“The person who understands what I have to say about justice understands everything I have to say.” That’s a line you’d expect to hear more from a civil rights activist or a Supreme Court judge, not from a Christian friar living in the 13th century. Yet that is the common thread running through Meister Eckhart’s life work—teachings that spanned the full realm from religion to politics and were flexible enough to speak to both the rich and the poor.
Meister Eckhart embodied the term “interfaith” centuries before the word even existed. In our globalized interspiritual landscape where we can take in a Catholic mass in the morning, go to a Buddhist meditation in the afternoon and attend a Sufi zikr in the evening, all without leaving our neighbourhood, we have a new way of relating to spirituality that demands teachers who can speak different dialects. Meister Eckhart was one such man.
Akin to Eckhart, Matthew Fox is a teacher who knows the importance of crossing barriers to connect different traditions and to weave what’s learned from one tradition into another to come to a more full understanding. His interest in the interrelationship of spiritual traditions sparked a fascination with Meister Eckhart.
In his straightforwardly named book Meister Eckhart, Fox delivers 12 chapters, each dedicated to a different spiritual tradition or practice such as Buddhism or depth psychology, linking Eckhart’s teachings from the perspective of a metaphorical meeting between him and another great thinker such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Carl Jung and Rumi. It’s an effective way to structure a book that shows how Eckhart was himself a Buddhist, a depth psychologist, a poet, among other things—raising his relevance among the masses and making him so very accessible as a teacher today.
Mystic warrior / Contemplative activist
Fox calls Eckhart a mystic warrior for our age. He describes the mystic as a lover and a warrior as someone who stands up for what they cherish. “Today it’s not enough to be a mystic. You also have to be a warrior,” Fox says. “We’re living in a time where we all have to be both. The mystic is the contemplative and the warrior is the activist. So we need contemplative activists because the Earth is in so much trouble and humans are the cause and we have to start transforming our ways beginning of course with our inner patterns that we project to our institutions and our ways of living.”
Eckhart was both a lover and a warrior the same way Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh is so it’s no coincidence Fox devoted a chapter to the two of them. Just as Thich Nhat Hanh boldly stood up for peace during the Vietnam War, Eckhart stood up for the women’s movement at a time when it was risky to do so. He was the first theologian and intellectual to preach in German rather than in Latin so he could connect to the poor. He knew the importance of social justice and pursued it with an admirable depth of courage and compassion.
To Eckhart, compassion isn’t just something to meditate on, it’s something that needs to be practiced. He equates compassion with justice. The kind of justice that requires hard work and courage through one’s own service to the world. This compassion is an integral aspect of Buddhism, and the connection between compassion and justice is what Thich Nhat Hanh points to in his style of “engaged Buddhism.”
Fox considers Eckhart to be deeply Buddhist despite never having met a Buddhist. He came to universal truths like that of the apophatic divinity, or the unknowability of divinity, through his own practice as a Christian friar—a practice that tapped largely into the power of meditative silence.
Eckhart and silence
Fox stresses the importance of silence and to stop projecting our ideas onto the word “God.” “Nothing in our creation is so like God as silence. Quit flapping your gums about God and speak from the inner wealth of silence,” he says, relating Eckhart’s teaching. “We have to let go of our presumption about who God is and is not and to go into a deeper place and let the sacredness of existence and life emerge.” It’s from there that we can let divinity be itself, empty our mind and sink into Oneness.
The fact that a lot people today are frustrated with the G-word really is a powerful opportunity because it inspires us to rethink things in a way that works for us. Fox likens the Cosmic Christ archetype to that of Buddha nature. When we love God not as a thing or person, but instead when we sit in silence and dwell in Oneness we reveal the true nature of divinity—that the kingdom of God is within us.
With the growing interest in meditation, Eckhart had a lot to teach through his practice of emptying the mind. Fox calls this practice of meditation “calming the reptilian brain”—something so important that he feels our species cannot survive without it. He highlights a statistic that our society is spending $39,000 a second on war to show that we clearly are running on the reptilian brain and not on the mammal brain—the brain of kinship and compassion.
Our lack of care of life and the world in general suggests a lack of understanding the sacredness of life. As a mystic Eckhart stressed the importance of embracing wonder. To appreciate the awe that this world delivers we have to be silent from time to time.
In addition to silence, another prescription Eckhart would offer for understanding mysticism and embodying the wonder that the world can deliver in our own lives is art. Fox likens Eckhart’s emphasis on creativity to the holy spirit, referring to one scholar’s view that the holy spirit is the spirit of creativity moving through all of us. “I believe that without creativity, without rebirthing our institutions we’re lost as a species.”
Meister Eckhart was a Renaissance man of spirit. He explored the truth so deeply from so many different angles. He realized that, aside from silence, another great way to understand the mystical is through art. Though a lot of people have a hard time being in silence and meditating, so many appreciate art either through the making of it or just passively observing it.
And to connect with the more people the better. Eckhart lived a life of service and to do his job to the best of his ability he needed to find ways to connect with as many people as possible.
Eckhart’s devotion to serving others really resonates with Fox. “To me spirituality is not just about being blissful, it’s not just about being enlightened on a pillow for 12 years,” he says. “It is about service. It is about action. It is about putting compassion to work. It is about being a mystic warrior.”