Meister Eckhart’s Poverty Sermon

‘Let us pray to God that he might rid us of God,’ said Meister Eckhart famously in his sermon on poverty of spirit. In the following article I discuss the main theological and mystical ideas in this sermon, usually referred to as Sermon 52, and also comment on aspects of Eckhart’s hermeneutical method. I quote extensively from Walshe’s translation from the original Middle High German and have included references for those who are interested.

The ‘sermon on poverty’ epitomizes Meister Eckhart’s thought at its theological and literary zenith. Among the most studied of Eckhart’s vernacular homilies its claims, both ethical and doctrinal, are as radical as anything he wrote, yet, surprisingly, never rated a mention in In Agro Dominico, the papal bull of 1329 that denounced many of his teachings. The conclusion some scholars have drawn is that the text of this sermon had not reached its final formulation until as late as 1326/27 and was presumably not available to Eckhart’s accusers at the time of the trials. The evidence for this, however, is not conclusive, with recent research suggesting a much wider early reception of the text.[1] Either way, the absence of any statement from Sermon 52 among the twenty-eight articles of the bull of condemnation is intriguing, especially given the sermon’s provocative thesis, which is the focus of this present discussion.

  1. Eckhart and the hermeneutics of detachment

Meister Eckhart’s vernacular – Middle High German – sermons are exegetical in form, detailed interpretations of biblical texts. They are, however, hermeneutically quite unconventional. His handling of the biblical material shows little interest in what was classically called the ‘literal sense of scripture’, and such modern exegetical concerns as the historical context or the sitz im leben of the texts’ original audience are of no importance. Eckhart’s concern is rather with the layers of meaning that lie beneath the surface and, more importantly, with the existential engagement of his hearers as he leads them down through the layers into the dark abyss of union with the formless reality that he calls the ‘God beyond God’. This reality, he reminds us repeatedly throughout his works, is unknowable to those who remain invested in or attached to cherished concepts and images of God and the self. What is required is a radical intellectual and existential process of letting-go or relinquishment for which Eckhart coined several terms but most famously ‘detachment’ (Abgescheidenheit). He warns early in the poverty sermon that without some level of this in his hearers even understanding his teaching is impossible. ‘I beg you to be like this,’ he says in the third paragraph, ‘in order that you may understand this sermon. For by the eternal truth I tell you that unless you are like this truth we are about to speak of, it is not possible for you to follow me.’ He adds that this should not cause too great a concern, for such truth ‘few good people can understand.’

John D. Caputo describes the process at the heart of Eckhartian spirituality thus:

‘Beneath the busy work of conceptualizing and willing, down at the base of the soul – or, alternatively, out on the tip or the fine point of the soul – there is a certain deep spot, which he (Eckhart) called the ‘ground of the soul’, where the soul was able to establish contact with God in a way which broke through all the Gerede about God which the theologians and preachers kept plowing up and down the landscape of medieval Christianity. There was a point, in short, of what Eckhart called ‘breakthrough’ (Durchbruch), where one got to understand the utter intractability of God to what theologians, priests, and common sense said was God.’[2]

This is one of Eckhart’s notorious paradoxes, that in order to experience union with God, one must be utterly detached from everything one thinks or imagines, including and especially one’s idea of God! As he declares twice in the homily before us, we must ‘pray to God that we may be free of God.’ In this sermon Eckhart does not use the term ‘detachment’ as such but employs ‘poor in spirit’ to describe what is fundamentally the same process. This powerful biblical metaphor, along with the repeated injection of terms such as ‘free’ (vri) and ‘empty’ (ledic), places Sermon 52, says Bernard McGinn, ‘among the premier Eckhartian texts on the need for radical deconstruction of the created self.’[3]

  1. Two forms of poverty

Eckhart’s exegetical preaching rarely takes on an entire passage of scripture. Often he focuses on a single verse, a short phrase or, as is the case here, even a single word. The scriptural text with which he works in Sermon 52 is Matthew 5:3, the Gospel of the day for 1st November or All Saints. I suspect that Eckhart would have found Matthew’s version of the first beatitude preferable to that of Luke whose focus is the literal poor, not the spiritually poor. Eckhart begins by highlighting this distinction, although without explicitly drawing the comparison with Luke. He draws a line between ‘external’ and ‘interior’ poverty. While he finds an external poverty motivated by love for Christ ‘much to be commended’ – and may be alluding here to a controversy over poverty that broke out in the 1320’s between the curia and the Franciscans – this notion of poverty, he tells us, is not what Matthew’s Jesus has in mind, and neither is it what he wishes to address. Rather, he is interested in interior or spiritual poverty, which, as one would expect of a scholastic philosopher, has more to do with the volitional and intellectual ‘powers of the soul’ than with the body and its fortunes.

