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Meister Eckhart Complete Works

SERMON ONE (Pf 1, Q 1 0 1 , QT 57)


Here, in time, we are celebrating the eternal birth which God the Father bore and bears unceasingly in eternity, because this same birth is now born in time, in human nature.

St. Augustine says, ‘What does it avail me that this birth is always happening, if it does not happen in me?

That it should happen in me is what matters.’

We shall therefore speak of this birth, of how it may take place in us and be consummated in the virtuous soul, whenever God the Father speaks His eternal Word in the perfect soul.

For what I say here is to be understood of the good and perfected man who has walked and is still walking in the ways of God; not of the natural, undisciplined man, for he is entirely remote from, and totally ignorant of this birth.

There is a saying of the wise man, “When all things lay in the midst of silence, then there descended down into me from on high, from the royal throne, a secret word.”

This sermon is about that Word.

Three things are to be noted here.

The first is, where in the soul God the Father speaks His Word, where this birth takes place and where she is receptive of this act, for that can only be in the very purest, loftiest, subtlest part that the soul is capable of.

In very truth, if God the Father in His omnipotence could endow the soul with anything more noble, and if the soul could have received from Him anything nobler, then the Father would have had to delay the birth for the coming of this greater excellence.

Therefore the soul in which this birth is to take place must keep absolutely pure and must live in noble fashion, quite collected and turned entirely inward, not running out through the five senses into the multiplicity of creatures, but all

in turned and collected and in the purest part -there is His place; He disdains anything less.

The second part of this sermon has to do with man’s conduct in relation to this act, to God’s speaking of this Word within, to this birth: whether it is more profitable for man to co-operate with it, so that it may come to pass in him through his own exertion and merit by a man’s creating in himself a mental image in his thoughts and disciplining himself that way by reflecting that God is wise, omnipotent, eternal, or whatever else he can imagine about God – whether this is more profitable and conducive to this birth from the Father; or whether one should shun and free oneself from all thoughts, words, and deeds and from all images created by the understanding, maintaining a wholly God-receptive attitude, such that one’s own self is idle, letting God work within one.

Which conduct conduces best to this birth?

The third point is the profit, and how great it is, which accrues from this birth.

Note in the first place that in what I am about to say I shall make use of natural proofs, so that you yourselves can grasp that it is so, for though I put more faith in the scriptures than in myself, yet it is easier and better for you to learn by means of arguments that can be verified.

First we will take the words, ‘In the midst of silence there was spoken within me a secret word.’ – ‘But sir where is the silence, and where is the place where the word is spoken?’ – As I said just now, it is in the purest thing that the soul is capable of, in the noblest part, the ground8 – indeed, in the very essence of the soul which is the soul’s most secret part.

There is the silent ‘middle,’ for no creature ever entered there and no image, nor has the soul there either activity or understanding; therefore she is not aware there of any image, whether of herself or of any other creature.

Whatever the soul effects, she effects with her powers.

What she understands, she understands with the intellect.

What she remembers, she does with memory; if she would love, she does that with the will, and thus she works with her powers and not with her essence.

Every external act is linked with some means.

The power of sight works only through the eyes; otherwise it can neither employ nor bestow vision, and so it is with all the other senses.

The soul’s every external act is effected by some means.

But in the soul’s essence there is no activity, for the powers she works with emanate from the ground of being.

Yet in that ground is the silent ‘middle’: here nothing but rest and celebration for this birth, this act, that God the Father may speak His word there, for this part is by nature receptive to nothing save only the divine essence, without mediation.

Here God enters the soul with His all, not merely with a part. God enters here the ground of the soul.

None can touch the ground of the soul but God alone.

No creature can enter the soul’s ground, but must stop outside, in the ‘powers.’ Within, the soul sees clearly the image whereby the creature has been drawn in and taken lodging.

For whenever the powers of the soul make contact with a creature, they set to work and make an image and likeness of the creature, which they absorb.

That is how they know the creature.

No creature can come closer to the soul than this, and the soul never approaches a creature without having first voluntarily taken an image of it into herself.

Through this presented image, the soul approaches creatures – an image being something that the soul makes of (external) objects with her own powers.

Whether it is a stone, a horse, a man, or anything else that she wants to know, she gets out the image of it that she has already taken in, and is thus enabled to unite herself with it.

But for a man to receive an image in this way, it must of necessity enter from without through the senses.

In consequence, there is nothing so unknown to the soul as herself.

Accordingly, one master says that the soul can neither create nor obtain an image of herself.

Therefore she has no way of knowing herself, for images all enter through the senses, and hence she can have no image of herself.

And so she knows all other things, but not herself.

Of nothing does she know so little as of herself, for want of mediation.

And you must know too that inwardly the soul is free and void of all means and all images – which is why God can freely unite with her without form or likeness.

Whatever power you ascribe to any master, you cannot but ascribe that power to God without limit.

The more skilled and powerful the master, the more immediately is his work effected, and the simpler it is.

