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Silesius

Category: Poet

 

Angelus Silesius (c. 1624 – 9 July 1677), born Johann Scheffler and also known as Johann Angelus Silesius, was a German Catholic priest, physician and poet.

He was not a mystic, as some seem to think, why will become clear shortly.  But he did have numerous hallucinations and ‘visions’ which had a great effect upon him and from which his poetry appears to have been derived.   

Born and raised a Lutheran, Silesius's beliefs caused considerable tension between him and Lutheran authorities and led to his eventual conversion to Catholicism. He converted to Catholicism in 1653, took holy orders under the Franciscans and was ordained a priest in 1661.  Ten years later, in 1671, he retired to a Jesuit house where he remained for the rest of his life.

 

 

O blossom, blossom, frozen soul!
May is abroad before thy door.
If thou dost blossom not to-day
Then art thou dead for evermore

 

Works

Silesius produced poems, but after his conversion, he also produced ‘religious propaganda’.

Religious propaganda

Silesius ended up being a somewhat ‘enthusiastic’ convert to Catholicism, some might call him a fanatic.  In fact, some of the titles of his propaganda almost persuaded us not to include him, for example:

  • Kehr-Wisch Zu Abkehrung des Ungeziefers Mit welchem seine wolgemeinte Tückenschrifft Christianus Chemmtis hat wollen verhast machen. (trans. "A Sweeping conversion of the Vermin which Christ would want to make with his well-intentioned trickery")
  • Hierothei Boranowsky Gerechtfertigter Gewissens-Zwang Oder Erweiß daß man die Ketzer zum wahren Glauben zwingen könne und solle. (trans. Boranowsky's The Justified Coercion of Conscience, or the knowledge of what could and should force heretics to the true faith")
  • Johannis Schefflers Alleiniges Him[m]elreich Das ist Abweisung Des schädlichen Wahns daß man wol Seelig werden könne wenn man gleich nicht Catholisch wird. (trans. "Johann Scheffler's The Kingdom of Heaven alone rejects the harmful delusion that you can be saved if you are not Catholic")
  • Johannis Schefflers Gründliche Außführung Daß die Lutheraner auf keine weise noch wege ihren Glauben in der Schrifft zu zeigen vermögen und ihr Gott ein blosser Wahn Bild oder Ding ihrer Vernunfft sey. (trans. "A thorough handling that the Lutherans have no routes to their faith in the Scriptures to show their God as either a mere hallucination or a thing of reason")
 
 

Their God?!  Coercion?  Vermin? 

No mystic would ever write this sort of nonsense.

Most of the propaganda is intended to convince German Protestants in Silesia to return to the Roman Catholic Church. He composed 55 tracts and pamphlets condemning Protestantism, several of which were published in two folio volumes entitled Ecclesiologia (trans. "The Words of the Church").  

This is not suited to our site, which is based on unity and not division, love and not hate, and certainly not propaganda. 

 

But his poetry is much softer and more subtle, it is indeed ‘mystical’ in content with a considerable use of symbolism. 

This leaves us with an enigma - there almost appear to be two Silesiuses.  One wrote fanatical rubbish of no interest whatsoever, the other beautiful subtle poetry. 

There have been hypotheses that he was ‘simple’  and his simplicity enabled him to write inspired poetry, but it also made him open to manipulation.   Flitch, (vide infra) states that Silesius had a brother, Christian (b. 1630), who was either "feeble minded" or mentally ill.  We will explore this hypothesis shortly.

Love unannounced goes in to God,
 Hath instant audience:
Long in the antechamber wait
 Wit and intelligence.

Poetry

Silesius produced two poetical works, both published in 1657: Heilige Seelenlust (literally, "The Soul's Holy Desires"), a collection of more than 200 religious hymn texts that have been used by Catholics and Protestants; and Der Cherubinischer Wandersmann ("The Cherubinic Pilgrim"), a collection of 1,676 short poems, mostly Alexandrine couplets.

