Meister Eckhart has been buried among the medieval theologians for too many years. His outlook on human life has value for today and tomorrow. A recognized master of theology famous for his lectures on profound scholastic themes, he nevertheless preferred to speak to his countrymen in their native German, sharing with them his vision of what a truly Christian life entails, its ethic and ideals. Except on special occasions, he avoided the Latin used by his fellow theologians. Eckhart stressed the presence within us all of the divine spark that is of God, and that the human soul, its vehicle, must be purified of selfishness before it can be elevated to the "Godhead," the consciousness that pervades the universe.
Raymond B. Blakney, a sympathetic translator, notes that
his thoughts are simple enough. What makes Eckhart difficult is the moral demand he makes on one. . . . "He who knows the Truth, knows that I am speaking the truth." He asks of us, not only our minds, but our hearts as well. — Meister Eckhart, A Modern Translation, by Raymond Bernard Blakney, p. ix
In other words, he asks for a commitment rather than an outer conformance to either ritual or the customs of one's neighbors.
Johannes Eckhart was born about 1260 AD at Hochheim, a village near Gotha in Thuringia. His father was steward of a knight's castle, to which Eckhart referred in the following terms: "Look and see: this little castle of the soul is exalted so high above every road . . . that God himself cannot steal into it." Later on in his life, his concept of the aristocrat was transmuted from that of an individual born into a noble family, to his own ideal of a man as God might see him.
He was trained as a Dominican at the monastery where Albertus Magnus taught, and the powerful influence of Thomas Aquinas, who had recently died, still remained. Eckhart received many promotions, and was invited to teach theology at Saint-Jacques priory in Paris. While there, he incurred the enmity of the Franciscans for winning a debate with them, during which he had presented his concept of man's reunion with God through mystical experience. He also affirmed the divinity or god-spark in the soul, and that man could become God's son just as Christ was.
The Franciscans were so embittered by their defeat that they sent their famous "subtle doctor" John Duns Scotus to Eckhart's college seat in Cologne to attack his views as "heretical." Eventually, the archbishop of Cologne, Heinrich von Virneberg, a Franciscan antagonistic to Dominicans, called for an inquisition, and a papal bull was issued by John XXII at Avignon in 1329 listing 28 propositions indicating "heresies" by Eckhart. However, Eckhart had already died, in 1327 or 1328.
Four major works in German are attributed to Eckhart, some of them comprising his talks and sermons. He also wrote a pamphlet with this descriptive heading:
Das sint die rede der unterscheidunge — These are the Talks of Instruction that the Vicar of Thuringen, the Prior of Erfurt, Brother Eckhart of the Preaching Order held for such of his spiritual children as asked him about various things as they sat together in evening table-conversation. — p. xvii
Blakney characterizes it as "kindly, straight-forward talk that reminds one of Mozart music," and possesses qualities that include "the blessed life, and devotion as few have ever been able to write of these things." It is when Eckhart speaks of God, he adds, that the remarkable depth of his soul emerges clearly, and cites the following:
God never tied man's salvation to any pattern of life. . . . So one must be permeated with the divine Presence, informed with the form of the beloved God who is within him, so that he may radiate that Presence without working at it. — Ibid.
Meister Eckhart holds before us the vision of God as being at home within us, not relegated to a world outside of ourselves. This implies we are parts of a cosmos that consists of all of us bound together in its universality, not separate objects.
The teachings that Eckhart spread far and wide during his mature years revolved around the theme of the soul's longing for union with God. At the outset of the journey to divinity, God is all, the creature is nothing. But at the consummation stage, the soul has grown beyond the creator aspect of God and manifests more of the Godhead which is the all-permeating consciousness of the universe, its true heart and fountain of all qualities that tend toward divinity. It is the driving urge spurring on the evolutionary process.
Eckhart saw the limitation in the concept of God as a great person, an aggrandized human being, with the human qualities magnified beyond our own expression of them. Perhaps it is against this background that we should view his warning to distinguish carefully between what we "might desire of the truth and what the truth appears to be." Eckhart used the terms Gelassenheit (equanimity) or Abgescheidenheit (remoteness) to mean "nonattachment," but he was far from uninterested in his fellow human beings. He was in fact instrumental in bringing the essence of New Testament teaching to the people at large, initiating the "Friends of God" movement (also known as the "Children of God"), dedicated people who took simple expressions of Christianity to the countryside and villages, sharing their insights with others.
Whereas many mystics have sought identity with God, Eckhart saw this as "not enough" because God exists as "God" only when invoked as such. Beyond the aspect of divinity which extends limitlessly in every sense of the word, is the Godhead: as distinct from the personal view of God as are heaven and earth. In Eckhart's view, the breakthrough from the illusory material forms of existence is possible because divinity is a process rather than a being. There is humor and seriousness in his remark: "Wouldst thou be perfect, do not yelp about God," which puts the mechanical recitation of prayers in perspective.
The difference between Eckhart's vision of human life in relation to the universe and the orthodox view lies in his gnostic experience and advocacy, colored as it is with the best features of the Neoplatonic concept of essence within material expressions. Whereas some contemporary mystics looked outside themselves to achieve the mystical union with the spiritual aspect of universal life, Eckhart and his followers looked to the center of consciousness within every human heart.
No human being needs an outside intercessor, for within and in a sense overshadowing all individual existence, is that still, small center of our individuality — the essence of divinity that lights the way of perfectibility. We may feel that time is short for us, but endless duration of the life-force sustains us. As the Persian poets Rumi and Hafiz have said, and the Qabbalah before them, we have died many times and in many places, and the spark in our heart has grown through mineral, vegetable, and animal stages, to reach the human. "When by our dying, have we grown less?"
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1989/January 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Theosophical University Press)