A succinct and very accessible summary of Eckhart’s teachings was given in a paper by John Orme Mills OP at the Eckhart Society One Day Conference in London in 2002. We present this here with some minor edits.
Ursula Fleming never pretended to be an Eckhart scholar, but no human being influenced her more profoundly than did Meister Eckhart – not even Marco Pallis, and that is saying quite a lot. When, in her teens, she abandoned her Catholic religion, intending to become a Buddhist, she turned for spiritual guidance to Pallis –mountaineer, musician and philosopher as well as a Buddhist himself – but he told her: ‘Go back to the religion of your birth. Go back to the Sacraments. And read Eckhart.’ When, having done what her spiritual guide told her, she said to him: ‘I like Eckhart but I only understand fragments of what he is saying,’ Marco Pallis replied: ‘Don’t try to understand him. Just go on reading him’
And, years later, we find her repeating this very same advice to all sorts of groups of people – saying, for example, ‘Don’t try to understand Eckhart too much. Don’t try to work it all out. Just read it.’ Really, one could easily get the idea that the writings of Eckhart were just a collection of aphorisms!
Yet it is obvious that Ursula was not at all one of those people attracted to Eckhart because they have the illusion that Eckhart lived in a gorgeously thick mystical cloud. And all the people who knew her, both admirers and critics, were aware that she was not the kind of person who believes that hard clear thinking doesn’t really matter. We find her writing:
Meister Eckhart says that the man who finds no taste of God wearies of looking for him. One of the criticisms of Christianity, and one of the reasons why many young Christians turn to the East, to Buddhism or to Hinduism, is that in Christianity there is no apparent help with method. How do we find God? How do we even start? Eckhart is one of the Christians who faces this and accepts it as a problem. Good intentions are not always enough. We need instruction in how to make ourselves fit to receive the revelation of God, to receive the eternal birth. (Fleming, 1995)
‘Help with method’ – this, perhaps surprisingly, is what she found in Eckhart. And Ashley Young, the General Secretary of the Eckhart Society, writing about Ursula’s Eckhart reader of 1988 entitled The Man from whom God hid Nothing, said that the book was above all ‘about the usefulness of Eckhart.’ (Fleming, 1995, p. xii).
Eckhart was certainly not a muddled thinker. He was an outstanding theologian at the period when scholasticism was at the peak of its prestige – in fact, when it was the dominant influence in Western European thought. And, whatever reservations many of us may have today about scholasticism, there is no doubt about the importance scholasticism gave to logical soundness in argument, to scrupulous analysis of theses, and to systematising. Eckhart knew how to organise his thoughts.
However, if what we are looking for is a guide to the spiritual life suitable for people who are not academics, obviously it will not be Eckhart’s Latin works, which were predominantly written for academics, that we will turn to, but his German sermons. Generally speaking, sermons, as a genre, are not ideal for instructing people in spiritual development in a simple systematic way, unless they are being given to a regular audience. And Eckhart’s sermons, however substantial, were always sermons, not lectures, and few were composed as a cycle – a series. The theology in Eckhart’s German sermons has foundations as solid as the theology in his Latin works, but tracing ideas in Eckhart’s German sermons usually involves jumping to and fro all over the place.
There are, though, a handful of exceptions to this general rule. And the first of Eckhart’s cycle of four sermons on the eternal birth of the Word in the ground of the soul (a sermon-cycle very probably preached to his fellow Dominicans) sums up nearly all the most important aspects of Eckhart’s teaching on spiritual maturity – teaching at the heart of what he has to say to us about ourselves (Sermons 1–4, Walshe, 2008). In this brief exploration of how Eckhart set out to help people to develop a deep spirituality I will focus mainly (though not entirely) on sermon 1. I will then turn briefly to sermon 9. The sermon numbers I use throughout are those of Walshe (2008).
Finding God Within
One of Ursula’s more provocative remarks was that human nature is such that, whatever we may seem to be doing or however far we may seem to be from the mark, we are really searching for God (Fleming, 1995). She was prompted to say this by Eckhart’s assertion that when we go out of ourselves to find God or fetch God we are making a mistake: that, on the contrary, we do not find God outside ourselves and we should not conceive him except as in us – that our best chance of finding God is where we left him.
The Birth of the Word
Yes, where we left him! Eckhart’s most distinctive teaching is probably his teaching that the eternal birth of the Word from the Father is ‘now born in time, in human nature’ … that, if nothing separates our souls and God, the birth of the hidden Word can take place in the depths of our souls. This teaching of his he refers to over and over again in his sermons. However, it is in sermon 1 that he focuses on the ways in which we must change for this birth to take place in us. As he says himself at the beginning of that sermon (Walshe, 2008, sermon 1):
‘What does it avail me that the birth is always happening, if it does not happen to me? That it should happen in me is what matters.’ So said St Augustine [he didn’t, actually!]. We shall therefore speak of this birth, of how it may take place in us and be consummated in the virtuous soul, whenever God the Father speaks His eternal word in the perfect soul.
