Meister Eckhart: a Talk by Adam Dupré
Meister Eckhart was a Dominican Friar who was born in the town of Hocheim in the middle of what is now Germany in 1260 AD, about 20 years after Ibn ‘Arabi died and about thirteen years before the death of Jelaluddin Rumi. He died in about 1328, probably on his way home from Avignon, in the South of France, where he had been undergoing investigation by the Papacy for charges of heresy. No one knows where Meister Eckhart was buried or where he died. He returned to his Lord unmarked and without trace.
His life was spent in study, prayer and work. He gained his academic degrees from the Studium Generale in Cologne (a university founded by Albertus Magnus) and from Paris. He later taught at both universities at different times.
He was a priest and he was the Provincial Head of the Dominican order in two principalities of Germany, which meant he had huge administrative and management responsibility. He would have walked almost everywhere, and his journeys will have taken him all over Germany, to Paris (at least twice) as well as to Avignon.
Meister, Master, was his title, applied to him after he took his Masters Degree in Paris. His name no one really knows. But it may have been Johannes Eckhart von Hocheim. He has always been known simply as Meister Eckhart, Master Eckhart. He was a Saint, a mystic, a Gnostic, a Wali.
He wrote from one singular point in everything, from the heart of his servanthood, based on knowledge and in the fullest adab (proper response) possible in the face of the opening up of knowledge at any moment.
Meister Eckhart’s writings display the most beautiful and limpid logic and clarity. He is thoroughly familiar with the concepts and references of his contemporaries, and of Greek thinking, which had then been recently introduced to the West from the Muslim world. He completely submits to the rigour of inherent intellectual discipline. But this is not what he WAS, it was an adjective of him if you like, or maybe better, a means of expression. His fundamental starting point (and ending point), to repeat, is complete servanthood – and it is important to understand this because otherwise you will think you are looking at a body of ideas, a point of view, one set of ideas among others.
Real knowledge can only arise in the pure and empty recess of the totally receptive heart that allows no adjective or presupposition to impose on the purity of revelation, but responds to it completely as it comes and as it is and according to how ITS pleasure and intention intends. In other words, where the heart conforms completely to and is defined by the revelation itself.
Eckhart was a friar, not a monk, which is significant. Monks live enclosed lives in seclusion from the world. Their service is through the interior, through prayer and self-abnegation. They know that a movement in the heart of one who faces God has no location and therefore its effects are not limited by time or place, so even though they are cut off and hidden from the world, they work for the world as much as for their own souls – they have no problem with Self Knowledge and Global Responsibility.
Friars are different in mode. They also take upon themselves the rigours of abstention – which Mhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi comments on in the Chapter on Jacob in the Fusus al Hikam. But the friars do not live in seclusion; their work is actively in the world. In fact the Dominican order is also known as the Order of Preachers. They are for exposition and for explanation and for the expansion of knowledge of the religion through preaching. They would travel around, subsisting entirely on charity, preaching wherever they could find an audience – in churches, in markets, in the fields, wherever. This is why Eckhart’s core teaching is given in the form of sermons, which are the fundamental form of expression of the friars.
Central to all Eckhart says is that only God is. There is nothing else in existence than Him. In fact one of his expressions that the Officials of the Church had a problem with is: “All creatures are pure nothing. I do not say that they are a little something, or anything at all, but they are pure nothing.”
In Sermon 19 he comments on the text from the Acts of the Apostles (on when St Paul saw a blinding light outside the walls of Damascus): “Paul rose from the ground and with open eyes saw nothing”.
Meister Eckhart says of this:
“I think the text has a fourfold sense. One is that when he rose up from the ground with open eyes he saw Nothing and the Nothing was God; for when he saw God he calls that Nothing. The second: when he got up he saw nothing but God. The third: in all things he saw nothing but God. The fourth: when he saw God he saw all things as nothing.” This is reminiscent of similar expressions in the works of Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi.
In his Sermons, Eckhart is inviting his audience to the Truth through clarification. But of course in what he says a metaphysic is implied and assumed. This is the metaphysic of Absolute Unity of Being – God is, and there is not with Him a thing. It is also very important for us to understand here the spiritual ground of what Eckhart in so many different ways, is pointing us to, telling us about, cajoling us to see, inviting us to know.
The core matter of Eckhart’s exposition is the birth of God in the soul, as he puts it – and it still sounds shocking! But remember that he had to use the language of his culture, and this is Christian language. Naturally ‘birth’, in this sense, is metaphorical. When Eckhart talks of the birth of God in the soul, it is the same as being brought to realisation, to arrival at truth. It is the same as dying before you die. It is the same as Union.
Sermon One in the translated collection of his Sermons explains this beautifully. The text he addresses in this sermon (and the sermons are all based on a text or sentence from a holy book or tradition) is: “When all things lay in the midst of silence, then there descended down into me from on high, from the royal throne, a secret Word. This Sermon is about that Word.”
He explains that this birth can only take place in the “purest, loftiest, subtlest part that the soul is capable of… Therefore the soul in which this birth (union) is to take place must keep absolutely pure and must live in noble fashion, quite collected and turned entirely inward; not running out through the five senses into the multiplicity of creatures, but all in-turned and collected in the purest part – there is His place, He disdains anything less.”
