The following are emails of mine to Joel F. Harrington, author of Dangerous Mystic: Meister Eckhart’s Path to the God Within (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), a book I recently read.
The second email contains my reflections on the book. Realizing that I am praising myself, I think the email shows an earnest attempt on my part to not only show appreciation for the book, but to learn as much as I can from it — in other words, it shows how a book should be read, how I customarily do read; that is, with close attention and a critical eye, and extracting every scrap of meaning and knowledge I can.
— Roger W. Smith
June 20, 2020
Dear Professor Harrington,
I was in the Strand Bookstore in New York City a year or two ago and asked if they had any books on Meister Eckhart.
The clerk said no.
I browsed the shelves in the religion section and found several, including your biography.
A long time ago, when I was new to New York, a coworker who became a lifelong friend [Bill Dalzell] introduced me to Meister Eckhart. My friend, a deep and earnest thinker, was not scholarly per se … he was interested in mysticism along with many other things in art, philosophy, and aesthetics that he introduced me, a recent college graduate, to.
I am an independent scholar and writer. I know good writing when I see it.
I have read only a few pages of your biography so far, but I can tell how well written it is and how worth reading.
I will be in touch with you again when I have finished.
Roger W. Smith
August 19, 2020
Dear Professor Harrington,
This is a follow-up (as I had promised) to a previous email of mine two months ago about your biography of Meister Eckhart, which I finished a few weeks ago. I am finally getting around to writing you.
It is very well written, in my opinion, and combines impressive scholarship with readability. Although I am probably more acquainted with the Middle Ages and medieval thought than most readers, having majored in history and taken excellent courses in medieval history with professors Norman Cantor and Joshua Prawer at Brandeis University, I am no expert — and yet, I would say that you have done a very good job of getting your hands around the subtleties in Eckhart’s thought. They (the subtleties and nuances of his theology) require much effort at explanation, and yet, I believe you would concur, they also have to be intuited.
It is my belief that, in the best writing, the writer has done the homework, so to speak, for the reader. Your Eckhart biography, in my opinion, provides a much needed, synthesis for the reader familiar with but not deeply read in or that well acquainted with Eckhart or his writing.
I thought that Chapter 13 was a brilliant synthesis of writings about Eckhart and his influence over time, and in modern times, and, in general, the book does an admirable job of showing how views and interpretations of Eckhart have shaped and have been shaped by trends and fashions in religions and mysticism. You have shown how Eckhart continues to be influential — indeed, how his influence has grown, yet you avoid the trap of presentism: of trying to give him a “makeover” for later generations. You have made a strenuous effort to understand his writings, theology, and life in the context of and with reference to the actuality of his own life and times.
The analysis of Eckhart’s neologisms on pages 216-217 was very interesting and stimulating for this reader with a rudimentary (very limited) knowledge of German.
Among the many thoughts that occurred to me while reading the book were latter-day concepts such as transcendentalism; specifically, the idea that God is all around us. Are there any similarities to Eckhart here? Ralph Waldo Emerson talks of becoming nothing and seeing all. “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of God.”
On page 239, you speak of a “power … variously named by Eckhart as the divine light of the soul, the head of the soul, the husband of the soul, the guardian of the spirit, the light of the spirit, the imprint of divine nature, a citadel, a tiny drop of intellect, a twig, and, … a little spark.” And, on page 319, you write, “The divine spark within each person, the master teaches, is what links us to one another and to all creation. …” Is Eckhart’s divine light of the soul anything like the Quaker inner light?
I found the following passage on pages 92-93 to be very enlightening:
For the sake of his youthful and inexperienced audience, raised with conventional notions of piety, Eckhart made his point explicit: [God] is little concerned with our works, but only with our state of mind in all our works, that we love Him in all things. The prior’s apparent diminishment of conventional acts of piety should not be misunderstood; it was their perception as bargaining tools with God that he explicitly rejected, not their value as spiritual aids:
Many people think they are performing great works by outward things such as fasting, going barefoot, or other such things which are called penance. But the true and best penance is that whereby one improves greatly and in the highest degree …. This penance is truly a state of mind lifted into God away from all things, and in whatever works you find you can have it most, and have it from those works, do them the more freely; and then, if any outward work should hinder you, whether it be fasting, watching, reading, or whatever else, you can safely leave that alone without worrying about failing in any penance. …
Acts of penitence undertaken without this shift in attitude could in fact have a deleterious effect, drag[ging] down into ever greater sorrow and plung[ing] a man into such distress that he is ready to despair, and then the repentance remains painful and he gets no farther: nothing comes of this.
