Light, life, and love selections from the German Mystics

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Selections from the German Mystics

of the Middle Ages

W. R. Inge



Rest only in God

God is always ready


The Will

Surrender of the Will






Love of our Neighbour


The Union with God

The Last Judgment

Precept and Practice


Sayings of Eckhart


Our Aim

Consequences of the Fall

The Fall

Life a Battle


Fishing for Souls

The Efficacy of Divine Grace


The First Word

The Second Word

The Third Word

The Fourth Word

The Fifth Word

The Sixth Word

The Seventh Word


Suso and his Spiritual Daughter

A Meditation on the Passion of Christ

Aphorisms and Maxims

TO most English readers the "Imitation of Christ" is the representative of mediaeval German mysticism. In reality, however, this beautiful little treatise belongs to a period when that movement had nearly spent itself. Thomas a Kempis, as Dr. Bigg has said,1 was only a semi-mystic. He tones down the most characteristic doctrines of Eckhart, who is the great original thinker of the German mystical school, and seems in some ways to revert to an earlier type of devotional literature. The "Imitation" may perhaps be described as an idealised picture of monastic piety, drawn at a time when the life of the cloister no longer filled a place of unchallenged usefulness in the social order of Europe. To find German mysticism at its strongest we must go back a full hundred years, and to understand its growth we must retrace our steps as far as the great awakening of the thirteenth century--the age of chivalry in religion--the age of St. Louis, of Francis and Dominic, of Bonaventura and Thomas Aquinas. It was a vast revival, bearing fruit in a new ardour of pity and charity, as well as in a healthy freedom of thought. The Church, in recognising the new charitable orders of Francis and Dominic, and the Christianised Aristotelianism of the schoolmen, retained the loyalty and profited by the zeal of the more sober reformers, but was unable to prevent the diffusion of an independent critical spirit, in part provoked and justified by real abuses. Discontent was aroused, not only by the worldiness of the hierarchy, whose greed and luxurious living were felt to be scandalous, but by the widespread economic distress which prevailed over Western Europe at this period. The crusades periodically swept off a large proportion of the able-bodied men, of whom the majority never returned to their homes, and this helped to swell the number of indigent women, who, having no male protectors, were obliged to beg their bread. The better class of these female mendicants soon formed themselves into uncloistered charitable Orders, who were not forbidden to marry, and who devoted themselves chiefly to the care of the sick. These Beguines and the corresponding male associations of Beghards became very numerous in Germany. Their religious views were of a definite type. Theirs was an intensely inward religion, based on the longing of the soul for immediate access to God. The more educated among them tended to embrace a vague idealistic Pantheism. Mechthild of Magdeburg (1212-1277), prophetess, poetess, Church reformer, quietist, was the ablest of the Beguines. Her writings prove to us that the technical terminology of German mysticism was in use before Eckhart,2 and also that the followers of what the "Theologia Germanica" calls the False Light, who aspired to absorption in the Godhead, and despised the imitation of the incarnate Christ, were already throwing discredit on the movement. Mechthild's independence, and her unsparing denunciations of corruption in high places, brought her into conflict with the secular clergy. They tried to burn her books--those religious love songs which had already endeared her to German popular sentiment. It was then that she seemed to hear a voice saying to her:
Lieb' meine, betrŸbe dich nicht zu sehr,

Die Wahrheit mag niemand verbrennen!

The rulers of the Church, unhappily, were not content with burning books. Their hostility towards the unrecognised Orders became more and more pronounced: the Beghards and Beguines were harried and persecuted till most of them were driven to join the Franciscans or Dominicans, carrying with them into those Orders the ferment of their speculative mysticism. The more stubborn "Brethren and Sisters of the Free Spirit" were burned in batches at Cologne and elsewhere. Their fate in those times did not excite much pity, for many of the victims were idle vagabonds of dissolute character, and the general public probably thought that the licensed begging friars were enough of a nuisance without the addition of these free lances.

