Sunday, May 30, 2021

An Esoteric Commentary on Meister Eckhart's Sermon 3: part 7

An Esoteric Commentary on Meister Eckhart's Sermon 3: part 7

The invocation of the desert brings to mind all the power of the desert fathers, withdrawal, isolation, and solitude. 

Yet this itself begins already to sound like a complete withdrawal from the outer world; and the fallacy of that conceptualization has already been addressed. So what, then, of this resurrected austerity of the desert? Are we to do nothing?

Now you might say, ‘But sir, what must a man do to be void as a desert in respect of himself and all things? Should a man wait all the time for God to work and do nothing himself, or should he do something in the meantime, like praying or reading or some other good occupation such as listening to sermons or studying scripture ? Since such a man is not supposed to take anything in from without, but only from within, from his God, does he not miss something by not doing these things?’

The questioner presents a brilliant dilemma. Meister Eckhart addresses the issue by defining the practical nature of the outer and its value to our inner disciplines thus:

Now listen. All outward works were established and ordained to direct the outer man to God and to train him to spiritual living and good deeds, that he might not stray into ineptitudes: to act as a curb on his inclination to escape from self to things outside; so that when God would work in him He might find him ready and not have to draw him back from things alien and gross. For the greater the delight in outward things the harder it is to leave them; the stronger the love the sharper the pain when it comes to parting. 

Everything we encounter from our ordinary life is useful if we understand it as a process to develop our inner life. As Gurdjieff said, “we always make a profit.” The key to this action is to avoid identification: a person must have a “curb on his inclination to escape from self to things outside.” 

This avoidance of identification must come first, so that when the moment of help arrives it is not at once confronted with a further struggle to separate from the world of outer identification and associative thought. There are some deep thoughts about the nature of attachment contained in a single simple statement: “the greater the delight in outward things the harder it is to leave them; the stronger the love the sharper the pain when it comes to parting.“ Of itself, this sentence defines the dilemma that Buddhism addresses through practice of non-attachment. It leads us immediately to an understanding of the tension between the sensory outer life and the silence of the inner one.

See then: All works and pious practices—praying, reading, singing, vigils, fasting, penance, or whatever discipline it may be—these were invented to catch a man and restrain him from things alien and ungodly. 

Form, in other words, exists not for itself, but solely for the restraint it instills. Here, we may read “alien” as “not of the true self.”

We’re brought to the understanding of right outer practice within form by attention: 

Thus, when a man realizes that God's spirit is not working in him and that the inner man is forsaken by God, it is very important for the outer man to practice these virtues, and especially such as are most feasible, useful, and necessary for him; not however from selfish attachment, but so that, respect for truth preserving him from Being attracted and led astray by what is gross, he may stay close to God, so that God may find him near at hand when He chooses to return and act in his soul, without having to seek far afield. 

Here we are introduced to a nuanced but intelligible discernment between selfishness and personhood: the selfish is attached, but the person is close to God. The person remains attentive (”close to God”) so that they are available (”near at hand”) when the higher influence arrives. The closer and more attentive one is to one’s own inner Being, the more active the force of the Father can be in relationship to the soul: it does not have to “seek far afield.” The intimacy of Being serves as preparation.

Even so, there is a moment of transformation where the relationship with the outer becomes completely different: and upon this turns the idea of a new man, a new relationship with Being:

But if a man knows himself to be well trained in true inwardness, then let him boldly drop all outward disciplines, even those he is bound to and from which neither pope nor bishop can release him. From the vows a man has made to God none can release him, but they can be turned into something else: for every vow is a contract with God. But if a man has taken solemn vows of such things as prayer, fasting, or pilgrimage, if he then enters some order, he is released from them, for in the order he is vowed to goodness as a whole, and to God Himself. 

We must therefore understand Eckhart’s premise as follows: the sacred union with the ground and essence of Being results in a completely new inner action, divorced from the outer world, which arrives from within and informs all outer action. A person is “vowed to goodness as a whole and to God himself.” Yet neither of these vows have even the least taste of selfishness in them; they are a vow to goodness only and to God only.

Emmanuel Swedenborg equated goodness to God; to him, there was no essential difference between the two. And despite his seemingly confusing assertions to the contrary, Gurdjieff himself expected those who practice to eventually come to exactly this same good. There can be no other point to the exercise.

The quotations from Meister Eckhart's Sermons 3 are reprinted with the kind permission of The Sangha Trust, and are taken from The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart.

