God as “God” couldn’t satisfy the spirituality of a fly.
This piece of Eckhart’s is the height of mystical attainment, from a 14th century Dominican monk. I transcribed it late last century. It is Sermon 87 ‘On the Poor in Spirit’, and I can’t remember whose translation I was reading when I felt prompted to do it. The translation used heavy grammar and uncomfortable idiom – for instance, it was full of “a man this” and “a man that”, instead of using more personal language.
That may (or may not) have well reflected the Old Middle German of the original, but does not speak very directly to us. Also, the original sermon included a long meandering exposition on a parable, which was undoubtedly a filler for Eckhart, and may have been a requirement in the convention of sermon-giving. It may also have had the effect of disguising his main thesis here, one which is enough to blow your socks off.
As I was reading his sermons, I felt that I was seeing a gradual development in the inner life of this mediaeval mystic, which bloomed to a sudden, brilliant flower of Self-realisation. I became impatient with the stilted prose that made what is remarkable seem dull. The words here are entirely Eckhart speaking for himself – I have done nothing but excise the parable, make the diction more direct, and do some paragraph formatting to help show the plan of his sermon. The amusing expressions and metaphors are all his, as he stands on the pinnacle of self-discovery. It starts with a quotation from the New Testament, Matthew 5:3 .
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Now there are two kinds of poverty. One is external poverty, greatly to be esteemed in one who practises it voluntarily, as Christ himself practised it. I don’t want to say any more about that. But there is a different poverty, an inward poverty, and it is this that Christ means when he says, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ So what is poverty and what is a poor person?
A poor person wants nothing, knows nothing and has nothing.Understand this truth if you can, and if you can’t, don’t burden yourself with it – there are few who will understand.
A poor person wants nothing.
Some don’t understand this. They are attached to their penances and external exercises. These things seem important, and they look like saints, but really they are donkeys – they can’t distinguish divine truth. They act as though being poor means never ever doing anything they like. Let us commend them for their good intentions. But I say that they are not poor, nor do they resemble a poor person. They don’t know anything about poverty.
So what is a poor person who wants nothing? So long as you have a will with which you want to fulfill God’s will, that is not true poverty. As long as you have a will to fulfill God’s will, and a longing for God and eternity, then you are not poor; for a poor person is one who has a will and a longing for nothing.
When I stood in my first cause, then I had not ‘God’, and I was my own cause. I wanted nothing, I longed for nothing, for I was an empty being, and the only truth I rejoiced in was in the knowledge of myself. Then it was myself I wanted and nothing else. What I wanted I was, and what I was I wanted; and so I stood, empty of God and of everything. But when I went out from my own free will and received my created being, then I had a ‘God’ – because before there were any creatures, God wasn’t ‘God’, he was only what he was. When creatures came to be, God wasn’t ‘God’ in himself, but he was ‘God’ in his creatures.
Now I say that God, insofar as he is ‘God’, is not the perfect end of created beings. In fact, if a fly had reason and could seek for spiritual depth, ‘God’ couldn’t satisfy the fly. So let us pray that we may be free of ‘God’ and instead understand the truth where the fly and the soul and the highest angel are all equal: that where I was established, I was what I wanted and I wanted what I was.
So if you are poor, you must want and desire as little as you wanted and desired when you did not exist. This is what it means to be poor and want nothing.
A person is poor who knows nothing.
Sometimes I have said that you ought to live as though you did not live for yourself or for the truth or for God. But now I say something different, and more: that if you want this poverty, you have to live as though you do not even know that you aren’t living for yourself, or for the truth, or for God. In fact, you should be so free of all knowing that you don’t even know or experience or grasp that God lives in you. For when man was established in God’s everlasting being, there was no different life in him. What was living there was himself. So I say that man should be set as free of his own knowing as he was when he was not. Let God perform what he will, and let man be free.