This is when you have attached yourself entirely to Him and died to your imagined self. It is where the Lover knows for certain that Love is returned for Love and for no other consideration… This is no denial of the world because all the universes are contained in this, but as we know, even if the whole of manifestation were in a corner of the heart of the Perfect Saint, he would not be aware of it at this level. As Eckhart says: “…that love with which we love must be so pure, so bare, so detached that it is not inclined towards myself nor towards my friend nor anywhere apart from itself.”
It is important to see that this cannot be ‘denial’ of the world because if you deny anything you give it existence by qualifying it with denial. This is complete facing of Him and only Him in His absolute Unity. Turning to Him alone, not turning away from anything, though sometimes the language sounds as if it is saying this. From Sermon 18: “people imagine that they have more if they have things together with God than if they have God without the things. That is wrong for all things with God are no more than God alone.”
Then Eckhart goes on to explain the quality or nature of receptivity that the soul must adopt for this birth. “One should shun and free oneself from all thoughts, words and deeds and from all images created by the understanding, maintaining a wholly God-receptive attitude, such that one’s own self is idle, letting God work within one.” And remember this is not denial of anything – it is complete facing the Essential.
He says that the silence in which the secret Word is spoken “is in the purest thing that the soul is capable of, in the noblest part, the ground – indeed in the very essence of the soul which is the soul’s most secret part. There is the silent middle, for no creature ever entered there and no image, nor has the soul there any activity or understanding, therefore she is not aware there of any image, whether of herself or of any other creature.”
Everything in the life of the lover needs to be directed towards this point. Nothing real happens before this death before dying. After this (as Ibn ‘Arabi explains in the Kernel of the Kernel) real education happens – education in taste.
Then he explains how whatever the soul effects she effects through her ‘powers’. She understands through the intellect, remembers through the memory, loves through the will (love is intentional) and so on. Every external act is through some means. The power of sight is through the eyes, without which the soul cannot see, and so on with the other faculties – all of which Eckhart calls the powers of the soul. “But in the soul’s essence there is no activity, for the powers she works with emanate from the ground of being. Yet in that ground is the silent ‘middle’: here nothing but rest and celebration for this birth, this act, that God the Father may speak His word there, for this part is by nature receptive to nothing save only the Divine Essence, without mediation. Here God enters the soul with His all, not merely with a part. God enters here the ground of the soul. None can touch the ground of the soul but God alone.”
And what of this soul? What he says here is actually our experience if we can but see it, here and now. He explains how the soul knows other creatures (at whatever level) by receiving an image of that thing and then approaching it, knowing it, through the image that has been “voluntarily taken in” through the faculties. And through this “presented image”, the soul approaches creatures. In other words, we delineate in our interior consciousness (or mind, or sensibility) a ‘model’, an image of whatever we seek to know as mediated to us through our senses, then we work with the image. The image, says Eckhart, can only enter the soul through the powers from ‘outside’.
But the soul can neither create nor obtain an image of herself, so there is nothing so unknown to the soul as herself. “And so she knows all other things, but not herself. Of nothing does she know so little as of herself, for want of mediation.” There is no means by which she can know herself. “You must know that too that inwardly the soul is free and void of all means and of all images – which is why God can freely unite with her without form or likeness.” Every instant this is so, and what freedom it offers! This unknowing is the same as infinite receptivity and this is the height of the soul – the predisposition to receive His Fayd al-Aqdas.
And then he says that this not-knowing makes her wonder and “leads her to eager pursuit, for she perceives clearly that it is, but does not know how or what it is. This unknown-unknowing keeps the soul constant yet spurs her on to pursuit” of her truth, her reality, her essence, her love.
He then explains that good and perfected people (and he says his words are addressed only to these people) “who have so absorbed and assimilated the essence of all virtues that these virtues emanate from them naturally, without their seeking… they must know that the very best and noblest attainment in this life is to be silent and let God work and speak within. When the powers have been completely withdrawn from all their works and images, then the Word is spoken.”
This next quote may remind you, again, of the Kernel of the Kernel: “If only you could suddenly be unaware of all things, then you could pass into oblivion of your own body as St Paul did, when he said: “Whether in the body I cannot tell, or out of the body I cannot tell; God knows it” (2 Cor. 12:2). In this case the spirit had so entirely absorbed the powers that it had forgotten the body: memory no longer functioned, nor understanding, nor the senses”. In this way a man should flee his senses, turn his powers inward and sink into oblivion of all things and himself.” And so, “if God is to speak His Word in the soul, she must be at rest and at peace, and then He will speak His Word, and Himself, in the soul – no image, but Himself!”
“My soul dissolved and melted away when Love spoke his word” (Cant. 5:6). When he entered, I had to fall away.” And: “How should a man be who is to see God? He must be dead. Our Lord says: “No man can see me and live”. He means here death before death.
