In many ways, Meister Eckhart has had to wait seven centuries to be heard. Born in 13th century Germany, much of his life was spent in a monastery.
‘Meister’ means ‘master’, and is an academic title from the University of Paris. An admired member of the Dominican Order, he was often sent to reform ailing priories. He was known as a spiritual counsellor, a safe haven for many who sought God in their life but found themselves troubled by the state of the institutional church.
He was best known, however, as a preacher, and he used his native German language to startling effect. Eckhart preached a spiritual vision which distrusted both ritual and church dogma. Instead, he aimed at nothing less than the spiritual and psychological transformation of those given to his care. To this end, Eckhart made the disposition of the human heart the key to all things.
Conversations with Meister Eckhart is an imagined conversation with this 13th century mystic, around such themes as detachment (which he famously placed above love), spirituality, God, the soul and suffering. But while the conversation is imagined, Eckhart’s words are not; they are authentically his own.
One of his controversial claims was that God cannot be described. Indeed, in one sermon, he went so far as to say ‘We must take leave of God.’
‘The church became very hostile towards him, accusing him of heresy,’ says Simon Parke, the editor of the book. ‘He spent his last days on trial before the pope. They also tried to ensure he’d be forgotten when he died, and nearly succeeded. But he’s more popular now than ever.’
Eckhart’s teaching is an adventure, not a system; a call, not a creed. The depth and universality of his work means it can be contained by no established religion, but draws to itself seekers of truth from all backgrounds. Says Simon Parke: ‘Here we have a teaching open to all, but possessed by none, and therefore free like a butterfly in the garden of the soul. Its perhaps my most challenging and rewarding conversation.’
About the author
Simon Parke was a priest in the Church of England for 20 years and is now a freelance writer. His most recent books are The One-Minute Mystic, Shelf Life, and The Enneagram: A Private Session with the World’s Greatest Psychologist. He is also the author of The Beautiful Life. Simon runs, leads retreats, meets with people looking for a new way in their life, and follows the beautiful game.
The conversation presented here is imagined; but Eckhart’s words are not. All of Eckhart’s words included here are his own, taken from his writings and teachings. The questions recorded are sometimes mine; used for dramatic effect or to clarify what is being said. But equally often they are Eckhart’s own, as he would often ask himself questions and then answer them! If sometimes there is an air of comedy, then it is in keeping with Eckhart’s own undoubted comic touch and startling use of language and ideas. No wonder he caused offence.
The only alteration to his original words has been the occasional addition of a link word to help the flow; or once or twice, the removal of a sub-clause in a sentence, to aid clarity. But such amendments never alter Eckhart’s meaning. After all, to discover his meaning is the reason for this adventure; and so these are his words. Yes, even the bit about the angel called Conrad…
TWO – The spiritual life
Little is known of Eckhart’s early life, beyond that he was born into a wealthy family, in Tambach south of Gotha in Thuringia in 1260. The next recorded fact is that he joined the Dominican Order, or The Order of Preachers, at the age of 15.
This order had been founded by St Dominic, in 1215, to combat heresy; and was famous for its intellectual tradition. By the time of Eckhart, however, and in response to changing times, it was more open to the contemplative and mystical elements of spirituality, whilst retaining its academic roots. One of its earliest battles had been with the Albigensians in the South of France. These people believed that all matter was evil, and that only spirit was good. This belief threatened Roman Catholic views on the incarnation of Christ, and they were savagely persecuted. If all matter was bad, then Christ was bad.
But sometimes, as I listened to Eckhart stressing the supreme value of the soul at the expense of material things, I wondered if he showed similar tendencies to the Albigensians. Perhaps I’d learn more as we discussed the spiritual life in our next session. I was certainly interested to hear what he had to say about this. I knew he distrusted rigid spiritual programmes, as he did not believe there was a single way to God to be trod by all. But did he have any practical suggestions as to the steps we might take? After all, he’d looked after enough novices in his time, guiding them in their spiritual lives. So could he give me a method for spiritual progress? I suspected he might, for as one of his students intriguingly told me, ‘The usefulness of Meister Eckhart is not always appreciated.’
The cool of the early morning is beginning to give way to a warming breeze, as we settle again in the north cloister.
S.P: So, to start us off, Meister Eckhart, some pastoral advice, please, for anyone feeling a little insecure or battered today. What should they do?
M.E: Do exactly what they would do if they felt secure.
S.P: And that’s it?
M.E: That’s enough. Do exactly what you would do if you felt secure.
S.P: I like it. And I can guess your reason for this sense of security.
M.E: Whoever has God as a companion is with him in all places, both on the street and among people, as well as in church or in the desert or in a monastic cell.
S.P: How is this so?
M.E: It is so because such a person possesses God alone, keeping their gaze fixed on God, and thus all things become God for him or her. Such people bear God in all their deeds and in all the places they go, and it is God alone who is author of all their deeds. If we keep our eyes fixed on God alone, then truly he must work in us; and nothing, neither the crowd, nor any place, can hinder him in this. And so nothing will be able to hinder us, if we desire and seek God alone, and take pleasure in nothing else. We must learn to maintain our inner solitude regardless of where we are or who we are with.
