Talk Given by Tom Stacey on Tuesday 10th May 2016 at St George's Church as part of the Christian Mystics series; Journey to the Heart

@Tom Stacey May 2016
Talk Given by Tom Stacey on Tuesday 10th May 2016 at St George's Church as part of the Christian Mystics series; Journey to the Heart

Let us come to Meister Eckhart not as a figure from the remote past some seven
hundred years ago, a spiritual phenomenon of a mediaeval Europe whose cultural
conditioning was vastly distant from our own experience, but as a fellow human
being, growing up to choose his path in life and his priorities amid all the urges and
appetites, options and allures that bear upon a young person of a given intelligence
and gravity, who might be sitting among us at this table. Let us suppose him drawn,
like us, to fulfil the purpose of a spiritual life . . . as could be lived or attempted by
someone of his circle or of his family, who were of respectable standing just like us,
but in Thuringia in the middle of central Germany, in a horse-drawn era.
What might attract such a young man as to the purpose of a spiritual life?
Why, the attainment of true peace. By that ‘true peace’ he and we would mean
unassailable peace. ‘Peace’ is the one-word bequest personally willed by Jesus upon
his ragged and astonished clutch of followers on his reappearance to them at Easter.
If we, justifiably enough – with the youthful reflective Eckhart among us – were to
append the qualifying adjective ‘true’ to ‘peace’ we may think of it as the ‘peace of
truth’. Now ‘Truth’ we have learnt for ourselves in our own lives is to be found in and
through love; and so too we have been taught.
‘Love’ comes upon us in myriad forms, but in its commanding manifestations
in the experience of man (no less in Eckhart’s time than in ours) is A the love of our
fellow humans and B the love of the gift of life and the giver of that gift. For us in our
so-secular zeitgeist it is to be a bit daring and unfashionable to name the giver of the
gift as ‘God’. In Eckhart’s day and age, God’s role was the common presumption; in
our day not so. Yet it is one that we ragged clutch of church-goers share with
Eckhart’s day.
I am the Way and the Truth and the Life’, said Jesus, in what I have always
thought is, by its succinctness and comprehensiveness, a direct quotation that
gripped the minds of his immediate disciples and was to be written down as
yesterday by certain of them as soon as they had mastered the skill of writing:
• The Tao [way] in the terminology of the East somewhat familiar to more of us
today if then unknown to Europe;
• The Truth, the rationale of Being;
• The Life, for which we cannot not but give thanks –
the three encapsulating the gift of creation offered by that same Jesus known to us
and to Eckhart for the enlightenment of our amazing species.
This, then, is the peace that, we must reckon Eckhart set himself to seek in
his choice of a spiritual life such as we, these seven centuries on, still dare to call it. It
is no more nor less self-ish now than it was then in its aim or purpose, since as we
here have surely come to learn, the ‘truth’ of this peace is at once paradoxical: we
are never so much ourselves as when we lose ourselves – most vividly in love, in the
relationship of love: in the individuality in such a relationship and the simultaneous
universality of it, in the letting go of the ‘self’ (what Eckhart came to call die
Gelazenheit). That is, in unconditional endeavour and daring for the sake of the
other, in self-sacrifice, in – as it could turn out – bodily sacrifice nailed on the cross in
pain unspeakable.
‘He who would save his life, will lose it, and whoever would lose his life for
my sake, will save it’, will have been heard by the aspiring Eckhart with no less force
and insistency than by us.
Such is the central paradox of Christ’s doctrine, and Christianity’s searing
tenet, indestructible by virtue of its recognition ‘by and in’ the soul of Man: the sine
qua non of that ‘peace’ willed by Jesus upon us and upon Eckhart too. It is reached
out for by each one of us (the subject of this talk included) in varying degrees of
awareness in our experience of life, inner and outer; in grief, in joy; in stress, in
comfort; in dying, in living. That lived paradox by the founder of our Faith, the live
refinement of his inheritance and the realizer of his role of Sonship-on-earth of the
Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, is the guarantee of the ultimate survival of
Christian doctrine and, by extension, of those of its conveyors we have come to
celebrate in this very building, St George’s Campden Hill of the Universal Church, and
indeed throughout our eight week course on mysticism. It is the doctrine by which
we are to love God in mind and heart and soul, and love our neighbours ‘as
ourselves’ (which is to say, ‘in the light of our right to love ourselves’).
