5 Life in Abundance:
Meister Eckhart & the German
Dominican Mystics of the 14th Century
by Gundolf M. Gieraths, O.P.
Autumn 1986 Vol. 38 Supplement
Mystical Writers: Meister Eckhart
CONCERNING TRUE LOVE OF GOD
Do you want to know if your love for God is true and perfect? Ask yourself: Is my confidence in him boundless? Confidence is the infallible test of love, because perfect love and utter confidence are inseparable. Whatever you lovingly expect of God you find in him in overflowing measure. And because God's love for you is both infinite and omnipotent, you can never expect too much from his bounty. One act of perfect confidence in God is more meritorious than all other good works. God will never abandon you if you have anchored your soul on the firm rock of perfect confidence, because he has accomplished a stupendous task in you, a task resulting from love. Along with this confidence, love will also give you clear knowledge and firm security.
There are two types of knowledge of eternal life. The first, possessed by few people, is given to them by God, either personally, by an angel, or by private revelation. The second, incomparably better and more useful, is enjoyed by every soul who truly loves God. God bestows this favor in return for the soul's love of God in himself and in all creatures. A soul imbued with this love will never be disconcerted, whether all creatures turn against it and betray and deny it, or if God himself deserts it, for love cannot doubt, always believes in the good, and has no need of counsel concerning the relations between lover and beloved. The soul's experience of God's love assures it of whatever is needful and conducive to salvation. As the soul feels drawn to God, so it likewise feels God drawn to it in an infinitely greater degree, and the more the soul believes in God the more it realizes how precious it is in his sight. All souls who truly love God have this assurance: God is the essence of loyalty. (1)
The rebellion of the physical against the spiritual can only be curbed by corporal discipline. Man's fierce bodily impulses are continually warring with his spiritual faculties. Being earthly, the body is bold and strong on earth. And the earth, in turn, favors its bodily citizen with food, drink, and sensual pleasure. All these war against the spirit which is a stranger on earth, pining for reunion with its friends and kinsmen in heaven. That is the whole purpose of penitential exercises: the subjection of the body.
But do you want a quicker and surer method of accomplishing this purpose? Curb the body with the reins of love. God himself uses this technique. He who is chained by love is bound with the strongest chains and at the same time carries the sweetest burden. Whoever shoulders the yoke of love travels faster and penetrates deeper into the divine intimacy than he who jogs painfully along the road of penance and mortification. No burden is heavy nor trial bitter for him who loves. Nothing more quickly draws a man to God and God to man than the delightful bond of love. He who has found this highway need look for no other. He who is imprisoned in this castle is completely imprisoned: feet, hands, mouth, eyes, heart. His entire being is consecrated to God. His most insignificant action is more meritorious for himself and all mankind, and more pleasing to God, than the actions of other men who, though being in the state of grace, love God less. His repose is more useful than their labor. Therefore, seek this imprisonment and remain peacefully in it. The more you are shackled, the more you will be free. May he who is love personified grant us the grace of this liberating imprisonment. Amen.(2)
THE FIVE CHARACTERISTICS OF GOD'S CHILDREN
Meister Eckhart lists five qualities which assure a man of God's undying friendship. First, no matter what trials befall him, whether from God or creatures, he praises and thanks the donor instead of complaining. Secondly, he does not take vain complacency in his success. Thirdly, he is free from all personal desire and leaves his entire life at the disposition of God's loving providence. Fourthly, nothing in heaven or on earth can sadden him; if heaven became hell and hell heaven, he would consider this reversal as God's will and find his happiness in it. Fifthly, just as nothing in heaven or on earth can sadden him, so also nothing can gladden him. (3)
ON HOLY COMMUNION
In receiving Holy Communion, be not guided by sensible fervor but by good will and right intention. Ignore your feelings, but give heed to your motives.
