(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Born in Thuringia of noble parents, Johannes Eckhart entered the Dominican order in Erfurt. He moved up in the order after attaining his master’s degree (hence receiving the title “Meister”) in Paris. Concerning himself mainly with union with the Godhead, which already is within the person, he became a popular and famous preacher at Strassburg and Cologne. His preaching finally led him to be tried as a heretic, and after his death some of his teachings were declared heretical. However, in 1980 the Dominican order formally requested that all censures be lifted.

Eckhart is concerned in his preaching, as are his followers Henry Suso (1295-1366) and John Tauler (c. 1300-1361), to emphasize the unfathomable depth and greatness of God, which can be “known” experientially but not rationally, and to encourage his listeners to seek this experiential knowledge. Another primary concern is “the birth of God in the soul.” This occurs through detachment from all creatures (this detachment aided by the usual ascetic practices) and is the union of the soul with God, both soul and God sharing the same ground. Eckhart is speculative and dualistic, even in his sermons, and frequently weaves his speculations into his preaching. His Neoplatonism is evident throughout his works. Here, rather than “proof text” from a number of sermons, we will examine a few of his sermons that illustrate major themes and finish with a brief look at one of his treatises, “About Disinterest.”

In a Christmas sermon Eckhart emphasizes the importance of the eternal birth of Christ in the soul. Christ was indeed born in Bethlehem, but Meister Eckhart asks, “Yet if it does not occur in me, how could it help me? Everything depends on that.” This birth can occur only in a pure soul, pure because God is pure, and in the soul because only the soul is, at its core, like God; that is, without thought or action.

The senses serve the soul, providing it with information and possibility, but the core of the soul is without information about itself, since, being like God, it cannot be apprehended by the senses. Because the soul is free of senses and ideas, because it simply is, God can unite with it. Like unites with like. Thus God begets God’s Son in the soul because it is there that Creator and creature (soul) are already one. Thus it is an event in and of itself, rather than an idea or knowledge of an event. The soul may receive God when it ceases to rely on its agents (the senses), hoping to receive some idea about God.

In silence and withdrawal, in forgetting the ideas and concepts gained through thought and perceptions, the soul receives not the right idea of God, but God himself. The birth of the Son in the person is at the same time the birth of the person in God. Eckhart tends to interpret Scripture in an extremely dualistic manner. He interprets, for example, Christ’s admonition to forsake self and even father and mother to mean, “’Whosoever will not depart from the externality of creatures cannot be born or received in this divine birth.’ By robbing yourself of all externalities you are admitted to the truth.”

In another Christmas sermon, Eckhart again points out that the birth of Christ occurs in the essence of the soul, “For creatures are only God’s footprints, but by nature, the soul is patterned after God.” Thus the soul alone is designed to receive the birth of God, which brings all joy and peace. In the cores of their beings sinners and saints are alike, but the birth of God in the soul brings “new light,” which radiates out through the believer. To receive the birth of God in the soul, then, one must rid it of ideas and the effects of creatures. If the agents of the soul (the senses) are not to clutter the person’s being, then they must be recollected by the soul and used for the soul’s purposes.

Eckhart claims that the sinful person’s core is filled with darkness and thus cannot comprehend the new light, and yet it is to this very core that the person must go if one is to find light and truth in the first place. On one hand we are to remain uncluttered by our faculties, and on the other we are to “focus all our faculties on the contemplation, the knowing of the unique . . . eternal truth.” Typical of contemplative mystics, Eckhart advises the seeker to forget all ideas and remain in un-self-consciousness, in stillness and silence. “Our blessedness does not depend on the deeds we do, but rather on our passiveness to God.” Elsewhere, however, he also says that even if one is caught up in contemplation, it is better to go help the needy person.

Even in a sermon on Luke 2:49 (“I must be about my father’s business”), Eckhart finds occasion to preach about the eternal birth, for “To know this birth at the core of the soul it is necessary above all that one should be about his Father’s business.” In this sermon Eckhart’s anthropology comes out: “Man has an active intellect, a passive intellect, and a potential intellect.” Active intellect is the thinking mind,...

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The Sermons and Treatises Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Clark, James M. The Great German Mystics. 1949. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1970. A basic introduction to the lives and thought of Eckhart, Tauler, and Suso.

Eckhart, Meister. The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense. Translated with an introduction by Edmund Colledge, O.S.A., and Bernard McGinn. New York: Paulist Press, 1981. An excellent, if brief, collection and translation of a wide variety of Eckhart’s Latin and German works, with a very good introduction.

McGinn, Bernard. The Harvest of Mysticism in Medieval Germany, 1300-1500. New York: Crossroad, 2005. This overview of medieval German mysticism includes a chapter on Eckhart, “Meister Eckhart: Mystical Teacher and Preacher.” Bibliography, index.

Woods, Richard. Mysticism and Prophecy: The Dominican Tradition. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1998. Includes the chapter “Meister Eckhart’s Wayless Way and the Nothingness of God.” Bibliography.

Zagano, Phyllis, and Thomas C. McGonigle. The Dominican Tradition. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2006. Part of the publisher’s Spirituality in History series; includes a chapter on Meister Eckhart. Bibliography.