adequate to explain the subsequent orientation of his faith. In order to justify to the world the transfer of his ecclesiastical allegiance—one shrinks from using the word conversion—he drew up a tabulated statement which was published under the title The Fundamental Grounds and Motives of Johann Scheffler's renunciation of Lutheranism and of his profession of the Catholic Religion. This document impresses us not so much as the record of a deep inward experience as a rationalization in logical form of a decision previously determined upon. It is in the main a recapitulation of the stock arguments of the Catholic contraversialists of the day. Scheffler bases his condemnation of Lutheranism, among other grounds, on the novelty and uncertainty of its doctrines and their derivation not from the pure word of God but from the arbitrary judgement of the Reformers; the violent dissensions p. 35 among the Reformers themselves; the rejection of the veneration of the Virgin and the saints; the repudiation of the oral tradition handed down from the Apostles; the corrupt translation of the Lutheran Bible. In point of doctrine the gravamen of his charge falls upon the tenet of justification by faith alone, together with its corollary, the denial of the meritoriousness of good works. If faith be the sole condition of salvation, love becomes a supererogatory virtue, whereas it is the pith and kernel of Scheffler's teaching that love and love alone unlocks the door which admits to the presence chamber of God. His most deep-seated motive appears to be revealed in the article in which he reproaches the exponents of Lutheranism with their "impious rejection of the hidden way, wholly unknown to them, of communion with God (Theologia Mystica) which is the Christian's highest wisdom." At this point his public conversion is intimately linked with the event which was of capital importance in his life.
Although not yet published, it may be regarded as certain that Scheffler had already written the Cherubinic Wanderer before his overt profession of Catholicism. It is evident that the author of this work had already cast off his Lutheran moorings. But it seems no less clear that his voyage was set upon a course that would take him beyond all confessional and ecclesiastical landmarks. It might naturally be supposed that his religious evolution would have led him into closer association with that fellowship of mystically minded Christians into whose society he had been introduced by Franckenberg. It was for his friends p. 36 among the members of this group that he had printed his ill-fated anthology. The poem in which he had given voice to the promptings of his heart suggests that the true goal or his spiritual pilgrimage could be none other than that Cor Religionum which Franckenberg represented—the religion of the spirit whose worship is at neither Rome nor Wittenberg nor Geneva.
In our ignorance of the inner processes of his mind during the year following Franckenberg's death we can do more than hazard a guess at the motives which impelled Scheffler to communion with the Roman Catholic Church. We seem to be on known ground, however, when we point to the profound influence which the Catholic mystics had exercised upon his thought and character. Scheffler cannot but have felt a strong attraction to the church which had produced such men as Eckhart, Tauler, Suso and Ruysbroeck, who had revealed to him the "hidden way of communion with God"; and that the same church was still capable or giving birth to kindred spirits he had the witness or the post-Reformation saints, Teresa and St. John of the Cross. It seems scarcely possible to doubt that it was to Rome as the nursing-mother of the mystics that he surrendered his allegiance.
It was now the hap of Angelus Silesius, as we must henceforth designate the Catholic Scheffler, in his new environment to come under the influence of a man whose temperament and outlook contrasted in almost every respect with those of Abraham von Franckenberg. p. 37 The son of a poor ropemarker, Sebastian von Rostack, now in the prime of life, owed his rapid advancement to the post of Vicar General of the diocese of Breslau to his own natural talents and capacity for tireless industry. As parish priest of Neisse he had shared in all the hardships and dangers of the Thirty Years War and, remaining faithful to his duties when all the municipal authorities had fled, had been taken prisoner by the Swedes and narrowly escaped with his life. Such was his devotion to his flock that in time of plague he was accustomed to place a ladder against those houses the doors of which were sealed up and to climb in through the windows to minister to the sick and dying. On one occasion, when riding alone in the country, he was set upon by two ruffianly troopers. Drawing the sword which even priests were in the habit of carrying in those troubled times, he ran one of his assailants through the body and then, mindful of the duties of his office, leaped off his horse and administered absolution to the victim of his prowess.
Of a stiff and upright carriage—it is one of his chaplains who has sketched his portrait—he walked with a measured gait. From a stern countenance his penetrating eyes looked out with such a burning intensity that even the canons quailed before him. He was not easily amused or moved to laughter. He was quick with his tongue, but never spoke at meals, looking straight before him with a severity of expression that caused a profound uneasiness among his chaplains.
During the winter of 1653-54, Sebastian von Rostock, as a member of the Imperial Commission appointed p. 38 to carry out the "reduction" of the Protestant churches of Silesia, was energetically engaged in the work of the Counter-Reformation. Silesia had been almost wholly lost to Catholicism. Lutheran pastors had taken possession of the churches and had won over the congregations. In only a few parishes a mutilated form of Catholic worship was preserved; married priests said Mass in the German tongue and administered the Eucharist to the laity under both kinds. The Commission, backed by a military escort, went from village to village ejecting the Lutheran pastors and handing over the keys of the churches to newly appointed Catholic priests. The Protestant parishioners greeted them with hoots and jeers or, massed in the churchyard, chorused their defiant Lutheran hymns.
