Eckhart von Hochheim O.P. (c. 1260 – c. 1328), commonly known as Meister Eckhart, was a German theologian, philosopher and mystic, born near Gotha, in the Landgraviate of Thuringia in the Holy Roman Empire. He entered the Dominican order when he was 15. Later he became a distinguished professor and taught at different universities.
Eckhart came into prominence during the Avignon Papacy, at a time of increased tensions between monastic orders, diocesan clergy, the Franciscan Order, and Eckhart’s Dominican Order of Preachers. In later life, he was accused of heresy and brought up before the local Franciscan-led Inquisition, and tried as a heretic by Pope John XXII. He seems to have died before his verdict was received.
He was well known for his work with pious lay groups such as the Friends of God and was succeeded by his more circumspect disciples John Tauler and Henry Suso. Since the 19th century, he has received renewed attention. He has acquired a status as a great mystic within contemporary popular spirituality, as well as considerable interest by scholars situating him within the medieval scholastic and philosophical tradition.
Eckhart had a beautiful and powerful style which made him very popular in his own time. His writings also suggested a very close relationship between man and God — a relationship that seemed to bypass the church.
Unfortunately this led to the accusations of heresy mentioned above. Eckhart defended himself by saying that he believed in the indivisibility of God, and he was merely expressing his experiences of profound contemplation upon God. He argued that his sermons were meant to inspire in listeners the desire above all to do some good. The public eminence of Eckhart protected him from any harm, but after his death many of his works were condemned and suppressed. Perhaps because of this he became a marginalized figure by the Church powers, who insisted that they be recognized as the official mediators between man and the Divine. Anything else could be punishable by excommunication, or worse.
Eckhart was one of the most influential 13th-century Christian Neoplatonists in his day, and remained widely read in the later Middle Ages. Nicholas of Cusa, Archbishop of Cologne in the 1430s and 1440s, engaged in extensive study of Eckhart. He assembled, and carefully annotated a surviving collection of Eckhart’s Latin works. As Eckhart was the only medieval theologian tried before the Inquisition as a heretic, the subsequent (1329) condemnation of excerpts from his works cast a shadow over his reputation for some, but followers of Eckhart in the lay group Friends of God existed in communities across the region and carried on his ideas under the leadership of such priests as John Tauler and Henry Suso.
It has been suspected that his practical communication of the mystical path is behind the influential 14th-century “anonymous” Theologia Germanica which was disseminated after his disappearance. The following quote from the Theologia Germanica depicts the conflict between worldly and ecclesiastical affairs:
“The two eyes of the soul of man cannot both perform their work at once: but if the soul shall see with the right eye into eternity, then the left eye must close itself and refrain from working, and be as though it were dead. For if the left eye be fulfilling its office toward outward things, that is holding converse with time and the creatures; then must the right eye be hindered in its working; that is, in its contemplation. Therefore, whosoever will have the one must let the other go; for ‘no man can serve two masters.’”
The central theme of Eckhart’s German sermons is the presence of God in the individual soul, and the dignity of the soul of the just man. Although he elaborated on this theme, he rarely departed from it. In one sermon, Eckhart gives the following summary of his message:
“When I preach, I usually speak of detachment and say that a man should be empty of self and all things; and secondly, that he should be reconstructed in the simple good that God is; and thirdly, that he should consider the great aristocracy which God has set up in the soul, such that by means of it man may wonderfully attain to God; and fourthly, of the purity of the divine nature.”
In Eckhart’s vision, God is primarily fecund. Out of overabundance of love the fertile God gives birth to the Son, the Word in all of us. Clearly, this is rooted in the Neoplatonic notion of “ebullience; boiling over” of the One that cannot hold back its abundance of Being. Eckhart had imagined the creation not as a “compulsory” overflowing (a metaphor based on a common hydrodynamic picture), but as the free act of will of the triune nature of Deity (refer Trinitarianism).
Another bold assertion is Eckhart’s distinction between God and Godhead (Gottheit in German, meaning Godhood or Godliness, state of being God). These notions had been present in Pseudo-Dionysius’s writings and John the Scot’s De divisione naturae, but Eckhart, with characteristic vigor and audacity, reshaped the germinal metaphors into profound images of polarity between the Unmanifest and Manifest Absolute.
