If I am to know God in an unmediated way, then I must simply become God and God must become me. I would express it more exactly by saying that God must simply become me and I must become God, so completely one that this 'he' and this 'I' share one 'is' and in this 'isness' do our work eternally. For this 'he' and this 'I', that is, God and the soul, are very fruitful as we eternally do one work.
Cyclic history does not imply a mechanical repetition of events in detail; it suggests that the impulses found in human nature will seek expression again and again until transcended or exhausted. An entire generation may contemplate ideas quite foreign to its forbears, and a culture may turn away from the well-trodden paths of ancestral traditions. The sacred teachings imparted by Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, were too often seized upon in an enthusiasm for the dead letter without sufficient attention to their deeper meaning and significance. When Christianity inherited the disintegrating Roman Imperium, it found a useful vehicle for the protection, proliferation and enforcement of its perspectives and doctrines. It also used the same social and political structures to impose a uniformity which destroyed the thoughtful understanding of the Christian message, denied the diversity necessary to authentic spiritual experience, and erected a sacerdotal edifice to sanctify the consequences. Only when Muslim learning, rooted in the classical traditions of the Mediterranean world, communicated itself to Europe did a new awakening gradually spread across Christendom. Long before individuals openly challenged the authority of the church, many responded to the inner recognition that something was not right by rethinking the essential meaning of the spiritual life. In the early thirteenth century St. Francis and St. Dominic founded orders which extolled the simple life of piety, the dissemination of the Bible amongst all classes of society, and the dignity of voluntary poverty. Whilst the spirit of such activity would not directly threaten the material splendour of Rome until the time of Martin Luther, the tide of self-examination and free investigation of all things had already begun to surge.
Johannes Eckhart was born in the modest village of Hochheim, near Gotha in Thuringia, around A.D. 1260. This German province would become a lever of the religious and political forces that moved Europe for centuries. Both St. Elizabeth, known for her selfless service to the poor, and Mechtild of Mageburg, who inspired the Beguine movement, lived there. The mystical political leader, Thomas Munzer, was born there, as was Martin Luther, with whose name the whole Protestant Reformation is associated. As if in ironic comment upon these centuries of upheaval and reassessment, Thuringia was later the birthplace of Karl Marx. Eckhart was the son of a local knight and noble by birth, but even as a child he was sensitive to the significant gap between aristocratic ideals and daily practices, a gulf he sought to bridge at many levels throughout his life.
When Eckhart was fifteen or a little older, he joined the Dominican Order in Erfurt near his home and followed for about a decade the prescribed course of studies in philosophy and theology. Because of his intellectual abilities, he was chosen to go to the studium generale at Cologne, the school founded by Albertus Magnus in 1248. Some historians believe that Eckhart entered the school just a few months before Albertus died in 1280. In 1293 Eckhart was sent to the University of Paris, a centre for learning for students from all across Europe. The advanced course at Paris required the cultivation of the skills of exegesis, preaching and debate. Upon his return to Thuringia in 1294 he was elected prior at Erfurt, an event that testifies to the high spiritual and moral regard in which he was held by those who knew him. Almost immediately he was also appointed vicar of the province of Thuringia. Despite these ecclesiastical and administrative duties which Eckhart performed conscientiously, he made preaching and teaching central to his public work, believing that the poor and common people could not taste the inner joys of the spiritual life without first experiencing a mental awakening and developing the capacity to think, reflect, contemplate and, above all, meditate.
Around 1300 Eckhart returned to Paris on a teaching mission. His debates with the Franciscans, whose rivalry with the Dominicans had grown to include personal animosities, so impressed the university that it offered him the chair reserved for foreigners – once held by Thomas Aquinas – and the Master's degree. From that time he was known as Meister (from the Latin magister, master, teacher). Eckhart lectured in Paris when Duns Scotus taught there, and watched the on-going battle between bishop and university, in which Aristotle was alternatively praised and condemned, and, by implication, the theology of Aquinas was found heretical or elevating. About this time the rapidly expanding Dominican Order created the new province of Saxony, stretching from the Netherlands to Prague, and its sixty Dominican institutions elected Eckhart the first provincial. In 1307 he also became vicar general of Bohemia. As a teacher as well as guardian of those entrusted to his pastoral care, he travelled constantly in response to the needs of friars, nuns and lay people. Nevertheless, he found time to compose The Book of Divine Comfort for the queen of Hungary. Though nominated for the post of Superior of the German Dominican Province, he seems to have balked at such a burden, and the nomination was never confirmed.
In 1311 Eckhart returned to Paris and began to compose the Opus Tripartitum, in which he hoped to set out his philosophical and theological views in systematic detail. He did not complete more than the introductory parts to each general division, for in 1314 he was called to Strassburg as prior, professor and preacher. From here his fame as a preacher spread throughout Europe, and in 1323 he was made professor at the University of Cologne, with the responsibility of directing the studium generale founded by Albertus.