The heretical mystical sects of the thirteenth century are very interesting as illustrating the chief dangers of mysticism. Some of these sectaries were Socialists or Communists of an extreme kind; others were Rationalists, who taught that Jesus Christ was the son of Joseph and a sinner like other men; others were Puritans, who said that Church music was "nothing but a hellish noise" (nihil nisi clamor inferni), and that the Pope was the magna meretrix of the Apocalypse. The majority were Anti-Sacramentalists and Determinists; and some were openly Antinomian, teaching that those who are led by the Spirit can do no wrong. The followers of Amalric of Bena3 believed that the Holy Ghost had chosen their sect in which to become incarnate; His presence among them was a continual guarantee of sanctity and happiness. The "spiritual Franciscans" had dreams of a more apocalyptic kind. They adopted the idea of an "eternal Gospel," as expounded by Joachim of Floris, and believed that the "third kingdom," that of the Spirit, was about to begin among themselves. It was to abolish the secular Church and to inaugurate the reign of true Christianity--i.e. "poverty" and asceticism.

Such are some of the results of what our eighteenth-century ancestors knew and dreaded as "Enthusiasm"--that ferment of the spirit which in certain epochs spreads from soul to soul like an epidemic, breaking all the fetters of authority, despising tradition and rejecting discipline in its eagerness to get rid of formalism and unreality; a lawless, turbulent, unmanageable spirit, in which, notwithstanding, is a potentiality for good far higher than any to which the lukewarm "religion of all sensible men" can ever attain. For mysticism is the raw material of all religion; and it is easier to discipline the enthusiast than to breathe enthusiasm into the disciplinarian.

Meanwhile, the Church looked with favour upon the orthodox mystical school, of which Richard and Hugo of St. Victor, Bonaventura, and Albertus Magnus were among the greatest names. These men were working out in their own fashion the psychology of the contemplative life, showing how we may ascend through "cogitation, meditation, and speculation" to "contemplation," and how we may pass successively through jubilus, ebrietas spiritus, spiritualis jucunditas, and liquefactio, till we attain raptus or ecstasy. The writings of the scholastic mystics are so overweighted with this pseudo-science, with its wire-drawn distinctions and meaningless classifications, that very few readers have now the patience to dig out their numerous beauties. They are, however, still the classics of mystical theology in the Roman Church, so far as that science has not degenerated into mere miracle-mongering.

It was in 1260, when Mechthild of Magdeburg was at the height of her activity, that Meister Eckhart, next to Plotinus the greatest philosopher-mystic, was born at Hocheim in Thuringia. It seems that his family was in a good position, but nothing is known of his early years. He entered the Dominican Order as a youth, perhaps at sixteen, the earliest age at which novices were admitted into that Order. The course of instruction among the Dominicans was as follows:--After two years, during which the novice laid the foundations of a good general education, he devoted the next two years to grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, and then the same amount of time to what was called the Quadrivium, which consisted of "arithmetic, mathematics, astronomy, and music." Theology, the queen of the sciences, occupied three years; and at the end of the course, at the age of twenty-five, the brothers were ordained priests. We find Eckhart, towards the end of the century, Prior of Erfurt and Vicar of Thuringia, then Lector Biblicus at Paris, then Provincial Prior of Saxony. In 1307 the master of the Order appointed him Vicar-General for Bohemia, and in 1311 he returned to Paris. We find him next preaching busily at Strassburg,4 and after a few more years, at Cologne, where the persecution of the Brethren of the Free Spirit was just then at its height. At Strassburg there were no less than seven convents of Dominican nuns, for since 1267 the Order had resumed the supervision of female convents, which it had renounced a short time after its foundation. Many of Eckhart's discourses were addressed to these congregations of devout women, who indeed were to a large extent the backbone of the mystical movement, and it is impossible not to see that the devotional treatises of the school are strongly coloured by feminine sentiment. A curious poem, written by a Dominican nun of this period, celebrates the merits of three preachers, the third of whom is a Master Eckhart, "who speaks to us about Nothingness. He who understands him not, in him has never shone the light divine." These nuns seem to have been fed with the strong meat of Eckhart's mystical philosophy; in the more popular sermons he tried to be intelligible to all. It was not very long after he took up his residence at Cologne that he was himself attacked for heresy. In 1327 he read before his own Order a retractation of "any errors which might be found" (si quid errorum repertum fuerit) in his writings, but withdrew nothing that he had actually said, and protested that he believed himself to be orthodox. He died a few months later, and it was not till 1329 that a Papal bull was issued, enumerating seventeen heretical and eleven objectionable doctrines in his writings.