It must have been with mingled feelings of satisfaction and frustration that Sebastian von Rostock returned to Breslau at the conclusion of this campaign. True, no fewer than 254 churches had been wrested out of the hands of the Lutherans, but the zeal of the devout Catholic could scarcely be content with a victory achieved by brute force rather than by the force of conviction. The need of the hour was for a propaganda capable of undermining the principles of the Reformation and winning back the hearts of the people to the faith which they had abandoned.
It was at this juncture that Angelus Silesius came into prominence as an illustrious convert. The shrewd ecclesiastic could not fail to remark that here was a man fitted by a gifted speech and a glowing fervour for the church of his adoption to undertake the work p. 39 of the reconversion of Silesia. As a mark of the esteem in which he was held by the Catholic party in Breslau, Angelus Silesius was appointed, early in 1654, probably at Rostock's instigation, Physician to the Imperial Court. This honour provoked his enemies to attribute his "conversion" to a desire for worldly advancement, a charge which his complete lack of self-interest rendered peculiarly ill-judged. As the appointment was titular only, he lost rather than gained by his transfer from the Court of Oels to that of the Emperor.
Information is lacking as to the earlier development of the relations between the poet and the Vicar General. It was not long, however, before Angelus Silesius confided to Rostock the manuscript of the Cherubinic Wanderer which he had brought with him from Oels. It can scarcely be supposed that the verses of the mystic struck a responsive chord in the stern spirit of the man of action, although his insight must have discerned the steel of the warrior and the ascetic beneath the gentleness of the quietist. No doubt he was informed by their author of his treatment at the hands of Pastor Freytag. It would have been impolitic, to say the least of it, if he had shown as ungracious a welcome to the spiritual wanderer as the churlish doorkeeper of Lutheran orthodoxy. Mystics had a traditional leave to warm themselves at the Catholic hearth, even though at times the mistress of the house might have occasion to reprove them for their freedom of speech. Their dialect, strange though it might sound to the orthodox ear, could still be interpreted according to the grammar of faith. A judicious editing, a p. 40 prefatory gloss, would be enough to warn the unwary reader against a too literal interpretation of the poet's mystical paradoxes. The Vicar General gave his imprimatur. Angelus wrote an Introduction in which the more daring of his speculations were modified and brought into harmony with Catholic teaching. Rostock's imprimatur is dated July 6, 1656, but the work did not appear until the spring of the following year, and then not at Breslau but at Vienna. It is possible that a lingering doubt as to the unimpeachable orthodoxy of the verses led him to prefer that it should not be published within the diocese which he administered.
In the same year another volume of poems from the pen of Angelus Silesius was published, this time in Breslau, and again with the imprimatur of Sebastian von Rostock. The Soul's Holy Delight or Spiritual Pastorals of the Jesus-loving Psyche (Heilige Seelen-Lust oder geistliche Hirten-Lieder der in ihren Jesum verliebten Psyche) was probably of later date than the Cherubinic Wanderer, although from a certain parallelism of expression it may be inferred that in part at least the composition of the two was concurrent.1 In general, however, the p. 41 earlier work may be assumed to reveal the mind of Angelus Silesius before his profession of Catholicism, while the Spiritual Pastorals expresses his emotional attitude during the transitional period and the years immediately following. The two books represent wholly diverse modes of spiritual experience. While the former embodies that mystical apprehension of reality in which creeds are dissolved into metaphor, the latter speaks the language of ecstatic devotion to an incarnate Saviour. It draws its inspiration and its images from a source to which Christian mystics have frequently turned, the love-motive of the Song of Songs. It has, moreover, a close connection with the contemporary pastoral poetry of Germany, the purpose of Angelus Silesius being to adapt the lyrical expression of earthly love to the soul's quest of the heavenly Lover. The opening lines of many of the songs are borrowed from the popular song-writers of the day, whereafter the theme is transposed from the secular to the spiritual key. The book met with popular success and was thrice reprinted before the close of the century. Many of the hymns passed into church hymnals and are sung to this day by Lutheran congregations in Germany.1
In the following years we find Angelus Silesius identifying himself more and more closely with the activities of the Catholic Church in Breslau. He is recorded as the donor of a sum of 200 thalers to the Church of the Holy Cross, the interest on which was to be used to provide for an annual sermon on Shrove p. 42 Tuesday and a distribution of cakes to the poor. He established another foundation for the provision of sermons during Lent at the Convent of St. Clare, evidencing his care for the bodily as well as the spiritual comfort of the nuns by directing that they should be given "a drink of good wine with biscuits of white bread." His name frequently appears in the baptismal registers of the period as godfather to children of poor parentage, whom it is probable that he assisted with financial support.
His zeal for his adopted Church showed itself in his activity in promoting processions. These had been forbidden in Breslau since the Reformation. A Confraternity of the Rosary, of which Angelus was now a member, had formerly been wont to conduct a pilgrimage through the town to the shrine of a saint in the village of Trebnitz. Angelus became the promoter of a movement for the revival of the ancient custom and addressed an appeal to the Emperor to override the ban of the Protestant authorities. He saw in the projected procession not merely an occasion of triumph for the Church but also an opportunity of publicly signalizing his devotion to it. Great as the scandal of his change of faith had been to his former coreligionists, he yet wished to drink the cup of persecution and mockery to the very dregs. He craved to expose himself as a spectacle to men and angels and in some sort to share with his Master the ignominy of a via dolorosa. His exaltation of spirit is clearly indicated in the following memorandum: "1. I wish to carry the Cross through the town with a crown on my head, in order that p. 43 thereby I may become like unto Christ who carried the Cross through the town with a crown of thorns on his most sacred head. 2. That thereby I may thank Christ in act and deed for carrying the Cross for my sake. 3. That thereby I may be dishonoured and despised by all men and before all men, for of this I am worthy, and Christ was dishonoured and despised for me; for the most part will rate me as a fool or deem me greedy of honour, as if in this matter I sought some vain glory, and thus I shall lose much of the esteem in which I was previously held. 4. That thereby I may serve as an example to all godly people. 5. That thereby I may help towards the conversion of the town and of all those who shall have ridiculed me, which is my singular intention. Blessed be God! In the year 1660."
