Meister Eckhart: Sermon Two

Sermon Two

(Pf 2, Q 102, QT 58 )

(Matthew 2:2)

“Where is he who is born King of the Jews?” Now observe, as regards this birth, where it takes place: “Where is he who is born?” Now I say as I have often said before, that this eternal birth occurs in the soul precisely as it does in eternity, no more and no less, for it is one birth, and this birth occurs in the essence and ground of the soul.

Now certain questions arise.  First of all, since God is in all things as Mind, and is more truly in them than they are in themselves, and more naturally, and since wherever God is He must needs work, knowing Himself and speaking His Word, in what special respects, then, is the soul better suited for this divine operation than are other creations* of Mind, in which God also is?  Pay attention to the explanation.

God is in all things as being, as activity, as power.  But He is procreative in the soul alone, for though every creation is an imprint of God, by nature the soul is patterned after God Himself.  This pattern must be adorned and perfected by divine conception, and no creation but the soul alone is receptive to this [adorning], this birth.  Indeed, such perfection as enters the soul, whether it be divine undivided light, grace or bliss, must needs enter the soul through this birth, and in no other way.  Just await this birth within you and you shall experience all good and all comfort, all happiness, all being and all truth.  If you miss it, you will miss all good and blessedness.  Whatever comes to you by this will bring you pure being and stability; but whatever you seek or cleave to outside of this will perish.  Take it however you will and wherever you will, all will perish.  This alone gives being—all else perishes.  But in this birth you will share in the divine inflowing and all its gifts.  This cannot be received by creatures in which God’s image is not found, for it is the soul that is especially designed for this eternal birth.  Therefore, it happens exclusively in the soul, begotten of the Father in its ground and inmost recess, into which no image ever shone or power peeped.1

The second question is: since this work of birth occurs in the essence and ground of the soul, then it happens just as much in a sinner as in a saint.  Therefore, what grace or good is there in it for me?  For the ground of nature is the same in both—in fact even those in hell retain their nobility of nature eternally.

Now note the answer: it is a property of this birth that it always comes with fresh light.  It always brings a great light to the soul, for it is the nature of good to diffuse itself wherever it is.  In this birth, God streams into the soul in such abundance of light, so flooding the essence and ground of the soul, that it runs over and floods into the powers and into the outward man. . . .  The superfluity of light in the ground of the soul wells over into the body, which is filled with radiance.  No sinner can receive this light, nor is he worthy of it, being full of sin and wickedness, which is called darkness.  Therefore it says, “The darkness shall neither receive nor comprehend the light” (John 1 : 5 ).  That is because the paths by which the light would enter are choked and obstructed with guile and darkness.  For light and darkness cannot co-exist, nor God and creatures: if God is to enter, the creatures must simultaneously go out.  A man is fully aware of this light.  Directly he turns to God, a light begins to gleam and glow within him,2 giving him to understand what to do and what to leave undone, with much true guidance in regard to things of which he knew or understood nothing before.

‘How do you come by this knowledge?’

Just pay attention. Your heart is often moved and turned away from the world. How could that be but by this illumination? It is so charming and delightful that you become weary of all things that are not God or God’s. It draws you to God and you become aware of many a prompting to do good, though ignorant of whence it comes. This inward inclination is in no way due to creatures or their bidding, for what creatures direct or effect always comes from without. But by this work it is only the ground that is stirred, and the freer you keep yourself the more light, truth, and discernment you will find. Thus no man ever went astray for any other reason than that he first departed from this, and then sought too much to cling to outward things. Finally they go out so far that they never get back home or find their way in again; thus they have not found the truth, for truth is within, in the ground, and not without.

So he who would see light to discern all truth, let him focus on and become aware of this birth within, in the ground. Then all his powers will be illuminated, and the outer man as well. For as soon as God inwardly stirs the ground with truth, its light darts into his powers, and that man knows at times more than anyone could teach him. As the prophet says, “I have gained greater understanding than have all who ever taught me.”3 You see then, because this light cannot shine or illuminate in sinners, that is the reason this birth cannot possibly occur in them. This birth cannot coexist with the darkness of sin, even though it takes place not in the powers, but in the essence and ground of the soul.

The question arises: ‘Since God the Father gives birth only in the essence and ground of the soul and not in the powers, what concern is it of theirs? How do they help just by being idle and taking a rest? What is the use, since this birth does not take place in the powers?’ A good question. Listen well to the explanation.

Every creative act works toward some end. That end comes first in the intention but last in the execution [i.e., we begin by envisioning the end product]. Thus, too, God in all His works has a most blessed end in view—namely, Himself.

It is to bring the soul and all her powers into that end, Himself, that all God’s works are wrought. The Father begets His Son in the soul so that all the powers of the soul shall come to this. He waylays everything that the soul contains, inviting all to this feast at His court; but if the soul is scattered among her powers and dissipated in the action of each—the power of sight in the eye, the power of hearing in the ear, the power of tasting in the tongue—then her inward action is enfeebled, for a scattered power is incomplete. So, for her inward work to be effective, she must recall all her powers and gather them in from their dispersion to a single inward activity.

