On Meister Eckhart
Let us come to Meister Eckhart not as a figure from the remote past some seven hundred years ago, a spiritual phenomenon of a mediaeval Europe whose cultural conditioning was vastly distant from our own experience, but as a fellow human being, growing up to choose his path in life and his priorities amid all the urges and appetites, options and allures that bear upon a young person of a given intelligence and gravity, who might be sitting among us at this table. Let us suppose him drawn, like us, to fulfil the purpose of a spiritual life . . . as could be lived or attempted by someone of his circle or of his family, who were of respectable standing just like us, but in Thuringia in the middle of central Germany, in a horse-drawn era.
What might attract such a young man as to the purpose of a spiritual life? Why, the attainment of true peace. By that ‘true peace’ he and we would mean unassailable peace. ‘Peace’ is the one-word bequest personally willed by Jesus upon his ragged and astonished clutch of followers on his reappearance to them at Easter. If we, justifiably enough – with the youthful reflective Eckhart among us – were to append the qualifying adjective ‘true’ to ‘peace’ we may think of it as the ‘peace of truth’. Now ‘Truth’ we have learnt for ourselves in our own lives is to be found in and through love; and so too we have been taught.
‘Love’ comes upon us in myriad forms, but in its commanding manifestations in the experience of man (no less in Eckhart’s time than in ours) is A the love of our fellow humans and B the love of the gift of life and the giver of that gift. For us in our so-secular zeitgeist it is to be a bit daring and unfashionable to name the giver of the gift as ‘God’. In Eckhart’s day and age, God’s role was the common presumption; in our day not so. Yet it is one that we ragged clutch of church-goers share with Eckhart’s day.
‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life’, said Jesus, in what I have always thought is, by its succinctness and comprehensiveness, a direct quotation that gripped the minds of his immediate disciples and was to be written down as yesterday by certain of them as soon as they had mastered the skill of writing:
- The Tao [way] in the terminology of the East somewhat familiar to more of us today if then unknown to Europe;
- The Truth, the rationale of Being;
- The Life, for which we cannot but give thanks –
the three encapsulating the gift of creation offered by that same Jesus known to us and to Eckhart for the enlightenment of our amazing species.
This, then, is the peace that, we must reckon Eckhart set himself to seek in his choice of a spiritual life such as we, these seven centuries on, still dare to call it. It is no more nor less self-ish now than it was then in its aim or purpose, since as we here have surely come to learn, the ‘truth’ of this peace is at once paradoxical: we are never so much ourselves as when we lose ourselves – most vividly in love, in the relationship of love: in the individuality in such a relationship and the simultaneous universality of it, in the letting go of the ‘self’ (what Eckhart came to call die Gelazenheit). That is, in unconditional endeavour and daring for the sake of the other, in self-sacrifice, in – as it could turn out – bodily sacrifice nailed on the cross in pain unspeakable.
‘He who would save his life, will lose it, and whoever would lose his life for my sake, will save it’, will have been heard by the aspiring Eckhart with no less force and insistency than by us.
Such is the central paradox of Christ’s doctrine, and Christianity’s searing tenet, indestructible by virtue of its recognition ‘by and in’ the soul of Man: the sine qua non of that ‘peace’ willed by Jesus upon us and upon Eckhart too. It is reached out for by each one of us (the subject of this talk included) in varying degrees of awareness in our experience of life, inner and outer; in grief, in joy; in stress, in comfort; in dying, in living. That lived paradox by the founder of our Faith, the live refinement of his inheritance and the realizer of his role of Sonship-on-earth of the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, is the guarantee of the ultimate survival of Christian doctrine and, by extension, of those of its conveyors we have come to celebrate in this very building, St George’s Campden Hill of the Universal Church, and indeed throughout our eight week course on mysticism. It is the doctrine by which we are to love God in mind and heart and soul, and love our neighbours ‘as ourselves’ (which is to say, ‘in the light of our right to love ourselves’).