Before approaching the Sacramental Lord, ask yourself three questions: (1) Am I detached from all sin? (2) Is my will so closely attached to God's that I find pleasure nowhere but in him, and displeasure with whatever displeases him? This detachment and attachment determine your proximity or remoteness to God. (3) Does frequent reception of the Eucharist increase or decrease my love, awe, and reverence for the Lord? Just because someone else derives spiritual benefit from Holy Communion doesn't mean that you will also. Your own results must be the criterion. If frequent Holy Communion increases your fervor and piety, then go frequently and pay no attention to what others say or do. Christ desires to take up his abode with you.
But perhaps you say: "My distraction, coldness, and indifference make me unworthy to approach Christ."
I answer: "All the more reason to receive him. For it is in being united with him that you will be sanctified. The Sacrament possesses the special potency of uniting your natural powers and faculties to Christ's bodily presence, of collecting and unifying your scattered sensory impressions, and of purifying and consecrating to God your heretofore natural traits. In this way God will detach you from temporal things, instruct you in the secrets of the interior life, cure you of your sinful habits, and quicken, strengthen, and renew you with his body. Indeed, you will be so completely transformed into him and united with him that what is his will be yours and what is yours will be his. Your heart and his will be one heart; your body and his, one body. In this way all your physical powers and spiritual faculties will be engrafted in him, and you will be conscious of his presence."
But you object: "Alas, in my misery I am unaware of any such great graces operating in me. How dare I approach him?"
I reply that in order to throw off your misery you need only approach the gracious plenitude of his inexhaustible abundance and you will be rich. Believe me, he is that priceless treasure which will delight and satisfy you. Press near to him, and his riches will counteract your poverty, his infinity neutralize your nothingness, and his eternal Godhead sublimate your despicable, corrupted humanity.
Again you protest: "My sins are too great to be forgiven."
But I urge you even more strongly to go to him, for he has superabundantly atoned for your sins. And furthermore, offer Christ himself to the Eternal Father as a worthy sacrifice for your guilt.
"I would like to follow your advice," I hear you saying, "But something holds me back."
There is only one remedy for your hesitancy. Even if you are not convinced, go blindly to the Son who is the unending, perfect, and true adorer of God, well pleasing to his Father. There is no other way to conquer sin, to acquire virtue and grace, and to experience a foretaste of heavenly bliss than to dispose yourself to receive frequently and worthily the sacrament in which you are ennobled by union with Christ.
So closely is the soul united with God in Holy Communion that not even the cherubim and seraphim can distinguish between them. Where the soul is, there is God, and where God is, there is the soul. This union is unique in its intimacy, because the soul is more closely united to God than to the body which it inhabits. If you were to let fall a drop of wine into a barrel of water, the union of water and wine would be very intimate, but far removed from the soul's identification with God in Holy Communion.
Again you object: "I am insensible of all this. So how can it be?"
No matter. Your faith is deepened, heightened, and ennobled in proportion to your lack of feeling and strength of conviction, for belief transcends sentiment and reason. Faith imparts knowledge. If we complain that we receive little grace from God, it is our own fault, because he gives in proportion to our faith in him. And the source of faith is the Holy Eucharist, not some favored devotion.
Now you present a final difficulty: "How can I, a weak, sin-infected mortal aspire to such sublime heights?"
You should consider two factors in Christ. In him the higher and lower faculties each accomplished their particular purpose. While he was on earth, his higher faculties possessed and enjoyed the beatific vision at the same time as his lower faculties endured excruciating torture and pain. But the higher faculties did not interfere in the sufferings of the lower, nor the lower diminish the bliss of the higher. The same should be true of you. Do not let your passions interfere with your soul's accomplishment of God's will. Even more, your love for God should strengthen you to practice mortification of the senses so that your spirit, freed from earthly cares, may submerge into God. In truth, the soul is superior to the body's pains and passions, and the stronger the attack the more honorable the victory and more laudable the conqueror. You become dearer to God in proportion to the virtues you acquire and practice in the combat against evil. Therefore, if you wish to receive Holy Communion worthily, concentrate on directing your higher faculties toward God, alert your will to the fulfillment of his wishes, direct your mind toward him, and establish your loyalty in him. Molded in these dispositions, you will find in every Holy Communion a source of precious grace. And the oftener you receive, the better.