 May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

An Esoteric Commentary on Meister Eckhart's Sermon 3: part 6

An Esoteric Commentary on Meister Eckhart's Sermon 3: part 6

Now you might say, 'Oh sir, you said so much about how all our faculties should be quiet, and now you go setting up a great clamor of yearning in this quietness. That would be a great moaning and outcry for something we haven't got, and that would be the end of this peace and quiet. Whether it were desire or purpose or praise or thanksgiving, or whatever else the mind might beget or imagine—it would not be perfect peace or absolute stillness.' 

Let me explain. When you have completely stripped yourself of your own self, and all things and every kind of attachment, and have transferred, made over, and abandoned yourself to God in utter faith and perfect love, then whatever is born in you or touches you, within or without, joyful or sorrowful, sour or sweet, that is no longer yours, it is altogether your God's to whom you have abandoned yourself. 

Here the questioner reveals his confusion about the nature of an inner wish to discover God. He conflates it with the seemingly unavoidable clamor and ambition of the ordinary self and one’s outer parts. 

Even more tellingly, perhaps, he assigns it an active and male nature, rather than the passive and receptive womanhood of the soul, which Meister Eckhart almost always describes as female. This usurpation of the active is an inner movement that attempts to take on the role of the Father, the true active male principal, and marks it as a movement of ego.

In an irony one needs to pause for a moment and consider in order to appreciate its fullness, the questioner understands that that very action itself is “the end of this peace and quiet.” They understand that everything the ordinary mind begets and imagines is superfluous, even as they insist on its unavoidable primacy.

Meister Eckhart sets this straight by penetrating into the ground of the mind itself and attempting to help us discern its nature. 

In doing so, he touches on the origin of the logos, as expounded in John 1:1:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”

The nature of the following text suggests that Meister Eckhart’s subsequent commentary on light is based on this passage. His response begins:

Tell me, whom does the spoken word belong to ? To the speaker or the hearer? Though it falls to the hearer, it really belongs to the speaker who gave it birth.

Here he explains the difference between the male principle to whom the word belongs, our heavenly Father, and the female principal (the soul) to which it falls. This is the passive or receiving principal, which he goes on to specifically explain in the next passage:

Here is an example. The sun casts its light into the air; the air receives the light and gives it to the earth, thus enabling us to distinguish different colors. 

In this remark, he likens the action of the word of the father to the action of light as a power of discrimination that allows us  “to distinguish different colors.” In other words, the word of the Father, if rightly received, awakens the power of discrimination in us and allows us to see ‘colors,’ that is, the essential nature of other things as they reflect the word, and the subtlety and beauty of that nature. 

In this sense, the use of color in religious practice is a celebration of the action of the word of the father. The interior of Gothic cathedrals in the middle ages was a bright, extraordinarily lively and beautifully painted environment, not the drab, austere stone we are accustomed to in the faint remnants of today’s cathedrals. Some few still remain as a testament to that practice, which was a physical illustration of the receiving of the word: the plain stone, a single passive color in its nature, receives the word of God and becomes a celebration of light.

Now, though the light is formally in the air, essentially it is in the sun: the light actually comes from the sun, where it originates, and not in the air. It is received by the air which passes it on to anything that is receptive to light. It is just the same with the soul. God bears the Word in the soul, and the soul conceives it and passes it on to her powers in varied guise: now as desire, now as good intent, now as charity, now as gratitude, or however it may affect you. 

The passage reveals a medieval conception of the sun as a representative of God within our own world, and brings us to the threshold of an understanding of the deep astrological and cosmological connections between Christian religion and the universe as understood in the Middle Ages: a rich and largely forgotten conception of astronomy and the cosmos.

The quality of these universal forces is received by the air, that which sustains life, and passed on to “anything that is receptive to light.” The passive soul becomes the mediator between the word of God and of the ordinary world. In that mediation, it becomes the emotive force of Being; and Meister Eckhart iterates some of the higher emotions that ensue when the word is active: desire, good intent, charity, and gratitude. All of these higher impulses do not belong to us.

Lest we forget where this comes from — because already, in the first instant of this beatific realization, we forget what we are, who we are, and where we are —immediately we are called to attention with an admonition: “It is all His, and not yours at all.”

What God thus does, you must accept all that as His and not as your own, just as it is written, 'The Holy Ghost makes intercession with countless mighty sighs' (Rom. 8:26 ) . He prays within us, not we ourselves. 

Here he has managed to bring us around to the fullness of his answer: the quality of our prayer and supplication depends wholly on help we receive from above, and is not a product of our ordinary mind and its misconceptions about the nature of spiritual activity:

St. Paul says, "No man can say 'Lord Jesus Christ' but in the Holy Ghost" ( 1 Cor. 12:3 ) . This above all else is needful: you must lay claim to nothing! 