So it was in the quest for this recognizable peace and in its apprehension that the
young Eckhart chose to live his life. He did not come from nowhere: none of us does,
not even Jesus himself.
Johannes Eckhart was born in the village of Hochheim near Erfurt in central
Germany in or around 1260 – about 35 years after the birth of Thomas Aquinas who
was yet to bequeath his Summa Theologica to fellow Christians. That same forested
province was to be the birthplace in later centuries of Martin Luther and J S Bach. A
fertile spot. He was a child of minor aristocracy, of an educated squirarchy,
seemingly reared in the light of a possible religious calling, not so much as a reclusive
monastic – a Carthusian or Cistercian, or a hands-on servant of the poor in the
Franciscan mode – but as an interpreter and preacher of the order of Francis’
contemporary, Dominic. And Dominic carried within him the mystical and
contemplative tendency.
Indeed, no spiritual exemplar comes readymade but from a traceable
spiritual and disciplinary tradition. Dominic’s order of Friars Preachers had secured
its Papal approval in 1216. It substituted for manual labour as the ‘work’ of the
brethren the requirement of study. In the vigil against doctrinal error, which our
Faith cannot risk dispensing with, the motto of the order became ‘Truth’: Truth in
the light of study, thought and prayer. Outstanding among the early Dominicans was
not only Thomas Aquinas but Albert of Lauingen – earning canonization and his affix
‘the Great’. Albert founded the ‘House of Studies’ at Cologne, which was to become
the core of the city’s university, committed to the synthesizing within the Christian
context the major strands of Neoplatonic, Jewish and Dionysian philosophy, and
drawing on Aristotelian thought which was resurfacing by the medium of
translations via Arabic versions available from such Muslim scholars as Avicenna and
Such eclecticism Eckhart was to encounter on entering the Dominican Order
at 15, and more so at 20, in 1280, on becoming a student friar in Cologne. There he
met the aged and revered ‘Bishop Albrecht’ I have referred to, by whose disciples he
was schooled. In 1293 Eckhart was sent to the University of Paris for his doctoral
studies, from where after the next year, already as Reader of the Sentences (that is,
Peter Lombard’s theological manual) he was appointed vicar of Thuringia, his homeground.
Completing his doctorate he was recalled to the University of Paris to take
up the Dominican Chair in Theology, with the title of Meister. By this title he was
known thereafter, in the evident light of the authority of his person and his
preaching – its explorative range, its depth, its originality, its startling vividness of
imagery, its precision of language and its metaphysical urgency. All those attributes,
and wit too.
He had already begun to preach not, primarily, in the language of the Church
and clergy, Latin, but in the vernacular of the people he mostly served, Middle-High
German. He had become, ineluctably, a figure to be reckoned with, winning renown
and devotion.
Already, as Prior of the Dominican House in Erfurt, he has written the earliest
of his three surviving Treatises, the Talks of Instruction: an eminently practical and
persuasive account of the conduct of spiritual life for the Dominican novice. Next, in
1303, at around 43, he was elected the first Provincial of the newly defined
Dominican province of Saxonia. This was a territory covering much of today’s
Germany, across into the Low Countries in the west and southeast into most of
Bohemia and today’s Czech Republic. He was in spiritual charge of the nuns of the
region and hence of the fast proliferating Beguines. These were celibate women
living in communities intent on the religious life and religious study in a manner
already approved by St Albert the Great. Eckhart was thus becoming a vitally
influential preacher of what we perceive as the mystical revolution of the 14th
And now, in 1311, he was invited back to the University of Paris to take up
the same Dominican Chair of Theology he had vacated a decade previously. Such a
doubled honour was only ever matched by Thomas Aquinas. That was the year after
the final and second conviction of the French Beguine, Marguerete Porete.
