Meister Eckhart and the ‘Wayless Way’.

What might a medieval German mystic offer spiritual seekers today? This essay is a personal reflection on the teachings of the fourteenth-century Dominican philosopher and theologian, Meister Eckhart, who offers a deeply refreshing perspective on human spirituality, particularly for those like me who have long thirsted for a draught more satisfying than that on offer from many Christian pulpits. I present this reflection not as an Eckhart expert, but as one seeker to another. It is admittedly a long piece, and the Meister’s teachings are challenging, but I trust you find it an edifying read. References and a bibliography are included for those readers who might like to explore the subject further.

I first encountered Meister Eckhart­­ through his aphorisms, pithy and usually paradoxical snippets quoted in ‘popular’ writing on spirituality and in recent years even ‘posted’ as ‘memes’ on social media. This led to some serious reading, the work of scholars such as Bernard McGinn, Richard Woods and Oliver Davies, and finally the Meister’s writings themselves. What initially attracted me to Eckhart was not only his ideas, which are the primary focus of this essay, but also the way he expressed his ideas. A renowned preacher, much of what comes down to us of his work are transcripts of sermons and talks he delivered in the vernacular, Middle High German. His vernacular sermons, full of rich and unusual metaphors, irony, paradox, puns and word-plays, bear witness as much to homiletic and literary genius as to spiritual insight. And while, modern scholars suggest, it was quite possibly more Eckhart’s ‘difficult’ mode of expression than his theology that brought him to the attention of the Inquisition and ultimately led to his censure,[1] it seems to me that his extraordinary influence among spiritual seekers of his own day and his continuing currency in ours is due in part to his way with words.

Historical context

Johannes Eckhart von Hochheim was born into a family of the lower German aristocracy around 1260 in the mountain village of Tambach in Saxony.[2] References in Eckhart’s works to hearing lectures of Albertus Magnus (1205-1280), the mentor of Thomas Aquinas, suggest that Eckhart must have entered the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) and begun his studies at Cologne some time before 1280. He was appointed to the University of Paris in 1294 where he lectured on Lombard’s Sentences and received the coveted title of Meister (Master). His teaching, though widely influential, was controversial in some circles, leading in 1329 – the year after his death – to aspects of his doctrine being condemned as heretically unorthodox.

Eckhart’s teaching in a nutshell

In keeping with the Christian ‘mystical’ tradition[3] in which he stood Eckhart’s teaching emphasizes the direct experience of the Divine by the individual through contemplation. For Eckhart, however, God is not ‘out there’ somewhere beyond us but rather already-always present within the ‘silent middle’ of the human soul. The problem is that human consciousness of this inner divine presence is hindered by our manifold habitual and intractable ‘attachments’. The way to experience the union with God that is the birthright and potential of every person is to strip away these attachments. Where Eckhart differs from other monastic, ascetic and even sacramental teachers that might share his desire for beatific union with God is in his insistence that our methods for achieving this ascent of the soul are themselves attachments that, no matter how helpful, must also in the end be stripped away. Eckhart goes so far as to suggest that even all our cherished ‘images’ or ideas of God must ultimately be recognized as attachments and transcended in pursuit of the ‘God beyond God’.

The God beyond God

Meister Eckhart’s teaching is radically theocentric; it begins and ends with God, although not the ‘God’ of the theologians but the ‘Godhead’, the One, the Divine unity that is ‘prior’ even to the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. At this fundamental level Eckhart’s God is ineffable, empty and formless, unlike anything or anyone. God’s nature, he says in German Sermon (DW) 53, is ‘unspeakable’, and in language reminiscent of the anonymous English mystical classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, he says, ‘the hidden darkness of the eternal light of the eternal Godhead is unknown and shall never be known.’[4] The Godhead is ‘unspeakable’, ‘hidden’ and ‘unknown’ precisely because ‘He is pure nothing: he is neither this nor that. If you think of anything he might be, he is not that!’[5] The Godhead is not ‘a being’, does not ‘have being’, does not ‘exist’ as such, but is rather ‘pure being itself’. In an early Latin work Eckhart asserts, in an intentional reversal of Thomas’s ontotheological formula ‘God is existence’ (Deus est esse), that ‘existence is God’(esse est deus).[6] The ‘isness’ of all that exists is God.

