Following is one of a short collection of sermons which has been newly translated in London from the German. The Spring 1982 Material for Thought published another sermon from this collection, “How a Man Should Work in the Most Practical Way.”Eckhart’s Latin sermons were couched in the orthodox forms of his time but it was in German that he preached to the laity and has expressed the profound and magical quality of his thought.
Et cum factus esset lesus annorum duodecim.. .
And when Jesus was twelve years old. . .
St. Luke ii. 42
We read in the Gospel that when our Lord was twelve years old, he went with Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem into the Temple, and when they left, Jesus remained in the Temple without their knowledge. And when they came home they missed him, and searched for him among their acquaintances and relatives and among the crowd, but they could not find him; they had lost him in the crowd. And therefore they were compelled to return whence they had come, and when they had come back to their starting point in the Temple, there they found him.
And so, you indeed also must leave the crowd and return to your source and to the ground whence you came, if you wish to find this noble birth. The crowd is the soul’s energies and activities. Memory, reason and will, all these disperse you. Therefore you must forsake them all: the activity of the senses, imagination, and everything in which you find yourself or imagine yourself to be. Only then can you find this birth: certainly in no other way. Jesus was never found among friends, nor among kin, nor among these latter acquaintances. Among these, rather, one loses him entirely.
From this the question arises: Whether a man could find this birth through certain things which, although they are divine, nevertheless come into a man from outside through the senses, such as certain notions about God: that he is good, wise, and indeed merciful, notions which a man’s reason can create of itself but which all the same are really divine—could one find this birth through them? Indeed no! Because even though they may all be good and divine, they nevertheless enter through the senses. For this birth to shine there truly and purely, all must spring up and flow out, uniquely and solely, only from within, out of God. Your whole effort must be to serve his work and not your own.
If this work is to be perfect, then God alone must do it and you must suffer it unconditionally. Truly, where you willingly abandon your own knowledge, there God with his knowledge willingly enters and shines radiantly. Beside divine knowledge, your knowledge cannot endure or serve any purpose. Do not imagine for a moment that your reason could develop so far that you would be able to cognize God. Rather, if God is to enlighten you divinely, then your natural light does not help you at all. Rather, it must be extinguished and leave you entirely. Only then can God enter with his light, bringing back with himself all that which you had given up and a thousand times more besides, together with a new form in which to contain it all.
Of this we have a parable in the Gospels. When our Lord had talked at the well to the heathen woman in a friendly way, she left her water pot there and ran back to the city and exclaimed to the people that the true Messiah had come. But the people, not believing her story, returned with her and saw him there for themselves, and then they said to her: ‘Now we believe, not because of your saying it, but because we have seen for ourselves. (Truly, in the same way, you cannot be brought to the divine knowledge of God by any creature knowledge or by your own wisdom.) If you wish to know God in a divine way, then your knowledge must become a pure unknowing and a forgetting of yourself.
Now you could ask: ‘What is my reason for, if it must stand apart and without action? How can it be the best way that I lift my disposition to a state of unknowing, which is something that cannot really exist? Since if I recognize something, this would not be unknowing, nor being free, nor being exposed. Should I then remain completely in darkness?’
Yes, certainly! You cannot be better placed than in total darkness and unknowing.
‘Alas, must we commit ourselves wholly, can there be no return?’
No, truly, there can be no return.
‘But what is this darkness, what significance has it, what is its name?’
It can only be called a disposition to receptivity which, however, does not lack being, but is only the potential receptiveness by which you may be completed. Hence there is no return from it. Should you nevertheless return, then it is not because of any truth, but only for some other reason, such as the pull of the senses, or the world, or the devil. If you give yourself to this return, then you fall by necessity into sin, and you could turnaway so far that you make the eternal fall. Therefore there is no return, but only a constant pushing forward and a reaching toward the fulfillment of your possibility. This never rests until your being is fulfilled. And rightly so: just as matter never rests unless it is itself fulfilled in all possible forms, so also reason never rests until it has reached its full potential.
