The situation in the world looks bleak. Consumerism and materialism dominate all aspects of social life. Older people look with alarm at the crumbling of civic and religious institutions. Young people view the future with a sense of foreboding. Politicians appear self-interested, religious leaders hypocritical, business people ever more corrupt. Violence is escalating at home and abroad with no solution in sight. Alienation and disorientation is the general feeling among the people.
You may think I was describing modern day America, but I want to welcome you to 14th-century Germany. As in our society, many people of the time, feeling battered by the world around them, sought spiritual wisdom and a more profound connection to the divine. In the early 1300s, this meant that a large number of practicing Christians, both laypeople and religious alike, were searching for a more direct and satisfying experience of God’s presence than what they found in their familiar institutional practices.
Meet Meister Eckhart
In the midst of this chaos, many Christian seekers found life-altering wisdom in the preaching of a Dominican friar known as Meister Eckhart. Who just happens to be one of my most favorite spiritual teachers.
A scholar trained at the University of Paris, Meister Eckhart sought to share the fruits of his many years of study and contemplation to lay audiences and women. Pretty unusual at a time for priests who typically considered such matters beyond the comprehension of these average folks.
Even more revolutionary was Eckhart’s message. Unlike most preachers of the day who focused on sin and eternal punishment, he described a way that people could experience God directly within them. The key was to let go of all worldly things, all desires and preconceptions — even one’s image of God himself. Then, he said — “in the midst of silence” — God would come within the soul.
Unknow what you think you know about God
Meister Eckhart’s way to “know” God directly was shaped by two central insights, the products of many years of study and contemplation. The FIRST is that the seeker must “unknow” everything he or she thinks about God. Eckhart explains that the language and images we use to talk about and think about God are basically metaphors that compare God to something we can more easily understand. But God is completely other.
Obviously God is not an old man with a flowing white beard (or even a “he”), but God is also not a being in the sense that we normally mean. It is more accurate, according to Eckhart, to say that God is Being itself, since all existence derives from him. “We should learn not to give God any name . . . for God is above names and ineffable.” In fact, Eckhart warns, “if you think of anything he might be, he is not that.”
Eckhard goes on to explain that, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.” Subtraction and letting go leads us to the Divine depths.
When we can let go and “sink into God,” amazing things happen between God and us. He says, “I advise you to let your own ‘being you’ sink into and flow away into God’s ‘being God.’ Then your ‘you’ and God’s ‘his’ will become so completely one ‘my’ that you will eternally know with him his changeless existence and his nameless nothingness.”
For Eckhart, nothingness lies at the heart of Divinity — and maybe all things. We are to sink, not strive, not ladder-climb, not ascend by willpower and determination. We “let God,” as AA members doing the 12 Step program might say. To sink is a godly act, according to Eckhart: “God alone sinks into the essences of things.”
When in love, we sink into each other, we let go, we don’t try overly much, we trust; we don’t control or rule by willpower. I don’t know about you, but as a recovering perfectionist and Enneagram 8, this is sometimes a hard lesson for me to learn.
Knowing God from the inside out
Coming to terms with God’s “unknowability” in word and image had to be so challenging for someone like Eckhart, a university scholar who had invested effort in trying to know God through rigorous probing of Scripture and Catholic tradition. But the more that Eckhart tried to approach God rationally, the more frustrated he became. Instead he came upon a SECOND key insight: One could “know” God through direct experience.
Later we would call this approach “mystical,” and Richard Rohr calls Eckhart the “mystic’s mystic”. But I like to think of it as being more intuitive. Rather than trying to know God from the outside, through our senses and intellect, we should try to know God from the inside, from that divine presence already within each of us.
The Divine Spark
Eckhart called this presence “the divine spark.” He preached that, through a contemplative process of self-emptying, or “letting-go-ness,” the seeker will directly encounter the God within. Only with the death of the old and false self could the new and true self be born.
This concept traces back to St. Paul, who directed Christians to “put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.”
In Eckhart’s way of thinking, the trading of old self for new, what he called the divine birth, was not just a metaphor but a direct encounter of the individual soul with the divine.