Eckhart’s works have attracted recent and growing interest of God seekers, both Christian and non-Christian. In fact, the Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki was actually responsible for helping to re-introduce Eckhart to the West, when he compared his writings to that of the Zen masters, noting that Eckhart’s sayings speak with the authority of one who has experienced profound spiritual truth.
Meister Eckhart has become one of the timeless heroes of modern spirituality, which thrives on an all-inclusive syncretism. This syncretism started with the colonisation of Asia, and the search of similarities between eastern and western religions. Western monotheism was projected onto eastern religiosity by western orientalists, trying to accommodate eastern religiosity to a western understanding, whereafter Asian intellectuals used these projections as a starting point to propose the superiority of those eastern religions. Early on, the figure of Meister Eckhart has played a role in these developments and exchanges.
Renewed academic attention to Eckhart has attracted favorable attention to his work from contemporary non-Christian mystics. Eckhart’s most famous single quote, “The Eye with which I see God is the same Eye with which God sees me”, is commonly cited by thinkers within neopaganism and ultimatist Buddhism as a point of contact between these traditions and Christian mysticism. The popular writer Eckhart Tolle changed his name in acknowledgement of Eckhart’s influence on his philosophy.
Excerpts from Meister Eckhart’s writings:
“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”
“I am as sure as I live that nothing is so near to me as God. God is nearer to me than I am to myself; my existence depends on the nearness and the presence of God.”
“I AM can be spoken by no creature, but by God alone. I must become God and God must become me, so completely that we share the same “I” eternally. Our truest “I” is God.”
“God enters into you with all that is his, as far as you have stripped yourself of yourself in all things. It is here that you should begin, whatever the cost, for it is here that you will find true peace, and nowhere else.”
“Love is nothing other than God. God loves himself and his nature, his being, and his divinity. In the same love, however, in which God loves himself, he also loves all creatures, not as creatures but he loves the creatures as God. In the same love in which God loves himself, he loves all things. Now I shall say something I have never said before. God enjoys himself. In the same enjoyment in which God enjoys himself, he enjoys all creatures. With the same enjoyment with which God enjoys himself, he enjoys all creatures, not as creatures, but he enjoys the creatures as God. In the same enjoyment in which God enjoys himself, he enjoys all things.”
“You should not confine yourself to just one manner of devotion since God is to be found in no particular way. That is why they do him wrong who take God in one particular way — they take the way rather than God.”
“In this birth, God flows into the soul with such dazzling light that God and the soul merge into one — one spirit, one essence, one Being. God has given birth to the Son as you, as me, as each one of us. As many beings — as many gods in God. In my soul, God not only gives birth to me as His son, He gives birth to me as Himself, and Himself as me.
My physical father is my father with but a small part of his being, and I live my life separate from him. He may be dead, and I may live. God however is my father with His entire being, and I am never separate from Him. I am always His; I am alive only because He is alive.
In this divine birth I find that God and I are the same: I am what I was and what I shall remain, now and forever. I am carried above the highest angels. I neither increase nor decrease, for in this birth I have become the motionless cause of all that moves. I have won back what has always been mine. Here, in my own soul, the greatest of all miracles has taken place — God has returned to God!”
“Now there are those who turn from things out of love, but who still have great regard for what they have left.
But those who understand in truth that even when they have given themselves up and have abandoned all things, this is still absolutely nothing — those who live in this way, truly possess all things.
That person who has detached themselves from everything and who is detached, never glancing even for a moment at what they have given up, who remains steadfast, unmoved in themselves and immutable — such a person alone has truly attained detachment.”
“If every medium were removed between myself and a wall, then I would
be at the wall but not in it. But this is not the case with spiritual things, for with them one thing is always in another. That which receives is the same as that which is received, for it receives nothing other than itself. This is difficult. Whoever understand it has been preached to enough.”
