Meister Eckhart: The Mystic as Theologian

Meister Eckhart: The Mystic as Theologian

by Robert K. C. Forman, Ph.D
Element, Rockport, Mass., 1991; paperback.

Johannes Eckhart , born in 1260 in Hocheim, Germany, is widely considered the greatest German mystic of the medieval .era. He was a Dominican who studied in Cologne, where the influence of Thomas Aquinas was great. Eckhart held influential appointment s in Dominican strongholds and taught theology in Paris and elsewhere, acquiring an exceedingly broad following. While in Paris he attained a master's degree and thenceforth was known as Meister Eckhart . He became a popular preacher and spiritual guide, teaching in the churches and convents along the Rhine.

Due in part apparently to his immense popularity, Eckhart, in his sixtieth year, just after being called to a professorship in Cologne, was charged by the archbishop with heresy for so-called pantheistic and antinomian passages or statements. Eckhart traveled to the papal palace in Avignon to appeal to the Pope, but before action was taken Eckhart died.

Robert K. C. Forman's aim is to interpret Eckhart's mystical experiences clearly and precisely, by following the growth and development of his mystical life, and by analyzing his percept ion of the mystical experience from with in. He addresses the question, " If I were under your tutelage, Master Eckhart , what might I be expected to experience and what significance would it have?"

In placing Eckhart in historical context, Forman states that mysticism, both in the East and the West, has tended to arise during periods of social disorder. In Eckhart's time there was a turning away, because of the rise of urban life and resultant changes in the needs of the people, from the extensive institutions in favor of new spiritual satisfaction within; and mysticism was "in the air."

Forman devotes the entire central portion of the book (five chapters) to a systematic textual -study of Eckhart's references to the mystical stages. He discerns a consistent pattern in the texts - a turning away from the ordinary and the transcient toward the divine. In a chapter on "The Transformation Process" he compares Eckhart's steps with the contemporary psychotherapeutic tradition-the "letting go" of attachments.

The Rapture, or temporary mystical experience (Gezucket) - a stillness in which no thought occurred - is the identical state described by other Christian writers such as St. Paul and St. Augustine. To Forman, this state of consciousness is significant as an initial step leading to the Birth (Geburt) of God in the individual, progressing next to the Breakthrough (Durchbruch). These were to Eckhart the primary foci of the mystical experience.

Birth (unlike the Rapture, a permanent state) required the detachment from all else-an interpretation that Forman finds agreed upon by Eckhart scholars before him. The Birth led to the experiencing of "an intimate coalescence" between God and the soul. The Breakthrough was the advanced mystical experience described by Eckhart, beginning with the internalization of God. Forman perceives this as the ultimate state that "crowns and perfects" the Birth.

The mystical journey to Eckhart was a process of steady spiritual evolution and personal discovery. Forman considers the Breakthrough as experienced by Eckhart to be a "truly novel form" of experience the advanced mystical experience going beyond all distinctions between the self and all creatures and the Godhead. The translation of Eckhart's words on the experience are: " Here God bids all perfections to enter the soul."

Forman finds Eckhart leaning more heavily on Neoplatonic meaning than on Christian trinitarianism and cites passages in specific sermons. Yet he finds the real thrust of Eckhart's teaching on the unity of the trinitarian God as centered on the Son- the Imago Dei-and the Son's birth in the soul, with the Son as the archetype for man.

In summarizing Eckhart's theological system, Forman finds a "systematic world view" in a paradigm that is informed by and accounts for, the steps that may occur in the religious life. The author has at the same time succeeded in this scholarly work in his efforts to clarify the pathway of interior transformation set forth in Eckhart's works.


Summer 1993