“What I Have Taught Is The Naked Truth”: Meister Eckhart

“What I Have Taught Is The Naked Truth”: Meister Eckhart

Detachment, buddy, and only detachment. Desirelessness. ‘Cessation from all hankerings’.1

Introduction

Unusually for a scholar of his time, Johannes Eckhart von Hochheim (c. 1260-1328) left a rich patrimony of texts not only in Latin, but also, and principally, in his native language, now known as Middle High German. In large measure we have the nuns he taught to thank for this: they took copious notes during his lessons, allowing the modern reader to catch something of the individuality of his voice. He also taught the young friars in his convent in Erfurt, responding to their questions “as they sat together in evening discussions”2. This article explores and comments on some of Eckhart’s terminology. The Dominican church in Erfurt

The Dominican church in Erfurt

Eckhart and the Beguines

His love of paradox and of metaphor was carried at times to extremes, as in Predigt 83, where he said:

Sprich ich nu:  >got ist gut< – Es ist nit war, mer: Jch bin gut, got ist nit gut! Ich wil me sprechen:  >Jch bin besser danne got!<  […] wan dise dru sint verre von gotte:  >Gut<, >besser<  vnd  >aller best<, wan er ist uber al.3

Now I say: ‘God is good.’ – That is not true, but: I am good, God is not good! I will say of myself: ‘I am better than God!’ […] For these three are far from God: ‘good,’ ‘better,’ and ‘best’, for he is above all.4

Here Eckhart is often said to be thinking in the terms of apophatic theology, which describes God in terms of what he is not, but Eckhart’s argument is that God cannot be defined in human terms, which are reductive: if God is “above all”, he is beyond the limitations of human language. (Eckhart is clearly thinking of God’s words to Moses in Exodus 3:14: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, I am has sent me to you’”.)  Affirmations of this kind, however, were in part responsible for his being accused of heresy by the Archbishop of Cologne, Henry of Virneberg, who may also have been moved by envy of a Dominican whose intellectual stature was indisputably greater than his own: Eckhart was twice called to hold the chair of theology at the University of Paris, “an achievement which he has in common only with the greatest of Dominican theologians, Thomas Aquinas”5. The Archbishop was also hostile to the Beguines, women who made temporary vows and either lived in community – each in her own ‘cottage’, rather on the Carthusian model – or were itinerant and mendicant. Many of these women were under the spiritual guidance of the mendicant Orders, Franciscan and Dominican, and they were in some cases to adopt the regular monastic life of the Dominican contemplative nuns. Some of Eckhart’s audacious imagery seems to be the fruit of a strategy to maintain a sound relationship with these former Beguines by appealing to them in terms with which they were already familiar. There are, in fact, significant similarities between Eckhart’s teaching and the ideas expressed by Beguine mystics, especially Marguerite Porete, a French Beguine who was burned to death for heresy in 1310. Effective teaching of any subject, not only theological or religious formation, not infrequently draws on what is already familiar to the students, so it would not be surprising if Eckhart made use, in his work with the ex-Beguine nuns, of ideas they had already encountered before joining the Order of Preachers.

The Beguinage in Bruges, Belgium

The Beguinage in Bruges, Belgium

Eckhart’s personal lexis: abegescheidenheit and gelâzenheit

Two words in particular recur in Eckhart’s work and demand linguistic analysis: they are abegescheidenheit and gelâzenheit. Eckhart has not always been served well by translators: these words are sometimes treated as synonymous, and both rendered with ‘detachment’; but this hardly does them justice. What, really, do they mean?
Breaking each down into its component parts, we have:

       abe-     ge-      scheiden-      heit
                ge-      lâzen-         heit

The part in bold carries the principal semantic weight; the prefix ge– is also found in Old English, in which it “signif[ies] the attainment of a result by means of an action denoted by the verb”6, while Bruce Mitchell notes. “In verbs, it sometimes has a perfective sense”7. This perfective sense is equally applicable in Middle High German; hence, in Eckhart’s two nouns, the sense of the root element (the verbs scheiden and lâzen) is reinforced by the prefix ge-. The suffix –heit is a cognate of Modern English –hood (e.g. in adulthood, priesthood), with the sense “state, condition”, while the prefix abe– has the sense “off, away from” (cf. Latin ab). Scheiden, whose cognates include French scission, English rescind, schism, schizo- (as in schizophrenia), is “to cut”, and lâzen, with cognates including English let, is “to let go”; interestingly, the second syllables of both release and relax are of the same etymological origin.