Generally alarmed by the mystical tendencies of his time and area, and annoyed by Eckhart's presence, Heinrich von Virneberg, the Franciscan archbishop of Cologne, allowed the complaint to circulate that Eckhart's sermons to the common people contained ideas "which might easily lead his listeners into error". The archbishop instituted proceedings before the Inquisition, and a Dominican was assigned to question Eckhart. His defence was straightforward:
If the ignorant are not taught, they will never learn and none of them will ever know the art of living and dying. The ignorant are taught in the hope of changing them from ignorant to enlightened people.
After listening to Eckhart expound his views, he was found free of all fault. The archbishop was furious and soon instituted new and more serious proceedings. Two Franciscans combed Eckhart's sermons and pamphlets and produced a long list of alleged errors. With this Eckhart was formally charged with heresy that "incited ignorant and undisciplined people to wild and dangerous excesses Horrified at the charge of heresy, Eckhart composed a lengthy defence of each statement offered as evidence. "I may err," he said as if in summation, "but I cannot be a heretic – for the first has to do with the mind and the second with the will." Pointing out that his allegedly heretical statements were torn from their contexts and given the most literalistic meanings, he warned his accusers that they might prove to be the heretics. Invoking the privilege of his order, he appealed directly to the pope.
In 1327 Eckhart travelled to Avignon to defend himself before a papal court. Before leaving, he delivered a sermon in Cologne in which he denied errors, pointed to his own public and private conduct, and said that if true heresy existed in his writings, he would retract it. Pope John XXII found himself in the midst of an unpleasant squabble between the mendicant orders as well as a growing tension between the orders and the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Events gave him an easy out. Shortly after his defence at Avignon, perhaps whilst returning to Cologne, Eckhart suddenly died. The pope issued a bull in 1329 finding seventeen statements heretical and nine others dubious, but since Eckhart had already recanted anything that might be declared in error, the bull added that he was cleared of all taint. Whilst this ironic compromise, made possible by Eckhart's death, saved his reputation and satisfied the accusers, it effectively removed Eckhart's teachings from the church. Nevertheless, Eckhart's thoughts lived on in a variety of teachers and groups – the Beguines, the Friends of God, his disciples John Tauler and Henry Suso, and later philosophers and reformers such as Nicholas of Cusa, Martin Luther, Angelus Silesius, and the mighty stream of mystical thinkers whose experiences have validated the essence of his teaching.
It has been said that Eckhart's whole life and teaching were centered on God. Whilst this is true, it only reveals the universal problem faced by all true mystics: how to speak of the objective content of experiences which occur on levels far beyond the range of states of consciousness familiar to the average human being and therefore equally outside the scope of ordinary language. Eckhart's teachings were not systematic, being delivered as sermons, though they embody a powerful spiritual logic which stretches the meaning and use of concepts. Like Dante for Italian, whose life Eckhart framed with his own, Eckhart elevated the German language and reworked it for his own purposes. Eckhart began with God, but he distinguished the absolute Deity which is beyond all comparison and contrast, the ineffable that is the ever-veiled ideal of all unity, and Deity with qualities that can be named, even if not understood.
God and his Godhead are as different as heaven and earth. I will go still further: the inner and the outer person are as different as heaven and earth. But God's distance from the Godhead is many thousand miles greater still. God becomes and ceases to be, God waxes and wanes. . . . Everything within the Godhead is unity, and we cannot speak about it. God accomplishes, but the Godhead does not do so and there is no deed within the Godhead. The Godhead never goes searching for a deed. God and the Godhead are distinguished through deeds and a lack of deeds.
If Godhead is the utterly inscrutable source of all existence, and God is the radiance of creative action, both are far beyond the grasp of ordinary consciousness, for "God is nothing. It is not, however, as if he were without being. He is rather neither this thing nor that thing that we might express. He is a being above all being. He is a beingless being." Any attempt to conceptualize Deity casts a veil over the possibility of direct illumination. Eckhart warned:
I maintain that whenever someone recognizes something in God and puts a name on it, then it is not God. God is higher than names or nature. . . . We can find no name which we dare to give God. . . . God is elevated over all names and remains inexpressible.
For Eckhart, the theological distinction between creator and creation is at once as absolute as the distinction between an artist and his completed canvas, and as subtle as the continuum between a seed and the mature tree that grows from it. The distinction is that between speaker and speech.
God is a Word but an unexpressed Word. . . . Who can speak this word? No one can except for one who is this Word. God is a Word which speaks itself. . . . God is spoken and unspoken. The Father is a speaking action and the Son is an active speech.
And at the same time, "All creatures are words of God." Absolute Deity remains ever silent, but as the manifest Deity – the Word which utters itself – appears, the totality of the cosmos comes into being. The implications of this realization are stunning. First of all, every creature is an expression of the Word. Secondly, the advent of the Christ at a particular moment in time was an archetypal act, the real nature of which lies outside of time. Thirdly, the act can be repeated in any human being, and should be in all.
There where God speaks the creatures, there God is. Here in space and time the creature is. People think God has only become a human being there – in his historical incarnation – but that is not so; for God is here – in this very place – just as much incarnate as in a human being long ago. And this is why he has become a human being: that he might give birth to you as his only begotten Son, and as no less.
