Meister Eckhart and Prayer: Life's Trials
Talks given at the Eckhart Society One Day Conference at Newcastle on 18 March 2000 by John Orme Mills OP
Meister Eckhart and Prayer
Talk 3: Life’s Trials
© The Eckhart Society
One day Meister Eckhart said:
There are people who enjoy God in one way but not in another. They only want to possess God in one way of devotion and not in another. I will say no more about this, but it is nevertheless quite wrong. Whoever wants to receive God properly must receive him equally in all things, in oppression as in prosperity, in tears as in joy. Always and everywhere He is the same. (OD Wisdom 17)
Now, this sounds remarkably like the quotes with which I opened my other two talks, but here there is a difference of emphasis. Eckhart is not focusing here just on the error of trying to possess God by devotional practises of one sort or another, and becoming obsessed about which devotional practice is most likely to secure for you a control over God. The most important thing he is saying here is that God must be received equally openly and trustfully ‘in oppression as in prosperity, in tears as in joy’.
I have, finally and definitively, called this last talk Life’s Trials. (In the course of putting it together I gave it four or five other titles.) Not many great Christian mystics have given so much attention to the importance of acknowledging the presence of God in what we think of as the painful side of life. There is nothing soft about Eckhart or Eckhart’s God. In this talk I shall be carrying further some of the themes taken up in the last talk, the one on detachment, but with particular emphasis on the place in our spiritual lives of suffering – the aspect of Eckhart’s teaching which particularly inspired the Eckhart Society’s founder, Ursula Fleming.
However, while Ursula Fleming is remembered in the medical world for her work in the area of pain-control, it’s important to realise that when Eckhart spoke of suffering he was nearly always thinking of all kinds of suffering. About 1308 he wrote a work called The Book of Divine Consolation to comfort the grieving Queen of Hungary, whose father, Albrecht of Hapsburg, had been murdered. At the beginning of it he speaks of the different kinds of suffering which we met in our lives.
There are material losses – like the loss of our job or our home or our money. There are disasters which can happen to people close to us, people on whom we depend materially or emotionally. And, finally, there are the things which hurt us directly: the contempt we suffer if we lose our good name; all the different sorts of hardship we are likely in life to have to endure; the physical pain brought by illness and accidents; and emotional stress. When Eckhart talks of ‘suffering’ any or all of these can be in his mind, but he seems most often to be thinking of loss – more often than he’s thinking of pain. (Medieval people took pain much more for granted than we do today.)
Now, there are two terms used by Eckhart to define his spiritual discipline. There is Abgeschiedenheit, the term we met in the last talk and which is usually translated as ‘detachment’. And there is the more passive term, Gelassenheit, which is usually translated as’letting go’ or ‘abandonment’. These two terms are complementary and indispensably connected. My fellow Dominican, Father Richard Woods, thinks that they might well be seen as equivalent to the active and passive phases of the Dark Night of the Soul, which we find in the spiritual teaching of St John of the Cross three centuries later.
While the principle of Abgeschiedenheit – ‘detachment’ – crops up in one disguise of another again and again in Eckhart’s treatment of suffering, the principle of Gelassenheit – ‘letting go’ – is much less prominent there. Yet, in nearly all thinking by modern religious people on how to confront suffering, this is usually where one begins: with the need for letting-go, for letting things be … for the letting-go of the clutter that fills our lives, for the letting-go of others, and of ourselves, and of our emotions. All the same, it’s no use just telling people to ‘let go’. We find the kind of freedom which this gives us only in opening ourselves up to something bigger than ourselves. Eckhart writes:
St Augustine says ‘There is nothing which is far or remote from God’. (Commentary on the Psalms,36) If you wish that nothing should be far or remote from you, then join yourself to God, for then a thousand years will be like a single day. Thus I say that in God there is neither sadness, nor suffering, nor distress, and if you wish to be free of all distress and suffering, then turn to God and fix yourself in Him alone. It is certain that all your suffering comes from the fact that you do not turn to God and fix yourself in Him alone. (Davies 1994 p.58)
And, soon after this, Eckhart is saying even more emphatically:
All suffering (sorrow) comes from attachment and affection. Therefore, if I suffer on account of transitory things my heart still has attachment to and affection for transitory things so that I do not love God with all my heart nor that which God wants me to love together with himself (Davies 1994 p. 61)
I remember that when, long long ago, I first read these assertions, I put big question marks in the margin.