How much more clearly can he say it? We must lay claim to nothing.

Yet this remark is rather interesting, because it does not just mean that the ego is forbidden from claiming that which does not belong to it, the higher ground of the soul and of spiritual enlightenment; it also means that there must be an inward action to make nothingness our own. This is deeply reminiscent of Gurdjieff’s insistent and ubiquitous advice that a man must become aware of and understand his own nothingness. The two ideas are identical.

In this act of abandonment, the soul empties itself of all assumptions; and in this action, a void is created into which only God himself can enter:

Let go of yourself and let God act with you and in you as He will. This work is His, this Word is His, this birth is His, in fact every single thing that you are. For you have abandoned self and have gone out of your (soul's) powers and their activities, and your personal nature. Therefore God must enter into your Being and powers, because you have bereft yourself of all possessions, and become as a desert, as it is written, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness" ( Matt. 3:3 ) . Let this eternal voice cry out in you as it listeth, and be as a desert in respect of yourself and all things. 

The quotations from Meister Eckhart's Sermons 3 are reprinted with the kind permission of The Sangha Trust, and are taken from The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart.

 May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, May 24, 2021

An Esoteric Commentary on Meister Eckhart's Sermon 3: part 5

An Esoteric Commentary on Meister Eckhart's Sermon 3: part 5

You might ask, 'Since my intellect is divested of its natural activity and no longer has any image or action of its own, where is its support? For it must always find lodgment somewhere: the powers always seek to fasten on something and act on it, whether it be memory, intellect or will.' 

This question reminds one of Zen master Dogen’s term for Zen practitioners, “leavers of home.” In divesting itself of its natural activity, the intellect leaves home and seemingly has nowhere to find lodging. Its restless, grasping nature nonetheless remains.

According to Meister Eckhart, this divestment lies at the threshold of a quest for the discovery of essence:

Now note the explanation of this. Intellect's object and lodgment is essence—not accident, but pure unmixed Being in itself. When the intellect discerns true Being it descends on it, comes to rest on it, pronouncing its intellectual word about the object it has seized on. 

…And as part of its restless, prying, perpetually dissatisfied nature, the intellect persistently names that which has no name…

But, so long as the intellect does not find true Being and does not penetrate to the ground, so as to be able to say, 'this is this; it is such and not otherwise,' so long does it remain in a condition of questing and expectation; it does not settle down or rest, but labors on, seeking, expecting, and rejecting. And though it may perhaps spend a year or more investigating a natural truth, to see what it is, it still has to work long again to strip off what it is not. All this time it has nothing to go by and makes no pronouncement at all, as long as it has not penetrated to the ground of truth with full realization. Therefore, the intellect never rests in this life. 

In the last sentence we are well reminded of Christ’s admonition during the sermon on the Mount that the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head. 

What is engendered through intellect engages in the search to “penetrate to the ground of truth.” This also reminds one of Zen practice. To penetrate to the ground strips off everything that is not. It is a movement from “I am this” and “I am that” to nothing more than “I am.” 

This is this; it is such and not otherwise,” advises Meister Eckhart; there can be no peace until the ‘ground of truth’ is discovered. Elsewhere, we’re told this ground consists of a stillness; and in this we are assured that it is where all things of Being may rest.

While Meister Eckhart uses a term that appears to inform Gurdjieff’s lexicon, that is, “essence,” he uses it in a somewhat different way, referring to it as “pure unmixed Being in itself.” This, he advises, is the natural residence of intellect. It also counts, in this passage, as the ground. In referring to the activities of resting and wandering, we can see that until all things are stripped of considering and identification, that is, comparative or dualistic thinking, ego, and the mistaken confusion of the external as self, there can be no peace.

However much God may reveal Himself in this life, yet it is still as nothing to what He really is. Though truth is there, in the ground, it is yet veiled and concealed from the intellect. All this while, the intellect has no support to rest on in the way of a changeless object. It still does not rest, but goes on expecting and preparing for something yet to become known, but so far hidden. 

Thus there is no way man can know what God is. But one thing he does know: what God is not. And this a man of intellect will reject. Meantime the intellect, finding no real object to support it, waits as matter awaits form. Just as matter will never rest until it is filled with all forms, so the intellect cannot rest except in the essential truth that embraces all things. Only the essence will satisfy it, and this God withdraws from it step by step, in order to arouse its zeal and lure it on to seek and grasp the true, groundless good, so that it may be content with nothing but ever clamor for the highest good of all. 