Being Utterly Passive
‘In the perfect soul’, notice! He emphasises that an indispensable condition for this birth is that we should be living a very good Christian life. He distrusts rigid programmes for progressing in the spiritual life, saying that there is no single ‘way’ to God – contrary to what many pious people down the centuries have thought (McGinn, 2001, p. 58). What he does stress is that before anything else we must be utterly passive. Passivity, as we commonly understand the term, is the very contrary to all that is most admired in our present culture. In fact, Eckhart is not saying that we should be weak and negative and torpid (he was none of those things himself). The eternal birth takes place in the depths of the self, of the soul, beyond our senses, and he is saying that with God’s help we should acquire the capacity to inwardly empty the mind of all sense experience, of all that takes us out of ourselves.
The Dark Way to God
Incidentally, this should not be taken to mean that the withdrawal and passivity required for the birth necessarily has to involve ‘rapture’ or ‘ecstasy’. As Bernard McGinn (2001, p. 59) says ‘the dark way to God is given absolute priority’. It is of the very nature of the Divine Word to be hidden in its revelation and revealed in its hiddeness.
Learning to be Passive
All the same, Eckhart does not consider that it is easy to acquire the state of passivity he describes. He says elsewhere that it is rare for anybody untrained to reach the stage at which they are proof against disturbance. This needs hard work, and demands especially two things. The first of these is physical seclusion; the second, an ability to throw out ideas wandering into the mind, so that one ‘does not scatter oneself and get sold into multiplicity’, as he rather nicely puts it. He stresses that to still the mind one must still the body too.
Being Firmly Fixed in God
It was Eckhart’s view that whenever the mind is firmly fixed on God the senses are obedient to the mind (Fleming, 1995, p. 17, quoting Evans, 1924, p. 31). In fact, in one of the talks he gave to novices and students when he was Prior of Erfurt he said: ‘A man should accustom himself to having God present always in his disposition and his intention. Believe me, if you were constant in this way, no-one could come between you and the God who is present to you’ (Walshe, 2008, Talks of Instruction 6).
Giving up all Externals
Near the end of sermon 1, Eckhart quotes Christ’s teaching in Matthew 10:37 about abandoning all things: ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.’ Clearly he sees this teaching as telling us to give up all externals, so as to retreat into the inner ground where God enters without image in absolute stillness. And in another sermon (McGinn, 2001, p. 134, quoting Walshe, 2008, sermon 22) we find him saying: ‘You have to start first with yourself and leave yourself.’
Letting Ourselves Go
If we can learn to let ourselves go, we are in effect letting everything go. Total letting go is the way to gain all things in the God who is the real being of all (Walshe, 2008, sermon 6). ‘He who would save his soul must lose it’ (Mt 16:25) is one of Eckhart’s favourite sayings of the Lord. He tells us: ‘Now God wants no more from you than that you should in creaturely fashion go out of yourself, and let God be God in you… Go completely out of yourself for God’s love, and God comes completely out of himself for love of you’ (Walshe, 2008, sermon 13b), For, as he says in Sermon 4: ‘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.’
How do We discern the Birth in Us?
To quote Bernard McGinn (2001, p. 139):
It is in and through the deconstruction of self in detaching, letting go, relinquishing, unbecoming, that the birth of the Word in the soul takes place. Detaching and birthing are not successive stages in a mystical path but two sides of the same coin.
But how are we to know that the Divine Word has been born in us? Clearly it is not something that we know we have in the way we know we have the flu.
Discerning the birth
Well, we will know partly by the way we behave. Says Eckhart: ‘The man who rests on nothing, who is attached to nothing, though heaven and earth should fall, will remain unmoved’ (Fleming, 1995, quoting Evans, 1924, p. 115). And he also says: ‘The more and more clearly God’s image shows in us, the more evidently God is born in us’ (Evans, p. 16 ?). But we know what has happened mainly from what we are aware has happened to us. In the words of Eckhart: ‘You must know that God is born in us when the mind is stilled and sense troubles us no longer’ (Fleming, 1995, p. 16). And ‘All things become simply God to you, for in all things you notice only God’ (Walshe, 2008, sermon 4).
Must We have a Leisurely Life?
