Wandering Joy: Meister Eckhart's Mystical Philosophy

Trans. Reiner Schurmann
Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2001. Paperback, xxi + 264 pages.

No history of mysticism or compilation of the writings of the great mystics through the ages would be complete without reference to that brilliant and original teacher, the Dominican friar and mystical theologian, Meister Eckhart. Born Johannes Eckhart in 1260, he acquired the title "Meister" after receiving his master's degree in theology from the University of Paris in 1302. As Richard Tarnas points out in The Passion of the Western Mind, the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries in Europe witnessed an extraordinary wave of mystical fervor. Eckhart was not only part of that wave but was central to it-often called the "founder" of the Rhineland mystics. It was Eckhart who gave to the mysticism of the period an intellectual subtlety based on the Platonic and Neoplatonic traditions, as well as the philosophical views of Thomas Aquinas and Aquinas's teacher Albertus Magnus, who may well have also been Eckhart's teacher when he studied at Cologne on his entrance into the Dominican order.

Beyond the numerous philosophical views current during the tare Middle Ages, which inevitably had their influence on the thought of Eckhart, his formulations were original. And it is to this originality in formulating the mystical experience by translating "an ineffable experience ... into daily language so as to become communicable," that- the present book directs our attention. Reiner Schurmann, who was Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City prior to his death in 1993, uses Eckhart's German sermons to illustrate both his originality of thought and "the creative genius of his language." Schurmann, who was also convinced of the contemporaneity of Eckhart's speculative mysticism, points up the ways in which Eckhart adapted or interpreted Augustinian, Thomistic, Albertian, and Neoplatonic doctrines, and in fact the entire doctrinal lineage to which he was heir (including the views of the Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, and Origen), stretching back to pre-Christian Stoicism.

This is not an easy book to read, but for anyone who would understand Eckhart's thought, his mystical philosophy, his unique formulation of the mystic via negative, there could be no better text than Schurmann's. As David Appelbaum stares in the foreword to the book, Schurmann introduces us “to Eckhart's single-pointed concern with the mystery of birth," that is, "theogenesis, the birth of God ... in a human being." Appelbaum then adds, "There is much perception in the scheme Schurmann provides as a first course in Eckhart's teaching. The birthing process ... is not described as an ascent by degrees ... But it has three distinct phases: detachment, releasement, and (to use Shurmann’s slightly archaic term) dehiscence…the bursting forth…of the fruit” Because the process is a rigorous one as well as one without end, he adds:

Releasement only approaches, but does not enter, that virginal terrain of the Godhead. It wanders outside the wilderness, growing in relation with each step. We in our winding itinerary experience an aimless joy, a joy that uplifts us in our worldly ways. At this high pitch of Eckhart's leaching, the searing intensity of wakefulness carries its own feeling. Schurmann entitled the original French edition of 1972 Maitre Eckhart ou la joie errante. The joy of divine birth is a wandering joy. [xiv]

To achieve his purpose of opening up Eckhart's mystical philosophy for contemporary readers, Schurmann has concentrated on Eckhart's German sermons, which he addressed to the nuns and laity of the Rhineland in his native tongue and in which, as Schurmann says, "he was more original and more personal ... without the confining apparatus of late scholasticism," which we find in his Latin works "written for academic purposes." As Schurmann point's out, however, "Meister Eckhart teaches basically the same thing in both languages. The Latin work constitutes the doctrinal basis for the understanding of his thought. ... The Latin works mark the road, but the German works invite us on the journey." Wandering Joy consists, then, of Schurmann's own translations (from Middle High German) of eight of Eckhart's German sermons, three of the eight being followed by a careful analysis of the argument and then by a useful but solidly packed commentary on the main themes in the sermons.

Schurmann also points up how perilously close Eckhart came to heresy in many of his affirmative statements concerning God, the Godhead (or the God beyond God), the birth of God within the "soul" or "mind," and so on. It was, of course, because of many of these arguments that finally, in 1326, Eckhart was accused by the Archbishop of Cologne of spreading dangerous doctrines among the common people. Hailed before three inquisitors, two of whom were Franciscans (as was the archbishop), Eckhart declared he was not a heretic though he conceded that many of his teachings had been distorted or misunderstood. Censured at the Cologne trial, Eckhart appealed to the Pope, and a second trial was convened at Avignon. Schurmann deals in comprehensive endnotes with several of the "propositions" that had been declared "heretical." He also points out that a papal bull issued by Pope John XXII a year after Eckhart's death declared seventeen of the twenty-eight articles heretical and the remainder "dangerous and suspect of heresy."

Two of Schurmann's translations of the Middle High German words are particularly felicitous, as coming closer to Eckhart's thought than the customary renderings. First is the term sele, interpreted by many writers as "soul," but by Schurmann as "mind." Schurmann defends this by pointing out that "Eckhart's vocabulary in this case is Augustinian. Sele mostly stands for Augustine's mens or animus, both of which are usually translated as 'mind'." Later, in commenting on one of the sermons, Schurmann refers to the Greek term, nous, probably as also meaning sele. The other term is even more revealing of Eckhart's essential thought. Schurmann suggests that the Middle High German word gelazenheit (modern German Gelassenheit) is the "authentic core of Meister Eckhart's thinking." As he says early in the text, this "key term" has been translated as "serenity," "letting go," or "abandonment," but he believes the translation "releasement" is more appropriate. In one of the best of Schurmann's exegeses of Eckhart's sermons, he emphasizes the relevance of releasement and what he calls the four "intensities of releasement" (dissimilarity, similarity, identity, and "dehiscence") as road markers on the way to that place "where absolute stillness, utter silence and unity reign," to union with "the unknown one." Schurmann says:

Eckhart announces a simple message; his doctrine has nothing esoteric or extraordinary about it. It concerns what is most ordinary in an existence. It deals with experiences that the majority of men have. It responds to elementary questions in the apprenticeship of life: What about my original liberty, and how can it be regained? How can I come back to myself? Where can 1find joy that does not tarnish? [81] The single thought around which [Eckhart's] message is articulated is expressed in verbs that speak of deliverance: "to rid oneself of something," "to become free," "to be a virgin," "to let be." These words indicate a road. [81]

And that road, says Schurmann, is "detachment" or "renunciation":

Detachment not only reveals man's condition and the condition of the ground, but also God's own condition. God is not; God is nothing as long as man lacks the breakthrough to the Godhead. If you do not consent to detachment, God will miss his Godhead, and man will miss himself. [80]

Nevertheless, the crux of the matter according to Schurmann is that "detachment turns progressively into releasement. The lower intensities of releasement require an effort of the will; the higher intensities...exclude every voluntary determination… The intensities of releasement result from the actualization of the center, or ground, in man" (82). Schurmann has prepared us for this development by his statement in the introduction