Meister Eckhart, Marguerite Porete and the soul who wants nothing


In this essay I compare two mystical texts that share such an affinity of thought and language that many commentators have found it difficult to imagine they could have emerged independently of one another. The texts both belong to the early decades of the 14th century and are classics of the Christian mystical tradition. The first is The Mirror of Simple Souls, whose author was not until the 1960s conclusively identified as Marguerite Porete, the French beguine condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1310. The second text is Beati pauperes spiritu, German Sermon (Predigt) 52, a work regarded by many as the literary and theological high point in the career of the German Dominican Meister Eckhart.

Beginning with Herbert Grundmann’s groundbreaking work in the 1960s, considerable research has been invested in establishing a direct line of influence from Marguerite’s Mirror to Eckhart’s so-called ‘Poverty Sermon.’ Portrayals, by Kurt Ruh, Alois Haas and others, of Eckhart as a sympathetic interpreter seeking to give philosophical and theological legitimacy to Marguerite’s thought and to Beguine mysticism in general, would have benefited immensely from direct historical or forensic proof of textual lineage. But, to date, the evidence, such as that detailed in an influential 1984 essay by Edmund Colledge and Jack Marler, has been almost entirely circumstantial. The fact remains, however, that while there is a paucity of external evidence linking these works, internal indicators of their semantic affinity abound. And the numerous influential studies to have presumed Eckhart’s access to the Mirror primarily on the strength of this perceived affinity attest to this. Whether this presumption of direct lineage is warranted by the conceptual resonances alone is a question that requires much more investigation. And this raises a range of methodological questions. According to which criteria, for example, could one determine whether the intertextual similarities are so compelling as to necessitate the reception of the Mirror by Eckhart, or whether the perhaps more economical hypothesis, that the two writers simply shared a common metaphysical framework and Dionysian vocabulary, is sufficient to explain the affinity? In the absence of compelling historical evidence, (and perhaps even, in spite of it), it seems that the weighing of such explanatory hypotheses requires an in-depth analysis of all significant instances of verbal and semantic convergence.

The interplay between texts is described in poststructuralist literary theory as ‘intertextuality.’ Intertextuality occurs when meanings in one text are constructed in relation to another text. It may be the intended device of the author, such as a reference or allusion to another text, or even the ‘re-contextualization’ of meanings from one text to another. Intertextuality may also occur purely from the subjective perspective of the reader, whereby, regardless of authorial intent, a text is interpreted in the light of the reader’s own knowledge of another text or texts. There is a range of ways in which texts may stand in relation to one another and intertextuality furnishes a framework for analyzing and describing such relationships. In the following analysis, I examine a single example of intertextuality, where Beati pauperes spiritu reflects almost word-for-word an expression coined by Marguerite in the Mirror of Simple Souls. Giving attention to differences as much as to similarities, I compare the deep meanings in each text in the hope of gauging where this instance of Eckhart’s ‘mirroring of the Mirror,’ as Maria Lichtman called it, might fall on a continuum between the intentional device of the author (obligatory intertextuality) and the perception of the reader (accidental intertextuality).

A recurrent theme in Meister Eckhart’s teaching is the realization, in the human person, of indistinct union with God. In the vernacular works this breaking-through to union, famously represented through the metaphor of the ‘birth of God in the soul,’ is accompanied by a disposition of self-relinquishment that Eckhart describes in a variety of terms including abegescheidenheit (detachment) and gelassenheit (resignation or letting-go). Beati pauperes spiritu, Predigt 52, sees Eckhart adopt a new vocabulary to convey this teaching: the soul in whom union is realized is portrayed as a ‘poor man’ who ‘wants nothing, knows nothing, and has nothing.’ This identification of mystical union with the impoverishment of the soul is present also in Marguerite Porete’s earlier spiritual allegory, the full title of which is The Mirror of simple annihilated souls and those who only remain in will and desire of love. Despite its convoluted construction the title flags well the book’s central concern, the ‘annihilation’ or ‘bringing to nothing’ of the soul. The realization of union with God converges with the realization of the absolute nothingness of the created self. In Chapter 42 Marguerite describes the relationship of the annihilated soul to its natural “powers” of will and intellect. The chapter title announces that the Holy Spirit is to reveal, “what such a Soul knows, and what she wishes for, and what she has.” (Mirror: Babinsky, 121) It is this statement and its ensuing elucidation that, perhaps more explicitly than anything else in the Mirror, resonates with Eckhart’s Poverty Sermon.

