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Books (First Chapters) > Spirituality
Eckhart's Way
This book by Richard Woods OP explores the life, teaching and influence of the German Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1327). It explains the conflict surrounding his teaching and the charge of heresy brought against him. It goes on to look at what Eckhart has to say to us today.
 

223 pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie

CONTENTS

Foreword
Introduction

Part One: Eckhart's Way

  • The Friar's Way
  • The Master's Way
  • The Preacher's Way 

Part Two: Eckhart's Spiritual Teaching

  • The Ebullience of God
  • The Birth of God in the Soul 
  • The Return to God 

Part Three: Judgement

  • Unwilling Heretic
  • The Legacy 
  • Time's Verdict 

Abbreviations 
Bibliography 
Appendix A 
Appendix B 
Subject Index 
Name Index 


FOREWORD

In 1984, Michael Glazier asked me to provide a one-volume introduction to the life and teaching of Meister Eckhart, the great fourteenth-century German Dominican mystic and preacher, as one of the first volumes under the general editorship of Noel Dermot O'Donoghue in the series on 'The Way of the Christian Mystics'. After two years of research and writing, Eckhart's Way was published in 1986 in the United States by Glazier (reprinted in 1990 by the Liturgical Press) and in England by Darton, Longman and Todd in 1987.

Critical Eckhart scholarship has advanced considerably since 1986, owing largely to the work of scholars in Europe and the United States, notably Alois Haas, Niklaus Largier, Bernard McGinn, Georg Steer, Loris Sturlese and Frank Tobin. McGinn's masterful work, The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart: The Man from Whom God Hid Nothing (1), adjunct to his multi-volume history of western Christian mysticism, The Presence of God (2), remains an outstanding contribution to Eckhart studies. Michael Demkovich's recent Introduction to Meister Eckhart (3) is a highly readable overview of Eckhart's life and teaching with a selection of excerpts from his sermons and treatises.

Why, then, should a new edition of Eckhart'sWay be of interest? Although both editions of the book were out of print by 1998, there has been a fairly constant request by members of the Eckhart Society and others for a reprint. Further, many of the studies that appeared after the publication of Eckhart'sWay, notably Oliver Davies' excellent introduction Meister Eckhart: Mystical Theologian (4) and Frank Tobin's magisterial Meister Eckhart, Language and Thought (5), are no longer in print. Other works have appeared, preeminently the two studies by Professor Bernard McGinn, both of which are epoch-making scholarly works but aimed at a professional readership. Reissuing Eckhart's Way therefore presented an opportunity to provide more than a basic introduction to Eckhart's life and teaching, but less than a massive treatise that a comprehensive grasp of the Meister's teaching merits.

On the other hand, a good deal of research over the last two decades has altered some of the details we know of Eckhart's career, and there were corrections to be made and some points that I needed to clarify as well as updating the references considerably. A thorough revision of Eckhart's Way was thus a real temptation. But in the long run that would amount to virtually writing a new book, which was beyond my purpose and more than my correspondents asked for. A companion volume is a real possibility, but that is a matter for another day. I have made changes where errors of fact or expression required it, and I have tried to update the references where helpful. But Eckhart's Way remains essentially the same work.

Richard Woods, OP
May 2009



NOTES

1. New York: Crossroad, 2001. It would be a daunting and unnecessary task to attempt to reference all the pertinent sections of McGinn's watershed account in this edition of Eckhart's Way, especially since serious scholars will have ready access to the book itself. Occasional passages will be noted, however.
2. New York: Crossroad, 1996-2005. McGinn's fourth volume in the series, The Harvest of Mysticism in Medieval Germany (NewYork: Crossroad, 2005), contains much of the same material but expands and elaborates on many important aspects. As it situates Eckhart's life and teaching in the context of the mystical currents of medieval Germany from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, it is an indispensable resource.
3. Ottawa/Notre Dame: Novalis/Fides, 2005.
4. London: SPCK, 1991.
S. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.




INTRODUCTION

At the General Chapter of Walberberg in 1980, the Order of Preachers initiated official procedures to reopen the case of an aged Dominican friar, fifteen articles from whose writings were condemned for heresy by a papal bull in 1329, a year after his death (1). Today, with the world in uncommon turmoil and the Church facing grave crises of faith and trust both within and outside the official institution, the question naturally arises, why bother to rehabilitate Meister Eckhart?