So it was in the quest for this recognizable peace and in its apprehension that the young Eckhart chose to live his life. He did not come from nowhere: none of us does, not even Jesus himself.
Johannes Eckhart was born in the village of Hochheim near Erfurt in central Germany in or around 1260 – about 35 years after the birth of Thomas Aquinas who was yet to bequeath his Summa Theologica to fellow Christians. That same forested province was to be the birthplace in later centuries of Martin Luther and J S Bach. A fertile spot. He was a child of minor aristocracy, of an educated squirarchy, seemingly reared in the light of a possible religious calling, not so much as a reclusive monastic – a Carthusian or Cistercian, or a hands-on servant of the poor in the Franciscan mode – but as an interpreter and preacher of the order of Francis’ contemporary, Dominic. And Dominic carried within him the mystical and contemplative tendency.
Indeed, no spiritual exemplar comes readymade but from a traceable spiritual and disciplinary tradition. Dominic’s order of Friars Preachers had secured its Papal approval in 1216. It substituted for manual labour as the ‘work’ of the brethren the requirement of study. In the vigil against doctrinal error, which our Faith cannot risk dispensing with, the motto of the order became ‘Truth’: Truth in the light of study, thought and prayer. Outstanding among the early Dominicans was not only Thomas Aquinas but Albert of Lauingen – earning canonization and his affix ‘the Great’. Albert founded the ‘House of Studies’ at Cologne, which was to become the core of the city’s university, committed to the synthesizing within the Christian context the major strands of Neoplatonic, Jewish and Dionysian philosophy, and drawing on Aristotelian thought which was resurfacing by the medium of translations via Arabic versions available from such Muslim scholars as Avicenna and Averroes.
Such eclecticism Eckhart was to encounter on entering the Dominican Order at 15, and more so at 20, in 1280, on becoming a student friar in Cologne. There he met the aged and revered ‘Bishop Albrecht’ I have referred to, by whose disciples he was schooled. In 1293 Eckhart was sent to the University of Paris for his doctoral studies, from where after the next year, already as Reader of the Sentences (that is, Peter Lombard’s theological manual) he was appointed vicar of Thuringia, his home-ground. Completing his doctorate he was recalled to the University of Paris to take up the Dominican Chair in Theology, with the title of Meister. By this title he was known thereafter, in the evident light of the authority of his person and his preaching – its explorative range, its depth, its originality, its startling vividness of imagery, its precision of language and its metaphysical urgency. All those attributes, and wit too.
He had already begun to preach not, primarily, in the language of the Church and clergy, Latin, but in the vernacular of the people he mostly served, Middle-High German. He had become, ineluctably, a figure to be reckoned with, winning renown and devotion.
Already, as Prior of the Dominican House in Erfurt, he has written the earliest of his three surviving Treatises, the Talks of Instruction: an eminently practical and persuasive account of the conduct of spiritual life for the Dominican novice. Next, in 1303, at around 43, he was elected the first Provincial of the newly defined Dominican province of Saxonia. This was a territory covering much of today’s Germany, across into the Low Countries in the west and southeast into most of Bohemia and today’s Czech Republic. He was in spiritual charge of the nuns of the region and hence of the fast proliferating Beguines. These were celibate women living in communities intent on the religious life and religious study in a manner already approved by St Albert the Great. Eckhart was thus becoming a vitally influential preacher of what we perceive as the mystical revolution of the 14th century.
And now, in 1311, he was invited back to the University of Paris to take up the same Dominican Chair of Theology he had vacated a decade previously. Such a doubled honour was only ever matched by Thomas Aquinas. That was the year after the final and second conviction of the French Beguine, Marguerite Porete. Undeniably devout, Porete had refused to disown her book The Mirror of Simple Souls in which she recounted, in often beautiful prose dramatized as dialogue and occasionally poetry, her own route to ecstatic union with God – an experience liable to supervening the formulae of ecclesiastic doctrine. Marguerite was condemned to death by being ceremoniously burned alive. That dawn event of June 1st 1310 her lofty clerical judges witnessed with satisfaction at one level of mind or another, although many in the throng were in tears. For the life of me, I cannot find her book less than a masterwork of ordered inspiration. Had it been released at the time of Hildegard of Bingen a century previously or Julian of Norwich a century later it would have left Marguerite Porete as venerated today as are they.
