God gives the whole of Himself

Commentaries on Meister Eckhart Sermons,
by Dom Sylvester Houédard

From the sermon, ‘The Feast of St. Benedict’

(Meister Eckhart’s words are given in bold.)

Many people do not reach this understanding of the light, but because there is nothing sinful in the obstructions that they have, therefore the light is still enlightening them, it is not impeded. We do not have to be aware of it but we do have to be aware of our own nothingness. There is no reason why we should have to reach that point in this life, but we taste in this life and it is a foretaste. This tasting of God is something which is not incurnbent on people because it is what goes on for ever and ever, in a deeper and deeper way, throughout the next life. For some people it is possible to have this foretaste in this life, but for those who are not sinful then it is that light which shines out in their deeds. Therefore, you can never separate the zahir from the batin; you cannot have the outside of a teacup on one table and the inside of the same teacup on another table. And again, Ibn ‘Arabi is so very strong when he speaks against what he calls the ‘deviated esotericists’ who think you can only have an inside and do not need an outside.

– and they are greatly exercised as to how the soul can become receptive to it. How does the light corne into the soul? Well it is in the mind. We say it is the presence of God but He is present as us. He actualises the possibilities, which is a dis­tinct, unique possibility for each of us and as possibilities we have been those true possibilities for all eternity. We are not just suddenly invented. From all eternity we exist in the mind of God and are known by God knowing His truth, and so when He actualises us by the gift of Himself, we find it difficult to say whether the light, the deifying Light as St Benedict calls it, the light by which we become like God, whether it is God or whether it is us; whether it is natural light or divine Light. It becomes divine as we understand what it is and we realise that it always has been divine and yet it is difficult in the grammar of thinking, of logic and logical deduction that goes on in the mind, which is the field of psychology and psychiatry. But all that is quite irrelevant to this awareness at the centre of mind, which is awareness of the mere possibility of all that goes on in psychology or in psychiatry.

I say – this is Eckhart’s answer to this particular point. He is always trying to reformulate what he says here in the next three lines; he reformulates it again and again because it is so diffi­cult to put it into words, especially if you are addressing a group of people – that His divinity depends on His being able to communicate Himself to whatever is receptive to Him: and if He did not communicate Himself, He would not be God. He says in another place: ‘God is not God to the possibilities whose truth God is’ but God is only God to possibilities that are actualised by the self-gift of God and God is received according to the receptivity. God gives the whole of Himself. Of course, that is just what the orthodox doctrine of creation says, that this gift of God is the giving of the whole of God to everything that is by way of becoming and immediate gift. Once He gives Himself and is received, then God becomes God because then God can be conceived as inconceivable by the human mind; that is the highest concept we can have of God.

The soul that God loves – God knows the truth and is the truth of every possibility of sharing in Himself, of receiving His self-gift and those possibilities to which He actually does give Himself are those which actually exist in time. There is a tendency in Ibn ‘Arabi to suggest that all possibilities are actualised in that way; certainly in this world, which is the only one we can know, all possibilities are not actualised. Many possibilities exclude something that might be equally possible. St Thomas distinguishes therefore between the two types of possibility – those which are actualised in time by God’s self-gift and those which in fact are not actualised but which remain always mere possibilities without ever being actualised. So that if I chose to move something to the left instead of to the right, then the fact of moving it to the left means that the possibil­ity of moving it to the right is an eternal possibility and always has been, but it has not been actualised. Therefore if it is actu­alised it must be in some other universe and this has become something quite important in modem sub-atomic physics, the theory of parallel universes, although it is not something new, it is the essence of the meaning of creation in the Abrahamic tradition.

Everything that is actualised, remains a possibility in the nunc because nothing exists outside the nunc, everything is in this absence of time in itself. So it remains a possibility being actu­alised all the time. There is always this conjunction of the two, as in the conjunction of the two Buddhas: the possibility and the luminosity or actuality. To imagine that the actuality abolishes the possibility would be pantheism, that God simply is everything which is, and the things are and do not become, so it would be quite illogical as well. So the possibilities are never exhausted; the mumkinat are eternal, they never cease being what they are. But of course this does not mean they do not develop because it is the possibility of developing which is what constitutes each one as a separate possibility and why each person has his own immediate path to God, since God is in immediate touch with every individual thing and it is this immediacy of the touch that makes the individual things individual.