Although many do not realise it, a number of the hymns from Heilige Seelenlust were translated by a Miss Winkworth and became part of the standard English hymn books, although the source of them is rarely mentioned.

Both his poetical works are of interest, but the poems in the Cherubinic pilgrim lend themselves well to this site being very punchy and full of symbolism and metaphysical meaning.

I disbelieve in Death. Hourly I die—what then?
To new and better Life hourly I rise again.

Life

 

Silesius was born in Breslau, the capital of Silesia.  At the time, Silesia was a German-speaking province of the Habsburg Empire. Today, it is the southwestern region of Poland.

Baptized Johann Scheffler, he was the first of three children. His parents were Lutheran. His father, Stanislaus Scheffler (c. 1562-1637), was of Polish ancestry and was a member of the lower nobility. Stanislaus had dedicated his life to the military and had been made Lord of Borowice (or Vorwicze) and received a knighthood from King Sigismund III. A few years before his son's birth, he had retired from military service in Kraków. In 1624, he was 62.

The child's mother, Maria Hennemann (c. 1600-1639), was the 24-year-old daughter of a local physician.

Silesius’s exact birth date is unknown.  The earliest mention of him is the registration of his baptism on Christmas Day, 25 December 1624.  His parents married in February 1624.

Who is the greatest saint? He who is most in love.
For saintship Love alone is warranty enough

Early life

Scheffler obtained his early education at the Elisabethsgymnasium (Saint Elizabeth's Gymnasium, or high school) in Breslau. His earliest poems were written and published during these formative years.

He subsequently studied medicine and science at the University of Strasbourg (or Strassburg) in Alsace for a year in 1643. It was a Lutheran university with a course of study that embraced Renaissance humanism. From 1644 to 1647, he attended Leiden University. At this time, he was introduced to the writings of Jacob Böhme (1575-1624) and became acquainted with one of Böhme's friends, Abraham von Franckenberg (1593-1652), who “probably introduced him to ancient Kabbalist writings, alchemy, and hermeticism, and to mystic writers living in Amsterdam.” Franckenberg had been compiling a complete edition of Böhme's work at the time Scheffler resided in the Netherlands.

Scheffler then went to Italy and enrolled in studies at the University of Padua in September 1647. A year later, he received a doctoral degree in philosophy and medicine and returned to his homeland. 

Nowise dost thou inhabit Place,
 Place doth inhabit thee.
Cast Place away!—then now and here
 Standeth Eternity.

Physician

On 3 November 1649, Scheffler was appointed to be the court physician to Silvius I Nimrod, Duke of Württemberg-Oels (1622-1664).  Abraham von Franckenberg, is said to have arranged the appointment given his closeness to the Duke. Franckenberg was the son of a minor noble from the village of Ludwigsdorf near Oels within the duchy.

Scheffler found himself unhappy in his position as his newly acquired critical views on Lutheran doctrine caused friction with the Duke and members of the ducal court. His views may even have been strengthened as a result of the Duke, who was characterized as being "a zealous Lutheran and very bigoted."

 

 

 

From but one thing my all of Weal,
My all of Peace doth spring;
Though losing much upon the way,
I run with haste to this One Thing

 

The start of the visions

It was at this time that Scheffler began to have visions, which along with his public pronouncements led local Lutheran clergy to consider him a heretic. After Franckenberg's death in June 1652, Scheffler resigned his position—he may have been forced to resign—and sought refuge under the protection of the Roman Catholic Church.

Protestant authorities attacked and denounced Silesius in print for his beliefs, depicting him as a “peddler of potions, rosaries, gambling cards and dice, spectacles, and other immoral wares.”

The visions appear to have been quite profound. 

Silesius maintained with Tauler that the sanctified soul can attain such an intimate union with the Divine essence as to become quite penetrated, transformed, one with it, and so become by grace what God is by nature…. He said that the way by which one returns to fellowship with God, whose essence is love, is by silent contemplation of God, self denial and renunciation of wordly goods, perfect resignation and devotion to Divine Love.