Yes, they profoundly shocked me. They seemed to me altogether too bland a way of explaining human suffering. I could well understand that somebody so ‘intoxicated with God’ (that was Huston Smith’s way of describing Eckhart) would feel compelled to speak passionately against our profound tendency to cling to the things of this world. It was quite inspiring to hear this 14th-century Dominican attacking the greed and possessiveness which is today well on the way to destroying our world altogether. On the other hand, he seemed to me utterly unaware that grief for loss and bereavement, far from being a weakness, has sometimes brought out the noblest side of human nature. Also that we need to sorrow in order to come through a bereavement. I decided that Eckhart was deficient in human feeling, and for a while stopped reading him altogether. In fact, only when I had read fairly carefully quite a lot more of his work did I begin to find these passages at all acceptable.
They are passages which certainly can be only too easily misunderstood if you aren’t aware of something important to realise: that, as far as Eckhart is concerned, the most important bit of our lives in which the principle of detachment – of Abgeschiedenheit – should be at work in us is our reactions to suffering. I repeat, to suffering. In talking about how we react to suffering we are talking about something at the very heart of Eckhart’s teaching on the spiritual life. He writes.
The whole of human perfection is to become distant from creatures and free from them, to respond in the same way to all things, not to be broken by adversity nor carried away by prosperity, nor to rejoice more in one thing than in another, nor to be frightened or grieved by one thing more than another. (Latin Works - Quint IV 694)
Only by ‘loving God equally in all things’ will we become like God himself, who is ‘immutable, imperturbable and eternal stability’ (Walshe 2008 Sermon 49); only in this way will we become serene, whatever may happen to us. So he urges the people to whom he is preaching to love God just as willingly in poverty as in wealth, in sickness as in health. We should love him just as much when we are living through a time of trial as when we are not, when we suffer as when we do not (Davies 1994 Talks of Instruction 4). In particular, he sees suffering as being the opportunity to discover and deepen our detachment. In another of his sermons he says:
For the man who wishes to cast his soul , the grain of wheat, into the field into the field of Jesus Christ’s humanity that it may perish therein and so become fruitful, the manner of his perishing must be of two kinds. The first way must be physical and the second spiritual. The physical side is to be understood lke this: whatever he suffers from hunger, thirst, cold or heat, or from being scorned and suffering unjustly, in whatever way God sends it, he must accept it willingly and gladly, just as if God had never created him except to endure suffering, discomfort and travail, not seeking anything for himself therein nor desiring anything in heaven or earth, and he should consider all his suffering as trifling, as a mere drop of water compared to the raging sea. This is how you should regard all your suffering compared to the great suffering of Jesus Christ. (Walshe 2008 Sermon 89)
And then Eckhart goes on to say that also in our inner life, where the suffering is more subtle, we should in the same way totally accept the will of God.
However, these grim-sounding summonings must at all times be heard with another voice, equally Eckhartian, also ringing in our ears, reminding us of God’s unlimited goodness. He tells the unhappy Queen of Hungary, in the Book of Divine Consolation:
No hardship and loss is without some gain, and there is no harm that is wholly negative (Davies 1994 p.60)
A good person should trust God, believe in Him and be sure of Him, knowing his goodness to be such that it’s impossible for God with His goodness and love to permit any suffering or sorrow to befall someone unless they are either spared some greater suffering thereby, or God wishes to give them more perfect consolation on earth, or to make something better out of the situation, whereby God’s honour will be more fully and visibly manifest. (Davies 1994 p.63)
And, though he says it is ‘impossible for God or for the whole world to console someone who seeks consolation from worldly things, from beings in this world’ (Davies 1994 p.60) and that ‘as long as they can comfort you and do so, you will never find true consolation’ ( Davies 1994 p.70), he also says that ‘they who love only God in beings in this world and love those beings only in God will find true, just and constant consolation in all places’ ( Davies 1994 p.60) and that ‘when nothing can console you except God alone, then indeed He will console you and with Him and in Him all that gives delight.’ ( Davies 1994 p.70)
Furthermore, Eckhart says that to the person who has become wholly just, wholly one with God (to the person who has become truly detached, in other words) nothing created or made can cause pain, for all that is created is as far beneath that person as it is beneath God (DC/OG58, ES212). Misfortune serves such a person as if it were good fortune, and sorrow as much as joy (DC/ES217). In fact,
whoever has abandoned themselves and gone entirely out of themselves, for such a person nothing can be a cross, or pain or suffering, but for them all is bliss, joy and the heart’s delight and they will come and follow God truly. (Davies 1994 p.82)
It would be easy, though, listening to these quotations, to have the impression that Eckhart is presenting us with a God beyond all feeling, and telling us that we can only be free of suffering by becoming as devoid of feeling as that God. There is, though, in his writing, and especially in the Book of Divine Consolation, something more than this being said, something very different.