This seemed a helpful pointer in the spiritual life. But did it require any particular practice I wondered. Or did I have to work that out for myself?
S.P: So what spiritual practice does God ask of me?
M.E: God expects but one thing of you, and that is that you should come out of yourself in so far as you are a created being made, and let be God be God in you.
S.P: I think often it is my mind which is busy being me; and probably isn’t me at all.
M.E: You must know that God is born in us when the mind is stilled and sense troubles us no longer. All things become simply God to you, for in all things you notice only God.
S.P: So God won’t fit around my schedule?
M.E: Light and darkness are incompatible, like God and creatures. Enter God, exit creatures. Man is quite conscious of this light. Directly he turns to God, this light begins to glint and sparkle in him, telling him what to do and what to leave undone, accompanied by many a shrewd hint of things he has previously ignored and known nothing of.
S.P: So God is like a light in us, guiding. But how do we know what is of the light and what isn’t? Even the Inquisition imagines it fights for the light.
M.E: God attracts you to God and you are aware of many a virtuous impulse, albeit uncertain whence it comes. This interior mood is in no way due to creatures, for what creatures effect and direct comes in from outside. But your inner self is stirred by this force, and the freer you keep yourself, the more truth and discernment are yours.
S.P: Things often come back to discernment, I find!
M.E: No man was ever lost save for the reason that once having left his inner ground, he has let himself become too permanently settled abroad. The truth is within his own ground; not beyond it. So he who is determined to see this light and find out the whole truth, must foster the awareness of this birth within himself, in his own ground. In this manner will his powers be lit, and his outer being as well. As soon as God inwardly stirs his ground with the truth, its light darts into his powers, and lo and behold, that man knows more than anyone could teach him!
S.P: Anyone? Even the wisest teacher?
M.E: Of course. As the prophet says, ‘I know more than I was ever taught.’
S.P: So what about all your wonderful Dominican libraries?
M.E: A master of life is worth more than a thousand masters of books.
S.P: So going back a little – you’re saying that light does not come to me via my gifts? The world may applaud them, but they can never be the place where God’s truth is lit in me?
M.E: This inner birth is inconsistent with darkness and sin, and occurs not in the powers, but in the ground and essence of the soul.
S.P: You don’t spell it out, but obedience seems very important in your teaching about the spiritual life.
M.E: True and perfect obedience is a virtue above all virtues, and there is no work, however great it may be, that can take place or be performed without this virtue, and even the very least of works, whether it be saying or listening to Mass, praying, meditating or whatever you can think of, is more usefully done when it is performed in true obedience.
S.P: Carry on.
M.E: Take any work you can think of and however small it may be, true obedience will make it nobler and better for you. Obedience brings out the very best in all things, and never neglects what is good. And obedience need never be anxious - for there is no form of goodness which it does not possess in itself.
S.P: So obedience become happiness?
M.E: When we go out of ourselves through obedience, and strip ourselves of what is ours, then God must enter into us; for when someone wills nothing for themselves, then God must will on their behalf just as he does for himself. Whenever I have taken leave of my own will, putting it in the hands of my superior, and no longer will anything for myself, then God must will on my behalf, and if he neglects me in this respect, then he neglects himself. And so in all things in which I do not will for myself, God wills on my behalf.
S.P: I can understand that. But what if I myself want or will something to happen? I probably do this five times before breakfast.
M.E: In true obedience, there should be no ‘I want this to happen or that to happen’ or ‘I want this or that thing’ - but only a pure going out of what is our own. And therefore in the very best kind of prayer, there should be no ‘give me this particular virtue or way of devotion,’ but rather, ‘Lord, give me only what you will, and in the way that you will.’ This kind of prayer is as far above the former, as heaven is above earth. And when we have prayed in this way, then we have prayed well, having gone out of ourselves and entered God in true obedience. And just as true obedience should have no ‘I want this’ in it, neither should it hear ‘I don’t want’, either; for ‘I don’t want’ is pure poison for all true obedience.
S.P: Then what is the most powerful form of prayer, if it is not to ask for what we want?
M.E: The most powerful form of prayer, and the one which can gain almost all things and which is the worthiest work of all, is that which flows from a free mind. The freer the mind is, the more powerful and worthy; the more useful, praiseworthy and perfect prayer and work become. A free mind can achieve all things.
S.P: That’s very quotable. And a free mind can achieve all things, because it is not tied to any particular outcome?
M.E: A free mind is one that is quite untroubled and unfettered by anything; which has not tied itself to any way of being or devotion, and does not seek its own interest in anything. Rather, it is forever immersed in God’s most precious will, having left its own. There is no work which men and women can perform, however small, which does not draw from this leaving its power and its strength.
S.P: So prayer strengthens us?
M.E: We should pray with such intensity that we want all the members of our body and all its faculties - eyes, ears mouth, heart and all our senses - to turn to this end; and we should not cease in this until we feel that we are close to being united with him who is present to us, and to whom we are praying: God.
S.P: Would this be easier if we all withdrew from the world and became hermits?
