While there is no evidence as to the exact date of Meister Eckhart’s birth, scholars generally agree that he was born around 1260, in or near Erfurt which lies midway between Munich and Hamburg and north-east of Frankfurt, probably in a village called Tambach. He is thought to have entered the Dominican Priory in Erfurt as a novice when he was fifteen years old.
The first definite date of his life is 18 April 1294 when he preached the Easter Sermon at the church of St Jacques in Paris. The manuscript of this sermon describes him as Lector Sententiarum or ‘Reader of the Sentences’ which are those of Peter Lombard. When students had completed their studies in the Arts they were required to lecture on these Sentences,which formed a standard theological textbook. This suggests that Eckhart had been in Paris for several years before this; 1286 has been suggested as the year of his arrival in the city.
Late in 1294 he was called back to be Prior of Erfurt and Vicar of Thuringia (the local representative of the Provincial). After 1298 it was no longer possible for one person to hold both posts and it is not clear whether Eckhart held on to one or other of these posts.
In 1302 he returned to Paris as Magister actu regens (professor with a teaching commitment). It is now thought that he began to write, in Latin, his major tripartite work during this, his second stay in Paris and not during his third stay. A year later, in 1303, he was called back to be the first Provincial of the new province of Saxonia (which included Erfurt), that had been carved out of the old, and much larger, province of Teutonia. He held this post until 1311 when he was sent back to Paris again.
In 1313 he was posted to Strasburg as a special vicar for the Master of the Dominican Order. While there he appears to have spent a major part of his time giving spiritual counsel to convents of Dominican nuns and some houses of Beguines. A large number of his German sermons were given in Strasburg.
In 1323 he moved to Cologne. It seems likely he taught theology to the young friars in the Dominican Studium. It was here that he came in contact with Johannes Tauler and Heinrich Suso.
In 1326 he was called before the Inquisition by the Franciscan Archbishop of Cologne, Henry of Virneburg, who was one of the seven Imperial Electors able to elect the German king, which was a preliminary stage in the king becoming the Holy Roman Emperor. It is not clear why the Archbishop proceeded against Eckhart, but it is known he was very conservative and may have found some of Elkhart’s ideas troublesome. Further, at this time the feud between the Franciscans and the Dominicans was at its height.
Eckhart objected to being tried by the Archbishop’s court and appealed to the Pope to judge his case. When this was granted he walked the 500 miles to Avignon.
Eckhart died in Avignon in 1327 while participating in the Papal enquiry into his writings and teachings.
He left behind a considerable body of writing. The majority of his serious theological writing was in Latin, but many of his sermons and such shorter works as The Talks of Instruction were in German.
Eckhart was never himself condemned as a heretic. Twenty eight of his articles out of a total of 108, which were objected to by the Inquisitors in Cologne, were condemned by Pope John XXII who was himself later condemned as a heretic. Outline details of the processes against Eckhart and his modern rehabilitation are given below. This information was prepared by Father John Orme Mills for the 2002 Eckhart Society conference, Being Revitalised by Eckhart.
1326: The powerful Archbishop of Cologne, Henry of Virneburg, initiates the action for heresy. Eckhart was the only theologian of the first rank to be tried for heresy during the Middle Ages. Only the Pope (Pope John XXII, resident in Avignon, died 1334) could investigate a Master of Theology of the University of Paris for heresy.
1327: The case moves to Avignon. Eckhart is no longer on trial as a heretic but is now being investigated for the possible censure of various doctrinal statements which he has promised to renounce if judged heretical. Unfortunately John XXII is a poor theologian (to be later accused himself of heresy) and is heavily dependent on the Archbishop of Cologne’s support in his struggle against Louis of Bavaria (who is to become Holy Roman Emperor in 1328).
28 January 1329: Eckhart dies in Avignon.
27 March 1329: John XXII, undoubtedly at least partly under pressure from the Archbishop of Cologne, issues the papal Bull, In agro dominico(a ‘Bull’ was a major mandate of the Pope). It condemns 28 articles from Eckhart’s teaching. It also attacks Eckhart’s character in its Preface. It does not formally declare that Eckhart had been a heretic (he personally has never been condemned), but it says that ‘he sowed thorns and obstacles contrary to the very clear truth of faith in the field of the Church and worked to produce harmfuî thistles and poisonous thornbushes.’
This gravely damaged Eckhart’s good name at the official level in the Catholic Church, a state of affairs which persisted until modem times, However, copies of his sermons continued to be circulated and widely read in the later Middle Ages.
1857: There is a revival of interest in Eckhart prompted by German Romantics and Idealist philosophers (Hegel, etc.), which leads to the appearance of Pfeiffer’s edition of Eckhart’s sermons and treatises, initiating modem study of Eckhart’s works.
1936: The critical edition of his works begins to appear.
1950s onwards: The revived study of patristic theology and especially the theological revival encouraged by Vatican II made Catholics increasingly aware of the possible variety of orthodox forms of theology.
1980: The Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne, at a Mass to celebrate the centenary of the completion of Cologne Cathedral at which all the German bishops are present, refers to the ‘three great teachers in the history of the church in Cologne – St Thomas Aquinas, St Albert the Great and Meister Eckhart.’