Undeniably devout, Porete had refused to disown her book The Mirror of Simple
Souls in which she recounted, in often beautiful prose dramatized as dialogue and
occasionally poetry, her own route to ecstatic union with God – an experience liable
to supervening the formulae of ecclesiastic doctrine. Marguerete was condemned to
death by being ceremoniously burned alive. That dawn event of June 1st 1310 her
lofty clerical judges witnessed with satisfaction at one level of mind or another,
although many in the throng were in tears. For the life of me, I cannot find her book
less than a masterwork of ordered inspiration. Had it been released at the time of
Hildegard of Bingen a century previously or Julian of Norwich a century later it would
have left Marguerete Porete as venerated today as are they.
The Papacy had just decamped to Avignon. It was wildly sensitive to any
challenge to its universality, from what might be seen as bacchic women on the
spiritual rampage. There is no record of Eckhart ever meeting Marguerete, though
more likely than not she will have heard report of what he preached and how, and
what he taught of spiritual life. There is a spiritual communion in Marguerete Porete
with the Meister which cannot be denied. He at least, however, was a man, that is, a
male and a Dominican luminary, at the virtual pinnacle of doctrinal authority. God
knows whether he had lain awake at the horror of that execution, that summer’s
morning, or indeed that previous month at the ecclesiastic assassination by burning
at stakes outside Paris of 54 Knights Templar on the orders of King Philip the Fair of
France, with the connivance of the Papacy. It was a brutal age.
From 1313, now in Strasbourg as Dominican Vicar-General, Meister Eckhart
had oversight of the many convents in southwest Germany. His appointment thus
followed the Council of Vienne’s decrees of 1312 on what was heresy. The dominant
voice at that Council was Henry Archbishop of Cologne, a prince in his secular
inheritance, envious of Dominican authority, intimately involved in the politics of the
Papacy and actively hostile to the ‘Free Spirit’ of personal union with God prevailing
among the religious communities spontaneously forming especially among women.
A bit of history is inescapable here.
Half a century of aristocratic rivalry for papal territory had forced the papacy
out of Rome to various sites in Italy. Now in 1308 it was formally re-established in
self-exile under the authentic Pope Clement V, in Avignon, in southern France. There
Clement’s successor John XXII now reigned. It was of course his desire to restore the
authentic Papacy to Rome. This prospect was blocked by the territorial ambitions in
Italy of Lewis of Bavaria, the German Emperor, whom Pope John succeeded in 1324
in excommunicating. Archbishop Henry of Cologne was prime supporter of the
Habsburg challenger of Lewis’ throne, so the reigning Pope in Avignon could not
jeopardize his support. And Henry required the breaking or at least rebutting
Dominican authority in the German-speaking world, especially among the extensive
communities of devout women.
Henry’s tactic was to initiate accusations of heresy against the Meister
himself. This culminated in a selection of suspect propositions taken from the
Meisters’ widely circulated treatises and sermons. For the most part these fragments
were taken out of the systematic and elevated context in which they were delivered.
We need to know of these challenging circumstances for our own reassurance.
The charges were first brought against him before the Court of Inquisition in
Archbishop Henry’s Cologne. By a felicitous chance the notes the Meister assembled
in his own defence on that occasion have survived. These were, inferentially,
intended for use by him when the same charges were passed on to the superior
Papal Court in Avignon for trial there. Meister Eckhart, then 66, resolved to walk or
donkey-ride the 600 miles from Strasbourg to Avignon to conduct his defence.
As we have seen, heresy was no small matter. The stakes were high and the
accused eminent. At that time there was scarcely a spiritual star less revered in
Europe than the Meister. The twice Professor of Philosophy of Europe’s premier
university had covered the length and breadth of Europe dispensing wisdom in the
lingua franca of the territory to wrapt congregations.
Quoting a speaker out-of-context is a time-tested trick of political or
ecclesiastic challengers. I shall now demonstrate to you how easily this trick could be
played on Eckhart, for my chosen illustration will lead us into the substance of what
he uniquely was attempting to transmit to fellow Christians. What transpired will
await the last part of this lecture as we now enter by means of miscontextual
mischief, the core of his spiritual insight.