It was not long before he was enabled to gratify his wish. The Emperor granted his appeal and ordered the municipal authoritics to rescind their opposition. On August 22, 1661, the triumph of the Counter-Reformation was signalized by the first procession that had displayed the emblems of the Catholic faith in the streets of Breslau for 135 years. Sebastian von Rostock marched at the head and Angelus Silesius followed, carrying the Cross and crowned with thorns. A few months later the Confraternity organized a procession of the Blessed Sacrament in which he was allotted the honour of carrying the Monstrance.
Shortly before these events, on May 29, 1661, Angelus Silesius had received the ordination to the priesthood. By this time the ardour with which he p. 44 had thrown himself into the external activities of the Church had reacted profoundly upon his inner nature. He himself laments that by the press of external business he had been all unwillingly tom from that state of "spiritual peace and gracious inwardness" in which he had composed the Cherubinic Wanderer and the Spiritual Pastorals. "But the love of Christ compelled me thereto."1 Sebastian von Rostock had the satisfaction of witnessing the transformation of the mystic into the strenuous soldier of the Church Militant here on earth.
The Vicar General had now attained the height of his ambition by being promoted to the episcopal throne. One of his first acts was to appoint Angelus Silesius to the post of Marshal to his princely court. Immediately after his enthronement he set out on a progress through the diocese. In a description of his state entry into Neisse, the town in which he had once officiated as a simple parish priest, we may catch a glimpse of the pageantry over which it was now the business of Angelus Silesius to preside. Heralded by mounted drummers and trumpeters and troops with banners, who in turn were followed by a cavalcade of nobles and a score of coaches conveying prelates and court officials, preceded by his noble page-boys and escorted by his bodyguard in crimson and violet uniform, the Prince-Bishop, "bare-headed and bowing smilingly on all sides," advanced through the narrow streets amid the roar of cannon, the pealing of bells and the cheers of the welcoming populace. Although p. 45 more befitting a temporal than a spiritual ruler, it may be supposed that such pomp and circumstance was not uncongenial to the Court Marshal as assuring him of the revival of the lapsed glories of the Catholic Church in Silesia. Nevertheless the multifarious duties of his office consumed his time and imposed a strain on his weakly constitution, already preyed upon by consumption and undermined by his ascetic austerities. It is possible that the strain may have quickened a natural irritability which it has been suggested that he inherited from his hot-tempered father. Whatever may have been its cause, a sharp dispute with another dignitary of the Court arose out of his discharge of his functions. The affair might have been accommodated, as Angelus himself admitted, by a few friendly words, but he preferred to seize the opportunity to resign a post which doubtless had become irksome to him. The incident, however, did not disturb the amity between himself and the Bishop. It is indeed not unlikely that Rostock himself realized that the zeal and talents of his faithful henchman might be more advantageously employed than in ordering the ceremonies of an episcopal court.
Shortly after his retirement from the office of Court Marshal, Angelus Silesius took up his residence in the Hospice of the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star (Matthiasstift), in whose church he had made his profession of faith as a Catholic more than ten years before. To this quiet cloister on the banks of the Oder, filled with the sound of the lapse of flowing waters, he withdrew not in order to recapture his lost spiritual p. 46 peace but to forge weapons with which to strike at the reeling giant of Lutheranism. In the Church's truceless warfare with heresy he was to prove himself the most unwearying and implacable of combatants. Already in 1663 he had fired his first furious shot in his Türkenschrift or Causes of the Turkish Invasion and Downtreading of the people of God. Christendom was first menaced by the Infidel after it had been seduced by Protestantism, and therefore, so ran his inconsequential argument, post hoc, propter hoc. The tractate served only to inflame the passions of the calumniated Lutherans who demanded its suppression by the Emperor. Unmoved by the storm which he had provoked, Angelus replied by issuing his Christenschrift, in which he pertinaciously reiterated his argument that God's favour to his people was conditional upon their true allegiance to the Church of Rome.
In the succeeding years his controversial activity was tireless. His attacks called forth counter-attacks and these in turn led to still more vigorous assaults upon his assailants. In his tactics he showed himself versatile and resourceful, always alert to seize an advantage by a change of ground or of weapons. Syllogism, persuasion, invective—all arms came ready to his hand. He aimed both high and low. Now he brought his artillery to bear on the fortresses of Lutheran orthodoxy, now he skirmished with the rank and file in the market-place. His earlier writings were signed with his own name, but in later years he made an effective use of anonymity to cloak his identity in a disguise barrowed from the enemy. Sometimes he p. 47 posed as an honest Lutheran perplexed by the internal dissensions within the Reformed churches; sometimes as an unbeliever desirous of becoming a Christian and seeking instruction from Lutheran, Calvinist and Catholic advisers in turn; sometimes as a converted Catholic peasant searchingly cross-questioned by a Lutheran pastor. In order to reach the popular ear he cast his arguments into the form of dialogue, into which he introduced the telling and incisive turns of speech in use among his Silesian countrymen.