This bull is interesting as showing what were the points in Eckhart's teaching which in the fourteenth century were considered dangerous. They also indicate very accurately what are the real errors into which speculative mysticism is liable to fall, and how thinkers of this school may most plausibly be misrepresented by those who differ from them. After expressing his sorrow that "a certain Teuton named Ekardus, doctor, ut fertur, sacrae paginae, has wished to know more than he should," and has sown tares and thistles and other weeds in the field of the Church, the Pope specifies the following erroneous statements as appearing in Eckhart's writings5:--1. "God created the world as soon as God was. 2. In every work, bad as well as good, the glory of God is equally manifested. 3. A man who prays for any particular thing prays for an evil and prays ill, for he prays for the negation of good and the negation of God, and that God may be denied to him.6 4. God is honoured in those who have renounced everything, even holiness and the kingdom of heaven. 5. We are transformed totally into God, even as in the Sacrament the bread is converted into the Body of Christ. Unum, non simile. 6. Whatever God the Father gave to His only-begotten Son in His human nature, He has given it all to me. 7. Whatever the Holy Scripture says about Christ is verified in every good and godlike man. 8. External action is not, properly speaking, good nor divine; God, properly speaking, only works in us internal actions. 9. God is one, in every way and according to every reason, so that it is not possible to find any plurality in Him, either in the intellect or outside it; for he who sees two, or sees any distinction, does not see God; for God is one, outside number and above number, for one cannot be put with anything else, but follows it; therefore in God Himself no distinction can be or be understood. 10. All the creatures are absolutely nothing: I say not that they are small or something, but that they are absolutely nothing." All these statements are declared to have been found in his writings. It is also "objected against the said Ekardus" that he taught the following two articles in these words:--1. "There is something in the soul, which is uncreated and uncreatable: if the whole soul were such, it would be uncreated and uncreatable: and this is the intelligence."7 2. God is not good or better or best: I speak ill when I call God good; it is as if I called white black."8 The bull declares all the propositions above quoted to be heretical, with the exception of the three which I have numbered 8-10, and these "have an ill sound" and are "very rash," even if they might be so supplemented and explained as to bear an orthodox sense.

