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Meister Eckart – The Complete Mystical Works
SERMON THREE l (Pf 3, Q 1 04 ) IN HIS QUAE PATRIS MEl SUNT, OPORTET ME ESSE (Luke 2 : 49)
” I must be about my Father’s business.”
This text is most appropriate to what we have to say concerning the eternal birth which took place in time2 and still happens daily in the innermost part of the soul, in her ground, remote from all adventitious events.3
In order to become aware of this interior birth it is above all necessary for a man to be concerned with his Father’s business.
What are the Father’s attributes?
Power is ascribed to Him more than to the other two Persons.
And so, none assuredly can experience or approach this birth without a mighty effort.
A man cannot attain to this birth except by withdrawing his senses from all things.
And that requires a mighty effort to drive back the powers of the soul and inhibit their functioning.
This must be done with force; without force it cannot be done.4
As Christ said, “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt. 11:12 ) .
A question arises about this birth of which we have spoken: Does it happen continuously, or at intervals, when a man applies himself to it and exerts himself with all his might to forget all things and be conscious in this alone?
Now note the explanation.
Man has an active
intellect, a passive intellect, and a potential intellect.5
The active intellect is ever ready to act, whether it be in God or in creatures, for it exerts itself rationally in creatures in the way of ordering the creatures, and bringing them back to their source, or in raising itself, to the honor and glory of God.
All that is in its power and its domain, and hence its name active.
But when God undertakes the work, the mind must remain passive.
But potential intellect pays regard to both, to the activity of God and the passivity of the soul, so that this may be achieved as far as possible.
In the one case there is activity, where the mind does the work itself; in the other case there is passivity, when God undertakes the work, and then the mind should, nay, must, remain still and let God act.
Now before this is begun by the mind and completed by God, the mind has a prevision of it, a potential knowledge that it can come to be thus.
This is the meaning of ‘potential intellect, though often it is neglected and never comes to fruition.
But when the mind strives with all its might and with real sincerity, then God takes charge of the mind and its work, and then the mind sees and experiences6 God.
But since this enduring and vision of God places an intolerable strain on the mind while in this body, God accordingly withdraws at times from the mind, and that is why he said, “A little while you shall see me, and again a little while you shall not see me” (cf. John 16:16).
When our Lord took his three disciples with him up the mountain and had shown them privately the illumination of his body which he had through union with the Godhead, and which we too shall have at the resurrection of the body, St. Peter at once, on seeing it, wished to remain there always.
Indeed, when a man finds the good he cannot easily part from it insofar as it is good.
this is recognized by knowledge, love must follow, and memory, and all the (powers of) the soul.
And our Lord, well knowing this, is constrained to hide at times, for the soul is a simple form of the body, and wherever she turns, she turns as a whole.
Where she always conscious of the good which is God, immediately and without interruption, she would never be able to leave it to influence the body.
Thus it befell Paul: if he had remained for a hundred years at the spot where he came to know the Good? he would never have returned to the body; he would have forgotten it completely.
And so, because that is not conducive to this life and alien to it, God in His mercy veils it when He will and reveals it when He will and when
He knows, like a trustworthy physician, that it is most useful and helpful for you.
This withdrawal is not yours, but His who does the work: He can do it or not as He will, well knowing when it avails you best.
It is in His hands to reveal or conceal, according as He knows you can endure it.
For God is not a destroyer of nature: rather He perfects it, and God does this ever more and more, the more you are fitted for it.
But you might say, ‘Oh sir, if this requires a mind free of all images and all works (which lie in the powers by their very nature 8), then how about those outward works we must do sometimes, works of charity which all take place without, such as teaching or comforting the needy? Should people be deprived of this?
As our Lord’s disciples were so much occupied with such things, as (according to St. Augustine) St. Paul was so burdened and preoccupied with people’s cares as if he were their father – shall we then be deprived of this great good because we are engaged in works of charity?’
Now note the answer to such questions.
The one thing is noblest, the other very profitable.
Mary was praised for choosing the best; but Martha’s life was of very great profit, for she served Christ and his disciples.9
Master Thomas says the active life is better than the contemplative, insofar as in action one pours out for love that which one has gained in contemplation.