In the twelve years between 1663 and 1675, Angelus Silesius contributed to the literary arsenal of the Counter-Reformation no fewer than fifty-five works of a controversial or propagandist nature. In nothing save in their superior literary dexterity are they distinguished from the mass of religious polemical writings of the period. The differences between the rival creeds are seized in their external aspects rather than in their deeper inner significance. We look in vain for a gleam of the spiritual illumination which in the couplets of the Cherubinic Wanderer played like lightning flashes on the far horizon of speculation or for the throb or personal devotion which pulsated in the Spiritual Pastorals. Even if the view be held that he was deliberately adapting his arguments to the lower intellectual level of the crowd, nevertheless it is difficult to resist the conviction that his finer perceptions were becoming blunted in the rough-and-tumble of controversy. His tone noticeably increases in bitterness as the conflict proceeds. Himself acutely sensitive to the abuse of his opponents, he does not shrink from retaliating in kind, p. 48 and if in the earlier stages of the controversy he is outdone in invective by his antagonists, it becomes in course of time no easy matter to determine whether he or they should be awarded the palm in the ignoble art of vituperation.1
The increasing petulance in the accents of the ageing poet was accompanied by an even more painful growth of intolerance. In all his writings the Catholic Church is declared to be the sole repository of a truth inaccessible to human reason, but it is disconcerting to the reader of the Cherubinic Wanderer to find its author affirming that outside the Church there is no Christ and no life-giving Holy Ghost.2 From the doctrine of extra ecclesia nulla salus it is but a short stride to the persuasion that those outside the fold must be driven in, if need be, by the blows of the shepherd's crook. "Who is the mother," Angelus cries, "who would not force her child to the medicine if there were no other cure? Who is he so cruelly gentle who would not use violent means to restrain a man in delirium from flinging himself out of a window?" The argument is familiar in the mouths of persecutors. And Angelus p. 49 Silesius readily persuaded himself that the violence of the means which he demanded should be applied to the conversion of heretics was only the measure of his love for them. Of the success of these methods he seems to have entertained no doubt; compulsion would be necessary only in the first stage—once within the fold the erring sheep would lose the desire for liberty. His excess of zeal was not approved by the more judicious of his allies, whom he on his part reproached with lukewarmness. It cannot but be distressing to reflect that at the very time when Europe was beginning to weary of the long and disastrous fevers of religious hatred Angelus Silesius should have been exerting all his efforts to rekindle the dying fires of intolerance and persecution.
In this period of controversial activity a further development of his poetic talent was hardly to be expected. In 1668 appeared a new and augmented edition of the Spiritual Pastorals. In 1675 the Cherubinic Wanderer also attained its second edition, in which a sixth book was added to the previous five. In the same year a new poetical work was given to the press, The Sensuous Description of the Four Last Things (Sinnliche Beschreibung der vier letzten Dinge). Death, the Last Judgement, the pains of Hell and the joys of Heaven are set forth in a series of pictures whose crude chiaroscuro of tortures and delights is designed alternately to terrify and entice the reader into the practice of holy living. The poet himself seems to be aware of the need of justifying so violent a transposition of spiritual doctrine into a context of uncompromising p. 50 materiality. "We write," he explains in his Preface, "only what we know and what we can think of and what can be represented to the sensual man. As to what blessedness is in itself, it remains true that the eye hath not seen it nor the ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man." Together with this proviso we should no doubt also bear in mind the blunter sensibility to representations of physical suffering which characterized an age that had just emerged from the brutalities of the Thirty Years War. The poem presents itself frankly as an instrument of propaganda and is to be regarded rather as a pendant to the author's controversial literature than as a work of the disinterested imagination.
Nevertheless it bears all too plain evidence of the clouding of the once serene heaven of the poet's mind. The scenes of torture which he depicts with unmixed colours in his description of the Last Judgement, accordant though they may be with traditional representation, seem to have presented themselves with a kind of fascination to his morbid fantasy. Obsessed with the spectre of heresy and frustrated in his campaign for its extermination, he appears to have found an almost sadistic relish in letting his fancy play upon the punishment to be inflicted in a future world upon those who had escaped a merited chastisement in this. His description of the joys of the blessed gives scope for a happier display of his sensitiveness to natural beauties and, in particular, of his love of flowers and birds. His Paradise is no less substantial than his Inferno. It reproduces all the pleasures without any of the p. 51 inconveniences of the lower world, offering a composite and opulent landscape in which autumnal peaches and muscatels ripen side by side with spring daffodils and anemones, while flocks of sheep adorned with fleece of silk instead of wool repose in fields of never-fading clover. The Court of Heaven reduplicates on a grander scale that of a terrestrial prince-bishop, including even a Court Marshal and a corps of "Edelknaben." But the triviality of the Baroque imagery cannot obscure the moral earnestness of the poet. Even the accent of the mystic is heard in the prediction that ultimately all "otherness" will fall away and the very consciousness of self be lost.
