All mystics face the same problem when trying to communicate their experience; for the origins of the mystic experience lie both beyond conscious thought and beyond the bounds of human language. How then to speak of it? In the attempt to say the unsayable, most mystics turn to symbols. They create symbols around which their ideas can gather. The symbol itself is not the ultimate truth; for truth cannot be named. But the symbol speaks some of the truth, enshrining an aspect of the mystery; and is as specific as language can be.
Hugh of Saint Victor (1096–1141) was one such mystic; and with his writings widely available across the libraries of Europe, Eckhart will have been well aware of him. Hugh understood the dilemma facing mystics: ‘It is impossible to represent invisible things except by means of those which are visible,’ he said. ‘Therefore, all theology of necessity has recourse to visible representations in order to make known the invisible.’
Eckhart shared Hugh’s understanding of symbols. He knew of their importance; but knew also of the need to get beyond them. It was in his reflections on God that this tension is most evident. He wishes to say clear and understandable things about things that are not clear and understandable; and this leads him into perhaps his most provocative language and thought, particularly as he considers the Trinity. So, I am looking forward to this particular session. First, however, as we settle on our seats, I address an issue which has just arisen in the monastery kitchens…
S.P: I’ve just been speaking with Brother Gabriel in the monastery kitchen. We were talking about his life here, and the various responsibilities he has; tasks which he must fit in around the eight daily offices. All very interesting; and then he told me about his name. He says he took that name from the angel Gabriel who visited the Virgin Mary to announce what was to be. And it made me wonder, by way of nothing at all: do all the angels have names?
Meister Eckhart proves rather dismissive of my suggestion.
M.E: The angel’s name was no more Gabriel than it was Conrad.
S.P: It might be kind not to tell him that; he’s quite proud of it.
M.E: No one can know the angel’s name. No master and no mind has ever penetrated to the place where the angel is known by name, and perhaps indeed it has no name. The soul too is nameless, by the way. It is no more possible to find a name for the soul than it is to find one for God, even though some weighty tomes have been written about this! But in so far as she chooses to act, we give her a name. Consider a carpenter for instance. This is not so much his name as the name of what he does and of which he is master. ‘Gabriel’ took his name from the act which he proclaimed, since ‘Gabriel’ means ‘power’.
S.P: Well, with that little kitchen query cleared up, how are we to approach God in our discussion? It is hard if, as you say, God is to remain nameless.
M.E: God in himself is so far above that no form of knowledge or desire can ever reach him. Desire is deep, immeasurably so. But nothing that the intellect can grasp, and nothing that desire can desire, is God. Where understanding and desire end, there is darkness and there God’s radiance begins.
S.P: Yet you have just returned from None, and in a while will attend Vespers! Is this not you seeking God both in form and through rituals?
M.E: To seek God by rituals is to get the ritual and lose God in the process, for he hides behind it. On the other hand, to seek God without clever device is to take him as he is, and so doing, a person lives by the Son and is the life itself.
I may have looked quizzical at this point; he seemed to feel the need to explain.
You should understand that all external works which we may practice serve only to constrain nature; they don’t remove it.
In order to eradicate nature it is spiritual works that we must perform. Now there are many people who rather than denying themselves, actually maintain themselves in their own self esteem.
But truly, all these are deceived, for this is contrary to so many things – contrary to human reason, contrary to the experience of grace and contrary to the testimony of the Holy Spirit! I will not say that those who hold external observance to be the best shall be damned; but only that they shall not come to God without great purification in purgatory.
For these people do not follow God, if they do not abandon themselves; rather, they follow the self-esteem in which they hold themselves.
S.P: You do not appear to be a great fan of external observances.
M.E: God is no more likely to be found in external observances than he is in sin.
S.P: I’m sure the Pope will appreciate that observation.
M.E: Yet these people, those who delight in external devotions, have great status in the eyes of the world, which comes from their likeness to it. For those who understand only physical things, have a high regard for the kind of life which they can perceive with the senses. Thus, one ass is adored by another.
I’m warming to this man. But soon I am being taken back to the soul’s essence.
We should understand the function of the inner self, which is contemplation in knowledge and love. It is here that the beginning of a holy life lies. And with these activities of knowledge and love the essence of the soul is described. If we can only comprehend this essence in these two powers, then these are the noblest activities which exist in us.
