on 12 December 2009
Meister Eckhart was probably the greatest and most enigmatic of Western Christian Mystics (by Western I mean non-Eastern Orthodox) so it is wonderful that this and its companion piece THE ESSENTIAL ECKHART has been released by Paulist Press's magnificent Classics of Western Spirituality series. As a resource for otherwise hard to find works of Western spiritual writing, including Christian (heretical and otherwise), Muslim, Jewish, Native American and Celtic work it is unsurpassed.
Eckhart combined a visionary mind with a deeply ecumenical and humane approach to human existence. Deeply influenced by Augustine and Dionysius the Areopagite, he was also unafraid to cite inspiration from Pagan masters (Plato, Aristotle) as well as Jewish and Muslim giants such as Maimonides and Avicenna. Rather than concentrate on bleak subjects such as Sin, Guilt and self-Mortification, his emphasis is on the presence of God in everything, most particularly the human soul, which he sees as flowing out from the Godhead before ultimately returning - "Wherever God is, there also is the soul; and wherever the soul is, there is God." For Eckhardt, all humanity were 'heirs to the promise', capable of receiving 'by adoption' the nature that Christ had 'by birth'. His vision is one of liberation rather than repression, universal hope rather than fear and despair. Its no wonder that his immense popularity during his life as his preacher was matched only by the hostility he encountered by the more anti-humanist guardians of the Church.
This volume includes a selection of Eckhart's commentaries on key passages in the Bible and Apocrypha, especially important chapters from John's Gospel as well as various Sermons translated from the Latin and German, all of which reflect his ability to abstract from simple phrases the most astonishing meditations upon themes such as the nature of the Soul, the Oneness of God, the process of Creation, Eternity and the Love-teachings of Christ. Eckhart's mind is rigorous and can sometimes read like a stern philosopher but equally often can break into sections of the most ecstatic and heartfelt poetical prose, full of paradox and parallels which go to the essence of the mystical experience.
Also included in this volume is the astonishing SISTER CATHERINE TREATISE which, although recently identified as not having been written by him, clearly shows the stamp and influence of his thought. Denounced in its day as profoundly heretical and used as evidence of the dangerous doctrines of the Heresy of the Free Spirit, it purports to be the dialogue between a Priest (clearly modelled on Eckhart) and a young woman in search of direct union with God. As an expression of probably the most daring and radical idea of Christianity of that or any time, it is a rich and valuable addition to this excellent work.
If there is any criticism about this book it is the denseness of the prose and the smallness of the print, all of which make working through it a little forbidding at times. But that is Eckhart for you. The power of his mind and the voluminous nature of his outpourings make encountering him a thrilling intellectual challenge as well as an inspirational spiritual experience.
The works of the great medieval philosopher and mystic, Meister Eckhart,(1260 -- 1327) have entered modern culture through a popular spiritual writer who has adopted his name and through composers such as John Adams who titles a movement "Eckhart and Quackie" in his "Harmonielehre." "Meister" is an honorific term awarded to show great learning and wisdom. Eckhart is a profoundly moving and difficult thinker. His works are difficult to categorize. He is within the Christian tradition but also appeals to readers with strong interests in Buddhism as well as to spiritually inclined readers who do not practice a specific religion. In 1329, two years after his death, some of the Meister's teachings were condemned by the Pope. The condemnation may have recently been tacitly lifted or markedly softened.
Many introductions to Eckhart are available. For readers with a serious interest, among the best ways to study Eckhart is through the two volumes of his writings published by Paulist Press in its "Classics of Western Spirituality" series. Both volumes include introductions and translations by Bernard McGinn, probably the leading contemporary scholar of the Meister. Both volumes also include selections from Eckhart's Latin treatises. Most readers come to Eckhart primarily through his vernacular sermons written in Medieval High German. The Latin treatises are drier, more scholarly and more difficult; but they are invaluable for a fuller understanding of this difficult thinker.
The first of the two volumes was published in 1981 as "Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense" while the second volume, which I am reviewing here, was published in 1986 as "Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher". I have known the first volume for a long time but I have only recently read the second with readings of the vernacular sermons and studies in between. I had trouble with the scholasticism of the Latin texts. When a friend suggested the importance of Eckhart's "Commentary on Exodus" which I hadn't read before, I had to get to know that work through this volume.
The term "Teacher and Preacher" covers both parts of Eckhart's writings: the scholarly academic treatises such as the Exodus commentary and the vernacular sermons preached to lay women religious and to others. This book shows the interrelationship and essential unity of Eckhart's Latin and German writings. The Latin works, more than the German sermons, show the vast range of the Meister's learning. They also show, if there is any doubt, that Eckhart begins deeply emeshed in medieval Christianity and in particular in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. His Latin works begin in scholasticism but in their subtlety and originality do not end there. It was rewarding to read the Latin works in this volume, particularly the lengthy Exodus commentary which is given in full.
Eckhart does not comment on every verse in Exodus. He begins with the text and works in his philosophical and theological positions. Portions of the text also involve rather traditional Biblical commentary. The lengthiest and most original portions of the commentary are those which deal with Moses' desire to see and to understand the nature of God and to understand the names of God. Eckhart does not argue for a position as much as he tries to redirect the reader to understand the relationship between God and the individual soul. The commentary and analyses are difficult and McGinn's Introduction and comments are highly useful. I had not realized before the extent of Eckhart's familiarity with and closeness to medieval Jewish thinkers, Eckhart quotes and analyzes extensively Maimonides' "Guide to the Perplexed" for its views on the predication of terms to God. Maimonides is at least as enigmatic a thinker as is Eckhart. Their languages and goals are different, but they may be closer to one another than I had thought. Eckhart also quotes from another Jewish medieval writer, the Neoplatonistically inclined Ibn Gabirol who wrote a work called "The Fountain of Life" which Eckhart knew. At the time, it was unknown that "The Fountain of Life" had been written by a Jewish author. Ibn Gabirol's neoplatonism, I found, was also a good way in thinking again about Eckhart.
Besides the "Commentary on Exodus" and other Latin treatises, this book includes six Latin sermons, which I hadn't known, one of which includes Eckhart's saying that "God is the intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere." The work also includes 24 of Eckhart's German sermons translated by Frank Tobin together with extensive notes and cross-references. Among the sermons included is no. 86 in which Eckhart explores the Gospel of Luke's story of Mary and Martha. The Meister's treatment of this story shows how spirituality requires carrying on with life rather than withdrawing from it.
The volume concludes with a long appendix, the "Sister Catherine Treatise" which is not by Eckhart but which was greatly influenced by him. It is a curious work which I thought mixed Eckhartian with non-Eckhartian themes. The heroine of this work is a young woman who disregards her confessor's advice and sets out on her own to discover the spiritual path. When she attains it, she returns to teach her former mentor.
I did not like this Treatise as much as I like and love Eckhart's own works.
The brief Foreword to this volume notes that "Meister Eckhart's writings invite us to share in a mystery. This volume has no other intention beyond that of helping to spread the invitation. .... Since his rediscovery in the early nineteenth century, [Eckhart] has inspired and influenced thousands, both famous philosophers and theologians and humble, holy seekers known only to God. Perhaps no Western mystic has appealed so strongly or offered so fruitful a conversation to the great mystical traditions of Asia."
I have thought about and returned to Eckhart many times over the years. This volume and its companion volume in the "Classics of Western Spirituality" series offer an extended way to get to know this great spiritual thinker.