Tradition has asserted that in his later years Angelus Silesius burned all the books bequeathed to him by Abraham von Franckenberg. That in his fanatical detestation of heresy he should have destroyed the works of Giordano Bruno, whom the Inquisition had condemned to the stake, is not improbable, and his library of Protestant authors may have suffered a like fate. Others however survived the holocaust, and among them was a Latin version of a work by an anonymous Dutch sixteenth-century writer of a mildly mystical type, entitled Margarita Evangelica. A translation of this book by Angelus Silesius, undertaken at an earlier date, appeared in 1676. In the same year he edited thirty-nine of his controversial tractates, which were issued with a new Introduction under the title of Ecclesiologia. This publication terminated his literary activity.
On June 8, 1671, the episcopal coach waited before the doors of the palace to convey Sebastian von Rostock to Trebnitz where he was to superintend the restoration of yet another Lutheran church to Catholicism. At the last moment an imperial decree cancelling the sequestration was put into his hands. The waiting coach was sent away. On receiving the news of this minor Protestant success the champion of the Counter-Reformation in Silesia was seized by a stroke. Early the following morning the Cathedral Chapter was informed that the Prince-Bishop was dead.
The loss of his friend and protector added to the gloom which gathered round Angelus Silesius in his later years. Isolated from the friends of his youth by his change of faith, tormented by his Protestant adversaries, who clung round him, as he said, like a swarm of hornets and stung him with their poisonous satires, caricatures and lampoons, estranged even from many of his Catholic associates, who were repelled by the extravagance of his proselytizing temper, suffering under a mortal disease, Angelus Silesius was in greater need than ever before of those solaces of friendship which his nature appears always to have demanded. Fortunately his need was fulfilled and a friendship, warmer perhaps than that of the stern Prince-Bishop, cheered the later years of his life.
Bernard Rose, Abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Grüssau and Vicar General of his Order for Silesia, belonged to the circle of Rostock's associates and was one of the most strenuous supporters of the Counter-Reformation movement. It was natural therefore that p. 53 during his visits to Breslau he should have become acquainted with the famous Catholic controversialist and poet. He was in all respects an exemplary prelate, an enthusiastic church builder, a promoter of pilgrimages, enforcing a strict discipline in the monasteries under his rule, himself sharing in his own abbey the common life of the brethren in choir and refectory. Furthermore he was of a warm and generous heart. His abbey was renowned for its hospitality. Its doors were always open to the poor, and needy travellers were richly entertained and sent away laden with gifts.
Grüssau was situated on a spur of the Riesen Gebirge on the borders of Bohemia, some fifty miles south-west of Breslau. Thither Angelus journeyed in spite of his weakness to visit the Abbot. His health suffered from the raw mountain air, but for this the warm welcome that he received more than made amends. Such kindness, he relates, somewhat wistfully perhaps, he had never experienced elsewhere. He was enchanted with all that he saw. The abbey was like heaven and the monks lived like angels. He was moved to tears at the sight of the hundreds of poor children who were fed by the Abbot's bounty. A pilgrimage which took place during his visit roused him, as processions were wont to do, to the highest degree of enthusiasm. "If you had been present," he writes, "you would have beheld with admiration not only the brightly shining paintings or shields, the multitude of burning torches, the worshipful images of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the various costumes of the image bearers and all the rest p. 54 of the furnishing, but you would also have seen him [the Abbot] going on foot the whole way, over hill and down dale, in the midst of his poor subjects, praying and singing with them and scattering alms, so that it is a pity that the whole pageant has not been engraved on copper."
The "poor subjects," Angelus informs us, consisted chiefly of the Abbot's converts, and there were cogent reasons for their conversion, for Bernard Rose was a stringent represser of heresy and employed the threat of imprisonment to purge his territory from the taint of Lutheranism. It was the fervour of their mutual zeal for the reconversion of Silesia that helped to forge the link of their friendship. The Abbot lent the pamphleteer that support of which he had been deprived by the death of Rostock and spurred him to excesses which it is probable that the more statesmanlike Bishop would have restrained. Having lavished in charitable benefactions the considerable fortune which he had inherited, Angelus now lacked the necessary funds for financing the issue of his works. Rose's purse however was at his disposal. The poem of the Four Last Things and the Ecclesiologia were published at his expense, and the latter probably also at his instigation.
More and more as the shadows closed round him, Angelus Silesius turned to Bernard Rose for assistance and sympathy. He was now a dying man, and as he wrote the dedication of the Ecclesiologia to his friend, feared that death would take the pen from his fingers before he had accomplished his task. He was broken, moreover, not only in body but in spirit. Silesia, in spite of his twenty years' warfare, remained stubbornly p. 55 Protestant. His enemies, he states with a naïve surprise, rewarded him for his efforts to warn them of their eternal danger with nothing but ingratitude, hate and persecution. They had even complained of him to the Emperor as a sedition-monger who deserved to have his tongue torn out of his throat. His friends were lukewarm and misunderstood him. Sheltered though he was in his cloistral retirement from the hostility of the outer world, even there he was conscious of a certain aloofness in the attitude of those around him. He speaks of himself, when lying sick to death in the Hospice of St. Matthias, as "forsaken by all other spiritual flower-fragrance or refreshment" save that which came down to him like the breath of roses from the mountains of Grüssau. "You are what you are called—a rose," he wrote to his friend, "a spiritual rose which blossoms through God's grace in the flower-vessel of your body." He regrets that in his Introduction to the Ecclesiologia he has painted his friend's virtues in all too pale and niggardly colours, "but the painter is sick and can neither mix the colours nor guide the brush aright."