S.P: So God isn’t mediated through other things?
M.E: Every kind of mediation is alien to God. God says, ‘I am the first and the last’. There is neither distinction in God nor in the persons of the Trinity according to the unity of their nature. The divine nature is one, and each Person is both one and the same One as God’s nature. The difference between essence and existence is apprehended as one. Difference is born, exists and possessed only where this oneness no longer obtains. Therefore, it is in oneness that God is found, and they who would find God must themselves become one. In labels which separate, we find neither oneness, essence, God, rest, blessedness or contentment. Be one then, so that you shall find God! And truly, if you are properly one, then you shall remain one in the midst of difference, and the many and separate will be one for you and shall not be able to impede you in anyway. The one remains equally one in a thousand times a thousand stones, as it does in four stones; and a thousand times a thousand is just as certainly a simple number as four is a number.
So if we are inwardly one; any amount of multiplicity we may experience in life is also lived as one. We should perhaps become simpler people?
M.E: To be full of things is to be empty of God. To be empty of things is to be full of God. You have to start first with yourself and leave yourself.
I was aware that one of Eckhart’s favourite Jesus sayings, was this: ‘He who would save his soul, must lose it.’ God must act and pour himself into us when we are ready, in other words, when we are totally empty of self and creatures.
So stand still and do not waver from your emptiness.
S.P: We are invited to be people who exist only in God, seek oneness only with God, and take this stripped-down attitude into the multiplicity and variety of life?
M.E: A pagan master says that the one is born from the all highest God; it is his nature to be with the one. Whoever seeks oneness at a point beneath God, deceives themselves.
S.P: So our attempts at oneness with created things, those things at a point beneath God, are at best misguided, and at worst, destructive of our spiritual health?
M.E: The masters say that the power through which the eye sees is quite different from that through which it knows it sees. The former, the seeing, is something which it takes from the colour, rather from that which is coloured. Th us it is of no consequence whether that which is coloured is a stone or a piece of wood, a person or an angel: the essential thing is only that it has colour. In the same way I say the noble person derives their whole essence, life and happiness solely from God, with God and in God – and not from knowing, seeing or loving God or anything of that kind; not in knowing that they know God. For how should we know ourselves to know God, when we do not even know ourselves?
S.P: Good point.
M.E: Indeed, it is not ourselves and other things that we know, but rather God alone, if we rest in the root and ground of blessedness. But when the soul knows that she knows God, then she has knowledge simultaneously of God and of itself.
S.P: Everyone has to start somewhere, though; with things they can understand and know. You do tend to demand the impossible.
M.E: It is true that here below, in this life, that power by which we know and understand that we see, is nobler and better than that power by which we see, since nature begins her work at the weakest point while God begins his at the point of perfection. Nature makes a man and a woman from a child, and a chicken from an egg, while God makes the man or woman before the child and the chicken before the egg.
Nature first makes the wood warm and then hot, and only then does she generate fire, while God first gives all creatures being and only later, within time and yet timelessly and individually, he gives them all that belongs to being.
S.P: So we were being, before we were creature – and that is still how God perceives us. The trouble is, though, as creatures, those familiar with this world, it’s much easier for us to relate to nature which is all around us, than to God, as nature works in time and in a realm of knowing, which we can understand.
M.E: Of course. But although there cannot be happiness without conscious awareness that we see and know God, God forbid that our happiness should be founded on this. If someone else is happy with this, then all well and good, but I do not want it. The heat of fire and the essence of fire are quite different from each other, and are astonishingly far apart by nature, even though they exist in close proximity within time and space. Seeing God and seeing ourselves are wholly separate and distinct. One with one, one from one, one in one and one in one in all eternity. Amen! He is holding up one finger, and repeatedly hitting the air with it, laughing. But it’s time for me to raise another matter; one which I’m sure the Pope will also have views on.
S.P: I’m aware that your talk of the Trinity has caused some controversy. Many are disconcerted by it, because it is not traditional Christian teaching.
M.E: If there were a hundred persons in the Godhead, they would see only one God. Unbelievers and some uneducated Christians are astounded at this; even some priests know as little about it as a stone does, and take three in the sense of three cows or three stones. But whoever can conceive of distinction in God without number or quantity, knows that three persons are a single God.
