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Don't read this if you're new to Eckhart!
on 9 August 2006
This book has some really perceptive things to say, and if you know anything about Meister Eckhart already it is well worth reading. But, if you're completely, or relatively, new to the teachings and writings of the brilliant 13th century German mystic you definitely shouldn't read this book as an introduction to his spiritual insight, mainly because it's not a straightforward translation of Eckhart's wisdom but a heavily re-interpretated and quite opinionated rendering by an English monk. Less than 5% of the entire text is Eckhart's own words, 45% is the monk expounding on it and the remaining 50% is the author diverging completely into his own spiritual philosophy, much of which is mainstream Christianity.
But, to give credit where it's due, the monk, Cyprian Smith, does offer some thoughtful and accurate reflections of what Eckhart knew and taught, primarily that God is WITHIN you and can be experienced directly by all, in what Eckhart poetically termed as the "Birth of God in the Soul." You don't need the church or any of its sacraments. All you need is you, plain and simple.
The problem with this book is that the author tries to fit Eckhart's wisdom too narrowly into the traditional Christian way of thinking. By chapters six and seven it becomes blatantly clear that Smith is on a mission to repackage the liberating gnosis of Eckhart and give it a thorough Christian re-branding, rather than letting religion itself be transcended altogether in favour of real enlightenment. This was Eckhart's real intention, but the fact seems to evade the author of this book.
For example, the instant Smith started claiming that our potential enlightenment has only been made possible by the arrival in time and space of a historical Jesus, who lived two thousand years ago, I knew the book had veered dreadfully off its stated course. In fact, with this way-off statement alone Smith shows he hasn't really understood Eckhart's poetic style as much as he thinks he has.
As somebody with personal experience of the inner experiences Eckhart speaks of, beyond simply reading his books, I found myself cringing at several misguided statements the author makes about how a reader of Eckhart is meant to understand him. This is exactly the reason why you should read direct translations of Eckhart before approaching this book, worthy as it is in places. Then you'll be equipped to sift out what is really Eckhart and what is, actually, Smith's own personal, pro-Christian slant.
And, it must be asked, who exactly is Cyprian Smith and what qualifies him to write this book in the first place? Besides being a monk we are told nothing about the author. He seems content to write as though we should all simply accept he is some kind of authority on mysticism and Eckhart. Yet we do not know where he studied Eckhart or for how long or what his own spiritual experiences have been.
What does seem clear about the author, from his style of writing, is that he must have once been a very troubled, confused Christian who struggled with the illogical, literal aspects of religion. My guess is that he came across Eckhart's wholly metaphorical interpretations of Scripture and that these insights "saved" him, giving him a whole new approach to his faith.
But, unable to fully disengage from his Christian conditioning, Smith is attempting to reconcile Eckhart's enlightened teachings with more traditional pulpit preachings, particularly about Christ as a historical fact and as the world's first and only Redeemer. Smith seems unaware, or unwilling to accept, that equally gifted mystics such as Siddhartha Gautama in India and numerous Gnostic ascetics were around centuries before the coming of Christianity.
The Birth of God in the Soul, in other words, DID NOT begin with the historical Jesus; it had been achieved by many great mystics prior to the arrival of Nazareth's famed carpenter. If Smith were able to acknowledged this, his book would rank far higher in the canon of mystical literature instead of reading too much like a recruitment dossier for Christianity.
Ultimately, through this fault and others, this book finally does not do justice to the true spirit and intention of Eckhart's wisdom, which was for us to transcend religion, not reinforce it!
Overall, qualify what you read here very, very carefully indeed, but don't discount the book it altogether. Some of the passages are very well written and in general you're left with the feeling that Smith is a genuinely decent fellow who is only trying to figure out the big questions like a lot of other people. Just don't buy this book thinking it's an absolute authority on Meister Eckhart.
Most important of all, read "From Whom God Hid Nothing" and "Everything As Divine" before this. Eckhart is NOT difficult to grasp at all. Be wary of authors and publishers who claim otherwise - in most cases they just want to justify their own agenda.