223 pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie
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
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
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
3. Ottawa/Notre Dame: Novalis/Fides, 2005.
4. London: SPCK, 1991.
S. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
1. Acta Capituli Generalis Provincialium Ordinis
Praedicatorum apud Walberberg, Rome: S Sabina, 1980, p. 74, n. 122 ('De
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.
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.
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 .
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
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
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.