Eckharts Way explores the life, teaching, and influence of the great German Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart. Now recognised as both orthodox and the creative source of a stream of mystical theology and spirituality that enlivened Europe for centuries, Eckhart remains one of the most controversial figures of the Middle Ages. In recent years, Eckhart’s influence has spread throughout the world, as Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, and even many who espouse no religious allegiance find in his teaching profound wisdom and exhilarating hope.
Eckharts Way attempts to describe his spiritual thought and instruction as a whole based on a study of his German sermons and treatises and also his Latin works. Although thoroughly researched and annotated, Eckharts Way is not a book written for the specialist, but an overview of the great friar’s teaching as well as an account of how his dedication and success led to charges of promoting heretical doctrine.
Understanding Eckhart may not be easy, but it is rewarding far beyond the discussion of his historical and theological significance in the Academy. He speaks to us all.
Richard J. Woods
It is a great resource book, just to help one get around in the Eckhart literature but especially as an orientation to his work and thought.
- Sandra Schneiders, IHM, Jesuit Theological School at Berkeley.
Eckharts way, a strikingly well-written study first published twenty years ago, and now reissued by Veritas, seeks to put Meister Eckharts works into historical context and to explain and justify their content for a modern readership.
Eckhart (1260-1308) was part of a century-long culture of Christian thought and practice that appeared in the Netherlands and northern Germany in the 13th and 14th centuries, a diffuse movement of intellectuals, contemplatives and religious poets now referred to as the Rhineland mystics.
Other well known figures from the period include the great Flemish scholar and thinker Jan Van Ruysbroek (1293-1381), the sublime Dutch poetess Hadewijch, and the influential Johannes Tauler (1300-1360).
Although Eckharts name - like that of the Beguine Hadewijch and the equally gifted and controversial German Tauler - would later become tainted by association with spiritual movements deemed unorthodox, the Meister himself always insisted on the legitimacy of his writings.
He was, after all, a member of the monastic Order of Preachers, founded by Saint Dominic as a response to the Albigensian heresy whose spread, and subsequent repression, caused such chaos in southern Europe in the first half of the century of Eckharts birth.
The mystical doctrine of the Rhineland authors attracted disapproval for its insistent, persuasive enthusiasm - a passionate appetite for grace and charity that led them to make radical statements about the identical nature of God and the redeemed soul.
Taken out of context, these dazzling claims may seem to remove any sense of divine otherness and raise human agency to a dangerous height. A similar controversy, likewise centred on the question of the role of human agency in the process of redemption, had led to the public spat between Augustine and Pelagius in the fourth century.
In this vein Eckhart himself writes: If I am to know God without means and without image or likeness, then God must become practically I and I practically God, so wholly one that when I work with Him it is not that I work and He incites me, but that I work wholly with what is mine.
Woods, an American Dominican priest and professor of Theology in Illinois, has dedicated his life to an understanding of his fascinating and difficult predecessor Eckhart: this short book condenses decades of reading and study into a brief 200 hundred pages and three sections - nine chapters altogether, comprising a blend of synopsis, interpretation and historical background.
The scholarship in each section is meticulous, the rendering of a key period of ecclesiastical history is fascinating in every way, and Woods makes a persuasive case for the orthodoxy and the universal merit of Eckharts sermons, both with regard to their (anachronistic) condemnation and their recent acceptance by the Order, under whose aegis they were written.
- Luke Sheehan, The Irish Catholic 3rd September 2009
Richard J. Woods is professor of theology at the Dominican University, River Forest, Illinois, America. He is also a trustee and former chair of the Eckhart Society. He has published numerous books and articles on different aspects of religion. Meister Eckhart is not a household name even among devout Catholics in Ireland, but he was a major figure in the middle ages and his influence is still felt in theological circles today. He was a Dominican mystic who created a tradition of mystical theology and spirituality that attracted much attention. Often seen as controversial, his teachings are now accepted as more mainstream and in tune with modern concerns. Woods introduces Eckhart, charting his career in the church, and examines in detail his teachings. He is not writing a detailed intellectual work directed at other scholars but hopes that his book will appeal to the non-specialist reader as he attempts to explain Eckharts teachings in a way that the lay person can understand and which is relevant to living today. However, some of the prose can be heavy going and some of the ideas expressed difficult to grasp and we suspect that only the devout reader will be able to tackle this book.
