Eckhart’s mystical program

Meister Eckhart was a mystic. He integrated his spirituality and his science — a project that we would emulate in our times and with our “science” — but he did it in an extraordinary way: he transcended religion. In Eckhart’s view, as we “become,” by choice after choice one with God … as we withdraw from attachment to anything but pure absolute being, we eventually “break through” all separations, divisions, oppositions and individualities and we become one with and within the “One” in which all things subsist— the “Godhead beyond God.” This wasn’t just a religious moment; it was a cosmological event.

The “One” in Eckhart’s picture can easily be substituted by matter’s energy and the mystical relationships remain the same except for the emotionality associated with a personal “God.” But “withdrawing all attachment” should have already eliminated that as an obstacle. As the following citations shows, Eckhart explicitly denied that the “Godhead beyond God” was a “person.”

Eckhart’s sense of the Divine Unity is the bedrock feature of his theology. His own terminology about the “Godhead” is even more challenging than our descriptions of it. He says the “Godhead” is

“… a non-God, a non-spirit, a non-person, a non-image, rather … He is a pure, sheer, limpid One, detached from all duality.

… If the soul sees God as He is God, or as He is an image, or as He is three, it is an imperfection. But when all images are detached from the soul and she sees nothing but the One alone, then the naked essence of the soul finds the naked formless essence of divine unity, which is superessential being …”[1]

Eckhart scholar Robert Forman comments:

Eckhart stressed the absolute desert-like silence of the Godhead … beyond even the bare threeness of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   … beyond all distinctions, those between creatures and God, … and even the subtle distinctions between the Trinity and the Godhead. Most importantly, all creatures come to be cognized as non-distinguished from the divine expanse which has been (since the Birth) encountered within myself. The peculiar oceanic feeling is hence encountered not only internally but externally … . It is to find oneself amidst the ontological core of the cosmos.[2]

Forman continues: “When Eckhart speaks of the ‘Breakthrough’ in the first person he suggests that it involves perceiving the unmoved mover which stands at the source of both “myself” and the world. This entails the perception that self and other are One. He quotes Eckhart:

When I flowed forth from God, all creatures declared: “There is a God”; but this cannot make me blessed, for with this I acknowledge myself as a creature. But in my breaking through, where I stand free of my own will, of God’s will, of all His works and of God Himself, then I am above all creatures and I am neither God nor creature, but I am that which I was and shall remain forevermore … this breaking through guarantees to me that I and God are one. Then I am what I was, then I neither wax nor wane, for then I am the unmoved cause that moves all things.”[3]

This is truly extraordinary language for a mediaeval scholastic. But it is even more remarkable when we see its resemblance to the projections of cosmo-ontology which sees a “living matter” — an equally singular source — at the basis of all cosmic development.

Beyond “God” to the Godhead       

The famous sermon of the Meister given on the text “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit” from Matthew’s gospel, is especially strong in its insistence that the God of religion and of religious spirituality must be transcended and effectively shed before the authentic connection with the ultimate Source of the Sacred can occur.

Other mystics say virtually the same thing. The detachment of the “dark night” of John of the Cross in which blind, empty trust alone, beyond all knowledge or clarity, beyond all consolation or assurance, is similar in that it insists that all concepts and images are transcended when authentic mystical contact takes place. In this same regard, the Buddha was particularly trenchant against “religion” and the gods. This reinforces the traditional scholastic rejection of anthropomorphism. The very nature of reality precludes any imagery of an “Intelligent Designer.”

Here is more from Eckhart on the issue from the same sermon. It should be easy to discern when Eckhart uses the word “God” to mean the object of our religious understanding, which is to be transcended, and when he intends the “Godhead” which is the true goal of the individual’s quest.

… If you want to be truly poor, you must be as free from your creature-will as when you had not yet been born. For by the everlasting truth, as long as you will to do God’s will and yearn for eternity and God, you are not really poor; for (s)he is poor who wills nothing, knows nothing and wants nothing.

Back in the Womb from which I came, I had no God and merely was myself. I did not will or desire anything, for I was pure being, a knower of myself by divine truth. Then I wanted myself and nothing else. And what I wanted I was, and what I was I wanted, and thus I existed untrammeled by God or anything else. But when I parted from my free will and received my created being, then I had a God. For before there were creatures, God was not God, but rather, he was what he was. When creatures came to be and took on creaturely being, then God was no longer God as he is in himself, but God as he is with creatures.