This condemnation led to a long neglect of Eckhart's writings. He was almost forgotten till Franz Pfeiffer in 1857 collected and edited his scattered treatises and endeavoured to distinguish those which were genuine from those which were spurious. Since Pfeiffer's edition fresh discoveries have been made, notably in 1880, when Denifle found at Erfurt several important fragments in Latin, which in his opinion show a closer dependence on the scholastic theology, and particularly on St Thomas Aquinas, than Protestant scholars, such as Preger, had been willing to allow. But the attempt to prove Eckhart a mere scholastic is a failure; the audacities of his German discourses cannot be explained as an accommodation to the tastes of a peculiar audience. For good or evil Eckhart is an original and independent thinker, whose theology is confined by no trammels of authority.
The Godhead, according to Eckhart, is the universal and eternal Unity comprehending and transcending all diversity. "The Divine nature is Rest," he says in one of the German discourses; and in the Latin fragments we find: "God rests in Himself, and makes all things rest in Him." The three Persons of the Trinity, however, are not mere modes or accidents,9 but represent a real distinction within the Godhead. God is unchangeable, and at the same time an "everlasting process." The creatures are "absolutely nothing"; but at the same time "God without them would not be God," for God is love, and must objectify Himself; He is goodness, and must impart Himself. As the picture in the mind of the painter, as the poem in the mind of the poet, so was all creation in the mind of God from all eternity, in uncreated simplicity. The ideal world was not created in time; "the Father spake Himself and all the creatures in His Son"; "they exist in the eternal Now"10  "a becoming without a becoming, change without change." "The Word of God the Father is the substance of all that exists, the life of all that lives, the principle and cause of life." Of creation he says: "We must not falsely imagine that God stood waiting for something to happen, that He might create the world. For so soon as He was God, so soon as He begat His coeternal and coequal Son, He created the world." So Spinoza says: "God has always been before the creatures, without even existing before them. He precedes them not by an interval of time, but by a fixed eternity." This is not the same as saying that the world of sense had no beginning; it is possible that Eckhart did not mean to go further than the orthodox scholastic mystic, Albertus Magnus, who says: "God created things from eternity, but the things were not created from eternity." St Augustine (Conf. xi. 30) bids objectors to "understand that there can be no time without creatures, and cease to talk nonsense." Eckhart also tries to distinguish between the "interior" and the "exterior" action of God. God, he says, is in all things, not as Nature, not as Person, but as Being. He is everywhere, undivided; yet the creatures participate in Him according to their measure.11 The three Persons of the Trinity have impressed their image upon the creatures, yet it is only their "nothingness" that keeps them separate creatures. Most of this comes from the Neoplatonists, and much of it through the pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a Platonising Christian of the fifth century, whose writings were believed in the Middle Ages to proceed from St Paul's Athenian convert. It would, however, be easy to find parallels in St Augustine's writings to most of the phases quoted in this paragraph. The practical consequences will be considered presently.

The creatures are a way from God; they are also a way to Him. "In Christ," he says, "all the creatures are one man, and that man is God." Grace, which is a real self-unfolding of God in the soul, can make us "what God is by Nature"--one of Eckhart's audacious phrases, which are not really so unorthodox as they sound. The following prayer, which appears in one of his discourses, may perhaps be defended as asking no more than our Lord prayed for (John xvii.) for His disciples, but it lays him open to the charge, which the Pope's bull did not fail to urge against him, that he made the servant equal to his Lord. "Grant that I, by Thy grace, may be united to Thy Nature, as Thy Son is eternally one in Thy Nature, and that grace may become my nature."

The ethical aim is to be rid of "creatureliness," and so to be united to God. In Eckhart's system, as in that of Plotinus, speculation is never divorced from ethics. On our side the process is a negative one. All our knowledge must be reduced to not-knowledge; our reason and will, as well as our lower faculties, must transcend themselves, must die to live. We must detach ourselves absolutely "even from God," he says. This state of spiritual nudity he calls "poverty." Then, when our house is empty of all else, God can dwell there: "He begets His Son in us." This last phrase has always been a favourite with the mystics. St Paul uses very similar language, and the Epistle to Diognetus, written in the second century, speaks of Christ as, "being ever born anew in the hearts of the saints." Very characteristic, too, is the doctrine that complete detachment from the creatures is the way to union with God. Jacob Bšhme has arrived independently at the same conclusion as Eckhart. "The scholar said to his master: How may I come to the supersensual life, that I may see God and hear Him speak? The master said: When thou canst throw thyself but for a moment into that place where no creature dwelleth, then thou hearest what God speaketh. The scholar asked: Is that near or far off? The master replied: It is in thee, and if thou canst for a while cease from all thy thinking and willing, thou shalt hear unspeakable words of God. The scholar said: How can I hear, when I stand still from thinking and willing? The master answered: When thou standest still from the thinking and willing of self, the eternal hearing, seeing, and speaking will be revealed to thee, and so God heareth and seeth through thee."

