Meister Eckhart and Prayer - Talk 2: Being Detached
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 2: Being Detached
© The Eckhart Society
Once again let’s listen to Meister Eckhart giving advice in the middle of the 1290s to those young Dominicans in the priory at Erfurt. This is what he’s telling them this time:
Brothers, people say: ‘O Lord, I wish that I stood as well with God and that I had as much devotion and peace with God as other people, and that I could be like them or could be as poor as they are.’ Or they say: ‘It never works for me unless I am in this or that particular place and do this or that particular thing. I must go to somewhere remote or live in a hermitage or a monastery’.
Truly (Eckhart goes on) it is you who are the cause of this yourself, and nothing else. It is your own self-will, even if you don’t know it or this doesn’t seem to you to be the case...
Start with yourself therefore and take leave of yourself. Truly, if you do not depart from yourself, then wherever you take refuge, you will find obstacle and unrest, wherever it may be. Those who seek peace in external things, whether in places or devotional practices, people or works, in withdrawal from the world and self-abasement: however great these things may be or whatever their character, they are still nothing at all and cannot be the source of peace…
First of all, people should renounce themselves, and then they will have renounced all things. Lo and behold, yet once again Eckhart is saying seemingly dismissive things about devotional practices and withdrawal from the world and self-abasement – the things which were considered to be so important in monasteries and convents at that time and which, in various disguises, have gone on being considered important in much of the Christian world. He’s saying to this group of young men that these things ‘cannot be the source of peace’.
But this is not the reason why I’ve picked this passage to open my second talk. No, I’ve picked it because in it we hear Eckhart saying that if we are in a confused state of mind, if we don’t feel that we’re making any progress towards sharing God’s life, the answer is not to go rushing off somewhere, or climbing rocky mountains in bare feet, or whatever. No, we must, as he says, ‘start with ourselves’.And what does this mean? He goes on to say we must ‘take leave of ourselves’, we must ‘depart from ourselves’. And what does that mean?
The key word in Eckhart’s account of how we human beings can enter into union with God, can share God’s life, is the word in Middle High German abegescheidenheit, translated into modern English as detachment. As far as Eckhart is concerned, detachment is the supreme virtue, the virtue which in fact comprehends all the other virtues – even faith and love and humility.
This sounds very odd to English speakers of 2000 AD. Detachment is a virtue which we think judges should have and examiners should have, and possibly the people who assess your suitability for a job or a mortgage, but we’re inclined to think of it as a cold virtue which many of the most lovable people we know don’t possess.But when Eckhart is talking of detachment he is talking about something very different. As far as he’s concerned, to be truly prayerful is to be detached. In one of his sermons he says:
All our perfection and all our blessedness depends upon our breaking through, passing beyond all createdness, all temporality and all being, and entering into the ground that is without ground. (Walshe, 2008, sermon 80)
And that ‘breaking through’ is what he means by ‘detachment’.
Eckhart was certainly not a hermit – he was, on the contrary, a member of the Order of Friars Preachers, a Dominican. He was a man whom we know was constantly on the go, a man who was continually having to travel (by foot, remember), preaching and lecturing, making visitations to convents, attending meetings, defending himself against his critics, relating to all sorts of people. But detachment was not, in his opinion, something attained by busyness – by filling one’s life’s with all sorts of activities. Quite to the contrary. In my first talk I said that his language and his thought was riddled with paradox, and you could also say this about his life.