The actions proper to a human are loving and knowing. The question is, which of these is most blessed? Some authorities say that it is knowing, others that it is loving, others that it is both knowing and loving, and what they say is better. But I say that it does not consist either in knowing or in loving. In the soul there is something from which knowing and loving flow; but the something itself does not know or love as mind does. If you know this you know what blessedness consists in. The something has no before and no after, and it is not waiting for anything that is to come, for it can neither gain nor lose. So it is deprived of the knowledge that God is acting in it; but it is itself the very thing that rejoices in itself in the same way that God does in himself. So I say that you have to be established, free and empty, not knowing or perceiving that God is acting in you; and so you may possess poverty.
The authorities say that God is a being, and a rational one, and that he knows all things. I say that God is neither being nor rational, and that he does not know this or that. Therefore God is free of all things, and therefore he is all things. If you wish to be poor in spirit, you must be poor of all your own knowledge, so that you know nothing, not God or created things or yourself.
Therefore it is necessary for you to long not to be able to know or perceive God’s works. In this way you can be poor of your own knowledge.
A poor person has nothing
Third, a person is poor who has nothing. Many people have said that it is perfection when one possesses no material, earthly things, and in one sense this is true, if a person does it voluntarily. But this is not the sense in which I mean it.
I have said just now that you are poor when you do not want to fulfil God’s will, and you live so that you may be free both of your own will and of God’s will, the same way as you were when you were not. About this poverty I say that it is the highest poverty. Second I say that you are poor when you know nothing of God’s works in you. This is the purest poverty. But a third form is the most intimate poverty; and this is when you have nothing.
Now pay attention and give heed! I have often said that you should be so free of all things and all works, both interior and exterior, that you might become a place only for God, in which God could work. Now I say otherwise. If it is the case that you are free of all created things and of God and of yourself, but if God can find a place to work in you, then you are not poor with the most intimate poverty. For it is not God’s intention in his works that man should have a place in himself for God to work in. Poverty of spirit is for man to keep so free of God and all his works that if God wishes to work in the soul, he himself is the place in which he is to work; and that he will gladly do. For if he finds a man so poor as this, then God performs his own work, and the man is in this way suffering God to work, and God is his own place to work, and so God is his own worker in himself. Thus in this poverty man pursues the everlasting being which he was and which he is now and which he will evermore remain.
So I say that you must be so poor that you have not got any place in which God could work. When you cling to place, you cling to distinction. Therefore I pray to God that he may make me free of God, for my real being is above God, if we take God to be the beginning of created things. In the same being of God when God is above being and above distinction, there I myself was, there I willed myself and committed myself to create this man. Therefore I am the cause of myself in the order of my being, which is eternal, but not in the order of my becoming, which is temporal. I am unborn, and in the manner in which I am unborn I can never die. In my unborn manner I have been eternally, and am now, and shall eternally remain. When I am in the order of having been born, that will die and perish, for it is mortal, and so it must in time suffer corruption. In my birth all things were born and I was the cause of myself and of all things; and if I had wished it, I would not be, nor would all other things be. And if I did not exist, God would also not exist. That God is God, of that I am a cause; if I did not exist, God too would not be God. There is no need to understand this.
Creature/Creator not the state of blessedness
When I flowed out from God, all things said. “God is”. This cannot make me blessed, for with this I acknowledge that I am a creature. But in the breaking-through, when I come to be free of will of myself and of God’s will and of all his works and of God himself, then I am above all created things. Then I am neither God nor creature – I am what I was and what I shall remain, now and eternally. I receive such riches that God, insofar as he is ‘God’, with all his divine works, cannot satisfy me; for in this breaking through I find that God and I are one. Then I am what I was, and I neither diminish nor increase, for then I am an immovable cause which moves all things.
Here God finds no place in you, for with this poverty you achieve what you have been eternally and will evermore remain. Here God is one with the spirit, and that is the most intimate poverty you can find.
If you do not understand what I have said, do not burden your heart with it; for as long as you are not equal to this truth, you won’t understand these words, because it is beyond speculation; it is a truth that has come immediately from the heart of God. May God help us so to live that we may find it eternally.
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