Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Great Books

Class VII: Meister Eckhart

As we sat down, I said: “no politics!”  Though with the recent election still reverberating, and with white supremacists, blatant racists, economic charlatans, climate deniers and the like moving into the halls of power, it was impossible to steer completely clear of the sad subject.
Meister Eckhart
We spoke this week of Meister Eckhart, the 13th century Catholic mystic and, by medieval Christian standards, heretic.  His open-minded, far reaching vision unpacked and personalized Catholic liturgy for one of our Catholic participants, adding meaning and depth to the words she had heard in church her whole life.  Unfortunately, the Church itself was not as impressed, and Eckhart was declared a heretic toward the end of his life, and his writings were suppressed for nearly half-a millennia, before being resurrected and included in the canon, in the 19th century.
No wonder he so frightened medieval Catholic leaders.  He advocated for finding the mystical path straight to God, bypassing completely the hierarchy of church leaders.  Eckhart assured: “Not all people are called to follow the same path to God.”  We responded strongly to this, as it allowed each of us the space to find our way into our spirit in out own manner, through our own work, our own devotional – and not by following some prescribed path.
We talked of pain.  Eckhart assures that “all suffering comes from attachment and affection.”  This encompasses even the good: love, pleasures, helping others (while still expecting to receive positive reinforcement for doing so).  According to Eckhart, we must cleanse ourselves of all attachment – including to those most dear, be they lovers, family members, children. 
We were not willing to go this far.  While we very much agreed with the perspective that Eckhart brought, we all felt that personal love still has a place in our lives.  Perhaps understand and appreciate its ephemerality, and realize that there is another, higher love (that of “God”) behind it, yet don’t scrub one’s life of personal attachment. 
The Humility of Acceptance
We are therefore doomed to suffer.  People will die, they will turn away from us, they will disappoint us.  This will cause us pain through our very human attachment to them.  But pain has a positive side: it is a great teacher.  We learn patience, forbearance, new ways of accepting, of seeing, of appreciating what we still have. 
We talked of honesty – and lying.  I revealed my own indiscretions.  (The only way you are going to hear them is to take me out and get me likkered up!)  Others did the same, some explicitly, some more obliquely (and you know who you are!!).  Ultimately, I said that I believe that honesty is the deepest form of worship.  As Gandhi said, God is Truth.  We noted that we all tell “little white lies” (or big whoppers) so that we don’t “hurt” the other person.  However, one of us noted that being told a lie means that you have been stripped of the ability to say “yes” or “no.”  You are left only with the question: “why.”  It is arrogant and disrespectful – and something we probably all do more than we would admit.
We talked of the need to be seen, the opposite of mysticism.  Being seen means acting in the world, caring what people think, looking for positive reinforcement. 
We spoke of the obligation (or lack-thereof) to be a “good” person, when you were on one end of an aggression.  Specifically, women suffer much sexual aggression in the public square, either verbal or, in the worse of cases, physical.  What is the mystical response to such attacks? 
How do these very human challenges square with the fact that we are to empty ourselves, so that God can flood in?  Is one able to view all aggressive action as simply that of a broken or immature soul, and not allow it to affect us at all?  Such might be the “mystical” response.  But, we noted, we are not mystics.  So how to assimilate the one (mystical energy) into our lives, without simply rolling over and taking whatever life shoves down our throats?
We spoke of empty words and easy platitudes.  A lot of what Eckhart says has a deep resonance – but when they are words spoken from a community member to a person dying of cancer (say), they ring hollow, absurd, mean-spirited.  Is it really the best that religion can off, to have an acquaintance tell a dying 20-something that God would never give them more than they could handle?  The mystical ideals ring completely hollow when not attached to the soul.  Perhaps the best thing would be to listen to the person in pain, instead of talk.  Just listen.
“Presence” is something to strive for.  Being there in your moment, feeling your skin against the air, hearing the words or the silence or the sound of the radiator (this being New York in winter, after all).  Those moments.  “Being” is a verb.  “I am” should always be followed by the word “becoming.”  We spoke of “greatness” being a form of humility.  And that our “greatness” might not actually be recognized or acknowledged by those around us.  Only our attachment to a sense of “self” or the desire for social approbation might cause us pain.  But these desires are extremely difficult to turn out backs on.
Obedience.  Eckhart notes: “True and perfect obedience is a virtue above all virtues.”  But obedience to what?  Obviously, not temporal power or religious instruction (our instructor was a heretic after all).  So what, exactly?  To the dictates of our lives, we decided, in the end.  “Wish for everything to be exactly as it is, and your life will be serene” (Epictetus).  So, it is obedience to “God’s will.”  To accept our lives as they are.  Keeping in mind that “I” am a verb; that movement and applied mysticism are our goals.  Not the solipsistic retreat of the Church fathers.  We remembered that all are drawn to a different path.  And, as Eckhart noted, even if we don’t feel the spirit within, it is no further than the door.  And not “lurking,” but quietly waiting for us to turn to it!!
Finally, we cycled around to the horrifying current events.  One participant noted that Eckhart offered an astounding sense of open-mindedness.  He was, as I assured, deeply influenced by Eastern thought, by Socratic thinkers, by Sufi and Buddhist ideas.  This worldview is directly in contrast to our current political and social situation.  Now, our public square is filled with walls, anger, overt White supremacist racism, blindness – Trump represents the desire to hold tight to all these boundaries in the face of a creeping openness.  Fear drives this, not acceptance.  Not obedience.  Not love.
Finally, we noted that the recent election offers us a journey to obligation.  We are no longer self-indulgent intellectuals gathering to talk about philosophical matters because we can.  We are subversives, keeping a small light of the spirit burning, while the country descends into political darkness.  We must not only bear witness, but we must take action.  We must transform the mystical energy and spiritual messages we receive into action – action that mimics and spreads the things of which we speak.  Our “becoming” must involve the transformation of positive personal energy into social engagement.
As Marcus Aurelius note: we are a member of society, and must take part in it through our actions.  Any action not directed toward the social good is mistaken.

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