M.E: No. The person who is in the right state of mind is so, regardless of where they are and who they are with. While those who are in the wrong state of mind will find this to be the case wherever they are, and who ever they are with. Those who intend and seek only God, nothing can obstruct these people; for they are united with God in all their aims. And so, just as no multiplicity can divide God, in the same way, nothing scatters or divides a person such as this, for they are one in the One in whom all multiplicity is one, and who is non-multiplicity.
S.P: So the good mind is the single mind, rather than the distracted mind. The distracted mind loves different options as it approaches God. The single mind knows only inner oneness.
M.E: Those who must constantly receive God in one external thing after another, seeking God in diverse ways - whether in particular works, people or places – well, such a person does not possess God. The least thing can impede them, for they neither have God and nor do they seek, love and intend him alone.
S.P: They want add-ons?
M.E: And so it is that both bad company and good company give them problems; both the street and the church; both evil words and deeds and good words and deeds - for the obstruction lies within themselves, since in them God has not become all things.
S.P: So how can God become all things within us?
M.E: The real possession of God is to be found in the heart; in an inner movement of the spirit towards him and striving for him, and not just in thinking about him always and in the same way. We should not content ourselves with a God of thoughts - for when the thoughts come to an end, so too shall our God! Rather, we should have a living God who is beyond the thoughts of all people and all creatures. That kind of God will not leave us, unless we ourselves choose to turn away from him.
S.P: To possess God in our being, rather than in our thoughts? That is an inspiring vision.
M.E: Whoever possesses God in their being possesses him in a divine manner, and he shines out to them in all things; for them, all things taste of God, and in all things it is only God’s image they see. God is radiant in them; inwardly, they are detached from the world, and inwardly formed by the loving presence of their God. Compare it to someone with a great thirst. Although they may be doing something other than drinking with their minds turned to other things, the thought of a drink will not leave them for as long as they thirst. Whatever they do, whoever they are with, whatever they strive for - the greater and more intense becomes the thought of a drink.
We should be similarly permeated with a sense of the divine presence and be inwardly formed with the form of our beloved God; be so established in him that we see his presence effortlessly, and more than this, remain unencumbered by anything and free of all things. But this will initially demand from us as much application and concentration, as any art form does when one attempts to learn it.
S.P: The sun may be out, and this cloister most peaceful – but I must confess to feeling a little deflated. I thought I was doing rather well in the spiritual life before meeting you.
M.E: No one should ever judge what they do positively, or as having been done so well that they become so casual or self-confident in their actions that their reason grows lazy or slumbers.
S.P: Point taken.
M.E: But they should always elevate themselves with the twin faculties of reason and will, thus activating the very best in them selves; and protecting them selves against all harm by means of understanding in matters both internal and external. Thus they will not fail in anything anywhere but will make constant spiritual progress.
S.P: So it is not about judging our personal performance; but about looking at what it is that we will.
M.E: Nothing should terrify us as long as we will the good; and nor should we be depressed if we cannot fulfil our will in what we do. In that case, we should not regard ourselves as being far from virtues, for virtue and all that is good live in a good will. And what you desire with your whole will, that is your possession, and neither God nor any creature can take it from you; as long as your will is undivided and is a truly godly will, fixed in the present moment.
S.P: The temptation is to think I can do it later.
M.E: Do not say: ‘I should like to do it later,’ which would refer to the future, but rather, ‘I wish it to be so now.’ Note this: when I want something even if it is a thousand miles away, then it is more truly mine than something in my lap which I do not want to have.
S.P: The will is a powerful tool, I agree; especially if the will has a cause. Then, as I have witnessed, anything can be done and endured without complaint.
M.E: This is so. It is a natural truth that when someone undertakes a task with some other purpose in mind, then the final goal for the sake of which they undertake the work is more precious to them, whilst their labour is less important - affecting them only with respect to the cause that drives them on. He who builds - cutting wood and dressing stone in order to erect a house which will stand against the summer heat and winter cold – this person has his heart set first and foremost on the house, and would never chisel a stone and get down to the work if it wasn’t for the sake of the house. And the same is true, although to an incomparably higher degree, when someone performs all their works for the sake of God.
S.P: OK. But how do we know when such deeds are performed for the sake of God? In other words, how do we know when our will is a right will?
M.E: The will is perfect and right when it has no selfhood and when it has left itself, having been taken up and transformed into the will of God. Truly, the more this is so, the more it is right and true. And with such a will you can achieve all things, whether this be love or whatever it is that you wish.
S.P: But other people seem to perform much greater works than me. This is how I feel. They all seem much more loving.
M;E: There are two things you must consider here, my friend: the first is the essence of love, and the second is the work or the outflow of love. Love resides essentially in the will alone, so whoever has more will, has more of love.
S.P: I haven’t heard it put in that manner before.
M.E: But there is something else, and that is the outflow or work of love. On the face of it, this is easily visible as inwardness and devotion and celebration. Such is not always the best way, however, for it is possible these things arise not from love at all, but that is nature giving people an experience of sweetness and delight; or perhaps heaven’s influence or something conveyed by the senses. Suffice to say, those who experience such things most frequently are not necessarily the best people.