- Books Ireland, September 2009
- PART ONE
THE FRIARS WAY
His name was Eckhart. Known later as Eckhart von Hochheim, he was born about 1260 in a Thuringian village in northeastern Germany, possibly Tambach, of a family of the lesser nobility. Hochheim might then be a family name.There are, however, two villages in the district called Hochheim, one northwest of Gotha and the other near Erfurt. Little else is known of Eckharts origins, the formative influences of his family, childhood experiences or early youth. As a member of the Dominican Order, he would have initially been called Friar or Bruder Eckhart. But when he completed his magisterial studies in theology at the University of Paris in 1302, the honorific title Master (Meister in German) was added to his name as was customary. Since then, he became known and venerated throughout the world simply and forever as Meister Eckhart. At a very young age by modern standards, probably between fifteen and seventeen, Eckhart was accepted into the novitiate of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans) at Erfurt. After professing his vows, or possibly before, he was probably sent to the University of Paris for initial studies. There, he seems to have studied under Siger of Brabant, whose radical Averroist-Aristotelianism was condemned on 7 March 1277 along with certain propositions of Thomas Aquinas.
From Paris Eckhart went in 1280 to the studium generale established in Cologne in 1248 by the great Dominican teacher and bishop, Albert the Great, master of Thomas Aquinas. On his arrival it is not certain but likely that Eckhart actually met Bishop Albrecht, who spent his last years at Cologne and died there on 15 November 1280, shortly after Eckhart would have begun his formal theological studies. However, it is altogether unlikely that he could have met Thomas, who died in 1274, probably well before Eckhart entered the order. But he lived to see the Angelic Doctor exonerated and canonised in 1323 by the very pope, ironically, who would posthumously condemn fifteen of Eckharts own propositions six years afterwards.
Eckharts Times: The Beginning of the End
As the thirteenth century drew to a close, the great edifice of medieval Christendom was beginning to crumble. Forty years earlier, there had been only distant rumblings in the remoter vaults. But despite growing discontent and occasionally ominous crises, the years of Eckharts youth were not a period of unusual conflict, confusion and catastrophe. The debacle still lay ahead. But even during the tempestuous century that followed, as in all periods of cultural transition and political upheaval, there were moments of sparkling achievement in religion, the arts, humanities, science and the experiences of ordinary life.
During the decades immediately before and after Eckharts birth, scholastic theology and philosophy attained their greatest heights at the universities of Paris and Oxford. Bonaventure had interrupted his brilliant teaching career to become Minister General of the Franciscan Order in 1257. In 1263, the year Balliol College was founded at Oxford, Thomas Aquinas finished the Summa Contra Gentes. The following year he began his masterpiece, the Summa Theologiae, left unfinished by a premature death a decade later. The Franciscan Roger Bacon was then teaching at Oxford at the newly founded Merton College while Albert the Great presided over the Dominican studium generale (house of study) at Cologne.
Spiritual ferment was also in the air: it was an era of saints , friars such as Albert, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, queens and kings such as Elizabeth of Hungary, Brigit of Sweden and Louis IX of France, lay people such as the Franciscan Angela of Foligno and Ramon Lull, even popes, such as Gregory X and the bewildered holy man Peter of Murrone, who became Pope Celestine V. In 1296, the gentle Dominican friar Henry Suso was born and in 1300, his junior contemporary, Johann Tauler. The year the Black Death first appeared in Europe, 1347, also witnessed the birth of one of the greatest mystics and the first woman Doctor of the Church, the Dominican laywoman, Catherine of Siena.