  1. The three realizations of spiritual poverty

In this sermon Eckhart employs a dialectical device often seen in his vernacular works whereby he posits as his starting point the thesis of another thinker or authority on the subject, often referred to as a ‘master’ or ‘great master’. Sometimes he even refers to something he has said himself. He then inserts a pivotal ‘but’, and proceeds to introduce his antithesis. This structure is seen here, for example, in the fourth paragraph; ‘Bishop Albert says a poor man is one who finds no satisfaction in all things God ever created, and this is well said. But we shall speak better, taking poverty in a higher sense.’[4] This deconstructive device is not peculiar to Eckhart, in fact it is reminiscent of Matthew’s Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount; ‘You have heard it said … but I say unto you.’

Eckhart characterizes spiritual poverty not merely as taking no delight in things of this world as Albert had suggested, but as something higher. For him, Albert’s approach, along with the dependence on ‘penances and outward practices’ that was endemic in the middle ages, while laudable if arising from good intentions, brings little spiritual benefit. ‘These people are called holy for their outward appearances,’ he says, ‘but inwardly they are asses, for they are ignorant of the actual nature of divine truth.’ For Eckhart poverty is far more radical than any ascetic regime of deprivation. It is, in fact, the antithesis of such feats of devotion and willpower. True poverty is the absolute and passive emptiness realized in wanting nothing, knowing nothing, and having nothing. These three realizations of what it is truly to be ‘poor’ in the highest, purest and strictest sense furnish the homiletic structure of the poverty sermon and are summarized succinctly in paragraphs 13 and 14. ‘The poor man is not he who wants to fulfill the will of God but he who lives in such a way as to be free of his own will and of God’s will, as he was when he was not. Of this poverty we declare that it is the highest poverty. Secondly, we have said he is a poor man who does not know of the working of God within him. He who stands as free of knowledge and understanding as God stands of all things, has the purest poverty. But the third is the straitest poverty … that is when a man has nothing … (not even) a place within him for God to work in.’ [5]

3.1 Wanting nothing  In order to clarify what he intends when he declares that ‘a poor man is one who wants nothing’ Eckhart begins with what others mean and deconstructs it. Wanting nothing, according to those who ‘cling with attachment to penances and outward appearances,’ means never doing one’s ‘own will in anything’ but striving only ‘to do the dearest will of God.’ But this is not wanting nothing at all, says Eckhart, for wanting (willing) is implied in the very act of striving to do God’s will. True poverty demands freedom from even this the noblest of human desires. Says Eckhart, ‘As long as a man is so disposed that it is his will with which he would do the most beloved will of God, that man has not the poverty we are speaking about: for that man has a will to serve God’s will – and that is not true poverty.’[6]

3.2 Knowing nothing  The purest poverty is realized in knowing nothing. Eckhart is referring here, not to the kind of knowledge we require to function in the world. He is not suggesting that ignorance is bliss! Rather, he is identifying a particular form of knowledge that, more than anything else, prevents us from experiencing the One. The knowledge to which he is referring is the awareness of distinction. ‘He (the poor man) must be so lacking in all knowledge that he neither knows nor recognizes nor feels that God lives in him.’[7] To know nothing, then, is to be absolutely ‘detached’ or free from the awareness of myself and God; i.e., awareness of myself as subject and God as object. ‘Whoever knows this knows the seat of blessedness. This has neither before nor after, nor is it expecting anything to come, for it can neither gain nor lose. And so it is deprived of the knowledge that God is at work in it: rather it is just itself, enjoying itself God-fashion.[8]

For Eckhart, ‘knowing God’ (as God) gives way to enjoying oneself ‘God-fashion’. What could this dangerous-sounding statement mean? Again, Eckhart sets up a dialectic with the ‘masters’ to clarify his position. ‘The masters say God is a being, an intellectual being that knows all things. But we say that God is not a being and not intellectual and does not know this or that. Thus God is free of all things, and so He is all things.’[9] To enjoy oneself ‘God-fashion’, then, is to enter into the freedom that God enjoys, the freedom of simply being God-self without differentiation. One is reminded here of the declaration at the burning bush; ‘I am that I am.’

3.3. Having nothing   The final realization of spiritual poverty is the most extreme of the three and it brings us to the crux of Eckhart’s thinking. As with wanting nothing and knowing nothing, ‘having nothing’ for Eckhart is not necessarily what the conventional wisdom says it is. The vow of poverty practiced by the Franciscans, for example, wherein poverty involves an external and internal freedom from possessions, is nothing like what Eckhart takes ‘having nothing’ to mean. A person may be utterly free from all earthly possessions yet not be poor in the sense that Eckhart intends. For there may still be one thing such a holy person ‘has’ that denies them true poverty; that person may still ‘have’ a place within for God to work. ‘If it is the case that a man is free of all creatures, of God and of self, and if it is still the case that God finds a place in him to work, then we declare that as long as this is in that man, he is not poor with the strictest poverty.’ [10]

This extreme position begs the question of how one can possibly experience union with God without having a place for God deep within oneself wherein God may enter and do his work. An extended excerpt from Sermon 52 will give us Eckhart’s startling answer.

