Are not all mystics dangerous?



When the distinguished scholar of Christian Mysticism, Bernard McGinn, arrived at London’s Heathrow airport in the 1980s, he was asked by the Immigration Officer why he was coming to England? “I am giving a paper at a scholarly conference on Meister Eckhart,” he replied. “Ah! Eckhart. I have always wanted to get a better understanding of ‘gelassenheit’. Can you explain it to me?” So Professor McGinn, by explaining one of Eckhart’s key terms, got entrance into the country whilst wondering if this was the state of interest in Eckhart in England need he have come at all!

This is in radical contrast to Eckhart’s currency shortly after his death in 1328. In 1329 certain of his propositions, though not the man himself, were condemned as heretical or suspect; and, though his two greatest followers, Henry Suso and John Tauler, bravely referred to him, in passing, both saw fit to adapt, amend and soften his radical stance for the audiences they now addressed. Eckhart sunk into obscurity until the birth of German nationalism in the nineteenth century saw Eckhart both as an innovative user of the German language and as a proto-Protestant and sparked a revival (and, importantly, a Catholic reaction that sought to reclaim him as one of their own). It is a resurgence that has not lost steam nor ceased to multiply Eckharts - a phenomenological one influential on Heidegger, an existential one for Sartre, a subversive post-modern one for Derrida and a New Age one in the hands of Eckhart Tolle (whose very pseudonym offers homage to the Meister). 

But who was Eckhart and can history help create a clearer picture? Joel F. Harrington thinks it can and proceeds admirably to demonstrate how.

Firstly by reminding us that the Middle Ages rather than being, as its name suggests, a waiting period between two periods of development was, itself, a time of intellectual ferment. Aristotle, through the refracting lens of the Islamic world, was being rediscovered. Plato and Neoplatonism were a countervailing stream of thought. New architectural forms and economic systems were being born. Europe was rapidly urbanizing. Eckhart was at the center of these currents - both as an intellectual, teaching, and receiving his doctorate from the University of Paris; and, as an administrator and diplomat for his Dominican Order. Eckhart was pushing at the boundaries of what was thought not against the trend but with it, at its liminal edge.

Second, because these often disruptive changes were igniting a renewed and deepened search for meaning. One that the outward forms of the Church, though important, could not wholly fulfill. There was an inward turn towards a deepening devotion and a search for experience. This search for experience was not hunting after ‘mystical experience’ as a discrete category of private experience to be set against other kinds of experience since this is a modern category alien to the medieval mind. It was a search to create an understanding of the context in which anything at all takes place; and, how we are situated within that totality; and, how it could be lived out in practice. For Eckhart, there was no separation between his ontological and metaphysical explorations and his spiritual life nor between his daily practice as a Catholic priest and his inward transformation. To know something, anything at all, required one to be in a certain kind of being. A metaphysical question required a transforming spiritual answering.

Third, though this renewed inwardness almost without exception in the Middle Ages, the Cathars being the great exception, took place within an accepted Christian Catholic framework, it was not free of real tensions. These Eckhart fully embodied and in doing so lent towards the new, the open and the inclusive. How acceptable was the new learning? Completely as Eckhart worked towards his summa, his account of creation and it's continual coming to be as divine gift. Within this how do we accord truth-telling to non-Christians - pagan Greeks and the Arabs and Jews who had translated and developed their thinking? In Eckhart with comfortable acceptance, true seeing was recognized wherever it was found. Was it legitimate to downplay the importance of external works and devotions and prioritize the inward journey? Not only legitimate but in Eckhart’s view necessary for salvation was the result of stepping into a ‘wayless way’, a self-emptying that allowed God in, clinging to the forms of religion cluttered that space, distorted its clarity and kept one bound to one’s own image of God rather than being freed into the imageless Godhead. Was it acceptable to embody this new learning in the ordinary sermon for the layperson rather than restrict it to learned texts in Latin for the educated few? Necessarily so because this 'wayless' way was the reality for all, we all must step through the mediation of form, including even that of the Church, if we are to become freedom. How far could lay people be autonomous guides of their own souls? Since guidance is ultimately always of God and must come to birth in every soul, none of us is autonomous nor a guide for we are always found in, and by, God not by ourselves.

Harrington pilots us skillfully through all these dimensions careful to show the context in which and from which Eckhart worked and lived, how he responded to it and, critically, how his thinking developed over time, a pattern often lost in more theologically or philosophically orientated studies. This showing forth of Eckhart’s development has the double bonus of helping both clarify and illuminate the thought itself -and Harrington’s descriptions of this are models of lucidity and accessibility – and showing just where he sits within the then boundaries of thought. In this Eckhart is seen as both orthodox and yet liminal, especially in how he expresses himself, always pushing into the unsayable with daring, paradoxical images aimed at teasing thought out of itself into a renewing way of naked intuition.   

He, also, then aptly describes the circumstances surrounding Eckhart’s downfall. This was not simply the Church condemning the mystical heretic but rather Eckhart finding himself in the crossfire of two overlapping struggles. The first spiritual over the control of the lay movements that continued to spring up to deepen the commitment to, and experience of, faith. The second the all too temporal struggle between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope for authority and power. In the context of which a partial condemnation of certain of Eckhart’s propositions (often lifted out of context) fitted the Pope’s purposes. By way of aside, the prime Papal concern was not so much as to the truth or otherwise of the said propositions but what might be made of them by a lay audience, unversed in the sophisticated, and yet often ‘conventional’ theology that underlay them.

Though biographical details of Eckhart’s life are sparse by the time you have finished Harrington’s study the man and his times have been ignited with life; and, most importantly, Eckhart’s abiding relevance is reaffirmed and deepened. Here was a man who set out to think through his faith and offer it as an abiding way of being in the world that was intellectually alive and credible and that made existential demands on any life that would engage with it. Less a ‘dangerous’ heretic than a bold explorer of reality (that often our prejudicial view of the Middle Ages suggests must be unusual and heterodox – Harrington suggests we think about this again).

Meanwhile, to return to ‘gelassenheit’, one of Eckhart’s coinages that might be translated ‘letting-go-ness’ that is at the heart of the spiritual journey. You must assimilate the acts of piety and let them go, embody the virtues such they become second nature and let them go, pass through all images of the eternal and of the divine letting them go, until naked and bare and nothing, all can be born within you, realizing your at-one-ness with the One who is. Discovering in this that freedom in which flows all the reality of wisdom and justice that enables you to act rightly in the world because knowing it rightly. It is in this very real and demanding existential challenge that Eckhart, like any true mystic, reveals their dangerousness to the conventions at any time!

Harrington adeptly invites us to a consideration of this quest embodying it beautifully in the man himself and in his actual time and place that, as often the case, liberates him to be seen anew, now in our time and place.

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