It was also an era of emerging lay spirituality. Fundamentally orthodox but misunderstood associations such as the Beguines were first reported in the densely populated areas of the Netherlands in the late twelfth century. Within a few decades, the movement had spread throughout the Rhineland. Fertilised by the prophecies of the Calabrian apocalypticist, Abbot Joachim of Fiore, a wilder variety of mystical cults also flourished throughout Europe. Strange sects and religious s coundrels proliferated. The anarchic, erotically-prone Brethren of the Free Spirit roamed from country to country attacking organised religion and conventional morality. The first flagellant movements sprang up in southern Germany and northern Italy.
By the end of the thirteenth century, moreover, the Church that had presided spiritually and even politically over a shakily unified Christendom for several centuries found itself torn between opposed forces intent on controlling Europe , the French dynasty of Anjou, rulers of the largest and most powerful nation in Europe, and the Germano-Austrian Kings, especially the Holy Roman emperors, whose dreams of conquest were hardly less grandiose. The papacy frequently found itself under attack from both directions, sometimes simultaneously, even while its power was slowly eroded from within by the restive Italian republics and a growing secularist movement.
Only a century later, however, as the Black Death cut its terrible swath over the continent, internecine political and dynastic struggles would have seriously weakened the power of the German Imperium to threaten national or ecclesiastical interests for several generations to follow. The papacy, too, having moved to a safer position at Avignon under the protection of the French monarchy, would never regain even under the Borgias the power and prestige it enjoyed during the High Middle Ages. France, finally, would find itself reduced by a seemingly incessant war with England to a state of economic and political desperation. Eckhart, however, would know none of this, no matter how gifted his prophetic powers, even though murmurs of destruction must have been audible by the time he began his scholastic career in Paris.
Eckhart the Student
In its earliest years, the Dominican Order provided no courses in the arts and humanities for its student members, who were instructed only in scripture and theology. Once professed, Dominican students were actually forbidden to take courses in the liberal arts, medicine, law and philosophy, especially that of pagans and unbelievers such as Aristotle (although they were allowed to consult them privately). Postulants were expected, as today, to have completed their initial studies prior to entrance. As ever-greater numbers of young candidates flocked to the Order, however, it became necessary to modify this custom.
At the time Eckhart entered, sometime in the latter part of the 1270s, matters were in transition. He could have already finished his preliminary studies at the University of Paris as Hinnebusch suggests, or he may have been sent there to do so. In either event, the course of studies he would have first been exposed to consisted of grammar, logic and dialectics, natural science, psychology, astronomy, metaphysics and moral philosophy , the sequence imposed by decree at the University of Paris in 1255 and followed by the Dominican studium generale at St Jacques as part of the University.
Dominican students in prioral schools who showed particular aptitude for studies were selected to go on for more advanced work in general houses of study such as that founded at Cologne in 1248 by St Albert, which would one day be incorporated into the new university. (Both the university, founded in 1388, and the Cologne studium were destroyed by revolutionary French troops in 1797.) It was the intellectual elite, finally, who matriculated in the universities, Hinnebusch relates, and not all of them advanced to the mastership. Eckhart, however, did so, advancing from Cologne to the University of Paris in 1293 at the age of thirty-three as a lecturer on the Sentences.
Merely to qualify to become a Master of Sacred Theology, the ultimate medieval academic achievement, a candidate would thus have already completed at least seven years of preliminary study in theology, having lectured as a bachelor on scripture and the Sentences and remained in active residence for five or six years.9 Fortunately, because of their previous work in the orders houses of study, Dominican aspirants such as Eckhart would not have had to repeat the preliminary requirements. But overall, The bachelorship and residence requirement extended over a period of at least fourteen to fifteen years before licensing and graduation as a master.
The Priesthood and Paris
After finishing his higher studies at Cologne and before returning to Paris to undertake studies for the prestigious title of Master in Theology, Eckhart was ordained to the priesthood. The date and place are not known and this biographical detail is usually passed over in accounts of Eckharts life. As a Dominican friar, however, his ordination would have figured greatly in Eckharts own spiritual life and his eventual career as pastor and preacher. I suggest that at the centre of the multiplicity of offices, duties, commissions and disputes that would preoccupy him until his death, the unwobbly centre of Eckharts life as a Dominican remained the pastoral call that first led him to the door of Erfurt priory and eventually to the ministry of pulpit and altar.
