Despite the poverty today, Christianity has, in its history, a rich tradition of mysticism to rival anything produced by Buddhism or Hinduism. They have come in bursts, from the desert fathers of the 3rd century, to the Spanish ecstatics of the 14th century and even the late 19th century American transcendalists. But if I were to pick out the greatest Christian mystic out of history, I would have no hesitation but to pluck out Meister Eckhart, the greatest of the Rhineland mystics who lived during the late-thirteenth and early-fourteenth century.
Meister Eckhart is not widely known. He did not start an order like Francis of Assisi or Ignatius Loyola. Instead, Eckhart was a Dominican monk, an astute disciple of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. He spent his whole life within the framework of the Catholic Church, holding at one time, a prestigious chair at the University of Paris. What have are copies of 30 or 40 of his sermons, and some smaller works, and these works are, arguably, the greatest writings of Christian mysticism.
The first thing one encounters, when considering the life of Meister Eckhart, is that he was declared a heretic by the Catholic Church. This is profoundly misleading. Meister Eckhart was branded a heretic — but only after he died. In the Catholic Church, theology and politics go hand-in-hand. Eckhart's enemies could only strike at him when he was 67 and on his death-bed. In 1327, they issued a Papal Bull, proclaiming that "a certain Teuton named Ekardus, doctor, ut fertur, sacrae paginae, has wished to know more than he should" and listed seventeen heretical statements and eight statments that could easily have been construed to be heretical. This was church politics at its finest. Eckhart's opponents could not get any traction on Eckhart when he was alive because, not only was Eckhart the greatest mystic of his day, he was also one of the greatest debater of his day.
It is somewhat surprising that, for so radical a thinker, Eckhart spent his life within the bosom of the Catholic Church. One of his achievements was how he developed his radical mysticism to fit Chrisitan orthodoxy, blowing it up from within. Eckhart joined the Dominican order at sixteen and studied at the school of Albertus Magnus, who himself was the student of Thomas Aquinas, the Chrisitian scholar who brought Aristotle into the west. In the thirteenth century, the education provided by the Dominicans, was some of the best in Europe. It was entirely possible that Eckhart read every book in Europe at the time, as the monasteries were one of the few repositories of the written word.
Eckhart must have been a brilliant student, as he was sent to the University of Paris at the age of 33 in 1293 to earn his Master's degree, which qualified him to teach theology. Universities then are very different to universities today. A Master's degree was proof that one could interpret correctly all the works of the canon, the books that were deemed to express the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. It also meant that one could defend the canon, and the correct interpretation thereof, in a public arena. A Master, or Meister degree meant that you were a doctor of the church, a fully qualified defender of the faith. Eckhart was such a brilliant scholar that he was offered the chair, once held by Thomas Aquinas, to teach theology at The University of Paris.
Eckhart was born in Hocheim, a village in the German provice of Thuringia, the province which was also the birth place of Karl Marx and Martin Luther. He lived in the turbulent world of the late thirteenth century, a time when the Catholic Church unraveled. War raged back and forth across the face of Europe. Bishops would ride into battle. The Pope would move the Church from Rome to Avignon and back again. Had Eckhart remained in Paris, he probably would have become an eminent church scholar or philosopher, not the great mystic evident in his later writings.
In Zen, it is said that the journey of a mystic is to travel up to the top of mountain, but also to travel back down to the bottom again. Coming back down the mountain means that the mystic leaves the sheltered world of the monastery and returns to the world of the everyday. Crucial to the development of his mysticism, Eckhart was sent away from the cloistered academy of Paris to administer the church back in his homeland in Germany. He was responsible for the church, at various times, in Bohemia, Saxony and Frankfurt. His administration coincided with an endless series of wars waged between rival factions of the Church. In preaching to the poor and destitute, he would have seen, first hand, the strain of poverty and starvation bought on by the wars. This catalyzed his social vision. Eckhart is one of the few mystics, east or west, who writes from the top and the bottom of the mountain, often in the very same paragraph, "...even if you are in such ectasy as St Paul was, and knew of a sick person who asked for a bowl of soup from you, then I would consider it far better for you to leave your ectasy for the sake of love and to administer to the needy person in a love that is greater."