To begin with, scholars have reexamined Eckhart's works and the proceedings against him in Cologne and Avignon for over a century now. The growing conviction that he was in fact the victim of deliberate or indeliberate ecclesiastical injustice clearly warrants a rehearing. To be sure, agreement that Eckhart was innocent of the charges against him has never been univocal. William of Ockham, himself under house arrest in Avignon for suspected heresy at the same time, complained in fact that Eckhart was treated far too leniently. However unworthy Ockham's motives, his opinion has been echoed many times, at least with regard to Eckhart's teachings (2).

A broad range of opinion has always existed with regard to Eckhart's life and doctrine. This should not be surprising. He had patrolled the nether borders of the unnameable Mystery we call God and strained human language to its limits in describing that experience. It is my own conviction, and only fair to state in advance, that even so Eckhart remained an orthodox and creative proponent of the classical tradition of Christian spirituality, a heritage whose extensive roots can be traced back to the desert mystics of Christian Egypt and Syria, the Bible, and the philosophical theologies of Plotinus, Aristotle and Plato.

Perhaps the most pressing reason for another look at the 'Eckhart case' concerns just those crises in the Church today which at first glance make the whole notion of a rehearing seem preposterously backward-looking. For many of these challenges and dilemmas are surprisingly like those of Eckhart's own times - a massive loss of confidence in the Church as an institution, a sense that God is remote or, indeed, 'dead', a sometimes overwhelming awareness of social violence and corruption against which the message of the Nazarene stands pale and ineffective, a proliferation of alluring cults and mean-tempered sectarianism, a pervasive fear of the future and, hardly least, a vast and consuming hunger for meaning, value and love on the part of people everywhere. In the fourteenth century Eckhart's preaching and teaching revitalized the faith of much of Europe. That same mystical spirit, freed from the lurking suspicion of unorthodoxy, may well help to dispel the spiritual confusion of our time, springing up into the parched lands of trust and friendship like a fountain in the wilderness.

The Master
Eckhart never claimed to be an original thinker, nor has he commonly been considered one by the academy. Even there, however, opinion is beginning to change. When his long-forgotten Latin works were rediscovered at the end of the nineteenth century, Eckhart's daring flights of theological speculation were found to be as intellectually stimulating as in the more familiar vernacular works his heroic call to self-renunciation and wholehearted dedication to God and neighbour were still able to arouse the spirit.

Regrettably, it is impossible in a work of this size and character to attend adequately to both theology and spirituality. I must therefore pass only cursorily over Eckhart's dogmatic and exegetical works. But it is well to remember, as Bernard McGinn has rightly emphasised, that the integral Eckhart is the Master of both the German and the Latin works (3). Ultimately, he must be studied whole.

Eckhart and German Mysticism
Was Eckhart himself a mystic? If the world commonly regards him as such, scholarly opinion has also been mixed on this issue. Much of the dispute concerning whether Eckhart was in fact a philosopher merely preempting the mystical language of the time, as C. F. Kelley and others have claimed, or in truth a mystic himself revolves around the meaning of mysticism and its related areas (4).

Following the example of William James in his immortal Varieties of Religious Experience, and interpreters such as Rudolf Otto and Frits Staal, some Eckhart scholars do not attempt to define mysticism at all, but simply point to the lives and teachings of the men and women to whom the world has extended the accolade of 'mystic'. Such an approach tends to beg the question, and we are still left wondering why were such people called 'mystics' to begin with?

Sufficiently for present purposes, the great scholar of German mysticism Jeanne Ancelet-Hustache described mysticism as '... the mysterious desire of the soul - felt to be sacred, preceding any rational justification and sometimes unconscious yet profound and irresistible - which urges it to enter into contact with what it holds to be the absolute. This will normally be its God, but sometimes also a vaguer concept such as Being in itself, the great All - nature or the world soul (5). A Christian mystic, then, is a person who experiences a profound sense of union with Ultimate Reality or at least, as Evelyn Underhill wisely added, wants to (6).

Speculation and Praxis
Generally, Eckhart has been categorised as a speculative mystic. His teaching is in fact thick with philosophical and theological query and implication. His complex train of thought is often difficult to follow. The very language he used to express his profound insights into the mystery of the human encounter with God is challenging and yet elusive. Much of it, at least in his German writings, Eckhart had to invent (7).

Ideally it is possible, if risky, to extrapolate from theory to practice in the lives of great spiritual figures. With Eckhart, this is particularly hazardous because we know so little about his life and personality. The record of his doctrine itself is incomplete. Still, I have become convinced from studying his sermons and treatises and the records of his trials that Eckhart knew from direct, first-hand experience the concrete truth of what he preached, particularly when he expressed himself with the candid and utter conviction that typifies his work at his best.

