Meister Eckhart— Mystic Philosopher (c.1260- 1328)
Meister EckhartMeister Eckhart was born to a German family of landowners. At age 15, he joined the Dominican order at Erfurt, Germany, and later spent years in Paris, Cologne and Strasburg teaching, writing, and preaching. His sermons emphasize God's presence in the individual soul, an awareness which awakens dignity and a natural outpouring of honest deeds. His radical ideas and unusual images disturbed church authorities so much that he was eventually brought to inquisitional proceedings for suspected heresy. Eckhart claimed that while he might have made some errors, he was not a heretic and his intent was to inpire listeners to do good. He died before there was a verdict to his case. His followers then and now regard his unorthodox writings as profound expressions of Christian mysticism.
- Margaret Wakeley
If Eckhart lived today, who would he be? Would he
be at the forefront of interreligious dialogue?
Meister Eckhart’s mysticism came from his own interior life, formed by the nuances of his intellectual training, his originality as a teacher, and his ability to reach people from all backgrounds through his unique use of language. He wrote in both Latin and German. The Latin works contain his more scholarly treatises and sermons, whereas the German vernacular sermons reveal a man’s soul able to stir his “readers and hearers from their intellectual and moral slumber….Meister Eckhart was not only a highly trained philosopher and theologian, but also a preacher, a poet, and a punster who deliberately cultivated rhetorical effects, bold paradoxes, and unusual metaphors.” (1)
The irony of Meister Eckhart’s life was that he was always loyal to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church as a Dominican teacher and preacher. Perhaps because of his time, his culture, and his church’s fears, Eckhart’s individuality of expression was not seen for what it truly was: a master’s ability to express thoughts and intuitions into the stages of spiritual growth and the very composition of God beyond the limiting cultural expressions of his time. If Eckhart lived today, who would he be? How would he make a living? Would he be at the forefront of international interreligious dialogue?
According to Eckhart, “God is ‘No-thing’ – but rather the Being that undergirds all reality – and we must become no-thing to be one with God.” (2) Eckhart’s “no-thing” is similar to the Buddha-nature that pervades all reality but cannot be circumscribed by one name or form. For Eckhart, the path of detachment teaches one how to let go of a thought, definition, or goal and open oneself to the God in all life who is Wisdom. He appeals to Buddhists because of his emphasis on detachment as the way to this experience of the subject as sacred. When we cling to a mental projection, we may become incapable of perceiving reality as it is. The entire focus on detachment in Buddhism witnesses, through watchful meditation, the Buddha-nature, the dharma of the universe (the rightness of the universe’s intrinsic law). The following poem, “This Mind Is Buddha,” well describes the subjective state, appreciating the suchness, the Buddha, in all natural processes:
Under blue sky,
in bright sunlight,
One need not search around.
Asking what Buddha is
is like hiding loot
in one’s pocket and declaring oneself innocent. (4)
Eckhart’s “God beyond God” describes the reality in one’s deepest soul: “God’s being is my being and God’s being is my primordial being.” (5) When the unconscious is purified – that is, made conscious – we begin to live life clearly through our original, primordial being. We become childlike, innocent, free of the encumbrances of the unconscious ego-projections that often smoke our minds. When the unconscious is cleared, God’s being has room to grow in our minds, souls, and lives. We open to life as we knew it when we were very young children.
Evelyn Underhill speaks of Meister Eckhart as a mystic philosopher and considers the rebirth of which Eckhart speaks to be the birth of the Word in the soul:
Since the soul, according to mystic principles, can only perceive Reality in proportion as she is real and know God by becoming God-like, it is clear that this birth is the initial necessity. The true and definitely directed mystical life does and must open with that most actual, though indescribable phenomenon: the coming forth into consciousness of [the human’s] deeper spiritual self, which ascetical and mystical writers of all ages have agreed to call Regeneration or Re-birth. (6)
There is a connection between childhood characteristics and connection to God inwardly. Mystical rebirth later in life means consciously choosing to unify oneself to the sacred within and without. Once you experience this enlightenment of rebirth into deification, Eckhart states:
All things are simply God to you, who see only God in all things. You are like someone who looks for quite a while at the sun, and afterwards sees the sun in what ever he looks at. (7)
The words of Meister Eckhart:
“Do not think that saintliness comes from occupation; it depends rather on what one is. The kind of work we do does not make us holy, but we may make it holy.”
“People ought not to consider so much what they are to do as what they are; let them but be good and their ways and deeds will shine brightly.”
“If a person were in such a rapturous state as St. Paul once entered, and he knew of a sick man who wanted a cup of soup, it would be far better to withdraw from the rapture for love’s sake and serve him who is in need.”
“Do not cling to the symbols, but get to the inner truth!”
“The shell must be cracked apart if what is in it is to come out, for if you want the kernel you must break the shell. And therefore if you want to discover nature’s nakedness you must destroy its symbols, and the farther you get in the nearer you come to its essence. When you come to the One that gathers all things up into itself, there you must stay.”
From the book Christian Mysticism East and West: What the Masters Teach Us, by Maria Jaoudi.
1. From the Foreword to Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defencse, translated by Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn (New York: Paulist Press, 1981) Theological Summary, p. 24.
2. Quoted in Jill Raitt, ed., Christian Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest (New York: Crossroad, 1987), p. 28.
3. Quoted from Commentary on the Book of Wisdom #154, in Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher, edited by Bernard McGinn (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), p. 169.
4. Paul Reps, ed., Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (London: Doubleday, 1989),p. 115.
5. Schurmann’s translation in Meister Eckhart: Mystic and Philosopher: “Gotes sin min sin und gotes isticheit min isticheit.” From the sermon, “Justi vivent in aeternum” (see pp. 87 and 240).
6. Evely Underhill, Mysticism (New York: New American Library, 1974), p.122.
7. The Best of Meister Eckhart, p.35.
Sincere thanks to Robert Ellsberg
Quotes from his book All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses From Our Time. "Since soon after it came out; I have used this book for daily spiritual reading and still find it inspiring." —Br. David
Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation, trans. Raymond Blakney (New York: Harper & Row, 1941); Meister Eckhart, trans. Edmund Colledge, and Bernard McGinn, Classic of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist, 1981)