“Be One and the Multifold Will Be One for You”: Personal Unification in Meister Eckhart
Br Ignatius Schweitzer, OP
“He who is not himself a unity is never really anything wholly and decisively; he only exists in an external sense.” (Soren Kierkegaard)
As a daily ritual, Janice attends Mass before beginning the grind of the office. Mass helps Janice focus herself on the Lord so that she can begin the day in a unified manner as she seeks to find God in all things and to do all things for his sake. In short, Janice seeks a unified Christian existence. As she kneels down in prayer, the upcoming workday confronts her. She often makes a resolution of being Christ-like in a specific way, such as responding in charity to harsh words, seeing a difficult co-worker as a child of God, calling upon God when she struggles with a project, thanking God when blessings arise, and so forth. However, Janice notices a clear pattern has emerged with respect to these resolutions: no matter how intensely she beings the day with a firm resolution, through the multiplicity of daily living, the clear light of the single-purpose fades away. Worse yet, shortly after she leaves Mass, she has already become oblivious to God’s presence, which she recalls again only on her way home when she prays the Rosary. There’s a disconnect between her set periods of prayer and day-to-day living. Janice’s personhood is fragmented, she’s neither wholly nor decisively the Christian she is called to be since her unified disposition toward the One God is too easily dissipated by the world’s multiplicity.
Janice’s example illustrates a common struggle in spirituality, not confined to our own time, so it’s not surprising that the 14th-century Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, has something to say to the Christian in her fragmented existence. In fact, as a contemplative preacher, experiencing the tension of balancing monasticism with active ministry, Eckhart is especially equipped to address this issue. This paper lays the foundation for and considers the Meister’s two-step process of seeking personal unity within and then bringing this unified God-centered disposition to the world’s multiplicity. The method aims toward a unified Christian existence where God is truly all in all.
At first glance, it appears that Eckhart follows neo-platonism in repudiating multiplicity for the sake of unity: the Absolute is One and all else is naught. Yet, there are some passages which reveal how multiplicity is upheld even with Eckhart’s strong emphasis on the One. The consistent theme of these passages is the unification of the believer so that the One God can be apprehended even in the world’s multiplicity. Since a lot of the extreme language concerning the One is oriented toward the believer “being alone with the One God,” perhaps Eckhart’s stress on the metaphysical unity of the universe is meant to help the believer attain personal unity of self. The same applies to Eckhart’s theme of transcending the multiplicity of time for the unity of the Eternal Now. Even if this is not Eckhart’s explicit intention, he would have certainly seen such personal unity in his listeners as a desired end of his extreme language of unity. Whatever the case may be, this approach is a good way in which the Christian can appropriate Eckhart’s reflections on the One into a healthy Christian spirituality.
While rejecting any extreme metaphysics of the One which denies multiplicity, it is important to realize the true sense in which the genuine multiplicity of the world does in fact share in God’s unity. All creatures are united to their Creator by having their origin, being held in existence, and having their End in him; as a result, all creatures are marked in varying degrees by the vestige of God. That there is a trace of God in created things allows Eckhart to assert that God can be seen in all things and all things in God. Eckhart notes, “the masters say that the blessed in heaven know creatures without images of creatures, which they perceive rather in a single image, which is God and in which God knows, loves and desires himself and all things. God himself teaches us to pray for and to desire this” (Divine Consolation 64). This unified manner of perceiving all creatures through God’s own knowing and loving is perfected in the Beatific Vision, yet it can be foreshadowed even on earth, if not by fully participating in God’s knowing and loving, then at least by perceiving created things in light of their Creator. For Eckhart, such a unified vision of the world’s multiplicity comes only with personal unity, so he urges, “Be One then, so that you shall find God! And truly, if you are properly One, then you shall remain One in the midst of distinction, and the multifold will be One for you and shall not be able to impede you in any way” (Noble Man 104, italics my own). Here, multiplicity is upheld while unity is stressed. The first three uses of the word “One” encourage personal unity; they speak of being and remaining One. The last use of “One” concerns the unified believer grasping the authentic metaphysical unity of all things in God.
The reason personal unification must precede the apprehension of metaphysical unity is highlighted by Eckhart in a sermon: “Whoever wishes to find light and understanding in all truth, must watch and observe this birth in themselves and in their ground, and then all their faculties shall be illumined as will their outer self” (217). Inner unification and illumination radiates out to the soul’s powers and external senses so that the individual can perceive all created things in the light of God. Since the movement is from inner to outer, in the Talks of Instruction, Eckhart recommends two steps for attaining unity in multiplicity; the first applies solely interiorly, the second maintains this inner unity while encountering the external world:
The first is that we should have sealed ourselves off internally so that our minds are protected from external images which thus remain outside and do not unfittingly associate with us or keep our company or find a place to lodge in us. The second is that neither in our inner images, whether these be representations of things or sublime thoughts, nor in external images or whatever is present to us, should we allow ourselves to be dissipated or fragmented or externalized through multiplicity. We should apply and train all our faculties to this end, maintaining our inwardness. (38-39)
The first step involves developing interior unity; the second involves maintaining this interior unity in the midst of multiplicity. In the first step, the multiplicity of the external world is rejected. Unification can be attained only by going within to the still dark ground of the soul. However, the complete rejection of “external images” of multiplicity is only temporary; for the second step entails returning to the “external images,” but now in a unified way which opposes dissipation.