These words were written towards the end of March 1677. As though not caring to keep his body alive any longer, he refused almost all nourishment, and to those who saw him appeared scarcely to own a corporal existence. During the last few weeks he declined to admit any visitor, in order that he might not be distracted even for a moment from inward contemplation. Having received the sacraments of Absolution and Extreme Unction with a clear consciousness, be died peacefully on July 9, 1677.
His enemies, implacable to the last, gave out that Angelus Silesius had hanged himself.
The attempt to bring into clear focus the personality of the author of the Cherubinic Wanderer is frustrated by a lack of relevant material. Although as convert, court official, poet and controversialist, Dr. Johann Scheffler was a prominent actor on the public stage of Silesia, and played his part to the accompaniment of some applause and a storm of hisses, his contemporaries have left no records from which we can construct an intimate portrait of the man himself. Daniel Schwartz, the Jesuit Father who pronounced his funeral oration, speaks as a churchman in laudatory terms of the virtues of the deceased priest—his large charity, his rigorous asceticism, his zeal in the defence of orthodoxy—but he is silent upon those features of habit and character which it would most gratify our lay curiosity to be informed of. Nor is the gap in our knowledge filled by any disclosure made by Angelus himself. Little of a private nature remains to us from his hand; only in the preliminaries of his Ecclesiologia does be lift the veil for a moment and allow us a brief glimpse of his personal environment. Our portrait of him, therefore, must be pieced together from inferences drawn from the recorded events of his scanty biography and such autobiographical elements as can be discovered in his published writings.
In his valuable study of the poet, Georg Ellinger emphasizes as the dominant note of his character an p. 57 ungoverned impulsiveness which is presumed to have been inherited from his father, the irascible Polish nobleman. Before such a presumption could be well established, our knowledge, not only of the Lord of Borowisce but also of the laws of heredity, would have to be much more precise than they actually are: sons have a way of disowning as well as reproducing their fathers' distinctive qualities. Nevertheless indications are not wanting that Angelus Silesius was characterized by a certain nervous irritability which made it difficult for him in any course of thought or action to pursue the golden mean. Such a lack of balance and measure may be traced in his quickness to take offence at the action of Pastor Freytag, in his sudden determination to resign the office of Court Marshal rather than compromise a petty quarrel, in his eagerness to exhibit himself to the contempt of his fellow-townsmen in the Catholic processions at Breslau, in the intolerance of his polemical writings and the violence of the measures which he advocated for the extirpation of Protestantism, in the extremity of both his generosity and his asecticism. There was a quality of rashness in his nature which pushed him always to excess. His statement that he composed the first book of the Cherubinic Wanderer in four days announces a capacity for working at fever-heat. His verses give evidence of having been struck out in breathless moments of impulse. They lack the chastening of the file and remain ejaculatory and often contradictory. The habit of his mind impelled him to violence of expression and to neglect of the correlation of his ideas. p. 58 It is understandable that he should have fallen under the spell of Eckhart, whose sentences were marked by an audacity and repudiation of compromise equal to his own. The excessive sweetness of his devotional poetry, with its luxuriance of physical symbolism, betrays a similar absence of restraint in the current of the emotions.
His physical constitution and the circumstances of his upbringing contributed to enhance his sensibility. The child of an elderly father and an ailing mother, he inherited a frail body which was still further weakened by the encroachments of consumption. The fact that he was left an orphan at the age of fourteen is presumptive of the loneliness of his youth, and in later years the habit of solitude seems to have grown upon him. "I flee from the crowd," he remarks in one of his couplets, and it is probable that he himself is the Theophilus of another verse, whom an interlocutor reproaches for being too much alone. A solitary disposition is at once the cause of sensitiveness and the consequence of it. His habit of withdrawal from the world rendered less bearable the roughness of its contacts. The abusiveness of his enemies stung him to the quick and exacerbated the bitterness of his replies. The failure of his friends to adjust their views to his own was interpreted as coldness and became the matter of querulous complaint.
Although it was a part of his religion to deny himself the pleasures of the senses, Angelus Silesius does not appear to have been indifferent to them. His body, he stated in one of his verses, was his dearest friend as well as his greatest enemy. Parting from it would be p. 59 pain. Many of his verses open with a confession of delight: "Beauty I dearly love," "I love to see roses," "I love to hear trumpets." "The figure of the world," he exclaims, "is full of splendour." He makes a constant use of flowers in his poetic imagery. His employment of them goes beyond the conventionalism of the religious poet, to whom lilies are all but lifeless metaphors for purity and virginity; in an age of formalism, when admittance to the dignity of poetic mention was almost confined to the lily and the rose, he lingers lovingly over the names of the wilder varieties. His repeatedly expressed wish that his heart might be like "a vase full of flowers" could come naturally only to one to whom such an object was familiar and delightful. Nevertheless he finds it scarcely permissible to rest his satisfaction in the fugitive beauty of the objects of sense and to enjoy them for their own sakes, but must refer them to their moral significance. He loves roses, he says, because they blossom for themselves alone and care not whether they are seen of any eye, and he takes for a type of sinlessness the "dumb flowers" which never pretend to be other than they are. The unhappy doctrine, which he seems to have shared with almost all the medieval mystics, that the eye or the soul could only perform its function when the eye of sense was closed, thwarted the development of his esthetic perceptivity.
