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Meister Eckhart - Biography

Meister Eckhart, a theologian and mystic of the Dominican Order was born in Hochheim, near Gotha in 1260. As a young man he joined the Dominicans in Erfurt, and traveled to Cologne to study. Upon his return, he was made a prior at Erfurt, and later, the provincial of Thuringia. In 1300 he was assigned to Paris, in order to lecture and continue his studies. Upon his return in 1303, he was made the provincial of Saxony. There are records of complains filed against Eckhart, by the provincial of Teutonia, at the general chapter in Paris, in 1306; the complaints, however, we certainly trivial, since, the following year, Eckhart was appointed by the general, Aymeric, as his vicar-general of Bohemia, and given full power to set the demoralized monasteries in order.

By 1311, Eckhart was appointed as a teacher in Paris, by the general chapter of Naples. His next appointment was as a teacher in Cologne, where the archbishop, Hermann von Virneburg, accused him of heresy before the pope. Nicholas of Strasburg, to whom the pope had given temporary charge of the Dominican monasteries in Germany, exonerated Eckhart. The archbishop, however, denied the competency of the archiepiscopal inquisition, and demanded ‘litterce dimissorix (apostolic) for an appeal to the pope. On February 13th 1327, Eckhart protested that he had never entertained or professed anything wrong, and if he had done so mistakenly, then he fully retracts such statements. Like a show trial, Eckhart, in his final statement indiscriminately recanted everything he falsely thought, taught and wrote, to the authority of the Apostolic See. No record exists of Eckhart’s death, but its as justifiable to infer that it took place shortly after the 13th of February, as it is to infer what the statements of that day meant. Two years on, Pope John XXII, on March 27th 1329, issued a Bull in which many of Eckhart’s statements are qualified as heretical.

For literally centuries none of Eckhart’s writing, with the exception of some sermons, were known or available. These sermons, however, resurfaced at the end of the 15th century, with the publication Tauler’s sermons, by Kachelouen (1498) and Petri (1521, 1522). Three centuries later, in 1857, Franz Pfeiffer published Deutsche Mystiker, a work wholly devoted to Eckhart. Near the end of the 19th century a series of publications surfaced regarding Eckhart, some of which, however, are of questionable genuineness/authenticity. In the 1880’s, in Erfurt and Cues, H. Denifle discovered two manuscripts containing Eckharts work, which although mentioned by Nicholas of Cusa and Trittenheim, had been considered lost. The published segments of the works found at Erfurt, reveal themselves as fragments of a much larger work, composed of over a 1000 propositions (part I), debates on a number of special questions (part II), and an expounding of Biblical texts, followed by a detailed explanation of the books of the Bible. The works found in Cues are, as yet, still unpublished. From the texts available, regardless of their incompleteness and fragmentary status, much can be known of Eckhart’s theological and mystic theories.

Eckhart taught that man’s great need is that his soul be united with God, and that finding salvation requires that one attains the teaching of religion in and through his own understanding. In accord with this orientation, Eckhart spoke little, and quite possibly, thought little, of church ceremonies.

The Deity, he claimed, was the highest object of thought precisely because no finite predicates, or predicates derived by finite beings, are applicable to the Deity. This claim, however, is not a simple negation or emptiness. It is not the Deity that is negation, but finite beings as such which are emptiness and negation. The Deity is the negation of finite beings, and as such, the negation of the negation, that is, it is the absolute fullness of being. There is an apparent contradiction in Eckhart’s proclamations that God is the absolute being and the denial that He is a being. The contradiction, however, is reconciled in so far as he claimed that while the essential elements of finite beings are in God, they are so only in an exalted degree and thus in a manner that cannot be apprehended by man.

Eckhart also refers to the absolute, unqualified being, as unnatured nature, which manifests itself in the Trinity. The Trinity, therefore, is the self-revelation of the Deity. Eckhart draws a distinction between God and Deity, along the lines of actuality and potentiality. Although such language is not explicitly used by Eckhart, and moreover, he explicitly claimed that God excludes all potentiality, this division nonetheless follows from his conception of God as actus purus.

This self-manifestation of God in the Trinity is followed by His manifestation in His creatures. Although everything true and real in them is of God’s eternal being, God’s eternal being is not manifested in them in Its fullness. In so far as all finite beings are negations, then if God were to withdraw, they would disappear much like a shadow projected onto a wall would, if the wall itself was removed.

The unqualified Deity, Trinity and Creation, Eckhart claimed, were three immediate moments, which followed one another conceptually, but not temporally. Eckhart posited a hierarchy of being, in so much as he claimed that while something of God was even in irrational beings, His divinity resided only in the soul. That is, the soul was the place of God in man, and hence in the soul God is subjective, while in the rest of creation He is merely objective. In the soul, he claimed, was the divine spark. This spark exists eternally in God, but through grace enters into the temporal realm, that is, into the soul.

Perfection, however, was not the result of some primary original unity, but of a return. Man must turn to God in order for the divine spark in him to be truly realized – it is not enough to be His creation, one must also become His son. Christ was not born as the son, but became him, for no reason other than he made a place for God in his soul.

Sin, for Eckhart was not the cause of the incarnation. Sin, instead, is the turning away from God. In turning in the direction of finite being and pleasure one refuses God his place in the finite soul, and as such sins. Redemption, accordingly, is when a finite being makes room in his soul for the work and word of God. To sin or to become the son, forms the polarity of man, with respect to God. When God enters the finite soul he births the son; this is the fulfillment of the soul’s destiny – the soul’s destiny, we can say for Eckhart, is its anatomy.

The place of Christ is in the center of humanity, or perhaps more accurately, it is the end, or pinnacle of humanity. Christ was already in sight when the first man was created, or better put, Christ is what even the first man was to set his sights on. Likewise, after sin, Christ stands in the center of redemption, in so far as he allowed God to fill his soul. Eckhart thought that after the fall, all men worked to produce a man who would restore harmony. This moment was realized in the Virgin Mary, who resigned herself so completely to the divine word, that the eternal word would assume human form in her. God, in the form of the Son, is born in us, not by right of birth, but by merit.

Eckhart’s ethical meditations are of a purity and sublimity rarely encountered in religion’s history. It is not ceremony, reflection, or outward penance, but inner disposition - the disposition of the heart - that takes precedence. Formalities, rituals, knowledge and ceremony were never of more then a limited value, he claimed. Man must turn inwards toward God, and be led by him along his own particular path, for God does not shape idols to be worshiped and imitated, but assigns each his own path to be followed.

Meister Eckhart was a German Theologian, Philosopher and Mystic. (1260 - 1327)