Meister Eckhart and Prayer - Setting the Scene
Talks given at the Eckhart Society One Day Conference at Newcastle on 18 March 2000 by John Orme Mills OP
Meister Eckhart and Prayer
Talk 1: Setting the Scene
© The Eckhart Society
In one of his German sermons we hear Meister Eckhart telling his listeners: If human beings think they will get more of God by meditation, by ecstasy or by special infusion of grace than by the fireside or in the stable - that is nothing but taking God, wrapping a cloak around his head and shoving him under a bench, for whoever seeks God in a special way gets the way but misses God, who lies hidden in it. But whoever seeks God without any special way gets him as he is in himself, and that person lives with the Son, and he is life itself (Walshe, 2008, sermon 13b). Eckhart preached the sermon which I’ve just quoted from almost certainly to a crowd of women religious living somewhere in the Rhineland, the south-west bit of Germany, roughly 680 years ago, when Eckhart himself was about 60 – he was born about 1260. Who exactly those women religious were we don’t know. Maybe Dominican nuns. Maybe lay women trying to live a devout life in a community – the women who were called beguines.
The one thing we can say about them for certain is that at least some of them were quite intelligent – intelligent enough to jot down what Eckhart was saying, and any of you who have read a few of Eckhart’s sermons will agree with me that that was quite an achievement. Eckhart’s sermons can be exciting to read or listen to - much more exciting than most of the millions of sermons preached round the world every Sunday – but often you have to concentrate quite hard or you will lose his line of argument and get what he is saying all wrong. Ever since his lifetime people have been getting what he was saying all wrong.
But this is not all we can say about those women who were listening to that sermon and jotting it down. We can also say that almost certainly nearly all those women were very devout. They spent a lot of time practising all sorts of different ways of prayer and meditation and agonising over which way was the best. And it was precisely for this reason that the famous Master was saying this deliberately shocking thing to them: telling them that if they think they get more of God by meditation, by ecstasy or by special infusion of grace than by the fireside or in the stable, they are wrong. They are wrong because that is nothing but taking God, wrapping a cloak around his head and shoving him under a bench, for whoever seeks God in a special way gets the way but misses God.
This is one of the most heavily-quoted extracts from Eckhart’s sermons – it turns up in almost every book written about Eckhart. But what a dreadful way of starting to talk about this famous mystic’s teaching on prayer, about what we learn from Eckhart concerning the spiritual life! After all, it sounds as if the man had no time for prayer. And this is by no means the only quotation from his writings which suggests that. For example, in his treatise entitled On Detachment we read:
God has stood in unmoved detachment from all eternity, and still so stands. All the prayers and good works that a human being can do in time affect God’s detachment as little as if no prayers or good works had ever occurred in time, and God never became more ready to give or more or more inclined towardsperson than if that person had never uttered the prayer or performed the good works. (Walshe, 2008)
If this is what he thought, why on earth have we laid on this day called Meister Eckhart and Prayer?
What is Prayer?
I have entitled this first talk Setting the Scene. Maybe, as we have chosen to call this day Meister Eckhart and Prayer,and as Meister Eckhart, though he was a great mystic or perhaps because he was a great mystic, would seem – to put it mildly – to have had an ambivalent attitude to prayer, it might be a good thing if I started not by focusing on Meister Eckhart but by saying something about prayer, at least for a few minutes … even at the risk of being tedious.
The most famous definition of prayer, the one that for centuries has popped up in catechetical books, is, of course, the eighth-century definition of St John Damascene quoted in Cardinal Hume’s version of it by Peter in his introduction to this day: in its original version it goes ‘Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God’.
All the early and medieval Christian writers, Eckhart included, took it for granted that human beings have aspirations, that they have a real desire – ‘immortal longings’, to use the phrase Shakespeare put on the lips of the doomed Queen Cleopatra in his play Antony and Cleopatra (V, i). Even if they didn’t think much about it, people took it for granted that there was more to life than eating, sleeping, slogging and making love, and that could be said to have been true – at any rate for the mass of ordinary people – right up to some time or other in the middle of the twentieth century. Praying was one of those things it was taken for granted that human beings all do at least some time or other in their lives, if only on their death beds.