S.P: So spiritual ecstasy and visions are not important signs of health?
M.E: No. And as such people grow in love, it may well be that they have less sense and awareness of it. And only then it can be seen whether they truly possess love; by the extent to which they remain wholly faithful to God without heightened feelings of this kind.
S.P: So let me catch breath: you’re saying that those who have special spiritual experiences are not necessarily the most loving people; that love is more about the will than being caught up in some seventh heaven; and that the test comes when the ecstatic experiences dry up?
M.E: You must sometimes leave your state of exaltation for the sake of something better out of love; to perform an act of love where this is needed, either spiritually or physically. For instance, If you knew of a sick person who needed a bowl of soup from you, then I would consider it far better for you to leave your ecstasy for the sake of love and to administer to the needy person in a love that is greater.
S.P: I can see that. I suppose we seek heightened spiritual experiences because they give us consolation of some sort.
M.E: You should know that the friends of God are never without consolation, for their greatest consolation is what God wills for them, whether it be for their comfort or not.
S.P: And that requires much trust, as I think you’re aware.
Meister Eckhart smiles a mischievous smile.
M.E: We recognise true and perfect love by whether or not someone has great hope and confidence in God; for there is nothing which testifies more clearly to perfect love than trust. Wholehearted love for another creates trust in them, and we will truly find in God everything that we dare hope for in him - and a thousand times more. Just as we can never love God too much, neither can we have too much trust in him. Nothing we may ever do can ever be so appropriate as fully trusting God.
S.P: But you must know, Meister, that God can sometimes feel very distant and not at all easy to find.
M.E: You should know that a good will cannot fail to find God, even though the mind sometimes feels that it misses him; and indeed often believes that he has departed altogether! What should you do then? Do exactly the same as you would if you were experiencing the greatest consolation –
S.P: Do exactly what you would do if you felt secure -
M.E: Learn to do the same in the greatest suffering, and behave in exactly the same way as you did in consolation. There is no better advice on how to find God than to seek him where we left him; do now what you did when you last had him, and then you will find him again. But in truth, a good will can never lose God or fail to find him.
S.P: I suspect most of us believe our will is good.
M.E: Many people say that their will is good when they do not have God’s will at all, but wish to keep their own will and instruct the Lord to do this and that! Although St Paul spoke at length with our Lord and our Lord with him, this helped him not at all until he gave up his own will and said: ‘Lord, what is it you wish me to do?’ And it was just the same when the angel appeared to Mary: nothing which they said to each other could have made her the mother of God. But as soon as she gave up her will, and left herself, she immediately became a true mother of the Eternal Word and conceived God straight away. And nothing makes us true so much as giving up our will. Indeed, just suppose we went so far as to give up the whole of our will, daring to abandon all things for God’s sake, both inner and outer – well, then we would have accomplished everything. But not before.
S.P: Take leave of ourselves?
M.E: Put it like this: if someone were to leave themselves entirely, then truly they would be so rooted in God that if anyone were to touch them, they would first have to touch God. They would be wrapped in God, as my head is wrapped in my hood – so that if anyone wants to touch me, they must first touch my clothing. And however great your suffering may be, if it first passes through God, then he must be the first to endure it. Indeed, in the truth which God is, no suffering which befalls us is so small, whether discomfort or inconvenience, that it does not touch God infinitely more than ourselves; and does not happen to him more than to us, in so far as we place it in God. But if God endures it for the sake of the benefit for you which he has foreseen in it; and if you are willing to suffer what he suffers and what passes through him to you - then the experience takes on the colour of God, and shame becomes honour; bitterness is sweet and the deepest darkness becomes the clearest light! Then everything takes its flavour from God, and becomes divine. Thus we shall grasp God in all bitterness as well as in the greatest sweetness.
S.P: So light and darkness are but one and the same for those who know God. But what do we do with sin? Can even this become sweet?
M.E: It is not being tempted to sin which is sinful; but consenting to sin; it is wanting to lose your temper which is sinful. Virtue, like vice, is a matter of the will.
S.P: And yet we do often will it.
M.E: Truly, to commit a sin is not sinful if we regret what weve done. God is a God of the present. He takes you and receives you as he finds you now, not as you have been, but as you are now. God willingly endures all the harm and shame which all our sins have inflicted upon him, as he has done for many years, in order that we should come to a deep knowledge of his love and in order that our love and our gratitude should increase and our zeal grow more intense, which often happens when we have repented of our sins.
S.P: I’m not always sure if I’ve repented or not. I may regret something, but that is not quite the same. Regret just makes me unhappy.
M.E: There are two types of repentance. One type draws us spiralling downwards into yet greater suffering; plunging us into such distress that it is as if we were already in a state of despair. This repentance finds no way out of suffering, and nothing comes of it.
But repentance which is of God is very different. As soon as we become ill at ease, we immediately reach up to God and vow with an unshakeable will to turn away from all sin forever. Thus we raise ourselves up to a great trust in God and gain a great sense of certainty.
S.P: So true penance is not beating our selves with a stick?