‘It is not God’s intention in his works that a man should have a place within himself for God to work in: for poverty of spirit means being so free of God and all his works, that God, if he wishes to work in the soul, is himself the place where he works – and this he gladly does. For if he finds a man so poor, then God performs his own work, and the man is passive to God within him, and God is his own place of work, being a worker in himself. It is just here, in this poverty, that man enters into that eternal essence that once he was, that he is now and evermore shall remain.’[11]

With the appearance of a term such as ‘eternal essence’ it becomes clear that Eckhart is engaging us here in his metaphysics – the conceptual framework through which his vision of reality is constructed. The concluding sentence of this quote exposes Eckhart’s empathy for Plato or, more specifically, for Neoplatonism. We shall conclude, then, with a sideways glance at the metaphysics that undergird Eckhart’s notion of spiritual poverty.

  1. The metaphysics of spiritual poverty

Permeating Sermon 52 is the notion of an original and pristine state quite distinct and untouched by what we could call historical individual human existence. This state is eternal and unchanging. It precedes but is always present to our existence in the flux of time. Eckhart speaks throughout the sermon of this essential state using various metaphysical terms. In the early paragraphs on ‘wanting nothing’ he mentions standing in my ‘first cause’ when ‘I had no God and was my own cause’. In that original state, he says: ‘I wanted nothing and desired nothing, for I was bare being and the knower of myself in the enjoyment of truth. Then I wanted myself and wanted no other things: what I wanted I was and what I was I wanted, and thus I was free of God and all things.’[12]

Eckhart distinguishes this eternal essential mode of being from creaturely existence. For him there is a sense in which – and he often speaks in the first person to make this point – ‘I’ am uncreated and eternal. He speaks of himself in this context as if he were God. He certainly ‘had no God’ in this state. ‘But when I left my free will behind and received my created being, then I had a God. For before there were creatures, God was not ‘God’: he was that which he was. But when creatures came into existence and received their created being, then God was not ‘God’ in himself – he was ‘God’ in creatures.’[13]

This is simple logic really. The idea that without a Creator there can be no creation makes perfect sense. What Eckhart is saying is that the corollary applies equally: there is no Creator without a creation. Thus he can say later, in language that certainly sounds blasphemous: ‘If I were not, God would not be either. I am the cause of God’s being: if I were not then God would not be God.’[14] To grasp the truth of this apparently scandalous claim we need to read it this way: ‘If I (in my created being) were not, God (as creator) would not be either. Thus, I (as creature) am the cause of God’s being God.’

Conclusion

Bernard McGinn reminds us that the more difficult passages in Beati pauperes spiritu are, in fact, ‘in the voice of the eternal unborn self, not the created corruptible self.’ [15] And this is crucial to understanding not only Eckhart’s notion of spiritual poverty but the entire project of detachment. Spiritual poverty is the experience in our creaturely state of our eternal ‘bare being’ when there was no (conceptual) God. To put it another way, it is the experience of such absolute and unmediated union with God that the created ‘I’ (let’s call this ego) does not exist in distinction from the uncreated and transcendent ‘I’ (let’s call this ‘God’). Thus Eckhart’s infamous prayer that God may rid me of God. The ‘God’ that he knows he must be ‘rid of’ in order to break through into the experience of the ineffable is nothing other than the mental construct of his own ego.

The central message of Sermon 52 is that interior poverty in its three-fold realization sees the appetitive, conceptual and possessive powers of the individual ego that create and sustain the fiction of ontological distinction disarmed and disabled so that the ‘eternal truth’ of who and what we truly are may apprehend and possess us in the ‘ground of the soul that is also God’s ground’. As McGinn puts it: ‘The created ego of our formal being is a false self, a ‘pseudo-I’. It is only by deconstructing this self … that we can find the true self, the ‘transcendent-I’ who exists virtually in the ground of God.’[16]

 Copyright, Christopher Malcolm Knauf. 2015


Notes

[1] Gottschall, D. “Eckhart’s German Works,” in Hackett, J. H. ed., A Companion to Meister Eckhart, series: Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2012), n138 on page 173.

[2] Caputo, John D. Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction, and the Hermeneutic Project, (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), 268.

[3] McGinn, B. The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart: The Man from Whom God Hid Nothing, Edward Cadbury Lectures 2000-2001 (New York: Herder/Crossroad, 2001), 135.

[4] Walshe, Maurice O’C, The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart (New York: Crossroads Herder, 2009), 421. [5] Walshe, 423. [6] Walshe, 421. [7] Walshe, 422. [8] Walshe,  422. [9] Walshe, 423. [10] Walshe, 423. [11] Walshe, 423. [12] Walshe,  421. [13] Walshe, 421. [14] Walshe, 424.

[15] McGinn, The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart, 138. [16] McGinn, 138.

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