Ecstasy, nirvana.

Nevertheless, despite his use of contemplation and detachment, it is interesting to speculate what brought the visions, especially given his Jeckel and Hyde character.

 

 

 

Go, where thou canst not go;
see, where light never breaks;

Hear, where no sound is heard:
then art thou where God speaks

 

 

Lead

The German nation as a whole were the victims of severe lead poisoning for several hundred years; their sweet wines were laced with lead based sweeteners, their water pipes were lead, their plates and drinking vessels were lead based [pewter]. 

The poor were less exposed to this poisoning, but the wealthy were exposed and Silesius came from a wealthy family. Lead poisoning can produce some rather spectacular brain damage and as a consequence visions of all sorts.  It also results in anger – Heinrich Heine was angry, Nietzsche was angry, even Beethoven was angry.

 

 When the word ‘mad’ is used it is very appropriate, as it describes the condition all too well.  The later fanatic angry diatribes are well in keeping with this kind of madness.  It seems the Duke of Württemberg-Oels was also ‘mad’, indicating that the environment in which Silesius found himself was extremely conducive to lead poisoning.  The brain damage is permanent.

For us this explanation seems the most solid, especially as his brother also became as ‘mad’ as he was.

The nearest way to God
through Love’s door aye doth go;
the progress on the way
of science aye is slow

Escape to Catholicism

The Lutheran authorities in the Reformed states of the Empire were even less tolerant of Scheffler's beliefs and he was publicly attacked and denounced as a heretic. At this time, the Habsburg rulers (who were Catholic) were pushing for a Counter Reformation and advocated a re-Catholicisation of Europe.

Scheffler escaped and sought to convert to Catholicism.  He was received by the Church of Saint Matthias in Breslau on 12 June 1653. Upon being received, he took the name Angelus, the Latin form of "angel", derived from the Greek ángelos (ἄγγελος, "messenger"); for his epithet, he took Silesius (Latin for "Silesian").  He no longer used the name Scheffler, but did on occasion use his first name, Johann. From 1653 until his death, he used the names Angelus Silesius and also Johann Angelus Silesius.

Shortly after his conversion, on 24 March 1654, Silesius received an appointment as Imperial Court Physician to Ferdinand III, the Holy Roman Emperor. However, this was probably an honorary position to offer some official protection against Lutheran attackers, as Silesius never went to Vienna to serve the Imperial Court. It is very likely that he never practiced medicine again.

 

 

 

Alas, Alas, Love's dead!
How came she then to die?

She perished of the cold,
for all men passed her by

 

 

Poetry

In the late 1650s, he sought permission (a nihil obstat or imprimatur) from Catholic authorities in Vienna and Breslau to begin publishing his poetry.  He had begun writing poetry at an early age, publishing a few occasional pieces when a schoolboy in 1641 and 1642.

He attempted to publish poetry while working for the Duke of Württemberg-Oels, but was refused permission by the Duke's orthodox Lutheran court clergyman, Christoph Freitag. However, in 1657, after obtaining the approval of the Catholic Church, two collections of his poems were published—the works for which he is known—Heilige Seelenlust ("The Soul's Holy Desire") and Der Cherubinische Wandersmann ("The Cherubinic Pilgrim").

Many of the maxims were, according to Silesius himself, ‘given’ to him in his spiritual experiences.  One assumes this is why they were so short and originally so haphazard in organisation on first publication.  It was only later that he attempted to put some order into them arranging them by subject matter.  Silesius himself said that the original order was retained ‘on the grounds that the maxims were thus given to him by the Giver of all Good’.

Love is the measure of the heart's Felicity;
The more 'tis filled with Love, the happier thou wilt be

Taking orders

On 27 February 1661, Silesius took holy orders as a Franciscan. Three months later, he was ordained a priest in the Silesian Duchy of Neisse—an area of successful re-Catholicisation and one of two ecclesiastical states within the region (that is, ruled by a Prince-Bishop).