M.E: Many people believe they are achieving great things in external works such as fasting, going barefoot and other such practices which are called penances. But true penance consists in turning entirely away from all that is not God or of God, and in turning fully and completely towards our beloved God in unshakeable love, so that our devotion and desire for him become great. If any external work hampers you in this - whether it’s fasting, keeping vigil, reading or whatever else - you should freely let it go, without any worry that you might thereby be neglecting your penance. God does not notice the nature of the works themselves; only the love, devotion and spirit that is in them. For he is not so much concerned with our works as with the spirit with which we perform them all.
S.P: So it is we who distance ourselves from God by our spirit?
M.E: If your great sins have ever driven you so far from him that you regard yourself as not being close to God, then you should still regard God as being close to you. It can be very destructive if we regard God as being distant from us, since whether we are far from him or near to him, he is never far from us and always close at hand. If for some reason he cannot remain within, then he goes no further than the door.
At that moment, the monastery gates creak open as the beer delivery enters the court yard. There is a little noise, but Eckhart does not appear distracted. And I’m now thinking about his work as a spiritual counsellor, when presumably no two people are the same; or wish to be treated as the same.
S.P: I notice that you are hesitant to prescribe any particular way in the spiritual life. You speak of attitude, but don’t say we should do this, or that or the other. Does this mean we have to find our own way?
M.E: People should remember that if they see a good person who is following a way which is different from theirs, then they are wrong to think that such a person’s efforts are all in vain. If someone else’s way of devotion gives them problems, then they are ignoring the goodness in it as well as the person’s good intention, and this is unhelpful. It is best that we see the true feeling in people’s devotional practices and not scorn the particular way anyone follows. Not everyone can follow the same way, nor can all people follow only one way; and nor can we follow all the different ways or everyone else’s way!
S.P: Well, that’s true. It would all get very exhausting, mimicking other people’s devotions.
M.E: Indeed. So you should not confine yourself to just one manner of devotion, since God is to be found in no particular way, neither this way nor that way. That is why they do him wrong who take God in just one particular way. They take the way rather than God. Intend God alone, and seek him only. Then whatever kinds of devotional practice come to you, be content with those. For your intention should be directed at God alone and nothing else. Then what you like and dislike is all right, and you should know that to do it differently is to do it wrongly.
S.P: There is much ‘faddery’ in spirituality; the latest good idea. A new voice appears, and everyone says ‘This is it!’ Next year it will be something else, of course.
M.E: They who desire so many ways of devotion push God under a bench. Whether it is the gift of tears or sighings or the like – none of this is God. If these come to you, all well and good; if they do not come to you, that too is all right.
S.P: I suppose when choosing our devotions, the church usually says we should follow Jesus’ way.
M.E: Our Lord fasted for forty days but no one should attempt to imitate him in this. As I have often said: I regard the work of the spirit as being far better than the work of the body.
S.P: But how does this work out in practice? If we don’t follow Christ precisely, what do we do?
M.E: Christ fasted for 40 days. You should follow him in this by considering what it is which you are most inclined or ready to do; and then you should give it up, while observing yourself closely. Sometimes it is more difficult to refrain from uttering one word, than it is to refrain from speaking altogether. And it is far more difficult being solitary in a crowd than it is being alone in the desert.
S.P: So it’s about observing ourselves in order to understand our particular compulsions; those things we are most inclined to do. Of course, some of us may not wish to discover these things!
M.E: Willingly discover all things from God, and follow him, and all will be well with you. Then you will be able to accept honour and comfort; and if dishonour and discomfort were to be your lot, you could and would be just as willing to endure these too. They can justifiably feast who would be just as willingly fast.
S.P: I’m aware that I fall far short of that vision; yet do feel my heart to be in the right place. So why do I struggle? Does it have to be so hard?
M.E: God, who is faithful remember, allows his friends to fall frequently into weakness only to remove from them any false prop on which they might lean; for he desires to give them great gifts, solely and only on account of his goodness. And he shall be their comfort and support while they discover themselves to be a pure nothingness in all the great gifts of God. The more essentially and simply the mind rests on God, the more receptive we are to him in all his precious gifts; for human kind should build on God alone.
S.P: I know some who have felt so estranged from God they’re quite unable to take the bread and the wine.
M.E: Whoever wants to receive the body of our Lord does not need to scrutinize what they are feeling at the time; or how great their piety or devotion is. Rather, they should notice the state of their will and attitude of mind. You should not place too much weight on your feelings, but emphasise rather the object of your love and striving.
S.P: So it’s will above feelings; I can see that’s wise. But even so, what if I feel too empty and cold to go to our Lord – let alone speak of love for him?
M.E: Then the greater is your need to go to your God, for he shall inflame you and make you burn with zeal! -
S.P: - Like a cold fire reawakened? -
M.E: - And in him you shall be sanctified, joined and made one with him alone. Only in the sacrament and nowhere else shall you truly find that your mind and all your scattered senses - previously separated from each other and too inclined to tend downwards - are now united, gathered up together, and properly offered to God. Thus you shall be united with him and made noble through his body. Indeed, in the body of our Lord, the soul is so united with God that none of the angels can distinguish or discover a difference between them; for where they touch God they touch the soul; and where they touch the soul, they touch God! There has never been such an absolute union, for the union of the soul with God, is far closer than that of the body and the soul, which creates a person. And let me tell you - this union is far closer than when someone pours a drop of water into a barrel of wine; the latter would be water and wine, whereas the former are so united with each other that no creature in heaven or earth can find a difference between them!