The one thing that makes sense of all his teaching on how we can enter into union with God is his understanding of what God is like. He says somewhere. ‘If God is God, he has it from his immovable detachment, and from this detachment he has his purity, his simplicity and his immutability’. God is profoundly unlike any creature. To sum up what Eckhart says about God in a number of places: He is not a being; He is eternal and changeless; He is wholly One yet present in the deepest depths of every created being. As he puts it himself:
God is infinite in his simplicity and simple in his infinity. Therefore he is everywhere and is everywhere complete. He is everywhere on account of his infinity, and is everywhere complete on account of his simplicity. Only God flows into all things, their very essences. Nothing else flows into something else. God is in the innermost part of each and every thing, only in its innermost part, and he alone is one.(Davis, 1999, p. 10)
And, in answer to the question ‘What does God love?’ Eckhart replies: ‘God loves nothing but Himself and what is like Himself, in so far as He finds it in me and me in Him’ (Walshe, 2008, sermon 43).It is for this reason that we are to seek to become detached: for, in becoming detached, we become most like Him, and, in Eckhart’s words, ‘God is bound to give Himself to a detached heart’. Bound,note. As he says on another occasion:
True detachment is nothing other than this: the spirit stands as immovable in all the assaults of joy or sorrow, honour, disgrace or shame, as a mountain of lead stands immovable against a small wind. This immovable detachment brings about in man the greatest similarity with God.
Withdrawal of the centre of consciousness away from the sensations and images which bombard us all the day long and into that part of the soul which transcends the world: this is what scholarly writers on Eckhart have again and again discerned as the heart of Eckhartian mysticism. It is then, and only then, that the mysteries which are at the core of his teachings can become a reality in our lives: in other words, it is only then that the divine Word, the Son, is born in the soul, and that the soul can penetrate into the divine ground which is the Godhead.
How, though, do we start: how are we to become detached? A whole number of times I’ve been asked this. Really, telling people that they should become detached(detached in the Eckhartian sense of the world) sounds a bit like telling all the peoples of the world that they should live in peace with everybody.
Eckhart in fact tells us surprisingly little about how to become detached. Probably for him it was never a great difficulty, but I must say that when, some nights, I was woken up and kept awake for hours on end by a door somewhere outside banging in the wind and I thought of what Eckhart had said about the need for perfect inner stillness, I wished he had given me a few more concrete suggestions about how best to acquire that inner stillness.
Something which is immensely important to be aware of is Eckhart’s extremely elevated idea of what the soul is. (Incidentally, I’m sticking to the word ‘soul’ rather than talking about for example ‘the inner self’ or ‘the person’, because ‘soul’ is the word Eckhart uses himself and there’s no other word which quite conveys the same meaning.) Though he says that our souls are not wholly uncreated, the ground of our souls – the intellect – is, he believes, so closely identical with the ground of God that it existed with the Godhead before all creation, and so eternally. So we even find him saying in one of his sermons that God made our souls not merely like the image in Himself, but actually like His own self, in fact like everything that He is (Walshe, 2008, sermon 92).
Now, if this is the case, and if we have this way of seeing ourselves and respond to it, then we ought to have no difficulty at all in sharing the life of God, or, to use the Master’s own language, ‘getting into the ground that is groundless’ (Walshe, 2008, sermon 80). It should be just the normal thing we do. It certainly shouldn’t be an effort, something that we have to learn up how to do.Why, then, isn’t it ‘just the normal thing we do’?Eckhart says:
Nobody ever wanted anything so much as God wants to bring a human being to knowledge of Himself. God is always ready, but we are unready. God is near to us, but we are far from Him. God is in, we are out. God is at home in us, we are abroad. (Walshe, 2008, sermon 69)
Clearly it hasn’t only been in our aggressively secular society that people have had difficulty in seeing themselves in the way Eckhart states that they should. Fourteenth-century people had this difficulty too.
In one of his sermons he does in fact list the obstacles which he considers most often prevent our souls from attaining true detachment. Obstacle One is the soul being too scattered, its not being unified \n itself but, on the contrary, distracted by all sorts of conflicting things in our world. Obstacle Two is the soul’s involvement with transient things, with what is changeable and passing. Obstacle Three is excessive focussing by the soul on the body and its needs, for that stops the soul from realising its potential and consequently of being united with God (Walshe, 2008, sermon 85).