I take a quote from a later German sermon delivered on the text of the beatitude -
the first in the evangelical order – in the Sermon on the Mount, Blessed are the poor
in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:3).
The fragment I have chosen from Eckhart’s sermon reads ‘Therefore I pray to
God to rid me of God’.
Shock Horror! Wheel on the tumbrils – therefore I pray to God to rid me of
God – how Eckhart would delight to seize his congregations by the scruff of the neck.
Yet every word he spoke in all his German sermons, of which almost one hundred
have survived, were meticulously recorded in manuscript by devoted nuns and (in
my personal view) customarily checked and approved by the Meister himself.
My out-of-context quote does not form a part of any of the propositions
cited for condemnation by Eckhart’s accusers in Cologne, yet it bears upon that same
contentious area of the soul’s oneness with God. I adduce it here as an instance of
the ease with which a heresy-hunter can fabricate evidence. The quotation is
prompted by the sermon’s text, that key text of Matthew 5.
It is a 1600-word sermon, which dives into the deep end of not only what
Eckhart will often demand of his listeners but also what he invokes to assure us of
his own truth mystically experienced. By such ‘mystical truth’ I mean nothing less
than that Truth accessible to Man in his soul or ‘as soul’; to that Mankind, kinder of
Man, for which we around this table acknowledge Jesus gave his life to redeem.
Eckhart will surely have lived this sermon.
Here was a man with formidable educational and pastoral functions
throughout his relatively long life – all functions which he fulfilled with scruple and
sustained love. He will have surely preached at every major church, cathedral and
Christian seminary across his territory, and unnumbered convents and beguineries of
which he was entrusted with spiritual supervision. He went everywhere on foot, on
prolonged all-weather tramps that cannot but have fortified solitary contemplation
such as comprised one of the three elements of his daily life – the other two
elements bring liturgical worship and work; and ‘work’, by his definition, embraced
study, preaching, pastoral duties and – hear it! – love.
Now, back to the deep end where I have chosen to plunge you. What might
have brought our Meister to praying to God to rid him of God?
‘Pay attention’, as the Meister would often adjure his ardent listeners, with a
commanding twinkle. What was Our Lord telling us, in his critically compact Sermon
on the Mount, by his supreme blessing of the ‘poor in spirit’ assuring them
exclusively of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’? Why, it is nothing less than the cause of our
presence here, of the existence of this building, of the universal Church, and of
Man’s entire religious preoccupation since the access of consciousness.
‘There are two kinds of poverty,’ Eckhart begins: ‘external poverty’ which is
all very commendable for those practising it for the love of Jesus. Then there is the
other kind of poverty, the internal, of precisely which Jesus was speaking. Eckhart is
soon defining or analyzing this poverty with a ruthless honesty: a poor person is one
who desires nothing, knows nothing and possesses nothing.
Help! Desires nothing, knows nothing, possesses nothing? Characteristically,
mischievously, with a wry expression he tells his listeners: ‘I beg you to understand
me if you can’. But if you can’t don’t worry, ‘for I am speaking a particular kind of
truth only a few can grasp.’
So, first, the poor man who wants nothing. Well, there are those, he says,
who are attached to penances and petty self-denials. ‘God have mercy on them, for
they know little of the divine truth . . . they are asses, but of that poverty we wish to
speak they know nothing.
‘If one of you were to ask me, what it means to be a poor man who desires
nothing, I would say that as long it is someone’s will to carry out the most precious
will of God, such a person does not have that poverty of which we desire to speak…
If we are to have true poverty, we must be so free of all our own created will as we
were before we were created. I tell you by the eternal truth that as long as you have
the will to perform God’s will, and desire for eternity and for God, you are not yet
Before we came to conscious life, he goes on, ‘when I existed in my first
cause, I had no God and I was my own cause’ – my raison d'être as we might
paraphrase today. To preserve such a place is to preserve distinction, multiplicity.
‘Therefore I ask God to make me free of “God”’ in that ‘my most essential being is
above “God” as we conceive him as the origin of creation…. In that essence, where
God is above all existence and multiplicity, I myself was there, there I desired myself
and knew myself’ as I am, even in the flesh. (Quotation marks, we should be aware,
were not available to mediaeval transcribers.)