S.P: A union such as that is almost beyond imagining; and sounds wonderful as you speak it. But in the daily routine of life, these higher things are not always on my mind.
M.E: Beware of two things about yourself which were also true of our Lord. He too had higher and lower faculties and their respective functions were different. His higher faculties enjoyed eternal blessedness while at the same time his lower faculties found themselves in the greatest suffering and struggle on earth, and neither of these two interfered with each other. In you too the higher faculties should be raised to God, offered up to him and united with him. Indeed, we should assign all suffering to the body, the lower faculties and the senses; whereas the spirit should rise up with all its power and immerse itself freely in its God.
S.P: We are to call on our higher self to keep us inwardly free, whatever our circumstances?
M.E: Staying inwardly free requires rigorous commitment and two things in particular. The first is that we seal ourselves off internally, so that our minds are protected from external images which therefore remain outside and do not unfittingly associate with us or keep our company or find a place to lodge in us.
S.P: Right. And the second way of staying inwardly free?
M.E: The second is that neither in our inner images, whether these be representations of things or sublime thoughts, nor in external images or whatever happens to be present to us, should we allow ourselves to be dissipated or scattered or externalized through multiplicity. We should apply and train all our faculties to this end, maintaining our inwardness. For the inward person, of course, even external things possess an inward and divine manner of being.
S.P: This is work which requires discipline.
M.E: When the understanding is corrupted in a young person, or in anyone at all, then it must be trained again with much effort. For however much it may enjoy a natural affinity with God, as soon as it is wrongly directed and becomes fixed on things created, growing used to them and becoming swamped with their images, then it becomes weak in this part and dispossessed of itself and hindered in its noble striving. Once we have weaned ourselves from such things and distanced ourselves from them, we can begin to act wisely, freely delighting in each act or choosing against it. Further, if there is something we like and enjoy and which we indulge in with the assent of our will, whether it is something we eat or drink or whatever it may be - then this is something an unpractised person cannot do without being damaged in some way.
S.P: But it’s work, work, work?
M.E: No. A man should strive with the divine presence without having to work for it. He should get the essence out of things and let the things themselves alone. That requires at first attentiveness and exact impressions, as with the student and his art. So the soul must be permeated with the divine presence, and inwardly formed with the form of the beloved God who is within her, so that she may radiate the presence of God without working at it.
S.P: What I hear is that we are not all at the same level of awareness or possibility; that we need to learn how to handle the different gifts given to us.
M.E: We must train ourselves not to seek or strive for our own interests in anything, but rather to find and grasp God in all things. For God does not give us anything in order that we should enjoy its possession and rest content with it; nor has he ever done so. All the gifts he has ever granted us in heaven or on earth were made solely in order to be able to give us the one gift, which is him self. For there can be no attachment to a particular way of behaving in this life, nor has this ever been right, however successful we may have been. Above all, we should always focus on the gifts of God, and always do so afresh. For instance, I know of someone who greatly desired something from our Lord, but I told her that she was simply not properly prepared and that if God gave her the gift in this unprepared state, it would then be lost.
S.P: Gifts need careful handling?
M.E: If we are not ready for it, the gift will be spoiled and God with the gift. That is why also God cannot always give what we ask for. We do violence to him and wrong by obstructing him in his natural work, through being unprepared. We must learn to free ourselves from all our gifts, not holding on to what is our own or seeking anything - either profit, pleasure, inwardness, sweetness, reward, heaven or our own will. God never gives himself, or ever has given himself, to a will that is alien to himself, but only to his own will.
S.P: Like attracts like.
M.E: Where he finds his own will, he gives himself and enters in with all that he is. Thus it is not enough to give ourselves up just the once, together with all that we have and are capable of. Rather, we must renew ourselves constantly, thus maintaining our freedom and simplicity in all things.
S.P: So we constantly start afresh. We get up each morning and start afresh. How should we do this?
M.E: Whoever wishes to start a new life or work, should turn to their God, desiring with all their strength and devotion that he should give them that which is best; that which is most precious to him and honourable. While they desire and intend nothing for themselves except the most precious will of God and that alone. They should then accept what God gives them as being directly from him, holding it to be quite the best thing of all; and wholly content with it.
S.P: I sense here that the essence of the spiritual life is the call to leave our distracted lives, and focus.
M.E: We should only ever do the one thing, since we cannot do all things. We best choose the single way, and in that way make all things our own. For if we determined to do all things, this and that, abandoning our own path for another which seems for a moment more favourable, then this would lead to great instability. We should not start one thing today and another thing tomorrow worrying that we might miss out on something. With God, we can miss out on nothing. We can no more miss anything with God, than God can. Accept the one way from God, and draw all that is good into it. And if it turns out that two things that you do are not compatible, this is a clear sign they are not from God. As Jesus said, ‘A kingdom divided against itself will not stand.’