In St Thomas Aquinas it is "the will enlightened by reason" which unites us to God. But there are two sorts of reason. The passive reason is the faculty which rises through discursive thinking to knowledge. The active reason is a much higher faculty, which exists by participation in the divine mind, "as the air is light by participation in the sunshine." When this active reason is regarded as the standard of moral action, it is called by Aquinas synteresis.12 Eckhart was at first content with this teaching of St Thomas, whom he always cites with great reverence; but the whole tendency of his thinking was to leave the unprofitable classification of faculties in which the Victorine School almost revelled, and to concentrate his attention on the union of the soul with God. And therefore in his more developed teaching,13 the "spark" which is the point of contact between the soul and its Maker is something higher than the faculties, being "uncreated." He seems to waver about identifying the "spark" with the "active reason," but inclines on the whole to regard it as something even higher still. "There is something in the soul," he says, "which is so akin to God that it is one with Him and not merely united with Him." And again: "There is a force in the soul; and not only a force, but something more, a being; and not only a being, but something more; it is so pure and high and noble in itself that no creature can come there, and God alone can dwelt there. Yea, verily, and even God cannot come there with a form; He can only come with His simple divine nature." And in the startling passage often quoted against him, a passage which illustrates admirably his affinity to one side of Hegelianism, we read: "The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which He sees me. Mine eye and God's eye are one eye and one sight and one knowledge and one love."

I do not defend these passages as orthodox; but before exclaiming "rank Pantheism!" we ought to recollect that for Eckhart the being of God is quite different from His personality. Eckhart never taught that the Persons of the Holy Trinity become, after the mystical Union, the "Form" of the human soul. It is the impersonal light of the divine nature which transforms our nature; human personality is neither lost nor converted into divine personality. Moreover, the divine spark at the centre of the soul is not the soul nor the personality. "The soul," he says in one place, using a figure which recurs in the "Theologia Germanica," "has two faces. One is turned towards this world and towards the body, the other towards God." The complete dominion of the "spark" over the soul is an unrealised ideal.14

The truth which he values is that, as Mr Upton15 has well expressed it, "there is a certain self-revelation of the eternal and infinite One to the finite soul, and therefore an indestructible basis for religious ideas and beliefs as distinguished from what is called scientific knowledge. . . . This immanent universal principle does not pertain to, and is not the property of any individual mind, but belongs to that uncreated and eternal nature of God which lies deeper than all those differences which separate individual minds from each other, and is indeed that incarnation of the Eternal, who though He is present in every finite thing, is still not broken up into individualities, but remains one and the same eternal substance, one and the same unifying principle, immanently and indivisibly present in every one of the countless plurality of finite individuals." It might further be urged that neither God nor man can be understood in independence of each other. A recent writer on ethics,16 not too well disposed towards Christianity, is, I think, right in saying: "To the popular mind, which assumes God and man to be two different realities, each given in independence of the other, . . . the identification of man's love of God with God's love of Himself has always been a paradox and a stumbling-block. But it is not too much to say that until it has been seen to be no paradox, but a simple and fundamental truth, the masterpieces of the world's religious literature must remain a sealed book to us."

Eckhart certainly believed himself to have escaped the pitfall of Pantheism; but he often expressed himself in such an unguarded way that the charge may be brought against him with some show of reason.

Love, Eckhart teaches, is the principle of all virtues; it is God Himself. Next to it in dignity comes humility. The beauty of the soul, he says in the true Platonic vein, is to be well ordered, with the higher faculties above the lower, each in its proper place. The will should be supreme over the understanding, the understanding over the senses. Whatever we will earnestly, that we have, and no one can hinder us from attaining that detachment from the creatures in which our blessedness consists.

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