The following is an essay written for a weekend course taught by philosopher Jacob Needleman on Meister Eckhart the 26th and 27th of February 2011.
Meister Eckhart, Philosophy, and the Soul
By Matthew Segall
And there shall be for thee all soft delight
That shadowy thought can win,
A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,
To let the warm Love in!
-Ode to Psyche by John Keats
When Love said that word, my soul mellted and flowed away. Where he comes in, I must go out!
-Meister Eckhart summarizing the Song of Solomon (5:2-7)
“When thought races ahead of Being,” writes philosopher Jacob Needleman, “a civilization is racing toward destruction” (WIG, p. 19). It takes a genuine philosopher to voice such a prescient insight, a being rare among mortals who for better or worse has awakened to his or her participation in the ancient current of world-historical becoming. Practicing philosophy requires more than contemplation, and more than learning. It is also an art: that of thinking (noiesis) and speaking (poeisis) the truth of Being.
To philosophize, one must first have tasted the stillness of eternity abiding within the soul, a treasure hidden deep beneath the ephemeral garments of space and time. The philosopher has felt the breath of God upon her ears and, upon hearing its wisdom, is overcome with love and possessed by the duty to convey its meaning to others. Nevertheless, despite all brushes with divinity, the philosopher remains adrift in an inherited stream of collective unconsciousness, a mortal destined to die like any other.
Philosophers are responsible for shaping the further course of earth evolution by informing and reminding Human Being of Divine and Cosmic Being. The life of the philosopher, at least traditionally, has been guided by the love of wisdom, even unto death. Unfortunately, these days universities employ more scholars of philosophy than philosophers. But no matter: wisdom always finds a way to be heard.
The short essay to follow will record my philosophical participation in what John Keats called “soul-making.” This, according to Keats, is the lost-sight-of purpose of the world, the reason for the body’s trials in time and sufferings in space. Spirit needs a home, but cannot dwell in matter alone. It is the poetic soul who prepares its abode. Both a sincere love for the True, the Beautiful, and the Good, and the sermons of the medieval sage Meister Eckhart, will guide me along the textual path to follow.
The crisis of our civilization is bigger than politics or ecology, more deep-seated than a new policy initiative or technological invention could hope to overcome. Any sufficiently sensitive soul must already have confronted the existential void at the heart of our techno-industrial civilization’s demented cosmology. As a sensitive soul and an aspiring philosopher, I’m compelled to pursue solutions to our collective situation not by offering new ideas or forms of thought, but by provoking new modes of consciousness.
Before I can begin to think and feel with Eckhart, a few distinctions must be drawn: 1) that between ideas about reality and real wisdom, and 2) that between the mind and the soul.
1) The mind is interested in the active manipulation and production of worldly things and ideas, while 2) the soul is called to the timeless task of becoming inwardly silent—without thinking or acting or entertaining any idea (ME, p. 96). This silence, according to Eckhart, is not an end in itself, but is done in preparation for the birth of the Word of God within us, which is but another name for wisdom. In short, the mind thinks about reality, employing a multitude of ideas to mediate its encounter, while the soul patiently labors to beget the Real within itself.
The philosopher Owen Barfield once echoed Needleman’s warning for our civilization: “We are no longer capable of thinking deeply, because we think too quickly” (WA, p. 67). What is needed is a participatory and heart-centered, rather than an alienated and skeptical way of engaging the unknown depths of Being. The philosopher cannot hold the mystery of life at theoretical distance, but must approach questions concerning the essence of existence with the quality of gentle intimacy that Keats called “Negative Capability”: dwelling in uncertainty without rushing to cover over its ambiguities. Contemplation of God is the soul’s source of meaning, and while definite answers about the Ultimate may remain forever elusive, it is the act of asking—of opening oneself to the procreativity of God—that may produce the desired transformation.
“Since the soul itself does not know, it wonders” says Eckhart, “and, wondering, it seeks, for the soul knows very well that something is afoot, even though it does not know how or what” (ME, p. 100).
Though it cannot see what it seeks, since vision always reaches out beyond it to external things, the soul retains “the power to hear the eternal word within” (ME, p. 108). The eye is the organ of the searching mind, while the ear is the agent of the loving heart.
Perhaps Eckhart’s most important teaching concerns the difference between the passivity of the ear and the activity of the eye. Though the soul is largely ignorant of what it nonetheless is intrinsically compelled to seek, such “divine unconsciousness” pacifies the soul of its pretensions, quieting all its faculties so that I may “discover the birth of God’s Son” within myself (ME, p. 107-108). The human soul’s passivity “is the chief of [its] actions,” while God “should both be active and passive in order that he may know and love himself in the soul, and the soul may know as he knows and love as he loves” (.ibid). Though “no one has ever seen God” (John 1:18), the ears of an open-hearted soul make room for God’s Word to transform all the agents of the soul, so that “the eye with which God sees me” becomes “the same with which I see God” (Sermon IV). Creature and creator here unite in “one sight, one knowledge, and one life.”
