Friday, March 13, 2015

Schleiermacher's Mysticism: A Letter to His Distant Beloved


Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834)
Gypsum copy of the marble bust by Christian Daniel Rauch (1829)

Original at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Note: I have chosen to write here without footnotes. Part 4 below is my translation of Schleiermacher's letter to Eleonore Grunow, May 3, 1802, from the German found in the Kritische Gesamtausgabe of Schleiermacher's works published by Walter de Gruyter (Abteilung 5, Band 5, Briefe 1005–1245, pp.394–97).  Most of the other quotations in this posting are from Schleiermacher's Speeches, Soliloquies, and other letters. I shall be glad to provide a copy of this posting with complete references for anyone who wishes to contact me: ablackwell@charter.net.

Friedrich Schleiermacher was a pastor, theologian, biblical scholar, classicist, philosopher, political activist, and pioneer of modern liberalism in both religion and public life. His step-son went beyond these varied public dimensions in this more personal characterization: "I have never seen anyone in whom knowledge and life were so in unison as they were in him, anyone who so lived what he thought and knew." Schleiermacher had no patience for abstract concepts, whether political, philosophical or theological, that do not directly reflect, express and affect our actual living.

We find evidence of Schleiermacher's union of knowledge and life in his formal writings and especially in his personal letters, numbering in the thousands. In this posting I want to focus on a single facet of this union: the mysticism that was a basis for Schleiermacher's thinking and living. We find this mysticism particularly expressed in a remarkable but generally overlooked letter he wrote in 1802 to a woman he loved, which I translate in Part 4 of this posting.

1. Schleiermacher's Mysticism

Mysticism can be a vague term. For Schleiermacher, however, mysticism is not some nebulous, transient, inscrutable, or incommunicable experience. His mysticism is in fact the opposite: an intimate, abiding and communicable consciousness of all individual things as parts of an infinite whole, "nothing moved by itself, nothing moving itself alone."
Every structure, every creature, every occurrence is an action of the universe, and religion is the acceptance of each individual thing as a part of the whole, of each limited thing as a manifestation of the infinite.
Further, Schleiermacher's mysticism includes a deep and intimate sense that we ourselves are not the source of this infinite whole, and that our ultimate origins remain ever beyond our knowing. He believed that all who honestly pursue knowledge to ultimate depths reach a point when they must acknowledge remaining mystery:
In fact every philosophy, for the person who can see far enough and wants to go far enough, leads to a mysticism.
Mysticism for Schleiermacher is consciousness of what he calls our "immediate existential relation" with the infinite universe:
Religion is life in the infinite nature of the whole, in the One and in the All, in God—having and possessing all things in God, and God in all.
"From of old," he writes, "all who are truly religious have had a mystical trait." Schleiermacher believed that this mystical trait should dwell at the heart of religion, and that religion should dwell at the heart of human life. He believed that this sensibility is not a primarily a concept to be analyzed, but a living intuition capable of transforming our manner of living.

Schleiermacher is quite specific about the transformative capacity of religion's "sense and taste for the infinite," the intuition that "humankind is not everything, but is an infinitely small part, a fleeting form of the Universe." Living consequences of this religious sensibility include feelings of "reverence and devotion"; a transforming of "haughtiness and audacity" into "beautiful modesty" and "attractive forbearance"; a "pious shudder" as we realize that "there is more in nature than we know." Piety, he writes, "is always full of humility."

Addressing readers who would disdain religion as narrow, divisive and exclusive, Schleiermacher writes that religion worthy of the name engenders a consciousness that "every race and every individual is subordinated to the universe," that each is united with all others as a "living, operative member of the whole." Wholesome religion is "infinite on all sides."
There may be perceptions and feelings belonging to other forms of religion different from one's own, yet just as pious.... There is in religion such a capacity for unlimited many-sidedness in judgment and in contemplation as is nowhere else to be found.... Religion is the natural and sworn foe of all narrow-mindedness and of all one-sidedness. 
How unjustly, therefore, do you reproach religion for loving persecution, for being malignant, for overturning society, and making blood flow like water. Blame those who corrupt religion, who flood it with an army of formulas and definitions, and seek to cast it into the fetters of a so-called system. What is it in religion about which men have quarreled and formed parties and kindled wars? About definitions....

2. Schleiermacher's Pietism

While Schleiermacher's mysticism is not a transient experience but an abiding sensibility, that sensibility can be engendered, nurtured and renewed by particular occasions.

Schleiermacher writes of such an occasion when he was fourteen. His parents had become familiar with the congregation of Bohemian Brethren or Moravians in the village of Gnadenfrei (today Piława Górna, Poland). Deeply impressed by the congregation's piety, they decided to send their son Friedrich and daughter Charlotte to school in Niesky, another Moravian community some two hundred kilometers to the northwest.