S.P: Yet you wish also for us a balance between our inner and outer works. You want us to do good, as well as be good. So how is this done? Must we abandon our inner life to take an active role in the world?
M.E: It is not that we should abandon, neglect or deny our inner self, but rather, learn to work precisely in it, with it and from it in such a way that inwardness leads to effective action and effective action takes us back to inwardness; and so we become used to acting without any compulsion. We should concentrate on the inner prompting, and act from it; but if external activity destroys the inner life, then give priority to the latter. Of course, if both are united as one, then that is best for cooperating with God.
S.P: That’s helpful. And in the meantime, other people are none of my business? When I am feeling low, I tend to imagine they have everything I don’t; and suffer accordingly.
M.E: No, do not be concerned either with the nature or the manner which God has given someone else. If I were reckoned good enough and holy enough to be considered among the saints, then people would discuss and question whether this was by grace or nature and be troubled by it. But this would be wrong of them. Let God work in you, acknowledge that it is his work, and do not be concerned about whether he achieves this by nature or by means beyond nature. Both nature and grace are his! So let him work how and where and in the way it suits him to do so.
Be like the man who wanted to channel a spring into his garden and said: ‘I’m not concerned with the type of channel used, whether made of iron, wood, bone or rusty metal – as long as I get the water!’ So just let God act, and be at peace. As far as you are in God, you are in peace; and as far as you are outside God, you are outside peace. Lack of peace comes from created things and not from God. Nor is there anything to fear in God, and nothing in him to cause sadness; his being can draw only love from us. It is true: they who have all they wish for, know joy; but no one has this except those whose will is one with God’s will. May God grant us this union!
M.E: And note this: if it were possible to empty a cup completely and to keep it empty of anything that might fill it, free even of air; then without doubt, the cup would deny and forget its own nature - and be drawn up to heaven by its emptiness! In the same way, being naked and poor and empty of all created things draws the soul up to God. Likeness and warmth also draw us upwards.
S.P: Explain please.
M.E: Well, we have a visible analogy for this when material fire ignites wood, for then a spark takes on the nature of fire and becomes identical to the fire.
S.P: Like attracts like; warmth attracts warmth, and the two become one. Is this what you mean when you talk about the ‘just person’? In that God is drawn to them, like to like, because of who they are?
M.E: The just man or woman lives in God, and God lives in them; for God must be born in the just, as they are in him, since every one of the just person’s virtues gives birth to God and gives him delight. And not only every virtue of the just, but also every good work, however small, which is done through the just person and in justice, these too give God joy. Those who are slow of understanding should simply accept this; while those who are enlightened should know it.
S.P: I may be with the slow of understanding.
M.E: The just person seeks nothing through their works, for those whose works are aimed at a particular end or who act with a particular ‘why’ in view, are servants and hirelings. If you wish to be formed and transformed into justice then do not intend anything in particular by your works and do not embrace any particular agenda, neither in time nor eternity, neither reward nor blessedness, neither this nor that; such works in truth are dead. Indeed, even if you make God your goal, all the works you perform for his sake will be dead, and you will only spoil those works which are genuinely good. You will be like a gardener who is supposed to plant a garden but who pulls out all the trees instead, and then demands his wages. That is how you will spoil your good works. And so, if you wish to live and wish also for your works to live too, then be dead to all things and reduced to nothing. It is a characteristic of creatures to make one thing from another; but it is a characteristic of God to make something from nothing. And so if God is to make something of you or in you, then you must first yourself become nothingness. Enter your own inner ground, and act from there; and all your works shall be living works.
S.P: Thank you, because again, I find that helpfully put. But now, perhaps a more personal question, Meister. As we know, you’ve been defending yourself against all sorts of accusations over the past year. Over a hundred of your sayings have been condemned by the inquisition; while Herman de Summo and William de Nidecke, have been less than honourable witnesses for the prosecution. You must be glad of friends at a time like this.
M.E: If you love yourself, then you love everyone as much as yourself. But as long as there is someone who you do not love as much as yourself, then in truth, you have never properly loved yourself. A person who loves themselves and everyone as much as themselves is doing the best thing. Now some people say: I love my friend, who is a source of good things in my life, more than I do someone else. This is not right, though; it is imperfect. But we must accept it, just as some people cross the sea with a slack wind and still reach the other side. It is the same with those who love one person more than another; although this is natural enough. But if I loved him or her as much as I loved myself, I would be just as happy that whatever happens to them, whether joy or pain, death or life, should happen instead to me; and that would be true friendship.
S.P: Friendship with your self brings friendship with the world; and a friendship without strings. So are the perfect somehow beyond both joy and sorrow; untouched by either?
M.E: This is wrong.
S.P: Why is it wrong?
M.E: I tell you there can never be a saint who is so great that they cannot be moved in this way. I say rather that it may be given to a saint in this life that nothing can distract them from God.
S.P: But surely as long as words can move you to joy or sorrow you are imperfect!
M.E: This is not the case! And it was not true even for Christ himself. Christ was so hurt by words that if a single creature were to suffer the griefs of all, this would not be so terrible as the suffering of Christ. This was the consequence of the nobility of his nature and the holy union of human and divine nature in him. Therefore I say that there has never been, nor shall there ever be, a saint who has not felt both the pain of suffering and the delight of joy.