It is actually the same thing, for we take only from the same ground of contemplation and make it fruitful in works, and thus the object of contemplation is achieved.
there is motion, yet it is all one; it comes from one end, which is God, and returns to the same, as if I were to go from one end of this house to the other; that would indeed be motion, but only
of one in the same.
Thus too, in this activity, we remain in a state of contemplation in God.
The one rests in the other, and perfects the other.
For God’s purpose in the union of contemplation is fruitfulness in works: for in contemplation you serve yourself alone, but in works of charity you serve the many.
To this Christ admonishes us by his whole life and those of all his saints, every one of whom he drove forth into the world to teach the multitude.
St. Paul said to Timothy, “Beloved, preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2).
Did he mean the outward word that beats the air? Surely not.
He meant the inwardly born and yet hidden Word that lies secreted in the soul.
That was what he bade him preach aloud, that it might be made known to and might nourish the (soul’s) powers, so that a man might give himself out in all those aspects of external
life in which his fellow men had need of it – and that all this may
be found in you to accomplish to the best of your ability.
It must be within you in thought, in intellect, and in will, and it must shine forth, too, in your deeds.
As Christ said, ” Let your light shine forth before men” (Matt. 5:16).
He had in mind those who care only for the contemplative life and neglect the practice of charity, which, they say, they have no further need for, having passed that stage.
It was not these that Christ meant when he said, “The seed fell on good soil and yielded fruit a hundredfold” (Matt. 13:8).
He meant them when he said, “The tree that bears no fruit shall be cut down” (Matt. 3:10, 7:19) .
Now you might say, ‘But sir, what of the silence you told us so much about?
For this implies images galore.
Every act must accord with its appropriate image, whether the act is internal or external, whether I am teaching one or comforting another, or arranging this or that, so what quiet can I get? 1
For if the mind sees and formulates, and the will wills, and memory holds it fast, are not all these images?’
We spoke just now of an active intellect and a passive intellect. The active intellect abstracts images from outward things, stripping them of matter and of accidents, and introduces them to the passive intellect, begetting their mental image therein.
And the passive intellect, made pregnant by the active in this way, cherishes and knows these things with the aid of the active intellect.
Even then, the passive intellect cannot keep on knowing these things unless the active intellect illumines them afresh.
Now observe: what the active intellect does for the natural man, that and far more God does for one with detachment: He takes away the active intellect from him and, installing Himself in its stead, He Himself undertakes all that the active intellect ought to be doing.
Indeed, when a man is quite unpreoccupied, and the active intellect within him is silent, then God must take up the work and must be the master workman who begets Himself in the passive intellect.
See if it is not so.
The active intellect cannot give what it has not got: and it cannot entertain two images together; it has first one and then
Though the air and light show many forms and color all at once, you can only observe them one after the other.
So too does the active intellect, which is similar.
But when God acts in place of the active intellect, He engenders many images together in one point.
For if God prompts you to a good deed, at once all your powers proffer themselves for all good things: your whole mind at once tends to good in general.
Whatever good you can do takes shape and presents itself to you together in a flash, concentrated in a single point.
Surely, this demonstrates and proves that it is not the intellect’s work, for it has not the perfection or the resources for this: rather it is the work and the offspring of Him who has all images at once in Himself.
As Paul says, “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13); in Him I can do not merely this or that but all things in undivided unity.
You must know, then, that the images of these acts are not yours.
Neither are they from nature: they belong to the author of nature, in which He has implanted act and image.
So do not lay claim to it, for it is His, not yours.
Though conceived by you in time, it is begotten and given by God beyond time, in eternity beyond all images.
You might ask, ‘Since my intellect is divested of its natural activity and no longer has any image or action of its own, where is its support?
For it must always find lodgment somewhere: the powers always seek to fasten on something and act on it, whether it be memory, intellect or will.’
Now note the explanation of this. Intellect’s object and lodgment is essence, not accident11 but pure unmixed being in itself.
When the intellect discerns true being it descends on it, comes to rest on it, pronouncing its intellectual word about the object it has seized on.
