Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Excerpt: Saintliness, from the Varieties

For your edification, the account of Suso, a fourteenth-century German monk, as recounted by William James:

"He was in his youth of a temperament full of fire and life...and he sought by many devices how he might bring his body into subjugation. He wore for a long time a hair shirt and an iron chain, until the blood ran from him...He secretly had an undergarment made for him; and in the undergarment he had strips of leather fixed, into which a hundred and fifty brass nails were driven, pointed and filed sharp, and the points of the nails were turned always toward the flesh. In this he used to sleep at night.

Now in summer he would, when it was hot, and he was very tired and ill, and he lay thus in bonds and tormented by insects, cry aloud and give way to he devised something further- two leather loops into which he put his hands, and fastened one on each side of his throat, so that even if his cell had been on fire he could not have helped himself.

This he continued until his arms had become almost tremulous with the strain, then he devised something else: two leather gloves, and a brazier between them, studded with sharp-pointed brass tacks, so that if he should try to throw off the hair undergarment, or relieve himself from the gnawing of the insects, the tacks might then stick into his body. So it came to pass. If ever he sought to help himself, he drove the sharp tacks into his breast, and tore himself, so that his flesh festered.

He continued this exercise for about sixteen years. At the end of this time a messenger of heaven came to tell him God required this of him no longer. Thus he took all these things and threw them into the running stream.

Then in imitation of Christ our Lord, he made himself a cross with thirty protruding iron needles and nails. This he bore on his bare back between his shoulders day and night. The first time that he stretched out this cross upon his back his slender frame was struck by the terror of it, and blunted the nails with a stone. But he then repented of this womanish cowardice and pointed them again with a file, and wore the cross once more.

It made his back, where the bones are, bloody and seared...if anyone touched him unawares, or pushed against his clothes, it tore him. For penitence he devised means of pushing the nails deeper in his flesh by striking the cross.

Also at this time he procured an old castaway door, and he used to lay upon it at night without any bedclothes...hard pea shalks lay in humps under his bed, his arms were locked fast in bonds, the horsehair undergarment was locked round his loins, and he sent up many a sigh to God.

In winter he suffered very much from the frost. If he stretched his feet out they lay bare on the floor and froze. If he gathered them up the blood became fire in his legs and this was exceedingly painful. His feet were full of sores, his legs dropsical, his knees bloody and seared, his loins covered with scars from the horsehair, his body wasted, his mouth parched with thirst, and his hands tremulous with weakness. All this he suffered for Christ our Lord.

It was also his custom, during these twenty five years...never to go after Compline in winter into any warm room, or to the convent stove to warm himself, no matter how cold he might be...Throughout all these years he never took a bath, either a water bath or a sweating bath, and this he did in order to mortify his comfort-seeking body. He practiced during this time such poverty that he would never receive nor touch a penny.

For a considerable time he strove to attain such a high degree of purity that he would neither scratch nor touch any part of his body, save his hands or feet.

It is pleasant to know that after his fortieth year, God conveyed to him through a series of visions that he had sufficiently broken down the natural man, that he might leave these exercises off."


Anne G G said...

Well. Well.

For me, it is not really pleasant to know that God released Suso in his fortieth year. By then his body was doubtless in ruins. Nor is it pleasant to imagine that God released Suso from his nighttime bondage, only to have him impale himself on a thorny cross. I don't personally imagine that God had anything to do with it, though it's difficult to know all the things God might do.

I suppose Suso's notion of purity - the idea that any pleasure of the body or comfort could be sin - is almost lost to us here and now, so it's hard to imagine what drove Suso, or other saints like him.

Of course, the descriptions he gives are actually fairly familiar in the more shadowy parts of our culture - the description of the bondage device in which he slept in particular seemed right at home in the modern context. Except that the people who practice bondage now seem to have the opposite aims - to somehow merge pain and pleasure together and for one to heighten the other.

Did James, a fairly modern man himself, express any detailed opinion about the meaning of all these things? What seems to be his reason for including such a story?

