Baptised 25 December 1624
Breslau, Silesia (now Wrocław, Poland)
|Died||9 July 1677 (age 52)
Breslau, Silesia (now Wrocław, Poland)
|Nationality||Silesian (German, Polish)|
|Alma mater||University of Strasbourg,
University of Padua
|Occupation||Physician, priest, mystic and religious poet|
|Notable work(s)||Heilige Seelenlust (1657)
Der Cherubinischer Wandersmann (1657)
|Style||mystical poetry, religious tracts|
|Influenced by||Western mysticism, Kabbalist writings, alchemy, hermeticism, Martin Opitz, Abraham von Franckenberg, Jacob Böhme, Daniel Czepko, Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, Henry Suso, Jan van Ruysbroeck|
|Influenced||Jorge Luis Borges, Leibniz, G.W.F. Hegel Martin Heidegger|
Angelus Silesius or Johann Angelus Silesius (born: Johann Scheffler; bapt. 25 December 1624 – 9 July 1677) was a German Catholic priest and physician, known as a mystic and religious poet. Born and raised a Lutheran, he adopted the name Angelus (Latin for "messenger") and the surname Silesius (from the Latin for "Silesian") on converting to Catholicism in 1653. While studying in the Netherlands, he began to read the works of medieval mystics and became acquainted with the works of German mystic Jacob Böhme through Böhme's friend, Abraham von Franckenberg. Silesius's mystical beliefs caused tension between him and Lutheran authorities, and led to his eventual conversion to Catholicism. He took holy orders under the Franciscans and was ordained a priest in 1661. Ten years later, in 1671, he retired to a Jesuit monastery where he remained for the rest of his life.
An enthusiastic convert and priest, Silesius worked 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 Eccleciologia (trans. "The Words of the Church"). He is now remembered chiefly for his religious poetry and in particular for 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 Cherubinische Wandersmann ("The Cherubinic Pilgrim"), a collection of over 1,600 alexandrine couplets. His poetry explores themes of mysticism, quietism, and pantheism within the Christian context.
While his exact birthdate is unknown, it is believed that Silesius was born in December 1624 in Breslau, the capital of Silesia. The earliest mention of him is the registration of his baptism on Christmas Day, 25 December 1624. At the time, Silesia was a German-speaking province of the Habsburg Empire. Today, it is the southwestern region of Poland. He was born Johann Scheffler and was the first of three children. His parents, who married in February 1624, were Lutheran. His father, Stanislaus Scheffler (c.1562-1637), was of Polish ancestry and was a member of the lower nobility. Stanislaus dedicated his life to the military was 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 Krakow. In 1624, he was 62. His mother, Maria Hennemann (c. 1600-1639), was a 24-year old daughter of a local physician with ties to the Habsburg Imperial court.
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. Scheffler was likely influenced by the recently published works of poet and scholar Martin Opitz and by one of his teachers, poet Christoph Köler.
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 likely introduced him ancient Kabbalist writings, alchemy, hermeticism, and to mystic writers living in Amsterdam. Franckenberg had been compling a complete edition of Böhme's work at the time Scheffler resided in the Netherlands. Dutch authorities provided refuge to many religious sects, mystics, and scholars who were persecuted elsewhere in Europe. Scheffler then went to Italy and enrolled in studies at the University of Padua in Padua in September 1647. A year later, he received a doctoral degree in philosophy and medicine and returned to his homeland.