Angelus Silesius was more than usually pliant to the radiations of a dominating personality. The important part played in his life by his friendships has already been remarked upon. Of these there can be p. 60 no doubt that his relationship with Franckenberg was the most intimate and the most fruitful. The period of his sojourn at Oels witnessed the blossoming-time of his spirit and of his poetical activity, and it is scarcely too much to say that but for Franckenberg the Cherubinic Wanderer would never have been written. Rostock's militant zeal precluded a disinterested friendship; for him Angelus was a tool to be used for the furtherance of impersonal ends. Bernard Rose's warmth of affection was accompanied by an illiberal influence which still further deflected the mind of the poet from its earlier serenity. Throughout all his literary activity Angelus reveals the same eager receptiveness to suggestion. There is little that is strictly original in either the form or the substance of his work, but building on the foundations of others he was frequently successful, by a quickness of sympathetic insight, in perfecting a design which the original authors had left unfinished.
Angelus Silesius sums up the long mystical tradition of Germany, and yet it remains to be asked to what extent he himself was the recipient of the authentic mystical experience. Was the ecstatic union of which he speaks the central fact of his spiritual life, or did he merely crystallize in scintillating phrases the reports of others? The fact that almost all his more pregnant utterances are transcriptions of passages which may be discovered in the writings of the older mystical authors suggests a deficiency in the fountains of inward experience. He views the promised land but seems to describe it in terms of hope and anticipation. A sympathetic imagination enabled him to decipher the p. 61 mystical code, but the message itself appears to have been communicated from without rather than to have been received from within.
It is in fact impossible, in a close attention to his voice, not to be aware of a note of defeat, perhaps even of despair. His reiterated Alas! Alas! voices a sense of unfulfilment. He has not yet succeeded in finding the central point of that Eternity into which he so ardently yearns to pass. He seeks but has not found the secret of Eternal Rest. He is himself the wheel that runs of itself and knows never any peace. He is in conflict with himself. "I love and hate myself. I make war upon myself. To get the victory over myself I use force and practise strategy. I batter and kill myself. I do all that I can to be myself no longer I."1 This is the language of tortured endeavour, not of attained peace. Such assertions as "I am as great as God," "I am as rich as God," owe their triumphant resonance to a logic of mysticism that was proved to the intellect rather than upon the heart. Transposed into the mode of Baroque, the Gothic sentences of Eckhart sometimes give out a brittle, staccato note; Angelus Silesius fails to reproduce the deep sonority, the massive groundswell of conviction, that sweeps through the sermons of the Rhineland master.
The assured voices of the mystics telling of the peace that follows the stilling of the insistent clamour of the restless, desiring, anxious, personal I, came to Angelus with a promise of deliverance from the strain and turbulence of the life of impulse. Merged in the p. 62 waveless ocean of Deity, asleep in the dark night of the Absolute, he would be freed at last from the fret of sensibility and the ache of an unsatisfied craving for love. But this effort of supreme abandonment was not within his power. At that altitude where the familiar world recedes into a concernless unreality the atmosphere was too frigid and rarefied for him to breathe. Not the impassive serenity of an unknowable Godhead but the love of a known and personal God alone could fill his being with light and warmth. And so be turned for the satisfaction of his emotional needs to the human figure of a divine Person. In the Cherubinic Wanderer the scenes of Bethlehem and Calvary, the images of the Virgin and the saints, already propitiate the eye that is baffled in its endeavour to penetrate into the void of the Divine Darkness. To the Cherubinic Wanderer succeeded the Spiritual Pastorals of the Psyche in love with her Jesus, in which the soul seeks and finds a Lover with a distinguishable form. Angelus Silesius aspired after an ineffable union in which the self loses its sense of distinction, but he convinces us of an experienced rapture rather when he relates his encounter with the loving Shepherd, his adorable Jesulein. The Catholic Church, with its personalization of the Divine, its human and heavenly society, beckoned him like a grateful hearth at which he could warm his spirit chilled with its wanderings in the "Silent Wilderness where no one is at home."
Yet in the end it may be doubted whether the promises of the Catholic Church were crowned with a more satisfactory fulfilment than those of the via p. 63 negativa of mysticism. Stronger natures than his own availed themselves of the ardour of the convert and urged him into the arena of controversial strife. Angelus found himself caught up in the machinery of the Counter-Reformation. As the peace which he sought eluded him, he endeavoured to recapture it by a more desperate devotion to the cause in which he had enlisted. "Fanaticism," it has been said, "consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim."1 Angelus Silesius never forgot his first aim, which was the conquest of the Kingdom of Heaven, but he spent his best energies in the service of a secondary one, the conquest of Protestant Silesia.