Receiving just one Holy Communion in these dispositions would make you like to the first choir of angels, and a second reception would elevate you to the second choir. And eventually you would resemble the eighth or ninth choir. Consequently, if two persons practiced the same virtues in life, but one went to Communion more frequently than the other, lie would outshine the other in heaven because of these additional Communions and would experience a correspondingly closer union with God.
The soul's interior intention and fervent desire for Holy Communion are more important than the actual reception. It is possible that a person's burning desire for Communion, even if he is unable actually to receive, may be more meritorious than another person's actual reception without such a fervent disposition. And this so-called spiritual Communion we can receive thousands of times daily, no matter where we are or what the condition of our health. This does not mean that we should not receive sacramental Communion as often as possible, but that we should carefully prepare ourselves. And this very preparation is a means of sanctification in time and a foretaste of bliss in eternity. May the God of truth give us a great love of Holy Communion, of chastity, and of life everlasting. Amen .(4)
CONCERNING RESURRECTION FROM SIN
Whenever a man seriously arises from sin and rejects it, God forgives him completely, acts as if that man had never sinned, and requires no retribution. Even though one man were guilty of all the sins committed in the world since the time of Adam, if he truly repented for them God would forgive him and love him as much as an innocent person. God regards the present dispositions, not past failures. God is the God of the present moment. He takes you as he finds you; he receives you as you are now, not as you were formerly. God bears with years of crime and insult, so that by his divine patience he may conquer man's heart, turn the sinner into a saint, and transform the lover of ease into a model of discipline and penance. In this way he draws good out of the evil of sin. (5)
CONCERNING THE FOLLOWING OF CHRIST
To follow Christ does not mean to speak of spiritual matters and to act piously, to spread around us a sanctimonious sheen, to be well-known, and to have many devout friends. Neither does it imply that God treats us with great tenderness and coddles us to the point where we are convinced that he thinks only of us to the exclusion of other creatures. Even less does it mean that God immediately answers our every prayer. Not at all! It means rather that we remain firm and unshaken when men calumniate and falsely accuse us, and when God withdraws his consoling presence from us, and we feel separated from him by an impenetrable wall, and we are abandoned by him in our struggle as Christ was deserted by his Father on the Cross. Behold, this is when we should consider ourselves plunged deep into his divinity and exclaim: "Father, may thy will be done in me!" (6)
The austerity and detachment seen in the life of Christ and the accounts of many saint's lives cause certain people to become discouraged and fearful. Feeling disinclined and unable to follow such example, they consider themselves at variance with God. How foolish! Nothing need keep us away from God, not even misery or guilt. Even though our sins prevent us from drawing near to God, we can still draw God close to us. Man is truly miserable when he sets up a barrier between himself and God. Man is free to approach God or run away from him. God never departs, and if he is expelled from man's interior, he stands patiently by the door.
The closeness of one's following of Christ depends on each one individually. Try to find out the manner in which Christ wants you to follow him, and then fulfill his wishes earnestly and perseveringly. According to St. Paul, no two men find God in the same way. Therefore, do not frown on someone who does not tread the road of external activity and bodily mortification. These are accidentals, and not necessary to sanctification unless God calls a soul to them by extraordinary means. And if you yourself do not feel drawn to the way of extraordinary penance, do not lose your peace and confidence.
Perhaps you object: "If it is not important, then why did our predecessors and very many saints practice great austerities?"