These (cut, let go) are far from synonymous, so to translate both abegescheidenheit and gelâzenheit with the same word is evidently misleading; yet both are all too frequently translated ‘detachment’. A glance at synonyms of detachment confirms that it is inappropriate: they include disengagement, indifference, objectivity, disinterestedness, unconcern. Even to call it “radical detachment”, as Richard Woods does8, fails to convey the completeness expressed by the Middle High German terms; and when Woods writes of “Eckhart’s emotional abegescheidenheit or detachment, so akin to the ancient Christian apatheia9, the comparison reinforces the impression of a certain passivity, which is very far from Eckhart’s intention. Oddly, on p. 86 of the same book, Woods notes, literally in parenthesis, that (“The word [abegescheidenheit] literally means ‘cutoffness’”), but fails to examine the implications of this literal meaning. Cutting off is active, even violent, akin to the horticultural act of pruning. Anyone who has witnessed, much less engaged in, pruning knows that it is very inadequately defined as merely “detaching”. Significantly, Jesus himself used the metaphor of pruning, as recorded in the Gospel of John, 15:1-3, 6:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed10 by the word that I have spoken to you. […] Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.11

To muffle or dilute this aspect is to invite, almost to compel, the reader of Eckhart’s Predigt 84 to misinterpret:

Der êrste schrit ist, daz diu vorhte  und diu hoffenunge und diu begerunge in ir wahsent. Ze de andern male sô schrîtet si vort; sô wirt diu vorhte und hoffenunge und begerunge alzemâle abegebrochen. 12

The first step is, that fear and hope and desire grow in her [the soul]. And the second time she steps amiss; thus fear and hope and desire are completely broken off.13

Again, in this case with the verb abegebrochen (clearly cognate with Modern English broken), Eckhart suggests a certain violence, a radicality that mere detachment hardly achieves. Indeed, the use of ‘detached/detachment’ too readily becomes an excuse for half-hearted adherence to the Gospel (‘I have all these material goods, but I regard them with detachment’). What Jesus proposed to the rich young man (Matthew 19:21-22) was not detachment, but total renunciation of his riches:

If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me14.

St Anthony of the Desert is one of the few recorded cases of someone taking Jesus literally; Eckhart was realistic enough not to expect such heroic behaviour of his young brethren, but he clearly asked more of them than an attitude of indifference to worldly goods.

Elsewhere Jesus advises his disciples: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell”, and in almost identical terms: “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into eternal fire”15. It would be odd indeed to propose this as an example of detachment; rather it is amputation, the act of cutting off a part of the body, though the example is clearly to be read as metaphorical. Nonetheless, it is equally clearly an invitation to conversion by means more drastic than mere detachment.

Letting go

More persuasively, though without specific reference to Eckhart, the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, in his Thoughts in Solitude, repeatedly uses the word renounce, and in one case renouncement, where the more usual term would be renunciation. The Oxford English Dictionary makes a subtle distinction between the two:

renunciation:(b) the action of giving up or resigning something naturally attractive
renouncement: the act of renouncing; an instance of this,

whereas the American Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives the identical definition of both: “The act or practice of giving up or rejecting something once enjoyed or desired”. The context in which Merton uses the second of these nouns (renouncement) is interesting:

We begin our renouncement of creatures by standing back from them and looking at them as they are in themselves16.

This does indeed suggest detachment, but Merton makes it clear (“We begin…”) that there is more to follow, and later in the same short book he clarifies:

[W]e may be asked to renounce even the pleasure we take in doing good things in order to make sure that we do them for something more than pleasure17.

Thomas Merton

Here the sense is close to Eckhart’s gelâzenheit. The cognates of the root syllable lâz are significant here: they include French laisser, Italian lasciare, Spanish dejar, Portuguese deixar, English let, and also, as already noted, the second syllable of release and relax. In every case the sense is of a deliberate abandonment (of a place, of a preconception, of a person or animal, of tension), more radical than mere detachment: abandonment to the will of God, which is to be reflected in the dynamic activity of human consciousness. Oliver Davies makes this explicit:

[For Eckhart] ‘mind’ or ‘intellect exists in so far as it is dynamically active. […] [I]n order to locate and explore ‘mind’ in this most dynamic and radical sense, we must look within to the most interior and intimate part of our being18.

