Dom Sylvester Houédard


Commentaries on Meister Eckhart
Sermon 87 - On 'the Poor in Spirit'
Beati pauperes spiritu quia ipsorum est regnum caelorum (Matt. 5:3)

The talk copied here is from Commentaries on Meister Eckhart: Sermons, published by Beshara Publications. It contains quotations from Meister Eckhart, Sermons & Treatises, translated by M. O'C. Walshe, published 1979-87, and reproduced by permission of Element Books Ltd. The talk was transcribed from tape recordings made at the Beshara Centre at Frilford Grange in 1990.

Mind is being continuously approached by God
in the self-gift of His luminous Being,
and we try to stop and grasp at short moments of time.
But mind is like a river in fluxu et in fieri, it flows as it becomes.

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

Beatitude itself opened its mouth of wisdom and said: 'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven'. All angels, all saints, and everything that was ever born must keep silent when the wisdom of the Father speaks: for all the wisdom of angels and all creatures is pure folly before the unfathomable wisdom of God. This wisdom has declared that the poor are blessed.

Now there are two kinds of poverty. The one is external poverty and this is good and much to be commended in the man who practises it voluntarily for the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, for he himself (Jesus Christ) possessed this - that is, he practised that voluntary poverty - on earth. And that is the poverty that was practised by some of the early Christians in Jerusalem who were known as 'the poor'. That was not all the Christians in Jerusalem, only those who professed this voluntary poverty and for whom St Paul went around making collections. About this poverty I shall say no more now. But there is another poverty, an interior poverty, to which this word of our Lord applies when He says: 'Blessed are the poor in spirit'.

Now I beg you to be like this in order that you may understand this sermon: - here he is saying that if you are poor in spirit, then you will understand - for by the eternal truth I tell you that unless you are like this truth we are about to speak of, it is not possible for you to follow me.

Some people have asked me what poverty is in itself, and what a poor man is. This is how we shall answer.

So, it is only those who are poor in spirit who are able fully to understand it, but nevertheless this does not stop Eckhart or anybody else from attempting to put it into words which people will understand or which will help people to understand.

Bishop Albert - that is Albert the Great, who was the exact contemporary of Ibn 'Arabi and the master of Thomas Aquinas - says a poor man is one who finds no satisfaction in all things God ever created, and this is very well said. But we shall speak better, taking poverty in a higher sense: a poor man is one who wants nothing, knows nothing and has nothing. We shall now speak of these three points, and I beg you for the love of God to understand this wisdom if you can; but if you can't understand it, don't worry, - it is the living this life of selflessness which is the important thing, understanding is completely irrelevant really and is merely, to some extent, a satisfaction of curiosity - because I am going to speak of such truth that few good people can understand.

Firstly, we say that a poor man is one who wants nothing. There are some who do not properly understand the meaning of this: these are the people who cling with attachment - that is the opposite of detachment - to penances and outward practices, making much of these. These are the people that Ibn 'Arabi calls 'the Sufis', as opposed to 'the people of the blame' who do not even use the name Sufi and who are indistinguishable from people in the market. May God have mercy on such folk for understanding so little of divine truth! These people are called holy from their outward appearances, but inwardly they are asses, for they are ignorant of the actual nature of divine truth. These people say that a poor man is one who wants nothing and they explain it this way: A man should so live that he never does his own will in anything, but should strive to do the dearest will of God. It is well with these people because their intention is right, and we commend them for it. May God in His mercy grant them the kingdom of heaven! But by God's wisdom I declare that these folk are not poor men or similar to poor men. They are much admired by those who know no better, but I say that they are asses with no understanding of God's truth. Perhaps they will gain heaven for their good intentions, but of the poverty we shall now speak of they have no idea.