The Papacy had just decamped from Italy to Avignon. It was wildly sensitive to any challenge to its universality, from what might be seen as bacchic women on the spiritual rampage. There is no record of Eckhart ever meeting Marguerite, though more likely than not she will have heard report of what he preached and how, and what he taught of spiritual life. There is a spiritual communion in Marguerite Porete with the Meister which cannot be denied. He at least, however, was a man, that is, a male and a Dominican luminary, at the virtual pinnacle of doctrinal authority. God knows whether he had lain awake at the horror of that execution, that summer’s morning, or indeed that previous month at the ecclesiastic assassination by burning at stakes outside Paris of 54 Knights Templar on the orders of King Philip the Fair of France, with the connivance of the Papacy. It was a brutal age.
From 1313, now in Strasbourg as Dominican Vicar-General, Meister Eckhart had oversight of the many convents in southwest Germany. His appointment thus followed the Council of Vienne’s decrees of 1312 on what was heresy. The dominant voice at that Council was Henry Archbishop of Cologne, a prince in his secular inheritance, envious of Dominican authority, intimately involved in the politics of the Papacy and actively hostile to the ‘Free Spirit’ of personal union with God prevailing among the religious communities spontaneously forming especially among women.
A bit of history is inescapable here.
Half a century of rivalry for papal territory among ambitious princelings had forced the papacy out of Rome to various sites in Italy. Now in 1308 it was formally re-established in self-exile under the authentic Pope Clement V, in Avignon, in southern France. There Clement’s successor John XXII now reigned. It was of course his desire to restore the authentic Papacy to Rome. This prospect was blocked by the territorial ambitions in Italy of Lewis of Bavaria, the German Emperor, whom Pope John succeeded in 1324 in excommunicating. Archbishop Henry of Cologne was prime supporter of the Habsburg challenger of Lewis’ throne: hence the reigning Pope in Avignon could not jeopardize his support. And Henry required the breaking or at least rebutting Dominican authority in the German-speaking world, especially among the extensive communities of devout women.
Henry’s tactic was to initiate accusations of heresy against the Meister himself. This culminated in a selection of suspect propositions taken from the Meisters’ widely circulated treatises and sermons. For the most part these fragments were taken out of the systematic and elevated context in which they were delivered. We need to know of these challenging circumstances for our own reassurance.
The charges were first brought against him before the Court of Inquisition in Archbishop Henry’s Cologne. By a felicitous chance the notes the Meister assembled in his own defence on that occasion have survived. These were, inferentially, intended for use by him when the same charges were passed on to the superior Papal Court in Avignon for trial there. Meister Eckhart, then 66, resolved to walk or donkey-ride the 600 miles from Strasbourg to Avignon to conduct his defence.
As we have seen, heresy was no small matter. The stakes were high and the accused eminent. At that time there was scarcely a spiritual star more revered in Europe than the Meister. The twice Professor of Philosophy of Europe’s premier university had covered the length and breadth of Europe dispensing wisdom in the lingua franca of the territory to wrapt congregations.
Quoting a speaker out-of-context is a time-tested trick of political or ecclesiastic challengers. I shall now demonstrate to you how easily this trick could be played on Eckhart, for my chosen illustration will lead us into the substance of what he uniquely was attempting to transmit to fellow Christians. What transpired will await the last part of this lecture as we now enter by means of miscontextual mischief, the core of his spiritual insight.
I take a quote from a later German sermon delivered on the text of the beatitude – the first in the evangelical order – in the Sermon on the Mount, Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:3).
The fragment I have chosen from Eckhart’s sermon reads ‘Therefore I pray to God to rid me of God’.