S.P: And so talk of the Trinity is unhelpful?
M.E: In the oneness of God, the divinity of God is perfected.
I say this: that God could never give birth to his sole-begotten Son if he were not one. All that God works in creatures and in his divinity, God derives from his oneness. I say further that God alone possesses oneness. That is the defining characteristic of his being, and it is on account of this that God is God.
Everything which is multiple depends on the one, but the one depends upon nothing. The wealth and wisdom and truth of God are entirely one in God; and not just one, but also oneness. But we are different – we want one thing and then another! Now we practice wisdom and now some art or other.
It is because the soul does not possess the one, that she will never find rest until all things are one in God. God is one; this is the happiness of the soul, her adornment and her peace.
S.P: And the angels? They may not have names – but can they help?
M.E: They proclaim God’s kingdom just as a king is proclaimed by his number of knights. For this reason he is known as the Lord of hosts. But however exalted they may be, this whole host of angels must assist and cooperate with God, if God is to be born in the soul. This means they have delight, joy and bliss in the birth, though they do not bring it about.
No creature can bring it about, since it is the work of God alone and the angels can only serve him in it.
S.P: So how is God, God? God is one – but what defines this nameless presence?
M.E: Do you know how God is God? God is God because there is nothing of the creature in him. He has never been named within time.
S.P: Whereas much of the creature is caught up in time?
M.E: Creatures, sin and death belong to time, and in a certain sense they are all related. But since the soul has fallen away from time – if indeed she has fallen away from the world – then there is neither pain nor suffering there. Indeed, even tribulation turns to joy for her there. If we were to compare everything which has ever been conceived of, regarding delight and joy, bliss and pleasure, with the delight which belongs to this birth, then it would all be as nothing.
S.P: So wait a minute: getting back to God – if God is nameless and uncreated, where is God?
M.E: God is in all things.
S.P: But how so? How is the uncreated God in created things?
M.E: The more he is in things, the more he is outside them: the more in, the more out and the more out, the more in! I have already said on a number of occasions that God created the whole world perfectly and entirely in the now. And God still creates now everything he made six thousand years ago or more, when he created the world. God is in all things, but in so far as God is divine and in so far as God is rational, he exists more properly in the soul and in angels; that is, in the innermost and highest parts of the soul, than he does anywhere else. In that place, to which neither time nor the light of any image ever penetrated, in the highest and inner most parts of the soul, God creates the whole of this world.
Everything which God created six thousand years ago and everything which he shall create over the next thousand years, if the world lasts that long, he creates in the innermost and highest part of the soul. Everything which is past, present and future, God creates in the innermost part of the soul.
S.P: And is this a God who we can pray to?
M.E: As I was sitting somewhere yesterday, I repeated a phrase taken from Our Father: ‘May your will be done’. But it would have been better to say, ‘May will itself be yours’ – that my will may be his will and that I may be him. This is what the prayer means.
S.P: A merging of wills; not easy. Any advice?
M.E: Be asleep with respect to all things! In other words, know nothing of time, creatures or images. The masters say: if someone who is soundly asleep were to slumber for a hundred years, then they would have no knowledge of any creature, of time or images. And then you could become aware of what God is doing within you.
S.P: So what should we call the nameless God? Surely we have to call God something in order to enter into a relationship? Or do we just refer to him as the God with no name?
M.E: God has many names in scripture. But I say that if someone perceives something in God and gives it a name, then that is not God. God is above names and nature. We read of a good man who turned to God in his prayer and wished to give him a name. Then a brother said: ‘Be silent! You are dishonouring God!’ There is no name we can devise for God.
But some names are allowed – names which the saints have used and which God has made sacred in their hearts and bathed in a golden light.
S.P: So the call is something like: ‘Name God; but sit light to the name’. Which makes me wonder how we are to approach God?
M.E: We should say, ‘Lord, with the same names which you have so consecrated in the hearts of your saints and bathed in your light, we approach you and praise you.’ Secondly, we should learn that there is no name we can give God which praises him or honours him adequately, since God is above names and beyond words.
S.P: You almost seem to be saying: the less said about God the better?
M.E: Now pay attention to this – Eckhart leans forward.