If, then, I were asked what is a poor man who wants nothing, I should reply as follows. As long as a man is so disposed that it is his will with which he would do the most beloved will of God, that man has not the poverty we are speaking about: for that man has a will to serve God's will - so it is the assertion of self: I want to do God's will; I want to be a friend, and so on. The Lord's prayer says: 'Thy will be done', not 'I want to do your will'. This is 'letting be' or releasement in Eckhart: there is a different attitude between aiming to do God's will with your will because you want to do it and merely letting God's will be done, which is releasement and detachment; - and that is not true poverty! - if you have a will to serve God's will. For a man to possess true poverty he must be as free of his created will as he was when he was not. -that is, as we are in the mind of God, anterior to our actuali-sation, since we remain unactualised even while we are being actualised.

In other words, we are this composition of possibility and light. The possibility continues from the past to the future; it is immutable; it is eternal, as Ibn 'Arabi says. The light, the luminous being, is given to us as the future becomes the present and the present becomes the past. So the possibility moves forward to God. That is why we think of ourselves as advancing towards God in epectasy but we only think that because the luminous being, which is God Himself, comes to us by the self-gift of God and is then extinguished into the past instantaneously. So we advance to God because He advances to us. But this possibility that we always are is the eternal, immutable possibility that is in the mind of God and is unchanged, whether it is before the word kun or after. That is why Ibn 'Arabi talks about the scales - the slightest adjustment in the scales, whether it goes down or up, is the distinction between the possibility we are in the mind of God before creation and the possibility we are in the cosmos as being actualised. This is why there is this unity, this likeness through the union of the nunc of God and our own now; that the eternal nunc and our nunc are both nunc - the only distinction is that the nunc of God is stans and the nunc of the human mind is fluens, that the being is given to us not as our being but as our becoming.

For I declare by the eternal truth, as long as you have the will to do the will of God, and longing for eternity and God, you are not poor: you want something for yourself; for a poor man is one who wills nothing and desires nothing.

While I yet stood in my first cause, as we are standing in our first cause as possibilities. We never leave the eternity of God's mind because God knowing Himself knows us and it is the truth of ourselves that He knows and this truth is eternal - I had no God and was my own cause: - as Ibn 'Arabi puts it, the possibilities ask to be actualised. It is that we are separate, individual possibilities in the mind of God and each one is known individually and it is this individual possibility that is actualised as ourself. So whatever you become, which ever way your free-will takes you through life, however many possibilities you reject or choose, it does not matter which one: they all correspond to the possibility which is the individual possibility that you are eternally in the mind of God. This is the whole doctrine of the mumkin in the mind of God. Here Eckhart and Ibn 'Arabi say the same thing in just very slightly different language: - then I wanted nothing and desired nothing, for I was bare being - that is, the truth we are is the truth of God, which is being and this is before we are actualised as becoming - and the knower of myself in the enjoyment of truth because God knows Himself and in knowing Himself He knows us as individual possibilities, or the truth that this individual possibility is, and so the truth we are is God knowing Himself.

Then I wanted myself and wanted no other thing: what I wanted I was and what I was I wanted, and thus I was free of God and all things. It is the mere possibility of becoming that we are in eternity. But when I left my free will behind and received my created being, then I had a God because then we are responding to the word kun and there is a relationship; there is this self-gift of God to the possibility which we receive as our freedom. For before there were creatures, God was not 'God': He was That which He was. But when creatures came into existence and received their created being, then God was not 'God' in Himself - He was 'God' in creatures. This is the distinction that Ibn 'Arabi makes between God in Himself, as Essence, or, as we say, Trinity, and God as his Lord, the Lord of each individual possibility - it is the same God but a different relationship.

Now we say that God, inasmuch as He is 'God', is not the supreme goal of creatures, for the same lofty status is possessed by the least of creatures in God. All things, whether they are conscious or not, are these possibilities in the mind of God from all eternity and they remain that even in time - the only difference is that in time they receive the self-gift. And if it were the case that a fly - the Qur'an talks about the ant, of course, in this case - had reason and could intellectually plumb the eternal abyss of God's being out of which it came, we would have to say that God with all that makes Him 'God' would be unable to fulfill and satisfy that fly! Therefore let us pray to God that we may be free of God, that we may gain the truth and enjoy it eternally, there where the highest angel, the fly and the soul are equal, there where I stood and wanted what I was, and was what I wanted.