Concerning this a heathen master says: ‘Nature has nothing swifter than the heavens which overtake all things in their course.’ However, in truth, the mind of man overtakes all in its own course. Assuming that it remains active in its ability and keeps itself undegraded and untorn by vulgar and coarse things, then it may overtake the highest heaven and never rest until the summit, there to be fed and nourished by the most excellent Good.
How beneficial then it would be to realise this possibility and, keeping oneself free and innocent, to pursue and search out only this darkness and unknowing and not to turn back! In this lies the possibility to gain Him who is all things. And the more you give yourself to this darkness and remain unattached to things, the nearer you come to Him.
Concerning this desert it is written in Hosea: ‘I shall lead my friend into the wilderness and shall speak into her heart.’ The true word of eternity is only spoken in that solitude where man has become desolate and estranged from himself and all multiplicity. The prophet was yearning for this desolation and alienation from the self when he said: ‘Oh, who gives me wings like the dove when I would fly away and be at rest.’ Where shall one find rest and repose? In truth, only in rejection, desolation and estrangement from all creatures. Concerning this David said: ‘I prefer to
stand in desolation in the house of my God, than to dwell in honor and wealth in the tavern of the sinner.’
Now you could say: ‘If it had to be that I am to be bereft of everything, outwardly as well as inwardly, of powers as well as their actions—if all that has to be taken away—God leaving me standing thus without support and prolonging my desolation without his light, speech or work, as you say, then it makes a very hard situation. If a man is to stand in this way in pure nothingness, would it not be better if he did something to distract himself from the darkness and forsakenness, such as praying, or reading, or listening to a sermon, or doing other things which are virtuous, to help himself?’
No, you maybe sure. To stand in complete stillness for as long as possible, that is best of all. It is certain you cannot turn to any other thing from there without harm. Perhaps you would like to be prepared partly by yourself and partly by Him: but that cannot be. However you can never think so quickly of preparing or yearning for Him but that He would not be there before you: so He prepares you. Assuming it were shared, the preparation yours and the influence or pouring-in His, which is impossible, know that God is compelled to act and pour in, as soon as He finds you ready. You should not assume that it is with God as with any carpenter, who works or does not work, as He wishes, and can do something or leave it as the fancy takes him. It is not so with God. Where and when God finds you ready, He is compelled to act and pour Himself into you, just as when the air is clear and clean (pure) the sun must shine and cannot withhold itself. Finding you free and open, it would be very much amiss for God not to perform great works in you and pour great good into you.
The masters write that at the same instant that the body of a child is ready in the mother, at that very moment God pours the living spirit into its body, that is the soul which lives in the form of the body. It is one instant: the being prepared and the pouring in. When nature reaches her highest point then God dispenses His grace: at the very same moment as the spirit is ready, God enters without delay or hesitation. In the Book of the Revelation it is written that our Lord bade the people: ‘I stand at the door, and knock and wait, till someone lets me in; and with him will I sup.’ You do not need to search for Him here or there. He is no further away than the door of your heart; there He stands and hopes and waits for whoever He finds ready to open to Him and let Him in. You do not have to call Him from afar: He is close by and can hardly wait for you to open. He yearns a thousand times more strongly for you than you do for Him: the opening and the entering are but one instant.
You could say: ‘How can this be? I do not perceive anything of Him.’ Now, pay attention! Perceiving is not in your power, but in His. When He wishes, He shows Himself; and He conceals Himself when He wishes. This is what Christ meant when he said to Nicodemus: ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.’ This is a contradiction: ‘Thou hearest but knoweth not.’ Through hearing one knows. Christ meant: Through hearing one absorbs it or takes it in, as if he wished to say: ‘You receive the spirit and yet you are unaware.’ God cannot leave anything empty and void; God and nature cannot suffer anything to be void or empty. Therefore, if it appears to you that you do not perceive anything of Him and are completely empty of Him, it is not so. For if there were anything empty under the heavens, be it large or small, either heaven would draw it up to itself or would have to incline towards this world, and would have to fill it with itself.
