Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Complete Mystical Works

Bonsai Tree, Garden of the Humble Administrator, Suzhou, China

I've finally finished reading Meister Eckhart's The Complete Mystical Works.

This fine book, although expensive, is an important addition to any esoteric or Christian library. Eckhart's thinking is more than just thinking; he writes from a personal and direct experience with the divine, and an inwardly formed understanding which is rare in any age.

Eckhart's sermons convey a candid transparency that allows him to speak with great feeling. And speak from the heart he does; this book is a book of heart-practice, expanding on what ought to be deeply Christian principles in a way that inexorably links them to Buddhism, esoteric Islam, and, as I have pointed out many times over the past year, Swedenborg and Gurdjieff.

Like Ibn 'Arabî, Eckhart understood his theology from an orthodox, yet often refreshingly unique, point of view; and although he was brought up on charges of heresy, it's hard to fault his theology in modern terms. Both of these masters underscore how thoroughly esoteric, or inner, practice forms the core of any approach towards the divine; Eckhart's works validate not only inner practice, but the fundamental principles of Christianity itself, revealing it as a religion based on the highest possible inner principles.

Certain overarching themes became apparent to me during the course of my reading, which took over a year to complete. I'll try to touch on some of them in a summary fashion, even though all of them have been treated in essays during the course of my study.


  Meister Eckhart proposes above all a fecund divinity, one which is ever birthing itself into the material world in an act that is, at its root, loving. Although he makes no reference to the doctrine of the names of God, which figured so prominently in contemporary (that is, to him) esoteric and mystical Sufism, there is an essential agreement which remains, in certain senses, unspoken. Yet this fecundity, this perpetual birth of the divine into the world and into mankind itself, permeates Eckhart's whole teaching; and his call to inner practice is a call on behalf of this birth of the divine, which he cites as a highly personal action each Christian is called on to participate in as directly as possible.


 Eckhart's views on detachment are complex; although they seem straightforward, they spring from a direct understanding of the difference between inner and outer practice. The demands they put on the seeker — to remain outwardly engaged in every manner, yet to remain completely detached in an inward sense — presumes a practical inviolability of the territory of the soul that we, as individuals, have little experience with. This is the difficulty with detachment in general; it often seems a lofty philosophical goal that is approachable in theory, but difficult to experience in fact. Only an unusual separation of inner and outer action can make a real understanding of the subject possible.

 Eckhart uses the German word Gleichgültigkeit to describe the attitude of detachment. Some have translated this word as indifference, which may impart a familiar taste across a range of thought on the subject; yet the word, as I have pointed out before, literally means a state of equal validity. This idea is interesting to me, because Meister Eckhart does not suggest, with this word, an attitude of indifference at all — the word itself admits of a practice in which active engagement is implied, along with an attitude of complete acceptance. This is a state in which all things taking place are experienced as equally valid and true. It provides an intelligible parallel to Dharma practice: the comprehensive experience of truth, not one's own egoistic partiality towards it.

This idea of complete engagement along with complete detachment implies a separation between the inner and the outer work within man, the work of the personality and essence, or of the man and the soul; but it also implies a union of these two works through the conscious action of man's choice, and this brings us back to most of the ideas that Jeanne de Salzmann attempted to awaken as practical realities in her work.

One could go on about this subject at considerable length; but I think that the message here is an ultimately empowering one that allows us to fully live our lives in the manner that is required of us outwardly, while at the same time engaging in wholehearted, deeply sacred, and intimate inner action that calls us to the root of the divine within our own Being. We don't, he suggests, need to mix the two up with one another — and in fact, that is exactly what we should not do, because it constitutes a form of inner adultery.


 Here, of course, is another core consideration in Eckhart's teaching (at least, that portion of it which has come down to us — so much is apparently lost.) It arrives in the form of his famous work,  The Book of Divine Consolation, which once again — as in so much of Meister Eckhart's ouevre — proposes a set of extraordinary inner responses, in this case, to apparently unbearable outer conditions.

The calling he brings us to in regard to our own suffering is of the highest nature; and yet, carefully examined from the perspective of Divine Will, which categorically imposes truth as the fundamental condition of all the manifestations of material reality, his arguments seem difficult to refute. All that takes place is, after all, true; and since we must suffer it, he proposes, we must suffer it willingly, since it is invariably purposeful and intended for our own edification. Not only must we suffer it willingly; and here we come to the most difficult part of his proposition. We must suffer it as though we wanted it to be that way, which is a fundamentally stoic principle.

There are deep links between Meister Eckhart's teachings in this area and Gurdjieff's concept of intentional suffering.  I will be publishing a monograph on the subject at a later time.

Meister Eckhart asks us to consider embracing our own suffering with detachment. Anyone who has truly suffered in an outward sense will know how difficult, and even impossible, this sounds; and perhaps it is the challenge to our assumptions about suffering that matters here. It raises questions about our own ego and the nature of its demand that things be a certain way—a way in which, to the point, they can categorically never be.  This dilemma can't be escaped as we examine our inner emotional conditions. His discourses thus point us towards a new inward form of suffering that is quite different than the material conditions of this world or the anguish they produce in us.


One could summarize any number of Eckhart's viewpoints and concepts and still leave things out, because he covers so many subjects; yet any treatment would be lacking if it did not mention love, which stands as the centerpiece of all God's actions. Meister Eckhart places love in a central role, as does Swedenborg; and love becomes the agency through which the universe is made manifest, as well as the vehicle through which all understanding arrives and is evaluated. Even our suffering, it turns out, is sent to us through love, and only through our inherent lack of understanding, our own unlovingness, do we fail to appreciate this.

Eckhart does not give us a world where inner practice leads to endless rounds of bliss, but he admits to the possibility of a rapture that lies beyond the boundaries of our understanding. That rapture is an unspokenness and an emptiness that is filled with nothing but love of an un-brokered, unmediated, and transcendental kind. Because it lies in territory that cannot be defined using our words or our expectations, we are left with a mystery; so love is the central mystery of life, a mystery we are called on to seek inwardly with every step we take through it.


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