Shock Horror! Wheel on the tumbrils – therefore I pray to God to rid me of God – how Eckhart would delight to seize his congregations by the scruff of the neck. Yet every word he spoke in all his German sermons, of which almost one hundred have survived, was meticulously recorded in manuscript by devoted nuns and (in my personal view) customarily checked and approved by the Meister himself.
My out-of-context quote does not form a part of any of the propositions cited for condemnation by Eckhart’s accusers in Cologne, yet it bears upon that same contentious area of the soul’s oneness with God. I adduce it here as an instance of the ease with which a heresy-hunter can fabricate evidence. The quotation is prompted by the sermon’s text, that key text of Matthew 5.
It is a 1600-word sermon, which dives into the deep end of not only what Eckhart will often demand of his listeners but also what he invokes to assure us of his own truth mystically experienced. By such ‘mystical truth’ I mean nothing less than that Truth accessible to Man in his soul or ‘as soul’; to that Mankind, kinder of Man, for which we around this table acknowledge Jesus gave his life to redeem. Eckhart will surely have lived this sermon.
Here was a man with formidable educational and pastoral functions throughout his relatively long life – all functions which he fulfilled with scruple and sustained love. He will have surely preached at every major church, cathedral and Christian seminary across his territory, and unnumbered convents and beguineries of which he was entrusted with spiritual supervision. He went everywhere on foot, on prolonged all-weather tramps that cannot but have fortified solitary contemplation such as comprised one of the three elements of his daily life – the other two elements bring liturgical worship and work; and ‘work’, by his definition, embraced study, preaching, pastoral duties and – hear it! – love.
Now, back to the deep end where I have chosen to plunge you. What might have brought our Meister to praying to God to rid him of God?
‘Pay attention’, as the Meister would often adjure his ardent listeners, with a commanding twinkle. What was Our Lord telling us, in his critically compact Sermon on the Mount, by his supreme blessing of the ‘poor in spirit’ assuring them exclusively of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’? Why, it is nothing less than the cause of our presence here, of the existence of this building, of the universal Church, and of Man’s entire religious preoccupation since the access of consciousness.
‘There are two kinds of poverty,’ Eckhart begins: ‘external poverty’ which is all very commendable for those practising it for the love of Jesus. Then there is the other kind of poverty, the internal, of precisely which Jesus was speaking. Eckhart is soon defining or analyzing this poverty with a ruthless honesty: a poor person is one who desires nothing, knows nothing and possesses nothing.
Help! Desires nothing, knows nothing, possesses nothing? Characteristically, mischievously, with a wry expression he tells his listeners: ‘I beg you to understand me if you can’. But if you can’t don’t worry, ‘for I am speaking a particular kind of truth only a few can grasp.’
So, first, the poor man who wants nothing. Well, there are those, he says, who are attached to penances and petty self-denials. ‘God have mercy on them, for they know little of the divine truth . . . they are asses, but of that poverty we wish to speak they know nothing.
‘If one of you were to ask me, what it means to be a poor man who desires nothing, I would say that as long it is someone’s will to carry out the most precious will of God, such a person does not have that poverty of which we desire to speak… If we are to have true poverty, we must be so free of all our own created will as we were before we were created. I tell you by the eternal truth that as long as you have the will to perform God’s will, and desire for eternity and for God, you are not yet poor.’
Before we came to conscious life, he goes on, ‘when I existed in my first cause, I had no God and I was my own cause’ – my raison d’être as we might paraphrase today. To preserve such a place is to preserve distinction, multiplicity. ‘Therefore I ask God to make me free of “God”’ in that ‘my most essential being is above “God” as we conceive him as the origin of creation…. In that essence, where God is above all existence and multiplicity, I myself was there, there I desired myself and knew myself’ as I am, even in the flesh. (Quotation marks, we should be aware, were not available to mediaeval transcribers.)