In the vernacular sermons Eckhart employs the metaphor of the ground (Middle High German grunt) to connote this innermost depth of the divine reality.[7] The Godhead at its ground is utterly One; ‘simple’ and undifferentiated, and therefore ‘impersonal’ in the sense of an absolute absence of relations. The ground is also utterly passive and at rest, nothing but pure possibility, ‘the unmoving precondition of all activity’ as McGinn puts it.[8] The crux and arguably most controversial aspect of Eckhart’s mysticism is that this very divine ground is also ‘the innermost of the (human) soul’.[9] As Eckhart says in numerous places: ‘God’s ground is my ground and my ground is God’s ground.’[10] In the ground the divide between the divine and the human does not hold, for there is there no distinction, no creator and creature, only ‘the One’. From the human perspective the ground, which is ‘by nature receptive to nothing save only the divine essence, without mediation’,[11] is thus the ‘interface’, the ‘place’ where the identity of the human person is fused with God’s identity. The goal of the spiritual life is to penetrate to this inner ground and so to realize our true identity as God’s ‘image and likeness’, to participate in the eternal movement of grace that Eckhart characterizes as the ‘birth of God in the soul’.

Why do we pray, why do we fast, why do we do all our works, why are we baptized, why (most important of all) did God become man? I would answer, in order that God may be born in the soul and the soul be born in God. For that reason all the scriptures were written, for that reason God created the world.[12]

The ‘birth of the Son of God in the soul’

Thus, in Eckhart’s Christology the reason for the Incarnation (indeed, for the Creation) is that human beings might come to a realization or conscious awareness of themselves as the ‘image and likeness of God’, bringing forth or ‘giving birth’ to the Son of God within their innermost soul. This is a Christology, suggests Matthew Fox, in which Christ is understand not as Redeemer but as Reminder: ‘Christ came to remind us of our blessed and divine origins as images and likenesses of God in a grace-filled universe. The purpose of his coming is more our divinization than our redemption from sin and guilt.’[13]

How is this brought about, this ‘divinization’, this penetration to the ‘ground’ and ‘birth of God in the soul’? While Eckhart does refer to methods and practices, he seems to give far less weight to the ‘birth’ as the achievement of human effort than as the product of divine grace. The human role in the process, one of humble cooperation with grace, is clearly secondary. In Eckhart’s theology the divine life or ‘light’, a favoured symbol borrowed from the Fourth Gospel, emanates naturally, necessarily and irresistibly from the Godhead. ‘In this birth God pours forth His light in such a way that its richness floods the very ground and essence of the soul until it overflows into its powers, even to the outer person.’[14] This is how, through the agency and movement of the Trinity, God both creates the world out of nothing and enters the world as Son. ‘I sometimes mention two springs,’ says Eckhart, ‘the one, where grace wells up, is where the Father bears forth his only-begotten Son … the other is where creatures flow out from God.’[15] Importantly for Eckhart, the creation is not a past event but a continuous activity, such that ‘God is creating the whole world now in this instant.’[16] In the same way the Father’s bearing forth his Son is not limited to the one-off historical event of the birth of Jesus but occurs in the ‘eternal Now’ of the ground and is, from the perspective of time, a continuously present and manifold event. Thus, although there is only one ‘only-begotten Son’, the one Son is born over and over in the many, for we are the ‘same son as the Son of God.’[17]

Of the birth of the Son of God in the soul Eckhart once famously asked on behalf of us all: ‘What does it avail me that this birth is always happening, if it does not happen in me?’[18] The implication here is that for all the Divine outpouring of grace that makes the birth possible, something else is required to bring the event from the realm of ‘pure possibility’ to actuality within the individual in time. There must be in the individual a response to grace that is an opening up to God through a turning inward, a journey ‘into the silent land’ as Martin Laird has called it,[19] into the ‘vast and silent terrain’[20] that is the ground of the soul. What, then, must one do to undertake this inner journey?