On page 218, you wrote:
Even with a new and colorful vocabulary, the master’s translation of scholastic thinking into the common idiom was not always successful. What, for instance, would a modestly educated listener have made of this attempt to describe the timeless melding of divine union?
You should wholly sink from your youness and dissolve into his Hisness and your “yours” and his “His” should become so completely one “mine” that with him you understand His uncreated self-identity and His nameless nothingness, …
Viewed in the context of Meister Eckhart’s general teaching and as words on the page, the passage appears somewhat comprehensible; heard in a sermon, the spoken concepts of “youness” and “Hisness” must have been baffling.”
I found the last sentence (“Viewed in the context …”) to be very perceptive, showing a real attempt to place oneself in the context of Eckhart’s place and times.
On page 11, you write:
The spectacular rise and fall of this prescient spiritual teacher carries important ramifications for the perennial debate over religious authority, even today. Church leaders’ concerns during Eckhart’s lifetime that simple people might misunderstand the master’s words and reject all religion may appear at first as mere self-justification for their own authoritarian agenda. Yet as the later Protestant Reformation and subsequent schisms have made clear, the appeal to individual conscience as the ultimate arbiter of spiritual truth invariably leads to ever more interpretations, ever more denominations, ever more religious conflicts.
I could relate to this passage in terms of my own thoughts, experience, and religious upbringing. I was raised a Protestant. I have attained a deep appreciation of Roman Catholicism as well through experiences with Catholics from childhood; my wife and sons are Catholic. Having a knowledge of various Protestant denominations and having had relatives and ancestors belonging to different ones (and having studied history), I have often thought to myself, once the cat was let out of the bag and Protestantism emerged, there was no end to the splintering among different denominations — often over matters of church policy or governance and both large and small doctrinal issues.
On page 209, there is a quote from Eckhart:
[T]here is not one of you who is so coarse-grained, so feeble of understanding, or so remote but he may find this joy within himself, in truth, as it is, with joy and understanding, before you leave this church today, indeed before I have finished preaching: he can find this as truly within him, live it, and possess it, as that God is God and I am a man.
These are, in my opinion, truly remarkable words; and, I am sure you would agree, quite remarkable for a thirteenth or fourteenth century preacher.
On page 220 you wrote: “As always, Eckhart was aggressive in his interpretations of scriptural passages, convinced that any reading conveying an essential truth was a valid reading. This exegetical approach, common among contemporary scholars, gave him considerable thematic flexibility.” I liked the way you put this: “thematic flexibility.”
On page 221 you wrote:
… indisputably Meister Eckhart’s favorite authority–other than Augustine–was Meister Eckhart. Dozens of times he prefaced a remark with I have also said before (and it is a certain and true saying), or sometimes I have said, as I said the day before yesterday in my last sermon, or I said in Paris. Only a preacher of such an elevated scholarly status could get away with such frequent self-invocation. Yet in Eckhart’s defense, his strategy was as much to establish an ongoing dialogue with his individual listeners as to proclaim his own superior knowledge-building on his own authority but also drawing each person in the room into a more intimate relationship. ‘I’ appears several hundred times in Eckhart’s surviving vernacular sermons, but almost always in the explicit or implicit sense of a conversation. Often that dialogue is with the listener, created by Eckhart’s rhetorical use of you. You often ask, for instance, how you ought to live. Now pay close attention. Describing the utter stillness preceding a personal experience of God, Eckhart anticipated his listener’s question: But sir, you ask, where is the silence, and where is the place where the Word is spoken? Again and again, he answered his own questions–not unlike in a scholastic summa–but with the justification that I was once asked, I was recently asked, people say, or similar formulations.