But, so long as the intellect does not find true being and does not penetrate to the ground, so as to be able to say, ‘this is this; it is such and not otherwise,’ so long does it remain in a condition of questing and expectation; it does not settle down or rest, but labors on, seeking, expecting, and rejecting.
And though it may perhaps spend a year or more investigating a natural truth, to see what it is, it still has to work long again to strip off what it is not.
All this time it has nothing to go by and makes no pronouncement at all, as long as it has not penetrated to the ground of truth with full realization.
Therefore, the intellect never rests in this life.
However much God may reveal Himself in this life, yet it is still as nothing to what He really is.
Though truth is there, in the ground, it is yet veiled and concealed from the intellect.
All this while, the intellect has no support to rest on in the way of a changeless object.
It still does not rest, but goes on expecting and preparing for something yet to become known, but so far hidden.
Thus there is no way man can know what God is.
But one thing he does know: what God is not.
And this a man of intellect will reject.
Meantime the intellect, finding no real object to support it, waits as matter awaits form.
Just as matter will never rest until it is filled with all forms, so the intellect cannot rest except in the essential truth that embraces all things.
Only the essence will satisfy it, and this God withdraws from it step by step, in order to arouse its zeal and lure it on to seek and grasp the true, groundless good, so that it may be content with nothing but ever clamor for the highest good of all.
Now you might say, ‘Oh sir, you said so much about how all our faculties should be quiet, and now you go setting up a great clamor of yearning in this quietness.
That would be a great moaning and outcry for something we haven’t got, and that would be the end of this peace and quiet. Whether it were desire or purpose or praise or thanksgiving, or whatever else the mind might beget or imagine – it would not be perfect peace or absolute stillness.’
Let me explain.
When you have completely stripped yourself of your own self, and all things and every kind of attachment, and have transferred, made over, and abandoned yourself to God in utter faith and perfect love, then whatever is born in you or touches you, within or without, joyful or sorrowful, sour or sweet, that is no longer yours, it is altogether your God’s to whom you have abandoned yourself.
Tell me, whom does the spoken word belong to?
To the speaker or the hearer?
Though it falls to the hearer, it really belongs to the speaker who gave it birth.
Here is an example.
The sun casts its light into the air; the air receives the light and gives it to the earth, thus enabling us to distinguish different colors.
Now, though the light is formally in the air, essentially it is in the sun: the light actually comes from the sun, where it originates, and not in the air.
It is received by the air which passes it on to anything that is receptive to light.
It is just the same with the soul.
God bears the Word in the soul, and the soul conceives it and passes it on to her powers in varied guise: now as desire, now as good intent, now as charity, now as gratitude, or however it may affect you.
It is all His, and not yours at all.
What God thus does, you must accept all that as His and not as your own, just as it is written, ‘The Holy Ghost makes intercession with countless mighty sighs’ (Rom. 8:26).
He prays within us, not we ourselves. St. Paul says, “No man can say ‘Lord Jesus Christ’ but in the Holy Ghost” (1 Cor. 12:3 )
This above all else is needful: you must lay claim to nothing!
Let go of yourself and let God act with you and in you as He will.
This work is His, this Word is His, this birth is His, in fact every single thing that you are.
For you have abandoned self and have gone out of your (soul’s) powers and their activities, and your personal nature.
Therefore God must enter into your being and powers, because you have bereft yourself of all possessions, and become as a desert, as it is written, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness” (Matt. 3:3).
Let this eternal voice cry out in you a s it listeth, and be as a desert in respect of yourself and all things.
Now you might say, ‘But sir, what must a man do to be void as a desert in respect of himself and all things?
Should a man wait all the time for God to work and do nothing himself, or should he do something in the meantime, like praying or reading or some other good occupation such as listening to sermons or studying scripture?
Since such a man is not supposed to take anything in from without, but only from within, from his God, does he not miss something by not doing these things?
All outward works were established and ordained to direct the outer man to God and to train him to spiritual living and good deeds, that he might not stray into ineptitudes: to act as a curb
on his inclination to escape from self to things outside; so that when God would work in him He might find him ready and not have to draw him back from things alien and gross.
For the greater the delight in outward things the harder it is to leave them; the stronger the love the sharper the pain when it comes to parting.