So we never lose our individuality. It is a rather pseudo-gnostic idea that individuals lose their individuality and become merged with the One. Some Arabic philosophers, too, tended to have that idea: roses are not eternal but the redness of roses is eternal, so the redness exists in God but not the roses. This is a sort of application of grammar to theology and it is extremely unhelpful. Plotinus always glorified God as the One but as Philo says, ‘He is beyond the One.’ He is not just One, like the point at the top of a pyramid; then God would simplv be the Supreme Being and not above everything that is created and He would not be in touch with everything – everything would be a degradation of God, some things more God than others. St Dionysius was particularly clear on this point, that every degree of being is in immediate touch with God and it is the capacity of each thing which exists which makes it individual. It is the possibility of being this stone, or this flower, or this bee, or this chimpanzee, or this human being or this angel which is actualised by God and God is in immediate touch with ail of them; He is not in more touch with one than another. It is the whole of God, whole and entire, which actualises each thing which is actual.

The soul that God loves – God chooses the possibility and everything which is actualised is chosen by God; this specific possibility is going to be actualised. That is the meaning of love, that God has chosen this particular possibility to receive the command kun, ‘Be’. And it is addressing that word to that par­ticular possibility that shows that God loves that possibility and wants that possibility to be actualised and not something else. Most of us tend not to like this word ‘love’, possibly because of sexual overtones, but it is this choice that God makes and it is the essence of choosing: that God chooses this one at this moment, not that there are moments in God; He chooses this thing before that thing to receive His self-gift of Himself.

– and to whom He communicates Himself must be so wholly stripped of time – that is, by awareness of the nunc, the zero-time in which we exist – and from all creaturely flavour  the taste of things is other than the taste of God – that God in her tastes only of His own flavour. It says in scripture: ‘In the middle of the night, when all things were silent, then, Lord, thy word came down from the royal thrones’ (Sap. 18:14f.) That means: in the night, when no creature shines or looks into the soul, and in the stillness, when nothing speaks to the soul, then the word is spoken to the intellect.

Now here we corne to the major theme, the great theme of Eckhart which he formulated again and again, each time finding it difficult to put into ordinary words: the birth of God in the mind and the birth of the mind into God. That is the distinction which Eckhart makes between the will and the wish; he does not use that expression will and wish, but he uses the distinction. He is talking about the Word of God, that is, God’s conception of Himself, God’s knowledge. God is His own knowledge of Himself; He does not resuit from knowing Himself but, being His own knowledge of Himself, He knows Himself and it is not a matter of anteriority or posteriority; it is the mode of God’s Being, which we cannot understand; this is the Essence. We can merely say that it must be so.

This is similar to the way the reason becomes aware of the now, the union of luminosity and possibility at the centre of the mind, the apex mentis. The invisibility of mind to itself is the image, or non-image of God’s invisibility to the mind. So in the stillness of the apex mentis, where it is the mere possibil­ity of knowing, as opposed to actually knowing, then that still­ness is where the Word is received, and the luminous Word is the word kun, and this Word is God’s conception of Himself, which is what God is. So it is the concept of God; the Verbum is God Himself and it is His presence in the mind through the word which is said. So the word ‘word’ means both the creative word ‘Be’, and it is God’s truth to Himself which He Himself is. This word belongs to the intellect and means Verbum as it is and stands in the intellect.

Often I feel afraid, when I corne to speak of God, at how utterly detached the soul must be to attain to union with Him.We are always united with God but when spiritual writers talk about union with God they mean awareness of this union. The only way to attain it is by selflessness, the death of self, but that is the most difficult thing that is possible because you cannot desire to be selfless except for a selfish reason. And that is why St Basil and the two Gregorys always spoke of being unable to avoid this selfish eros, of the desire for perfec­tion which is a selfish desire, and it has to begin that way. It is only through seriously following everything that is required for selfless love that agape, which is selfless love, is met, transforming one, and one cannot transform oneself. This is why it is the second gift of God to the human mind, to the free will, which is required in order for us to become ‘like God’.’Detached‘ – this is the detachment of the mind so that it stands in itself as mere possibility of knowing and even during acts we have to be aware of this possibility – this is what zikr is, this awareness of the nothingness which persists. It is not leaving or flying from the outer world to some moment of awareness of God’s presence – it is the awareness of God’s presence in everything we do, whether we are washing up or going shopping. As Ibn ‘Arabi says: above the Sufis come those who are the ‘people of blame’ and who are in the market doing their business and whose minds never deviate from awareness of the presence of God by a single flicker of the eye. This is presence in the nunc – we never leave the mine, we do not have to go and look for it, that is what is meant by ‘birds looking for air’. We cannot leave this nunc, so we do not have to go and find it – we have to become aware of it and it is an awareness that takes place in everything we do because we cannot escape it. So when Eckhart talks about ‘attaining to union with Him’, you attain to union by escaping from the disunion, which is formed by mind being concentrated on material things and forgetting the presence of God and forgetting that things are nothingness.

But no one should think this impossible: nothing is impossible for the soul that possesses God’s grace.

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