God is nameless, for no one can either speak of him or know him. Accordingly, if I say ‘God is good’, this is not true. I am good, but God is not good! In fact, I would rather say that I am better than God, for what is good can become better and what can become better can become the best! Now God is not good, so he cannot become better. Since he cannot become better, he cannot become the best. These three are far from God, ‘good’, ‘better’ ‘best’, for he is wholly transcendent. If I say again that God is wise, then this is not true. Or if I say that God exists, this is also not true. He is being beyond being: he is a nothingness beyond being. Therefore St Augustine says: ‘The finest thing we can say of God is to be silent concerning him from the wisdom of inner riches.’ Be silent therefore, and do not chatter about God, for by chattering about him, you tell lies and commit a sin. If you wish to be perfect and without sin, then do not prattle about God.
S.P: I do try not to prattle. Anything else we should avoid?
M.E: Also you should not wish to understand anything about God, for God is beyond all understanding. If you understand anything about him, then God is not in it; and by understanding something of him, you fall into ignorance; and by falling into ignorance, you become like an animal, since the animal part in creatures is that which is unknowing. If you do not wish to become like an animal therefore, do not pretend that you understand anything of the indescribable God.
S.P: What then should I do?
M.E: You should sink your being into his being. Your you and his him should become a single me, so that with him you shall know in eternity his unbecome being and his unnameable nothingness.
S.P: It is hard to love nothingness. So how should I love God?
M.E: You should love God without your head; that is to say, the soul should become headless and stripped of her mental nature. For as long as your soul is mental, she will possess images. As long as she has images, she will possess intermediaries, and as long as she has intermediaries, she will not have unity or simplicity. As long as she lacks simplicity, she does not truly love God, for true love depends on simplicity.
Therefore you soul should lose all mental nature and be left headless, for if you love God as ‘God’ or as ‘spirit’ or as ‘person’ or as ‘image’ – well, all this must be abandoned. You must love him as he is a non-God, a non-spirit, a non-person, a nonimage.
Indeed, you must love him as he is one, pure, simple and transparent, and far from all duality. And we should eternally sink into this one, thus passing from something into nothing.
S.P: Heaven sounds quite expensive, in a way.
M.E: On the contrary, heaven is cheap because it is on sale to everyone at the price they can afford.
Encouragement stirs in my battered psyche. But I have an ethical concern to raise now.
S.P: Meister Eckhart – how do you know what God’s will is? If God is indescribable, then surely his will is indescribable?
M.E: My answer is that if it were not God’s will even for a moment, then it would not exist.
I gesture at all around me, both near and far.
S.P: So everything around us – the sun, the weeds, the cracked flag stones – this is all God’s will?
M.E: Whatever is, must be his will. If God’s will is pleasing to you, then whatever happens to you, or does not happen to you, will be quite perfect. Those who desire something other than God’s will get their just desserts, for they are always in trouble and misery. They must constantly endure violence and injustice, and suffering is their perpetual lot. And this is rightly so, since they act as if they were betraying God for money, as Judas did. They love God for the sake of something else; something which is not God. And when they get what they want, they have no further concern with God.
S.P: So if God’s will is whatever is, is there nothing fresh to expect from God? It seems hard that we should desire neither blessing nor consolation.
M.E: Be certain of this: God never ceases to give us everything. Even if he had sworn not to, he could still not help giving us things. Indeed, it is far more important for him to give than it is for us to receive. But we best not focus on this, for the less we strive for it, the more God will give us. God intends by this only that we should become richer still and be all the more capable of receiving things from him. Sometimes, for instance, it is my custom when I pray, to say these words: ‘Lord, what we ask you for is so small. If someone asked me for it, then I would do it for them, and yet it is a hundred times easier for you to do than for me, and your desire to do it is greater too. And if we were to ask you for something greater, it would still be easy for you to give it. The greater the gift, the more willingly you give it.’ God is ready to give us great things if only we can renounce everything.
S.P: Only when we’re a blank canvass can his likeness become imprinted on our soul?
M.E: I have often said the following which is a sure truth: if someone was famished to the point of death and was then offered the finest food, if God’s likeness was not in it, then they would prefer to die rather than taste or enjoy it. And similarly, if this person were freezing to death, they could not touch or put on any type of clothing – unless God’s likeness was in it!