The eternal unity of unmanifest Deity is the ultimate nature of being. The multiplicity of the world, the efflorescence of the Divine, is a kind of illusion whose radicals are space and time. Just as Deity is unspoken, Nihte, Nihtes Nihte – nothing, nothing at all – so past, present and future are at root nothing, a Nu, an effervescent, infinitesimal 'now' between the illusion of past and future, a ceaseless becoming which, when penetrated, proves to be the elusive locus of eternity. The link between creator and creation is the soul, which is not a thing but the interface between time and eternity.
Everything which is past and everything which is present and everything which is future God creates in the inmost realms of the soul.
The phenomena of space and time, being a multiplicity, are the disguise of divine unity, which suffuses every point in existence.
Nothing so much hinders the soul's understanding of God as time and space. Time and space are parts of the whole but God is one. So if the soul is to recognize God, it must do so beyond space and time.
In other words, life is the counterfeit of being: the counterfeit cannot exist without its authentic archetype, and yet the counterfeit can lead one away from the real. The war between the transparent void of Deity and the ceaselessly changing prismatic colours of the world is waged in the soul, which partakes of both, and whose powers flow down into the senses and also reach beyond space and time.
There is something in the soul which is only God and the masters say it is nameless, having no proper name of its own.
No language, necessarily limited to the world of becoming, can adequately express the highest aspect of soul, and Eckhart uses a number of images to intimate what he knew from direct experience: seed, spark, scintilla, seal.
The seed of God is in us. If the seed had a good, wise and industrious cultivator, it would thrive all the more and grow up to God whose seed it is, and the fruit would be equal to the nature of God. Now the seed of a pear tree grows into a pear tree, a hazel seed into a hazel tree, and the seed of God into God.
If the seal is pressed completely through the wax so that no wax remains without being impressed by the seal, then it becomes indistinguishably one with the seal. Similarly the soul becomes completely united with God.
That which is spiritually greater, above, more real and divine, flows into that which is lesser, below, more phenomenal and material, but only if the lower becomes receptive to the higher. Receptivity is not passivity: it is the erasure of everything personal and separative, the reduction of the individual to a cipher so that the Divine may flow into one and fill one with a radiating illumination. Eckhart noted that St. Paul "promises you, when you are stripped of your ego, God, bliss and holiness".
Human nature became God, for God assumed the pure human nature and not the human person. So if you want to be this same Christ in God, empty yourself of everything which the eternal Word did not assume. The eternal Word did not assume a human being, so empty yourself of everything which is purely personal and peculiarly you and assume human nature purely. . . . For your human nature and that of the divine Word are no different – it is one and the same.
To accomplish this supreme receptivity, the higher and lower powers of the soul must be mastered with the golden rings that can encompass them. The lower powers of the soul are three: rationalis, the power of making distinctions, mastered by the ring of enlightenment, being filled with divine light; irascibilis, the power of anger, mastered by the golden ring of peace; and the third is concupiscibilis, desire which is mastered by self-content. The soul's higher powers are also three: memoria, continuity of consciousness, which is perfected with the ring of preservation; intellectus, the discerning mind, which takes the ring of true knowledge without the mediation of concepts, in which knower and known are one; and voluntas, the power of will which is ringed by love.
The love which is the sparkling diadem and gentle ruler of the human being is itself threefold. The first aspect is taken from the inherent goodness of Nature; it is friendly, impersonal, and given in equal measure to all. The second aspect is graced or spiritual love, that divine light which moves one from self-centeredness to the invisible Centre which is God, the Self of all. The third is divine love, which is also light and knowledge, love which is universal because one with the divine impulse. To have this threefold love in full measure requires four qualities. One must cultivate the ability "to let go of everything created", to learn Gelassenheit, 'letting be', a term invented by Eckhart. One must also live an active life centered in the performance of duty. Here the Old Testament figure of Leah is the model. At the same time, one must develop "an inward, meditative disposition", exemplified by Rachel. Finally, one must be "an upward-soaring spirit".
As Meister Eckhart depicted in his own life, one who possesses these four qualities to some degree will experience the spiritual awakening that he called death – the death of becoming and birth of being in one's own nature, which is one with Deity. For Eckhart, this is the eternal birth of the Son from the seed of the Father which is in the human soul. Taking its place between time and eternity, the soul gains the full reach of the Divine, from the core of the minutest creature into the unutterable void of non-manifestation, a barren desert to the worldly senses, but the Absolute beyond being and nothingness to the awakened spiritual soul.
In this way the soul enters the unity of the Holy Trinity but it may become even more blessed by going further, to the barren Godhead, of which the Trinity is a revelation. In this barren Godhead, activity has ceased and therefore the soul will be most perfect when it is thrown into the desert of the Godhead, where both activity and forms are no more, so that it is sunk and lost in this desert where its identity is destroyed and it has no more to do with things than it had before it existed. Then it is dead to self and alive to God. What is dead in this sense has ceased to be. So that soul will be dead to self which is buried in the Godhead-desert. . . . And Dionysius says: 'To be buried in God is nothing but to be transported into uncreated life.'
All actions performed other than as sacrifice unto God make the actor bound by action.