Josef Koch dates the first part of Eckharts second stay in Paris between 1293 and 1294, during which time he composed the Collatio in libros Sententiarum, his inaugural lecture as Master of the Sentences of Peter Lombard. From the end of that period came his Easter sermon, Pascha nostrum immolatus of 18 April 1294, which contains an early reference to Bishop Albrecht.
Eckhart must have enjoyed the confidence of his brethren from the beginning, for the next we hear of him, he has been elected prior of his home convent at Erfurt in 1294. About the same time, and well before 1298, when holding multiple offices was forbidden, he was appointed vicar of Thuringia. It is perhaps at this point in his life that he dictated the Reden der Unterscheidung (Talks of Instruction), discourses or collations given to the younger members of the community on a variety of topics concerning the spiritual life. One of the treasures of German vernacular literature, these talks reflect the young Eckhart as priest and pastor, but a man himself already possessed of keen spiritual discernment and balance. In them, almost all the major themes of his mature spiritual doctrine are present at least in germinal form.
After his term of office expired in 1298, Eckhart resumed his studies in Paris, where, in 1302, he was granted the coveted title of Magister in Theologia. During the next year, he was Regent Master for Externs. From this period come three Parisian Questions, the third debated with the Franciscan Master Gonzalvo of Spain, and the great sermon for the feast of St Augustine delivered on 28 August Quasi vas auri solidum. But while Eckhart prepared himself for what everyone no doubt expected to be the career of a distinguished teacher and theologian, events in the wider world of church and state had, however, already begun to determine a vastly different future for him.
Evangelical Poverty, Radical Reform and Spiritual Dissent
Throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, religious, even apostolic fervour percolated among both clergy and laity. Not even the papacy was immune from the zealous efforts of reformers. Outstanding among the more formidable proponents of twelfth and thirteenth century religious revolutions were the major heretical groups, the socalled Cathars, Albigensians and Waldensians, all of whom preached and practiced forms of voluntary poverty, radical obedience to their leadership and an anti-institutional spirituality. The two former groups were all but extinguished by papal crusades. Near the turn of the century, however, the Waldensians, also known as the Poor Men of Lyons, merged with a similar group called the Humiliati, and became known as the Poor Lombards. Pockets of Waldensians continue to exist to this day.
At least two groups were known as Apostolici, one centred on Cologne and P?®rigueux in France, the other founded in Parma by Gerard Segarelli in the year of Eckharts birth. Influenced by the doctrine of the Spiritual Franciscans, the latter group was twice condemned by Rome, in 1286 and in 1291. Segarelli was burned to death at Parma in 1300, but his followers regrouped under the apocalyptic preacher and anarchist, Fra Dolcino, who met a similar fate seven years later.
There were also the Bogomils, the Luciferians, the Almaricans, the Fraticelli, the Beghards and, of course, the Beguines. The most pervasive and elusive of the movements for religious freedom and spiritual anarchy were, however, the Brethren of the Free Spirit. With such a plethora of similar, even competing movements, the dividing line between heterodoxy and orthodoxy must surely have wavered at times in the minds of bishops and theologians. For those such as Archbishop Henry of Virneburg, such a confusion of tongues was all the more reason for stern methods of discernment and repression.
The Pope, the Emperor and the King
Eckharts fate was closely tied to that of his native land as well as his Church. Throughout the thirteenth century, German political interests had centred on preserving the tentative unity created by the hereditary investiture of the imperium in a German prince , six of whom between 1138 and 1268 were of the Royal House of Hohenstaufen. Assuring German ascendency in Europe required keeping two other powerful forces at bay , the papacy and the French. To this end, the last great Emperor of the Middle Ages, Frederick II, the Cunning Fox who was elected King of Germany in 1212 and Emperor in 1220, shifted his considerable military attention to southern Italy. At first, he succeeded. In 1237, invading imperial forces soundly defeated the Lombard League at Cortenuova.