“If I say that “God is good”, this is not true. I am good, but God is not good! In fact, I would rather say that I am better than God, for what is good can become better and what can become better can become the best! Now God is not good, and so he cannot become better. Since he cannot become better, he cannot become the best. These three are far from God: “good”, “better”, “best”, for he is wholly transcendent.
If I say again that “God is wise”, then this too is not true. I am wiser than he is! Or if I say that “God exists”, this is also not true. He is being beyond being: he is a nothingness beyond being.
Therefore St. Augustine says: “The finest thing that we can say of God is to be silent concerning him from the wisdom of inner riches.” Be silent therefore, and do not chatter about God, for by chattering about him, you tell lies and commit a sin. If you wish to be perfect and without sin, then do not prattle about God. In silence man can most readily preserve his integrity.
Also you should not wish to understand anything about God, for God is beyond all understanding. A master says: If I had a God that I could understand, I would not regard him as God. If you understand anything about him, then he is not in it, and by understanding something of him, you fall into ignorance… ”
“God is in himself so exalted that he is beyond the reach of either knowledge or desire. Desire extends further than anything that can be grasped by knowledge. It is wider than the whole of the heavens, than all angels, even though everything that lives on earth is contained in the spark of a single angel. Desire is wide, immeasurably so. But nothing that knowledge can grasp or desire can want, is God. Where knowledge and desire end, there is darkness, and there God shines.”
“We should learn to see God in all gifts and works, neither resting content with anything nor becoming attached to anything. For us there can be no attachment to a particular manner of behavior in this life, nor has this ever been right, however successful we may have been.
In return for stripping myself of myself for his sake, God will be wholly my own possession with all that he is and can do, as much mine as his, no more and no less. He will belong to me a thousand times more than anything ever belonged to anyone which they keep in their chest, or than he was ever his own possession. Nothing was ever my own as much as God will be mine, together with all that he is and all that he can do.
People think that they have more when they have both things and God than when they have God without things. But this is wrong, for having all things as well as God is nothing other than having God alone.”
“If you love yourself, then you love everyone as much as yourself. But as long as there is anyone whom you do not love as much as yourself, then you have never properly loved yourself — unless you love everyone as yourself, loving all in one person, in someone who is both human and divine. Such a person, who loves themselves and everyone as much as themselves, is doing the right thing. Now some people say: I love my friend, who is a source of good things in my life, more than I do someone else. This is not right; it is imperfect. But we must accept it, just as some people cross the sea with a slack wind and still reach the other side. It is the same with those who love one person more than another, although this is natural. But if I loved him or her as much as I love myself, I would be just as happy that whatever happens to them, whether joy or pain, death or life, should happen instead to me, and this would be true friendship.”
“God is not so much concerned with our works as with the spirit with which we perform them all and that we should love him in all things. They for whom God is not enough are greedy. The reward for all your works should be that they are known to God and that you seek God in them. Let this always be enough for you. The more purely and simply you seek him, the more effectively all your works will atone for your sins.
When we find ourselves under pressure or constraint, it will be apparent that we are more worked than working, and so that we may learn to enter into a relationship of cooperation with our God. It is not that we should abandon, neglect or deny our inner self, but we should learn to work precisely in it, with in and from it in such a way that interiority turns into effective action and effective action leads back to interiority and we become used to acting without any compulsion. For we should concentrate on this inner prompting, and act from it, whether through reading or prayer or — if it is fitting — some form of external activity. Though if the external activity destroys the internal one, we should give priority to the latter. But if both are united as one, then that is best for cooperating with God.
In so far as it is something external that prompts you to act, to that extent your works are dead, and even if it is God who prompts you to act from outside, then such works too are dead. If your works are to be living works, then God must spur you to action from within, from your innermost part, if they really are to be alive. For that is where you own life is, and that is the sole place where you are truly alive.
The just person seeks nothing through their works, for those whose works are aimed at a particular end or who act with a particular Why in view, are servants and hirelings. If you with to be formed and transformed into justice then, do not intend anything particular by your works and do not embrace any particular Why, neither in time nor in eternity, neither reward nor blessedness, neither this nor that; such works in truth are dead. Indeed, even if you make God your goal, all the works you perform for his sake will be dead, and you will only spoil those works which are genuinely good. Not only will you spoil your good works, but you will also commit sins, for your will be behaving like a gardener who is supposed to plant a garden, but who pulls out all the trees instead and then demands his wages. That is how you will spoil your good works.