But if human beings thought this was all there was to prayer – if we believed that we human beings were all on our own, trying to communicate with a God ‘out there’ – then praying would be an odd thing to do, and it could be dismissed in the way somebody on the telly dismissed it a few days ago. In fact we believe that God attracts us to himself. Some Christians have expressed it even more strongly than that, and say that God in fact surrenders to us. In the words of the modern Swiss theologian Urs von Balthasar, God has made us so that, to be truly ourselves, we have to listen to his word. So prayer is a dialogue – dialogue,that’s the key word – and the first move comes from God, who, as St Augustine said, is ‘closer to me than I am to myself, who is not “simply another I”’ (Von Balthasar, 1986).
Opening ourselves to God like this is, of course, a challenge. It’s a challenge because it makes us realise that we’re not in the middle of the picture. But it makes it possible for us to move into a larger life – or at least to begin to move into a larger life … the life that God has destined for us.
Eckhart Speaking of Prayer
At this point, though, you could quite reasonably cut in, complaining that I began by talking about Meister Eckhart, quoting one or two things from his writings that sounded as if the man hadn’t got much use for prayer. And that then I jumped to what some modern Swiss theologian tells us that prayer really is. But that it’s what Eckhart had to say about prayer that you came to hear about.
Well, I know in fact Eckhart would have agreed with everything I’ve just been saying about prayer, and a lot more, but it’s a tough job digging it out of his sermons and his other writings. Much of his writing and preaching is about our journey to God, but, if you’re trying to find quotations in his works about what prayer is, it's much easier to find quotations like the two I’ve already given to you – rather rude quotes about prayer.
It’s important to realise that Meister Eckhart’s writings are a rag-bag. He did not leave us a massive guide to nearly all theology like the one produced by his fellow-Dominican St Thomas Aquinas, the Summa Teologiae. (He planned to write something rather like that but didn’t – or at least no copy of it has survived). He did not even leave us a guide to the spiritual life like St Bonaventure’s Itinerarium – the Journey of the Soul. No, of Eckhart’s writings all we’ve got, all that has survived, is, in Latin, some theological debates, sermons, and commentaries on a number of biblical books; and, in Middle High German, excerpts from the talks which he gave to young Dominicans when he was Prior of Erfurt (what are called The Talks of Instruction),and a couple of very short books on suffering and detachment, and about one hundred sermons (scholars continue to argue about exactly how many are authentic). We have to search to find out what Eckhart really thought.
And, like most authors of medieval times, he said hardly anything in his writings about himself nor gave his opinions about things which he wasn’t in the depth of discussing. He criticised people for being obsessed about techniques, about different ways of devotion, different ways of praying, but when he talks or writes about prayer he almost always talks or writes just about what we call ‘contemplative prayer’ or mystical prayer. He says hardly anything about what are called in old-fashioned books ‘the common practices of Christian piety’. This, though, certainly doesn’t mean he rubbished the ordinary things done by devout people in the world around him – in other words, spiritual reading, meditation on the mysteries of Christ’s incarnation and passion, devotion before religious statues or images, going to Mass, trying to live a moral life, going to confession.
After all, it’s well to remember that the traditional ways through which Christians have found themselves being drawn towards contemplative prayer - in other words, have found themselves beginning to have what another great mystical theologian of Eckhart’s age called ‘not a will nor a desire, but a something which you are at a loss to describe, which moves you to desire you know not what’ (Walsh, 1981) – well, these traditional ways have been seemingly very ordinary ways. Most people have been led to contemplative prayer, mystical prayer, not through having dramatic visions, but through reading, thinking and plain straight-forward praying. In fact, there does not seem to be any sound evidence that Eckhart himself ever had any dramatic visions. His own way to contemplative prayer, mystical prayer, seems to have been the ‘ordinary way’ – through reading, thinking and praying.
Hear what, in about 1295, when he was in his mid-thirties, he said about prayer one evening to the teenage Dominicans bunched round him. It’s one of the fairly few times he talked directly on prayer, and it’s worth listening to carefully because in it are the seeds of some of his most exciting ideas about the journey to God. He told them:
The most powerful form of prayer, and the one which can virtually gain all things and which is the worthiest work of all, is that which flows from a free mind. The freer the mind is, the more powerful and worthy, the more useful, praiseworthy and perfect the prayer and the work become. A free mind can achieve all things. But what is a free mind?
A free mind is one which is untroubled and unfettered by anything, which has not bound its best part to any particular manner of being or devotion and which does not seek its own interest in anything but is always immersed in God’s most precious will, having gone out of what is its own. (Talks of Instruction 2 in Davies, 1994)
Eckhart is saying that the most powerful form of prayer is the prayer of a person who is not obsessed with particular forms of prayer but who has, on the contrary, no concern whatever regarding his or her own gain, having sunk deep down into God’s will and abandoned all self-will. Here you’re already being introduced to the Eckhartian idea of "detachment", which I shall be saying a lot about in my second talk, for it is at the heart of Eckhart’s understanding of what the spiritual life should be.