Here is Eckhart bearing witness to his own mystical experience. Don’t
suppose such experience is necessarily remote from you and me. Let us now grasp
what the Meister is telling us…. A long life lived actively at many levels of experience
has brought me certain perceptions and had me coining certain indispensible adages
of which I have already cited one which bears upon the theme of this sermon: you
are never so much yourself as when you lose yourself. It is seemingly but a step
distant from our Lord’s injunction that ‘whosoever will save his life will lose it. But
whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same will save it’.
My parallel home-coined version sounds secular, yet applies spiritually. A
man and woman ecstatically in love are lost to themselves in that joy, and would
indeed die or mortally risk in the fulfilment or demonstration of it. ‘I could kill
dragons for you.’ We right now are speaking of love between God and Man; of
Man’s abandonment of self in his surrender to that love: that relationship where the
partners are one. This commanding paradox of human experience (or, at the least,
cognisance) in the flesh is the supreme metaphor – I daresay, God-given metaphor –
of abandonment of self in the embrace with God. What may I cite? Tristan and
Isolde? It is why the mystical poets turn instinctively to eroticism in the description
of their ultimate elevation – what theologians call the brautmystic of St John of the
Cross; of the author of the Song of Solomon; of Richard Rolle; of Ibn el Arabi the
Spanish Sufi; of that divinely inspired weaver-poet Kabir born in the 15th century in
Benares, born a Muslim to become a disciple of the Hindu ascetic Ramananda, who
in the soul’s love union with the Brahma, of which Evelyn Underhill (we shall be
hearing of her) so brilliantly tells.
As Eckhart has counselled us, it involves the radical kenosis – self-emptying,
stripping of all the wanting, all the willing, all the knowing. In that same sermon he
goes on, ‘[thus] I am my own self-cause, according to my essence, which is eternal,
and not according to my becoming, which is in time. There I am unborn, and
according to the manner of my unbornness, shall never die. According to my unborn
mode I have been eternal, as I am now and ever shall be.’
I remind you what Jesus told Pilate: ‘My Kingdom is not of this world;’ not of
the dimensions of space and time: it was of the domain of the soul and of God.
‘[My] nature born into this world,’ Eckhart continues, ‘shall die and must
perish in time. In my birth all things were born and I was the cause of myself and all
things’ – a critical observation on a second personally coined adage I would offer,
that ‘each of us is the point at which other things meet’ – and in so meeting claim
their existence. As Eckhart continues in this sermon: ‘ in my birth [my coming into
being] all things were born. I was the cause of my own self and of all things … If I did
not exist, then neither would God have existed as “God”. I am the cause of God’s
existence as “God”.’ Where upon he characteristically tosses in the aside, ‘but you
can get along without knowing this.’
You can recognize the dynamite in Eckhart spiritual logic. God is not a thing
among other things, he is saying; not a word among other words. Only the mind and
language of man makes him so, and on the instant mis-defines him. In various godfearing
communities, as you may know and as I can personally vouch, God is not a
name that may be mentioned.
So where does the logic of this train of thought, or metaphysical experience,
take the Meister, and with the Meister, us awestruck listeners? ‘When I flowed forth
from God, all things said, God is…but in the break-through when I am free of my own
will and of God’s will and of all his works and I am free of God himself, then I am
above all creatures and am neither “God” nor creature, but I am rather what I once
was and what I shall remain now and for evermore. Then I receive an impulse’ – his
Middle High German word is Indruk –‘which shall raise me above the angels.’
‘In this flight I receive such great wealth that God, with all that he has as
“God” and with all his divine works, cannot satisfy me, for the consequence of this
break-through is that God and I become one… God can find no place in us then, for
with this poverty we attain that which we have eternally been and shall forever
remain. Here God is one with our spirit. And this is poverty in its ultimate form. ‘
Whew! Where have you been carried, O congregation, clustered in your
sombre north-European church of unheated granite to listen to the words of the
most revered spiritual guide of your era the previous 15 or 20 minutes? – where has
this Meister borne us, to what eternal shore, and what remoteness from the pat
moralities and pastoral comfortings of the Christian precepts to which our family, or
village or parish community has habituated us?