It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the life of Angelus Silesius conceals an inner tragedy. It might perhaps be suggested that the tragedy was occasioned by his submission to Catholicism, and yet under happier circumstances he might have found peace for his spirit in the Church which Tauler, Suso and Ruysbroeck clung to and which even Eckhart did not abandon. It was his misfortune to have been received into the Church at a moment when the Church's militancy was most sharply accentuated. The need of the hour, at any rate in Silesia, was not for contemplatives but for combatants. It seems clear that if, at the moment when he rejected and was rejected by Lutheranism, Angelus had been true to his deepest self, be would have followed the way leading to spiritual freedom, even though it had led him into solitary places. Had Franckenberg lived it is possible to surmise that the p. 64 Church would have been deprived of one of her most illustrious converts. But Angelus was not strong enough to stand alone. Dependent, clinging, responsive, his nature craved the support of an authority to which he could sacrifice himself, and in this sacrifice of his true self consisted the tragedy of his life.
In the cloister of the Merciful Brethren at Breslau hangs a portrait in oils of Angelus Silesius painted in the last years of his life. The wasted cheeks are of an ashen hue. A thin black moustache droops round the corners of the close-shut mouth, below which clings a tuft of beard. The dome of the forehead recedes into the shadow of the dark hair enclosed in a velvet cap. Beneath the lifted eyebrows and falling eyelids the mournful eyes are fixed in a gaze which seems to rest upon its object without interest, as though what it saw was but a hallucination scarcely worthy of serious concern. A vertical furrow above the springing of the thin aquiline nose indicates suffering and perplexity. One hand rests upon a book, the other hangs downwards nervelessly. The frail hunched form has a vague suggestion of pain. In the compressed grey lips, the faded bitter smile, the steady but incurious gaze, it is not impossible to detect the imprint of a spirit whose sympathy has been frozen by chilling and fore-concluded judgements. But above all, the expression communicates a sense of strain and disillusionment, as of one who had toiled and suffered without enjoying the fruition of his labours, and had tasted the bitterness of defeat, yet with an unpersuadable refusal to acknowledge himself to be defeated.
1 This reply recalls the epigrammatic verse of the contemporary Silesian poet, Friedrich von Logau:
|Luthrisch, päbstisch, und calvinisch,|
diese Glauben alle drey
Sind vorhanden; doch ist Zweifel
wo das Christenthum denn sey?
(Lutheran, Papist and Calvinist, these three faiths we know; but the question is, where is Christianity?)
1 The poem culminates in an impressive final stanza:
|Wer Zeit nunmt ohne Zeit und Sorgen ohne Sorgen,|
Wem gestern war wie heut' und heute gilt wie morgen,
Wer alles gleiche schätzt, der tritt schon in der Zeit
In den gewunschten Stand der lieben Ewigkeit.
(Who takes Time and Care as if Time and Care were not, whose Yesterday was as To-day and whose To-day is as To-morrow, who values all things alike, he enters even now in the midst of time into the longed-for state of happy eternity.)
The thought echoes that of Böhme in a verse which Franckenberg recorded in the second of his biographies:
|Wem Zeit ist wie Ewingkeit|
Und Ewigkeit wie Zeit,
Der is befreit von allem Streit.
(He to whom Time is as Eternity and Eternity as Time is freed from all conflict.)
There may also be an echo from à Kempis, who in Book III, Chapter XXVI, of the Imitation noted among the marks of a perfect man the ability to pass throught many cares as if without a care—inter multas curas quasi sine cura transire.
1 According to one authority the choice of this name was due to Scheffler's esteem of a Spanish mystical writer, Johannes ab Angelis, author of Los Triunfos del Amor. In his funeral sermon, however, the Jesuit Daniel Schwartz stated that the allusion was to the name of "Angel" by which he was known in his childhood. The addition of Silesius serves to distinguish him from a contemporary Lutheran theologian, Johannes Angelus of Darmstadt.
1 "Diese [the excerpts from the prayers of the saints inctuded in the anthology] ob zwar die Urheber drüber stunden, schalt der dahmalige Hoff prediger für Enthusiastisch. Welches mir denn den letzten Stoss gab, dem Lutherthum gram zu werden." Verthädigten Lutherischen Wahrheit, 1665.
1 A comparison of the verses at the beginning of Book IV of the Cherubinic Wanderer with those of Book of the Spiritual Pastorals suggests many cross-references. Thus a verse (iv. 3) of the Cherubinic Wanderer begins as follows:
|Ich habe dich, mein Kind, du zarter Nazarener,|
Den Lilien oft vergleicht.
No such comparison is to be found in the preceding book, but in i. 12 of the Spiritual Pastorols we read:
|Sagt an, ihr Lilien und Narzissen,|
Wo ist das zarte Lilien-Kind?
1 The best known are "Mir nach, spricht Christus, unser Reid" and "Auf, auf, O Seel, auf, auf, zum Streit."
1 Preface to Ecclesiologia, 1676.
1 Among the theologians of the day the schoolboy amenity of discovering an unpleasant allusion in an adversary's surname was much in vogue. Thus Scheffler is nicknamed Schneffler or Schefflermaul. He retorts by addressing a theologian of the name of Hunnius as a "totes Huhn." It may be recalled that Luther was not above referring to the saintly Schwenkfeld as "Stenkfeld."
2 Ausser der Kirche Christi, die nur die eine und einzige, ist kein Christus . . . ausser ihr macht auch der heilige Geist niemanden lebendig. (Alleiniges Himmelbreich. 1675.)
1 Cherubinic Wanderer, iii. 229.
1 G. Santayana, Reason in Commonsense.