Everything which exists, in so far as it is by way of becoming, receives the first grace, this first gift of God which is the gift to the possibility, which is the gift that cannot be disobeyed by anything whether it is a fly or a stone or an angel. It is what Ibn 'Arabi calls the will of God, as opposed to the wish of God, which is the gift of God's self-gift again to us but the self-gift that, having free-will, we can resist. But in the first grace the angels, the fly and the mind are all equal and that is what Eckhart is talking about, the first gift which is the one that Ibn 'Arabi says we cannot disobey.

We conclude, then: if a man is to be poor of will, he must will and desire as little as he willed and desired when he was not. And this is the way for a man to be poor by not wanting.

Secondly, he is a poor man who knows nothing. We have sometimes said that a man should live as if he did not live either for himself, or for truth, or for God. We do not have to understand it, we simply have to live and the saint is the one who lives in complete self-gift, shining outwards by his presence in society without any interposition of this cloud or anything between himself and God which would prevent the light of God from shining through him and becoming his own light, which would be the light of shirk rather than of tawhid. But now we will speak differently and go further, and say: For a man to possess this poverty he must live so that he is unaware that he does not live for himself, or for truth, or for God. If you are aiming to live without a purpose, it is still your aim, something conscious, again it is self-centred.

You must become unaware of that in order to be completely released and to be completely charitable and to be the perfect restoration of likeness to God. He must be so lacking in all knowledge that he neither knows nor recognises nor feels that God lives in him: these experiences of God that we can have are not in any sense necessary. It is not the experience which matters, because that simply confirms us in our selfishness, it is being the self-gift - more still, he must be free of all the understanding that lives in him. For when that man stood in the eternal being of God - he says 'when' in the past tense but of course, as Ibn 'Arabi says, this is true of the present as well; there is no time in God at all - nothing else lived in him: what lived there was himself. It was simply the 'I', without the 'am'. Therefore we declare that a man should be as free from his own knowledge as he was when he was not. This would suggest that any understanding of God is not only unnecessary to the saint, it is also a hindrance to being a saint; that you are concentrating more on understanding rather than on just being and it is this being which is the true gnosis. Gnosis is not an intellectual operation which is the understanding of these complicated ideas. Simply being what you are, corresponding with the truth that you are, which is the truth of the eternal possibility, means that you live in society with nobody even guessing that you are in any way different from anyone else because, as Ibn 'Arabi says, your mind does not depart from the remembrance of God even by the blink cf an eyelid, or, as St Benedict says, without effort and as if naturally.

That man should let God work as He will, and himself stand idle. This 'standing idle' is not at all the same as Quietism, which is simply doing nothing. This is the active letting God be, which is an activity that we have, and it is an effort. The effort that we have to put into the spiritual life is quite different from the effort of self-seeking and self-assertiveness.

For all that ever came out of God, a pure activity is appointed - I would think in Latin he would have spoken about 'act' rather than 'activity', but the pure activity is this epectasy of simply living. The proper work of man is to love and to know. Now the question is: Wherein does blessedness lie most of all? Some masters have said it lies in knowing, some say that it lies in loving: others say it lies in knowing and loving, and they say better. Eckhart sometimes adopts this position in order to reconcile the differences between the Franciscans and the Dominicans, which is precisely the distinction between Rumi and Ibn 'Arabi: Rumi's way of love and Ibn 'Arabi's way of knowledge or gnosis. But Eckhart and Ibn 'Arabi both take this extra step and go on to a fourth position of not knowing, not loving - But we say it lies neither in knowing nor in loving: - which is the activity of the apex mentis - for there is something in the soul (mind) from which both knowledge and love flow: - that is, from the apex mentis, which is the source of actual knowing, actual loving - but it does not itself know or love in the way the powers of the soul do. The possibility of knowing and loving is not itself a knowledge or an act of love. Whoever knows this, knows the seat of blessedness. If you are going to understand anything of Eckhart or Ibn 'Arabi it is important to understand the nature of apex mentis or nous, and the basic distinction between apex mentis and mens.