The best news was that God was eager to fully embrace the one who seeks him: “You need not seek him here or there,” Eckhard writes. “He is no further than the door of your heart; there he stands patiently awaiting whoever is ready to open up and let him in. No need to call him from afar: He can hardly wait for you to open up. He longs for you a thousand times more than you long for him.”
And the way to get there? By being still, being present, and emptying the mind.
According to Eckhart, emptying the mind is “the most powerful prayer, one almost omnipotent to gain all things, and the noblest work of all is that which proceeds from a bare mind. The more bare it is, the more powerful, worthy, useful, praiseworthy and perfect is the prayer and the work. A bare mind can do all things. What is a bare mind? A bare mind is one which is worried by nothing and is tied to nothing which has not bound its best part to any mode, does not seek its own in anything, that is fully immersed in God’s dearest will and goes out of its own.”
A bare mind is not busy worrying, not living in the past or the future, in regret or fear. It dwells in the now. But we aren’t trying to become new age gurus or bliss bunnies or capable of levitation or other strange spiritual or mental feats. No, the purpose of such deep unity with God is to make life, and our work, and our service more effective so that it derives from our being and not our compulsion to act.
This is how Eckhart puts it: “Here God’s ground is my ground and my ground is God’s ground. Here I live from my own as God lives from His own….Out of this inmost ground, all your works should be wrought without Why. I say truly, as long as you do works for the sake of heaven or God or eternal bliss from without, you are at fault. It may pass muster, but it is not the best.”
But Eckhart wants us to make sure that we don’t turn practice, even the practice of letting go, into an idol. Far too many people try to seek the Divine Presence in outward things. They run from seminar to seminar, book to book, web site to web site, looking for the next great thing that will turbocharge their spiritual lives and make them happier and healthier people. But there’s really no easy way to find God in the “out there”.
We just need to learn to be still. To let go of our need to control everything and allow the power of the Eternal One to flow through us.
Eckhart says it so much more eloquently “Indeed, if a person thinks she will obtain more of God by meditation, by devotion, by ecstasies or by special infusion of grace than by being at the fireside or in the stable — that is nothing but taking God, wrapping a cloak round His head and shoving Him under a bench. For whoever seeks God in a special way gets the WAY and 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 is life itself.”
Let go of letting go
For Eckhart the practice of letting go itself must eventually be let go, so that it is not taken as an end in itself.
As a way to help visualize what this means, Eckhart asks us to consider a tablet you would write on: “The tablet is never so suitable for me to write on as when there is nothing on it. Similarly, if God is to write the highest on my heart, then everything called ‘this and that’ must be expunged from my heart, and then my heart stands in detachment…. Therefore the object of a detached heart is neither this nor that.”
Such an emptied heart “desires nothing at all, nor has it anything it wants to get rid of. Therefore it is free of all prayers or its prayer consists of nothing but being uniform with God. That is all its prayer…. When the soul has got so far, it loses its name and is drawn into God, so that in itself it becomes nothing…. When the detachment reaches its climax, it becomes ignorant with knowing, loveless with loving, and dark with enlightenment. Thus we may understand the words of a master, that the poor in spirit are they who have abandoned all things to God, just as He possessed them when we did not exist. None can do this but a pure, detached heart.”
Eckhart applies a passage from the wisdom literature of Sirach to God when he says: “This is God who ‘in all things I seek rest.'” God truly seeks to rest in us, but we must offer a restful place for God to reside in.
So that’s my thoughts on Meister Eckhart and what he is trying to help us learn. I want to close with a poem from Meister Eckhart’s Book of Secrets. It’s a great book that takes Eckhart’s prose from his many sermons and turns it into poetry. This is one of the poems that got me hooked on Eckart and his way of relating to God, himself, and the world.
Pushing God Under A Bench
If you want to know God in this way or in that,
beware, for your desire for such a narrow way
separates you from God by binding you to your
own options, pushing God under a bench.
For you’re the cause of the obstacles you find
in your life, so guard yourself against yourself,
and open your heart to the love that is present
to you in darkness and light, in sorrow and joy.
The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, trans. and ed., Maurice O’C. Walshe (Crossroad: 2009).