Eckhart’s spirituality: the ‘Wayless Way’

The consensus among scholars seems to be that, while Eckhart tolerates whatever might be expedient for progress in the spiritual life, particularly for beginners, he sees such things as temporary crutches at best. This is not to say that he has no counsel for the spiritual seeker, just that it is less distinct and prescriptive than that offered, for example, in the ‘Jesus Prayer’ of the desert fathers, the Exercises of St Ignatius or the Practices of St Teresa of Avila. Eckhart prescribes no special techniques, practices, penances or pilgrimages, insisting that ‘whoever seeks God in a special way gets the way and misses God who lies hidden in it.’[21] It is for this reason that his spirituality is often referred to as a ‘wayless way’.

More than any particular method of contemplation Eckhart’s ‘way’ consists primarily of an inner attitude or orientation that is at once theocentric, contemplative and this-worldly. The fundamental orientation of Eckhart’s way is theocentric; its ‘true north’ is God. The goal of the spiritual life is simply to ‘have God.’ The person with such an inner desire or appetite for God will in Eckhart’s thinking also be temperamentally and morally equipped for ‘the way’, which is not for the ‘natural, undisciplined man, for he is entirely remote from, and totally ignorant of this birth.’[22]

The orientation of the spiritual seeker is, then, necessarily also contemplative, involving a disciplined attention of the intellect upon its Divine object, ‘quite collected and turned entirely inward, not running out through the five senses into the multiplicity of creatures’.[23] Through this ‘collected’ inwardness of contemplation, the ‘bare mind’, one is able to achieve the radical ‘detachment’ from ‘multiplicity’ and ‘creatures’ that is the prerequisite of the birth and the chief activity of Eckhart’s spirituality. This will ultimately include a detachment even from the ideas and images we use to give form to the formless One, the theological concepts with which we clothe naked ‘isness’. We must detach from the ‘imagined God’ that vanishes when the idea vanishes and be satisfied only with the ‘essential God’.[24]

The third aspect of this orientation is a radical this-worldliness whereby the God whom we seek is apprehended ‘equally in all things and all places’.[25] For Eckhart the contemplative life is fully consonant with the active and involved life, for God is in one’s ordinary life and it is there that he must be found. The best place to find God, says Eckhart, is ‘where we left him.’ Whoever and wherever I am, the ‘way’ for me must begin in the world of my own experience.

I was asked, ‘Some people shun all company and always want to be alone; their peace depends on it, and on being in church. Was that the best thing?’ And I said, ‘No!’ Now see why. He who is in a right state, is always in a right state wherever he is, and with everybody … He has only God, thinks only of God, and all things are for him nothing but God.[26]

Questions

I turn now to two questions that emerge from my reading of Eckhart’s teachings. The first involves the apparent dissonance between Eckhart’s demand for ‘detachment’ from the ‘multiplicity’ of the material, historical and social world in which we live and his call to find the one God ‘equally in all things’. The second is a question I can hear Nietzsche, and even Dewey and James, asking of the Dominican Master and concerns the possibility of annexing Eckhart’s demanding theological metaphysics from the more pragmatic aspects of his ‘wayless way’.

First, is there, as Richard Woods alleges, ‘an inescapable bias in Eckhart’s teaching’ against the material creation?[27] Does Eckhart ultimately drive a dualistic wedge between the interior God and the exterior world? If this is indeed the case Eckhart’s teaching would seem to run counter to recent welcome advances in ‘Creation Spirituality’ and the call for a greater awareness of ‘embodiment’ in our spiritual practices. I suspect that Eckhart’s response to this question would focus on his understanding of God, the ground and the soul, which are practically indistinguishable. God, he would begin, as the ‘isness of all things’ is indivisible from that which flows eternally from him. In his creating God graces to every ‘creature’ its being, its goodness, and its truth and to disrespect or denigrate the ‘creature’ would be to dishonor He who is in the creature as its most fundamental reality, its ‘isness’. I can also hear Eckhart suggesting that the soul, in its deepest ground, its most noble part, is the sole locus of the capacity to see the Divine ‘isness’ in all things, all activities and all places. It is within the soul’s silent ground that God himself knows himself as he is in himself, and within all things. There is, then, no dissonance between the silent ‘detached’ interiority of Eckhart’s spirituality and the exterior world.