Here is Eckhart bearing witness to his own mystical experience. Don’t suppose such experience is necessarily remote from you and me. Let us now grasp what the Meister is telling us…. A long life lived actively at many levels of experience has brought me certain perceptions and had me coining certain indispensible adages of which I have already cited one which bears upon the theme of this sermon: you are never so much yourself as when you lose yourself. It is seemingly but a step distant from our Lord’s injunction that ‘whosoever will save his life will lose it. But whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same will save it’.
My parallel home-coined version sounds secular, yet applies spiritually. A man and woman ecstatically in love are lost to themselves in that joy, and would indeed die or mortally risk in the fulfilment or demonstration of it. ‘I could kill dragons for you.’ We right now are speaking of love between God and Man; of Man’s abandonment of self in his surrender to that love: that relationship where the partners are one. This commanding paradox of human experience (or, at the least, cognisance) in the flesh is the supreme metaphor – I daresay, God-given metaphor –of abandonment of self in the embrace with God. What may I cite? Tristan and Isolde? It is why the mystical poets turn instinctively to eroticism in the description of their ultimate elevation – what theologians call the brautmystic of St John of the Cross; of the author of the Song of Solomon; of Richard Rolle; of Ibn el Arabi the Spanish Sufi; of that divinely inspired weaver-poet Kabir born in the 15th century in Benares, born a Muslim to become a disciple of the Hindu ascetic Ramananda, who in the soul’s love union with the Brahma, of which Evelyn Underhill (we shall be hearing) so brilliantly tells.
As Eckhart has counselled us, it involves the radical kenosis – self-emptying, stripping of all the wanting, all the willing, all the knowing. In that same sermon he goes on, ‘[thus] I am my own self-cause, according to my essence, which is eternal, and not according to my becoming, which is in time. There I am unborn, and according to the manner of my unbornness, shall never die. According to my unborn mode I have been eternal, as I am now and ever shall be.’
I remind you what Jesus told Pilate: ‘My Kingdom is not of this world;’ not of the dimensions of space and time: it was of the domain of the soul and of God.
‘[My] nature born into this world,’ Eckhart continues, ‘shall die and must perish in time. In my birth all things were born and I was the cause of myself and all things’ – a critical observation on a second personally coined adage I would offer, that ‘each of us is the point at which other things meet’ – and in so meeting claim their existence. As Eckhart continues in this sermon: ‘ in my birth [my coming into being] all things were born. I was the cause of my own self and of all things … If I did not exist, then neither would God have existed as “God”. I am the cause of God’s existence as “God”.’ Where upon he characteristically tosses in the aside, ‘but you can get along without knowing this.’
You can recognize the dynamite in Eckhart spiritual logic. God is not a thing among other things, he is saying; not a word among other words. Only the mind and language of man makes him so, and on the instant mis-defines him. In various god-fearing communities, as you may know and as I can personally vouch, God is not a name that may be mentioned.
So where does the logic of this train of thought, or metaphysical experience, take the Meister, and with the Meister, us awestruck listeners? ‘When I flowed forth from God, all things said, God is…but in the break-through when I am free of my own will and of God’s will and of all his works and I am free of God himself, then I am above all creatures and am neither “God” nor creature, but I am rather what I once was and what I shall remain now and for evermore. Then I receive an impulse’ – his Middle High German word is Indruk –‘which shall raise me above the angels.’
‘In this flight I receive such great wealth that God, with all that he has as “God” and with all his divine works, cannot satisfy me, for the consequence of this break-through is that God and I become one… God can find no place in us then, for with this poverty we attain that which we have eternally been and shall forever remain. Here God is one with our spirit. And this is poverty in its ultimate form.‘
Whew! Where have you been carried, O congregation, clustered in your sombre north-European church of unheated granite to listen to the words of the most revered spiritual guide of your era the previous 15 or 20 minutes? – where has this Meister borne us, to what eternal shore, and what remoteness from the pat moralities and pastoral comfortings of the Christian precepts to which our family, or village or parish community has habituated us?
