Published: 02/01/2010 Historical novel

Conversations with Meister Eckhart

Conversations with Meister Eckhart

When Simon met Eckhart

When asked to write about Eckhart, I hesitated; because all I really wanted to do was meet the great man, and what chance of that? But then something happened.

As a part-time therapist, I’m often struck by how little I know about someone until I meet them. I may have information about them, but until I’ve listened to them reflect on their lives, the chemistry isn’t there and I know almost nothing. So what to do with Eckhart, a 13th century Abbott, who shockingly put detachment above love in his list of virtues?

The answer came in a moment. I’ve always loved dialogue. I used to write satirical comedy for programmes like Spitting Image and Weekending. And then as a therapist, I know the power of dialogue to create something which didn’t exist before; the power of two souls meeting. So the idea was born: why not speak with Eckhart? After all, he left a huge amount of material, faithfully copied down by his followers. What if I imagined a conversation with him – but used only his authentic words? Words like these, for instance; his sound pastoral advice to someone feeling a little battered by life: ‘Do exactly what you would do if you felt secure.’

There are many who publish imaginary conversations with characters from the past, but this usually involves them imagining their hero’s words as well, and I didn’t wish to go down that path. I feared the characters would end up sounding suspiciously like me. No, I wanted to meet the people, not mould the people; and using only their authentic words would both keep me honest and their integrity in tact – the integrity of a man condemned as ‘evil-sounding, rash and suspect of heresy’ by the church, but loved dearly by his followers.

It was a long process, first assimilating the material and then engaging with it critically as one does in conversation. By the time I came to put my questions to the Meister, it was as if I was meeting him face to face, and the conversation felt entirely real. Sometimes I was baffled by his complexity; at other times, delighted by his simplicity. Always he asked me to search my soul, so this was no casual conversation. On occasion, I simply had to get up from my seat and go for walk in the vegetable garden to reflect on what he’d said. And though we had the occasional awkward pause, I always felt the better for time spent with him.

So has the conversation idea worked? Initially, the omens were not good. Most I spoke to were quietly sceptical. Strangely, it didn’t seem to have been done before, and perhaps there was a good reason for that. ‘If it hasn’t been done, Simon, there’s probably a reason.’ But these same people have been kind enough to change their minds on reading the results, which became a spiritual and psychological exploration it was a privilege to be allowed.

The fact is, time spent with words about someone is not the same as time spent with their actual words. No one is elusive when you listen to them, and so although I came to Eckhart largely cold, I now know him well. I don’t know everything about him, but I know what inspired him in the ‘making room’ of his soul – a phrase he would understand. In many ways, and this is perhaps worrying, I know him better than I know myself.

He’d joined the Dominican order at the age of 15, and clearly impressed. He spent some time as a teacher in the University of Paris, where he acquired the name ‘Meister’ or ‘Master’. But most of his life was spent looking after monastic communities, and supporting the burgeoning interest in spirituality amongst women in the 14th century, with new communities being founded. He was a wise counsellor to the troubled, apparently.

But at the heart of everything for Eckhart was the soul’s union with God. ‘The union of God with the soul,’ he told me, ‘is so great it can scarcely be believed.’ And everything he proposed was concerned with clearing away anything that hindered this union, which included an obsession with external religious observances. As he said to me one day, ‘God is no more likely to be found in external observances than he is in sin.’ After remarks such as this, I could see why the Archbishop of Cologne found him so threatening, and pursued a relentless vendetta against him.

It was easy for the institutional church to misunderstand Eckhart; but I never had any doubts where his heart lay. I’ve never met anyone more committed to the origins of truth, and if he asked us to take leave of God – which he did on one occasion – it was only because we were missing the point; and that if we could dispense with our theological labels, we’d discover a far greater wonder in the nothingness beyond. The theme of emptiness was big in his thoughts; along with the abandonment of our will. ‘Whoever has abandoned the whole of their will,’ he said, ‘will appreciate my teaching and understand my words.’

I interviewed him in the monastic cloisters in Cologne, shortly before he travelled to Avignon to face heresy charges before the Pope. The Archbishop, using false witnesses, had finally got his man. Eckhart said these charges ‘were lodged out of jealousy and pursued out of ignorance’. But uppermost I my mind are his final words as he left. I’d muttered something about not praying enough, and he turned to me and said this: ‘If the only prayer you say in life is ‘thank you’ that would suffice.’

Meeting Eckhart was an unusual experience. I’m sometimes impressed by the people I meet, sometimes disappointed. With Eckhart, however, I simply felt better, more at peace. I can’t often say it, but here was a free man.

As one Amazon reviewer says: ‘The author’s skilful handling of the material is truly admirable – he makes the conversations seem totally natural, despite the chasm of centuries between his interlocutor and our times. And despite aspiring to be no more than a humble and invisible presenter, Parke’s humanity, intelligence and humour all shine through. It’s a great introduction to Meister Eckhart’s thought.’