Reflecting on verse 19 of psalm 33 in the Latin Bible’s numbering, ‘Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all’, he ponders on the meaning of God’s unlimited love for us and of our love for God and writes:
If God is with us in our suffering, then what more do we want, what else do we want? I desire nothing other than God and nothing more than Him, if I am as I should be… The fact that God is with us when we suffer means that He himself shares our suffering. … in his own way… Now, I say that if God Himself desires to suffer, then it is only right and proper that I too should suffer, for I desire what God desires, if my attitude of mind is right. ( Davies 1994 p 86)
These seemingly shocking ideas are rooted in Eckhart’s conviction what the fulfilment of love must mean. As he expresses it himself:
If I can be ready and willing to suffer with somebody whom I love and who loves me, then it is right and proper that I should readily suffer with God who suffers with me and for me on account of the love he bears me.
Already Eckhart had said that ‘virtue has an inner work, a resistance to all that is evil’. (Davies 1994 p 76) what he calls ‘suffering for God’. And,
real though the suffering is which in this way comes to the good person, everything (he says) which the good person suffers for the sake of God he or she endures in God and God suffers with them in their suffering. If our suffering is in God and God suffers with us, how then can suffering be grievous for us, when suffering loses its grievousness and our suffering is in God and is God? Just as God is Truth and wherever we find the truth we find our God, who is Truth, so too, in the same way exactly, when we find pure suffering in God and for God’s sake, we find God as our suffering. ( Davies 1994 p 89)
Surely all of us at some time or other in our lives have known somebody like this - somebody who would seem to be going through great suffering and yet has an inward joy which appears to more than compensate for this suffering. For Eckhart it seems that suffering is never something that can be thought of in the abstract. It always involves a sharing of something, a bearing of something, but what it actually is depends on the sufferer and the sufferer’s relationship to God. It may be something dark and crushing and oppressive, but it can be transformed into something joyful, into a deepening of the person’s loving relationship with God. Having been at one time a hospital chaplain, I could not possibly for a moment be romantic about suffering, but I can recall seeing the personalities of some people who were going through a lot of suffering and facing death mature and in fact quite radically change. But you will tell me it’s high time I started talking about prayer again. In fact on and off all the way through this talk I’ve been touching on what we might call the innermost concerns of prayer. Suffering – any kind of suffering, whether it is a loss or pain – severely undermines the largely phoney sense of security which our culture gives us; it throws us back on ourselves, it can – in fact should – throw us back on God. The things Eckhart had to say about suffering make better sense today than they have for an incredibly long time. The most important thing that Ursula Fleming learned from Eckhart in her pain-control research was the importance of Gelassenheit, of ‘letting-go’: first of all, to let the body do its own work, but also to be not tense and clinging but accepting – in other words, to be open to God’s work, to try to will what God wills, to grow in Abgeschiedenheit, in detachment. And this, as far as Eckhart is concerned, is what prayer is all about.
The Inquisition severely criticised Eckhart for his teaching on prayer. As I was saying in my last talk, his stress on our need, first and last, to come to realise that God and the soul share the same ground led him to say things which seemed to deny the value of asking God for anything, and it looked as if he was out to eliminate prayer from Christian life. What, then, exactly did he say? Well, it is truehat he said that if prayer is defined as being no more than asking God for things, no more than petition, then obviously the wholly detached person – in other words, the person who shares the same ground as God – would not be able to pray. If, on the other hand, prayer is understood as union with God, then detachment has its own form of prayer . The soul that is one with God is a soul that (to use Eckhart’s own turn of phrase) ‘lives without a “why”’. It is not living/or some purpose or other – what we, in our world, assume all too often living is seriously all about. The soul that is one with God lives without a ‘why’ in the sheer delight of its existence (ES60). Such, for Eckhart, is the goal of human life .