And with what charm, what twinkling insouciance, does he bring this
particular sermon to a close! – ‘If anyone can’t understand what I have told you,
don’t worry. For as long as anyone is not equal to this truth’ – we might say, attuned
– ‘he or she will not understand my words, since this is a naked truth which has
come direct from the heart of God.’
Remarkably to us here, in our 21st century, to our little group in St George’s
Campden Hill, in a European megalopolis of unprecedented cultural and spiritual
diversity, various of our fellow-citizens can come closer to grasping, or being grasped
by, the meaning of what Eckhart was by way of telling us than the average citizen of
Cologne seven centuries ago. Historically our quasi-Christian civilisation has travelled
so far – survived the dire schisms of the Reformation, the polarities of Rome and
Protestantism, we have sailed the sceptical seas of the Age of Reason; known the
vicious anti-clericalism of revolutionary Europe from 1789, the Copernican and
Darwinian assault on the biblical presumption of Man’s created uniqueness and his
cosmically absurd proposition of our planet’s centrality in the universal order. We
are outliving the facile ridicule of the atheists and here, in this building, the
breathless distractions of commercial sybarism blinding us as to who we are.
‘Here God is one with our spirit,’ Eckhart has told us from his own lived
experience. What spirit, in the check-out queue at Marks & Spencer – what spiritus,
anima, pneuma, nous, mens, what soul? ‘Oh Grandpa’, various of my worldly-wise
descendants accost me, maybe on my setting out for church – ‘I don’t believe we
have a soul.’ To which my reposte is swift: ‘Nor do I. We don’t have a soul. We are
soul.’ And they are brought up, to frown in silence. Soul whose oneness to which we
have seen our Meister dare to assert oneness with God, is today is a term of dubious
validity, out in Notting Hill Gate, even if here in this building we can’t take a single
pace without invoking it.
Let us now look briefly at what Eckhart had to say of soul.
Eckhart no less than today’s Christians makes use of the word to mean that
of any one of us which is of the divine; of the eternal and infinite. By ‘of’ the divine I
mean ‘sourced from ‘ to ‘belonging to’, and hence ‘beholden to’. You may know that
in mediaeval Christendom the term intellect was reserved for speaking of that
faculty in Man responsive to God. This indispensable faculty was – I dare say – is soul
as function. Eckhart knew soul as the ground of our being, site of the continuous
rebirth of the Son in Man. Creation, he has concluded, is not a static, one-off event,
but a continuous process, contemporaneous with the continuous rebirth of the Son
or the Word. If the term ‘insemination’ had been in reach at that time I wonder if
Eckhart might not have sometimes employed it for ‘birth’. For Eckhart says that soulinsemination
comes by the spark or Finkelein, of the Word, the scintilla, repeatedly
reigniting in the soul.
This metaphor of perpetual birth is repeatedly invoked by Eckhart and vital to
our understanding. It is accorded only to those who ‘walk in the way of God’ and
denied to the indifferent and undisciplined. It is no less than the grace of God at
work, and the consequence of God’s inherent fertility which the Meister refers to as
the God’s ebullitio – His ebullience, His ‘boiling over’ – in all that is ‘seen and unseen’
and specifically what Man, if Man allows it, can be reached by. This is grace as the
self-communication of God at God’s initiative: that urgent potential in abundance. It
is surely comparable to the Flowing Light of Godhead written of, under that title, by
Mechthild of Magdeburg, a neighbouring town of Erfurt, half a century previously,
the visionary authoress known to Dante, Eckhart’s contemporary across the Alps: the
Godhead’, note – that Godness, Gottheit – transcending the dimensions, beyond
physical creation, and hence other than the popular notion of intervenient grace,
what I call the Inshallah factor, which Eckhart does not rate at all.