The way towards God which rests on the premise that God is defined by what he is not is referred to as apophatic theology. It’s the negation of the external, the rejections of all formatory conceptions of God. In Gurdjieff’s terminology, this is a form of Holy Denying.

Meister Eckhart comes down strongly on the side of this approach in this passage; and, interestingly, the passage suggests that the appreciation and understanding of the self involves a similar rejection of everything that the self thinks it is in order to reach what he calls the ground, the essence. 

We not only seek to know God by knowing what God is not; we equally seek to know self solely by knowing what self is not. 

As Gurdjieff put it, “question everything.”

The remark about “the true, groundless good” is interesting because it indicates that Meister Eckhart believed good, insofar as it consists of God’s will in action, lies beyond even the ground itself.

The way in which Meister Eckhart describes the situation is fascinating, drawing further parallels to Zen Buddhism: “only the essence will satisfy it, and this God withdraws from it step-by-step…” One of the fundamental tenets of Zen is to always go one step further. 

One begins to wonder, quite reasonably I think, whether Meister Eckhart was familiar with Zen practice; there was certainly a great deal more contact between the Orient and the West during the high and late Middle Ages than scholars and social historians have generally appreciated.

The “man of intellect” rejects that which is not God. An awakened intellect engages in relentless search for the essence which can satisfy it, because only there can rest.

The quotations from Meister Eckhart's Sermons 3 are reprinted with the kind permission of The Sangha Trust, and are taken from The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart.

 May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, May 21, 2021

An Esoteric Commentary on Meister Eckhart's Sermon 3: part 4

An Esoteric Commentary on Meister Eckhart's Sermon 3: part 4

For God is not a destroyer of nature: rather He perfects it, and God does this ever more and more, the more you are fitted for it. 

Here Meister Eckhart subtly draws a connection between nature and The Perfection, that is, the vision of God glimpsed within material creation, in the same way that He appears to the inhabitants of the Holy Planet Purgatory. Nature, in Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson and Eckhart’s conception, is a vehicle for the expression of Perfection. That Perfection exists beyond time; and yet to the extent that creation is prepared to receive it, so does it express itself within it. 

This is not just an external expression of The Perfection as in Beelzebub’s planet Purgatory, a place of ineffable and perhaps even intolerable beauty; it is first and foremost an inner expression of The Perfection, because only the inward preparation (”the more you are fitted for it”) can make the outward expression possible. 

The outward expression is entirely dependent upon the receptivity of the inward faculty. 

Let’s remind ourselves of the necessity for passivity on the part of the inward faculty in order for this to take place; because it is the very next thing that Meister Eckhart discusses; and in doing so, he examines the contradiction it presents.

But you might say, 'Oh sir, if this requires a mind free of all images and all works (which lie in the powers by their very nature), then how about those outward works we must do sometimes, works of charity which all take place without, such as teaching or comforting the needy? Should people be deprived of this ? 

As our Lord's disciples were so much occupied with such things, as (according to St. Augustine) St. Paul was so burdened and preoccupied with people's cares as if he were their father—shall we then be deprived of this great good because we are engaged in works of charity?' 

The concern expressed here is how to inhabit the outer in an honorable way in the midst of a practice that demands a certain kind of absolute abandonment of both inner and outer. The crux of this question lies in the nature of the separation between the action of God Himself, which lies beyond creation, and the action of inner and outer Being, which substantially (materially) exist within it. Abandonment is not the same as banishment; and this becomes a critical proposition. To see is not to get rid of; it is to separate and yet at the same time consciously unite. Meister Eckhart brings us directly to this understanding:

Now note the answer to such questions. The one thing is noblest, the other very profitable. Mary was praised for choosing the best; but Martha's life was of very great profit, for she served Christ and his disciples. Master Thomas says the active life is better than the contemplative, insofar as in action one pours out for love that which one has gained in contemplation. It is actually the same thing, for we take only from the same ground of contemplation and make it fruitful in works, and thus the object of contemplation is achieved. Though there is motion, yet it is all one; it comes from one end, which is God, and returns to the same, as if I were to go from one end of this house to the other; that would indeed be motion, but only of one in the same. 

Something that is noble is highborn; the word itself comes from an Indo-European root shared by the word know, that is, to be intelligent and understand at the same time. Nobility is of knowing.