Man requires many means for his external works; much preparation of the material is needed before he can produce them as he has imagined them.

But the sun in its sovereign mastery performs its task (which is to give light) very swiftly: the instant its radiance is poured forth, the ends of the earth are full of light. More exalted is the angel, who needs still less means for his work and has fewer images.

The highest Seraph has but a single image: he seizes as a unity all that his inferiors regard as manifold.

But God needs no image and has no image: without any means, likeness, or image God operates in the soul – right in the ground where no image ever got in, but only

He Himself with His own being.

This nocreature can do.

‘How does God the Father give birth to His Son in the soul – like creatures, in images and likenesses?’

No, by my faith, but just as He gives birth to him in eternity – no more, no less.

‘Well, but how does He give birth to him then?’

Now see: God the Father has a perfect insight into Himself, profound and thorough knowledge of Himself by Himself, and not through any image.

And thus God the Father gives birth to His Son in the true unity of the divine nature.

See, it is like this and in no other way that God the Father gives birth to the Son in the ground and essence of the soul, and thus unites Himself with her.

For if any image were present there would be no real union, and in that real union lies the soul’s whole beatitude.

Now, you might say, there is by nature nothing in the soul but images. Not at all!

If that were so, the soul could never become blessed, for God cannot make any creature from which you can receive perfect blessedness – otherwise God would not be the highest blessing and the final goal, whereas it is His nature to be this, and it is His will to be the alpha and omega of all things.

No creature can constitute your blessedness, nor can it be your perfection here on earth, for the perfection of this life – which is the sum of all the virtues – is followed by the perfection of the life to come.

Therefore you have to be and dwell in the essence and in the ground, and there God will touch you with His simple essence without the intervention of any image.

No image represents and signifies itself: it always aims and points to that of which it is the image.

And, since you have no image but of what is outside yourself (which is drawn in through the senses and continually points to that of which it is the image), therefore it is impossible for you to be beatified by any image whatsoever.

And therefore there must be a silence and a stillness, and the Father must speak in that, and give birth to His Son, and perform His works free from all images.

The second point is, what must a man contribute by his own actions, in order to procure and deserve the occurrence and the consummation of this birth in himself?

Is it better to do something toward this, to imagine and think about God? – or should he keep still and silent in peace and quiet and let God speak and work in him, merely waiting for God to act?

Now I say, as I said before, that these words and this act are only for the good and perfected people, who have so absorbed and assimilated the essence of all virtues that these virtues emanate from them naturally, without their seeking; and above all there must dwell in them the worthy life and lofty teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ.

They must know that the very best and noblest attainment in this life is to be silent and let God work and speak within.

When the powers have been completely withdrawn from all their works and images, then the Word is spoken.

Therefore he said, ‘In the midst of the silence the secret word was spoken unto me.’

And so, the more completely you are able to draw in your powers to a unity and forget all those things and their images which you have absorbed, and the further you can get from creatures and their images, the nearer you are to this and the readier to receive it.

If only you could suddenly be unaware of all things, then you could pass into an oblivion of your own body as St. Paul did, when he said, “Whether in the body I cannot tell, or out of the body I cannot tell;
God knows it” (2 Cor.12:2).

In this case the spirit had so entirely absorbed the powers that it had forgotten the body: memory no longer functioned, nor understanding, nor the senses, nor the powers that should function so as to govern and grace the body; vital warmth and body-heat were suspended, so that the body did not waste during the three days when he neither ate nor drank.

Thus too Moses fared, when he fasted for forty days on the mountain and was none the worse for it, for on the last day he was as strong as on the first.

In this way a man should flee his senses, turn his powers inward and sink into an oblivion of all things and himself.

Concerning this a master addressed the soul thus: ‘Withdraw from the unrest of external activities, then flee away and hide from the turmoil of inward thoughts, for they but create discord.’ And so, if God is to speak His Word in the soul, she must be at rest and at peace, and then He will speak His Word, and Himself, in the soul – no image, but Himself!

Dionysius says, ‘God has no image or likeness of Himself, for He is intrinsically all goodness, truth and being.’ God performs all His works, whether within Himself or outside of Himself, in a flash.

Do not imagine that God, when He made heaven and earth and all things, made one thing one day and another the next. Moses describes it like that, but he really knew better: he did so for the sake of people who could not conceive or grasp it any other way.

All God did was this: He willed, He spoke, and they were!

God works without means and without images, and the freer you are from images, the more receptive you are for His inward working, and the more introverted and self-forgetful, the nearer you are to this.

Dionysius exhorted his pupil Timothy in this sense saying, ‘Dear son Timothy, do you with untroubled mind soar above yourself and all your powers, above ratiocination and reasoning, above works, above all modes and existence, into the secret still darkness, that you may come to the knowledge of the unknown super-divine God.’

There must be a withdrawal from all things.

God scorns to work through images.

Now you might say, ‘What does God do without images in the ground and essence?’

That I cannot know, because my soul-powers receive only in images; they have to know and lay hold of each thing in its appropriate image.