1980: On the initiative of Ursula Fleming, a group of prominent people within the Dominican Order and outside it requests the General Chapter of the Dominican Order assembled at Walberburg ‘to examine the possibility of issuing an official declaration of orthodoxy of Meister Eckhart and rescinding the condemnation of some of his teaching contained in the Bull, In agro dominico,27 March 1329.’ The reasons for the request are stated to be:
1. that there appears now to be a scholarly consensus that his teaching is not heretical;
2. that there is growing interest in Eckhart both inside and outside the church;
3. that the condemnation gives scandal to sincere people outside the Catholic Church, both other Christians and members of non-Christian religions;
4. that Eckhart already plays a considerable role in the dialogue between Christians and Eastern non-Christian religions, and it needs to be made clear whether he is acceptable to the Church as a Christian theologian and spiritual master.
The General Chapter (n.122) charges the Master of the Order to inquire as to whether the Roman authorities would agree to consider making a new statement concerning the teaching of Meister Eckhart, and, if this were the case, to appoint a commission of experts to draw up the appropriate documents.
25 May 1983: The Master of the Order institutes the Eckhart Commission (Fr W.P. Eckhert OP of Dusseldorf, Professor A.M. Haas of Zurich, Professor Imbach of Fribourg, Professor H. Stirnimann OP of Lucerne, Dr L. Sturlese of Pisa and Fr E. Weber OP of Paris).
21 February 1986 The Commission reports back, saying that ‘on the basis of our studies it is already clear to us that a reconsideration of the teaching of Meister Eckhart is justified.’
29 June 1987: A meeting at Spode House resolves that ‘a society should be
formed to study Eckhart’s spiritual teaching, and promote interest in his writings’ – the Eckhart Society.
28 September 1987: Pope John Paul II, during an audience, says to participants in the seminary on the ‘Ecclesiastical Mission of Adrienne Speyr’:
‘I think of the marvellous history of Rheno-Flemish mysticism of the thirteenth and especially of the fourteenth centuries… Did not Eckhart teach his disciples: “All that God asks you most pressingly is to go out of yourself … and let God be God in you” [cf Walshe Sermon 13b]? One could think that in separating himself from creatures the mystic leaves his brother humanity behind. The same Eckhart affirms that on the contrary the mystic is marvellously present to them on the only level where he can truly reach them, that is, in God.’
Contact with the Vatican
30 March 1992: The Master of the Dominican Order (Fr Damian Byrne)writes to Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, enclosing a copy of the final report of the Eckhart Commission. In his letter he says:
1. In Professor Trusen’s opinion, Eckhart does not need a ‘rehabilitation’ in the canonical sense of the word, since his person, his doctrine, his apostolate or his spirituality were not really condemned. Only 28 propositions were censured, but they were taken out of their context and impossible to verify, since there were no manuscripts in Avignon. The Bull even uses the caution of saying ‘prout verba sonent’, to protect both the author and his authentic thought. According to Fr. Weber, Eckhart’s doctrine is perfectly coherent with the orthodox tradition of great theologians like the Cappadocians, Augustine, Thomas and others. T. Suarez-Nani has also proved that each of the censured propositions, when studied attentively, may be interpreted in a perfectly orthodox way.
2. I formally ask you to take into consideration the request of our General Chapter: ‘utrum … aliqua abrogation condemnationis eius a competinti auctoritate fieri possit’
(‘whether it might be possible for the competent authority to lift the censure’]… If there is really no need for a true rehabilitation, a word of appraisal of his doctrine
would certainly be a source of great joy.
15 August 1992: The Master of the Dominican Order (by then Fr Timothy
Radcliffe), in a letter to the Chairman of the Eckhart Society (Peter Talbot Willcox),
‘I wonder whether you know that we tried to have the censure lifted on Eckhart and were told that there was really no need since he had never been condemned by name, just some propositions which he was supposed to have held, and so we are perfectly free to say that he is a good and orthodox theologian. I think that Ursula would have been delighted.’
7 September 1992: The Chairman of the Eckhart Society writes to the Master of the Dominican Order, saying he is still receiving reports of people believing Eckhart to have been a heretic, and so ‘it does seem to me that further positive clarification is needed to reinforce the excellent news which you have given us.’
28 September 1992: The Master replies to the Chairman:
‘Up to this moment, no reply to the letter of Fr Damian of 30 March to Cardinal Ratzinger has been received. That is not unusual. All dealings with the Vatican take a long time to go through. Hopefully, it will arrive eventually and Meister Eckhart will take his rightful place once more in the Church. My understanding is, though, that since he was never condemned in person but only various propositions, then he himself does not need any formal rehabilitation.’
The Eckhart Society has not got on file any correspondence regarding Eckhart with the Master of the Dominican Order later than this.
Some Personal Conclusions
1. Modern scholarship gives us good grounds for thinking that the drafters of In agro dominico misunderstood at least some of Eckhart’s provocative statements.
2. The Vatican clearly considers there is no need for any action regarding Eckhart, for he is no longer seen as ‘a problem’.
3. Almost certainly there would only be a new investigation by the Vatican if an initiative was taken (it would cost about $100,000!) to have Eckhart declared to be a Doctor of the Church.
4. Such an initiative could (at least at the moment) be unsuccessful, not only because the rescinding of In agro dominico would be a bold step but also because Eckhart can easily be misread when his statements are taken out of context, as:
i. He used very freely a dialectical method of arguing, frequently placing
side-by-side seemingly contradictory statements, believing that the truth would emerge in the tension between the statements.
ii. He used a very rhetorical style particularly in his preaching, setting out to shock his audience into a new awareness of an orthodox truth. It will always be easy for a careless reader of Eckhart to think Eckhart is talking heresy, so there will always be some people likely to distrust him.
5. The writer considers that we can best serve Eckhart by conveying to people in simple lucid modem language what he is in fact setting out to say. Unfortunately this is not a terribly easy thing to do.