They were called to this way by Christ, who also gave them strength to walk on this path in a manner pleasing to him and meritorious to themselves. But God did not lay this burden on all mankind. On the contrary, he destines each particular person to reach salvation by a particular road, and lie places on each road all the helps necessary for its traveler. One good does not oppose another good. That is why it ill-behooves any man to think that his neighbor is wasting time traveling on a different road than he himself traverses. This is an error. We should respect our neighbor's devotion and never revile his pious exercises. Everyone should live according to his own measure of grace and pray for his neighbor's welfare.
Neither should you feel obliged to adopt your neighbor's type of spirituality. The important thing is that your devotional exercises lead you to God, whereas the austerity of a particular saint might lead you away from him. Honor and respect the saints, but do not feel bound to follow their examples slavishly.
You say: "Certainly the way trodden by Jesus Christ was the loftiest and the safest for us to imitate."
True. We should follow our Lord. But not in every minute detail. just because Christ fasted for forty days does not oblige each of us to do so. Many of Christ's actions are to be imitated spiritually, not literally. And because he is more desirous of our love than of our deeds, we should take pains to imitate him reasonably, lovingly. This is really the only way to follow in his footsteps. Often ask yourself: how and in what manner?
I have often said that I consider the spiritual imitation of Christ more important than the physical. What does this mean? Christ fasted forty days. To imitate him spiritually, find out what is your predominant fault, and guard yourself against it. This self-restraint will profit you more than a strict fast from food. For one person this spiritual fast may consist in holding back an unkind word. Another person may experience real pain by enduring silently criticism or reproach, whereas a hard physical blow would not bother him at all, Another person, a hermit by temperament, may endure a secret martyrdom by preserving recollection in company with other people. Often these spiritual trials appear trifling but are in reality excruciating and far outweigh physical penances.
Therefore, no matter how weak a person is, he can still follow our Lord, and should never consider himself far from him. (7)
Someone asked me: "Is it a sign of high sanctity for a person to withdraw completely from society and spend all his time in church?" I answered negatively, because lie whose dispositions are rightly ordered can pray in any place and find God in all people. But he whose conscience is not right is always at variance with his surroundings and with his fellow men. The man who possesses interior peace possesses God who remains with him in the crowd, on the street, in church, in the desert, in his cell. Nothing can disturb the man who truly possesses God. Why? Because God is taking care of him and operating in him. And he who causes a work is more truly its originator than he who performs it. Therefore, if God alone is man's true and sole intention, he is the originator of his deeds and will preserve him in recollection regardless of his environment. Wherefore, as God remains undistracted by multiplicity or confusion, so such a man acts likewise because he is one with him in whom all multiplicity and variety are unity and simplicity.
Man should experience God's presence in all things and discipline his spirit to retain an awareness of this presence in his mind, will, and heart. Examine yourself on this awareness. You should be conscious of it in church or in your cell, in the noise of the street or in the jostling of the crowd. And as I have repeatedly told you, being tranquil does not mean being oblivious or indifferent to your surroundings or your employment. To teach this would be erroneous, because in itself being in church is better than being on the street, and praying is better than spinning. But no matter where you are or what you are doing, you can and should preserve your soul in peaceful, loyal reverence toward God. Of this be sure: if you do not desert God, no creature can deprive you of his blissful presence. But if, not possessing God in this intimate way, you seek him distractedly in many places, you will never really possess him. Then every little thing will distract you because you are not living in intimacy with God, are not seeking and loving him alone nor directing your intentions solely to him.