Horace Friess, a translator of Schleiermacher's work, nicely characterizes the evangelical movement known as "pietism," of which Moravianism was an example:
It is essentially bent on inner moral regeneration, often strongly tinged with elements of mystical exaltation. It is supernaturalistic at first hand or by original conviction. Its liberalism consists in its freedom from ecclesiastical forms, and its reliance upon the individual's experience.

Schleiermacher was profoundly shaped by his two youthful years amidst Moravian pietism. He soon outgrew Moravian supernaturalism and Christ-centered emotionalism, but he was indelibly impressed by Pietism's liberalism and its mystical exaltation, and especially by its grounding in personal inner experience:
Piety was the mother's womb in whose sacred darkness my young life was nourished and was prepared for a world still sealed from it. In it my spirit breathed ere it had yet found its own place in knowledge and experience. It helped me as I began to sift the faith of my fathers and to cleanse thought and feeling from the rubbish of antiquity. When the God and the immortality of my childhood vanished from my doubting eyes, piety remained to me..., gradually purified and elevated.
A return visit to the village of Gnadenfrei when Schleiermacher was thirty-four was an occasion for renewal of his pietism and his mysticism.

He came to Gnadenfrei in 1802 to visit his sister Charlotte, whom he calls  "Lotte," now living as a Sister in the Moravian religious order. In a letter to his publisher written during his Gnadenfrei visit Schleiermacher again speaks of the pietism that engendered and molded his religious sensibility:
I am very glad to find myself here with a dearly beloved sister, in a marvelous region, amidst wonderful impressions of an earlier time of my life. There is no other place that so awakens living memories of the whole course of my spirit, from the first awakenings of the better life to the point where I presently stand. Here consciousness of the human relation to a higher world first dawned on me—though certainly in a limited form.... Here the mystical tendency so essential for me first developed, and it has supported and rescued me amidst all the storms of skepticism. In those days it germinated, now it has matured, and I can say that after all I have again become a Moravian, only of a higher order.
A year later he writes to another friend, "I am still the same mystic as ever."


3. Overview of Schleiermacher's Letter


From this place and in this mood Schleiermacher wrote a letter to a distant beloved, Eleonore Grunow. He loved Eleonore deeply, but their relationship was fraught with difficulties. She was living in Berlin with a husband to whom she had been contracted at the age of twelve and who treated her with cold insensitivity. The marriage was childless. Eleonora was on the verge of seeking a divorce, and in May of 1802, the date of his Gnadenfrei letter, Schleiermacher had reason to hope that she would soon join him in marriage. But it was never to be.

Before we come to the text of Schleiermacher's letter in Part 4, I offer here an overview providing context and highlighting certain passages from the letter, together with passages from other Schleiermacher writings, that offer testimony to his mysticism. To distinguish language of Schleiermacher's letter to Eleonore from quotations taken from other writings, I have printed the former in italics.

As an aside, let me mention my observation that at many points Schleiermacher's letter—in substance and spirit, though not in style or intention—mirrors William Wordsworth's poem Tintern Abbey, written four years earlier, as well as other Wordsworth poems written during the years around 1802. For one thing, both Tintern Abbey and Schleiermacher's letter were composed under the immediate sway of a "dearly beloved sister" (Schleiermacher), a "dear, dear Sister" (Wordsworth).  For another, Wordsworth and Schleiermacher were only two years apart in age. In the paragraphs that follow I shall suggest some additional parallels. I have discovered no evidence that Schleiermacher knew Wordsworth's poems, however, or that the two men ever met.

Schleiermacher writes of a solitary evening walk on a hill rising above the village of Gnadenfrei, rewarded by an expansive prospect across a broad plain to distant mountains. He watches the sun set:
I sat down under a birch, rustled by the evening wind, to watch this beautiful spectacle. When the lower edge of the disk had almost touched the ridge of the mountains, all the glare disappeared, and unhindered I could see the splendid fireball clearly outlined. Thus it set, quietly and calmly.

(Wordsworth: "It is a beauteous evening, calm and free, / The holy time is quiet as a Nun / Breathless with adoration; the broad sun / Is sinking down in its tranquility....")

Schleiermacher thinks about the illusion of the sun's motion, and in an intuitive moment of cosmic perspective he experiences a palpable sensation of the earth's rotation:
I believed now that I saw the earth rotating and that I heard the rush of the mountains, which little by little darkened and flowed together, where earlier I could have distinguished almost every range.

Amidst the singing of nightingales, Schleiermacher contemplates the wondrous fact that cosmic history has made a place for human history, and the equally wondrous fact that human history has allowed a place for his own soul. (Wordsworth: "...that serene and blessed mood / In which the affections gently lead us on... / While with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into life of things.")

