“This is why I pray God to rid me of God.”
– Meister Eckhart
Welcome back. This series is an attempt to rethink and re-imagine prayer (or at least certain aspects and practices of it). My hope is that it can help to revive and renew the path of prayer in our day for those of us from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim backgrounds – and those of us who are moving forward into parts unknown.
In our first meditation I argued for approaching prayer as actually belonging to God and not to us – not in the truest or deepest sense that is. I further argued that we may speak of our participation in and with God’s prayer.
In our second meditation we examined one such form of participation in God’s prayer, one that has been largely neglected but does lie legitimately within the biblical tradition, namely spiritual inquiry.
In this meditation I want to explore another similarly-neglected but equally-powerful spiritual practice in the Western biblical tradition. This spiritual art or practice should also be understood as a relative participation in the absolute nature of God’s prayer.
The strongest proponent for this form of prayer was the great medieval mystic Meister Eckhart. While Eckhart’s theology and mystical realization is well beyond one short article (entire books exist on the subject) there is a little bit of background and context necessary to be able to articulate the spiritual practice Eckhart describes. The practice is, after all, a means to realize the truth with which Eckhart is pointing.
The line I quoted comes from one of Eckhart’s sermons – Sermon 15 to be precise). (All quotations from Eckhart are courtesy of Matthew Fox’s translation in Passion for Creation: The Earth Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckart).
Eckhart’s text for the day is:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
His sermon following this text is an exploration of the truest meaning of being poor in spirit. Eckhart asks: Who is the one who is poor in spirit? What is true poverty of spirit? The question is obviously important, since it is those who are truly poor in spirit who will receive the kingdom.
Eckhart begins by describing and then critiquing the classic definition of poverty in spirit in the majority of Christian mysticism.
Bishop Albrecht says that a poor person is one who takes no satisfaction in any of the things God ever created–and that is well said. But we say it better still and take poverty in a yet higher understanding: she is a poor person who wills nothing and knows nothing and has nothing.
When it comes to willing nothing, Eckhart will go on to make some of his most radical statements. He argues that one should not even have a will to do good. One should not even have a will to do the will of God!
He points out that other people (i.e. the more classic Christian mystical practice and understanding) say one who is poor in spirit wills nothing. He states:
However, they interpret this to mean that one should so live as to never fulfill one’s own will in any way, but rather strive to fulfill the ever-beloved will of God. These people are right in their way, for their intention is good and for that we want to praise them. May God in his mercy grant them the kingdom of heaven. But in all divine truth, I say that these are not poor [in spirit], nor do they resemble poor people [in spirit]. They are highly considered only in the eyes of those who know no better. I, however, say that they are asses who understand nothing of divine truth. Because of their good intentions, they may receive the kingdom of heaven. But of that poverty of which I now want to speak, they know nothing.
Eckhart will argue that as long as there is an “I” sense in a person then there is a “something”-ness, not the nothingness necessary for true poverty of spirit. Even an ego-I that desires to sacrifice itself and do the will of God is still for Eckhart an ultimately selfish act! Well intentioned no doubt but still in the end living a falsehood. An “ass who understands nothing of divine truth.” Well-meaning yes, but an ass nonetheless.
As long as there is an ego-I, there is another. As long as there is an ego-I, there is separation and other-ness. Whether that other is the world, another person, or even God. For Eckhart, all of these are signs of a fundamental rupture at the heart of life. According to Eckhart, to will or desire one thing – even the will of God – is to not will many other things. It is to create difference, duality, and fracture.
His solution to this conundrum? Will nothing. Become nothing. Be nothing. Have nothing.
For Eckhart, when the ego-I sense drops away, everything that arises with that ego-I sense also drops away. What arises as the ego-I drops away is, for Eckhart, eternity and indistinct union (i.e. nonduality).
The paradox, the reversal at the heart of Eckhart’s realization, is precisely that of Jesus’: only the poor in spirit will receive the kingdom of heaven.
For Eckhart receiving the kingdom of heaven means entering into Eternal Oneness with the Divine beyond separation, right now. Eckhart calls this the “essential being” of a person: The place where the human soul and God are not-two.
‘Receiving the Kingdom’ has less to do with ‘attaining’ and more to do with retaining – having the vision necessary to apprehend what is. It means experiencing heaven now.
Such a blissful reception is only possible to the degree one is willing to let go completely, including letting go of their very sense of God, themselves, life – even what they believe to the right way.
But to the degree that one is truly empty, truly poor in spirit, then one receives everything at once.
Herein lies Eckhart’s radical spiritual practice (called gelassenheit in his native German). It is a practice I believe we need to revive for this day.
Gelassenheit is the art of becoming poor in spirit, of returning to the nothingness (that also is the everything-ness) that is our nature before our birth in time. What the Zen tradition calls one’s Original Face before you were born.
Zen Buddhism here holds an interesting parallel. In Zen there is the tradition of koans, of the use of questions that chew one up and reveal one’s attachment to the false sense of self. The Christian parallel practice there is inquiry. In Zen there is also the tradition of shikantaza or zazen, aka “sitting meditation.” This is very similar to Eckhart’s gelassenheit.
