Autobiography of Meister Johann Eckhart





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Autobiography of Meister Johann Eckhart

by Alex Tang


Called me Eckhart. It has been such a long time that I have forgotten my given name. Forgive an old man, his feeble memory. People have a tendency to call me Meister Eckhart because I have a many degrees in theology and meister means ‘the master’ in German (which is my nationality and mother tongue) because they think I am pretty smart. They call me Eckhart of Hochheim but Hochheim is my birthplace and not my family name. People also called me a lot of others things, some of which cannot be mentioned in polite company. Some people regard me as greatest thinker before Luther, and a reformer. They also called me a philosopher, theologian, administrator, vicar, prior, professor, spiritual director, preacher, heretic and Pope John XXII  even censured my writings. I may be wrong in my reasoning but I can never be a heretic because my heart is pure towards the Pope, my Order the Dominican, the Word and most of all to my God. But I am getting ahead of my story so let me start at the beginning.

I was born around 1260. My family is German and of a low aristocracy. I do not remember much of my childhood. I entered the Dominican order when I was about eighteen years old. I must have proved to be a bright student because I was then sent to Paris to study.

In the fall of 1293, I was promoted to be a lecturer on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Ah, Paris, what a wonderful town. What a great place for debates and disputations. I can never resist a good fight. This was a time of upheaval in theological thinking. The fight was whether a good Christian should study philosophy and theology. The Franciscan position was that theology was all that is needed and philosophy is heathen thinking and should not be studied by good Christians. I stand by my own order’s thinking that there is no contradiction between philosophy and theology. I believe that all knowledge is God’s knowledge and philosophy can be the tool for Christian theology.

I must have made a good impression because next year in 1294, I was called back to my homeland to be prior of my home convent at Erfurt and be vicar of Thuringia. It was during this time that I wrote The Talks of Instruction which against convention, I wrote in German rather than Latin. The book has 23 chapters: 1-8 dealt with the denial of self through obedience; 9-17 with practices of the Christian life and 18-23 dealt with the ‘exterior’ and ‘interior’ spiritual life. I believe that God has given us a brain and thinking should be part of our Christian life, unlike to some Franciscan I know.

In 1302, at a ripe old age of sixty, I was called back to Paris to be magister actu regens, the external Dominican chair of theology. I was awarded the degree, Master of Sacred Theology. That is the highest recognition of academic success. I was so proud that I have to go to confession many times!  Here I continued to develop my thoughts on the primacy of intellect and its action in the Christian life. I even have a public debate with Franciscan Master Gonsalvo of Spain about this. Master Gonslavo spoke for the Franciscan stand of the primacy of the will. I cannot remember who won.

In 1303, I was sent back to Germany to take up the post of provincial for the newly created province of Saxonia. Saxonia has 47 convents in eastern and northern Germany and the Low countries. Here I preached a number of sermons, which was collected later as Paradise of the Intelligent Soul. I begin to develop some key thoughts like God is above  being and goodness, that we have to go beyond thinking to reach God, God beyond everything we can even imagine, a negation of negation and yet, God is everything (esse est deus)!  I also founded 3 convents for women. In 1307 I was elected vicar of Bohemia. In 1310, I was elected vicar of Teutonia but I was ordered to decline this honor by the Dominican Master General.

On May 14, 1311 at the General Chapter held at Naples, I was again given the privilege to be magister at Paris again. This is a great honor. The only other person who held the post twice was Thomas Aquinas. Again, more time at confession! Here I become interested in the beguines ideas and have learnt much from the women mystics such as Marguerite Porete and Mechthild of Magdeburg.

In 1313, I left Paris for Strasbourg to function as special envoy for the Dominican Master General, first Berengar of Landora, then Hervaeus Natalis. Here I spend a lot of time doing what I enjoy most; preaching, teaching and giving spiritual direction. Whenever I preach or teach, I did it in vernacular because I believe that people must be able to understand the Word preached and learn, rather than listening to all that Latin stuff and going away none the wiser. Some of my colleagues have warned me about this. This will come back to haunt me later.

In about 1323, when I was nearing my seventies, I was sent to Cologne where the Dominican studium generale was located, the intellectual home of the preachers in Germany. At this time, the storm that was brewing about my teaching burst. In the 1325 Dominican General Chapter held in Venice, some spoke out about certain friars who say things in their sermons who can easily lead simple and uneducated people into errors. Pope John XXII appointed Nicholas of Strasbourg and Benedict of Como to investigate. They presented a list of suspect passages from my Book of Consolation but I was able to respond to these passages. I was happy and thought the matter closed.

But my enemies were preparing another attack, this time with two lists! It involves my Latin and German works and also my vernacular preaching. On September 26, 1326 I appeared before the diocesan inquisitorial commission to defend myself against heresy. I also know of a third list being prepared. Talk about overkill! I prepared my defense but at the right moment, I played my trump card. I told them that I belong to the Dominican order and it is a canonically exempt order and is directly under the pope. That meant they have no right to try me. I therefore appealed to the pope (which I learnt from St.Paul) and to the pope I went.

In 1327, I was sent to the papal court of Avignon. This will be the last station in my life. I am glad. All these travelling were giving me a headache. Pope John XXII appointed two commissions, one of theologians and the other of cardinals. Of the 150 suspect articles held against me, it was finally pared down to 28. It was such a tedious ordeal that I died in 1328.

On March 27, 1329, Pope John issued the bull “In agro dominico”. This surprised me since I was already dead. The bull absolves me of heresy, which surprised me even more for I was never condemned for heresy, merely for dangerous teachings. Ah, well. It amuses me to know that these dangerous teachings are very popular today. Bernard McGinn wrote, “Perhaps no mystics in the history of Christianity has been more influential and more controversial than the Dominican Meister Eckhart.”  Who,me?


                                                 Soli Deo Gloria




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