Eckhart's doctrine is in fact rich in practical advice, most of it far more sound than the spiritual writings of the next three centuries. We can learn much from the old Lebemeister. To disengage the practical aspects from his speculative concerns would nevertheless distort and misrepresent his teaching as well as impoverish it. No matter how demanding on the temperament of late twentieth century spiritual seekers, if Eckhart is to be truly grasped, here too he must be taken whole.

The Rhineland Mystics
Whether or not one considers Eckhart a mystic in practice, his doctrine and name became virtually synonymous with the magnificent flowering of mysticism of the fourteenth century Rhineland. This rich and turbulent area extends from the great Rheinwaldhorn Glacier to the North Sea, encompassing even in the fourteenth century some of the most densely populated portions of the western world. For over eight hundred miles, the great river runs like the spine of Europe through large sections of Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands. It is navigable to Cologne by ocean-going vessels, and by barge as far as Basel.

The Rhine brought life to the extensive farmlands and bustling commercial centres of the Middle Ages; Eckhart invigorated the spirit of a God-seeking people through a lifetime of preaching and teaching. But he was not the first.

Mysticism appeared in Germany comparatively late in Christian history, for Germany itself was not fully evangelised until the end of the first millenium (8). When it appeared, however, mysticism swept across the Rhineland like a flash-flood. The first mystical work written in the German language was probably St Trudperter Hohelied, composed anonymously around 1140 (9). But Eckhart's more immediate predecessors were the remarkable women mystics of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Hildegard of Bingen, Mechthild of Magdeburg and Gertrude the Great (10). Significantly, his immediate followers, the German Dominican friars and nuns, also drew from those elder sources. But Eckhart himself had become the primary channel through which the stream of Rhineland mysticism now passed from generation to generation.

Heretic
On trial at Cologne and Avignon for his mystical teaching toward the end of his life, Eckhart argued that heresy is primarily a matter of the will, which pertinaciously clings to proved doctrinal error. As he insisted, his own will remained loyal to God and the Church unto death. However, the posthumous condemnation of some of the Meister's teachings, although only a minuscule portion of his writings, has cast a centuries-long shadow over his doctrine as a whole (11).

Was Eckhart in fact a heretic? Or was he simply misunderstood or even a scapegoat for ecclesiastical and imperial politicians, as some have maintained? We may never really know. For now, whatever the outcome of the Dominican petition to have the papal condemnation re-examined and withdrawn, whether Eckhart's life and teachings will again provide nourishment for women and men whose spirits have been parched by the demand of times manifestly as turbulent as those of the fourteenth century, a new generation of readers must decide for itself.

Translations
To many American and English readers, Eckhart represents a discovery of the last few years. For half a century, the most comprehensive translation available was Miss C. de B. Evans' two-volume translation (1923 and 1931) of Pfeiffer's 1857 edition of Eckhart's German sermons (12). The most popular abridgement was a compendium of sermons and treatises sometimes inaccurately translated by Raymond Blakney (13). The best general treatment at hand was perhaps a brief sample of sermons and treatises translated by Hilda Graef in Jeanne Ancelet-Hustache's superb little book, Master Eckhart and the Rhineland Mystics (1957). In the same year, James M. Clark published a selection of twenty-five well-translated German sermons and related documents with an excellent introduction (14). The following year, Clark and John V. Skinner published an additional volume containing translations of equal merit of the German treatises, eight Latin and two German sermons and short excerpts from Eckhart's Latin biblical commentaries (15). But of the above, only Blakney's edition is still in print.


