(More) On Prayer: Thoughts from Meister Eckhart

(More) On Prayer: Thoughts from Meister Eckhart July 4, 2016
(A sculpture of Meister Eckhart, Bad Wörishofen, Germany, c. 2012. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License).
(A sculpture of Meister Eckhart, Bad Wörishofen, Germany, c. 2012. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License).

No, be sure of this. Absolute stillness for as long as possible is best of all for you. You cannot exchange this state for any other without harm. That is certain. You would like to partly prepare yourself and partly let God prepare you, but this cannot be. You cannot think or desire to prepare yourself more quickly than God can move in to prepare you. (Meister Eckhart)

(This is a continuation of my last post, available here).

We left Simone Weil with a question: if attention—full concentration in body, mind, and spirit on God—is the essence of prayer, then how can such be achieved? I noted how simplicity is a necessary corrective to the multiplicity of the digital age, but what allows one to escape being torn to shred by competing obligations? People have jobs, families—in short, they have lives!

And, for the answer, we must turn to Meister Eckhart, a 13th– and 14th-century Dominican friar, mystic, and theologian. For Eckhart, the key to Christian existence is an inner silence, a receptivity entirely open to God, who always gives Himself to the patient, loving soul:

[Imagining an interlocutor] ‘Am I supposed to be in total darkness?’

Certainly. You cannot do better than to place yourself in darkness and in unknowing.

‘Oh sir, must everything go then, and is there no turning back?’

No indeed, by rights there is no returning.

‘But what is this darkness? What do you call it? What is its name?’

The only name is has is ‘potential receptivity’, which certainly does not lack being nor is it deficient, but it is the potential of receptivity in which you will be perfected […] It would surely be a grave defect in God if He performed no great works in you and did not pour great goodness into you whenever He found you thus empty and bare.

In other words, attention is silence. God pours Himself into us, fills our souls, works miracles within, when we make ourselves available, that is, empty of distractions, empty of the multiplicity of the world.

This should not surprise us:

Be not hasty in your utterance and let not your heart be quick to utter a promise in God’s presence. God is in heaven and you are on earth; therefore let your words be few. (Ecclesiastes 5:1)

One might interject: ‘doesn’t this sound like Quietism?’

It might sound like it, but it is not. Hence, when Eckhart gave a sermon on the story of Mary and Martha, he actually declares that Martha—the active one, the worker, the housemaid—is the superior one (which runs very much contrary to the tradition):

Again, some people hope to reach a point where they are free of works. I say this cannot be. After the disciples had received the Holy Ghost, they began to do good works. And so, when Mary sat at the feet of our Lord, she was learning, for she had just gone to school to learn how to live. But later on, when Christ had gone to heaven and she received the Holy Ghost, she began to serve: she travelled overseas and preached and taught, acting as a servant and washerwoman to the disciples. Only when the saints become saints do they do good works, for then they gather the treasure of eternal life.

In his own terminology, this person is “both a virgin and a wife,” that is, empty of all things, yet fruitful. Inner silence, emptiness, receptivity are merely the ground, the ground in which God may fill us—filled so as to bear fruit, that is, to love one another.

To put our attention on God is to turn away from the vicissitudes of life. Hence, during the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, we are entreated to “set aside all earthly cares.”

Prayer, of course, is multifaceted; there are many way to pray. But here I have made the case for brevity, for silence, and for absolute attention on the love of God. Such prayer seems to me to be the antidote to our age, an age filled with business and distractions—one with no time for silence.  We may love one another by letting God entirely occupy our souls; we may then express His love in fullness of attention to them. We go, then, from silence, to love, to works.

Let us, then, heed Eckhart’s words:

Martha was so well grounded in her essence that her activity was no hindrance to her: work and activity she turned to her eternal profit […] Lo and behold, then strife changes to joy. For what a man has gained by heavy toil brings him heart’s delight, and then it bears fruit.

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