Beati pauperes spiritu is a homily on the gospel for the Feast of All Saints (1 November), which was then as it is to this day Matthew 5:1–12, the Matthean beatitudes. The focus is the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The entire sermon is an interpretive gloss on the three words, “poor in spirit.” Against a background of bitter controversy over the place of ascetic poverty in monastic and ecclesiastical life Eckhart here embarks on a radical re-imagining of spiritual poverty. He begins provocatively by challenging the wisdom of one of the great religious authorities of the era, the Dominican luminary, Albert the Great.

Bishop Albert says a poor man is one who finds no satisfaction in all things that God ever created, and this is well said. But we shall speak better, taking poverty in a higher sense: a poor man is one who wants nothing, knows nothing, and has nothing. (Pr. 52: Walshe, 420)

For Albert poverty was determined by one’s relationship to “things.” Eckhart’s “higher sense” understands poverty in terms of one’s relationship to oneself. In framing his ideal of the “poor man” thus Eckhart comes very close to Marguerite’s description in Chapter 42 of what the annihilated soul “knows, and what she wishes for, and what she has.”

This soul knows nothing but one thing, and that is that she knows nothing; and she wishes for nothing but one thing, and that is to wish for nothing. And this knowing nothing and wishing for nothing give her everything, says the Holy Spirit, and they enable her to find the secret and hidden treasure, which is eternally enclosed in the Trinity. (Mirror, Ch. 42: Colledge, 61. See also Babinsky, 121)

Marguerite’s construction lacks the economy and elegance of Eckhart’s threefold formula but in linking knowing, wanting (or wishing), and having the two are clearly in alignment. The point of greatest convergence is in the negating of will and intellect through wanting nothing and knowing nothing. The realization of the nothingness of the individual created self and, indeed, of all created ‘things’ is the fulcrum in the teaching of both texts on union with the divine. The most significant point of difference here is in the treatment of the third aspect, “having.” For Marguerite, knowing nothing and wishing for nothing are the means whereby the soul comes to have “everything.” The annihilation of will and intellect furnishes the soul with the “secret and hidden treasure, which is eternally enclosed in the Trinity.”

Eckhart treats “having” entirely differently, giving it the same ‘semantic shape’ as he does wanting and knowing. As the third element in his three-fold definition of poverty “having,” like wanting and knowing, is an egoic capacity that is negated in the realization of nothingness. Thus, in contrast to Marguerite’s annihilated soul, Eckhart’s poor man has absolutely nothing. Furthermore, as the third point in a three-point sermon, “having nothing” is, by homiletic design, the sermon’s climactic high point. If Eckhart’s re-imagining of wanting and knowing nothing shatters conventional understandings, this final twist takes poverty to another level again. For “having nothing” means that one cannot “have” even a place within oneself for God to work. And this, Eckhart observes, is the “strictest poverty,” (Pr. 52: Walshe, 423)

Let us now locate these two approaches to wanting, knowing and having within the broader context of each text respectively. We begin with the Mirror, where Marguerite maps seven stages or steps in the realization of union. The ultimate stage is the eternal enjoyment of beatific union that comes at death. The sixth stage is a momentary flash or “spark” of the eternal bliss of the seventh. Marguerite describes this “spark” as the opening or “aperture of the sweet movement of glory,” which then closes over again. The crucial fifth stage is a lasting state of inner freedom in which the soul, in her “knowing-nothing” and “willing nothing,” is “unencumbered from all things.” In the first four stages the soul is still in servitude to creaturely desires. Various ascetic practices help one to advance through these early stages but the fifth stage is entirely dependent on the working of God in the soul. The soul is passive. The “work” or “movement” of God, the “spark,” arises and disappears so quickly that it is imperceptible, yet it leaves a lasting and irreversible affect. This encounter, which Marguerite describes in the ecstatic language of courtly love as the “ravishing” or “overflowing” of “the Farnearness” within the soul, leaves the soul wanting and knowing nothing other than what God wants and knows. After this transformative encounter “the Soul keeps herself freely at the fifth stage” and there can be no return to the fourth. (Mirror: Babinsky, 135) At the fifth stage the Annihilated Soul, bereft of will and knowledge, also has no life of her own, for she is now living “the divine life.” If her life is now the Divine life, where does this leave the soul herself? The truth is that there is no more any ‘self,’ no ‘I’ at the centre of this soul’s subjectivity and agency, or more accurately perhaps, no ‘self’ or ‘I’ for her now, except God. In union with her Beloved the soul is, thus, without her ‘self.’