“God alone is free and uncreated, and thus He alone is like the soul in freedom… And when she, the soul, emerges into the unmixed light, she falls into Nothingness so far from the created nothing, that of her own power she cannot return to her created something. God with His uncreatedness upholds her Nothingness and preserves her in His Something. The soul has dared to become nothing and so cannot of herself return to herself, for she has departed so far from herself, before God comes to the rescue.”
“If this work is to be done, God alone must do it, and you must suffer it to be. Where you truly go out from your will and your knowledge, God and His knowledge surely and willingly goes in and shines there clearly. Where God will thus know Himself, there your knowledge cannot subsist and is of no avail. Do not imagine that your reason can grow to the knowledge of God. If God is to shine divinely in you, your natural light cannot help towards this end. Instead, it must become pure nothing and go out of itself altogether, and then God can shine in it with His light, and He will bring back in with Him all that you forsook and a thousand times more, together with a new form to contain it all.” (Meister Eckhart Sermons and Treatises, Trans. M. O’C. Walshe, Vol.1, p.40.)
“You should know what a man is like who has come to this: we can well say he is God and man. Observe, he has gained by grace all that Christ had by nature, and that his body is so fully suffused with the noble essence of the soul, which she has received from God and the divine light, that we may declare: That is a man divine! Alas, my children, you should pity such people, for they are strangers, unknown to anybody. All who ever hope to come to God may well be mistaken in these folk, for they are hard for strangers to perceive; none can truly recognise them but those in whom the same light shines. This is the light of truth. It may well be that those who are on the way to the same good but have not yet attained it, can recognise these perfected ones of whom we have spoken, at least in part… But note, you must pay good heed, for such people are very hard to recognise. When others fast, they eat, when others watch, they sleep, when others pray, they are silent – in short, all their words and acts are unknown to other people; because whatever good people practise while on the way to eternal bliss, all that is quite foreign to such perfected ones. They need absolutely nothing, for they are in possession of the city of their true birthright… They do more eternal good in an instant than all outward works that were ever performed externally.” (Meister Eckhart Sermons and Treatises, Trans. M. O’C. Walshe Vol.2, p.269.)
Finally I am going to read some beautiful passages to you from Sermon 19 – the one where he is talking about St Paul rising up and with open eyes seeing nothing. Much of it refers to the Song of Songs, or as Eckhart calls it, the Song of Love, from which he quotes: “In my bed at night I have sought him whom my soul loves, and not found him.” She sought him in her bed, which means that whoever clings or hangs on to anything less than God, his bed is too narrow. All that God can create is too narrow. She says: “I sought him all through the night”. There is no night that is without light, but it is veiled. The sun shines in the night, but it is hidden from view. By day it shines and eclipses all other lights. So does the light of God, it eclipses all other lights. Whatever we seek in creatures, all that is night (i.e. veiled light, not absence of light!). I mean this: whatever we seek in any creature, is but a shadow and is night. Even the highest angel’s light, exalted though it be, does not illumine the soul. Whatever is not the first light is all darkness and night. Therefore she cannot find God. “I arose and sought him all about, and ran through the broad ways and the narrow. Then the watchmen – they were the angels – found me, and I asked them if they had seen him whom my soul loves. But they were silent.” Perhaps they could not name him. “When I had passed on a little further, I found him that I sought.” The little, the trifle that she missed him by is a thing I have spoken of before. He to whom all transient beings are not trivial and as nothing will not find God. Hence she said: “Having passed on a little further, I found him that I sought.” When God takes form in the soul and infuses it, if you then take Him as a light or a being or as goodness – if you recognise anything of Him – that is not God. See, we have to pass over that little and discard all that is adventitious and know God as One.”
She does not name “Him whom her soul loves” – refers to him only like that. “There are four reasons”, says Eckhart, “why she does not name Him. One reason is that God is nameless. Had she given Him a name that would have had to be imagined. God is above all names, none can get so far as to be able to express Him. The second reason is that when the soul swoons away into God with love, she is aware of nothing but love. She thinks that everyone knows Him as she does. She is amazed that anyone should recognise anything but God. The third reason is, she had no time to name Him. She cannot turn away from love for long enough to utter another word but ‘love’. The fourth is, perhaps she thinks He has no other name but ‘love’. With ‘love’ she pronounces all names.”
But listen also to what he says about Knowledge and Love:
“…knowledge is better than love. But two are better than one, for knowledge includes love. Love infatuates and entangles us in goodness, and in love I remain caught up in the gate, and love would be blind if knowledge were not there. A stone also possesses love, and its love seeks the ground. If I am caught up in goodness, in the first effusion, taking Him where He is good, then I seize the gate, but I shall not seize God. Therefore knowledge is better, for it leads love. But love seeks desire, intention. Knowledge does not add a single thought, but rather detaches and strips off and runs ahead, touches God naked and grasps Him in His essence.” (Meister Eckhart Sermons and Treatises, Trans. M. O’C. Walshe Vol.1, p.258 on knowledge.)
And to those of us still mystified, Meister Eckhart adds a little comment at the end of Sermon 56. What he had to say he had to say, willy nilly and regardless of who understood or not. He says:
“Whoever has understood this sermon, good luck to him. If no one had been here, I would have had to preach it to this donation-box.”