Eckhart also says somewhere else that, though God is most intimate, more interior to my being than I am, we can only find God and that self within us by becoming detached from ‘ways’,including even the ‘way’ of seeking that inwardness. The detached person wants nothing, wants no ‘experience’, not even the experience of God’s presence in the soul. We should, in fact, be so free of all knowing that we do not even know or experience or grasp that God lives in us. So we should ask for nothing other than that we might become a place only for God, in which God could work (Walshe, 2008, sermon, 87). As Eckhart said one evening to those young men in Erfurt, since God enters into you with all that is his just as much as you depart from things,people shouldn’t worry so much about what they do but rather about what they are (Walshe, 2008; Davies, 1994, Talks of Instruction 4).
All this is very helpful guidance but individuals still understandably insist that they need concrete advice on how to start bringing about in themselves the kind of change which Eckhart talks about.
Well, he takes it for granted that men and women of this kind are trying to live moral and regular lives. He also tells them they should go frequently to Holy Communion – something which would certainly have surprised people of his time, and will rather surprise those modern admirers of Eckhart who seem to think he was above bothering about the ordinary things of Christian life (Walshe, 2008; Davies, 1994, Talks of Instruction 20). He strongly recommended ‘absolute stillness for as long as possible’ as the means of being receptive to God’s work in the soul (Walshe, 2008, sermon 4). On the other hand, he also made some quite unexpected remarks about the relationship between the inner and the outer life. He said contemplatives shouldn’t abandon, neglect or reject their inner life, but precisely in it and with it and from it they should learn to act in such a way that the inward life spontaneously breaks into activity and activity leads us back into the inward life. They should concentrate on their inner promptings and act on them, maybe reading, maybe praying, maybe doing some sort of outward activity (Walshe, 2008; Daviesm 1994m Talks of Instruction 23) ‘Absolute stillness for as long as possible’ was not, then, the only thing he advocated to followers of the mystical life.
But for a long while it has been commonly assumed that, of all the foundations of the contemplative life, far and away one of the most important is prayer, and what Meister Eckhart has to say about this is certain to interest us here, seeing what the title of this one-day conference is. He tells us pithily:
When I pray for aught, my prayer goes for naught; when I pray for naught, I pray as I ought. When I am united with the God within which all beings exist whether past, present or future, they are all equally near and equally one; they are all in God and all in me. Then there’s no need to think of Henry or Conrad (or, as we might say, of Tom, Dick and Harry). (Walshem 2008m sermon 5)
As he says even more strongly in another sermon:
Whoever seeks God and seeks anything with God, does not find God; but he who seeks God alone in truth finds God but he does not find God alone – for all that God can give, that he finds with God. (Walshe, 2008, sermon 1)
This is one of the most controversial teachings on prayer to come from a major Christian writer. After all, nearly all prayer is either supplicatory prayer (prayer for things we think we need) or intercessionary prayer (prayer for things we think other people need), and this kind of prayer has a very ancient and respectable ancestry... which is obvious enough, seeing that the very word ‘prayer’ comes from the Latin ‘prex’, meaning a request for something. It is a way of prayer rooted in some of the oldest parts of the Old Testament and in the depths of Christian tradition. Right through the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking for things – not only that God’s Kingdom may come but also for ‘our daily bread’ and to be forgiven ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us’. And during the agony in the Garden Jesus is depicted by the evangelists as asking his heavenly Father for something.