Eckhart's writings were immense. His surviving works amount to a collection of sermons in Latin and German, and some smaller miscellaneous works. But in these sermons are some of the greatest images of mysticism in the body of mystical writing. There is no better line in the mystical literature that describes the merging of self to the god-head as "the eye that I see God with is the eye that God sees me with."
Eckhart was one of the first preachers preach in the vernacular German and not in the Latin. He is one of the few male mystics who was equally at ease with the mysticism of the feminine as that of the masculine. His sermons explicitly invokes the feminine, often invoking Mary Magdelene and Martha as exemplars of the spiritual path. The metaphor of the wife, or mother of God occurs frequently in his writings. "it is better when God becomes fruitful with a person... I call such a person a wife... every day such a person bears fruit a hundred times or a thousand times, or countless times, giving birth and becoming fruitful out of the most noble foundation of all." The influence of the feminine came naturally to Eckhart, as he spent much of his ministry with women. In Frankfurt, he was given the task of administering a number of convents. He was much beloved of the nuns and spoke to them as equals, against the patriarchal spirit of the Catholic Church. The mystical revival of that period was spearheaded by groups of women, who came together to build new spiritual communities up and down the Rhineland, Hildegard of Bingen being the most famous.
If one were forced to describe Eckhart's theology in a word, one might use panentheism, a term that I first came across in a Matthew Fox reader. Panentheism is similar to pantheism in that God is to be found everywhere and everything, "in every work, bad as well as good, the glory of God is equally manifested."
Yet, Eckhart is not a simple pantheist because he constantly pushes beyond the manifest world, "a man who prays for any particular thing prays for an evil and prays ill, for he prays for the negation of good and the negation of God, and that God may be denied to him." This negation, which Eckhart refers to as the poverty of the soul is a recurring theme in Eckhart's sermons. Take Poverty as the Christian equivalent of the Buddhist notion of Emptiness. It is not just the lack of material comforts, it is the rejection of all physical, and even spiritual desires "God is honoured in those who have renounced everything, even holiness and the kingdom of heaven." Compare this to the Zen Buddhist Patriarch Boddhidarma. When asked by the Chinese Emperor, "How much merit have I gained in performing great works for Buddha?", Boddhidarma replied "None at all."
Eckhart's theology was radical. It looked forward towards the Reformation, but also backwards towards the Gnostics. Eckhart rejected the commonly held orthodox position that Jesus, as the Son of God, was a singular divine event. No, the Glory of God can be attained by those who follow him, "Whatever God the Father gave to His only-begotten Son in His human nature, He has given it all to me." This is a borderline gnostic position. Eckhart further posits that divine grace is given to all those who embrace it – it is not mediated by the hierarchy of the Church. "Whatever the Holy Scripture says about Christ is verified in every good and godlike man." This is essentially a Protestant position. The remarkable thing was that Eckhart successfully defended his views as orthodox throughout his life.
But Eckhart's writings reaches far beyond gnostism and into the realm of the non-dual, a realm that one normally associates with Zen Buddhists. In a great Zen dialogue with the master Joshu, a student once asked Joshu about the nature of Buddha. Joshu simply answers "not two". Compare this to Eckhart's explanation of the man of God, "for he who sees two, or sees any distinction, does not see God; for God is one, outside number and above number, for one cannot be put with anything else, but follows it; therefore in God Himself no distinction can be or be understood."
Eckhart's answer reaches across the centuries to join hands with Joshu, the grand old master of Zen, the hard-headed mystic who famously coined the nonsense Zen term "mu." Indeed, Eckhart was as much of an irascible jokester as Joshu, "Do you want to know what goes on in the core of the Trinity? I will tell you. In the core of the Trinity the Father laughs and gives birth to the Son. The Son laughs back at the Father and gives birth to the Spirit. The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us."
When Eckhart says that "he who sees two... does not see God," Joshu cannot help but agree with the cryptic reply of "not two". Buddha and Christ are woven together, uniting mu with poverty. It is a message that was as vital in the worn decades of the early 14th century, as it will be in the coming cataclysm of the 21st.