Meister Eckhart’s Three Hinderances

“Whenever there is turmoil, mysticism flourishes”, is the introductory line for the Meister Eckhart chapter of Journey to the Heart: Christian Contemplation Through the Centuries, and there’s something in that idea that gives me hope in these tumultuous times. Meister Eckhart had his own tumult in the 14th century. The major Western power (the Holy Roman Empire) was destabilized with difficulties in elections, the Church was in disarray over important theological differences, and disease ravaged the world. It sounds like a really difficult time to have been alive.

Meister Eckhart was born the son of a noble family, and at the age of fifteen, he became a Dominican novice. The title of “Meister” he received in Paris, when he earned his master’s degree at the age of 42. The Inquisition eventually accused him of heresy, but he died before he could defend himself. Make of that what you will. He was, and is, considered one of the most important Christian mystics in the last six hundred years. Many of his teachings are still valuable to Christians seeking a more mystic path in the contemporary era.

Eckhart taught:

Three things hinder us from hearing the Eternal Word. The first is corporeality, the second multiplicity, the third temporality. If a person had passed beyond these three things, [they] would live in eternity, in the spirit, in oneness, and in the vast solitude; and there [they] would hear the eternal word.

Let’s examine these three hindrances..

Corporality
By ‘corporality’, Eckhart means attachment to the physical world and possessions. When we become unhealthily attached to things and ideas, we feel the need to defend them, which prevents us from experiencing the Eternal Word. He wants us to employ our talents and abilities, but without becoming attached to the outcomes of our work. “Not looking to the past or to future, but I stood in this present moment free and empty according to God’s dearest will”. Free from our attachment to past or future outcomes, we can work God’s will in the present.

Eckhart even cautions attachment to religious things, because of an explosion of “exaggerated religiosity”.

“I am now talking about… all those who are possessively attached to prayer, and fasting, the vigils, and all kinds of exterior exercises and penances… Such people present an outward picture that gives them the name of saints; but inside they are donkeys, for they cannot distinguish divine truth.”

Eckhart isn’t saying the world doesn’t matter, however. As a panentheist (one who believes the Divine infuses everything), the world itself is sacred and alight with the Divine. However, getting too attached to specific things, ideas, and practices prevents us from seeing the Divine in all things, ideas, and practices.

Multiplicity
Meister Eckhart was troubled by the rise of individuality. By ‘multiplicity’, he means seeing each other as separate individuals apart from a whole. It isn’t for Eckhart that individuals can’t have preferences, but it’s when we allow our preferences to override the preference of others, where trouble begins. When we see our preferences as more important, we have set ourselves above those who are equally Loved.

If I loved a person as myself, then whatever happened to [them], good or bad, death or life, I would be as ready for it to happen to me as to [them]. This would be true friendship.

This sounds so foreign to my ears in the hyper-individualistic USA. The hospitals here in Tyler, Tx are full of people who have made their own, individualistic choices. And I’m sickened and heartbroken by it all. I’m very much struggling with how to love people who have refused even the most basic of precautions. But Eckhart, echoing the words of Jesus, calls us to see the vaccinated and unvaccinated (or queer and straight, pro-choice and pro-life, etc) not as two different groups, but as one group infinitely loved by the Divine in equal measure.

The more we can rid ourselves of multiplicity, the easier it is for us to see the face of God. This is a practice; growth, not perfection, is the goal.

Temporality
Getting rid of temporality, for Meister Eckhart, is about getting rid of all ideas of God. In his sermon 52 he prayed “to God that he make me free from God”, because our ideas of God often the consequences of how we view ourselves. He wants us to move past those projections of ourself to worship the Ground of All Being, which lies beyond the concepts of God we hold dear.

Some people want to see God with their eyes as they see a cow and love him as they love their cow— they love their cow for the milk and cheese and profit it makes the. This is how it is for people who love God for the sake of outward wealth or inward comfort. They do not rightly love God when they love him for their own advantage.

Eckhart calls us to love the Ground of All Being, because we are loved, and not for anything else in return. And for us to have any image or idea of God, even to say God is good, is to limit the Infinite and prioritize our own understanding over the I Am.

This teaching may be difficult for many of us, but I urge us all to sit for awhile in this next week and try and work to let go of our attachments to our possessions, our individuality, and even our concepts of God. Heaven knows, we live in tumultuous enough times.

Grace and Peace to you all.

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