The Veil : Contemplating the Christian Tradition

 


Homily 69 : Scitote, quia prope est regnum Dei

Meister Eckhart

Our Lord says: "Know that the kingdom of God is close to you". Indeed, the kingdom of God is within us2, and St Paul says that our salvation is nearer to us than we think3. Firstly we should know in what way the kingdom of God is close to us, and secondly, when the kingdom of God is close to us. Accordingly we should know the sense of this. If I were a king and did not know it, I should be no king. But if I had the firm conviction that I was king, and if everybody believed it with me, and if I knew for certain that that was everybody's belief, then I would be king and all the king's treasure would be mine, and I should lack none of it. These things are necessary conditions for my being a king. Failing any one of these three things, I could not be a king. A master declares and the best of our masters with him that blessedness depends on our understanding and knowing, and we have a compulsive urge to know the truth4. I have a power in my soul which is ever receptive to God5. I am as certain as that I am a man, that nothing is so close to me as God. God is closer to me than I am to myself: my being depends on God's being near me and present to me. So He is also in a stone or a log of wood, only they do not know it. If the wood knew God and realised how close He is to it as the highest angel does, it would be as blessed as the highest angel. And so man is more blessed than a stone or a piece of wood because he is aware of God and knows how close God is to him. And I am the more blessed, the more I realise this, and I am the less blessed, the less I know this. I am not blessed because God is in me and is near me and because I possess Him, but because I am aware of how close He is to me, and that I know God. The prophet says in the Psalter: "Do not be without understanding like a mule or a horse" (Ps. 31:9). Again, the patriarch Jacob says: "God is in this place, and I knew it not" (Gen. 28:16). We should know God and be aware that God's kingdom is near to hand.

When I think about God's kingdom, I am often dumbfounded at its greatness: for God's kingdom is God Himself in all His richness. It is no small thing, God's kingdom. If one were to consider all possible worlds God might make, that constitutes God's kingdom6. Sometimes I declare that in whatever soul God's kingdom dawns, which knows God's kingdom to be near her, is in no need of sermons or teaching7: she is instructed by it and assured of eternal life: for she knows and is aware how near God's kingdom is, and she can say with Jacob: "God is in this place, and I knew it not" but now I know it'.

God is equally near in all creatures. The wise man says in (?) Ecclesiasticus8: God has set his nets and lines out over all creatures, so that we may find Him in any of them: if this net (full of creatures) were to be cast over a man, he could find God there and recognise Him9. A master says he knows God aright, who is equally aware of Him in all things. I once said: to serve God in fear is good; to serve Him in love is better; but to be able to grasp the love in fear, that is best10. For a man to have a peaceful life is good, but for a man to have a life of pain in patience is better; but that a man should have peace in a life of pain is best. A man may go out into the fields and say his prayers and know God, or he may go to church and know God: but if he is more aware of God because he is in a quiet place, as is usual, that comes from his imperfection and not from God: for God is equally in all things and all places, and is equally ready to give Himself as far as in Him lies: and he knows God rightly who knows God equally (in all things).

St Bernard says: 'Why is it that my eye sees the sky, and not my foot? That is because my eye is more like the sky than my foot is'. For my soul to see God, she must be of heavenly nature. What is it that makes the soul aware of God, so that she knows how close He is to her? The masters say that heaven permits no alien intrusion: no fierce assault can penetrate to do it outrage. So too the soul that is to know God must be fortified and established, so that nothing can penetrate into her, neither hope nor fear nor joy nor grief nor suffering or anything that could disturb her. Heaven is at all points equidistant from earth. Likewise the soul should be equally distant from all earthly things, no nearer to the one than to the other. Where the noble soul is, she must maintain an equal distance from all earthly things, from hope, from joy and from sorrow: whatever it is, she must rise superior to it. Heaven is also pure and clear, free from all impurity but for the moon13. The masters call the moon a midwife of heaven, being the lowest thing above the earth14. Heaven is untouched by time and place. Corporeal things have no place there, and whoever is able to read the scriptures aright is well aware that heaven contains no place. Nor is it in time: its revolution is incredibly swift. The masters say its revolution is timeless, but from its revolution, time arises. Nothing hinders the soul so much from knowing God as time and place. Time and place are fractions, and God is one. Therefore if the soul is to know God, she must know him above time and place: for God is neither this nor that as these manifold things are: God is one. If the soul is to know God, she must not regard anything in time, for as long as the soul is regarding time and place or any such idea, she can never know God. Before the eye can see colour, it must be rid of all colour. A master says, if the soul is to know God, she must have nothing in common with anything. He who knows God knows that all creatures are nothing. If we compare one creature with another, it may well be fair and have some existence: but if we compare it with God, it is nothing.