God, then, is ‘in’ the soul but not synonymous with the soul. Eckhart uses the
metaphor of a mirror in a bowl of water reflecting the effulgence of the sun, the
gottheit, or ‘godness’ of all that is. For Eckhart the distinction is vital, between, on
the one hand, God, the Lord, participating in, acting, in the divine mystery, in the
Christian and Biblical narrative, and on the other gottheit, the further ‘ godness’. Of
Gottheit we can say all but nothing: Eckhart metaphorises Gottheit as ‘ocean’ and
‘cavernous depths’ in the being which are already present in potential – potential in
which (I venture to say in quantum terms) actuality is implicit. God is simultaneously
innomilabile – unnamable – and omninominabile – all-namable. We are again
confronting paradox. We can talk about what God does, but not what God is.
Amid our silence, out of our kenosis, our personal void, there occurs the
divine spark. We recall, don’t we, the ‘still, small voice’ of 1 Kings 19 in the
experience of Elijah. The silence is attainable by the means of what Eckhart
repeatedly calls Abegeschiedenheit, which can be inadequately rendered as
‘detachment’ yet with the overtone of ‘divestiture’; and with this the inner stance of
readiness of Gelassenheit or Gelazenheit in his vernacular, the letting-go of the self
albeit necessarily as the self reflected in my own foundational adage I have given
None of this is dry or cold or leaning to indifference. Meister Eckhart’s
sermons and treatises are shot through with the functioning of love. ‘God loves the
soul so mightily it is a wonder. If anyone was to rob God of loving the soul he would
rob him of his life and being, or he would kill God, if one may say so.’ And ‘Jesus
reveals himself… in infinite sweetness and richness, welling up and overflowing and
pouring in from the power of the Holy Ghost with superabundant richness and all
receptive hearts’. There is a passage where he describes a man experiencing the
‘Seventh Heaven’ of worship when a neighbour requires a bowl of soup: the bowl of
soup takes precedence. His comments and concerns are scattered with the activity
of love, above all on the part of God. He closes one sermon: ‘All sorrow and joy come
from love. On the way, when I was to come here, I was thinking I could hardly bear
to come because I would be wet with the tears of love.’
The purpose of the negation is action in the world within our reach. Rowan Williams
has quoted in this context the 12th century monk William of Thierry – ‘The Love of
Truth drives us out of the world and the Truth of the Love sends us back into the
world.’ To me, this is a prompting of my own call for the concept of ‘oscillation’ in
the realm of spirit. Here too is love’s joy. ‘The soul [Eckhart says] will give birth to
Christ when she laughs at him, and he laughs back.’ Have we not all known moments
of such joy in the presence of love that it breaks into sheer laughter.
We in our time and our place can return, perhaps are returning, to the
vessels of recognizably enduring truth. We in our century can work anew in
confidence and faith the valid metaphor of story, witness and ritual such as the
enduring religions still offer for continual reworking amid their evanescent
counterparts of Yoga, diets, rootless meditation, fast-track zen, and drugs.
A further home-coined adage of mine vitally concerns the mystical goal of
that Truth embedded in the heart of Man: At the bald peak the faiths meet.
Unarguably that is so: Christian, Sufi, Saddhu, Taoist in whichever mode, the same
dazzling enlightenment, same Truth attained. I could quote from around the world
and across the centuries and I could find hearers of all such quotations right in our
midst in this very city Kensington belongs to. Sometimes we call it a mode of
pilgrimage, don’t we, but wrongly unless we qualify it with the phrase ‘at destination
all the way’, for as the Meister stressed, God is immediately present, and no less so,
by God’s grace, that self-same dazzling union, that breakthrough. Let us be clear.
There is no sustained self-loss in its totality. It is an afflatus of wonder, visionary,
from which (for example) the Jansenist Christian Blaise Pascal returned to earth after
those brief ecstatic hours of what he named Cosmic Consciousness with the single
word fire . . . as have others with comparable inarticulacy.
Be content to oscillate. Surely the Meister was. Here was the exemplar of
spiritual life in constant demand to organize, adjudicate, arbitrate, caught up by the
ruthlessness of international politics, yet maintaining the vision and inner serenity.