Curious Monk said...

heh. well, i'll have to go over my notes before i remember all of this, but james includes this as the most extreme example of his 'religious psychic unity' thread, so there are many more sane stories.

but the idea is that the saintly psyche doesn't do well with compromise, two threads in the same shirt. he certainly does note that this deep suspicion of physcial comfort is almost certainly lost on us- but we hold the minority opinion here.

most of the world though most of history has linked material comfort with complacency and injustice, as well as physical and moral weakness. we're the only ones who think we can have it both ways.

he also points out that the intermingling of pain and pleasure is NOT a modern view, and was indeed what some of these old saints were talking about, whatever they actually said. it's faily evident from their language, and now especially with our knowledge of endorphins, that that's at least part of what's going on.

i included it, though, for sheer entertainment value. and because even suso doesn't claim that god told him to START any of this. and his allusion to secrecy indicates that even his superiors wouldn't have approved, harsh as their life already was.

the only two times god directly and explicitly intervened were to tell him to put it down. i like that. i actually like that quite a lot. could'a been sooner, i would think, but then god doesn't like a bludgeon.

Anne G G said...

I don't mean, to clarify, that the modern person can't conceive of the idea that material comfort could be sin - though my comments could certainly be taken that way, so sorry for the confusion. I think we can conceive of that, which possibly increases our culpability.

What I specifically mean is that this mindset of Suso seems to see any bodily comfort - salve on a wound, say, or walking on soft dirt rather than spiky gravel - as possibly sinful. We and our contemporaries are disgusting in our opulence, and I won't defend us, but that's not what I mean here.

I was trying to talk this story through with my husband last night, and this is what I came around to mean: that, in contrast with a monk who took a vow of poverty and simplicity, Suso seemed indulgent in his approach. Rather than living in merely material discomfort - taking a vow of poverty and then using his energy and time (otherwise spent on seeking wealth) to do something in the world, all of his energy appears re-directed to this wild project of mortifying the flesh. He uses material (which doubtless wasn't too much, but in percentage of his "income" it was probably a fortune) and time on the project which would otherwise be spent constructively; he spends an enormous portion of his concentration, emotional strength, and physical endurance on the undertaking and its effects.

The question is, what was it for? And I think Suso could have readily supplied an answer; but I doubt it would be an answer that would satisfy me in the slightest way. Conversely, if Suso saw my life and the way that I've chosen to spend it, he would almost certainly spit in the dirt, similarly disgusted by all the waste.

I like your conception of the events more than my own - that God only shows up in the story to say "Enough already!" and not to sanction the acts. But I suppose I'm still confused by a God who would let something like this go on for forty years, and then also show up in person to stop it. Coming so late as it did, the vision seems like a reward for bad behavior.

I assumed this story was included partly for entertainment value. See how with me nothing's entertaining? ;-)

Anne G G said...

Incidentally, hubby responded to my telling of this story by telling his own unsettlingly entertaining story, about a group of Syrian Christians who lived atop pillars and never came down - they lived, slept, and relieved themselves all atop the pillars. If food was not raised up to them, they did not eat.

One of these Syrians was afflicted with horrible boils - but in those boils came a blessing from God. It turned out, according to the story, that by eating the discharge from the boils, this dedicated soul could sustain himself atop the pillar.

Curious Monk said...

now THAT's entertainment. again, i suspect more of this will be sorted out when i do the cliff notes, but suso seems in his account (and that was all james quoting suso talking about himself in the third person, btw)a particularly stubborn man.

i imagine there were many subtler summons which suso ignored or steadfastly misinterpreted. the more i study religious experience, the more it's clear how human it is, and how little god has neccesarily to do with it. god's over here asking something completely different, and we...don't get it.

but this has always been a danger in the ascetic life, that it becomes more about the self in the supreme effort of self-denial than just trying to be right in the world.

i think james and you and i would all say, though, that we could use at least a touch of self-denial.

and in the interest of full disclosure, i will note, here, that it is for reasons kind of ascetic that i haven't owned a bed in years and don't always turn my heat on in the winter. the first thing i did when i became a christian was fast. so i'm not without bias, though i'm still pretty compromising on the air conditioning.

brd said...

I would give Suso a diagnosis and take off the cross and leather straps. Did God have any involvement in this? This description seems to assume the assistance of someone, a servant perhaps?, at his beck and call to fasten leather straps and such. This story has some historic value perhaps, but does it have anything to do with religious experience? I vote, No.

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