Nearly everybody at least starts their private praying from where they are, from their own condition, however elevated their prayer may become. It is in this way that human beings turn their minds to God, and Eckhart must have been fully aware of that from his own experience. In fact, when he talked to his young Dominican brothers about what devotional practices to follow, he didn’t advise them to abandon all devotional practices, but not to jump about from one devotional practice to another – something very different. No, the point he is out to make is that, though we may start in our prayer from our needs, we must not stop there. Our prayer must become truly God-centred. We must be ready to say what Eckhart says, namely:
I will not pray to God to give to me, nor praise him for what he has given me, but I will pray to him to make me worthy to receive, and I will praise him because he is of such nature and essence that he must give. (Walshe, 2008, sermon 1)
As he tells an audience which was clearly full of anxieties about its ways of praying:
Those who seek anything in God, knowledge, understanding, devotion or whatever it might be – though they may find it they will not have found God. But if they seek nothing, they will find God and all things in him, and they will remain with him.. .Human beings should seek nothing at all, neither knowledge nor understanding nor inwardness nor piety nor repose, but only God’s will. They should never pray for any transitory thing, but if they would pray for anything, they should pray for God’s will alone, and then they get everything. If they pray for anything else, they will get nothing. (Walshe, 2008, sermon 55)
And the reason why this is so is because of the goodness of God. As the Master says:
By so much as God is higher than human beings, so He is readier to give than we are to receive. (Walshe, 2008, sermon 55)
It is absolute folly to ask God for anything less than Himself. That is not to His liking, for He gives nothing so gladly as Himself. (Walshe, 2008, sermon 71)
What, though, is interesting is what, according to Eckhart, happens when ourprayer leads to our becoming detached people. He says:
Not by fasting and outward works can we gauge our progress in the good life: but a sure sign of growth is an increasing love for the eternal and a dwindling interest in temporal things. (Walshe, 2008, sermon 55)
This ‘dwindling interest in temporal things’ does not, all the same, mean a growing
indifference to other human beings and their needs, but quite the contrary. We are
Human beings who love God as they ought and must (whether they would or not) must love their fellow human beings as themselves, rejoicing in their joys as their own joys, and desiring their honour as much as their own honour, and loving a stranger as one of their own. (Walshe, 2008, sermon 40)
One of the consequences of what Eckhart calls the birth of the Son in the soul is, he
says, that youmust have left behind all distinction of person, so that you are as well disposed to a person who is across the sea, whom you never set eyes on, as to the person who is with you and is your close friend. As long as you favour your own person more than that person you have never seen, you are assuredly not right and have never for a single instant looked into this simple ground –in other words, into the depths of the life of God (Walshe, 2008, sermon 13b cf 74).
One of the most frequent misunderstandings of Eckhart’s teaching is a belief
that detachment means living in a state of abstraction, apart from life. In fact we find
Whoever holds to God, holds to both God and all virtue. And what was previously the object of your seeking, now seeks you; what you hunted, now hunts you; what you fled now flees you. This is so because the things of God cling to those people who cling to God, and all those things flee them, which are unlike God and are alien to Him. (Walshe, 2008; Davies, 1994, Talks of Instruction 5)
Furthermore, Eckhart tells us:
Whoever truly possesses God in the right way, possesses him in all places: on the street, in any company, as well as in a church or a remote place or in their cell. No one can obstruct such a person, if only they possess God in the right way, and possess him alone. Why is this so? This is the case because they possess God alone, intend God alone, and all things become God for them. Such a person bears God with them in all that they do and wherever they go, and it is God who acts through them … regardless of where they are and who they are with… God shines out to them in all things, for them all things taste of God and in all things it is God’s image that they see. (Walshe, 2008; Davies, 1994, Talks of Instruction 6)
Eckhart doesn’t pretend that it’s at all easy to reach this stage of development. He says
demands hard work and great dedication and a clear perception of our inner life and an alert, true, thoughtful and authentic knowledge of what the mind is turned towards in the midst of people and things. This cannot be learned by taking flight, that is by fleeing from things and physically withdrawing to a place of solitude, but rather we must learn to maintain an inner solitude regardless of where we are or who we are with. (Walshe, 2008; Davies, 1994, Talks of Instruction 6)
On the other hand, he isn’t imposing on us something impossible in the third talk, to which I’ve given the title Life’s trials.
Davies, Oliver (1994) Meister Eckhart: Selected Writings. Harmondsworth:Penguin.
Davies, Oliver (1999) The Wisdom of Meister Eckhart. Oxford:Lion Publishing.
Walshe, M. O’C. (trans.) (2008) The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart. New York, NY: Crossroads Herder.