But before we plunge into the thought of Eckhart – into what he has to say to us about how to grow into union with God -1 guess I’d better say a word or too about what over and over again people call ‘Eckhart’s difficulty’. During my fifteen months up here I’ve met a number of people who have said they thought Eckhart was no doubt a very great mystic, or at any rate an interesting thinker, but that they ‘couldn’t cope with him’, that they found him ‘impossibly difficult’. Some of his thinking undoubtedly is difficult, but not, I believe, what he has to tell us about the journey to God, and this, after all, is what we are focusing on today.
This does not, of course, allow me to say absolutely nothing at all about the broader lines of his thought. Here, for what it is worth, is a simple summary. Throughout his work there’s a persistent sense of the power of God and of our own emptiness and receptivity before Him. In all sorts of different ways Eckhart explored the dynamic relation between our own interior self and the fertile presence of God. So all the emphasis in his sermons is on that transformation in the spirit which sanctifies us. Over and over again we’re reminded of the God-given potentiality for knowing God and becoming one with him which lies in the depths of our being. This ‘spark of the soul’ is a potentiality which escapes our own reasoning and imagining, and yet, as the place where God gives birth to Himself in us, it is the centre of our life.
This extremely simple summary of Eckhart’s thought doesn’t, however, explain something which can on first acquaintance seem very strange to us, and that is his own special way of putting over ideas to people. During much of the remainder of this first talk I’m going to say something about this.
One day Meister Eckhart took for the text of his sermon the words at the beginning of the book of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah: ‘The Lord stretched out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me: “Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms”’.
No, Eckhart didn’t think he was a second Jeremiah. Not exactly – his style was quite different. But, like the prophet Jeremiah, he clearly saw himself to be a powerful preacher, and on that day – before he started talking about the way God speaks to us human beings (and that’s what this sermon turned out to be all about) – he got, well, all confidential for a moment, in the way preachers can. He tells his audience what he personally believes it’s most important for him to talk about when he preaches. He says to them:
When I preach, it’s my habit to talk about detachment, saying that we should become free of ourselves and of all things. Secondly, I say that we should be formed again into that simple goodness which is God. Thirdly, I say that we should be mindful of the great nobility which God has given the soul in order that we should become wonderfully united with him. Fourthly, I speak about the purity of the divine nature, and of its radiance, which is beyond words. God is a word, an unspoken word. (Walshe, 2008, sermon 22)
Now, what we have here is in fact not just an outline of how the Meister presented his ideas in his preaching, but a very, very brief summary of his spiritual doctrine and in fact more than that. It starts with Eckhart telling his audience how they must live their day-to-day lives if the knowledge of God is going to grow in them. Then it swings right away, plunging them into the mystery of God, telling them that that they must be formed again into that simple goodness which is God. Then the audience is swept back into the human world, to explore the depths of their souls, and discover that it’s there that they may be united with him. Lastly, they are lifted out of the human world and plunged into the depths of mystery, the mystery of God. What Dom Cyprian Smith, in The Way of Paradox, his very accessible book on Eckhart, called ‘this oscillation between unlike poles’ is ‘the basic rhythm of the spiritual life’, and’it is only within that rhythm that we can know God’ (Smith,1987, p. 26). The tension of opposites, the coming-together of opposites: this is at the heart of Eckhart’s thinking, Eckhart’s language. It’s the only way he can convey his central insight – his insight that God and Man, pleasure and pain, success and failure, are ultimately all one in God. Once more quoting Dom Cyprian:
God is everything, yet nothing, distinct from creation, yet indistinct from it; there is a tension between action and contemplation, withdrawal and involvement, silence and speech, being and nothingness. Having made a statement, Eckhart will often go on to deny it; but the truth lies neither in the affirmation or the denial, but in the tug-of-war between the two. (Smith, 1987 p.27)
Eckhart is not the first great mystic to have discerned that what is truly transcendent (in other words, what is beyond our discernment, beyond our universe) can be known only through its revealing of itself as the absolutely immanent (in other words, deep in the middle of our world). All the same, no other great mystic had carried quite so far the implications of this insight – this insight that what is beyond our world can only be known by us from what it reveals to us of itself in the heart of our world. Let’s take just one example - one that some people think is a bit of a mind-twister, but never mind. Eckhart believed that the realm of absolute unity (God’s realm, we would say) is radically distinct from the created world. But he also believed that, in order to affirm that distinction adequately, the mystic is led to affirm that what is absolutely distinct (as God alone is) is distinct because it totally lacks distinction (Sells, 1994, pp. 149–150). God is utterly unique – why? Because God alone is present in every single being in the whole of creation. God is distinct from all created beings precisely by not being distinct from any.