Then he writes, in passive voice: "It happened that everything coalesced into two feelings: I adored and I loved. I could have died of devotion and affection." Elsewhere Schleiermacher defines the word devotion as "a losing of self in the infinite."
And in fact all worldly activity and stir had no significance for me in this moment. I had only the one wish, to give you my whole being to enjoy as I felt it in this moment, which permeated me so, that I felt it was eternal and that you would enjoy it, though I was not thinking of the letter I am now writing. I believe I knew not a single word. Not even your name, for I saw your image and your whole soul.
Clearly we are reading a love letter.  In a tradition tracing from the Bible's Song of Songs to the sensual Jesus-mysticism of Moravian piety, Schleiermacher unites mystical adoration of God with his feelings of unbounded love for Eleonore. (Wordsworth: "And from the blessed power that rolls / About, below, above, / We'll frame the measure of our souls; / They shall be tuned to love.")

Four years earlier Schleiermacher had chosen explicitly sensual imagery to depict the "first mysterious moment that occurs in every sensory perception":
It is as fleeting and transparent as the first scent with which the dew gently touches the waking flowers, as modest and delicate as a maiden's kiss, as holy and fruitful as a nuptial embrace. Indeed, not like these; rather it is all of these itself. Swiftly and magically the moment evolves, an appearance, an event, into an image of the universe. As soon as the appearance fashions herself into her dear and longed-for form, my soul flees to her, not as a shadow, but as the holy Being itself. I lie on the bosom of the infinite world. I am in this moment her soul, for I feel all her powers and her infinite life as my own. She is in this moment my body, for I penetrate her muscles and her limbs as my own, and as my own her innermost nerves stir in accord with my sense and my prescience.... May holy fate forgive me that I have had to disclose more-than-Eleusinian mysteries. This is the natal hour of everything living in religion.
I translate with feminine pronouns here to reflect Schleiermacher's German, where the pronouns agree with the feminine nouns "appearance" and "world."

In his mature theological writings of two decades later Schleiermacher describes love as "the impulse to unite self with another and to wish to dwell in another." He describes divine love as the quality "in virtue of which the divine nature imparts itself." And he recognizes divine love as revealed—albeit, from a Christian perspective, revealed incompletely—"in all those arrangements of Nature, and in all those dispositions of human affairs which protect life or further it." This view, he adds, is "rejected by many as mystical." The mystical view that many Christians reject, Schleiermacher embraces in his Christian theology.

Climbing to a lookout at the hill's summit Schleiermacher sights a distant mountain citadel, the scene of numerous battles in the region's violent history: "I shuddered at the sight." Then again in passive: "It went through my bone and marrow as certain unpleasant sounds do, which otherwise have no significance." (Wordsworth: sensations "felt in the blood, and felt along the heart...."). 

Schleiermacher descends the hillside to the Moravian cemetery. He thinks of the Gnadenfrei dead lying around him, "uneducated, limited, knowing little of the universe":
Certainly most of them have been so. Yet they bore the eternal in their heart; they had that sense that holds the world together. And even if they did not know much of the good and had perhaps even timidly rejected it, yet they would have loved no evil. Peace to them, I thought; they may know more now and be better off.
Two years earlier Schleiermacher had written:
I do not measure my friendship for anyone by any worldly standard of external appearances. My vision skims over the worldly and temporal, seeking inner excellence.... A friend's unique being and relation to humanity are the objects of my quest.
And again:
Certainly I value human excellence, and commonness could almost overwhelm me with unpleasant feelings of disdain, were it not that religion grants a truly broad and beautiful perspective of all.
Schleiermacher's walk above Gnadenfrei has renewed this "broad and beautiful perspective of all," this mystical sense of the Infinite that chastens his pride. (Wordsworth: "The man whose eye / Is ever on himself doth look on one, / The least of Nature's works, [with] scorn which wisdom holds / Unlawful, ever. O be wiser, Thou!") 

On his way back toward the village Schleiermacher hears a bell striking eight o'clock and realizes that Lotte would be at that moment celebrating a foot washing with her Sisters, and he thinks once again of Eleonore:
I thought that this beautiful symbol should not be lacking in my own church—thought of humility, and of you. I would wash your feet also, and then you should bow and kiss my forehead.

4. Schleiermacher's Letter to Eleonore Grunow

May 3, 1802

Let me tell you of a solitary half hour I had this evening. Lotte left me at seven o'clock to attend yet another worship assembly; I went out to enjoy the rest of the lovely evening. My goal was a small mountain—call it rather a hill—close behind Gnadenfrei, its summit grown up in thick brush in which pathways have been cut. It is the hill closest to the plain and thus affords a splendid prospect toward the mountains.