What, then, is important for him is not so much what we do or where we do it as what spirit we do it in. As he said to the young Dominican students in Erfurt and as I partly quoted in the last talk (or maybe the first one – I can’t remember):
To the extent that you depart from things, thus far, no more and no less, God enters into you with all that is His. People should therefore not worry so much about what they do but rather about what they are. If they and their ways are good, then their deeds are radiant. If you are righteous, then what you do will also be righteous. (Davies 1994: Talks of instruction 4; p.7)
If this is true, then in the middle of suffering we should not scramble in all directions, desperately trying to find an effective way of twisting God’s arm, of giving Him orders what to do, but be still, waiting on God, opening ourselves to the God who has chosen so severely to shake up our lives; asking God simply to help to make us one in will with Him. This would, in Eckhart’s opinion, be true of any crisis-situation in which we found ourselves, but it is especially true when we are suffering. For it is clear that, in his opinion, suffering is not just an unfortunate thing that happens to us from time to time and which well-bred people don’t talk about.
You see, it’s clear that he believes that to be one with Christ you must accept suffering, for accepting suffering is abandoning yourself to God’s will. And also it’s clear that he believes that in doing this we should remembering that when we suffer God also must be said to suffer.
I have during this day tried to avoid plunging into Eckhart’s systematic theology (that, after all, is not what you came here for) but I cannot avoid it altogether. I feel I have to say at this point it’s Eckhart’s deep conviction that God’s desire to suffer is part-and-parcel of his eternal will that the Divine Word become man. In other words, God’s desire to suffer is part-and-parcel of his desire that there should be an Incarnation, that (to misquote St John) ‘the Word should become flesh and live among us’.
If, in the midst of suffering, we can know that the pain is God’s, we are on the way to realising in our own lives the one divine Sonship which is destined to be born in us if and when we are ready to receive it.
Does this, though, mean that Eckhart thinks it would be positively wrong for us to pray to be released from suffering?
For Eckhart the release from suffering comes through a proper understanding of suffering, at least as far as our lives here and now are concerned. As long as we are alive suffering of some kinds is sure to come. But Eckhart doesn’t want us to go looking for it. He thinks we will all find in our lives enough suffering to discover in it and through it the redeeming power of God, always assuming we are open to what our suffering is telling us (ER8.3–4).
Eckhart’s mysticism is ‘this-worldly’. He is not interested in special states of experience and has little to say about the higher degrees of rapture. In the words of a great authority on the teaching of Eckhart:
For him the purpose of theology and preaching was not to invite his hearers to search out the extraordinary, but to attain to true insight into the meaning of the ordinary. He is pleading for us to open our eyes to see what has always been the case, that God and the soul are truly one in their deepest ground… God is God and man is man, and yet God’s ground and the soul’s ground are one. ( McGinn 1981 p.61)
A document has survived supposedly containing the last words of Meister Eckhart to his disciples before he began his 500-mile journey to the Papal Court at Avignon, the journey from which he never returned. How reliable a record it is we do not know, but it has about it a ring of authenticity. Here is an extract from it:
It often happens that what seems trivial to us is greater in God’s sight than what looms large in our eyes. Therefore we should accept all things equally from God, not ever looking and wondering which is greater, or higher, or better. We should just follow where God points out for us, that is, what we are inclined to and to which we are most often directed, and where our bent is. If you were to follow that path, God would give you the most in the least, and would not fail you.
Where God shines least for us is often where He shines the most. For this reason we should accept God equally in all ways and in all things… Some, though, might say: ‘But if I take God equally in all ways and in all things, do I not still need some special way?’
Now see. In whatever way you find God most, and you are most often aware of Him, that is the way you should follow. But if another way presents itself, quite contrary to the first, and if, having abandoned the first way, you find God as much in the new way as in the one you have left, then that is right. But the noblest and best thing would be this: if you were to come to such equality, with such calm and certainty, that you could find God and enjoy Him in any way and in all things, without having to wait for anything or chase after anything. That would delight me! And Meister Eckhart ends his parting words with a prayer of his own:
We thank you, heavenly Father, that you have given us your only-begotten Son, in whom you give Yourself and all things. We pray to you, heavenly Father, for the sake of your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom you neither will nor can deny anything to anyone: Hear us in Him, and make us free and bare of all our many and various faults and unite us, in Him, with Yourself. Amen. (Walshe 2008 The Masters Final Words)
Davies, Oliver (1994) Meister Eckhart: Selected Writings. Harmondsworth: Penguin
Davies, Oliver (1999) The Wisdom of Meister Eckhart. Oxford: Lion Publishing.
McGinn, B. (1981) Meister Eckhard: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises and Defense. London: SPCK.
Walshe, M. O.C. (trans.) (2008) The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart. New York: Crossroads Herder.