His and our supreme exemplar is Our Lord himself. In Him we may say divine union
was somehow present at whatever cost – ‘if it be possible let this cup pass from me’
– in parallel to the sustained accessibility of the union to which the disciples of Christ
are enjoined: the constancy, ‘ I am the Way,’ remember ‘and [simultaneously] the
Truth, and the Life’ which are likewise now.
What is to be attained as a constant, is this yearning on the part of soul. Amid
the seemingly conflicting variety of religious modes and scriptures, I often refer to
scaffolding. In life-long travel and observation of my fellow men in the patterns of
their worship and precepts of conduct I have become convinced of the relative
rightness, dare I say truth, of our Christian scaffolding; the sheer symbolic efficiency.
Eckhart himself was always a devoutly orthodox Christian. He never doubted the
doctrinal purity of his faith, the Trinitarian Truth, or sought to defy the authority of
the Church and his Dominican role within it.
That said, he was an adventurous polymath in his spiritual research, drawing
avidly on all philosophy in reach of his late 13th and early 14th century Europe – from
Plato and Aristotle then becoming tortuously available via dissemination in Arabic,
from the Spanish Jewish sage Maimonides, from the Neoplatonists, as I have
mentioned: Plotinus and Proclus, themselves drawing on gnostic thinking ignorant of
Christianity yet belonging to the Roman world of the 2nd and 3rd centuries after the
ministry of Jesus.
Our Meister was daring intellectually and verbally and his daring brought him
trouble. It was to put at fearful hazard the survival for posterity of his own vital
written contributions to mystical truth.
So in conclusion let me come back to his life’s dénouement. He and certain
of his loyalists crossed on foot or donkey the 600 miles of rough road from
Strasbourg to Avignon. He was 66, and exhausted. The Papal Court of Inquisition into
some 17 propositions extracted from his disseminated works had not been
convened. His brief treatise The Nobleman was the chief source of his supposed
heresy – his declaration, for instance, that ‘there is no distinction either in God’s
nature or in the Person’s according to the unity of that nature. The divine nature is
One and each Person is also one and the same One as the nature is.’ You can see
what a heresy-hunter could do with that, snatched from its setting.
Before all this came before the Papal Court, the Meister was dead, perhaps
not quite having reached Avignon. Nothing has come down to us of the
circumstances. Pope John XXII could have let the whole case drop. Politically he
couldn’t risk it: he required the unswerving loyalty of the two leading Archbishops,
Henry of Cologne, John of Strasbourg, both fixed in their hostility to the ‘free-spirit’
of mystical witness and to the authority of the Dominicans. That year, 1328, Pope
John was desperate. Lewis of Bavaria had had himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor
in Rome and had appointed his own inauthentic pope, Nicholas V.
In March 1329, the unprecedented trial of a dead man, Meister Eckhart no
less, went ahead and a Bull entitled In Agro Dominico listing various Eckhartian
statements as heretical was issued – though published only in Cologne. Yet it would
do for Eckhart and his overt authority. Anyone with copies of his sermons and
treatises was instructed to hand them in for burning. The dazzling scholar-preacher,
the daring explorer of the soul, became on the instant a non-man, his name
unmentionable, wisdom formally expunged, reputation annulled.
Such truth is not so readily buried. Remember Calvary. The spiritual and
intellectual truth Eckhart embodied lived on in secret, in textual copies of his work
clandestinely hoarded; but also by the ministries of – most notably – two prominent
mid-14th century theologians, Johannes Tauler and Heinrich Suso, who in turn bore
unmistakable influence on Martin Luther in the next century. Those Eckhartian
sermons, secretly passed from hand to hand, and generation to generation in what
citizens of the Soviet Union of our own age would have called samizdat form,
survived down the centuries. In the third quarter of the 19th century a German
version of what could then be assembled was published. A century later, the Roman
Catholic Church began warily to rehabilitate the intractable expositor and personal
witness of Christ’s Truth.
Today a network of scholarship is globally at work, headed by the
Dominicans, backed by the Anglicans, in universities and religious communities
across the globe exploring and exposing the multi-faceted significance of that
Christian teacher ‘from whom’ it has been said ‘God hid nothing’.