Wisdom from Meister Eckhart:
walking by faith, not by sight
A great deal of talk about the “spiritual life” seems to suggest that the best proof of being on the right “spiritual track” is to be found in certain tangible experiences.
This is hardly surprising. Our culture idolises experience. Retailers us offer us retail experiences. Producers of food offer us food experiences. And more than a few churches offer us worship experiences.
It couldn’t be more different with meditation in the Christian tradition. One of the first things we learn is to stop looking for any sort of experience. We can relax and release ourselves into our practice.
“Whenever you feel yourself drawn to this work of contemplation,” says the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, “a naked intent directed to God is quite sufficient.”(1)
It is enough to “preserve a loving attentiveness to God with no desire to feel or understand any particular thing concerning him,” writes St. John of the Cross.(2)
Rather than looking for anything to happen, we open ourselves to what is always happening. We turn to that which is so close, so intimate, that to look for it is to overlook it.
The path we follow is a path of self-forgetfulness, a path which teaches us to trust, to “walk by faith and not by sight.” To paraphrase Jesus, for God to increase in our awareness, we must decrease.(3)
Letting go of any desire for “signs and wonders”(4) we come to see that everything is a sign, that life itself is a wonder, that “creation around you, within you, the creation that you are, the creation you are part of, is all God acting, God loving, God inviting, here and now,” as Rowan Williams so beautifully put it.(5)
In a sermon called The Nobleman, the great fourteenth-century Dominican Meister Eckhart gives a teaching on self-forgetfulness which is of great value for the practice of meditation. (6)
In characteristic fashion (a blend of profound wisdom and bracing clarity, mixed with a dash of playfulness), Eckhart notes how some people think that “the flower and kernel of bliss” is to be found in knowing that we see and know God.
He asks, “For if I had all joy and did not know it, what good would that be to me, and what joy would that be?” And immediately answers, “But I definitely deny that it is so.”
Eckhart is not saying that the self-conscious knowing of experience is “bad.” Quite the opposite. Indeed, he says we cannot be happy without it. Experience is essential for understanding and living in the world.
What Eckhart says, is that our happiness does not depend on it. Experience is always an interpretation, a re-presentation to ourselves of what we encounter and, in that sense, one step removed.
“The first condition of happiness is that the soul [awareness] sees God naked [without being clothed in our ideas and concepts]. From that she derives all her being and her life, and draws all that she is, from the ground of God, knowing nothing of knowledge, nor of love, nor of anything at all. She is utterly calm in God’s being, knowing nothing but being there and God. But when she is [self-consciously] aware and knows that she sees, knows, and loves God, that is a turning away…”
Now, if any of this might sound a little strange, we can look at our ordinary experience of listening to music or reading a novel to help us understand what Eckhart is talking about.
But when we know we are listening or know we are reading, this self-conscious knowing is what Eckhart calls “a turning away.” Turning towards the content of our experience, the sense of a separate self arises, that there is someone here experiencing something.
For Eckhart, the ultimate ground of our happiness and peace is not to be found in self-consciousness, but in self-forgetfulness, a losing of ourselves in God and a losing of God in ourselves – a losing which is a finding, a going out from ourselves which is a coming home within God: “Therefore, our Lord says in very truth that eternal life is knowing God alone as true God, and not in knowing that one knows God (John 17:3).”
Letting go of any desire to find God in experience, we come to rest in God who has found us from eternity.
Letting go of ourselves, all that remains is “God acting, God loving, God inviting, here and now.”
If you feel inspired to meditate, you’re very welcome to join one of our free online meditation sessions or read one of our practice guides.
 2 Cor 5:7.
 John 4:48.