And with what charm, what twinkling insouciance, does he bring this particular sermon to a close! – ‘If anyone can’t understand what I have told you, don’t worry. For as long as anyone is not equal to this truth’ – we might say, attuned – ‘he or she will not understand my words, since this is a naked truth which has come direct from the heart of God.’
Remarkably to us here, in our 21st century, to our little group in St George’s Campden Hill, in a European megalopolis of unprecedented cultural and spiritual diversity, various of our fellow-citizens can come closer to grasping, or being grasped by, the meaning of what Eckhart was by way of telling us than the average citizen of Cologne seven centuries ago. Historically our quasi-Christian civilisation has travelled so far – survived the dire schisms of the Reformation, the polarities of Rome and Protestantism, we have sailed the sceptical seas of the Age of Reason; known the vicious anti-clericalism of revolutionary Europe from 1789, the Copernican and Darwinian assault on the biblical presumption of Man’s created uniqueness and his cosmically absurd proposition of our planet’s centrality in the universal order. We are outliving the facile ridicule of the atheists and here, in this building, the breathless distractions of commercial sybarism blinding us as to who we are.
‘Here God is one with our spirit,’ Eckhart has told us from his own lived experience. What spirit, in the check-out queue at Marks & Spencer – what spiritus, anima, pneuma, nous, mens, what soul? ‘Oh Grandpa’, various of my worldly-wise descendants accost me, maybe on my setting out for church – ‘I don’t believe we have a soul.’ To which my reposte is swift: ‘Nor do I. We don’t have a soul. We are soul.’ And they are brought up, to frown in silence. Soul whose oneness to which we have seen our Meister dare to assert oneness with God, is today is a term of dubious validity, out in Notting Hill Gate, even if here in this building we can’t take a single pace without invoking it.
Let us now look briefly at what Eckhart had to say of soul.
Eckhart no less than today’s Christians makes use of the word to mean that of any one of us which is of the divine; of the eternal and infinite. By ‘of’ the divine I mean ‘sourced from ‘ to ‘belonging to’, and hence ‘beholden to’. You may know that in mediaeval Christendom the term intellect was reserved for speaking of that faculty in Man responsive to God. This indispensable faculty was – I dare say – is soul as function. Eckhart knew soul as the ground of our being, site of the continuous rebirth of the Son in Man. Creation, he has concluded, is not a static, one-off event, but a continuous process, contemporaneous with the continuous rebirth of the Son or the Word. If the term ‘insemination’ had been in reach at that time I wonder if Eckhart might not have sometimes employed it for ‘birth’. For Eckhart says that soul-insemination comes by the spark or Finkelein, of the Word, the scintilla, repeatedly reigniting in the soul.
This metaphor of perpetual birth is repeatedly invoked by Eckhart and vital to our understanding. It is accorded only to those who ‘walk in the way of God’ and denied to the indifferent and undisciplined. It is no less than the grace of God at work, and the consequence of God’s inherent fertility which the Meister refers to as the God’s ebullitio – His ebullience, His ‘boiling over’ – in all that is ‘seen and unseen’ and specifically what Man, if Man allows it, can be reached by. This is grace as the self-communication of God at God’s initiative: that urgent potential in abundance. It is surely comparable to the Flowing Light of Godhead written of, under that title, by Mechthild of Magdeburg, a neighbouring town of Erfurt, half a century previously. Mehthild was the visionary authoress known to Dante, Eckhart’s contemporary across the Alps. Note her use of the concept ‘Godhead’, Gottheit – that Godness transcending the dimensions, beyond physical creation, and hence other than the popular notion of intervenient grace, what I call the Inshallah factor, which Eckhart does not rate at all.