NOTES

1. Acta Capituli Generalis Provincialium Ordinis Praedicatorum apud Walberberg, Rome: S Sabina, 1980, p. 74, n. 122 ('De Studio),
2. On Ockham's lack of candour, see Edmund Colledge, OSA,'Meister Eckhart: His Times and His Writings', The Thomist, 42 (No. 2, April, 1978), p. 246. Among contemporary, even sympathetic critics who have either concluded to or assumed the unorthodox content of Eckhart's doctrine are Edmund Colledge, John Loeschen, Daisetz Suzuki and Shizuteru Ueda.
3. Bernard McGinn, 'The God beyond God: Theology and Mysticism in the Thought of Meister Eckhart', Journal of Religion 61 (1981), pp. 5-6.
4. For Kelley's appraisal of Eckhart, see below, pp. 179f. Mysticism is a relatively late addition to the English language, first appearing in 1736. The term has been defined in a number of ways, all of them unsatisfactory in one respect or another. To his classic Christian Mysticism ( 1899), Dean William Inge was able to append a fourteen-page list of twenty-six lengthy definitions or descriptions of mysticism from that century alone. Similar attempts will be found in W.K. Fleming (ed.), Mysticism in Christianity, London: Robert Scott, 1913, pp. 3, 10-11. Other classic definitions can be found in Rufus Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion (1909), New York: Russell and Russell, 1970 ed., p. xv; Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism (1910), New York: World Pub. Co., 1955 ed., p. xiv; Dom Cuthbert Butler, Western Mysticism (1922), NewYork: Barnes and Noble, 1968 ed., p. 5; and WT. Stace, The Teaching of the Mystics, New York: New American Library, 1960, pp. 14f. For a more recent but still reticent effort, see Nelson Pike, Mystic Union: An Essay in the Phenomenology of Mysticism, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1992, esp. pp. 166ff.
5. Jeanne Ancelet-Hustache, Master Eckhart and the Rhineland Mystics, New York and London: Harper and Row: Longmans, 1957, p. 5. Hereafter referred to as Ancelet-Hustache.
6. 'Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment.' Practical Mysticism, NewYork: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1915, p. 3.
7. Cf. Bernard McGinn, 'Meister Eckhart's Condemnation Reconsidered', The Thomist, 4-4 (1980), p. 414. Maurice de Gandillac similarly hailed Eckhart as 'le vrai fondateur de la prose allemande'. ('La "dialectique" de Maitre Eckhart', La Mystique Rhenane, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963, p. 60.) More recently, however, McGinn has observed that 'Older claims that Eckhart single-handedly created German mystical and/or philosophical-theological language must be abandoned. The Dominican was part of a broad effort in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to make MHG (Middle High German) an apt instrument for speculation and mysticism. But there is no doubt about Eckhart's genius in forging a distinctive mystical style of preaching, one that was famous and controversial in his day as in ours.' The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart, op. cit., p. 3 1 .
8. In regard to the origins of Christian mysticism, the first volume of the monumental multi-volume history by Bernard McGinn, The Presence of God, is
an indispensable resource for serious study: The Foundations of Mysticism, New York: Crossroad, 1991. For early Christian mysticism, see Louis Bouyer, 'Mysterion', in Mystery and Mysticism, London: Aquin Press, 1955, pp. 18-32; Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981; and Richard Woods, Mysterion: An Approach to Mystical Spirituality, Chicago: Thomas More Press, 1981.
9. Cf. M.O'C, Walshe, Meister Eckhart: Sermons and Treatises, 3 vols., London / Shaftesbury: Watkins / Element Books, 1979, 1981 and 1985, I, p. xiv. Hereafter referred to as Walshe (W in reference to particular sermons). Walshe's groundbreaking work is undergoing revision and will be published soon by Crossroad in a single volume. Because the original edition of this work was keyed to the three-volume set, I have retained that usage. The numbering of individual sermons will remain the same.
10. For a discussion of these women and their influence on Dominican spirituality and Eckhart in particular, see Ancelet-Hustache, pp. 15-18; William W. Hinnebusch, OP, The History of the Dominican Order, 2 vols., Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1966 and 1973, I, p. 389 (hereafter Hinnebusch); Jean Leclercq, OSB, `From St Gregory to St Bernard', The Spirituality of the Middle Ages, ed. by J. Lerclercq et al, London: Burns and Oates, 1968, pp. 177-80; Francois Vandenbroucke, OSB,'New Milieux, New Problems', ibid., pp. 358- 64, 373 79; and Walshe, 1, p. xiv.
11. In Sr Mary Jean Dorcy's St Dominic's Family, a compendious volume containing thumbnail biographies of more than 300 famous Dominicans including Henry Suso, Johann Tauler and even Heinrich Denifle, Eckhart is not only excluded, but when mentioned in passing, not even identified as a Dominican. (Washington, DC: Dominicans Publications, 1983.)
12. For these and other standard references, see the bibliography, pp. 196-207.
13. Raymond Blakney, Meister Eckhart, NewYork: Harper and Row, 1941.
14. James Clark, Meister Eckhart :An Introduction to the Study of His Works with an Anthology of His Sermons, Edinburgh and London: Nelson, 1957.

 
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