The Church fought back with spiritual power as well as the military and political weapons at papal disposal. In 1239, Pope Gregory IX excommunicated Frederick for the second time and convened a General Council against him. The Emperor forestalled him by an assault on Rome itself in 1241, during which the old pope died. Under his successor, Innocent IV, Frederick was declared deposed in 1245 by the First Council of Lyon. Undaunted, the Emperor seized the vacant Duchy of Austria and Styria. By 1248, however, the tide of war had turned. Frederick was seriously defeated by Lombard forces at the Battle of Parma and died two years later. In 1254, the year in which Robert Sorbon founded the great theological school at the University of Paris named in his honor, Frederick was succeeded by Conrad IV, who himself died only four years later, inaugurating the violent and fatally debilitating Interregnum that would last until 1273.
In 1258, Fredericks bastard son Manfred claimed the succession and was proclaimed King of Sicily. Sensing disaster, Pope Alexander IV appealed to Charles of Anjou, brother of the saintly Louis IX and would be King of Naples, inviting him to occupy the disputed southern lands. But in 1260, the year of Eckharts birth, the Florentine Ghibellines, allies of the Hohenstaufens, defeated the pro-papal Guelphs at Montaperti. The pope was driven from Rome, and, unable to heal the ills of the Church, succumbed to his grief in 1261. Even his successor Urban IV could not return to the City. Two years later, however, Manfred was defeated and killed by Charles of Anjou at Benevento.
Aided by the substantial influence of Pope Clement IV, Charles succeeded to the throne of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily in 1266. Infuriated, in 1268 the Ghibellines called on Conradin, the fifteen-year old grandson of Frederick II and a cousin of Thomas Aquinas, to reclaim the southern kingdom of the Hohenstaufens. But he, too, was defeated and captured by Charles. Then to the horror of Europe, the youth was beheaded in the public square of Naples, thus at least temporarily forestalling the German threat to papal and French interests in Italy.
A crime winked at by the beholden papacy, the merciless execution of Conradin, last of the Hohenstaufens, also destroyed the Duchy of Swabia as an integral political unit. At the height of its power, this vast area had extended from Strassburg to Ulm and from Baden to the Italian frontier. As Charles had no doubt intended, Germany was thereby plunged into internal turmoil regarding both the imperial succession and the redistribution of territory, further reducing its threat to France and the Pope.
Ironically, perhaps fittingly, Clement IV died within the year, inaugurating a three-year vacancy in the papacy. He was succeeded by the saintly Gregory X, who lived only five more years. In the meantime, Rudolf of Hapsburg was elected King of Germany in 1273 and recognised as Emperor by Gregory X, thus ending the Interregnum. In 1282, however, with the famous Sicilian Vespers, the nobles and people of Palermo revolted and massacred their French overlords. Once again the balance of power was threatened with upset.
The Overlord of France
In 1285, Philip IV ascended the throne sanctified by his grandfather, Louis IX, inaugurating a reign of political brutality which would bend two popes to his will, see to the death of another and, before his own death in 1314, succeed in removing the papacy from Rome to Avignon. In that same fateful year, with the reluctant connivance of the pope, Philip would engineer the final destruction of the Templars, the largest and most powerful of the Churchs military orders, thus ensuring the virtual captivity of the papacy at Avignon for sixty-four more years.
In 1305, after the brief pontificate of the Dominican Pope Benedict XI (1303, 1304), Bertrand de Got was elected Pope as Clement V. In fact the candidate of Philip IV, Clement was crowned at Lyons in the kings presence. And, in 1309, Clement fixed the papal residence at beautiful Avignon, thus inaugurating the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. (Although not part of the Kingdom of France, Avignon at that time was a fiefdom of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily, and thus under the protection of Philips cousins, Charles II and his successor, the brilliant Robert of Anjou.)
Not without skill and strength, Clement nevertheless remained subservient in most respects to Philip, who actually sat beside him during the Council of Vienne to assure the condemnation of the Templars. Not surprisingly, the six popes following Clement would alsobe French and also effectively vassals of the kings of France.