Now, this will not be the last time today that we will be coming across this feature of Eckhart’s thinking, the fact that it is full of paradox, but I’m mentioning it now because it’s woven through his thought, woven through his language. His language is full of paradox, it is (to use the jargon) ‘dialectical’. It is this that bewildered the inquisitors who tried him at the end of his life. They abstracted statements from his writings, statements which on their own sounded heretical, not always realising that they were abstracting halves of paradoxes. And, for precisely the same reason, modem readers get bewildered by some of the things they read in Eckhart’s sermons. All the time we read Eckhart we have to be on the watch for what he’s really setting out to convey – for the meaning behind the seemingly conflicting meanings, for the meaning generated through the tension between what is said and what is unsaid (Ibid., p. 12).
I said that I would try to clarify one thing which can on first acquaintance seem very strange to us – ‘Eckhart’s own special way of putting over ideas to people’. You may feel that my clarification has only deepened your bewilderment, but as the day goes on I hope the bewilderment will steadily dwindle.
The World of Eckhart
It possibly seems incredible to you that a way of thinking, a way of talking, which seems so slippery to us moderns, so hard to grasp, even though some of us think we could find it very liberating, is found not only in Eckhart’s Latin works, which were intended for academic consumption, but in his sermons in German, which were aimed at audiences which were not academic (that’s why they were in German). Surely the people in those audiences couldn’t grasp what he was on about? But it seems at least some of them did – otherwise there’s no way of accounting for the popularity of his sermons, the fact that they were taken down and circulated and preserved in convents hundreds of miles from where Eckhart preached them.
Eckhart lived in an age of turmoil, uncertainty, scandals and fiascos. The towns were steadily growing in power and importance, but overall Central Europe’s population and productivity were going down. There was a huge famine and many plagues. The Holy Roman Empire was getting weaker and the papacy had lost a lot of its moral leadership. The medieval feudal system was cracking up - some noble knights were having to turn to crime for a living. At the same time Western Christianity was altering, from being above all ‘a religion of the churchmen’, of a minority, to becoming ‘a religion of the masses’ – which meant a religion adapted to the spiritual needs of ordinary lay people. Many people, facing as they were so much insecurity and disturbing changes, turned towards an inward spiritual life. Even so, quite exceptional was the popular wave of religious fervour with a mystical emphasis which was spreading throughout the Rhineland. And this movement Meister Eckhart did more than any one individual to advance.
He was not addressing an elite clique, or cluster of cliques. He talked in a much more radical way, a much more colourful way, than other mystical theologians of his age, but his way of thinking was not altogether novel, his way of talking was not altogether strange. The sort of things he said would have rung bells in the heads of many of the men and women in his audiences. In this sense you could say that they had an advantage over us.
Even in Eckhart’s time there are signs of the beginning of an obsession with ‘experience’ for its own sake – a trend which was eventually, centuries later, going to result in ‘the mystical’ being thought of as something magical, even freakish - all to do with table-tapping, astrology and so on. But the one thing Eckhart was concerned with was union with God, and that was the concern of the majority of people in his audiences. As the quotation at the very beginning of this talk revealed, he had no time for anything - not even prayer techniques - which seemed to be diverting people’s attention from this one central concern. As he says in one of his German sermons: ‘The very best and noblest attainment in this life is to be silent and let God work and speak within’ (Walshe, 2008, sermon 1).
But here I’ve begun touching on matters which I’ll be turning my mind to in my next talk, in about half an hour’s time.
Davies, Oliver (1994) Meister Eckhart: Selected Writings. Harmondsworth:Penguin.
Smith, Cyprian (1987) The Way of Paradox: Spiritual Life as taught by Meister Eckhart. London: Darton Longman and Todd.
Sells, Michael A. (1994) Mystical Languages of Unsaying. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Von Balthasar, Hans Urs (1986) Prayer. Fort Collins, CO: Ignatius Press.
Walsh, J. (ed.) (1981) The Cloud of Unknowing. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
Walshe, M. O’C. (trans.) (2008) The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart. New York, NY: Crossroads Herder.