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Eulogy for Meister Eckhart

What is it to me if someone does not understand this?

Those who do not understand will never be remembered.

In the Papal Bull "In agro dominico" (March 27, 1329) given in Avignon, Meister Eckhart was deemed a heretic on seventeen articles or statements by the brother collected from his books, responses, commentaries and various sermons. It was also judged that he had eleven more statements that were "evil sounding and very rash and suspect of heresy." These supposed heretical teachings came from a doctor of sacred theology, a professor, a proficient writer and a popular preacher.

These also came from a man who is now remembered as a mystic and philosopher, the father of German speculation (Joseph Bach), the reconciler of faith and science (Hegel), and the founder of transcendental idealism (Schopenhauer), and the old master to live by and to read (Heidegger).

What was so controversial about the then little-known preacher of nuns? What did he see that others were not able to understand?

Going through his texts is like trying to know the position and speed of an electron at the same time: he is elusive and most likely you will miss him. The initial difficulty is that he wrote and preached both in the customary Latin of his time and--what was novel about him--he also used the vernacular Middle High German. His choice of the vernacular was unprecedented at that time; no doctor or preacher simply did that in Germany. And the importance of this choice would also determine his fate; for it was in his German writings that Eckhart was daring, bold and in his element. In short, since he did not use Latin, it was in the vernacular which got him in trouble.

Language aside, Eckhart was as speculative as his brother Thomas Aquinas. It is interesting that Eckhart, in his defense, notes that the Doctor of the Church himself was suspect of heresy, as was Brother Albert the Great. But Eckhart would not share the same fate with the saint; while Thomas would later be understood and his writings be given approval by the Supreme Pontiff and the Roman Curia, Eckhart was to face death for the stain of heresy.

The sentences read in the Bull are telling:
We are indeed sad to report that in these days someone by the name of Eckhart from Germany, a doctor of sacred theology (as is said) and a professor of the order of Preachers, wished to know more than he should, and not in accordance with the sobriety and the measure of faith, because he turned his ear from the truth and followed fables. The man was led astray by that Father of Lies who often turns himself into an angel of light in order to replace the light of truth with a dark and gloomy cloud of the senses, and he sowed thorns and obstacles contrary to the very clear truth of faith in the field of the Church and worked to produce harmful thistles and poisonous thornbushes.

If this is not a gruesome murder and outright betrayal of someone who had no stain of evil in his heart, I no longer know what could be worse. Perhaps, only a Julius Caesar stabbed incessantly by the senators with the final blow delivered by his "son" Brutus could be equal to this.

For not only was he robbed of the right to live but he was also robbed of his dignity as a doctor of sacred theology--"as is said"; much worse, he was also robbed of his being a philosopher "because he wished to learn more than he should." And the final blow--the deepest cut of all--was the verdict that he was aligned with the Devil, that "he was led astray by the Father of Lies." His followers earlier referred to him as the "man from whom God hid nothing."

In his defense, Eckhart stood by his statements like a Galileo who, after being called a heretic as well, accepted the charge but still said "Epurr si muove"--"And yet it moves." But as any philosopher should profess, he also admitted that he does not know everything. He quotes Jerome who said, "Small talents will not support great matters, and in attempting something beyond their powers they will fail." But he then adds, "I can be in error, but I cannot be a heretic, because the first belongs to the intellect, the second to the will."

But he put up a good fight, was valiant in his last stand, was graceful in his swan song. He answered the charges one by one, under the conviction that "I still claim that truths are touched upon in some [of his statements] that can be upheld by true and sound understanding." He goes on to say what Bede says in a homily that "there is no false teaching that does not have some truth mixed in with it." Broken and bloodied, betrayed and beaten, he still preached in his defense, like in Socrates' apologia and before he would drink the hemlock among his band of weeping followers. Yet it was to no use as he was already judged before he could speak, he was already killed before he would later die.

On his deathbed, as the Bull reported, Eckhart was said to have "professed the Catholic faith at the end of his life and revoked and also deplored the twenty-six articles. . . insofar as they could generate in the minds of the faithful a heretical opinion, or one erroneous to the true faith." But historians say that there was no record of the preacher accepting the verdict that he was a heretic --he only revoked what he said because people might not be able to understand his writings, and may thus be led astray themselves. Eckhart was sure and as unyielding as he can be before he breathed his last.

At the beginning of his defense, instead of arguing, he says gives the following lines:
Indeed, if I were less known among the people and less eager for justice, I am sure that such attempts [to discredit him] would not have been made against me by envious people. But I ought to bear them patiently, because "Blessed are those who suffer for justice's sake" (Mt. 5:10), and according to Paul, "God scourges every son he receives" (Heb. 12:6), so that I can deservedly say with the Psalm, "I have been made ready in scourges" (Ps. 37:18).

Surely, these quotations from the Bible would not have helped his case but would only aggravate the preconceived judgment that he was no mystic but another madman.

To end this eulogy, I cite my favorite line from Meister Eckhart from his sermon "Blessed are the poor"
Whoever does not understand what I have said, let him not burden his heart with it, for as long as man is not equal to this truth, he will not understand these words, for this is a truth beyond speculation that has come immediately from the heart of God.


  1. Anonymous10/31/2007

    “As they know themselves to dwell in the world of time and yet to be capable of transcending it, so the Ultimate Reality, they think, inhabts yet inconceivably exceeds all that they know to be — as the soul of the musician controls and exceeds not merely each note of the flowing melody, but also the whole of the symphony in which these cadences must play their part.”

    Evelyn Underhill as quoted by John Titor
    San Fransisco, 1967.

  2. for ray and my nameless friend, thank you both. the quote, by the way, is very nice and i shall write it down. thanks again.


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