S.P: That sounds more real to my experience. Pure equanimity in all circumstances is surely beyond us?
M.E: I shall never reach the point where a hideous noise is as pleasing to my ears as sweetly sounding strings. But this much is possible: that a rational God-shaped will may be free of all natural pleasures and, upon hearing such a noise, commands the sensual will not to be bothered by it, so that the latter replies: ‘I gladly agree!’ Then conflict will turn to joy, for what we must strive for with great effort becomes our heart’s delight; and only then does it bear fruit.
S.P: Can I ask about something else I hear? Because there are those who say that they have advanced so far that they are free even of good works.
M.E: This cannot be.
M.E: It was after receiving the Holy Spirit the disciples first began to practice virtues.
S.P: And as you have said before, it’s about the integration of our inner and outer life; they flow in and out of each other.
Meister Eckhart’s hooded head nods slowly and deliberately.
M.E: The external work, its size and extent, length and breadth, cannot increase the quality of the inner work to any degree whatsoever; since this is quality in itself. Thus the outer work can never be minor, when the inner work is a major one; and the outer work can never be good when the inner work is without value. The inner work always determines in itself all the dimensions of the outer work, its whole breadth and extent. The inner work receives and draws the whole of its being from nowhere but the heart, and in the heart of God. There it receives the Son and is born as the Son in the womb of the heavenly Father. But this is not the case with the outer work, which receives its divine goodness through the inner work; as something given and poured out via the descent of the Godhead which then becomes something else – something dressed as distinction, number and divisibility, all of which properties are remote from God and alien to him.
S.P: I’m also aware that you’ve said, and I hope I’m quoting you accurately: ‘What we take in, in contemplation, we pour out in love.’
M.E: Be sure of this, that if someone acts in such a way that their actions diminish other people, then they are not acting on the basis of God’s kingdom. And this is also true: when works are performed purely from our human nature, they are troubled and agitated. When we act within God’s kingdom, we are at peace in all that we do. But if our works are rooted in ourselves, then they are not perfect, for works in themselves are multiple and bring us into multiplicity, which is why we are often troubled in what we do.
I tell you truly: all that we do outside the kingdom of God is dead, but if we act within God’s kingdom, then our works shall live. Therefore the prophet said that God no more loves his works than he is troubled and changed by them. And the same is true of the soul when she acts from the basis of God’s kingdom. Whether such people act or refrain from acting, they remain the same, for their works are neither given them nor taken from them.
S.P: You compare our soul to God, and I want to return to that. But as our discussion of the spiritual life closes, perhaps some final words on prayer? I see, for instance, some novices being taught there in the East Cloister. What would you say to a novice on arrival at the monastery?
Meister Eckhart stands up and walks around a little, as if seeking wisdom. He speaks from the arched window, a dark silhouette against the bright sunlight outside.
M.E: There are nine things that we should bear in mind with respect to the words of prayer.
Meister Eckhart ignores my interruption.
M.E: Firstly, they have God as their object and receive their character from him. Secondly, they have been given us by God through Holy Scripture which was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and thus something divine has been stamped upon them. Thirdly, they express something of God and commend it to us, namely his mercy, his justice and so forth, his paternal nature and his love. Fourthly, the name of God is often uttered in prayer, which is sweet on the lips of those who love and is powerful for those in need. Fifthly, prayer is a conversation with God, and lovers take great delight in exchange that is intimate and secret. In the sixth place, the words of prayer often bring us to see our personal failings, as well as those of human nature, so that we are perhaps humbled in ourselves. In the seventh place, the vanity, fakery and inconstancy of the world are frequently considered and recalled, creating within us a disdain for the world. In the eighth place, the misery of the damned or of sinners is sometimes brought to mind. In the ninth place, the blessedness of the saints is often evoked, thus awakening our desire.
Truly, after that list, I feel like the novice, as I see for the first time the Dominican Master in action. I am suddenly compelled to ask one final question.
S.P: And are you happy?
Meister Eckhart looks up into the sky, and his eyes stay transfixed there as he speaks.
M.E: God is happy in himself; and all creatures, which God must make happy, will enjoy the same happiness as God, and in the same manner that he is happy. But be sure that in this unity, the spirit transcends every mode, even its own eternal being, and together with the Father soars up into the unity of the divine nature where God conceives himself in absolute simplicity. There, in that act, the spirit is no longer creature, but is the same as happiness itself, the nature and substance of the Godhead, the beautiful attititude of its own self and all creatures.
Some apple juice from the monastery press is brought to us, and we take a break. The bell will soon call us to Sext. In the meantime, however, Eckhart leaves me to consult with a figure who has been loitering awhile. It turns out to be Henricus de Cigno, the Dominican provincial of Teutonia, who will accompany him to Avignon tomorrow, along with three lectors. Certainly he has the support of those around him, which must be of some consolation; but you never know with Eckhart. As for myself, I check my notes; and then wander across to the vegetable garden, where a young monk works.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published January 2010