This Soul, says Love, who lives the divine life, is always without herself.
And when, for God’s sake, says Reason, is she without herself?
When she belongs to herself, says Love.
Reason responds, and when does she belong to herself?When she is no part of herself, says Love, neither in God nor in herself, nor in her neighbours: but in the annihilation by which this Spark opens her by the approach of His work. (Mirror, Ch. 59: Babinsky, 136)

This theme is taken up again later in the poetic “song of the Soul.”

I have said that I will love Him.I lie, for I am not. It is He alone who loves me: He is, and I am not; And nothing more is necessary to me than what He wills, And that He is worthy. (Mirror, Ch. 122: Babinsky, 201)

Even from this brief summary it is clear that Marguerite teaches that what the soul ‘has,’ is not of herself, for there is no longer a self but only God. The soul ‘has’ nothing. Yet in ‘living the divine life’ she has everything that is in God.

We turn now to Sermon 52 and the ideal of the “poor person” as a soul who wants nothing, and knows nothing, and has nothing. Meister Eckhart opposes his understanding of “wanting nothing” to that of well-intentioned people who believe that to be spiritually poor one “should so live that he never does his own will in anything, but should strive to do the dearest will of God,” (Pr. 52: Walshe, 421). Eckhart counters that, “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!”

To unlock the truth about wanting nothing Eckhart invites his hearers to use their ‘metaphysical imagination’ and conceptualize their own non-existence. “For a man to possess true poverty, he must be as free of his created will as he was when he was not.” The prior non-existence of “when he was not” is not, for Eckhart, an absolute cessation of being, but non-existence as a creature. It is existence prior to existence as a creature wherein the creature is “free of his created will” and therefore “wants nothing.” This distinction, which is fundamental to Eckhart’s teaching on poverty, has its foundation in his quasi-Platonic metaphysics. In Eckhart’s metaphysics existence as a particular creature, the esse formale, is distinguished from existence itself, the esse virtuale. ‘Being in this particular form’ (esse formale) is secondary to and contingent upon ‘being in itself’ (esse virtuale). Creatures have no real existence in themselves. They are in that sense nothing. For, existence – that I am – does not arise from what I am: it is not a property of my created self. Rather, that I am is the necessary pre-condition of what I am (as creature). Eckhart refers to this transcendental ‘pre-existence’ as “when I stood in my first cause.” The first cause, a category borrowed from the Liber de causis, is the primary creating cause of all existence and is necessarily also the cause of itself. Aquinas identified this uncaused first cause with God. Eckhart claims this standing for himself: “When I stood in my first cause, I then had no ‘God,’ and then I was my own cause,” (Pr. 52: Colledge, 200). He makes clear, though, that this “lofty status” (rîcheit) is enjoyed equally by God, the highest angel, the soul and the fly. “The least of these beings possesses in God as much as he possesses.” (Pr. 52: Colledge, 200). When, prior to “receiving created being,” Eckhart stood in his first cause, he was uncaused “bare being” (ledic sîn). In that pure and formless state nothing needed to be added to what he was in order for him to be complete. Not even God. “Then I wanted myself and wanted no other thing: what I wanted I was and what I was I wanted, and thus I was free of God and all things.” (Pr. 52: Walshe, 421).

Eckhart’s use of the first person ‘I’ here and throughout the sermon is significant. If ever there was the sound of heresy on his lips it is here, where he explicitly identifies himself with the uncaused cause and seems even to place himself above God. But this is not Eckhart’s intention at all. The subject of the ‘I’ in these statements is not the particular creature, Meister Eckhart, but uncaused ‘bare being’ itself. Eckhart is not making heretical claims for his created self, but expressing in intentionally confronting language the radical shift of identity that attends poverty of spirit. The poor person is one who ‘dis-identifies’ with the created self (which has a God), and identifies instead with uncreated being, (which, as cause of itself, has no ‘God’).