What is profitable comes from the Latin root proficere, which means to advance — in turn derived from -pro, “on behalf of,” and facere, to “do.” In this way we understand that the highest action of passivity and the receiving of God’s will is what makes the act of agency, of doing on behalf of God, possible. Meister Eckhart seems to have seen nearly equal value in these two acts of Being, because he uses the word but— a term of contradiction— when he says, “ Mary was praised for choosing the best; but Martha's life was of very great profit, for she served Christ and his disciples.” 

And indeed he brings the two together in unity: “Though there is motion, yet it is all one; it comes from one end, which is God, and returns to the same…” This represents a deft (and what will probably be unappreciated) segue into the Buddhist world of non-dualistic thinking, demonstrating a consonance between high medieval Christian thought and that particular aspect of Buddhist practice. Nor does he ultimately takes sides in the documented tensions between actives and contemplatives which exists to this day:

Thus too, in this activity, we remain in a state of contemplation in God. The one rests in the other, and perfects the other. For God's purpose in the union of contemplation is fruitfulness in works: for in contemplation you serve yourself alone, but in works of charity you serve the many. 

This passage brings to mind Gurdjieff’s law of reciprocal feeding. Reciprocal feeding takes place on a spiritual, as well as material, level; and the reciprocal feeding between active and contemplative states engenders a further rich exchange on either end: God feeds contemplation, and contemplation feeds God; this exchange, in turn, is served by action, which serves yet others still, providing further exchange of substances between the inner act of agency and its beneficiaries in the outer world:

To this Christ admonishes us by his whole life and those of all his saints, every one of whom he drove forth into the world to teach the multitude. St. Paul said to Timothy, "Beloved, preach the Word" (2 Tim. 4:2 ) . Did he mean the outward word that beats the air? Surely not. He meant the inwardly born and yet hidden Word that lies secreted in the soul. That was what he bade him preach aloud, that it might be made known to and might nourish the (soul's) powers, so that a man might give himself out in all those aspects of external life in which his fellow men had need of it—and that all this may be found in you to accomplish to the best of your ability. It must be within you in thought, in intellect, and in will, and it must shine forth, too, in your deeds. 

To “admonish” comes from the Latin admonere, to urge by warning. Meister Eckhart thus assigns great importance to the outer action; yet here he very specifically reminds us that the outer action must be informed by the inner.

As Christ said, " Let your light shine forth before men" (Matt. 5: 6 ) . He had in mind those who care only for the contemplative life and neglect the practice of charity, which, they say, they have no further need for, having passed that stage. It was not these that Christ meant when he said, "The seed fell on good soil and yielded fruit a hundredfold" (Matt. 13:8 ) . He meant them when he said, "The tree that bears no fruit shall be cut down" (Matt. 3:10, 7:19) .

The word charity comes from the Latin caritas via carus, meaning “to care.” And indeed, in late old English (and, by direct inference, its high and late medieval linguistic antecedents) the word was understood to mean “Christian love of one’s fellows.” It is not, in other words, just a material action, consisting (for example) of food for the poor or good public works, but an inner action of love for others. Understanding the source of this love from Meister Eckhart’s point of view, it ultimately arises from the privileged and brief contact with God which one may be afforded through spiritual effort; and so care for others, such a vital feature of outer works, is wholly dependent on inner understanding.

In this particular passage, Meister Eckhart brings not only an esoteric understanding of the relationship between inner contemplation and outer work; it is also a subtle and covert condemnation of those who would shut themselves away from the world in contemplation. Gurdjieff includes a literary critique of this type of practice in the chapter “Beelzebub’s First Time in Tibet,” where he introduces the reader to the “monstrous” cells of the monastery of the “Orthodoxhydooraki sect” of the Buddhist religion. 

What makes the practice monstrous, in Gurdjieff’s eyes, is the rejection of relationship with other humans: it is the diametric opposite of the practice of brotherly love, and represents his own colorful mythological expression of the quote from Matthew, “the tree that bears no fruit shall be cut down.” 

The fruit of relationship with God, in Meister Eckhart’s eyes, is relationship with others.

The quotations from Meister Eckhart's Sermons 3 are reprinted with the kind permission of The Sangha Trust, and are taken from The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart.

 May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

An Esoteric Commentary on Meister Eckhart's Sermon 3: part 3

An Esoteric Commentary on Meister Eckhart's Sermon 3: part 3

Now before this is begun by the mind and completed by God, the mind has a prevision of it, a potential knowledge that it can come to be thus. This is the meaning of 'potential intellect,' though often it is neglected and never comes to fruition. But when the mind strives with all its might and with real sincerity, then God takes charge of the mind and its work, and then the mind sees and experiences God. 

