A Gift of Eckhart
The best way of learning about any thinker, even the most difficult, is by starting at the beginning and reading. This is particularly true of the writings of the philosopher and mystic, Meister Eckhart (1260- 1327), a Dominican theologian. There is a great deal written about Eckhart from widely varying perspectives from Christian to Buddhist, existentialist, idealist and many more. I think it best to begin with Eckhart's own vernacular (German language) teachings and to try to respond to them.
A spiritual treasure, this book is the most comprehensive single volume in English available of Eckhart's German writings. Initially published in three volumes in the 1979 and 1987, the translations are by Maurice O'C Walshe (1911 - 1998). Walshe was a professor of Medieval Germanic Languages and Literature in England. In 1951, Walshe became a Theravada Buddhist and was active in Buddhism for the remainder of his life. He is probably best-known for his translation of an important and lengthy Buddhist Scripture, the "Long Discourses of the Buddha." Walshe's translation of Eckhart's sermons is marked by the same simplicity that characterizes his translation of the Buddhist suttas. The writing is clear and unstilted. Footnotes are short and kept to a minimum. The book has been reprinted and published in a beautiful edition of 600 pages by Crossroad Publishing Company of Herder & Herder.
Eckhart wrote scholarly works in Latin and works for the broader public in German. Most of his sermons were transcribed by his audience and perhaps reviewed and edited by Eckhart. His audience most often consisted of nuns or other women in the religious life. The German sermons, included in this book, are much more accessible than are the Latin treatises. Most of the sermons begin with a Scriptural text which Eckhart expounds freely and allegorically rather than literally In studying the sermons, it is important to remember that Eckhart delivered them orally and that his audience tended to be women religious.
The book includes 98 Eckhart sermons which, at the time of Walshe's translations, were those that had been deemed authentic and published by a great Eckhart scholar, Joseph Quint (1898 - 1976). There are additional Eckhart sermons, but that should not concern the reader as there is much in this book to be absorbed. In addition to the sermons, the book includes translations of Eckhart treatises, "The Talks of Instruction", the famous "Book of Divine Comfort", "The Nobleman" and, another famous treatise, "On Detachment". A final section of the book includes short legends about Eckhart and a brief document purporting to capture the Meister's final words to his disciples. Walshe's own lucidly written prefaces to the initial volumes are included, and there is a short Foreword by the noted Eckhart scholar Bernard McGinn.
Many readers find parallels between Eckhart's thought and Buddhism, but the point, or any particular interpretation, should not be pressed in a brief review of Eckhart's texts. The sermons can appear to be dizzyingly abstract, but Eckhart's language is often highly concrete. His style is often aphoristic and quotable. It is also deliberately difficult and full of paradox. Eckhart wanted to jar his hearers and readers out of common paths of thinking to allow them to understand anew and for themselves. Eckhart also wanted to show the poverty of language in attaining religious insight. Most readers find a nondualistic character in Eckhart's thought. He wanted to lead his readers away from a dualism between a Transcendent God and an immanent world. Instead, Eckhart suggests that God is in the heart of every person and being. The Divine nature overflows and is all-encompassing. It requires receptiveness and the pushing away of the bounds of sense perception to see the unity between divine nature and the human spirit or "soul". Eckhart tends to use an approach that starts with God and the divine and works down, so to speak, rather than starting with individual perceptions and trying to understand God from the outside. His teachings emphasize egolessness, immediacy, and detachment, which are sometimes summed up in the phrase "living without a why." Readers of Eckhart will find their own way with the texts before beginning with commentaries and interpretations.
The sermons and other writings explore many of the same themes throughout, but they each put them in different ways. For those with little prior familiarity with Eckhart, it is best to work through the text in its entirety but to do so slowly. I recommend reading a little at a time but carefully.
Eckhart's sermons have proved to be a gift to me and to many other readers. I am grateful to Crossroads Press for allowing me to review this volume. Crossroads Press has likewise given a gift to those readers wanting to engage with Eckhart in these translations by Maurice Walshe.