Eckhart’s point is that most methods of prayer assume a sense of an “I” and assume the sense of God as other (actually, The Other) and then seek through grace and the co-operation with grace to create some kind of bridge to cross the gap between the two. For Eckhart instead one drops completely the sense of I and then the concept of God as Other also completely drops away. God as an Other can only exist in relation to the self as an “I.”
Eckhart calls this in various places “God beyond God” or the Godhead.
The Godhead, for Eckhart, stands empty or void of all images, of all ideas, of all responses. The Godhead knows nothing in particular. The Godhead wills nothing, in particular. The Godhead has nothing, is nothing, in particular.
And because it is not anything in particular…because it does not have anything in particular, it is all, it is everything, all at once.
Gelassenheit is the practice of standing void. Like inquiry it undercuts the very sense that I would be doing the praying in the first place. It is a prayer of becoming void. And this is a subtle but key point: One becomes void not by being a “I” who “sacrifices oneself.” That path is the path of what Eckhart called the well-meaning asses. As long as there is an ego-I that’s doing the sacrificing of itself then it the ego is still the central actor! The ego loves to sacrifice and surrender itself and appear holy in the process.
For Eckhart, gelassenheit is being undone in God. It’s not sacrificing oneself but simply being sacrificed in God (or more technically, Godhead). This is why God is the one who truly prays. It is God who truly does the sacrificing.
Gelassenheit is to participate in that process mostly by simply feeling and observing it happen and consenting to it. Like in Zen, one just sits and observes one’s sitting.
This is why the word “detachment,” which is a common translation of gelassenheit, is unhelpful. There is a dis-entangling quality to gelassenheit, yes, but it’s not cold like detachment. It’s more like a kind of releasing submission. In gelassenheit one is submitted to the process of God’s prayer. One does not submit – this, again, would assume an ego-I that does the submitting. One is submitted. For Eckhart the practice of gelassnheit is continual remembrance that one’s created being is nothingness, is void. And precisely in that remembrance of one’s created nothingness, one also remembers one’s eternal being–what Eckhart calls the spark of the soul, i.e. the kingdom of heaven already within us.
The Void of the Godhead turns out to be the Kingdom of Heaven.
To become void is “to pray God to rid me of God.” That is the prayer of gelassenheit.
God’s prayer is to make us nothing – that is, to reveal our created being as essentially no-thing, and thereby to make us available to be one with all. Gelassenheit, like inquiry, is a participation in this unconditional, always-already prayer of God. Inquiry is somewhat on the more active side of the spectrum and gelassenheit a bit more on the receptive side. But both are anti-method methods or non-practice practices.
Eckhart’s nothingness, however, is not nihilism. In fact, it is the precise opposite of nihilism. Gelassenheit, becoming poor in spirit, is the only way to experience and live the kingdom of heaven. Eckhart speaks of losing a will for the will of God, becoming the will of God. One becomes an incarnation of the kingdom in the flesh. Eckhart calls this the Birth of the Eternal Son in the soul. One incarnates spontaneously and without self-reflection the kingdom values of Justice, Love, and Compassion. To the degree that one is void of such an ego-I, then one is a vehicle for God’s Word to be expressed directly, concretely, in realtime. It happens, however, of it’s own as there is no ego-I that can direct the actions.
Gelassenheit is only ever a participation, a relatively valuable process. Gelassenheit only means to serve the true process – the Eternal Birth of the Word of God in one’s soul, manifest in the life of the kingdom lived spontaneously through one’s being.
The Eternal for Eckhart then spills over into the temporal precisely when there is no ego-I left. Then the kingdom of heaven exists on earth. Eternity is manifest in and through and as the temporal. Gelassenheit is a powerful co-operation in the process of being made poor in the spirit so that one might be the incarnation of the kingdom.
Or as Eckhart more beautifully puts it:
Thus we say that a person must be so poor [in spirit] that he or she is no place and has no place wherein God could act. Where people still preserve some place in themselves, they preserve distinction. This is why I pray God to rid me of God; for my essential being is above God insofar as we consider God as the origin of creatures…In the breakthrough, on the other hand, where I stand free of my own will and of the will of God and of all God’s works and of God’s self, there I am above all creatures and am neither God nor creature. Rather, I am what I was and what I shall remain now and forever…Here then God finds no place in people, for people achieve with this poverty [of spirit] what they were in eternity and will remain forever. Here God is one with the spirit and that is the strictest poverty [of spirit] one can find.
Chris Dierkes is a long time student and practitioner of the Christ-consciousness mystical path. After receiving his MDiv., Chris worked in parish ministry for three years (Anglican Church of Canada) and now maintains a private practicein interspiritual soul work. In addition Chris has studied energy healing, intuitive arts, and shamanic practice. He writes frequently on subjects of spirituality in the contemporary world. He lives in Vancouver with his wife Chloe and their daughter Sage. You can check out his writing and practice here.