Meister Eckhart’s Greatest Sermon!! Sermon 87
October 2, 2012
Sermon 87 – On ‘the Poor in Spirit’
Beati pauperes spiritu quia ipsorum est regnum caelorum (Matt. 5:3)
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 possessed. 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: 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.
Bishop Albert 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, 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 to penances and outward practices, making much of these. 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 – and that is not true poverty! For a man to possess true poverty he must be as free of his created will as he was when he was not. 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, I had no God and was my own cause: then I wanted nothing and desired nothing, for I was bare being and the knower of myself in the enjoyment of truth. 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. But when I left my free will behind and received my created being, then I had a God. 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. 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. And if it were the case that a fly 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 fulfil 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. 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. 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. He must be so lacking in all knowledge that he neither knows nor recognises nor feels that God lives in him: 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 nothing else lived in him: what lived there was himself. Therefore we declare that a man should be as free from his own knowledge as he was when he was not. That man should let God work as He will, and himself stand idle.
For all that ever came out of God, a pure activity is appointed. 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. But we say it lies neither in knowing nor in loving: for there is something in the soul from which both knowledge and love flow: but it does not itself know or love in the way the powers of the soul do. Whoever knows this, knows the seat of blessedness. This has neither before nor after, nor is it expecting anything to come, for it can neither gain nor lose. And so it is deprived of the knowledge that God is at work in it: 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: in that way can a man possess poverty.
The masters say God is a being, an intellectual 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: 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.
Thirdly, he is a poor man who has nothing. 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. 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. 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. He who stands as free of knowledge and understanding as God stands of all things, has the purest poverty. 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. 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.
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. When grace had ended and finished its work, Paul remained that which he was.
So we say that a man should be so poor that he neither is nor has any place for God to work in. To preserve a place is to preserve distinction. Therefore I pray to God to make me free of God, for my essential being is above God, taking God as the origin of creatures. For in that essence of God in which God is above being and distinction, there I was myself and knew myself so as to make this man. Therefore I am my own cause according to my essence, which is eternal, and not according to my becoming, which is temporal. Therefore I am unborn, and according to my unborn mode I can never die. According to my unborn mode I have eternally been, am now and shall eternally remain. That which I am by virtue of birth, for it is mortal, and so must perish with time. In my birth all things were born 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.
A great master says that his breaking-through is nobler than his emanation, and this is true. 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. 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. Then I am what I was, then I neither wax nor wane, 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 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.
Translated by Maurice O’C Walshe from his brilliant book: The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart