April - Eckhart of Hochheim

Doctor of the Church, died 1329

There is no particular reason why we should choose April to celebrate Eckhart, and his name is not on any ordinary list of saints. However, Meister (Master) Eckhart has featured in our Wednesday lunchtime series in Lent, In the Company of Saints, which is good enough reason to say a little more about him.

Meister Eckhart, Dominican priest, mystic and prophet, was born about 1260 at Hochheim near Gotha in Germany. He studied at the University of Paris, becoming a professor there and later at Cologne. Like Francis of Assisi, he was much affected by the Celtic tradition of the Rhine area, but it was holy women who seemed to most affect his life and thinking. He was influenced by, among other mystical nuns, the deeply spiritual and versatile Benedicine, Hildegarde of Bingen, and the mystical poetry of St Mechthild of Magdeburg. His major conversion came from ministering to a lay women’s movement, the Beguines, in Strasbourg and Cologne.

Eckhart’s sermons and writings were a major contribution to the creation-centred spiritual tradition, informed by a deep immersion in the scriptures - particularly the wisdom literature and the prophets, with emphasis on themes of blessing, beauty, compassion, creativity and healing as well as justice. He had profound, and sometimes controversial, things to say about how we can relate to God in prayer. His most systematic work, on a four-fold path to holiness, mixes mysticism and metaphysics with worldly insight and is rich in spiritual nourishment. His influence can be traced in the teachings of John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and many others including the radical protestant movements leading up to the reformation.

He emphasised the delight and joy we should take in creation, because creation gives joy to God who is constantly making things new and beautiful. ‘All things are continually in the process of beginning to be created’. In our own creativity we come closer to God, participating in creation and not just gazing upon it.

Meister Eckhart had an inclusive view of society and a passionate concern for justice which flowed naturally from his understanding of God as creator. He maintained ‘Every creature is a word of God’ At one point he told peasants that they were all ‘aristocrats’ because God had made them all so beautiful - a thought which did not endear him to some authorities. It helps perhaps to remember that Eckhart, as a Dominican, was a member of he first institution in Europe to be run on truly democratic lines. The 50,000 plus Dominicans had used representative government since their foundation and elected their Master-General by simple majority vote. The importance of social justice in his theology is summed up, perhaps surprisingly for a mystic, as: ‘The person who understands what I have to say about justice understands everything I have to say.’

Although made a Doctor of the Church personally by Pope Boniface VIII, he later got into trouble with the Archbishop of Cologne for being too unorthodox and outspoken, and was condemned at a papal trial. His ideas were lost to mainstream Christianity for many years but were more appreciated in the secular world, having influence on Karl Marx, Jung, Heidigger and Erich Fromm among others. He died in obscurity in 1329 after his trial but before he was condemned.

It is poignant that justice, one of his main themes, was done to him over 600 years later. While for many years scholars have argued that his condemnation was mistaken, it took until the Second Vatican Council of the 1950’s to restore his reputation, and it was only in 1980 that all censures were fully lifted following representations from the Dominican Order. Being strong on gratitude (for God’s creative energy in the world and in ourselves) Meister Eckhart would probably say "thank you".

As he said, ‘If the only prayer you say in your whole life is Thank You, that would suffice.’

Jim McLean

St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 24th March 1998