However, a much more urgent question has to be answered: Is Eckhart in effect telling us that in this world we can only share God’s life at a deep level by leading a retired and leisurely existence? In other words, that it is unlikely that the Divine Word will be born in us if a lot of our time is absorbed in a busy life in the world? To put it another away: was the mystical tradition of the nine centuries after St Augustine and, for that matter, the predominant mystical tradition of the seven most recent centuries, right in seeing the active life as something basically to be endured and to be escaped from whenever possible?
Possessing God in All Places
Talking to that group of young men in Erfurt when he was himself still quite a young man, Eckhart said: ‘Whoever truly possesses God in the right way, possesses him in all places: on the street, in any company, as well as in a church or a remote place or in their cell… Grasping all things in a divine way and making of them something more than they are in themselves cannot be learned by taking flight, but rather we must learn to maintain an inner solitude regardless of where we are or who we are with’(Walshe, 2008, Talks of Instruction 6).
Possessing God in All Things
Talking to those young men on another occasion he took a step further. He said to them: ‘Either a man must find God in works or abandon all works, but, since a man cannot in this life be without works, he must learn to possess God in all things’ (Walshe, 2008, Talks of Instruction 7).
Only Leading an Ordinary Christian Life
In sermon 55 I think we can discern the direction in which his line of thought was going. Sermon 55 is almost certainly in fact a talk given by Eckhart to his fellow Dominicans one evening. In it he is telling them what it means to live the life of detachment from the self and pure attachment to God alone. It is clearly quite a different kind of life from what most people think. Eckhart says:
You should never pray for any transitory thing: but if you would pray for anything, you should pray for God’s will alone and nothing else, and then you get everything. If you pray for anything else, you will get nothing. In God there is nothing but one, and one is indivisible. If you seek or expect anything more, that is not God but a fraction. You should seek nothing at all, neither knowledge nor understanding nor inwardness nor piety nor repose [yes, not even repose!] but only God’s will. If you seek God’s will alone, whatever flows from that or is revealed by that you may take as a gift from God without ever looking or considering whether it is by nature or grace or where it comes from or in what guise. And you need only lead an ordinary Christian life without considering doing anything special.
A Mysticism of Everyday Life
Bearing in mind the line of thinking in sermon 55, it is not surprising, really, that Eckhart comes to the conclusion that he does in his sermon 9. Sermon 9 is his famous and controversial sermon on Martha and Mary, which has for its heroine not the contemplative Mary who only wanted to sit at the feet of Jesus but the overworked Martha, whom St Luke tells us was ‘distracted by her many tasks’ [10:41]. Drawing not only on his highly personal reading of the story of Martha and Mary but on his past theologising and doubtless his own experience, he argues that it is possible for a spirituality substantially rooted in an active life to be of even greater value than the traditional life of the contemplative. This is completely contrary to the opinion of St Augustine, St Gregory and St Bernard. He abandons the long-prevailing conviction that there is an irreconcilable tension between the contemplative life and the active life. For the first time since Christianity’s early days we have a spirituality of the active life – an achievement of enormous significance almost forgotten after Eckhart was brought for trial in Avignon. It is now clear that, in spite of his emphasis upon the importance of inwardness and of abandoning materiality, Eckhart’s mysticism is (to quote Bernard McGinn’s phrase) ‘a mysticism of everyday life’.
A New Kind of Action
Sermon 9 is unfortunately not easy to read because of the many digressions in it. It is Eckhart’s basic thesis in it that both emptiness and activity are necessary in our lives: both the freedom of detachment and what he calls ‘work and activity in time’, which he says does not lessen eternal happiness and is even necessary to get to God. In fact, he believes that, in a life lived out in the world, in what he sees to be ‘a new kind of action’, in other words a spirituality rooted in activity rather than vision, a higher form of knowledge is possible than even the light of contemplative ecstasy – at least contemplative ecstasy of Mary’s kind, which is unconnected with ordinary everyday life. Martha (as Eckhart discerns her) is sufficiently mature to be able to work undisturbed in the midst of the concerns and troubles of the world, and it is Eckhart’s conviction that in a life like hers, much of it spent in the kitchen, a nobler kind of communion with God is possible than any except the highest unmediated vision. Here is his reply to the question: ‘Can we only share God’s life at a deep level by leading a retired and leisurely existence?’ I think Ursula Fleming would have approved of it.
Evans, C. de B. (trans) (1924, 1931) Meister Eckhart Doctor Ecstaticus, 2 vols. London: Watkins.
Fleming, Ursula (1995) The Man From Whom God Hid Nothing. Leominster: Gracewing.
McGinn, Bernard (2001) The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart: The Man from Whom God Hid Nothing. New York: Crossroads Herder.
Walshe, Maurice O’C (trans) (2008) The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart.
New York: Crossroads Herder.