In a sense my second question emerges from the answer to the first. If the problem of the divide between God and the material world is solved by reminding ourselves that for Eckhart God is no-thing other than the ‘isness’ of all things, is it necessary to retain his Neoplatonist metaphysics or his Alexandrian theology at all? Why not replace ‘Godhead’ with ‘isness’ at the outset? If in our quest for the transformed consciousness that Eckhart has called ‘the birth of God in the soul’ we must ultimately detach from all our ‘images’ of ‘God’ to apprehend the ‘God beyond God’ that is the pure, formless ‘isness’ of all things, why do we need theological language at all? Is it not a mere hindrance?

This question is much more serious than the first, and I suspect that this is why, at least intuitively, many Christians feel as uncomfortable with Eckhart as did the Avignon Papacy. I rather imagine that Eckhart, however, would be unperturbed by it and, with a quiet nod to Nietzsche, would simply repeat his mantra, that one is most likely to find God ‘where he left him’. In other words, one’s own cultural world will inevitably furnish the perspective from which, if one is lucky, one penetrates beyond the banality of everyday perceptions and cultivates an awareness of the One formless ‘isness’ that underlies everything. If this means abandoning the metaphysics and egoic constructs for the naked experience of my true self, then so be it.

Such an imagined answer might, of course, misrepresent the devout Dominican terribly. He may be as horrified at the prospect of a redundant theology as many twenty-first century Christians. But I suspect not. I rather think that Eckhart would turn this very question back on me and I conclude my discussion by considering my own place in the trajectory of Christian contemplative practice and my response to Eckhart. A brief autobiographical excursus will set up the context.

Having grown up in a Christian home and given myself in the first two decades of my adult life to professional Christian ministry I experienced a personal crisis in the 1990s that led ultimately to my abandoning my faith and identifying for much of the next decade as an atheist. My atheism was not of the angry, militant kind, but was nonetheless well considered, for I had studied theology and philosophy to postgraduate level. It was also, it seemed, quite irreversible. Then, after reading a book by Eckhart Tolle,[28] I began to meditate in the very simple and unstructured way that Tolle advocated. Very soon I began experiencing fleeting ‘flashes’ of heightened awareness and decided there was something in this. The thought struck me one day that what I was experiencing in meditation was actually what I had sought (and rarely found) my entire life as a Christian believer. It also struck me that Tolle’s teaching, although not at all religious, resonated with much of what I had once deeply appreciated in the Christian scriptures. Tentatively at first, I returned to those scriptures and then to the church, albeit now as a Catholic ‘convert’. There I discovered the ancient contemplative tradition and Meister Eckhart, who, I soon realized, had been a significant Western source for Eckhart Tolle, whose thought seems to resonate most clearly with Buddhism.

And so the question that Meister Eckhart’s teaching puts to me at this stage in my spiritual journey is this: if I had discovered in Eckhart Tolle’s ‘secular spirituality’ a practical means of connecting with the underlying ‘isness’ that is the deepest truth of my own existence, why did I return to the Christian metaphysical framework that I not only once abandoned but still do not ‘believe’ in a literal sense? Does this indicate, to use Meister Eckhart’s term, some recalcitrant and pathological ‘attachment’ to ‘God’ that serves only to cloud my vision of the truth ‘beyond God’?