“Sense of a conversation,” Indeed. This is a subtle and rewarding analysis, in my opinion, from which the reader gains insight.
On page 230, I liked your wording in the phrase “his [Eckhart’s] intellectually challenging-some might say impenetrable–way of speaking.
Pages 230-231 contain the following passage:
Not that Meister Eckhart was the first preacher of his day to discuss ways into God. In his own sermons he identified two widely acknowledged methods, which he contrasted with his own “third way.” One [way] is to seek God in all creatures with manifold activity and ardent longing. The most famous recent advocate of this via positiva was St. Bonaventure, like Eckhart a learned theologian and admirer of St. Augustine as well as a mendicant administrator. Bonaventure, though, was a Franciscan who embraced the affective piety of his order’s founder, in which one began by loving the created world and other humans and progressed to loving the Creator Himself. In his Soul’s Journey to God, Bonaventure described–in Latin and chiefly for his fellow Franciscans–six successive levels of illumination, beginning with the apprehension and perception of beauty in nature and fellow humans by the physical senses, followed by intellectual and spiritual contemplation up the ladder of creation, and culminating in an encounter with the divine source of all. This approach appealed to many Christians of the day and was expanded upon in such instructional works as David of Augsburg’s Seven Stages of Prayer and Rudolf of Biberach’s Seven Roads of Eternity. Dante Alighieri was its most famous contemporary proponent and his Divine Comedy the most enduring dramatization of the pathway to God through ever-expanding love.
While never impugning Bonaventure or any of his fellow Franciscans by name, Meister Eckhart rejected seeking God through the external world and senses. The Creator was in all things, he agreed, but He could not be directly encountered in this way. Human will, as he had argued against the Franciscan Gonsalvo in Paris, too readily attached itself to images and intermediaries, preventing genuine access to the divine. Even poverty, the supreme virtue of the Franciscans, could become an idol. Preaching on the feast of St. Francis, Eckhart directly challenged his rival mendicants on this score, arguing, I used sometimes to say (and it is quite true) that whoever truly loves poverty is so desirous of it that he grudges anyone having less than he has. And so it is with all things, whether it is purity, or justice, or whatever virtue he loves, he wants to have to the highest degree. Rather than look to the created world, He who would see God must be blind. Rather than seeking God’s voice in the conversation of men, anyone who wishes to hear God speaking must become deaf and inattentive to others.
This is an example of the many passages in the book that are instructive both on “historical grounds” and as providing intellectual fodder/stimulus and insight to the reader in the here and now.
On page 249, you write: “The spiritual perfection resulting from the divine birth in the soul, according to Eckhart, was not a rejection of human nature but a fulfillment of its true potential.” This sentence seems to hit the mark and to contain a “germinal” insight.
On pages 252-253, the analysis of the Mary and Martha story and how Eckhart interpreted it at various times is fascinating — somewhat difficult to get one’s hands around. I am not sure what I myself would say if asked what I thought.
Love itself has become an irresistible force. The just person no longer has any attachments whatsoever, but rather loves all of creation equally and indiscriminately, in conformance with his or her divine nature. You must love all men equally, respect and regard them equally, and whatever happens to another, whether good or bad, must be the same as if it happened to you.
Words to be taken to heart.
I thought the discussion of Stoic apathy on page 255 was excellent:
In some ways, the just person’s state of equanimity is reminiscent of Stoic apathy–the complete eradication of all emotions from the inner self, robbing pain and misfortune of their ability to distress us. But Eckhart did not seek to eliminate a powerful emotion such as empathy so much as to universalize it. For the just man, love was an overwhelming and unifying force. Certainly the self-knowledge advocated by Stoics had helped prepare him for the divine birth, but it was the divine essence that now filled him that overcame all suffering. The serenity he displayed might look like that of the accomplished Stoic on the surface, but it sprang from the certainty of unity with all fellow humans, not willful separation from them.
