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Meister Eckhart – On Poverty

God as “God” couldn’t satisfy the spirituality of a fly.

NB: This piece of Eckhart’s is the height of mystical attainment, from a 14th century Dominican monk.
I transcribed it late last century. It is Sermon 87 ‘On the Poor in Spirit’ Translation may be found in
many publications, and often use heavy grammar and uncomfortable idiom – for instance “a man
this” and “a man that”, instead of using more personal language, and even if the original is more
formal, Eckhart was certainly addressing his audience of fellow monks in a way that touched them
personally.

The original sermon included a long meandering exposition on a parable, which I assume was a
requirement in the convention of sermon-giving. It may also have had the effect of disguising his
main thesis here, one which is quite stunning.

As I was reading his sermons, I felt that I was seeing a gradual development in the inner life of this
mediaeval mystic, which bloomed to a sudden, brilliant flowering of Self-realisation. I became
impatient with the stilted prose that made what is remarkable seem dull. The words here are entirely
Eckhart speaking for himself – I have done nothing but excise the parable, make the diction more
direct, and do some paragraph formatting to help show the plan of his sermon. The amusing
expressions and metaphors are all his, as he stands on the pinnacle of self-discovery. It starts with a
quotation from the New Testament, Matthew 5:3 .
Swami Shantananda

Ekhart says:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Now there are two kinds of poverty. One is external poverty, greatly to be esteemed
in one who practises it voluntarily, as Christ himself practised it. I don’t want to say
any more about that. But there is a different poverty, an inward poverty, and it is
this that Christ means when he says, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ So what is
poverty and what is a poor person?

A poor person wants nothing, knows nothing and has nothing.Understand this truth
if you can, and if you can’t, don’t burden yourself with it – there are few who will
understand.

A poor person wants nothin.


Some don’t understand this. They are attached to their penances and external
exercises. These things seem important, and they look like saints, but really they are
donkeys – they can’t distinguish divine truth. They act as though being poor means
never ever doing anything they like. Let us commend them for their good
intentions. But I say that they are not poor, nor do they resemble a poor
person. They don’t know anything about poverty.

So what is a poor person who wants nothing? So long as you have a will with which
you want to fulfill God’s will, that is not true poverty. As long as you have a will to
fulfill God’s will, and a longing for God and eternity, then you are not poor; for a poor
person is one who has a will and a longing for nothing.
When I stood in my first cause, then I had not ‘God’, and I was my own cause. I
wanted nothing, I longed for nothing, for I was an empty being, and the only truth I
rejoiced in was in the knowledge of myself. Then it was myself I wanted and nothing
else. What I wanted I was, and what I was I wanted; and so I stood, empty of God
and of everything. But when I went out from my own free will and received my
created being, then I had a ‘God’ – because before there were any creatures, God
wasn’t ‘God’, he was only what he was. When creatures came to be, God wasn’t ‘God’
in himself, but he was ‘God’ in his creatures.

Now I say that God, insofar as he is ‘God’, is not the perfect end of created beings. In
fact, if a fly had reason and could seek for spiritual depth, ‘God’ couldn’t satisfy the
fly. So let us pray that we may be free of ‘God’ and instead understand the truth
where the fly and the soul and the highest angel are all equal: that where I was
established, I was what I wanted and I wanted what I was.

So if you are poor, you must want and desire as little as you wanted and desired when
you did not exist. This is what it means to be poor and want nothing.

A person is poor who knows nothing.


Sometimes I have said that you ought to live as though you did not live for yourself or
for the truth or for God. But now I say something different, and more: that if you
want this poverty, you have to live as though you do not even know that you aren’t
living for yourself, or for the truth, or for God. In fact, you should be so free of all
knowing that you don’t even know or experience or grasp that God lives in you. For
when man was established in God’s everlasting being, there was no different life in
him. What was living there was himself. So I say that man should be set as free of
his own knowing as he was when he was not. Let God perform what he will, and let
man be free.