In the meantime, Adolf of Naussau had been elected German King in 1292. Deposed and killed in battle six years later, he was succeeded by Albert I, son of Rudolf of Hapsburg. But Albert was himself assassinated in 1308, possibly eliciting one of Eckharts finest spiritual works, the Book of Divine Consolation, which he may have composed for Alberts grieving widow, Agnes of Hungary. In the same year, Henry VII, Count of Luxembourg, was elected king. In 1312, he was proclaimed emperor but lived only a year longer. Almost immediately, Ludwig of Bavaria was elected emperor by five of the German princeelectors in Frankfurt. On the same day, the Count Palatine of the Rhine and the Archbishop of Cologne, Henry of Virneburg, elected Frederickof Hapsburg to the same office. Civil warfare broke out at once, raged intermittently and ended only with Fredericks defeat at Móhldorf in 1322. In 1325, however, Ludwig was constrained to accept Frederick as co-ruler.
Though he could not have known it, Eckhart, who by 1325 had returned to the studium generale in Cologne, was being drawn inexorably into the whirlpool of these conflicting interests , imperial, papal and national. In the eyes of the world they would eventually precipitate him as well as the Franciscans William of Ockham, Michael of Cesena, and their confederates to lasting disgrace and ruin.
In 1303, however, the year in which the aged Pope Boniface VIII was in effect brutally murdered by French troops and Eckhart concluded his first tenure as regent master in Paris, the Dominican General Chapter meeting at Besan?ºon divided the province of Germany into two new provinces, those of Saxony and Teutonia. On 9 September, Eckhart, the new Meister, but already a middle-aged man, was elected the first provincial of the Saxon Province, in which Erfurt now lay. His election was confirmed the following year by the Chapter of Toulouse. He was also placed in charge of the Dominican nuns of the region.
Administrative successes mounted. In 1307, he was appointed Vicar of Bohemia by the Provincial Chapter of Strassburg and commissioned to reform the houses which had apparently fallen into dissolution there. Between 1309 and 1310, he founded three new houses of the order at Braunschweig, Dortmund and Groningen. And in 1310, Eckhart was elected Provincial of Teutonia. However, this election was canceled by the General Chapter meeting at Naples the following year. It was not a censure: the Meister was needed elsewhere.
The Second Paris Residence
For the third time, Eckhart journeyed to Paris, where once again he occupied the Chair for Externs. It has been suggested that his mission was to combat the influence of the great Scottish Franciscan, John Duns Scotus there , although Scotus himself had died in Cologne in 1308. From this period, there are extant two more disputations, the scriptural commentaries and other fragments of the monumental Opus Tripartitum (The Three-Part Work) which Eckhart planned to be the crowning work of his scholastic career.16 He apparently sought to complete the efforts of the Cologne School with his projected work, which was to contain an Opus Propositionum (Work of Propositions) of more than one thousand propositions divided into fourteen treatises, an Opus Questionum (Work of Questions) dealing with theological issues, and an Opus Expositionum (Expository Work), a vast biblical theology consisting f a Book of Commentaries and a Book of Sermons. Fragments of the first and third parts have been found, but nothing has come down to us of the Opus Questionum.
Eckhart was not destined to finish his projected masterwork. Having completed his second magisterial residence at Paris, the Meister was recalled to Germany. Rather than returning to Erfurt, however, he appears in Strassburg in 1313 as professor of theology, prior, spiritual director and preacher , an all-consuming ministry that was to change his life forever.
The Pastor and Preacher
Eckhart was already well-known for his preaching before he came to Strassburg. In addition to the Latin sermons from his magistral periods in Paris, an important German sermon, On the Noble Man (Vom edeln Menschen), was committed to writing around 1313 but was probably delivered before Queen Agnes of Hungary in 1308 after the assassination of her husband, King Albert I, by his nephew at K?Ânigsfelden. But it was in Strassburg that Eckharts preaching career blossomed in unexpected ways and so fruitfully that his plans to complete the Opus Tripartitum would never be realised.
Perhaps Eckhart grasped this from the outset of his residence in this bustling, mystical city. The fact that there is no hint of regret in his later writings suggests that he accepted this change of itinerary gracefully. He was, after all, a member of an order illustrious for its ministry of preaching. One can also only wonder whether Eckhart would have felt some anxiety had he known that with this fateful transition to the active life of a preacher, forces that would lead to his eventual downfall had also been set in motion. From what we know of his spirituality from that preaching, it seems unlikely.