These two steps are spelled out most fully and practically in Talk 6 of the Instructions. Eckhart suggests, “Take note of how you are inwardly turned to God when in church or in your cell, and maintain this same attitude of mind, preserving it when you go among the crowd, into restlessness and diversity” (9). The interior attitude established in prayer is to be maintained in the midst of various activities and circumstances; personal unity is to be maintained in multiplicity. Someone might ask how this is possible, when the mind is rightly occupied with many different things throughout the day. Although Eckhart here speaks of the “attitude of mind,” this is a little misleading, for a little later Eckhart will specify where the possession of God occurs and how this can be maintained amid various mental activities: “This real possession of God is to be found in the heart, in an inner motion of the spirit towards him and striving for him, and not just in thinking about him always and in the same way” (10).
The heart and not the mind is where this interior activity occurs. Here, “heart,” rather than limited to the seat of the emotions, seems akin to the full notion of “heart” in the hesychast tradition, as the center-point of unity of the whole human being or the primal point of unity beyond the distinction of intellect, will, and emotion. It seems that when Eckhart speaks of the “ground of the soul” he is referring to this same abode where God dwells. Although, according to Oliver Davies, Eckhart, following his neo-platonic tendency, most often identifies the ground of the soul with the intellect (xxv), this is clearly meant in the sense of super-intellect, rather than intellect normally conceived, since Eckhart does not want a “God” of the thoughts. If all this is true, then the place of the heart in the full sense is a rather profuse concept for Eckhart under the metaphors of the image-intellect, ground of soul, spark, crown, fortress and so forth (xxv). So, the many passages containing these metaphors can be read as a commentary and aid to establishing and maintaining personal unification in the midst of multiplicity.
For Eckhart, unified believers are they who “possess God alone, intend God alone and all things become God for them” (9). The state of possessing and intending God alone established in step 1, must illuminate all created things in the light of their Creator, step 2. Unfortunately, Eckhart gives hardly any concrete suggestions on how to maintain this personal unity in the midst of multiplicity, so his account could benefit from being supplemented with a couple. One helpful suggestion may be to have set moments throughout the day—perhaps at every hourly chime of the clock—when one clears the mind and re-gathers him or herself into a unified stillness. Another helpful suggestion is ejaculatory prayer. A short prayer could be repeated at these various short periods of recollection as well as at other free instants: “Jesus, Mary, Joseph!” or “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me!” seem to be popular examples of such. Such concrete and regular practices can help form the habit which is needed to maintain personal unity in multiplicity.
It’s important to note that for Eckhart, personal unification is not an end in itself. In Sermon 25, he stresses that the unification of the soul’s powers, interior stillness, and the emptying of the intellect of images is nothing other than a “state of potential receptivity” (224). Personal unification is oriented to receiving God, both in the birth of the Word in the soul (which Eckhart so likes to emphasize), but also in the same Word which shines through created things. Although Eckhart’s technique doesn’t turn prayer into a naturally self-attained goal—it only prepares the Christian to wait attentively for the Word in a state of potential receptivity—it does nevertheless demand great effort and vigilance as Eckhart insists in Talk 6:
Truly, this demands hard work and great dedication and a clear perception of our inner life and an alert, true, thoughtful and authentic knowledge of what the mind is turned towards in the midst of people and things. This cannot be learned by taking flight, that is by fleeing from things and physically withdrawing to a place of solitude, but rather we must learn to maintain an inner solitude regardless of where we are or who we are with. We must learn to break through things and to grasp God in them, allowing him to take form in us powerfully and essentially. (11)
For the Christian to have a clear perception of his or her interior life in the midst of crowds and activity, this unified awareness needs to be deeply rooted in a friendlier environment, namely in the private prayer of the first step. Yet unless the Christian can bring this inner solitude into the world’s multiplicity in the second step, he or she will never be able to truly grasp God in all things. In a joining of activity and passivity, the open readiness of unification allows the Christian to receive the Word from within, but also to grasp the same Word without, by “breaking through things” and allowing the Word to impress itself on the soul. Furthermore, the brunt of God’s taking form within the soul falls upon the “breaking through created things” of the second step, which, as Eckhart notes, occurs “powerfully and essentially.” So the multiplicity of created things ends up playing an essential role in Eckhart’s spirituality, albeit a multiplicity grasped in a unified way. Perhaps this is the case because grasping God in the objectivity of created things, outside of oneself, allows the Word to exert itself on the soul with less manipulation on the part of one’s own subjectivity than when God is received from within one’s own self. Consequently, someone can be more easily deceived about finding God in solitude than among one’s neighbors, for the self determines more of the perceived reality when not regulated as much by external reality. Without step 2, step 1 can lead to a self-formed “God,” or in other words, an idol.
Eckhart provides the needed incentive to toil along through both steps by painting a stunning picture of the unified mystic’s encounter with the world’s multiplicity:
Whoever possesses God in their being, has him in a divine manner, and he shines out to them in all things; for them all things taste of God and in all things it is God’s image that they see. God is always radiant in them; they are inwardly detached from the world and are in-formed by the loving presence of their God. (10-11)
Such a unified believer is interiorly detached from the world’s multiplicity, yet exteriorly the world’s multiplicity shows itself as a unity in the One God who shines out from all things. This reality of the unified Christian’s existence so persists that Eckhart compares it to a great thirst which remains regardless of the circumstance or activity (11). Like the differing ways thirst is experienced—after a hard day’s work in the field, while lecturing, after snacking on pretzels, while battling the flu, upon waking in the morning, and so forth—apprehending God in all things will come with varying experiences while the underlying thirst subsists. The Christian should not try to re-create the experience of praying in the chapel while doing office work. Rather what is sought is the deeper movement of the spirit which can pervade through a multiplicity of experiences, namely, a unified disposition which attentively waits for whatever manner the One God wishes to reveal himself, whether in the quiet stillness of solitude, the meditation on Scripture, the gazing at nature, the weariness of manual labor, the daily grind of the office, the sufferings of sickness, or the service to the poor forsaken neighbor at our doorstep. Then and only then is the Christian’s existence decisive; then is the multifold One for the unified believer.