God, then, to Eckhart, is ‘in’ the soul but not synonymous with the soul. Eckhart uses the metaphor of a mirror in a bowl of water reflecting the effulgence of the sun, the gottheit, or ‘godness’ of all that is. For Eckhart the distinction is vital, between, on the one hand, God, the Lord, participating in, acting, in the divine mystery, in the Christian and Biblical narrative, and on the other gottheit, the further ‘ godness’. Of Gottheit we can say all but nothing: Eckhart metaphorises Gottheit as ‘ocean’ and ‘cavernous depths’ in the being which are already present in potential – potential in which (I venture to say in quantum terms) actuality is implicit. God is simultaneously innomilabile – unnamable – and omninominabile – all-namable. We are again confronting paradox. We can talk about what God does, but not what God is.
Amid our silence, out of our kenosis, our personal void, there occurs the divine spark. We recall, don’t we, the ‘still, small voice’ of 1 Kings 19 in the experience of Elijah. The silence is attainable by the means of what Eckhart repeatedly calls Abegeschiedenheit, which can be inadequately rendered as ‘detachment’ yet with the overtone of ‘divestiture’; and with this the inner stance of readiness of Gelassenheit or Gelazenheit in his vernacular, the letting-go of the self albeit necessarily as the self reflected in my own foundational adage I have given you.
None of this is dry or cold or leaning to indifference. Meister Eckhart’s sermons and treatises are shot through with the functioning of love. ‘God loves the soul so mightily it is a wonder. If anyone was to rob God of loving the soul he would rob him of his life and being, or he would kill God, if one may say so.’ And ‘Jesus reveals himself… in infinite sweetness and richness, welling up and overflowing and pouring in from the power of the Holy Ghost with superabundant richness and all receptive hearts’. There is a passage where he describes a man experiencing the ‘Seventh Heaven’ of worship when a neighbour requires a bowl of soup: the bowl of soup takes precedence. His comments and concerns are scattered with the activity of love, above all on the part of God. He closes one sermon: ‘All sorrow and joy come from love. On the way, when I was to come here, I was thinking I could hardly bear to come because I would be wet with the tears of love.’
The purpose of the negation is action in the world within our reach. Rowan Williams has quoted in this context the 12th century monk William of St Thierry – ‘The Love of Truth drives us out of the world and the Truth of the Love sends us back into the world.’ To me, this is a prompting of my own call for the concept of ‘oscillation’ in the realm of spirit. Here too is love’s joy. ‘The soul [Eckhart says] will give birth to Christ when she laughs at him, and he laughs back.’ Have we not all known moments of such joy in the presence of love that it breaks into sheer laughter?
We in our time and our place can return, perhaps are returning, to the vessels of recognizably enduring truth. We in our century can work anew in confidence and faith the valid metaphor of story, witness and ritual such as the enduring religions still offer for continual reworking amid their evanescent counterparts of Yoga, diets, rootless meditation, fast-track zen, and drugs.
A further home-coined adage of mine vitally concerns the mystical goal of that Truth embedded in the heart of Man: At the bald peak the faiths meet. Unarguably that is so: Christian, Sufi, Saddhu, Taoist in whichever mode, the same dazzling enlightenment, same Truth attained. I could quote from around the world and across the centuries and I could find hearers of all such quotations right in our midst in this very city Kensington belongs to. Sometimes we call it a mode of pilgrimage, don’t we, but wrongly unless we qualify it with the phrase ‘at destination all the way’, for as the Meister stressed, God is immediately present, and no less so, by God’s grace, that self-same dazzling union, that breakthrough. Let us be clear. There is no sustained self-loss in its totality. It is an afflatus of wonder, visionary, from which (for example) the Jansenist Christian Blaise Pascal returned to earth after those brief ecstatic hours of what he named Cosmic Consciousness with the single word fire . . . as have others with comparable inarticulacy.
Be content to oscillate. Surely the Meister was. Here was the exemplar of spiritual life in constant demand to organize, adjudicate, arbitrate, caught up by the ruthlessness of international politics, yet maintaining the vision and inner serenity. His and our supreme exemplar is Our Lord himself. In Him we may say divine union was somehow present at whatever cost – ‘if it be possible let this cup pass from me’ – in parallel to the sustained accessibility of the union to which the disciples of Christ are enjoined: the constancy, ‘ I am the Way,’ he said of himself ‘and [simultaneously] the Truth, and the Life’ which are likewise now.