This has neither before nor after, nor is it expecting any thing to come, for it can neither gain nor lose. The mere possibility of knowing gains nothing from any actual loving or knowing. And so it is deprived of the knowledge that God is at work in it: the self-gift of God to us, which is extinguished instantaneously because it is perpetual, is the gift of our luminous possibility of knowing and loving and that is where blessedness lies - not awareness of being poor, but in the being poor and in the reception of God's self through self-gift: rather, it just is itself, enjoying itself God-fashion. It is in this manner, I declare, that a man should be so acquitted and free that he neither knows nor realises that God is at work in him: we have to let God be at work in us; that is how we are: in that way can a man possess poverty.

The masters say God is a being - God is being and the being is one, but to say 'a' being immediately brings God into the world of creation as one of many and God is not one of many, He is One and beyond One - so, the masters say God is being - an intellectual being, that is, luminous being that knows all things. But we say God is not a being and not intellectual and does not know this or that. Thus God is free of all things, and so He is all things. To be poor in spirit, a man must be poor of all his own knowledge: - in the case of God, though He knows each individual possibility as it is, as St Thomas Aquinas underlines, the truth of that possibility that He knows, and that truth is Himself. So He does not know things as objects of knowledge; He is the truth of all possibilities: not knowing any thing, not God, nor creature nor himself. For this it is needful that a man should desire to know and understand nothing of the works of God. In this way a man can be poor of his own knowledge.

There is no necessity and there is no help in being a scientist; there has never been any obligation for the saint to be a scientist - though there is an obligation for the scientist to be a saint and the scientist remains the scientist but he adds that extra thing, which is knowing himself or being himself as a perfect possibility allowing God to actualise him, and none of that will ever conflict with the demands of science or of living life in the market.

Thirdly, he is a poor man who has nothing. We have dealt with 'willing, 'knowing' and now 'having'. The apex mentis is that which has the possibility of willing, of knowing and loving. Now we are dealing with the apex mentis itself, at the point of 'having'. God does not have being, God is being; we have being - so there is one of the distinctions between the creature and the Creator. We have it only because we are given it and not because we have it of our own nature.

Many people have said that perfection is attained when one has none of the material things of the earth, and this is true in one sense - when it is voluntary. This is the voluntary poverty of all religious orders. But this is not the sense in which I mean it. I have said before, the poor man is not he who wants to fulfil the will of God since that is self-assertion and greed but he who lives in such a way as to be free of his own will and of God's will, as he was when he was not. That is, as we are in eternity; even though we are at the moment in time, we are still in eternity, still eternal possibilities. Of this poverty we declare that it is the highest poverty. Secondly, we have said he is a poor man who does not know of the working of God within him - especially in the early monastic Western tradition, there was always discouragement of people trying to estimate where they were on the path to God, in trying to calculate whether they had made any advance or not - this is, of course, complete ruin of the spiritual life. It is true that St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, because they were writing about these things, talk about the progress and the stations and so on, as did Ibn 'Arabi. These things can get so elaborate that it misleads people into thinking they should know whether they are on the first step or the second step and, as soon as you do that, of course, then you are back in this position of asserting yourself rather than just letting God be. This psychologicalisation (if one can use the word) of the spiritual life has probably been more harmful than helpful; it is something you must get past at any rate, this attempt to imagine whether you are nearer to God today than you were yesterday and worst of all, trying to measure how much nearer you are, because God is always present in you.

He who stands as free of knowledge and understanding as God stands of all things, has the purest poverty. This is the poverty at apex mentis. But the third is the straitest (narrowest, that is) poverty, of which we shall now speak: that is when a man has nothing.