When his friend Sebastian von Rostock (1607-1671) became Prince-Bishop of Breslau, Silesius was appointed his Rath und Hofmarschall (a counselor and Chamberlain).

By this time he was showing definite signs of insanity. 

Meanwhile he displayed his zeal in a different manner.  He joined in a pilgrimage to the convent of Trebnitz, three German miles from Breslau.  He walked in front with a torch in his left hand, a crucifix in his right and a crown of thorns on his head.  Something appears to have occurred on this pilgrimage which resulted in more reproaches and gave occasion for the writing of squibs in which his character was attacked.

 

It was during this time, and not long before he died that he began publishing the fifty tracts attacking Lutheranism and the Protestant Reformation. Thirty-nine of these essays he later compiled into a two-volume folio collection entitled Ecclesiologia (1676).  He was only 53 when he died, which rather indicates he was very ill at this time.  If the cause was lead poisoning, he would have been in great pain, with visions of a none too pleasant nature.  And despite his physician training, just like the doctors of today, he would have had no idea what was causing the problems.

And just like the physicians of today, he would have likely been prescribed ‘medicines’ that attempted to treat the symptoms and not the cause, medicines which [as today] might well have made it worse.

Die ere thou diest—dying, then thou diest not:
Die not—perchance then, dying, thou shalt die and rot.

Death

After the death of the Prince-Bishop of Breslau in 1671, Silesius retired to the Hospice of the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star (the Matthiasstift), a Jesuit house associated with the church of Saint Matthias at Breslau.  It would appear that by this time he was quite mad.

His third poetical work appeared in 1673.  It is entitled ‘A sensuous representation of the four last things’.  It abounds in blemishes of taste, is often very coarse and is still more frequently trivial.  It also abounds in excessive zeal and an excess of material similitudes.  The deterioration in the quality of his poetry is tragic.  The book covers – Death, The Last Judgement, The eternal misery of the Damned and the Joys of the Blessed.

By the end of his life even the staunchest of his friends and supporters had abandoned him, embarrassed and shocked by his fanatical ranting. He became paranoic.

According to his doctors, he died from a "wasting sickness."  Franckenberg, Silesius’s friend who had died in June 1652 had died ‘after prolonged suffering’ and Silesius’s last years were:

passed in the solitude of the cloister amid much bodily suffering.  He took little food.  During his last weeks he permitted no one to approach him.  He died on July 1677,  after prolonged bodily weakness, fifty three years old.

Immediately after news of his death spread, several of his Protestant detractors spread the untrue rumor that Silesius had hanged himself. By his Will, he distributed his fortune, largely inherited from his father's noble estate, to pious and charitable institutions, including orphanages.

Who time takes without time
And sorrow without sorrow
To whom as now was yesterday
And as today’s tomorrow
Who values all alike
E’en now in time is he
In the desired estate
Of calm eternity

 

References

  • 1657: Heilige Seelenlust, oder geistliche Hirtenlieder der in ihren Jesum verliebten Psyche (trans. "The Soul's Holy Desires, or the Spiritual Songs of the Shepherd in your Christ-loving Spirit")
  • 1657: Geistreiche Sinn-und-Schlussreime zur göttlichen Beschaulichkeit (trans. "Ingenious Aphorisms in End-Rhymes to Divine Tranquility", or "Witty Aphorisms in End-Rhymes to Divine Tranquility") renamed in the 2nd edition (1674) to Der Cherbinische Wandersmann (trans. "The Cherubinic Pilgrim")
  • 1642: Bonus Consiliarius (trans. The Good Counselor)
  • 1675: Sinnliche Beschreibung der vier letzten Dinge, zu heilsamen Schröken und Auffmunterung aller Menschen inn Druck gegeben. Mit der himmlischen Procession vermehrt, &c. (trans. "A Sensuous Representation of the Four Last Things...")

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