They cannot recognize a horse when presented with the image of a man; and since all things enter from without, that knowledge is hidden from my soul – which is to her great advantage.

This not-knowing makes her wonder and leads her to eager pursuit, for she perceives clearly that it is, but does not know how or what it is.

Whenever a man knows the causes of things, then he at once tires of them and seeks to know something different.

Always clamoring to know things, is forever inconstant.

And so this unknown-knowing keeps the soul constant and yet spurs her on to pursuit.

About this, the wise man said, “In the middle of the night when all things were in a quiet silence, there was spoken to me a hidden word.

It came like a thief by stealth” (Wisd. 18:14-15).

Why does he call it a word, when it was hidden ?

The nature of a word is to reveal what is hidden. It revealed itself to me and shone forth before me, declaring something to me and making God known to me, and therefore it is called a Word.

Yet what it was, remained hidden from me.

That was its stealthy coming in a whispering stillness to reveal itself.

See, just because it is hidden one must and should always pursue it.

It shone forth and yet was hidden: we are meant to yearn and sigh for it.

St. Paul exhorts us to pursue this until we espy it, and not to stop until we grasp it.

After he had been caught up into the third heaven where God was made known to him and he beheld all things, when he returned he had forgotten nothing, but it was so deep down in his ground that his intellect could not reach it; it was veiled from him.

He therefore had to pursue it and search for it in himself and not outside.

It is all within, not outside, but wholly within.

And knowing this full well, he said, ‘For I am persuaded that neither death nor any affliction can separate me from what I find within me” (Rom. 8:38-39 ) .

There i s a fine saying o f one pagan master to another about this.

He said, ‘I am aware of something in me which shines in my understanding; I can clearly perceive that it is something, but what it may be I cannot grasp.

Yet I think if I could only seize it I should know all truth.’

To which the other master replied, ‘Follow it boldly! For if you could seize it you would possess the sum total of all good and have eternal life ! ‘

St. Augustine1 5 spoke in the same sense: ‘I am aware of something within me that gleams and flashes before my soul; were this perfected and fully established in me, that would surely be eternal life ! ‘

It hides, yet shows itself; it comes, but like a thief with intent to take and steal all things from the soul.

But by emerging and showing itself a little it aims to lure the soul and draw her toward itself, to rob her and deprive her of herself.

About this, the prophet says, ‘Lord, take from them their spirit and give them instead thy spirit’ (Ps. 103:29-30).

This too was meant by the loving soul when she said, ”

My soul dissolved and melted away when Love spoke his word” (Song 5:6) .

When he entered, I had to fall away. And Christ meant this by his words, “Whoever abandons anything for my sake shall be repaid a hundredfold, and whoever would possess me must deny himself and all things, and whoever will serve me must follow me and not go any more after his own ” (Mark 10:29, etc.)

But now you might say, ‘But, good sir, you want to change the natural course of the soul and go against her nature!

It is her nature to take things in through the senses in images.

Would you upset this ordering?


But how do you know what nobility God has bestowed on human nature, not yet fully described, and still unrevealed ?

For those who have written of the soul’s nobility have gone no further than their natural intelligence could carry them; they had never entered her ground, so that much remained obscure and unknown to them.

So the prophet said, “I will sit in silence and hearken to what God speaks within me” (Ps.84:9).

Because it is so secret, this Word came in the night and in darkness. St. John says, “The light shone in the darkness, it came into its own, and as many as received it became in authority sons of God; to them was given power to become God’s sons” (John 1:5, 11-12).

Now observe the use and the fruit of this secret Word and this darkness.

The Son of the heavenly Father is not born alone in this darkness, which is his own: you too can be born a child of the same heavenly Father and of none other, and to you too He will give power.

Now observe how great the use is! For all the truth learned by all the masters by their own intellect and understanding, or ever to be learned till Doomsday, they never had the slightest inkling of this knowledge and this ground.

Though it may be called a nescience, an unknowing, yet there is in it more than in all knowing and understanding without it, for this unknowing lures and attracts you from all understood things, and from yourself as well.

This is what Christ meant when he said, “Whoever will not deny himself and will not leave his father and mother, and is not estranged from all these, is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37), as though he were to say, he who does not abandon creaturely externals can be neither conceived nor born in this divine birth. But divesting yourself of yourself and of everything external does truly give it to you.

And in very truth I believe, nay, I am sure, that the man who is established in this cannot in any way ever be separated from God. I say he can in no way lapse into mortal sin.

He would rather suffer the most shameful death, as the saints have done before him, than commit the least of mortal sins.

I say such people cannot willingly commit or consent to even a venial sin in themselves or in others if they can stop it.

So strongly are they lured and drawn and accustomed to that, that they can never turn to any other way; to this way are directed all their senses, all their powers.

May the God who has been born again as man assist us to this birth, eternally helping us, weak men, to be born in him again as God. Amen. ~Meister Eckhart; The Complete Mystical Works; Pages 29-37