Meister Eckhart: On performing works

In this talk as in most others, Meister Eckhart is astonishingly frank about the content of enlightenment, discussing God’s “gifts” (psychic abilities in Buddhism, mysteries in Catholicism) as if these were everyday matters. What is of especial interest here is that he talks about unspecified dangers awaiting would-be miracle-workers who are untrained: “If an untrained, unpractised man wanted to conduct himself and behave like a trained man, he would destroy himself and nothing would ever come of him.” Possibly the danger to him is in the loss of reputation when he can no longer perform miracles because of pride of self  A person who has announced to the world that he has the ability to heal the sick, for example, isn’t likely to announce his loss of this ability, but will more likely dig himself a deeper hole. The error lies in claiming the deeds for himself: “A man must train himself not to seek his own in anything, but to find and take God in all things.”

The meaning of “the elbow does not bend backwards” is that the so-called psychic abilities fail in the presence of self-will. Jesus’s failure to produce figs on a tree out of season is an example, and his failure to drive the Romans out of Judea and reclaim the Temple is another. For the same reason, I don’t believe that it is possible to cause harm with these abilities, intentionally or unintentionally, because the Vimalakirti Sutra states that that which is good is imperishable and that which is bad is perishable. Hawaiian kahuna sorcerers believe they can harm their enemies at a distance, but this is only because the enemy, also having certain powers, perceives the intended harm and performs the harm to himself. This is sorcery, which is the attainment by hard discipline of a degree of control over matter, but which falls short of complete emancipation (Alexandra David-Neel wrote a great deal about Tibetan sorcery).

There is a danger of regression at every stage short of complete liberation. The Buddha chose to call the stage of non-regression Acala (immovable); however, this teaching was for bodhisattvas. One who is not as highly trained as a bodhisattva can regress into egoity if he or she attempts to become a spiritual leader.

He becomes a monk in all the different creeds of the world
so that thereby he may free others from delusion
and save them from falling into erroneous beliefs. – Vimalakirti Sutra

From “The Talks of Instruction,” translated by M. O’C Walshe

You should be unattached in your works. But for an unpractised man it is an uncommon thing to reach the point where no crowd and no task hinders him—it calls for diligent application—so that God is ever present to him and shines before him completely unveiled, at all times and in all company. Skilful diligence is required for this, and in particular two things. One is that a man has shut himself off well inwardly, so that his mind is on its guard against the images without, that they remain without and do not unfittingly keep company and walk with him, and that they find no resting-place in him. The second is that he should not let himself be caught up by his internal imagery, whether it be in the form of pictures or lofty thoughts, or outward impressions or whatever is present to his mind, nor be distracted nor dissipate himself in their multiplicity. A man should train and bend all his powers to this and keep his inner self present to him.

Now you might say a man must turn outwards if he is to do external works, for no task can be done but according to its own form. That is true. But the externality of form is nothing external for the practised man, for to the inward-turned man all things have an inward divinity. This above all is necessary: that a man should train and practise his mind well and bring it to God, and then he will always have divinity within. Nothing is so proper to the intellect, nor so present and near as God. It never turns in any other direction. It does not turn to creatures unless subjected to violence and injustice, whereby it is quite broken and perverted. If it is thus spoilt in a young person, or whoever it may be, it must be very diligently trained, and it is necessary to do all in one’s power to bring the intellect back and train it. For, however proper and natural God is to it, once it gets turned away and is settled among creatures and caught up in them and accustomed to this state, it becomes so weakened in this part and lacking in self-control, so hindered in its noble striving, that all a man’s efforts are insufficient to draw it back fully. Even though he makes every effort, he requires constant watchfulness.

Above all things a man must see to it that he trains himself strictly and well. If an untrained, unpractised man wanted to conduct himself and behave like a trained man, he would destroy himself and nothing would ever come of him. Once a man has first quite weaned himself of all things and become a stranger to them, then he can faithfully perform all his tasks, and delight in them or leave them alone without hindrance. But whatever a man loves or takes pleasure in and willfully follows, whether it be food or drink or anything else, this cannot be maintained without harm in an untrained man. A man must train himself not to seek his own in anything, but to find and take God in all things. For God does not give, and has never given any gift which a man might take and rest content with it. All the gifts He has ever given in heaven and on earth, He gave that He might find one gift—Himself. With all these gifts He wishes to prepare us for that gift which is Himself; and all the works God ever wrought in heaven or on earth He wrought for the sake of working one work—to hallow Himself that He might hallow us. Therefore I say, in all gifts and in all works we must learn to regard God; we should be satisfied with nothing and stop nowhere. There is no manner of standing still for us in this life, and never has been for any man, however advanced he might be. Above all things, a man must ever be directed towards God’s gifts, and ever anew.

I will speak briefly of one who greatly wished to receive something from our Lord. I said she was not yet ready, and if God gave her the gift while she was unready, it would perish. A question: ‘Why was she not ready? She had a good will, and you say that that can do all things, and it contains all things and all perfection.’ That is true; but there are two different meanings of ‘will’: the one is an accidental and non-essential will [i.e., without ‘essence’], and the other is a decisive will, a creative and a trained will. Of course it is not sufficient for a man’s mind to be detached for one split second, just when he wants to link up with God, but one must have a well-trained detachment before and after. Then one can receive great things from God, and [receive] God in those things. But if one is not ready, the gift is spoilt and God [creative power] with the gift. That is why God cannot always give us things as we ask for them. It is not due to a lack on His part, for He is a thousand times more eager to give to us than we are to receive. But we do Him violence and wrong in hindering His natural work by our unreadiness.

A man must learn to give up self in all gifts, and keep or seek nothing for himself, not profit or enjoyment or inwardness or sweetness or reward or heaven or own-will. Where God finds His own will, there He gives Himself and bestows Himself in it with all that He is. And the more we die to our own, the more truly we come to be in that. Therefore it is not enough for Him that we give up self and all we have and can do just once, but we must constantly renew ourselves and so make ourselves simple and free in all things.

M. O’C. Walshe. Meister Eckhart: Sermons & Treatises Volume III. UK, Element Books Limited, 1987 (pp. 45-48).

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