From Finnegan’s Wake to Meister Eckhart

Newsletter: November 2023

I wish to talk about Meister Eckhart in this letter, but need the help of James Joyce – which is not a line I’ve ever written before.

But last year, a book club finally finished the book they were studying, after 28 years. The book was Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce, about 670 pages in length.

The man who had run the group – which must have seen a few births, deaths and marriages along the way, with the occasional divorce – explained that they only met once a month and sometimes they only read two pages, because of the book’s complexity.

Many have given up on the book down the years. You may be one of them. And no one really knows what it’s about, or rather, no one agrees; apart, perhaps, from the basic metaphor of the word ‘wake’, which, unusually, is at once about both death and resurrection.

I mention the book now because Meister Eckhart can also appear complex, and maybe not someone you’d want to read more than one page at a time – two if you’re flying.

Like Finnegan’s Wake, Eckhart is easy to give up on. He’s unseasonably challenging for a start, and can sometimes be hard to understand.

And in the end, he too is about death and resurrection. The death of multiplicity in our souls, bringing us to a place of utter emptiness, and the resurrection of union with God, who can’t help but pour him/her/it/their self into our empty selves. God is a determined filler of emptiness, according to Eckhart.

Jesus was angry in the temple, Eckhart says, because he wished the temple to reflect the human soul and be empty. But it wasn’t empty. It existed in multiplicity, with all sorts going on: money-changers, dove-sellers, soldiers, priests, tourists, pilgrims, hand-washers, foot-restorers, food-sellers, and so on. So he could not relate to it. It was just too busy.

‘To be empty of all creatures is to be filled with God, and to be filled with all creatures is to be empty of God.’

Here, in the nothingness, is union with God, or at-one-ment with God… or, let’s risk the word, atonement. But while some Christians, when they hear that word, think of Jesus taking away our sins on the cross, as a blood sacrifice, and thereby making us one with God, Eckhart has a very different view. Atonement is not about blood sacrifice, but about emptiness. It is emptiness which appeals to the divine and becomes the gateway to union.

For what it’s worth (which is not very much), Eckhart is in my top three of spiritual/psychological writers. He is deep, savage, and occasionally, very funny. And a while ago, I wrote Conversations with Meister Eckhart. I put his original words into a conversational setting, including questions and my own observations on what I hear, which may aid understanding.

If you wish to pursue him, and feel this may be the moment to adventure, please follow the link:

Conversations with Meister Eckhart

I will also be leading a retreat around his thought and writings at Sheldon next August:

Meister Eckhart: Counsellor, disturber, friend

And before that, in May 2024, I’ll be leading a two-day course at Sarum College in Salisbury on the life, work, loves and death of Vincent Van Gogh:

Vincent Van Gogh: A stranger on this earth

I’m sorry, we feel a little link-heavy.

Fortunately, they are not compulsory, so I risk one more. As you may know, the Anglican church interviews bishops, which made me wonder: what five questions would I like to ask? And here they are.

Five questions to ask the prospective bishop

No more links, it’s time to go. But I wish you well, however this finds you and whatever well might mean for you now.

And I close with one of my favourite one-liners from Eckhart: ‘If the only prayer you ever say in your life is “Thank you” that would suffice.’

Simon x