Meister Eckhart (1260 – 1328)
Background and Context
Meister Eckhart, also known as John was a German theologian, philosopher, and mystic. He was born in 1260 in Germanic area called Erfurt. He went to study Arts in Paris in 1277, and later he also studied Philosophy at Cologne. During his Bachelor of Theology studies in Paris, he wrote a commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lambard in 1293-94. In 1320, Eckhart graduated with a Master of Theology in Paris. Thus, he was honored the title ‘Meister’ which is ‘Master’ in German referring to his academic achievement as Magister in theologia.
Eckhart was also known as one of the most influential neoplatonists and religious mystical philosopher in 14th century. Moreover, he was also a faithful Thomist, a prominent member of the Dominican order in that era. He was able to become a prior of the Dominican at his own city Eckhart and vicar in Thuringia in 1294. The following year, he started his lecturing as a regent master in both places. For the next decade, he worked as a professor at Strasbourg. Because of his active role as a preacher, teacher, and spiritual leader of those institutions, he became well-known amongst Dominicans and Cistercian nuns, Beguines, and others.
Despite his high reputation, Eckhart had to face serious inquisition when his contemporary theologians raised questions against his teachings in Cologne in 1326. Basically, the case against Eckhart was because of his summaries of his works. Accusing the inquisitors that they were not proficient to evaluate his work, Eckhart also professed himself granting immunity as a mendicant friar, a male member of religious order who solely relies in alms. Being defeated in the judgment in Cologne, he went to Avigon to appeal his case to the Holy See, the State of Vatican City where he died before his case was resolved. Later, people found that the entire case against Eckhart was politically motivated. Before fourteenth century, Eckhart’s work was not discussed and copied due to some controversial statement, but later between 14th to 16th centuries, his works influenced some theologians like John Tauler, Henry Suso, and John Ruusbroec.
The main theme of Eckhart’s sermon 34 is that spirituality and service are inseparable from each other. In this sermon, Eckhart brings out the characteristics of biblical characters Martha and Mary to show how Martha practices the true virtue of service and Mary practices true virtue of spirituality. He presents three clear distinctions that make Mary to sit at the Lord’s feet and Martha to run about and serve her Lord during his visit in her home. Firstly, Eckhart writes that God’s goodness embraces her soul. Secondly, Mary yearns and desires without knowing what she has yearned and desired for . Thirdly, Mary receives comfort and delight from every word of Jesus Christ. In the same way, Eckhart states that Martha is quite mature than Mary, so she can think much of the external matters. Secondly, Martha is wise and cautious about the demand of love. Thirdly, she knows how to maintain the high dignity of her guest.
Further, Eckhart compares these two sisters Martha and Mary as mature and immature. He stresses that when Martha asks the Lord Jesus to send Mary for help, Martha does not speak out of anger. The writer emphasizes this action as a loving kindness, and adds that Martha knows Mary better than Mary knows Martha because of their age. He indicates that Martha, being an older sister is mature and knows more about the external concerns than Mary does. In response to Martha’s external concerns, Jesus makes clear that only one thing is necessary – to embrace Jesus in the spirit by the eternal light.
Eckhart includes the circle of eternity in his sermon. He states that the soul has three ways to God. First, soul “seeks God in all creatures through multiple pursuits and through burning love”. The second way is freedom from the will of the flesh. The final way is a “way” itself where God himself is the way, the truth, and the life. Foster also interprets the work of Eckhart that embrace of the eternal life by light and spirit as enter into “loving, ongoing, ever-growing relationship with God”.
In his work, Eckhart demonstrates that Mary is still learning, and she also has to become Martha in maturity. He claims that Mary is not a true Mary when she is sitting at the Lord’s feet to hear from him. Eckhart compares this event with the day of Pentecost since the disciples also did not begin to carry out their acts of virtue until they received the Holy Spirit. Therefore, in Eckhart’s opinion, Mary is just learning from the teaching of God at present to put into practice as Martha does. For this reason, Eckhart exemplifies Martha as a woman who practices the true virtues of service, and Mary is still in the process of learning to be mature to practice the true virtues. Eckhart communicates once again that spirituality and service cannot be separated from each other in Christian life. Foster also reflects the teaching of Eckhart that “service and spirituality go hand in hand; the active life and the contemplative life should never be separated”. These two Christian characters are like twins which counterbalance each other.
The spirituality and service introduce each other in Christian life. If I say that I obey the word of God, then I should put it into practice as well. I understand that true spirituality leads a man to be a servant who serves God and his people. One cannot separate service from his spiritual life and vice versa. This is not spiritual life if anyone just serves and does not pursue spiritual and godly life. When we look at the world, many people serve all around the world with their own interests. But we cannot call them spiritual, God-fearing, and God-loving because of their global service. This is why service cannot lead a man into spirituality, but spirituality surely leads man into act of service. This truth opened my eyes that my service without spirituality is just a merit and performed in my interest. If I become a spiritual and godly man, I am inclined to serve others by the love of God.
We should speak of this truth in our churches today. Our churches are focusing much more in holistic ministry, but at the same time, they are losing their spirituality. There is no spiritual balance in spirituality and service. They are more likely involving in serving than spiritual life. Once there is a spiritual revival in the church, every heart will be ready to serve. But the situation is worsening because believers are more enthusiastic to serve first rather than seeking true spirituality. An act of service without spirituality is merely hypocrisy. This kind of service is not the service Jesus wants from us. The act of service without spirituality is just a plant without strong root in the ground. Therefore, God left church in the earth so that she may serve people by embracing his light and spirit. His light reveals the church to serve others with his spirit. Then we cannot think that we can serve without his spirit. Thus, the universal church of Jesus Christ to whom he prepares for his witness must not separate spirituality from the act of service.