The Founding of the Society
In 1987, at the instigation of Marco Pallis, the Eckhart Society was founded by Ursula Fleming and Father Conrad Pepler OP. This was part of the plan to get Meister Eckhart rehabilitated. The Society has flourished ever since despite Ursula’s sad and early death from cancer in 1992.
The impact of Ursula’s work has been enormous. There is now a veritable industry of publications about Eckhart, both books and articles in scholarly journals. Eckhart is becoming ever more widely known. Dag Hammarskjöld, the former Secretary General of the United Nations always had Eckhart’s works by his bedside. The Meister Eckhart Gesellschaft was established in Germany in 2004. Each year there are many doctoral theses published on Eckhart in different languages, and the constant demand for back issues of The Eckhart Review are proof if more were needed of Ursula’s success in helping to rehabilitate the Meister. Ursula’s book Grasping the Nettle (1990) has been translated into Russian and is now being translated into Czech.
Aims of the Society
The Eckhart Society aims to make known or better known the teachings of Meister Eckhart ( c.1260 – 1328 ). Scholars in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism have found in his teaching a resonance and sense of common ground with the teaching of their own religious traditions. Several of them have written books about his thought. He is thus a very important mediator in interreligious dialogue both social and formal.
Peter Talbot Willcox, Chairman of The Eckhart Society from 1992 - 2000, who died suddenly on 25th September 2000, wrote:
The formal purposes of the Society are succinctly stated in the brochure (Hyperlink to pdf of brochure) which includes a membership application form. But the reasons for joining are not exhausted by that statement: for inevitably it omits much more than it includes and is at most a signpost that indicates some specific destinations. Not until we look carefully at the Society and its activities, and hear from its members how they have benefited, do we begin to get the feel and taste of it, see what it is about and hear stories that are witness to its effectiveness.
Perhaps the most pertinent questions that must be satisfactorily answered by those whose aim is to strengthen their own faith and their capacity for service to the world are "Why Eckhart? What makes Eckhart so important that we should join this Society?" Members would give somewhat different answers and it is not possible here to cover them all (although at some future date it might be worthwhile to collect a symposium on them). We can however attempt what might be called a legendary description of the subjective experience of one or two known cases.
The first Chairman and founder of the Society, Ursula Fleming, many years ago went to a wise and respected Buddhist friend and asked "Can an intelligent person be a Christian?" The Buddhist answered with the suggestion that she should try reading Meister Eckhart. Thereafter, following initial incomprehension, she answered her original question affirmatively and backed up her decision by becoming a lay Dominican and, eventually, by founding the society. Her successor as Chairman quite independently and without ever having met her, consulted the same Buddhist in 1976 when seeking instruction on contemplative prayer and meditation. He was advised to explore prayer of the heart as taught by the fathers of the Church, and was eventually introduced to Ursula Fleming and of course Meister's Eckhart's work. What was it, then, in Eckhart that helped to convert two Christian doubters into believers?
Here it is worth looking at just a few of the possible reasons for doubt - especially those that can be resolved by study of Eckhart. Some of the most common of these in simple terms are: disbelief in the miraculous foundations of Christian tradition; difficulty in comprehending the relevance to one's own condition of the life and death of Jesus nearly 2000 years ago; difficulty in discovering where to direct one's conscious attention in prayer; problems of relating exclusive Christian claims to the experience of other faiths - especially those which are attractively free of complicated theological images and language.
It seems that after a period of serious study of Meister Eckhart's sermons and writings and after reading and hearing some of the helpful commentaries by theologians and contemplatives, many of these and other difficulties begin to dissolve. Furthermore, some hitherto impenetrable biblical texts begin to shine with a new light. The world itself and other people may be experienced differently, and it may also become possible to explore with greater understanding the shared elements of other religions. We cannot easily pick out the specific parts of Eckhart's teaching that have the power to act as catalysts or vehicles of grace to bring about such changes of perspective - except, perhaps, his uses of paradox to shatter preconceived notions and accretions of opinion. As is the case with other authentic teaching, the absorption of his ideas takes place both consciously and subconsciously, so that realization of their meaning can strike unexpectedly, like the sudden shaft of sunlight that illuminates some unfamiliar corner of a garden on a cloudy day.
It would seem, however, that his teaching on what he called "the birth of God in the soul" can speak particularly powerfully to-day to some of to-day's doubting Christians. Eckhart shows in convincing metaphysical terms how men and women may be granted realization of the presence of God within their souls. He is not speaking about a notion to be held in the head but true union: he argues that God may impart his life and very essence to the believer. Here is a powerful alternative to much modern teaching on how God and we are related.
For those to whom the works of Meister Eckhart are already familiar the Society provides through its annual conference, its recorded lectures, its Review and its address list, the opportunity to enter into dialogue with those who share their interest and who are travellers along the same or parallel paths.