On 3 November 1649, Scheffler was appointed to be the court physician to Silvius I Nimrod, Duke of Württemberg-Oels (1622-1664) and was given an annual salary of 175 thalers. Although he was “recommended to the Duke on account of his good qualities and his experience in medicine,” it is likely that Scheffler's friend and mentor, Abraham von Franckenberg, had 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. Franckenberg returned to the region the year before. It is also possible that Scheffler's brother-in-law, Tobias Brückner, who was also a physician to the Duke of Württemberg-Oels may have recommended him. Scheffler soon was not happy in his position as his personal mysticism and critical views on Lutheran doctrine (especially his disagreements with the Augsburg Confession) caused friction with the Duke and members of the ducal court. The Duke was characterized in history as being "a zealous Lutheran and very bigoted." Coincidently, it was at this time that Scheffler began to have mystical visions which along with his public pronouncements led local Lutheran clergy to consider Scheffler a heretic. After Franckenberg's death in June 1652, Scheffler resigned his position—or may have been forced to resign—and sought refuge under the protection of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Lutheran authorities in the German states were not tolerant of Scheffler's increasing mysticism and he was publically attacked and denounced as a heretic. At this time, the imperial Habsburg rulers (who were Catholic) were pushing for a Counter Reformation and advocated for a re-Catholicisation of Europe. Scheffler sought to convert to Catholicism and was received by the Church of Saint Matthias in Breslau on 12 June 1653. Upon being received, he took the name Angelus, the Latin for "messenger" and origin for Angel, and adopted the surname Silesius (from the Latin for "Silesian"). It is unknown why he took this name, however, he may have added Silesius to honor a favourite scholastic, mystic or theosophic author or to distinguish himself from other famous writers of his era: likely either Spanish poet John Ab Angelis (author of The Triumph of Love) or Lutheran theologian Johann Angelus in Darmstadt. He no longer used the name Scheffler, but did on occasion use his first name, Johann. From 1653 until his death, he used the forms of Angelus Silesius and Johann Angelus Silesius.
Shortly after his conversion, on 24 March 1654, he received an appointment as Imperial Court Physician to Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand III, the Holy Roman Emperor. However, this was likely an honorary position to offer some official protection against Lutheran attackers as he never went to Vienna to serve the Imperial Court. It is very likely that he never practiced medicine after his conversion to Catholicism.
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 began 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 by the Duke's orthodox Lutheran court clergyman, Christoph Freitag. However, in 1657, after obtaining the approval of the Catholic Church, two collections of poems were published—the works for which he is known—Heilige Seelenlust ("The Soul's Holy Desire") and Der Cherubinische Wandersmann ("The Cherubinic Pilgrim").
On 27 February 1661, Silesius entered the Franciscan Order and took holy orders. Three months later, he was ordained a priest in the Silesian Principality of Neisse—the location of successful re-Catholicisation and one of two ecclesiastical states within the region (i.e. 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 coadjutor). During this time, he began publishing over fifty tracts attacking Lutheranism and the Protestant Reformation. Thirty-nine of these essays he later compiled for a two-volume folio collection entitled Eccleciologia (1676).
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 monastery associated with the church of Saint Matthias at Breslau. He died on 9 July 1677 and was buried at the monastery. Some sources claim he died from tuberculosis (or "consumption"), others describe it as a "wasting sickness." Immediately after news of his death spread, several of his Protestant detractors spread the untrue rumor that Silesius had hanged himself. His fortune, largely inherited from his father's noble estate, he distributed to pious and charitable institutions including orphanages.
The poetry of Angelus Silesius consists largely of epigrams in the form alexandrine couplets—the style that dominated German poetry and mystical literature during the Baroque era. According to Baker, the epigram was key to the conveying mysticism because “the epigram with its tendancy towards brevity and pointedness is a suitable genre to cope with the aesthetic problem of the ineffability of the mystical experience.” The Encyclopaedia Brittanica identifies these epigrams as Reimsprüche—or rhymed distichs—and described them as:
...embodying a strange mystical pantheism drawn mainly from the writings of Jakob Böhme and his followers. Silesius delighted specially in the subtle paradoxes of mysticism. The essence of God, for instance, he held to be love; God, he said, can love nothing inferior to himself; but he cannot be an object of love to himself without going out, so to speak, of himself, without manifesting his infinity in a finite form; in other words, by becoming man. God and man are therefore essentially one.