Meister Eckhart calls our attention here to an extraordinary possibility: that the mind can actually see and experience God. 

The role of the potential intellect, the reconciling force of intellect, is to stand between the mind of God and the mind of Being, the higher and the lower, and see them both. In this position, it knows its place and can sense the potential available to it. It is, in Gurdjieff’s words, “conscious.” Here we are vouchsafed an interesting insight into the question of Gurdjieff’s “conscious mentation” and the role of awareness itself in the quest for a spiritual enlivening. The action of seeing, which is the modern term more often used in place of Gurdjieff’s “self remembering” — although there are nuanced differences between the two, to be sure — rests within the potential intellect. It is a precursor to the possibility; yet through its own effort — “when the mind strives with all its might and with real sincerity” —then by the very nature of its essence, God the Father is called to take over.

Yet this striving with might and sincerity is a striving not to do or even a striving to be. Both of these things are the commonplace impressions we have of why we live and what ought to take place; yet each is in its turn misguided. Doing belongs to the outer world, Being belongs to the inner one; yet seeing stands between them and senses the potential for something greater (the Father) than both the inner and the outer, which you may recall was an introductory premise in the sermon.

But since this enduring and vision of God places an intolerable strain on the mind while in this body, God accordingly withdraws at times from the mind, and that is why he said, "A little while you shall see me, and again a little while you shall not see me" (cf. John 16: 16) . When our Lord took his three disciples with him up the mountain and had shown them privately the illumination of his body which he had through union with the Godhead, and which we too shall have at the resurrection of the body, St. Peter at once, on seeing it, wished to remain there always. Indeed, when a man finds the good he cannot easily part from it insofar as it is good. Where this is recognized by knowledge, love must follow, and memory, and all the (powers of) the soul. And our Lord, well knowing this, is constrained to hide at times, for the soul is a simple form of the body, and wherever she turns, she turns as a whole. 

Meister Eckhart reminds us here that we have and at best limited tolerance for contact with the higher. We can only catch glimpses of it; and its help is again at best intermittent. The spiritual hungers of the ego, once introduced to such a glimpse, inevitably turn towards obsessive wishes for the repetition of it; and this passage reminds us of the same through the remark that Saint Peter “wished to remain there always.” There are many aspects of spiritual Being that can become durable, but visions of The Perfection are not one of them; as Gurdjieff indicated in his seminal chapter on progress towards enlightenment, “The Holy Planet Purgatory,” God only visits the planet intermittently to grant glimpses of his grandeur to the denizens, who struggle in anguish to unburden themselves of sin. The concept is nearly identical to this passage from John and Meister Eckhart’s observations on it.

Luckily for us, Eckhart takes us into territory a bit more tactile than Gurdjieff’s extraordinarily beautiful but rather technical description of Purgatory and its machinations. He does so without mincing words: “when a man finds the good he cannot easily part from it insofar as it is good. Where this is recognized by knowledge, love must follow, and memory, and all the (powers of) the soul.

Unlike the presumed relativism of Gurdjieff’s attitude towards what is “good” and what is “bad”, Meister Eckhart presumes for us here an absolute good. Not the good of the world — we have left that well behind us by now — but the good of God, which is eternal, permanent, and not subject to corruption by mankind, either by his inner or his outer qualities. It exists, in fact, exactly as God does, outside of both the inner and outer qualities of man, and in this it is what Gurdjieff would have called objective. 

When the objective good is “recognized by knowledge, love must follow, and memory, and all the (powers of) the soul.

This is an extraordinary and magnificent assertion, and I refer to it as tactile because it brings us directly up against the question of love, which is the first thing that follows with the recognition. Not only that, Meister Eckhart describes here an orderly set of results that ensue from this contact: love, memory, and all the powers of the soul. That is to say, sacred feeling (love) directly influences the intellectual mind (memory) and the body (the powers of the soul, that is, incarnated Being) In this way, God’s influence flows through a man or woman directly into the world— and indeed, this becomes a major subject in the latter part of the sermon, which provides great assurance that this particular interpretation is correct.

Were she always conscious of the good which is God, immediately and without interruption, she would never be able to leave it to influence the body. Thus it befell Paul : if he had remained for a hundred years at the spot where he came to know the Good, he would never have returned to the body; he would have forgotten it completely. 

Meister Eckhart introduces us here to an important concept of separation. Were we completely united with God (”always conscious of the good which is God”) it would quite literally subvert creation: the soul (she) would “never be able to leave it to influence the body.” Hence the covenant between God and creation as it forever stands: the two will always remain separate.

