The Fire of the Heart: Meister Eckhart's Wisdom for Our Times

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Spirituality community here.

As we struggle with the wars against nature and between religions and gender in our time, it is good to hunt for alternative voices, voices that speak to a common wisdom we can all share and that do so not by superficial appeals to positivism or "being happy" but by diving deep into the depths of self and human nature. Meister Eckhart (1260-1329) is such a voice for he speaks at such a depth of experience that practitioners of all the world's spiritual traditions can see an ally in him. In my recent book, Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times, I put him in the room with people of many faith traditions and with those struggling to make a difference in today's fight for justice and compassion. Allow me to share some of what I have found.

Meister Eckhart shares common ground with Rabbi Abraham Heschel about the need for wonder and awe, which are the beginning of wisdom as well as the work of justice. Says Heschel, "awareness of the divine begins with wonder" and "wonder is an act in which the mind confronts the universe." Eckhart was all about the Cosmic Christ and our going face to face with the sacred universe—the universe within and the universe outside us.

Eckhart's love of the cosmos and all its creatures, his appreciation of the sacredness of creation and the Cosmic Christ (or Buddha Nature) that is found in animals and plants and all creatures, is echoed in the work of scientists and scholars like Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry as well as among indigenous traditions. Eckhart said, "God loves all creatures equally and fills them with his being. We find this attitude among the pagans, people who came to this sense of love-filled equanimity." How rare it is to read Christian theologians of the past extolling the wisdom of indigenous shamanism!

The late Japanese Buddhist scholar Dr. Suzuki recommended to the Catholic monk Thomas Merton that he read Meister Eckhart, "the one Zen thinker of the West." To read Eckhart is to encounter many truths that Buddhism teaches such as the need for stillness or mindfulness. Says Eckhart: "Love God mindlessly, that is, so that your soul is without mind and free from all mental activities.... Be bare of all mind and stay there without mind.... Love God as he is a not-God, not-mind, not-person, not-image, a pure clear One separate from all twoness." Eckhart, like Thich Nhat Hanh, teaches the Apophatic Divinity, a God who is "without a name and will never be given a name," a God of "superessential darkness." Thich Nhat Hanh praises theologian Paul Tillich for his naming God as the "ground of being" but actually Tillich got that naming from Eckhart.

Hindu scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy has written that reading Eckhart is like reading the Upanishads and "many single sentences read like a direct translation from Sanskrit." When I wrote my first book on Eckhart thirty-some years ago, the first response was from a Sufi scholar who wrote a ten-page essay exegeting four sentences from Eckhart and who concluded: "Eckhart is a Sufi." Eckhart credits the Muslim philosopher Avicenna on many occasions for his naming the "spark of the soul" that resides in all of us and that is immortal. He writes: "In the spark of the soul there is hidden something like the original outbreak of all goodness, something like a brilliant light which incessantly gleams, and something like a burning fire which burns incessantly. This fire is nothing other than the Holy Spirit." Rumi, who died when Eckhart was thirteen years old, also used this image when he wrote, "one spark flew and burned the house of my heart/the fire of the heart is not easily lit."

Carl Jung gives Eckhart credit for opening the door of the unconscious to him. He says that among theologians "only in Meister Eckhart did I feel the breath of life." Jung cites Eckhart over thirty-eight times in his work and observes that "too few people have experienced the divine image as the innermost possession of their own souls. Christ only meets them from without, never from within the soul." But Eckhart is different—he takes us to the Christ within and he challenges us to be "mothers of Christ" for "Christ is always needing to be born."

Eckhart is so deeply a feminist thinker that his thought and that of the great feminist poet and essayist Adrienne Rich clearly resonate with one another around important themes of creativity and birthing, nothingness, sinking, silence, embracing the dark, compassion and more.

When it comes to applying Eckhart's deep teachings to current survival issues, Eckhart leads the way in what I call the "4 Es": Ecology, Education, a New Economics, Ecumenism. He supported the women's movement or Beguines of his day (and they him) as well as the peasants to whom he preached in their own dialect (for German at that time was a series of peasant dialects). His main message was that we are all other Christs and "wonderfully made" and of great nobility, a nobility that is to be worked out in service and works of justice. "The person who understands what I say about justice understands everything I have to say," he writes.

I find Eckhart wonderfully suited for our postmodern times: his depth and his breadth are unique and he invites us to travel deep into the "underground river" (his words) where Wisdom dwells. He is beckoning us to wake up and expand our awareness, for, as he puts it, "God is delighted to watch your soul enlarge."