In 1314, Eckhart was elected Prior of the Dominican convent at Strassburg. He was also named vicar by the Master of the Order, Berengar of Landora, and with Matthew of Finstingen placed in charge of the nuns of the region. (A letter of Eckhart to the nuns of Unterlinden near Colmar dates from 1322, under Herv?® of Nedellec, Master from 1318, 1323, who renewed the charge.) Thus it was that shortly after his arrival, Eckhart began his preaching ministry among that most remarkable group of mystics of the fourteenth century Rhineland, the contemplative sisters of the Dominican monasteries that surrounded Strassburg like the rim of a great wheel.
St Dominics Daughters
Throughout the fourteenth century, mystical spirituality of a high order flourished among the cloistered Dominican nuns of southern Germany and northern Switzerland. Their many convents were havens for large numbers of religiously gifted, well-educated women otherwise deprived of position, authority and creative outlets in an age of growing social confusion and psychological anxiety. The teachings and example of Meister Eckhart, and, in later years, that of his disciples, Tauler and Suso, greatly influenced the language, tone and content of the sisters mysticism, although they also drew heavily on other sources, such as the writings of Mechthild of Magdeburg, the lives of the Dominican Brethren and the chronicles and legends of other Dominican convents.
It was the sisters who would also preserve the memory and teaching of their beloved Meister.
Sometime after 1322, Eckhart returned to the great city of Cologne, now as regent master of the studium generale where he had laboured as a youth more than forty years before. He was at the pinnacle of his career. Here he would have as a student and his most loyal disciple the remarkable and lovable mystic Henry Suso. Here, too, after 1325 he may have briefly known Susos younger contemporary, Johann Tauler, also to become a follower of Eckharts way, and later the greatest preacher of his generation.
Cologne (K?Âln in German) was the Roman city of Colonia Agrippina, founded in the first century of the Common Era. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it particularly flourished under the great prince-archbishops such as Henry II of Virneburg who held office as one of the seven imperial Electors. By the fourteenth century it boasted over one hundred churches. The cornerstone of its great cathedral, one of the finest in all of Europe, and which contains the relics of the Magi, was laid by Archbishop Conrad of Hochstaden on 15 August 1248. It was not finished until the nineteenth century. The magnificent choir was consecrated by Henry of Virneburg in 1322, just as Eckhart returned to the city. The splendid Dominican church built by St Albert, where his tomb lay and Eckhart would have preached and prayed, was destroyed by French troops in 1799.
To this great city, the finest Franciscan scholar of his age, Duns Scotus, came from Paris in 1307 to teach. But here, tragically, he died the following year at the age of forty-three. Here, too, at the peak of his success as a preacher and teacher, calamity finally engulfed the venerable and esteemed Master of the Dominican studium.
Heresy and Death in an Alien Land
To his own amazement and that of his colleagues and students, at the age of sixty-six Eckhart was summoned on charges of heresy before the stern and unyielding Archbishop of Cologne, Henry II of Virneburg. The aged friar defended himself vigorously but to no avail. Supported by his fellow friars, he appealed to the pope. And thus at the age of sixty-seven or sixty-eight, this great teacher and preacher began the last great journey of his life, walking the five hundred miles with several of his brethren in order to plead his case at the papal court, now at Avignon.
Both Eckhart and his companions fully expected acquittal.19 But the process dragged on for over a year without result. Sometime before the final, tragic resolution, the old man died, adamantly convinced of the orthodoxy of his doctrine, but willing as always to retract anything that could be proved erroneous.
The bull of condemnation issued in March, 1329, mentions Eckharts death as well as his retraction. Eleven months earlier, however, a letter concerning the process of examination sent by Pope John XXII to Archbishop Henry of Virneburg had referred to him as already dead. Thus, the date of Eckharts death can be fixed as late in 1327 or early 1328. He probably died in Avignon at the Dominican priory.