In his ‘return’ or “breaking-through” (durchbrechen) to this pre-created state the ‘poor man’ is complete and wants nothing other than what he is. In the same way his ‘return’ to the existential unity in which he stood prior to taking on existence as a particular creature liberates his knowing from the tyranny of distinction. Thus, the soul “is deprived of the knowledge that God is working in it: rather it just is itself, enjoying itself God-fashion.” (Pr. 52: Walshe, 422) Having nothing follows this trajectory to its ultimate conclusion. Not only is the uncreated soul unaware that God is working in it; but, freed from all distinctions, it has no ‘within and without.’ There is no-thing wherein God may work, and no ‘God’ to do the work, and no work to be done.

In my breaking-through, where I stand free of my own will, of God’s will, of all his works, and of God himself, then I am above all creatures and am neither God nor creature, but I am that which I was and shall remain for evermore. (Pr. 52: Walshe, 424)

This “breaking-through” reveals that in the “strictest poverty” of having no place in him for God to work the poor man “wins for himself what he has eternally been and shall eternally remain.” (Pr. 52: Walshe, 425) In this, Eckhart’s ‘poor man’ and Marguerite’s ‘annihilated soul’ are remarkably close. For, in “having nothing” the poor man breaks through to the same “secret and hidden treasure” that the annihilated soul has gained. Like the soul, he “has everything in God.” Conversely, the annihilated soul who, in the fifth stage, is “living the divine life,” experiences the poor man’s poverty of having nothing in that she is “always without herself (and) no part of herself, neither in God nor in herself.” (Mirror, Ch. 59: Babinsky, 136) As an aside, it should be noted there are even hints in the Mirror of the metaphysical notion of the pre-created state that is the theoretical foundation of Eckhart’s re-imagining of spiritual poverty. In Chapter 138 Marguerite speaks of the annihilated soul being “in the stage of her prior being,” and the unity that occurs “when the soul is melted in the simple Deity, who is one simple Being of overflowing fruition.” (Mirror, Ch. 138: Babinsky, 219 – 220)

In summary. We have sought to show that Eckhart’s threefold formula, “The poor man is one who wants nothing, and knows nothing, and has nothing,” mirrors in part Marguerite’s notion of the annihilated soul as “knowing nothing and wishing for nothing,” and that the negation of will and intellect is understood in both texts to mean fundamentally the same thing. We noted that Eckhart departs from Marguerite’s understanding of what this Soul ‘has.’ For Marguerite, the soul has everything. For Eckhart, the poor man, has nothing. Yet, on further analysis we saw that the two texts are not as dissonant on this matter as it might appear. For, in his ‘breaking-through’ the poor man ‘has’ in union with God what the annihilated soul has, which is everything that God has, and this he has through the poverty of having nothing in himself (as creature).

To conclude then, it is evident from this analysis that there exists between the two texts a remarkable and deep semantic affinity concerning what the realized soul wants, knows and has. Upon examination, even the one significant moment of dissonance between the two is resolved. Yet to conclude that this amounts to an intentional reference by Eckhart to Chapter 42 of Marguerite’s text, i.e., ‘obligatory intertextuality,’ is problematic. For, the question remains that if, at a deep level, he meant fundamentally the same thing as Marguerite, why did Eckhart depart from Marguerite’s verbal construction by changing ‘having everything’ to ‘having nothing?’ I suggest that the answer to this question lies somewhere in the difference between Marguerite as poetic allegorist in the tradition of the medieval courtly romance, and Eckhart as philosopher-theologian, and consummate homilist of the Order of Preachers, master of the three-point sermon.

Copyright, Christopher Malcolm Knauf. 2017.

A version of this paper was presented at the annual conference of the Mystical Theology Network, University of Glasgow, December 2016


References cited in this essay are from the following translations of Porete and Eckhart.

Marguerite Porete. The Mirror of Simple Souls. Translated with an introductory interpretive essay by Edmund Colledge, J.C. Marler, and Judith Grant. Notre Dame Texts in Medieval Culture 6. 1999, Reprint, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010. [Mirror]

Also the translation of the Mirror by Ellen L. Babinsky. The Classics of Western Spirituality, New York: Paulist Press, 1993. [Babinsky]

Meister Eckhart. The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart. Translated by Maurice O’C. Walshe. New York: Crossroad Herder, 2009. [Walshe]

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