Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques


Sister Catherine

A Middle High German (Alemannic) mystical treatise from the first half of the fourteenth century which draws heavily on the theology of both Meister Eckhart and the heresy of the Free Spirit, illustrating, perhaps better than any other text, the closeness between the two.

The treatise, a dialogue between a beguine and her father confessor (clearly modeled after Eckhart, if not intended to be Eckhart himself), falls into the tradition of lay theology represented by works such as Marguerite Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls . Unlike Marguerite's work, there is no evidence that the treatise was ever subject to censure. Still, the work is generally considered to be heretical because of the Free Spirit ideas at its core, including the notion of permanent union with God and the ability of the lay seeker to attain a state in which she is beyond the need of the assistance or instruction of the institutional Church.

While the treatise has been used as a prime example of the radicalism of the Free Spirit heresy, most notably by N. Cohn in his Pursuit of the Millennium, it has also been used to demonstrate how close to orthodox mysticism the heresy of the Free Spirit could be. (Lerner, Heresy of the Free Spirit) Indeed, in spite of the subtle challenge to Church authority (subtle because the beguine remains respectful of her confessor throughout her journey) and the sometimes extreme extension of Eckhartian mysticism found in the work, the treatise was read and copied not only by beguines and Free Spirits, but also by orthodox religious, frequently under the name of Eckhart himself. When in 1356 a Benedictine monk translated the treatise, which he presumed to be Eckhart's work, into Latin, he expressed concern that the material was not appropriate for lay people to be reading. But he clearly thought Sister Catherine's lessons worth preserving for the religiously educated. (Lerner 216)

Although the author of the treatise has never been identified, at least one of the seventeen extant manuscripts (the Munich MS) bears the inscription Daz ist swester katrei meister Ekehartes Tohter von Strâzburc. As this was the manuscript used by F. Pfeiffer when he erroneously published the tract as a work of Meister Eckhart's in the mid-nineteenth century, the work has been designated as "Sister Catherine" in all subsequent scholarship.

Meister Eckhart lived in Strassburg from 1314-1323, so if we can trust the Munich manuscript's connection of the author directly with Eckhart, the treatise would likely have been written around that time or shortly thereafter. The author probably lived within the flourishing community of beguines and beghards in early fourteenth-century Strassburg, many of whom held ideas reflecting the heresy of the Free Spirit. Lerner makes the observation that, especially in Strassburg, the appellation "sister" usually referred specifically to a heretical beguine. (Lerner 85 ff) Sister Catherine's care in attempting to distance herself and other "friends of God" from false Free Spirits suggests she was aware of the charges leveled against beguines and beghards by John of Zürich, Bishop of Strassburg (from ca. 1317).

The author was intimately familiar with Eckhart's preaching and echoes and expands upon many of the German preacher's themes. Elvira Borgstädt's English translation of the treatise (McGinn, Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher) identifies many of Sister Catherine's Eckhartian sources. In some cases, whole passages from the Master were written into the text. The author also inserted into the text a short guide then in circulation called the "ten points," a popular (orthodox) teaching on ten religious practices leading to eternal truth. (Lerner 218) The extant manuscripts are quite varied in their content, some abbreviated, some expanded, and there is as of yet no complete modern study detailing the work's transmission and original state.

While clearly showing the influence of Eckhart's mysticism and Free Spirit thought, elements of beguine piety also left their mark, including an emphasis on poverty of will, the achievement of ecstatic union with God and a strong Christocentric orientation. In addition to these influences, Barbara Newman argues that gnostic theology also found its way into Sister Catherine's work. Newman compares the author's claim to "becoming God", her evolution as spiritual teacher, her understanding of Peter's actions, and especially her extensive use of Mary Magdalene as a role model with what we know of early gnostic heresy. (Newman, From Virile Woman to Womanchrist : Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature, 173) Newman speculates that the author encountered no longer extant apocryphal texts, which she assimilated without completely understanding.

The Text

As the dialogue between Sister Catherine and her (probably Dominican) confessor opens, she is an obedient daughter, following the path outlined by her spiritual advisor. After unsuccessfully pressing her confessor to show her "the fastest way" to salvation, she begins to feel that he is keeping her from a greater spiritual life, and so she takes her instruction upon herself, vowing to listen to none but the Holy Spirit. In spite of her confessor's objection that she is not strong enough, she goes away to "foreign lands" for a time, to live the suffering of total poverty, completely withdrawing from the comfort of other creatures and created things, practicing perfect detachment.

When she comes back to her confessor, she is so transformed that he does not recognize her and cannot even determine whether she is a human being or an angel. Even with all she now knows, the daughter is still not satisfied, for she has not yet achieved the permanent union with God that she seeks. During their conversations her confessor mourns the fact that he has never experienced the direct knowledge of God which his daughter possesses, and he prays for her in her quest. When she later exclaims, "rejoice with me, I have become God!" he encourages her to remove herself from human company and to pursue her union with God. Following this she experiences a three day ecstasy during which her body appears to have died, and when she rises up again we find that she has achieved the state of permanent union she sought, which she calls "being established in God." She explains that she has "achieved by grace what Christ is by nature."

The next (and longest) part of the treatise presents a role reversal in which the beguine instructs her confessor. Although teachings are placed in both of their mouths, the daughter is clearly the greater spiritual authority. However, the confessor maintains his priestly dignity, and the treatise ends with the daughter successfully bringing her father to a greater kind of knowledge, and eventually a personal experience of God.



Editions and Translations: Franz Pfeiffer, Deutsche Mystiker des Vierzehnten Jahrhunderts, Band 2: Meister Eckhart (Leipzig, 1857); C. de B. Evans, Meister Eckhart by Franz Pfeiffer (London, 1924), pp. 312-34; Franz-Josef Schweitzer, Der Freiheitsbegriff der deutschen Mystik: Seine Beziehung zur Ketzerei der "Brüder und Schwestern vom Freien Geist," mit besonderer Rücksicht auf den pseudoeckhartischen Traktat "Schwester Katrei" (Frankfurt, 1981), pp. 322-370; Bernard McGinn, ed., Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher (New York, 1986) pp. 10-14, 32-33, 349-387, Elvira Borgstädt, trans.

Studies: Robert Lerner, The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages (Berkeley, 1972); Barbara Newman, From Virile Woman to Womanchrist : Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature (Pennsylvania, 1995) pp. 172-181; Franz-Josef Schweitzer, "Schwester Katrei," in Die deutsche Literatur des Mittelalters Verfasserlexikon, Band 8 (1992); Kurt Ruh, Meister Eckhart (1985) pp. 95-114; Alexander Patschovsky, Straßburger Beginenverfolgungen im vierzehnten jahrhunderts, DA 30 (1974) 56-198; Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millenium, Revised Edition (New York, 1970), Gordon Leff, Heresy in the Later Middle Ages (New York, 1967)


by Deeana Copeland Klepper