S.P: Now that’s what I call purity of heart!
M.E: Indeed. Purity of heart is being detached and removed from all physical things, gathered and enclosed in oneself, and then springing forth from purity into God and being united there.
S.P: Moving on, you suggest that creation should delight in God. But does God delight in us?
M.E: If we take a fly as it exists in God, then it is nobler in God than the highest angel is in itself. Now all things are equal and alike in God, and are God. And this likeness is so delightful to God that his whole nature and being floods through himself, in this likeness. This is as delightful for him as when you let a horse run free in a green field which is completely flat and even. It is the horse’s nature to expend its energy in springing and bucking in the meadow: this is his delight and accords with his nature. In the same way it is delightful for God to find likeness. It is a pleasure for him to pour out his nature and his being into likeness, since likeness is what he himself is.
S.P: I’m enjoying the idea of God as a delighted horse running freeing a flat green field.
M.E: And now I will say something I have never said before.
S.P: A moment while I sharpen my quill.
M.E: God delights in himself. In the delight in which God delights in himself, he delights also in all creatures. Not as creatures; but in creatures as God. In the delight in which God delights in himself, in that same delight he delights in all things.
S.P: So the attraction is one way?
M.E: While God is not drawn to creatures, since he sees only himself, creatures are indeed drawn to God, since all that has ever emerged from God looks back to him.
I am aware our time is nearly done; and the afternoon sun on the wane, lengthening the cloistered shadows. But there is one more feature of Eckhart’s thought I need to speak about.
S.P: Meister, I’m aware of an important distinction you make, when you talk about God; and its one that might surprise many.
Eckhart innocently raises his eyebrows.
You distinguish between God and the Godhead. What is the difference between them? M.E: All that is in the Godhead is one, and of this no one can speak. God acts, while the Godhead does not act. There is nothing for it to do, for there is no action in it. It has never sought to do anything. The difference between God and the Godhead is that one acts, and the other does not.
S.P: So hang fire just for a moment while I think out loud: you’re saying that because of our entrapment in our timebound and multiple selves, God is revealed to us a person who acts. But – and it’s a big but – behind this revelation, this appearance, is the unrevealed Godhead, the ‘ground’ of God, who is above and beyond all description and distinction; the one you call ‘The Nameless Nothing’.
Can the enlightened soul see this Godhead?
M.E: Whenever the soul sees anything that is imaged, this is an imperfection in her. Even if she sees God, in so far as he is ‘God’, or in so far as he is something imaged or triune, this also is an imperfection in her. But when all images are removed from the soul and she perceives the single oneness, the pure being of the soul, resting in herself, then she receives the pure formless being of divine unity which is being beyond being. O miracle of miracles! Both Eckhart’s arms are held up in the air; his palms skywards.
What a wonderful receptivity it is when the being of the soul can endure nothing but the pure unity of God.
S.P: So it’s seeing without seeing. And as we retreat from the world of image, to a place of utter sparseness, so we experience the birth of God in our soul.
I look at my notes and see one more question. In a way, he has answered it already. But who knows, something else might emerge?
And so finally, Meister Eckhart, have you anything more to say to the question: what is God?
M.E: In the fifth book of On Contemplation Bernard writes: ‘What is God?’ And answers: ‘That being in comparison with which nothing better can be conceived.’ And Seneca asks: ‘What is God?’ And answers: ‘All that you see and all that you cannot see. Thus the greatness attributed to him is such that nothing greater can be conceived.’
S.P: So that’s Bernard and Seneca. But what do you say?
M.E: God is infinite in his simplicity and simple in his infinity. Therefore, he is everywhere and is everywhere complete. He is everywhere on account of his infinity, and is everywhere complete on account of his simplicity. Only God flows into all things, penetrating their essence. Nothing else flows into something else. God is in the innermost part of each and every thing; in fact, only in its innermost part, and he alone is one. And someone who truly loves God as the one, and for the sake of the one and of oneness, is not at all concerned with his power or wisdom, for these things are multiple and relate to multiplicity. They are not even concerned with his goodness in general. Oneness is higher, prior and simpler than goodness itself.
S.P: Meister Eckhart, thank you. We will meet for the final time after Vespers.
“God” is an extract from Conversations with Meister Eckhart by Meister Eckhart with Simon Parke.