In such a state of soul good companions as well as evil, the sanctuary as well as the street, holy words and actions as well as evil ones will be an obstacle because the impediment resides within your soul which is at variance with God. But as soon as God reigns supreme within you, all will be well with you. Then no creature will disturb your peace or interfere with your good works. (8)
CONCERNING TRUE PRAYER
In reply to his own question as to whose prayer God always answers, Meister Eckhart says: "God answers the prayers of him who calls upon God as God. But the man who calls upon God for temporal goods is not calling upon God as God but upon temporal goods as a God, and so uses God as his slave." On this same subject, St. Augustine says: "You worship what you love." True, complete, and perfect prayer being synonymous with love, man worships what he loves. And therefore true worship of God consists in worshiping him for his own sake, with no other intention than that of giving glory to him. (9)
Some ask whether repeating the same prayer makes it more efficacious. Meister Eckhart answered this way: Verbal repetition adds little or nothing to a prayer's efficacy. Prayer is excellent in its own right, and what becomes excellent by repetition is not so in its own right. One Hail Mary, prayed with devotion and resignation, is more excellent and efficacious than a thousand psalters prayed with the lips but devoid of inner affection. (10)
Meister Eckhart declares: Two factors keep God from granting our requests. We lack humility of heart and our desires are inordinate. I swear by my life that God can do all things in his divine power, but he cannot refuse to give himself to the humble-hearted person, ruled by lawful desires. Therefore do not entangle yourself with trifles because you were created for loftier things. Worldly, honors are nothing but a dissimulation of truth and an impediment to sanctity. (11)
A just man's faith in God and confidence in his providence should be so great that he believes it impossible for God to permit any pain or misfortune to befall him which is not capable of warding off greater pain, consoling him on earth, or being transformed into something more pleasing to God. This being the case, then the just man's mind should be so united and conformed to God's will that he would wish his own injury and damnation if this were God's will. In this spirit St. Paul desired to be separated from God because of God, according to God's will and for his glory.
The command "Mortify yourself!" should be so familiar to the truly spiritual man, transformed into God and conformed to his will, that his sole blessedness consists in ignorance of himself and all creatures, and knowledge of God alone. Like St. Paul, he must neither know anything nor be able to know anything except God as he is in himself and knows himself. Consider how great a privilege such a man enjoys even while on earth. And in heaven he will enjoy God himself. Discomfort is as pleasing to him as comfort, pain as pleasant as pleasure.
Here is another startling consideration. If I live a life of grace and virtue, peace and happiness are my constant companions no matter what fortune or misfortune befalls me. If I have not yet arrived at this blessed condition, I should cast off the obstacles which fetter me to earthly misery.
If God answers my prayer, I should receive his gifts with gratitude and joy. If God refuses what I ask of him, I should no longer desire it because it is not pleasing to God. And God being closer to us when he refuses our requests than when he grants them, we should not give in to sadness and depression at his seeming deafness to our prayers. When we receive our desires, we find our happiness and consolation in something we now consider our own. But when our requests are refused we neither have nor find nor know any joy but God and the accomplishment of his will. (12)
1 Reden der Unterweisung (14, 15); F. Pfeiffer, 558, 29; J. Bernhart, Deutsche Mystiker, Vol. III, Meister Eckhart (München: 1914), p. 100 f.
2 Predigt IV; Pfeiffer, 29, 17; 0. Karrer. Meister Eckhart (München: 1926), p. 170 f.
3 Sprüche; Pfeiffer, 603, 17; Bernhart, 182 f.
4 Reden der Unterweisung (20) Pfeiffer, 565, 5; Bernhart, 110 ff.
5 Reden der Unterweisung (12); Pfeiffer, 557, 14; Bernhart, 97 f.
6 Predigt LVII; Pfeiffer, 182, 1; 0. Karrer, 200 f.
7 Reden der Unterweisung ( 17 ) ; Pfeiffer, 561, 18; Bernhart, 104 ff.
8 Ibid.; (6) ; Pfeiffer, 547, 14; Bernhart, 81 f.
9 Sprüche; Pfeiffer, 610, 4; Bernhart, 181.
10 Ibid.; Pfeiffer, 611, 16; Bernhart, 181 f.
11 Ibid.; Pfeiffer, 602, 22; Bernhart, 182.
12 Buch der göttlichen Tröstung; P. Strauch, Meister Eckharts Buch der göttlichen Tröstung und vom edlen Menschen (2nd ed. 1922), 13, 5-1 Bernhart, 142 ff.
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