See then: All works and pious practices – praying, reading, singing, vigils, fasting, penance, or whatever discipline it may be -these were invented to catch a man and restrain him from things alien and ungodly.
Thus, when a man realizes that God’s spirit is not working in him and that the inner man is forsaken by God, it is very important for the outer man to practice these virtues, and especially such as are most feasible, useful, and necessary for him; not however from selfish attachment, but so that, respect for truth preserving him from being attracted and led astray by what is gross, he may stay close to God, so that God may find him near at hand when He chooses to return and act in his soul, without having to seek far afield.
But if a man knows himself to be well trained in true inwardness, then let him boldly drop all outward disciplines, even those he is bound to and from which neither pope nor bishop can release him.
From the vows a man has made to God none can release him, but they can be turned into something else: for every vow is a contract with God.
But if a man has taken solemn vows of such things as prayer, fasting, or pilgrimage, if he then enters some order, he is released from them, for in the order he is vowed to goodness as a whole, and to God Himself.
And so I say the same here: Whatever a man’s vows to manifold things, by entering into true inwardness he is released from them.
As long as this inwardness lasts, be it a week, a month, or a year, none of this time is lost by the monk or nun, for God, who has captured and imprisoned them, must answer for it.
On returning to himself, a man should perform his vows for the time present; but as for what you may think you have neglected in the preceding time, you need not bother to make it up, for God Himself will make it up for the period during which He caused you to be idle.
You should not wish to make it up by any act of creatures, for the least act of God outweighs all the works of creatures.
This is said to learned and illumined people, who have been taught and illumined by God and scripture.
But how is it with a simple layman who knows and understands nothing but corporal discipline, and who has taken on some vow, whether of prayer or the like?
To him I say this: If he finds it hampering and that he draws nearer to God without it, let him boldly give it up.
For any work that brings you nearer to God and God’s embrace is the best.
That is what Paul meant when he said, “When wholeness comes, the partial vanishes” (1 Cor.13:10).
There is a big difference between a vow taken before a priest and vows taken in simplicity to God Himself.
If a man vows anything to God it is with the laudable intention of binding himself thus to God, which at the time a man thinks to be for the best.
But if he learns of a better way, then, knowing by experience that it is better, let him be quite free of the first, and content.
This is easy to prove, for one should consider the fruits and the
inward truth rather than the outward act.
As Paul says, “The letter [that is, all outward practices] kills, but the spirit gives life ” (2 Cor. 3:6), that is, an inward realization of truth.
You should take good note of this and follow above all whatever befits you best for this.
Your spirit should be elevated, not downcast, but rather ardent, and yet in a detached, quiet stillness.
No need to tell God what you need or desire: He already knows.
Christ said to his disciples, “When you pray, do not use many words in your prayers like the Pharisees, for they think to be heard with much speaking” (Matt. 6:7).
That we may here so seek this peace and inward silence, that the eternal Word may be spoken within us and understood, and that we may become one therewith, may the Father help us, and that Word, and the Spirit of both. Amen. ~Meister Eckhart, Complete Works of Meister Eckhart, Page 46-54
- In the critical edition (DW 4) this sermon is Q 104 and thus the last of the treatise on the Birth of the Word.
- The historical birth of Jesus as distinct from the ‘eternal birth.’
- zuoval, i.e., ‘accidentals’ in the scholastic sense.
- This stress on force (gewalt) seems rather un-Eckhartian.
- Eckhart as a Dominican places the intellect above the will, as opposed to the Franciscans. He had debated this question in Paris with the Franciscan General Gonsalvus.
- lfdet, lit. ‘suffers’: cf. Sermon 2, note 7.
- On the road to Damascus.
- I.e., the eye cannot help seeing, and so on. The word Walshe translates as ‘mind’ is MHG gemiiete, which can also mean ‘heart’ and ‘essential inclination.’
- In the commentary to St. John’s Gospel (LW III, 1 1 2), Eckhart places Mary above Martha, according to tradition (Clark). The contradiction is more apparent than real.
- Eckhart the busy administrator must have been acutely aware of this problem.
- See note 3.