And so, if you wish to live and wish your works to live too, then you must be dead to all things and be reduced to nothing. It is a property of creatures to make one thing from another, but it is a property of God to make something from nothing. And so if God is to make something of you or in you, then you must first yourself become nothingness. Enter your own inner ground therefore and act from there, and all your works shall be living works. That is why ‘the wise man’ says that ‘the just person lives in eternity’ since it is because they are just that such a person acts, and all their works are living works.”
“For however devoted you are to (God), you may be sure that he is immeasurably more devoted to you… Many people think that they are achieving great things in external works such as fasting, going barefoot and other such practices which are called penances. But true penance, and the best kind of penance, is that whereby we can improve ourselves greatly and in the highest measure, and this consists in turning entirely away from all that is not God, or of God in ourselves and in all creatures, and in turning fully and completely towards our beloved God in an unshakeable love so that our devotions and desire for him become great.”
“There is one work which is right and proper for us to do, and that is the eradication of self. But however great this eradication and reduction of self may be, it remains insufficient if God does not complete it in us. For our humility is only perfect when God humbles us through ourselves. Only then are they and the virtue perfected, and not before.”
“If I were good and holy enough to be elevated among the saints, then the people would discuss and question whether this was by grace or nature and would be troubled about it. But this would be wrong of them. Let God work in you, acknowledge that it is his work, and do not be concerned as to whether he achieves this by means of nature or beyond nature. Both nature and grace are his. What is it to you which means he best uses or what he performs in you or in someone else? He should work how and where and in what manner it suits him to do so.
There are some who say that they do not have (God’s) grace. To these I reply: “I am sorry. But do you ask for it?” — “No.” “Then I regret that even more.” Even if we cannot have grace, we can desire it. If we cannot desire it, then we can at least desire to have a desire for it.”
“But the soul must abandon her own being. This is where the death that is spiritual begins. If the soul is to undergo this death, then she must take leave of herself and all things, holding herself and all things to be as insignificant as they were before they existed … I do not mean that the being of the soul falls into nothingness as she was before she was created, rather we should understand this cessation to be the eradication of possessing and having. That person who is thus rooted in God’s love must be dead to themselves and to all created things so that they are no more concerned with themselves than they are with someone who is over a thousand miles away. Such a person remains in likeness and in unity and is always the same… This person must have abandoned themselves and the whole world … Whoever entirely renounces themselves even for a moment would be given all things.”
“It is the peculiar characteristic of this birth that it always brings new light. It constantly introduces a strong light into the soul since it is the nature of goodness to pour itself forth wherever it may be. In this birth God pours himself into the soul with light so much that the light gathers in the being and ground of the soul and spills over into the faculties and the outer self. This happened to Paul too when God bathed him in his light as he journeyed, and spoke to him. A likeness of the light in the ground of the soul flows over into the body, which is then filled with radiance. But sinners can receive nothing of this, nor are they worthy to do so, since they are filled with sin and evil, which are called “darkness”. Therefore it is said: “The darkness shall neither receive nor comprehend the light” (cf. John 1:5). The problem is that the paths which this light should take are blocked with falsehood and darkness. After all, light and darkness cannot coexist any more than God and creatures can. If God is to enter, then the creatures must leave.”
“It is the nature of the Holy Spirit that I should be consumed in him, dissolved in him, and transformed wholly into love. Whoever is in love and is wholly love, feels that God loves nobody other than themselves, and they know of no one who loves or indeed of anyone but themselves.
God does not enter those who are freed from all otherness and all createdness: rather he already exists in an essential manner within them.
You should know (God) without image, unmediated and without likeness. But if I am to know God without mediation in such a way, then “I” must become “he”, and “he” must become “I”. More precisely I say: God must become me and I must become God, so entirely one that “he” and this “I” become one “is” and act in this “isness” as one, for this “he” and this “I”, that is God and the soul, are very fruitful.”