On page 302, you write:
The modern rediscovery of Meister Eckhart began chiefly as a response to Enlightenment rationalism. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, many German intellectuals sought a new philosophy that would approach the great truths of human existence with a combination of reason and feeling, or sensibility. … A mystical quest for life’s fulfillment was still possible in the modem world, Novalis averred, but first one had to overcome the legacy of the Enlightenment, which had “branded as heretical all imagination and feeling, placed man with difficulty at the top of the order of natural being, and turned the infinite creative music of the universe into the monotonous clattering of a gigantic mill.”
The “monotonous clattering of a gigantic mill”: what a great metaphor. (I realize it is Novalis’s, not yours.)
Eckhart’s third valuable insight for current spiritual seekers of all varieties involves the consequences of what he calls human divinization. In essence, Eckhart cracked the active/contemplative conundrum of Christianity for laypeople long before Protestant or other modern attempts. Going deep within oneself and reaching out to the world in service were two sides of the same coin for him, not an either/or choice. Without a profound appreciation of what he called the divine unity of existence, good works easily lend themselves to a transactional, commercial way of thinking about salvation. Without participation in the world, the supposedly enlightened person risks slipping into solipsistic selfishness-a state Eckhart compares to a tree that never bears fruit. The just person who has truly experienced the divine birth, the direct intuitive encounter with the unity of existence, does not withdraw from society, free from any obligation toward other human beings. Instead, experiencing God means becoming one with God and thus acting as God does–by which Eckhart means living an active life of love and service without a why, or any thought of justification or compensation. Acts of personal kindness or contributions to social justice are not means to spiritual enlightenment or salvation but natural effects of the inward experience preached by Meister Eckhart (and many other religious figures). Again, the master describes a holistic approach to the good life, where the perceived divisions between the self and the world, between the individual person and others, dissolve.
In my humble opinion, this paragraph exhibits an ability on the author’s (your) part to explicate, go deeper, make things clear; draw out implications. That’s what a reader wants, but does not often get, in scholarly works/exegeses.
The torments you describe medieval religious women undergoing on page 202. were incredible. I can’t think of a better word — what I mean is that they give one a feeling for the strangeness if not weirdness of the times, the intense piety and practices that seem so strange if not disturbing:
…. extreme practices and dramatic successes inspired both wonder and individualistic competition. Most accounts of famous religious women accordingly emphasized that the awe-inspiring feats described should not be attempted by readers. A century earlier, for instance, Christina of Saint-Trond (aka Christina the Astonishing; 1150-1224) had become famous for whirling like a Sufi dervish when in divine ecstasy, then climbing (some witnesses said levitating) up to church rafters, roofs, and nearby trees. The theologian Jacques de Vitry described how the holy woman tried to replicate the torments of the damned in hell by putting herself in ovens, plunging into boiling water (and suffering no visible injuries), having herself lashed to mill wheels and hanged on the gallows, or lying in open graves. In Eckhart’s day, the Premonstratensian nun Christina of Hane died at the age of twenty-three after subjecting her sexual organs to such extreme tortures that even her pious biographer blanched. Another contemporary, Christina of Stommeln (1242-1312), allegedly suffered many years of diabolical torment in response to her own acts of self-mortification, ranging from being physically tom apart at night by demons (and reassembled in the morning by angels) to dodging the flying excrement thrown at her and her visitors by the same evil spirits. …
On page 312, you wrote: “Appropriation of this latest nature is an inherent risk to every public thinker, although Eckhart seems to have endured more than his fair share of diverse interpretations and applications over the years.
I was wondering, was “latest” a typo? Was latent intended?
On page 288, there is the following sentence: “There is no apparent order to the excerpts, which to the contrary often repeat or return to earlier subjects in the list.” Shouldn’t it be on the contrary?
August 21, 2020
Dear Roger (if I may),
Thank you for your very thoughtful (and thorough!) reading, and for all of your generous words. I can’t tell you how much it means to this author to hear from such a careful and perceptive reader. Like you, I find Eckhart occasionally perplexing but still a genuine and honest seeker. I am so grateful that you found my book useful in that respect. And thank you for taking the time to write such a wonderful reflection.
Joel F. Harrington
Centennial Professor of History