The Patience of the Damned

Heinrich Seuse (aka Henry Suso) was a 14th-century German mystic who wrote on spiritual matters and his own mortifications (think flagellation and tacks in his underwear).

The passage below, taken from his Clock of Wisdom (Horologium Sapientiae), displays the vivid style which contributed to the popularity of his books: 

The Clock of Wisdom. X (On the Torments of Hell). ed. Joseph Strange. 1861.

Imagine there’s an enormous millstone which reaches up to every corner of the sky. And imagine that after 100,000 years there comes some tiny bird: with its beak it pecks off a small bit of the stone, the equivalent of one-tenth a kernel of grain.  

After 100,000 years the same process repeats (i.e.,the bird pecks off a tenth of a kernel), and it goes on this way, such that in a 1,000,000 years the stone shrinks by the dimensions of a single kernel of grain. 

Look at what misery is! We wretches would be so grateful if our perpetual sentence of damnation came to an end only after this sort of long, extended nibbling away of the whole stone.  

But alas! Divine justice absolutely forbids the wretched this consolation.” 

. . . [Q]uod esset aliquis lapis molaris adeo magnus, quod ubique circumferenciam celi contingeret, et quod aliqua avicula minime quantitatis post centum milia annos veniens, de lapide predicto solummodo tantum per rostrum suum avelleret quantum est decima pars milii, et iterum post centum milia annorum curricula sicut prius, scilicet unam particulam de decem, et sic per singulas partes, ita quod in decies centenis milibus annis non plus diminueretur quantitas lapidis nisi quantum habet in magnitudine granum unius milii: en prochdolor nos miseri multum grati essenius, quod post talem longam et plenam consumpcionem tocius lapidis finem haberet sentencia nostre eterne dampnacionis. Sed heu hec eadem consolacio miseris a divina iusticia penitus est negata.

blurry picture of an engraving of a man praying
17th C. drawing of Henry Suso.
Harvard Art Museums.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

One thought on “The Patience of the Damned

  1. That must be the source of part of the fire and brimstone sermon in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”

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