God, the master of nature, does not suffer that anything should be empty. Therefore stand still and do not waver from this emptiness, lest by turning away from it at this moment, you will never come to it again.
Now you could say: ‘Sir, do you mean that someday this birth will take place in me, and that the son be born? Could I have a sign by which I may recognize that this really takes place?’—Yes, certainly, there are three reliable signs. I will now tell you one of them. I am often asked whether a man can reach a state when time no longer hinders him, nor multiplicity, nor materiality, Yes, indeed! When this birth has really taken place, thenall creatures can no longer hinder it; rather, they all point you towards God and to this birth. We find a comparison for this in the lightning: whatever is hit when it strikes, be it a tree or an animal or a man, is turned to face it; if a man had turned his back, in this very instant he turns round to face it. If a tree has a thousand leaves, they all turn to face it. So it is with all who experience this birth. They are quickly turned towards this birth with whatever is present in them at this moment, however coarse it may be. Nay, what was formerly a hindrance now helps you. Your face becomes completely turned towards this birth. Yes, in all that you see or hear, whatever it may be, in all things you can receive nothing but this birth. You see only God in all things, because in all things you have nothing but God in your sight. It is as if, after looking at the sun for a long time, there appears an image of the sun in whatever a man sees. Where this is lacking in your search for God in everything, then this birth is also lacking in you.
Now you could ask: ‘Should man who has grown so far still perform penitence? Does he miss something if he does not practise this in himself?’ Listen! A life of penitence, be it fasting, wakefulness, praying, kneeling, chastising yourself, wearing of hair shirts, hard lying, and whatever similar things may exist, has been invented because the body and the flesh at all times are opposed to the spirit. The body is often too strong for it; there is always a struggle between them, an eternal battle. In this world the body is bold and strong, because it dwells here; the world helps it, the earth is its fatherland, all like things help it; food, drink, good living—all are against the spirit. The spirit is an alien here; its race and its kindred dwell in heaven.
To give aid to the spirit in its distress and to weaken the flesh somewhat in this struggle, so that it should not overcome the spirit, one puts on the bridle of penitential practices to subdue it, so that the spirit rules over it. One does this to keep it captive, but if you want to curb it a thousand times better, then put the bridle of love on it. With love you overcome it most surely and with love you burden it most heavily. That is why God concerns himself more about love in us than anything else. Love is like a fisherman’s hook. The angler cannot hold the fish unless it is caught on the hook. If it takes the hook then the angler is sure of his fish; wherever the fish may turn, the angler is certain of his catch.
I say this also about love: Whoever is caught by it is held by the strongest of bonds and yet bears a sweet burden. Whoever has taken upon himself this sweet burden attains more and gets further than he does with the penitential practice and mortification that all men could practise. He is able to bear and suffer cheerfully all that befalls him and whatever God in flicts upon him. Nothing brings you nearer to God and makes God you own as much as this bond of love.
He who has found this way should not search for another. He who caught by this hook is so captured that foot and hand, mouth, eyes and heart, and all that man is and has must belong to God. Therefore you can never overcome this enemy and prevent it from harming you better than by love. That is why it is written: ‘Love is as strong as death, hard as hell.’
Death separates the soul from the body, but love separates all things from the soul. Love does not endure anything that is not God or not divine. Whoever is caught in this net and walks in this way, whatever work he does or does not do, love does it. And yet the smallest work or action of such a man is more useful and fruitful to himself and to all men, and more pleasing to God than the actions of those who, although they do not commit mortal sins, have less love. He rests more usefully than others labor. Therefore wait only for this hook, so that you may be happily caught; and the more surely caught, the more surely freed.
May God, who is love itself, help us that we may be thus surely caught and surely freed. Amen.