Eckhart was deemed a heretic by a Franciscan-led inquisition, mostly because of the near identity he believed could come to exist between the human soul and God. As we have seen, he taught a path of inner stillness, so that, with the restless activity of the desiring soul quieted, God might speak his silent Word to a receptive heart. The utterance of this Word within our soul is a divine and eternal birth, “which occurred at one point in time, and which occurs everyday in the innermost recess of the soul—a recess to which there is no avenue of approach” (ME, p. 109).
There is no avenue of approach–no point of access, in other words—even to our own innermost nature. Eckhart’s doctrine of the soul is difficult—nay, impossible!—to grasp. We cannot gain access to the Word who is perpetually being born within us, because we are Him already in eternity. The difference between will and grace, between works and salvation, is here resolved. There is nothing to be done about Christ, because there is no time to do it. The Spirit is present when I am it, and absent when I’m not. Heaven requires no work, but nor is it bestowed by grace from beyond. Every human being already takes part in the immortal life as a being existing by virtue of Being, if only he might remember.
Socrates once said that philosophy is learning to die. Eckhart’s way of soul-making is to overcome death with love: “Death separates the soul from the body but love separates everything from the soul. It cannot endure anything anywhere that is not God or God’s” (ME, p. 124). Eckhart points us to the core of our soul, where God takes on the burdens and beauties of human nature so long as we are able to die to our personal selves for the love of others, whether foreign or familiar (ME, p. 126). Death is crucifixion upon the axes of space and time, but heaven is touched by neither: “The course of heaven is outside time—and yet time comes from its movements” (ME, p. 131).
What sort of teaching is it that demands we “be dead to everything” (ME, p. 132) to participate in divinity? Eckhart is not interested in knowledge about God generated by ideas in the mind; he seeks the wisdom of God granted only through transformation of soul. Curiosity concerning the creaturely things of time and space leads in many interesting directions, but it cannot lead to the Love and Wisdom of God, since to these there is no approach or access. An inward rebirth is necessary before the “secret spring” of the soul can give birth to Christ, the Word of God (ME, p. 127). This change is produced by the death of the ego to all things of this world, so as to love them each with disinterested equality. God is in all things, but the body-bound mind does not see the Spirit dwelling in the world because it cannot hear the voice of the Son amidst the noise of its many desires (ME, p. 131).
This teaching is harder than hell, but God sends messengers to aid us along the impossible path. Angels are the ideas of God, and born in our mind they bear the message of his coming. Part of their divine message is the identity of being and knowing, which for thousands of years has been the founding principle of the philosophical pursuit. But, as Eckhart reminds us, God’s being is transcendent, and so cannot be known by any mental faculty. The soul that, with the help of angelic persuasion, has discovered a likeness to God in the primal purity of its core, “where everything that can be named is sloughed off,” comes to the only knowledge of the divine that is possible: that by way of identification (ME, p. 142).
Eckhart reminds us of the teaching of the Scriptures, which points to three factors preventing a person from knowing anything about God: time, materiality, and multiplicity (ME, p. 151). Of course, learning to remember our likeness to God may still take time, as when fire tries to burn wood, the wood must be progressively warmed to the point of smoking and crackling before giving up entirely to the fire, since the two are at first so dissimilar (ME, p. 152). The materiality of language, both spoken and written, may also be an aid along the way to inner transformation. Just as the Word took on flesh to commune with humanity more intimately, thoughts must be uttered and recorded in the idiom of the day so as to convey the way of God to a soul whose agents are initially turned toward the world. The Word must first meet humankind in the world if it wishes to lead us toward heaven.
The soul is more a potential than a given perfection. Its magic must be made, its sacred soil cultivated by good will and faith in the beauty of truth before its divine destiny can flower. “Soul-making” is nothing less than the task of birthing God on earth, one individual at a time. Eckhart’s insights are an invaluable source of guidance for those on the path of transformation. He is a true metaphysician, offering healing prescriptions for those seeking that which lies beyond. And yet, he also points us to what is already at hand: “God is nearer to me than I am to myself” (ME, p. 129).
1) Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation translated by Raymond B. Blakney (1941)
2) What Is God by Jacob Needleman (2009)
3) Worlds Apart by Owen Barfield (2010)