The actions proper to a human are loving and knowing. The question is, which of
these is most blessed? Some authorities say that it is knowing, others that it
is loving, others that it is both knowing and loving, and what they say is better. But I
say that it does not consist either in knowing or in loving. In the soul there is
something from which knowing and loving flow; but the something itself does not
know or love as mind does. If you know this you know what blessedness consists
in. The something has no before and no after, and it is not waiting for anything that
is to come, for it can neither gain nor lose. So it is deprived of the knowledge that
God is acting in it; but it is itself the very thing that rejoices in itself in the same way
that God does in himself. So I say that you have to be established, free and empty,
not knowing or perceiving that God is acting in you; and so you may possess poverty.

The authorities say that God is a being, and a rational one, and that he knows all
things. I say that God is neither being nor rational, and that he does not know this or
that. Therefore God is free of all things, and therefore he is all things. If you wish to
be poor in spirit, you must be poor of all your own knowledge, so that you know
nothing, not God or created things or yourself.
Therefore it is necessary for you to long not to be able to know or perceive God’s
works. In this way you can be poor of your own knowledge.

A poor person has nothing


Third, a person is poor who has nothing. Many people have said that it is perfection
when one possesses no material, earthly things, and in one sense this is true, if a
person does it voluntarily. But this is not the sense in which I mean it.

I have said just now that you are poor when you do not want to fulfil God’s will, and
you live so that you may be free both of your own will and of God’s will, the same
way as you were when you were not. About this poverty I say that it is the highest
poverty. Second I say that you are poor when you know nothing of God’s works in
you. This is the purest poverty. But a third form is the most intimate poverty; and
this is when you have nothing.

Now pay attention and give heed! I have often said that you should be so free of all
things and all works, both interior and exterior, that you might become a place only
for God, in which God could work. Now I say otherwise. If it is the case that you are
free of all created things and of God and of yourself, but if God can find a place to
work in you, then you are not poor with the most intimate poverty. For it is not
God’s intention in his works that man should have a place in himself for God to work
in. Poverty of spirit is for man to keep so free of God and all his works that if God
wishes to work in the soul, he himself is the place in which he is to work; and that he
will gladly do. For if he finds a man so poor as this, then God performs his own work,
and the man is in this way suffering God to work, and God is his own place to work,
and so God is his own worker in himself. Thus in this poverty man pursues the
everlasting being which he was and which he is now and which he will evermore
remain.

So I say that you must be so poor that you have not got any place in which God could
work. When you cling to place, you cling to distinction. Therefore I pray to God that
he may make me free of God, for my real being is above God, if we take God to be the
beginning of created things. In the same being of God when God is above being and
above distinction, there I myself was, there I willed myself and committed myself to
create this man. Therefore I am the cause of myself in the order of my being, which
is eternal, but not in the order of my becoming, which is temporal. I am unborn, and
in the manner in which I am unborn I can never die. In my unborn manner I have
been eternally, and am now, and shall eternally remain. When I am in the order of
having been born, that will die and perish, for it is mortal, and so it must in time
suffer corruption. In my birth all things were born and I was the cause of myself and
of all things; and if I had wished it, I would not be, nor would all other things
be. And if I did not exist, God would also not exist. That God is God, of that I am a
cause; if I did not exist, God too would not be God. There is no need to understand
this.

Creature/Creator not the state of blessedness


When I flowed out from God, all things said. “God is”. This cannot make me blessed,
for with this I acknowledge that I am a creature. But in the breaking-through, when I
come to be free of will of myself and of God’s will and of all his works and of God
himself, then I am above all created things. Then I am neither God nor creature – I
am what I was and what I shall remain, now and eternally. I receive such riches that
God, insofar as he is ‘God’, with all his divine works, cannot satisfy me; for in this
breaking through I find that God and I are one. Then I am what I was, and I neither
diminish nor increase, for then I am an immovable cause which moves all things.

Here God finds no place in you, for with this poverty you achieve what you have been
eternally and will evermore remain. Here God is one with the spirit, and that is the
most intimate poverty you can find.

If you do not understand what I have said, do not burden your heart with it; for as
long as you are not equal to this truth, you won’t understand these words, because
it is beyond speculation; it is a truth that has come immediately from the heart of
God. May God help us so to live that we may find it eternally.