Breakfast with Meister Eckhart

By Michael Humphrey

“God waits on human history
and suffers as she waits.”

– Meister Eckhart

Over the past six months, my wife and I have spent our breakfast time with Meister Eckhart (1260-1328). Perhaps it’s strange to start your day with a 14th century German mystic and theologian once condemned by the Church for heresy, but I can tell you it beats the morning news.

Eckhart’s ideas do not come in easily digestible bites. His sermons are thick and wondrous, his defenses during his inquisition are reasoned and intricate. But in the early 1980s, Dominican Father Matthew Fox compiled a concise and beautifully translated book entitled, “Meditations with Meister Eckhart.” (Bear & Company, Santa Fe). That has provided the inlet to a system of thought that really does make each day seem more meaningful and manageable all at the same time.

Lately the concept of justice has been served with oatmeal and tea. For instance, last week we read:

“People ought to think less about what they should do
and more about what they are.
For when people and their ways are good,
then their works shine forth brightly.
If you are just,
then your works are also just.
Works do not sanctify us — but
we are to sanctify our works.
Holiness is based on being, not on a single action.
If you wish to explore the goodness of action,
explore first the nature of the ground of the works.”

This was a striking pronouncement to me, even though everything we read from Eckhart was leading to this point. His spiritual direction is known as the four-fold path –

1) Creation

2) Letting Go and Letting Be

3) Breakthrough and Birth of Self as Child of God

4) The New Creation: Compassion and Social Justice.

“Eckhard insists in very strong language,” Fox writes in the introduction, “that our spiritual life is not ended with creativity but rather we are to employ creativity for the sake of personal and social transformation.”

This thought is not new. It is steeped in the lessons of the Hebrew Scriptures, the life of Christ, the letters of Paul and in many doctors of the Church. But what Eckhart has to offer is a path that leads to justice, not one where justice leads to the path.

That is an important distinction, because it assumes the interconnectedness of all living things with God, in God. Seeing this creation as dynamic and joyful, washing the mind of all attachment to our own concepts, then re-finding the path with pure eyes – this leads to a new vision of justice. It sounds like it will take too long, but God waits patiently, and perhaps, so should we.

So specifically, the path looks like this:

1) Creation: “We ought to understand God equally in all things, for God is equally in all things. All beings love one another. All creatures are interdependent.”

2) Letting Go: “Outside of God, there is nothing but nothing. … I pray God to rid me of God.”

3) Breakthrough: “In my flowing-out I entered creation, in my Breakthrough I re-enter God. Only those who have dared to let go can dare to re-enter.”

4) The New Creation: “Compassion means justice. And compassion is just to the extent that it gives to each person what is his or hers.”

These are angry times. It is natural to feel overwhelmed by the powerful forces that seem intent on undermining basic structure that would create a peaceful world. And perhaps the frustration is easiest to apply to our own country, because we understand the ideals of democracy. We understand the standard by which our nation’s rhetoric is severely belied by sanctioning pre-meditated war, torture, degradation of civil liberties and reactionary mistrust for the very heart of who we are as a people – immigrants.

The truth is Meister Eckhart’s time was no more ennobling. A growing fear of heresy was making the Church suspicious and soon the Spanish Inquisition would be unleashed. The Church, ostensibly established on the rather clear principles of peacemaking that Christ implored, was in fact fractured and warring amongst itself. These were hard times to avoid outrage as well.

And yet Eckhart says all action for justice must come from within an inner integrity, from a spring of love and compassion created by union with God. And in union with God, we enter union with all beings. Including those who would choose war over peace, profits over people, struggle over compromise.

If we can’t act in love and compassion, Eckhart says, we can’t act. Then again, when working in love and compassion, no greater action is demanded of you than to be fully present in that grace and do what is before you.

“A person works in a stable.
That person has a Breakthrough.
What does he do?
He returns to work in the stable.”

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