St. Augustine says the soul prefers to be where she loves to be than where she gives life to the body. For example, there was once a pagan master4 who was devoted to an art, that of mathematics, to which he had devoted all his powers. He was sitting by the embers, making calculations and practicing this art, when a man came along who drew a sword and, not knowing that it was the master, said, ‘Quick, tell me your name or I’ll kill you! ‘ The master was too absorbed to see or hear the foe or to catch what he said. He was unable to utter a word, even to say, ‘My name is so-and-so.’ And so the enemy, having cried out several times and got no answer, cut off his head. And this was to acquire a mere natural science! How much more, then, should we withdraw from all things in order to concentrate all our powers on perceiving and knowing the one infinite, uncreated, eternal truth! To this end, then, assemble all your powers, all your senses, your entire mind and memory; direct them into the ground where your treasure lies buried. But if this is to happen, realize that you must drop all other works. You must come to an unknowing if you would find it.

The question arises: ‘Would it not be more valuable for each power to keep to its own task, none hindering the others in their work, nor God in His? Might there not be in me a manner of creaturely knowing that is not a hindrance, just as God knows all things without hindrance, and so too the blessed in heaven?’ That is a good question: note the explanation.

The blessed see God in a single image, and in that image, they discern all things. God, too, sees Himself thus, perceiving all things in Himself. He need not turn from one thing to another, as we do. Suppose in this life we always had a mirror before us, in which we saw all things at a glance and recognized them in a single image; then neither action nor knowledge would be any hindrance to us. But we have to turn from one thing to another, and so we can only attend to one thing at the expense of another. For the soul is so firmly attached to the powers that she has to flow with them wherever they flow, because in every task they perform the soul must be present and attentive, or they could not work at all. If she is dissipated by attending to outward acts, this is bound to weaken her inward work. For at this birth God needs and must have a vacant free and unencumbered soul, containing nothing but Himself alone, and which looks to nothing and nobody but Him. As to this, Christ says, “Whoever loves anything but me, whoever loves father and mother or many other things is not worthy of me. I did not come upon earth to bring peace but a sword, to cut away all things, to part you from sister, brother, mother, child, and friend that in truth are your foes” (Matt. 10 : 34 -36; cf. 19 : 28 ). For whatever is familiar to you is your foe. If your eye wanted to see all things, and your ear to hear all things and your heart to remember all things, then indeed your soul would be dissipated in all these things.

Accordingly a master says: ‘To achieve an interior act a man must collect all his powers as if into a corner of his soul where, hiding away from all images and forms, he can get to work.’ Here, he must come to a forgetting and an unknowing. There must be a stillness and a silence for this Word to make itself heard. We cannot serve this Word better than in stillness and in silence: there we can hear it, and there too we will understand it aright in the unknowing. To him who knows nothing it appears and reveals itself.

Another question arises. You might say, ‘Sir, you place all our salvation in ignorance. That sounds like a lack. God made man to know, as the prophet says: “Lord, make them know!” (Tob. 13:4). Where there is ignorance there is a lack, something is lacking; a man is brutish, an ape, a fool, and remains so long as he is ignorant.’ Ah, but here we must come to a transformed knowledge, and this unknowing must not come from ignorance, but rather from knowing we must get to this unknowing.6 Then we shall become knowing with divine knowing, and our unknowing will be ennobled and adorned with supernatural knowing. And through holding ourselves passive in this we are more perfect than if we were active. . . .

But our bliss lies not in our activity, but in being passive to God.  For just as God is more excellent than creatures, by so much is God’s work more excellent than mine.  It was from His immeasurable love that God set our happiness in suffering (7), for we are acted upon more than we act, and receive incomparably more than we give; and each gift that we receive prepares us to receive yet another gift, indeed a greater one.  Therefore some teachers say that it is in this respect that the soul is commensurate with God, for just as God is boundless in giving, so too the soul is boundless in receiving or conceiving.  And just as God is omnipotent to act, so too the soul is no less deep to suffer (it), and thus she is transformed with God and in God.  God must act and the soul must suffer (it).  He must know and love Himself in her.  She must know with His knowledge and love with His love, and thus she is far more with what is His than with her own, and so, too, her bliss is more dependent on His action than on her own.

The pupils of Dionysius asked him why Timothy surpassed them all in perfection.  Dionysius replied: “Timothy is a God-suffering man.  Whoever is expert at this could surpass all men.”

In this way your unknowing is not a lack but your chief perfection, and your suffering your highest activity. And so in this way you must cast aside all your deeds and silence your faculties, if you really wish to experience this birth in you. If you would find the newborn king, you must go beyond and abandon all else that you might find. That we may go beyond and cast behind us all things unpleasing to the newborn king, may He help us who became a human child in order that we might become the children of God. Amen.

1 . ‘Powers’: human capabilities in thought, perception and action.
2. Cf. Sermon 1 , notes 1 4 and 1 5 .
3. Cf. Eccles. 1 : 1 6 (Q).
4. Archimedes (212 BCE). A Roman soldier found him at his home in Syracuse as he was making geometrical drawings in the dirt, and unsuccessfully attempted to get his attention before killing him.
5 . I.e., those in heaven, not the ‘saints,’ as Miss Evans translates.
6. This is, as Quint points out, the same as the Docta ignorantia of Nicholas
Cusanus ( 1401-64).
7. MHG ‘Iiden’ means both ‘suffering’ (i.e. allowing things to happen) and ‘passivity.’
8. In gate (dative), not, as Miss Evans translates, ‘into God.’

M. O’C. Walshe (1987). Meister Eckhart: Sermons and Treatises Volume I. UK: Element Books Limited (pp. 15-23)

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