And so, because that is not conducive to this life and alien to it, God in His mercy veils it when He will and reveals it when He will and when He knows, like a trustworthy physician, that it is most useful and helpful for you. This withdrawal is not yours, but His who does the work: He can do it or not as He will, well knowing when it avails you best. It is in His hands to reveal or conceal, according as He knows you can endure it. 

We are introduced here to a concept which was central to Ibn Arabi’s concept of God as existing behind a veil. God exists “behind the veil” as a mystery because direct contact with him would destroy creation itself. Gurdjieff, of course, poses a similar idea when he explains that the Beings on the holy planet Purgatory can never actually come into direct contact with God. 

God veils himself in mercy, lest we be destroyed. Our vision of Him is intermittent and medicinal; only dispensed in order to help us as we need help. Much could be said of this particular point in relationship to religious ecstasy.

The quotations from Meister Eckhart's Sermons 3 are reprinted with the kind permission of The Sangha Trust, and are taken from The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart.

May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

An Esoteric Commentary on Meister Eckhart's Sermon 3: part 2

An Esoteric Commentary on Meister Eckhart's Sermon 3: part 2

Now note the explanation. 

Man has an active intellect, a passive intellect, and a potential intellect. 

The active intellect is ever ready to act, whether it be in God or in creatures, for it exerts itself rationally in creatures in the way of ordering the creatures, and bringing them back to their source, or in raising itself, to the honor and glory of God. All that is in its power and its domain, and hence its name active. But when God undertakes the work, the mind must remain passive. 

But potential intellect pays regard to both, to the activity of God and the passivity of the soul, so that this may be achieved as far as possible. In the one case there is activity, where the mind does the work itself; in the other case there is passivity, when God undertakes the work, and then the mind should, nay, must, remain still and let God act. 

The three intellects are three minds. Yet the analogy itself is aptly threefold; because it not only refers to Gurdjieff’s three conventionally understood ‘centers’ of mind, body, and feeling; it refers, secondly, to selfsame divisions within the ordinary intellectual mind, and thirdly, the division of mind into a divine, a transubstantiating, and a material intelligence. There are three scales of order here. The intimate (second, or inner) scale, the ordinary (median) scale, and the third, cosmological scale. All of these scales of order are nested within the universe of inner consciousness. 

Meister Eckhart’s reference to the need for the mind to remain passive bears a striking resemblance to Jeanne de Salzmann’s many references to passively in her own notes, as reflected in The Reality of Being. Even this one brief passage from Meister Eckhart (there are more) shows us that the tradition of this understanding is an ancient one well-known to medieval monastic practice.

We see here that the active mind has many tasks, both inward and outward, in that it “exerts itself rationally” in order to take on an agency of work and Being in terms of thinking (”ordering the creatures”) and discerning their quality (”bringing them back to their source, or in raising itself to the honor and glory of God.”) So the mind has its place and its active work. 

Yet it is unable to do the work of God, the higher principal; it must become passive.

Meister Eckhart has left some holes in his discourse here, which we will need to fill in. When he makes the remark that the “mind must remain passive, ”he speaks of the innermost mind, the mind of the soul, which was the subject of his opening comments. We know this is simply because he has already emphasized to us that our struggle is not against our outer qualities now, but our innermost ones, which present a greater obstacle than our outer manifestations. This inner part of ourselves may be construed in multiple ways.

Potential intellect is different than the intellect of the outer parts, which deals with the world and its ordering, and the inner intellect, which must become passive in order for God to work. It is a third force (Gurdjieff’s “holy reconciling”) that has the potential, that is, the capacity, to see both of these qualities — it “pays regard” to both the activity of God and the passivity of the soul. That is to say, potential intellect places itself between two worlds and sees them both. This concept will be well familiar to those in the Gurdjieff work. 

The ideas here relate to Gurdjieff’s assignment of the role of policeman to the action of intellect. The paying regard to both activities is undertaken so that the passivity of the inner Being, the soul, may be “achieved as far as possible.” Hence, he assigns this action to the great struggle he has introduced us to in the earlier passage. He draws a clear line between that which is of ourselves — “activity, where the mind does the work itself” and that which is of God — “ passivity, when God undertakes the work, and then the mind should, nay, must, remain still and let God act. “

We come here to the equivalency between stillness and passivity. In late middle English, to be passive actually meant to be acted on by an external agency — and the word originally comes from the past tense “to suffer.” Gurdjieff’s concept of intentional suffering takes on a new color in light of this connection and Meister Eckhart’s text. It is possible Gurdjieff—no stranger to esoteric monastic practices— was referring to this ancient medieval (and earlier) practice of allowing. Interestingly, to use the word stillness is to invoke the original West Germanic root of the term, stillan, which means to be fixed or to stand. This brings us back to the question of having an awareness of the Father, of understanding or standing under him, that is, being aware of the authority of the higher.