What is to be attained as a constant, is this yearning on the part of soul. Amid the seemingly conflicting variety of religious modes and scriptures, I often refer to scaffolding. In life-long travel and observation of my fellow men in the patterns of their worship and precepts of conduct I have become convinced of the relative rightness, dare I say truth, of our Christian scaffolding; the sheer symbolic efficiency. Eckhart himself was always a devoutly orthodox Christian. He never doubted the doctrinal purity of his faith, the Trinitarian Truth, or sought to defy the authority of the Church and his Dominican role within it.
That said, he was an adventurous polymath in his spiritual research, drawing avidly on all philosophy in reach of his late 13th and early 14th century Europe – from Plato and Aristotle then becoming tortuously available via dissemination in Arabic, from the Spanish Jewish sage Maimonides, from the Neoplatonists, as I have mentioned: Plotinus and Proclus, themselves drawing on gnostic thinking ignorant of Christianity yet belonging to the Roman world of the 2nd and 3rd centuries after the ministry of Jesus.
Our Meister was daring intellectually and verbally and his daring brought him trouble. It was to put at fearful hazard the survival for posterity of his own vital written contributions to mystical truth. So in conclusion let me come back to his life’s dénouement. He and certain of his loyalists crossed on foot or donkey the 600 miles of rough road from Strasbourg to Avignon. He was 66, and exhausted. The Papal Court of Inquisition into some 17 propositions extracted from his disseminated works had not been convened. His brief treatise The Nobleman was the chief source of his supposed heresy – his declaration, for instance, that ‘there is no distinction either in God’s nature or in the Person’s according to the unity of that nature. The divine nature is One and each Person is also one and the same One as the nature is.’ You can see what a heresy-hunter could do with that, snatched from its setting.
Before all this came before the Papal Court, the Meister was dead, perhaps not quite having reached Avignon. Nothing has come down to us of the circumstances. Pope John XXII could have let the whole case drop. Politically he couldn’t risk it: he required the unswerving loyalty of the two leading Archbishops, Henry of Cologne, John of Strasbourg, both fixed in their hostility to the ‘free spirit’ of mystical witness and to the authority of the Dominicans. That year, 1328, Pope John was desperate. Lewis of Bavaria had had himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome and had appointed his own inauthentic pope, Nicholas V.
In March 1329, the unprecedented trial of a dead man, Meister Eckhart no less, went ahead and a Bull entitled In Agro Dominico listing various Eckhartian statements as heretical was issued – though published only in Cologne. Yet it would do for Eckhart and his overt authority. Anyone with copies of his sermons and treatises was instructed to hand them in for burning. The dazzling scholar preacher, the daring explorer of the soul, became on the instant a non-man, his name unmentionable, wisdom formally expunged, reputation annulled.
Such truth is not so readily buried. Remember Calvary. The spiritual and intellectual truth Eckhart embodied lived on in secret, in textual copies of his work clandestinely hoarded; but also by the ministries of – most notably – two prominent mid-14th century theologians, Johannes Tauler and Heinrich Suso, who in turn bore unmistakable influence on Martin Luther in the next century. Those Eckhartian sermons, secretly passed from hand to hand, and generation to generation in what citizens of the Soviet Union of our own age would have called samizdat form, survived down the centuries. In the third quarter of the 19th century a German version of what could then be assembled was published. A century later, the Roman Catholic Church began warily to rehabilitate the intractable expositor and personal witness of Christ’s Truth.
Today a network of scholarship is globally at work, headed by the Dominicans, backed by the Anglicans, in universities and religious communities across the globe exploring and exposing the multi-faceted significance of that Christian teacher ‘from whom’ it has been said ‘God hid nothing’.
TS May 10/23, 2016
© Tom Stacey 2016