I’m not sure whether there is a definitive answer to that question. What I do know is that my spiritual quest and my spiritual practice is deeply nourished and powerfully energised by the elegant conceptual framework and simple call to inner silence that Christian thinkers like Meister Eckhart have left us. Eckhart’s ‘way’ is, despite it’s mystical language, still the simple ‘way’ to the Father that Jesus shows us in himself.  I know also that if and when I need to let go of anything, it will become clear. For now I hold it lightly in soft hands.

Grace to you.

Notes

[1] ‘…when read in the context of Eckhart’s deeply apophatic theology, many of the seemingly heretical statements appear more orthodox, and even illustrative of the apophatic impetus that underlies Eckhart’s mystical discourse.’ (Nelstrop, L. 2009: 216.) Italics mine.

[2] See McGinn, B. 2001: 2-19.

[3](James, 1952: 371-420). Some writers use ‘mysticism’ almost interchangeably with ‘contemplation’, but whether all contemplative thinkers were ‘mystics’ in the sense that Meister Eckhart, Marguerite Porete and Julian of Norwich were for example is questionable.

[4] Meister Eckhart, Pr. 51 (Walshe No. 83, p254)

[5] Meister Eckhart, Pr. 23 (Walshe No. 54, p287)

[6] Maurer, A. 1974: 77-105

[7] McGinn suggests that ground is indeed the ‘master metaphor’ of Eckhart’s mysticism and that because there is no direct equivalent for this simple but ‘semantically rich’ German word in scholastic Latin this key concept is actually only found in the vernacular works. (2001: 38-39).

[8] McGinn, B. 2001: 81.

[9] McGinn, B. 2001: 41

[10] Meister Eckhart, Pr. 5b (Walshe No. 13b, p109)

[11] Meister Eckhart Pr. 101 (Walshe, No. 1, p31)

[12] Meister Eckhart, Pr. 38 (Walshe No. 29, p177)

[13] Fox, M. 1981: p218-219. Italics mine.

[14] Meister Eckhart, Pr. 102 (Walshe, No. 2, p40)

[15] Meister Eckhart, Pr. 38 (Walshe, No. 29, p181)

[16] Meister Eckhart, Pr. 30 (Walshe, No. 18, p133)

[17] Tobin, F. 1986: p115.

[18] Meister Eckhart, Pr. 101 (Walshe, No. 1, p29)

[19] Laird, M. 2006.

[20] McGinn, B. 2001: 48.

[21] Meister Eckhart, Pr. 5b (Walshe No. 13b, 110)

[22] Meister Eckhart Pr. 101 (Walshe, No. 1, p30)

[23] Meister Eckhart Pr. 101 (Walshe, No. 1, p30)

[24] Meister Eckhart, Talks of Instruction, No. 6. (Walshe, p491)

[25] Meister Eckhart DW Pr. 68 (Walshe, No. 69, p353)

[26] Meister Eckhart, Talks of Instruction, No. 6. (Walshe, p490)

[27] Woods, R. 2011.

[28] Tolle, E. 2005.

Suggested reading

Fleming, Ursula. Meister Eckhart: the man from whom God nothing hid. Edited by Ursula Fleming. Springfield, Illinois: Templegate Publishers, 1988.

Fox, Matthew. Western Spirituality: historical roots, ecumenical routes. Edited by Matthew Fox. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bear & Company, 1981.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature: Being the Gifford lectures on Natural Religion Delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902. London: Burne and Oates, 1952.

Laird, Martin. Into The Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Maurer, Armand. A. Meister Eckhart: Parisian Questions and Prologues. Toronto: PIMS, 1974.

McGinn, Bernard. The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart: the man from whom God hid nothing . New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001.

Nelstrop, Louise. “Mysticism and heresy.” In Christian Mysticism: An introduction to Contemporary Theoretical Approaches, by Nelstrop, Louise with Magill, Kevin, and Onishi, Bradley. B.  203-221. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009.

Tobin, Frank. Meister Eckhart: Thought and language. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.

Tolle, Eckhart. A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. London: Penguin, 2005.

Walshe, Maurice O’C. The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart. New York: Crossroads Herder, 2008.

Woods, Richard. Meister Eckhart: Master of Mystics. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011.

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