Now pay earnest attention to this! I have often said, and eminent authorities say it too, that a man should be so free of all things and all works, both inward and outward, that he may be a proper abode for God where God can work. Now we shall say something else. If it is the case that a man is free of all creatures, of God and of self, and if it is still the case that God finds a place in him to work, then we declare that as long as this is in that man, he is not poor with the strictest poverty. For it is not God's intention in His works that a man should have a place within himself for God to work in: for poverty of spirit means being so free of God and all His works, that God, if He wishes to work in the soul, is Himself the place where He works - and this He gladly does. It is not that we are where God is present but that we are present in the mind of God. We cannot comprehend God because God comprehends us. We cannot know the truth of God because we are the truth that God knows. For, if he finds a man so poor, then God performs His own work, and the man is passive to God within him, - again, it is this active passivity; it is being that, energetically being that - and God is His own place of work, being a worker in Himself. It is just here, in this poverty, that man enters into that eternal essence that once he was, that he is now and evermore shall remain.

There again is the pure teaching of Ibn 'Arabi of the nature of the eternal possibility that we always are, however much we are actualised possibilities. Now that actualisation never destroys the possibility, it can never turn that possibility into an impossibility; if it did, we would all become impossible.

This is the word of St Paul. He says: 'All that I am, I am by the grace (that is, the self-gift) of God' (1 Cor. 15:10). Now this sermon seems to rise above grace and being and understanding and will and all desire - so how can St Paul's words be true? The answer is that St Paul's words are true: it was needful for the grace of God to be in him, for the grace of God effected in him that the accidental in him was perfected as essence. Now that is a very complicated sentence - one of the other versions makes a slightly better effort: '. . . for the grace of God effected in him the completion of accidental into essential being.' Even 'completion' gives the idea of coming to an end and the idea is this perpetual self-gift of God - it is not just given, there it is; it is something that goes on the whole time and cannot be arrested and grasped. When grace had ended and finished its work, Paul remained that which he was. In another version: 'It was God's grace working in him that brought what was accidental to the perfection of the essential. When grace had finished and perfected its work, then Paul remained what he was'.

The second gift of grace is the gift that we can resist by creating, by shirk, by thinking of ourselves as seconds beside God, thinking of ourselves as beings rather than becomings. In order to return to the truth that we are, the truth of becoming, which is the truth that God is, we can only do that through releasement, through detachment, and we can only become detached by islam, by submission to the will of God, by removing by our effort all the barriers that we create in this imagination of what self is. The work which is finished is the removal of the barrier, but the barrier of course we re-erect the instant we have got rid of it, at least, we always tend to. This is the 'slow path'. It takes a life time and it never ceases for the whole of one's life, and this is the idea of the work finished in that sense. The grace of God which helps us to turn to Him, since every act of ours is a possibility actualised by God, achieves this work when we are actually turned to God, when we are open to God. It has to continue that way, it does not suddenly happen and then there is no more change; we are never fixed in one position without any possibility of advance because epectasy is eternal.

So we say that a man should be so poor that he neither is nor has any place for God to work in. If you do, then you are asserting yourself again; this is turning your mind to yourself and creating a self, of which you become more aware as the place which is honoured by God to be his dwelling, whereas all you are is not a solid dwelling place but a becoming. Anything which tends to cultivate self, such as saying: 'I am the house of God', that instantly destroys yourself as a habitation of God because God dwells in you energetically, so everything which tends to solidify or arrest the perpetual self-gift of God is what you have to avoid.

To preserve a place is to preserve distinction. This word 'distinction' is another characteristically Eckhartian word and by it he means making yourself distinct and separate instead of just accepting yourself by releasement, simply being what you are. If you assert yourself and say: 'I am the house of God' or 'I am different from God', rather than just being different from God by the very fact that you are created by Him, that preserves a place and preserves this sense of self which in fact is to be lost.