Silesius's poetry directs the reader to seek a path toward a desired spiritual state, an eternal stillness by eschewing material or physical needs and the human will. It requires an understanding of God that is informed by the ideas of apophatic theology and of antithesis and paradox. Some of Silesius' writings and beliefs that bordered on pantheism or panentheism caused tensions between Silesius and local Protestant authorities. However, in the introduction to Der Cherubinische Wandersmann, he explained his poetry (especially its paradoxes) within the framework of Catholic orthodoxy and denied pantheism which would have run afoul of Catholic doctrine.
His mysticism is informed by the influences of Böhme, and Franckenberg as well as prominent writers Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), Johannes Tauler (c. 1300-1361), Henry Suso (c. 1300-1366), and Jan van Ruysbroeck (1293/4-1381). Critic and literary theorist Georg Ellinger surmised in his study of Silesius that his poetry was influenced by loneliness (especially due to the death of his parents and becoming an orphan early in life), ungoverned impulsivity and lack of personal fulfillment that renders much of his poetry being confessional and exhibiting internal psychological conflict.
Several of Silesius' poems have been used as or adapted for hymns used in Protestant and Catholic services. In many early Lutheran and Protestant hymnals, these lyrics were attributed to "anonymous" rather than admit they were penned by the Catholic Silesius because of his criticism and advocacy against Protestantism. In many instances, the verse of Silesius is attributed in print to "anonymous" or to "I.A." While I.A. were the Latin initials for Iohannis Angelus they were often misinterpreted as Incerti autoris meaning "unknown author". Likewise, several truly anonymous works were later misattributed to Silesius stemming from the same confusing initials. Silesius' verse appears in the lyrics of hymns published in Nürnberg Gesang-Buch (1676), Freylinghausen's Gesang-Buch (1704 and 1714 editions), Porst's Gesang-Buch (1713); and Burg's Gesang-Buch (1746). Seventy-nine hymns using his verses were included in Count von Zinzendorf's Christ-Catholisches Singe und Bet-Büchlein (1727). During the 18th Century, they were frequently in use in the Lutheran, Catholic and Moravian Church. Many of these hymns are still popular in Christian churches today.
In series of lectures entitled Siete Noches (trans. "Seven Nights") (1980), Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) remarks that the essence of poetry can be encapsulated in a single quote from Silesius in that beauty must be felt. Borges wrote:
I will end with a great line by the poet who, in the seventeenth century, took the strangely real and poetic name of Angelus Silesius. It is the summary of all I have said tonight — except that I have said it by means of reasoning and simulated reasoning. I will say it first in Spanish and then in German:
- La rosa sin porqué; florece porque florece.
- Die Rose ist ohne warum; sie blühet weil sie blühet.
The line he quoted, Die Rose ist ohne warum; sie blühet, weil sie blühet... from Silesius's The Cherubinic Pilgrim (1657), is translated as: "The Rose is without 'why'—she blooms because she blooms." The influence of mysticism is seen in Borges' work, especially in his poetry which frequently references Silesius and his work.
This is a quote that was often referenced in the work of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) who (building on the work of Leibniz and Hegel) explored mysticism in many of his works in which he defines a theory of truth as phenomenal and defying any rational explanation. Heidegger was commenting on the rational philosophy of German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)—a contemporary of Silesius—who referred to the mystic's poetry as "beautiful" but "extraordinarily daring, full of difficult metaphors and inclined almost to godlessness" despite that Silesius's mysticism was contrary to Liebniz's rational principle (principium redendae rationis sufficientis) that "nothing is without a why.".
|Original German text:
Ich bin wie Gott, und Gott wie ich.
Ich bin so groß wie Gott, er ist so klein wie ich.
Er kann nicht über mir, und ich nicht unter ihm stehen.
|English translation used in film:
I am like God and God like me.
I am as Large as God, He is as small as I.
He cannot above me, nor I beneath him be.
However, the context of this line in the film does not match the context intended by Silesius. The character of Cady uses it to emphasize dramatically to other characters (his intended victims) the power of his individual will and his god-like ability to exact a violent vengeance. The context intended by Silesius was of man's realization through his spiritual potential for perfection that he was of the same substance with God in the sense of the mystical divine union or theosis—that experience of direct communion of love between the believer and God as equals.
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