Dynamism is never passive, and is here invoked in the interest of “liberation from the images of physical things which serve to restrict the mind and alienate it from its own transcendental possibilities”19. There is some analogy here to the Zen Buddhist principle of detachment, explained on the website studybuddhism.com in the following terms: “We want to give up our ego games because we are determined to be free from all the problems they cause”. This is not to say that Eckhart was, so to speak, an unconscious Buddhist; but there are affinities between his teaching and this central Zen ideal. It is no coincidence that Merton and others have been drawn to both Eckhart and Zen.

A Google Images search for “Letting go” reveals these among other, similar images of upward movement: we let go in order to rise towards God. There is a crucial difference between “letting yourself go” – shedding inhibitions, behaving in a probably undisciplined manner – and “letting go of yourself”, which is what Eckhart suggests. The self and its concerns keep us away from God, through what Timothy Radcliffe OP, in a recent homily20, defined as “the vast gravitational pull of the self”. In 1985, Pope John Paul II quoted these words of the Meister21:

Nû begert got niht mê von dir, wan daz dû dîn selbes ûzgangest in crêatiurlîche wise und lâzest got got in dir sîn22.

God expects nothing more of you, than that you come out of yourself insofar as you are
a created being and let God be God in you23.

Letting go of yourself creates an empty space into which God is forced (the term is Eckhart’s) to come: Aristotle tells us that “Nature abhors a vacuum”, and so, it seems, does God.

In the concluding chapter of his book We Walk the Path Together: Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh24 & Meister Eckhart, Brian Pierce OP reminds us: “The image of the spiritual life as a road that unfolds as we walk is an invitation to live life with a deep trust. We are challenged to let go, to be detached from the obsessive worries that tempt us to spend our energies fretting about the road that lies ahead, searching for security in a future that is not yet real”25. Yet again, the insistence is on letting go, gelâzenheit.

Conclusion

This is by no means an exhaustive exploration of Eckhart the lesemeister und lebemeister master of learning and of life. I have chosen to concentrate on the two terms abegescheidenheit and gelâzenheit in large part because the persistent mistranslation of both as “detachment” is misleading  and impoverishes Eckhart’s teaching. I hope to explore this subject further in a future essay.

The “Eckhart door” of the church in Erfurt


1. J D Salinger, Franny and Zooey, Penguin, Harmondsworth 1964, p.154
2. Oliver Davies (ed.), Meister Eckhart: Selected Writings, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1994, p. 3
3. Meister Eckhart, Predigt 83, in Werke II, Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1993, p.190
4. My translation
5. Ibid., Introduction, p. xiii.
6. Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer, revised by Norman Davis, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1995, p. 40
7. Bruce Mitchell, A Guide to Old English, Basil Blackwell, Alva, Scotland 1968, p. 55
8. Richard Woods, Meister Eckhart, Master of Mystics, Continuum, London 2011, p.23
9. Ibid., p.39
10. A translator’s note in Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (eds), The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2010, adds that “The same Greek root refers to pruning and cleansing”, which is likewise a radical procedure.
11. New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) Bible Translation
12. Meister Eckhart, Predigt 84, in Werke II, cit., p.202
13. My translation
14. Matthew 19:21, NRSV
15. Matthew 5:30; Matthew 18:8, NRSV
16. Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, Shambala Publications, Boston, Massachusetts 1986, p.4
17. Ibid., p.24
18. Oliver Davies, Introduction to Meister Eckhart: Selected Writings, cit., p. xix
19. Ibid., p. xxix
20. Blackfriars, Oxford, 20 August 2020
21. Eckhart has never been officially cleared of the charge of heresy. To be quoted by a Pope would seem to suggest, however, that he is no longer considered a heretic: the Eckhart Society notes that the Vatican “clearly considers that there is no need for any action regarding Eckhart, for he is no longer seen as a ‘problem’.” – eckhartsociety.org
22. Predigt 5B, in in Werke I, Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1993, p.72
23. My translation. In his 3-volume edition of Eckhart’s works, Meister Eckhart: Sermons and Treatises, Element Books, Shaftesbury 1979,  Maurice O’C Walshe offers this version: “Now all God wants of you is for you to go out of yourself in the way of creatureliness and let God be within you”. While “creatureliness” is a more literal translation than mine, the loss of the repetition of “God” in the concluding phrase is unfortunate.
24. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, born in 1928, whose spirituality has much in common with Eckhart’s, and who has always stressed the importance of living in the here and now.
25. Brian J. Pierce OP, We Walk the Path Together: Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh & Meister Eckhart, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY 2005, p.181

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