Meister Eckhart

Meister Eckhart is a frequently-quoted German medieval theologian and mystic. He is popular in new-age environments and among spiritual seekers, but some of his statements can be interpreted as pantheistic, and therefore the Catholic Church always had some problems with him.

His Life

The following biographaphy is quoted from the Eckhart Society Webpage:

“While there is no evidence as to the exact date of Meister Eckhart’s birth, scholars generally agree that he was born around 1260, in or near Erfurt which lies midway between Munich and Hamburg and north-east of Frankfurt, probably in a village called Tambach. He is thought to have entered the Dominican Priory in Erfurt as a novice when he was fifteen years old.

The first definite date of his life is 18 April 1294 when he preached the Easter Sermon at the church of St Jacques in Paris. The manuscript of this sermon describes him as Lector Sententiarum or ‘Reader of the Sentences’ which are those of Peter Lombard. When students had completed their studies in the Arts they were required to lecture on these Sentences,which formed a standard theological textbook. This suggests that Eckhart had been in Paris for several years before this; 1286 has been suggested as the year of his arrival in the city.

Late in 1294 he was called back to be Prior of Erfurt and Vicar of Thuringia (the local representative of the Provincial). After 1298 it was no longer possible for one person to hold both posts and it is not clear whether Eckhart held on to one or other of these posts.

In 1302 he returned to Paris as Magister actu regens (professor with a teaching commitment). It is now thought that he began to write, in Latin, his major tripartite work during this, his second stay in Paris and not during his third stay. A year later, in 1303, he was called back to be the first Provincial of the new province of Saxonia (which included Erfurt), that had been carved out of the old, and much larger, province of Teutonia. He held this post until 1311 when he was sent back to Paris again.

In 1313 he was posted to Strasburg as a special vicar for the Master of the Dominican Order. While there he appears to have spent a major part of his time giving spiritual counsel to convents of Dominican nuns and some houses of Beguines. A large number of his German sermons were given in Strasburg.

In 1323 he moved to Cologne. It seems likely he taught theology to the young friars in the Dominican Studium. It was here that he came in contact with Johannes Tauler and Heinrich Suso.

In 1326 he was called before the Inquisition by the Franciscan Archbishop of Cologne, Henry of Virneburg, who was one of the seven Imperial Electors able to elect the German king, which was a preliminary stage in the king becoming the Holy Roman Emperor. It is not clear why the Archbishop proceeded against Eckhart, but it is known he was very conservative and may have found some of Eckhart’s ideas troublesome. Further, at this time the feud between the Franciscans and the Dominicans was at its height.

Eckhart objected to being tried by the Archbishop’s court and appealed to the Pope to judge his case. When this was granted he walked the 500 miles to Avignon.

Eckhart died in Avignon in 1327 while participating in the Papal inquiry into his writings and teachings.

He left behind a considerable body of writing. The majority of his serious theological writing was in Latin, but many of his sermons and such shorter works as The Talks of Instruction were in German.

Eckhart was never himself condemned as a heretic. Twenty eight of his articles out of a total of 108, which were objected to by the Inquisitors in Cologne, were condemned by Pope John XXII who was himself later condemned as a heretic.”

Quotes by Meister Eckhart

(From: Meister Eckhart: Selected Writings. Trans. Oliver Davies. New York: Penguin Books USA, Inc., 1994.)

  • “Whoever possesses God in their being, has him in a divine manner, and he shines out to them in all things; for them all things taste of God and in all things it is God’s image that they see.”
  • “People should not worry as much about what they do but rather about what they are. If they and their ways are good, then their deeds are radiant. If you are righteous, then what you do will also be righteous. We should not think that holiness is based on what we do but rather on what we are, for it is not our works which sanctify us but we who sanctify our works.”
  • “It is a fair trade and an equal exchange: to the extent that you depart from things, thus far, no more and no less, God enters into you with all that is his, as far as you have stripped yourself of yourself in all things. It is here that you should begin, whatever the cost, for it is here that you will find true peace, and nowhere else.”
  • If I say that “God is good”, this is not true. I am good, but God is not good! In fact, I would rather say that I am better than God, for what is good can become better and what can become better can become the best! Now God is not good, and so he cannot become better. Since he cannot become better, he cannot become the best. These three are far from God: “good”, “better”, “best”, for he is wholly transcendent. If I say again that “God is wise”, then this too is not true. I am wiser than he is! Or if I say that “God exists”, this is also not true. He is being beyond being: he is a nothingness beyond being. Therefore St. Augustine says: “The finest thing that we can say of God is to be silent concerning him from the wisdom of inner riches.” Be silent therefore, and do not chatter about God, for by chattering about him, you tell lies and commit a sin. If you wish to be perfect and without sin, then do not prattle about God. Also you should not wish to understand anything about God, for God is beyond all understanding. A master says: If I had a God that I could understand, I would not regard him as God. If you understand anything about him, then he is not in it, and by understanding something of him, you fall into ignorance… (pp. 236-7)
  • You should know (God) without image, unmediated and without likeness. But if I am to know God without mediation in such a way, then “I” must become “he”, and “he” must become “I”. More precisely I say: God must become me and I must become God, so entirely one that “he” and this “I” become one “is” and act in this “isness” as one, for this “he” and this “I”, that is God and the soul, are very fruitful. (p. 238)
  • If every medium were removed between myself and a wall, then I would be at the wall but not in it. But this is not the case with spiritual things, for with them one thing is always in another. That which receives is the same as that which is received, for it receives nothing other than itself. This is difficult. Whoever understand it has been preached to enough. (p. 192)

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