The question of allowing the action of the higher is implied throughout the text so far, but specifically stated in the words “the mind should, nay, must, remain still and let God act. “ This will remind us of Gurdjieff’s adage that “man cannot do;” and the simple phrase implies he understood that while man cannot do, God can — a conceptualization entirely consonant with Meister Eckhart’s observations.

The quotations from Meister Eckhart's Sermons 3 are reprinted with the kind permission of The Sangha Trust, and are taken from The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart.

 May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

An Esoteric Commentary on Meister Eckhart's Sermon 3: part 1


An Esoteric Commentary on Meister Eckhart's Sermon 3: part 1

" I must be about my Father's business." 

This text is most appropriate to what we have to say concerning the eternal birth which took place in time and still happens daily in the innermost part of the soul, in her ground, remote from all adventitious events.

 In order to become aware of this interior birth it is above all necessary for a man to be concerned with his Father's business. 

During the ordinary day, masked by the pressure of objects, events, circumstances, and conditions, the birth of Being takes place eternally. 

Creation is not, in this sense, the product of the Big Bang some 14 or more billion years ago, but a contemporary event. This event takes place inwardly; and it is the birth of a quality which comes from outside time, but comes to rest in it. This is an inward action (the innermost part of the soul) distinct from ordinary life (all adventitious events.)

In order to become aware of this inner quality of Being, we must turn our attention towards a higher authority: the active principle which gives birth to us.

What are the Father's attributes ? Power is ascribed to Him more than to the other two Persons. And so, none assuredly can experience or approach this birth without a mighty effort. A man cannot attain to this birth except by withdrawing his senses from all things. And that requires a mighty effort to drive back the powers of the soul and inhibit their functioning. This must be done with force; without force it cannot be done. As Christ said, "The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force" (Matt. 11 : 12 ) . 

Meister Eckhart brings us here to a metaphysically complex place. The Father — the active principle which births us — has “more power” than the other two persons. These other two persons would be conventionally understood as the Son and the Holy Ghost; yet there is another more subtle layer to that. 

The other two persons equally represent the inward and outward Being. 

The inward nature of our Being is formed by the powers of the soul — that is its fundamental purpose. The outward nature of our Being is formed by the outer world. Here, Eckardt proposes an action that would be familiar to practitioners of Zazen — an active withdrawal from both inner and outer Being, so that we become unadulterated by the influence of both the soul and the outer world. Much of the medieval Christian text in the Cloud of Unknowing relates to that same practice. 

The text is an advanced one, because it presumes that the adept already understands the need for a withdrawal from the outer world, which although it seems dramatic and radical is, ultimately, a superficial and only initial task—accomplished, in this example, on entry into a monastery. 

This work, then, is for those who have already renounced the outer world of personality and things and are struggling within the inward world of Being — the “powers of the soul.” This is a piece of territory for much greater struggle, as his quote from Matthew indicates.

The quote from Matthew may not be a completely accurate rendition of the original biblical text; the New International Version, for example, gives the translation “from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subject to violence, and violent people have been raiding it.” We may thus understand that the original text may not have implied that one should use violence to attain the kingdom of heaven; but rather, that one can. It may, as Eckhart delivers it, have been an admonition rather than an instruction. Yet the way that Meister Eckhart phrases it, it seems clear enough he’s telling his pupils that great force is needed in order to overcome the influences of the inner life, which present an obstacle to the power of the Father much greater than the outer influences of ordinary life.

There may be logic to this. The ego is, after all, ultimately a creation of the inner world, no matter how attached to the outer it becomes. The greatest struggle — St. Anthony’s struggle, for example — is a struggle against ego, which arises from misuse of the powers of the soul. 

Nowadays, the word violent has negative implications, but in middle English, the sense of the word was more on the order of “having a marked or powerful effect.” What Meister Eckhart is telling us is simply that a great effort is necessary. He is not by default implying a negative impetus to that effort. The analogy between this and Gurdjieff’s early citation of the need for “super – efforts” is apparent.

The quotations from Meister Eckhart's Sermons 3 are reprinted with the kind permission of The Sangha Trust, and are taken from The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart.

May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.