The surroundings I shall not describe to you for I wish to speak only of my perceptions. Only this. I looked out into the Schweidnitz Valley: first, Reichenbach, where I shall be tomorrow evening, and then a good four miles farther down my return route, for I could see far out beyond the spires of Schweidnitz. So clear was the evening that in the deepest background I saw with my bare eyes the snow-covered summits, the capstone of my Fatherland. Before me, beyond the region of Peiler, I saw Fischerberg, where, several years before my birth, my father was in danger for his life. The shrapnel of an enemy cannonball shattered the barrel behind which he had conducted morning prayers before the battle.

The sun was about to sink down behind the Owl Foothills, and I sat down under a birch, rustled by the evening wind, to watch this beautiful spectacle. When the lower edge of the disk had almost touched the ridge of the mountains all the glare disappeared, and unhindered I could see the splendid fireball clearly outlined. Thus it set, quietly and calmly. I thought about the illusion, and I believed now that I saw the earth rotating and that I heard the rush of the mountains, which little by little darkened and flowed together, where earlier I could have distinguished almost every range.

As soon as the sun had set, a nightingale sprang up here and there. First a thousand thoughts went through my head. The mountains always remind me of the history of the world. I thought of the first newcomers in this paradise, of the barrenness of that time, of the present splendor. The most varied centuries and ages hovered before me. And what could I do but wish you by my side, to share with you all that stirred my soul.

Soon it happened that everything coalesced into two feelings: I adored and I loved. I could have wished to die of devotion and affection. I wished for you and my good Lotte by my side, all of us with our own piety at heart, each stirred alike, and all united and embraced in love. The adoration and the love persisted. But the history of the world had made a place for the history of my soul, from my childhood years to my sanctified and sanctifying love for you.

Thus I arose and, beneath the singing of the nightingales and the soft luster of a pastoral afterglow, hurried through the thicket, without path or trail, toward the peak of the hill where several stone steps afford a prospect over the brush. There, besides all that I have already mentioned, I had serene, quiet Gnadenfrei at my feet, and behind me the mountain citadel of Silberberg. I shuddered once at the sight of the latter. It went through my bone and marrow as certain unpleasant sounds do, which otherwise have no significance.

And in fact all worldly stir and activity had no significance for me in this moment. I had only the one wish, to give you my whole being to enjoy as I felt it in this moment, which so permeated me that I felt it was eternal and that you would enjoy it, though I was not thinking of the letter I am now writing. I believe I knew not a single word. Not even your name, for I saw your image and your whole soul.

I went down the mountain through the thicket on the edge of an abandoned quarry, strayed about for a few minutes in a fallow field until a couple of groups of Gnadenfrei lads who were being brought out for a walk prompted me to leave. I worked my way to the cemetery, and with my look directed toward Gnadenfrei, I thought of what I recently wrote to you: that if I could idealize this Order, I would nowhere rather live with you. I pictured all the enticements of the great world and, because so much truth was in me, pictured all that flattered my vanity; still I felt that I had not lied to you or to myself. I thought of Jette [Henriette Herz, a close friend in Berlin], and it seemed as if such a life would surely be good for her also.

The cemetery lay on the slope of a hill, enclosed by a hedgerow of beeches and planted with several rows of trees, which seem, however, not to have the heart to thrive amongst the human remains. On the one side lie the Sisters, on the other the Brothers, just as they sit in the chapel. Every grave has a tombstone, bearing no legend but only an inscription.

I had to smile at the larger aristocratic stones. I do not idealize the persons who have been brought here up to now—uneducated, limited, knowing little of the universe, and in the search for the godly and the ungodly restricted to the smallest details of the human soul. Certainly most of them have been so. Yet they bore the eternal in their heart; they had that sense that holds the world together. And even if they did not know much of the good and had perhaps even timidly rejected it, yet they would have loved no evil. Peace to them, I thought; they may know more now and be better off. And so I went on amongst the graves.

From the cemetery a beautiful avenue of lindens led back into town, almost to my house. Eight o'clock struck. I sat upon a bench in the avenue and knew that Lotte was now celebrating a foot washing with her Sisters. I thought that this beautiful symbol should not be lacking in my own church—thought of humility, and of you. I would wash your feet also, and then you should bow and kiss my forehead.

Do not think that I wrote this immediately upon my return. First I read the newspapers. Then, when I had written the first lines, Lotte came to tell me good night. I have accompanied her back home, and then done as you see.

All day I have been anxious that you have not written me and that I have heard nothing of you through Jette.


******

Evening view to the northeast from the hill above Gnadenfrei,
today Piława Górna, Poland
(photograph from 1971)

*****


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