Review: Joy Williams on Meister Eckhart

Welcome to Book Post, your subscription-based book review service. This week we bring novelist and short story writer Joy Williams, reflecting on the fourteenth-century German mystic Meister Eckhart. For a counterpoint, have a look at her Ninety-Nine Stories of God, soon to be out in paperback. If you like Book Post, share it with someone who might like it too! They can sign up here:

At one point in Joel Harrington’s calmly dazzling Dangerous Mystic, a study of Meister Eckhart’s thought and influence, the distinction between pantheism and panenthism is noted. Pantheism considers the divine and the universe identical. Panentheism sees the entire material cosmos infused with a transcendental divinity. Now you might have known this all along, but to me, ignorant of the very word panenthism, it was a fresh and lovely articulation that brought a refinement, a vigor, to the belief that the world and all its creatures are holy and partake of the incomprehensible blessing of life that God bestows.

Or as Meister Eckhart said: Every creature is a word of God.

The Dominican scholar and preacher said all manner of marvelous things back in the fourteenth century.  He gave hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sermons, to humble congregations whom he assured more than once not to worry if they could not understand him—he would be just as happy preaching to the alms box. He preached by paradox and simple imagery—the mirror, the fire, the cow. (Some people want to see God with their own eyes as they see a cow and they want to love God as they love a cow … ) He preached in metaphors that, in Harrington’s words “conveyed a sense of dehumanized and unimaginable vastness.” The limitless Godhead, which was beyond even limitless God, was as a wilderness, a desert, an ocean, an abyss. He preached what Is by what is not, the wayless way and the living without a why, a creation-centered rather than a fall/redemption-centered spiritual theology. He preferred an intellectual encounter with God’s being but felt that true knowledge came through revelation and intuition. Very much the devout medieval churchman he would still say: Whoever seeks God in a special way gets the way and misses God who lies hidden in it. It’s quite likely that with the clerics of his time he would discuss the attributes of angels (how do they speak exactly, do they have mouths …) but sidestepped absurdity with the elegant The highest angel, the mind, and the gnat have an equal model in God. He preached a via negativa as essential to the via positiva resulting in the via creativa, an awakening, a rebirth, a breakthrough. He preached compassion: Grasp God in all things, for God is in all things, the pre-existence of wisdom and the divinization of the soul. Though we are as small compared to God as a drop of water is compared to a vast sea, the drop changes into the sea, and not the sea into the drop. This is also how it happens to the soul. When God draws the soul to himself, then the soul becomes divine, but God does not become the soul.

Eckhart was profoundly knowledgeable of Scripture but his rejection of petitionary prayer and disinterest in external acts of piety troubled Church authorities. They disapproved of his benign attitude toward the Beguines—the all-women communes who lived lives of simplicity and contemplation without Church oversight. They weren’t crazy about his concept of the Eternal Now either or the dream he mentioned about a man becoming pregnant with Nothing like a woman with a child, and in that Nothing God was born. Eckhart was accused of heresy, no trivial matter certainly. Marguerite of Porete had recently been burned at the stake for the heretical views expressed in her little book The Mirror of Simple Souls. These were grim times—the Great Famine had been leisurely ravaging Germany for years, the weather was catastrophic, and society was unraveling. The Church was doubling down on dogma. The Meister was accused. After the initial disbelief, indignation, and artful defense, Eckhart rather ignominiously caved, vowing to recant any and all of his “erroneous” statements. Nonetheless it was determined that the Inquisition would continue and Eckhart travelled to Avignon to make his appeal to the Pope—John XXII. He died while the appeal was in process, much like one of Kafka’s supplicants. Eventually the Pope decided not to condemn Eckhart though he did fault him for “wishing to know more than he should.”

Meister Eckhart was ignored for centuries, but he has been rediscovered in our time by, well, practically everyone, particularly the annoying I’m spiritual but not religiouscrowd who simply do not address the deeply Christian foundation of his thought. He certainly did not preach self-fulfillment or a passive engagement with this world in the hope of encountering the glories of the next. His way was holistic, assuming the possibility of a journey in which the lost feelings of wonder, interconnectedness, and compassion could be found. His insistence that we are all creative and spiritually striving souls prepared by this very God-given creativity to “break through” and become essential rather than accidental figures is deeply engaging, as are his poetic assurances, his fulsome negations, and the riverine beauty of his arguments.

Joel Harrington, a scholar and professor of history at Vanderbilt, has produced a serene, intelligent, appropriately ambitious yet accessible work on one of history’s most mysterious theologian mystics.

Joy Williams is the author of four novels and five books of short stories, most recently The Visiting Privilege. Her Ninety-Nine Stories of Godwhich were first published digitally, will be out in paperback in a couple of weeks. She has also published a book of essays, Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, and Laramie, Wyoming.

Book Post is in the midst of our Summer Vacation! We’re offering all our posts on the house to people who sign up here through September 10. Starting September 10 paying subscribers will receive two two top-notch little book reviews a week, direct to their in boxes (plus a free reflection or two available to non-paying subscribers and visitors to our site). If you order your annual subscription now, before September 10, you can get it at the bargain-basement pre-launch rate of a $30! Read more about it here:

Boulder Book Store in Boulder, Colorado, is currently Book Post’s featured bookstore.  We support independent bookselling by linking to bookstores and bringing you news of local book life as it happens in their aisles.

Follow us: FacebookTwitterInstagram

If you liked this piece, please share and tell the author with a “like”

Plaque from a Reliquary Shrine, ca. 1200, Germany. Metropolitan Museum of Art