Therefore I pray to God to make me free of God, - now that, perhaps, is one of the most famous sayings of Eckhart and possibly the one which has been most misunderstood, but it is exactly what Ibn 'Arabi and the whole of Christian tradition says: that the highest knowledge of God is to know that He is unknowable and to know that He is unknowable is still positive theology. It is no good knowing that God is unknowable, you have to stop knowing. To have a concept of God as inconceivable is quite different from not conceiving of God at all - so it is releasing yourself from any attempt to conceive of God.

  • for my essential being is above God, taking God as the origin of creatures. The possibility we are is anterior to the word kun, as Ibn 'Arabi would put it. For in that essence of God in which God is above being and distinction, there I was myself - the individual possibility that I am, even though I am being actualised, and that possibility I was and still am and that possibility I was before the word kun, and that was when I was myself and knew myself because it was God knowing it, and the truth about this is God Himself, since God is His own truth - and knew myself so as to make this man. I am the actualisation of that possibility and only that possibility is what I can claim for myself. Therefore I am my own cause according to my essence, which is eternal, and not according to my becoming, which is temporal. I am my own cause, not according to my actuality, for God is my cause through the gift of actuality, that is the self-gift of God, but as the possibility. I am this possibility that I always have been and am in eternity, and that is the cause of, not what I am since we cannot say 'am', but the cause of the 'I' which cannot say the 'am'.

Therefore I am unborn, and according to my unborn mode I can never die. You cannot say: from all eternity, because eternity has no time - so in eternity, we are this possibility and in time, we are still this eternal possibility and we can never stop being this possibility. According to my unborn mode I have eternally been, am now and shall eternally remain. That which I am by virtue of birth - that is, coming into time - must die and perish, for it is mortal, and so must perish with time. In my birth all things were born - because all possibilities are equal as possibilities; that is, the truth of all possibilities is God Himself - and I was the cause of myself and all things: and if I had so willed it, I would not have been, and all things would not have been. If I were not, God would not be either. I am the cause of God's being God: if I were not, then God would not be God. But you do not need to know this. There is no necessity to work this out in one's mind, it is a matter of simply being.

A great master says that his breaking-through is nobler than his emanation, and this is true. We begin by detachment from creatures and then moving away from them and then moving towards God and then being in God: so break-through has four stages. The emanation is the first gift of grace, the self-gift of God to the possibilities by which they come into time; the second gift is to the free-will by which we return to God and that is by break-through. This break-through is nobler than emanation because the first gift cannot be resisted and so all things, anyway, return to God by being what they simply are and nothing else; whereas in the case of human beings we can resist it and through obedience, through this active reception, which is the willing reception of the second gift of God, through islam, we are different from the mere possibility which cannot resist, and therefore there is an added nobility to us through the way that we live our lives.

When I flowed forth from God, all creatures declared: There is a God'; but this cannot make me blessed, for with this I acknowledge myself as a creature. But in my breaking- through, where I stand free of my own will, of God's will, of all His works, and of God Himself, then I am above all creatures and am neither God nor creature, but I am that which I was and shall remain for evermore. There I shall receive an imprint that will raise me above all the angels. This imprint is the greater nobility. The German word indruk used here means imprint or seal and also means impulse but it makes better sense to translate it as imprint or seal because this is a scriptural notion. The impulse is the energy of moving forward but the imprint of the spirit is the seal, which is also the ability to move forward to God.

By this imprint I shall gain such wealth that I shall not be content with God inasmuch as He is God, that is, inasmuch as I can conceive Him, or with all His divine works: for this breaking-through guarantees to me that I and God are one. That is, one, in the unique sense of the word one. Then I am what I was, then I neither wax nor wane, - you do not grow or diminish - for then I am an unmoved cause that moves all things. Here God finds no place in man, for man by his poverty wins for himself what he has eternally been and shall eternally remain - this corresponding to the truth that we are. Here God is one with the spirit, and that is the strictest poverty one can find.

If anyone cannot understand this sermon, he need not worry. For so long as man is not equal to this truth, he cannot understand my words, for this is a naked truth which has come direct from the heart of God.

That we may live so as to experience it eternally, may God help us. Amen.