Sometimes I say, if the soul is to know God, she must forget herself and lose herself: for if she were aware of herself, she would not be aware of God: but she finds herself again in God. By the act of knowing God, she knows herself and in Him all things from which she has severed herself. To the extent that she has abandoned them, she knows herself totally. If I am truly to know goodness, I must know it there where it is goodness in itself, not where goodness is divided. If I am truly to know being I must know it where being subsists in itself, undivided: that is, in God. There she15 knows total being. As I have perchance said before, not all humanity exists in one man, for a single man is not all men16. But there the soul knows all humanity and all things at their highest, for she knows in accordance with being. If a man dwelt in a house that was beautifully adorned, another man who had never been inside it might well speak of it: but he who had been inside would know. I am as certain as that I live and God lives that for a soul to know God, she must know Him above time and place. And the soul that gets so far and has these five things17, that soul knows God and knows how near God's kingdom is, that is, God with all His wealth, which is God's kingdom18.

There is great discussion among the masters in the schools about how it is possible for the soul to know God. It is not due to God's justice or His severity, that He demands much of man, rather it comes from His great bounty, for He wants the soul to be capacious, so as to hold the largesse He is ready to bestow.

No one should think it is hard to come to this, even though it sounds hard and a great matter. It is true that it is a little difficult in the beginning in becoming detached. But when one has got into it, no life is easier, more delightful or lovelier: and God is at great pains to be always with a man and to lead him inwards, if only he is ready to follow. No man ever wanted anything so much as God wants to bring a man to knowledge of Himself. God is always ready, but we are unready. God is near to us, but we are far from Him. God is in, we are out. God is at home (in us), we are abroad. The prophet says: "God leads the just through narrow paths to the highway, that they may come out into the open"19.

May we all follow His lead and let Him bring us to Himself where we shall truly know Him, so help us God. Amen.

 

Notes

1 - From the gospel for the second Sunday in Advent (now used for the first Sunday) (Q). Pfeiffer's text, followed by Miss Evans, is from KT, the Cologne Tauler print of 1543, which contains some sermons by Eckhart. Quint follows Ms. 11 of University College, London, identified by him. It presents a better text than Kr. back

2 - Cf. Luke 17:22. back

3 - Rom. 13:11. back

4 - The master may be Aristotle, but the 'best masters' are the Dominicans, who stress the priority of intellect over will. For the latter part of the sentence I follow Quint and the London Ms. as against Pfeiffer-Evans: 'Our awareness of the sovran good, which is God himself'. back

5 - Doubtless the 'spark in the soul' so often referred to (Q). back

6 - Following the London Ms. with Quint and omitting the negative in Pfeiffer's text ('these make not up his kingdom', Evans). back

7 - Cf. No. 67. back

8 - This is not in Ecclesiasticus: Quint suggests either Hosea 7:12 or Ezekiel 12:13. back

9 - Following Quint's tentative rendering of an obscure passage found only in the London Ms. back

10 - Cf. No. 75. back

11 - Cf. Nos 41, 76. back

12 - Cf. No. 25. back

13 - This somewhat obscure remark finds some explanation in Latin Sermon XLVIII, 1, n. 500 (LW IV, 414): Nota: caelum (infimum est caclum) lunae; quia propinquat terrae, luna est maculosa. Item ipsa eclipsatur (0). back

14 - 'Midwife' is Quint's conjecture for an obscure word in the London Ms. Isidore in his Etymologies III, 71 n. 2 says that Luna is short for Lucina, which is another name for Juno, the goddess of childbirth (0). Cf. LW 1, 261. back

15 - The soul. back

16 - Cf. No. 10. back

17 - The five points mentioned: (1) the soul must be equally far from all things, (2) she must know nothing of time and place, (3) she must know that all creatures are nothing, (4) she must forget herself, and (5) she will find herself and all things again in God. back

18 - The play on richtuom 'riches' and riche 'kingdom' cannot be reproduced in English. back

This passage cannot be traced with certainty. Quint's reference to Sap. 10:10 is somewhat far-fetched. After these words Pfeiffer has: 'that is, to the true freedom of the spirit become one spirit with God' (Evans). This is not in the London Ms. and is probably a gloss, and so is omitted by Quint. back