Into the mystic: Meister Eckhart and medieval mysticism (Reformations 8)

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I say that if a man will turn away from himself and from all created things, by so much will you be made one and blessed in the spark of the soul, which has never touched either time or place. This spark rejects all created things, and wants nothing but its naked God, as he is in himself. It is not content with the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit. . . [This spark] wants to know the source of this [divine] essence, it wants to go into the simple ground, into the quiet desert, into which distinction never gazed, not the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit. In the innermost part, where no one dwells, there is contentment for that light. . . ” Meister Eckhart (Sermon 48 [in German]; trans. by Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn, as cited below, p.198).

Getting into the mind of the medieval mystic is very difficult. Even contemporaries of figures such as Meister (Master) Eckhart (c. 1260-1327; some works online here and here) frequently were mind-boggled by what they read in the mystic’s accounts or heard in the mystic’s sermons about what union with God or the divine might entail. In some cases, the misunderstandings could result in accusations of heresy (and Eckhart was condemned by a papal bull or proclamation in 1329). So it is no wonder that we moderns find medieval mysticism, which was centred precisely on union with the divine in an immediate manner, hard to understand. Though not necessarily all mystics came into conflict with the official church, by its very nature mysticism claimed direct experience of God. This could be considered at odds with the official medieval church’s sense that there was a need for a mediator between God and humans, and that that mediator was the church under the leadership of the pope, the representative of Christ on earth.

There were varieties of mysticism, however, with some focussing on identification with the suffering Christ (e.g. Francis of Assisi) as the means to union with God, and others that took a different approach, such as the so-called Rhineland mystics. Meister (Master) Eckhart’s brand of medieval mysticism became very influential among other mystics in the lands of the Rhine valley (i.e. future Germany–there was no German nation at this time). Eckhart’s notion of union with God owed very much to neo-Platonism (Plato’s ideas as they had been expanded, developed, and later Christianized following the Middle Platonic period, which I discussed here in connection with “gnosticism”). For a discussion of Eckhart and philosophy, go here. Neo-Platonists (new-Platonists) emphasized the existence of a supreme and perfect Being (God) from whom all other things, including all heavenly beings and earthly creations, had emanated (On emanation, think of a stone being dropped in water, with the circular waves emanating out from the centre and distance from the centre being accompanied by a lessening of contact with the divine origin). Ultimately, the goal and end was return to the divine origin from which the emanations came.

Thus, for Eckhart, the Trinitarian Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were emanations from the perfect “Godhead” or divine nature (the God behind God, so to speak), and all of creation (including us) are further emanations. More importantly for questions of how a human being might come to union with God, despite the fact that humans are mere creatures, each human being has a spark or light within the soul, referred to in the quotation above, which intersects with the Godhead itself. Shedding off all attachment to creatureliness was the means by which one could come into contact with, or “break through” to, the eternal part of the soul that was one with the Godhead.

See Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn, trans. Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense (New York: Paulist Press, 1981).