Now, we say that God, in so far as he is only God, is not the highest goal of creation, nor is his fullness of being as great as that of the least of creatures, themselves in God. … Therefore we pray that we may be rid of God, and taking the truth, break through into eternity, where the highest angels and souls too, are like what I was in my primal existence, when I wanted what I was and I was what I wanted. Accordingly, a person ought to be poor, willing as little and wanting as little as when he did not exist.

. . .       

The authorities say that God is a being, an intelligent being who knows everything. But I say that God is neither a being, nor intelligent and he does not “know” either this or that. God is free of everything and therefore he is everything. He then who is to be poor in spirit … knows nothing of God, or creatures, or himself. …

Thus far I have said that he is poor who does not want to fulfill the will of God but who so lives that he is empty of his own will and the will of God, as much so as when he did not exist. Next we said that he is poor who knows nothing of the action of God in himself. … But the third poverty is the most inward and real … it consists in that a man has nothing.

… If it is the case that a man is emptied of things, creatures, himself and God, and if still God could find a place in him to act, then we say: as long as that exists, this man is not poor with the most intimate poverty … since true poverty of spirit requires that man shall be emptied of God and all his works, so that if God wants to act in the soul, he himself must be the place in which he acts … he would himself be the scene of action, for God is the one who acts within himself. It is here in this poverty, that man regains the eternal being that once he was, now is, and evermore shall be.

Therefore I pray God that he may quit me of God, for unconditioned being is above God and all distinctions. It was here that I was myself, wanted myself, and knew myself to be this person, and therefore I am my own first cause, both of my eternal being and of my temporal being. To this end I was born, and by virtue of my birth being eternal, I shall never die. It is of the nature of this eternal birth that I have been eternally, that I am now, and shall be forever.

For what I am as a temporal creature is to die and come to nothingness, for it came with time and with time it will pass away. In my eternal birth, however, everything was begotten, I was my own first cause as well as the first cause of everything else. If I had willed it neither I nor the world would have come to be. If I had not been, there would have been no God. …

The similarity of Eckhart’s “Godhead” to Spinoza’s “God/Being” is striking. Each eschew humanoid imagery in describing our relationship to our Source and Sustainer. It’s not my intention to promote Eckhart’s neo-Platonism or Platonic theories of the pre-existence of the soul. But his sermons are not only theoretical doctrine; they are the records of his mystical experience, just as Spinoza’s doctrine of “God” in his Ethics is really the metaphysical translation of his mystical experience of himself in the world. This means to me we should examine the expositions of these extraordinary people as their experience of being human — mystically human.

What I hear from Eckhart is that his experience of connectedness with the Sacred deepened progressively over the course of his life and eventuated in an awareness that goes beyond religion and religion’s “God, and meshes with the reality at the core of all things. He senses himself to be one with everything, and one with the source of all, which he defines in the terms used by the science of his times: being. He calls it “Godhead” and distinguishes it from religion’s “God.” His neo-Platonism is an interpretative tool of his experience. His experience is what interests us; and his experience took him beyond religion’s “God.”

I contend that the imagery Eckhart used to describe his experience concurs too neatly with the perspectives evoked by a universe made of matter’s living and existential energy to be a mere coincidence. I believe he experienced his organism’s unity with the material cosmos and “being” was the word he used to represent it.   What we have in Eckhart’s writing — despite its neo-Platonic assumptions — is a reliable guide to a mysticism based on an encounter with the substrate-object of the individual human organism’s self-embrace: matter’s energy.

Whether or not Eckhart perceived the full significance of what he was experiencing I claim you cannot fully embrace what you are as a human being without loving the living substance of which you are made. It was matter’s energy and matter’s energy alone, whose survival mechanisms were passed on through reproduction over eons of geologic time, that put you here and made you what you are.




[1] Walshe, M. Meister Eckhart, German Sermons and Treatises, London, Watkins, 1979 vol 2: p. 331

[2] Robert Forman, Meister Eckhart, The Mystic as Theologian, 1994 Element Books, Rockport MA, pp.178-180

[3] Walshe, op.cit. vol.2: p.275


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