Henry Suso, O.P was a German Dominican friar, best known for his autobiography The Life of Henri Suso by Himself. The religious are apt to classify him as a mystic, but I’m afraid he was no mystic. Or at least if he is, every self harming adolescent is a mystic.
Suso was born Heinrich von Berg, a member of the ruling family of Berg. He was born in the Free imperial city of Überlingen on Lake Constance, on 21 March 1295. Later, out of devotion to his mother, he took her family name, which was Sus (or Süs).
At 13 years of age he was admitted to the novitiate of the Dominican Order at their priory in Constance. After completing that year of probation, he advanced to do his preparatory, philosophical, and theological studies there.
In his autobiography, Suso comes across as hugely sensitive, artistic, temperamental and highly nervous. He loved poetry and the arts, was passionately interested and appreciative of sensuous beauty. One has the impression that if he hadn’t gone into the Church he might have made rather a good – and highly nervous – artist like Michelangelo.
There is every indication that he was also homosexual - a fact which probably became apparent when he was about 13 - the age when many boys start to mature sexually. There are many hints in his autobiography that he was homosexual. He is totally uninterested in women, and at a later point in the book appalled at being accused of fathering a child [an act he appears to be unable to conceive of committing]. His phrasing is also quite telling, he uses words and phrases such as ‘swoons’, ‘cried inwardly’, ‘so greatly did his body suffer in this short rapture’ and ‘heaving great sighs?'
Thus if we think of this in modern day terms, Suso was a young sensitive nervous boy, coming to terms with the fact he was probably homosexual, who loved his mother dearly, who was packed off to a religious institution - possibly partly because there was no indication he would ever marry or be able to look after his father's estates.
The religious institutions in those days were severe. Most very religious people were convinced that illness and misfortune were a consequence of 'sin' and this was a time of considerable illness, as such the preaching must have been particularly forceful and terrifying, laced with hell and demons. The Black Death was sweeping across Europe at a great rate, the number of deaths peaked during Henri's lifetime round about 1346-53. It was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people - 30–60% of Europe's total population. All in all, the plague reduced the world population from an estimated 450 million down to 350–375 million in the 14th century.
There is every indication that Henri was traumatised by the whole experience. He appears to have suffered the entire gamut of psychological trauma from angst to terror, to extreme unhappiness. There was the added problem of his homosexuality, which simply made things even worse. The Catholic church has earned itself a very unfavourable reputation of late in its refusal to admit just how much child abuse - the abuse of young boys - its priests exercise. If child abuse on the scale we see now can go on with boys who are not in a monastery, we can only guess at how much child abuse was prevalent in the monasteries of those days.
Poor Henri's teenage years were a time of absolute horror, a time of appalling tumult and mental torment. Inflicted mental torment, tantamount to torture.
And the end result was that Henri practised self- harm on a scale probably unequalled in the anals of psychology. He described it as a form of ‘purgation’ - so he was trying to purge himself of all the evil and demons that were being inflicted on him. Here we have the psychologist William James describing just some of his acts...........
The Varieties of Religious Experience – William James
And now as a more concrete example… of the irrational extreme to which a psychopathic individual may go in the line of bodily austerity, I will quote the sincere Suso’s account of his own self tortures. Suso, you will remember was one of the 14th century German mystics; his autobiography, written in the third person, is a classic religious document:
“He was in his youth of a temperament full of fire and life; and when this began to make itself felt, it was very grievous to him; and he sought by many devices how he might bring his body into its subjection. He wore for a long time a hair shirt and an iron chain, until the blood ran from him, so that he was obliged to leave them off.
He secretly caused an undergarment to be made for him; and in the undergarment he had strips of leather fixed, into which 150 brass nails, pointed and filed sharp, were driven, and the points of the nails were always turned towards the flesh. He had this garment made very tight, and so arranged as to go round him and fasten in front, in order that it might fit the closer to his body and the pointed nails might be driven into his flesh; and it was high enough to reach upwards to his navel. In this he used to sleep at night.
Now in summer, when it was hot, and he was very tired and ill from his journeyings, or when he held the office of lecturer, he would sometimes, as he lay thus in bonds, and oppressed with toil and tormented by noxious insects [lice], cry aloud and give way to fretfulness and twist round and round in agony as a worm does when run through with a pointed needle.
It often seemed to him as if he were lying upon an ant hill, from the torture caused by the insects; for if he wished to sleep, or when he had fallen asleep, they vied with one another”
There is more…………
The Varieties of Religious Experience – William James
“In winter he suffered very much from the frost.
If he stretched out his feet they lay bare on the floor and froze, if he gathered them up the blood became all on fire in his legs, and this was great pain.
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 intense thirst and his hands tremulous from weakness”.
Self-harm (SH) or deliberate self-harm (DSH) includes self-injury (SI) and self-poisoning and is defined as the intentional, direct injuring of body tissue most often done without suicidal intentions. These terms are used in the more recent literature in an attempt to reach a more neutral terminology. The older literature, especially that which predates the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), almost exclusively refers to self-mutilation.
The most common form of self-harm is skin-cutting but self-harm also covers a wide range of behaviors including, but not limited to, burning, scratching, banging or hitting body parts, interfering with wound healing (dermatillomania), hair-pulling (trichotillomania) and the ingestion of toxic substances or objects. Although suicide is not the intention of self-harm, the relationship between self-harm and suicide is complex, as self-harming behaviour may be potentially life-threatening.
These days Self-harm is listed in the DSM-IV-TR as a symptom of borderline personality disorder. However patients with other diagnoses may also self-harm, including those with depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and several personality disorders.
The motivations for self-harm vary and it may be used to fulfill a number of different functions. These functions include self-harm being used as a coping mechanism which provides temporary relief of intense feelings such as anxiety, depression, stress, emotional numbness or a sense of failure or self-loathing and other mental traits including low self-esteem. Self-harm is often associated with a history of trauma and abuse, including emotional and sexual abuse. Self-harm is most common in adolescence and young adulthood, usually first appearing between the ages of 12 and 24.
Then, as now, the extreme pain and emotion which accompanies self harm of this level results in hallucinations and visions of quite a dramatic nature. Our composers seem to alternate between carrot and stick in the attempt to help us to get better.
Poor Henri had a number of visions and hallucinations that were both designed to give comfort and lessons, but there were no psychotherapists to help him and the fact he remained in the monastery for the rest of his life, meant he was never able to escape the environment that created this torment.
He died in the Free Imperial City of Ulm on 25 January 1366. He was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1831.
The Life of Henri Suso by Himself – Henri Suso
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