There’s nothing good about spending half a month stuck in a book I’m not into, but because of some weird tick, finding myself unable to put it down and move on. But I finally did, and move on I have. Monday was some sort of holy Jesus holiday in Germany and I spent all day reading.
I started the day with a few essay’s in Zadie Smith’s marvelous collection Feel Free, then finished Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels, and read another chapter from Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. Somewhere in there I also found time to read Meister Eckhart’s Talks of Instruction, which comprise the first part of the Penguin Classics editions of his Selected Writings, edited and translated by Oliver Davies.
I found the latter (when taken out of context, though not in the free-wheeling, anything- goes religious way in which he is sometimes taken out of context) to be oddly bolstering in my current circumstances, which involve a week where I have felt rather disappointed by human nature. Not by all human nature, but by one example, but the disappointment has been large and I’ve ended up feeling a bit ill-used.
I did ask myself, though, what an atheist like me was doing reading the work of a medieval Dominican friar. Because I really am an atheist, not an agnostic at all, though I avoid any association with any sort of atheist movement.
The best way to describe my stance on this comes from the mouth of Palinor, a character in Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and involves a feral child, so of course I read it, and the Inquisition to boot.
When describing his own lack of belief to Benedtix, the cleric who has been taxed with convincing Palinor of the existence of God, Palinor explains that, no, he is not an agnostic at all.
“Not in the sense you defined—that an agnostic is one who thinks that one day or if something happened he might be convinced. For I think that it is in principle impossible to know whether there is a God or not. I know therefore that with immovable certainty that I shall never know that God exists. Likewise I shall never know that he does not. Such knowledge is always, and in principle, out of reach.”
However, I did not let Meister Eckhart’s very obvious belief in a supreme being get in the way of my enjoyment of his writing and managed to even find ways in which said writing could be given a secular twist and applied, again, to my current situation of feeling disappointed and let down.
The Talks of Instruction start out full-on with a peon to obedience (to God, of course). In general, the whole notion of obedience is something I find off-putting, but as I read on I began to consider that the notion of obedience in Eckhart might well be likened not to our contemporary notion of bowing down to some authoritarian like presence, but rather could signify, I think, in our current parlance, an absence of an overabundance of ego. Indeed, Eckhart writes of “self-will” from time to time, and this only serves to bolster my view that I might find something useful here if I only ignore all the God shit and replace God with the idea of being in service to some more general ideal. (I suppose, this week, that ideal would be maintaining optimism about human nature, and that redemption and forgiveness are possible.)
(I’m being deliberately vague about the actual circumstances behind the reasons for my current state of mind. It’s a long story and mildly tiring.)
I read on. As I do, and as I continue to twist Eckhart’s writing into some sort of secular answer for my current feelings, I start to get the feeling that his work is teaching me how to read it.
For example, he quotes Matthew 16:24 in “On the most powerful prayer of all and the finest work.”: “If anyone would follow me, he must first deny himself.” This he elucidates by adding, “This is the point which counts. Examine yourself, and wherever you find yourself, then take leave of yourself. This is the best way of all.”
Of course, he’s pretty much talking about giving in to God, but I decide this is really a casual message telegraphing itself to me across a wide gap of centuries, reminding me not to take myself too seriously, which is almost always useful advice. Sometimes it’s possible to feel like a chump, but this bit of Eckhart reminds me that often my aversion to feeling like a chump might have something to do with not wanting to appear like a chump. This, I think, is essentially an egotistical concern, and therefore best left to one side.
But since Eckhart is bringing the Bible into this, I dig a little further and start asking myself what the central tenet of Christianity is. Love your neighbor as you love yourself, put simply, I think. Put another way, and described by a word we often place special emphasis on nowadays…kindness.
Following kindness as a life philosophy strikes me as one way of taking leave of the self, as long as the practice comes from a place of humility and not from any sort of self-promotional, “Look at me. See how good I am.” (In fact, there’s another Bible quote, one I can’t find right now, where Jesus explains how we should pray and do good works in secret. Pretty much for the reason I’ve outlined above.)
We’re currently in an era, by which I’m talking about Me Too, that begs a question about kindness (not to mention redemption and forgiveness). Where is the balance between kindness and self-protection? When does an instinct for self-protection cross into cynicism about human behavior? Because it’s hard not to be cynical sometimes, but I don’t necessarily want to be. And ultimately, occasional disappointment feels better than cutting myself off from some depth of human feeling that could lead to some more positive experience or emotion.
Eckhart goes on to write all sorts of things about the relationship of humans to God, as well as all sorts of other things that make a different sort of contemporary sense. For example, in “On detachment and possessing God,” he writes: “That person who is in the right state of mind, is so regardless of where they are and who they are with, while those who are in the wrong state of mind will find this to be the case wherever they are and whoever they are with.”
In context, Eckhart is writing about how/when a person is able to “[possess] God in the right way.” But take out God, and what he has written is something we say all the time—we can’t escape ourselves. The conventional wisdom is that our deep-seeded issues remain with us, regardless of whether we stay put or move to a new town or city, or who we happen to be hanging out with at the time. This feels true, to an extant, but might not be the whole story.
Our milieu probably can have a deep impact upon us, if we’re open to change. When we surround ourselves with supportive people, we’re in a different place than when we find ourselves surrounded by people actively working against us for whatever reason. Internal work, and a lot of it, is still required, and no, that’s never easy.
I suppose it’s also true that one may bruise others along the way, and I suppose everyone else has the right to determine how often, if it all, they are prepared to be bruised.
I feel a bit foolish right now, but I’m not sure that should matter. Astrology is bunk, I think, but sometimes it feels useful to explain to others that I’m a Leo, because this quickly paints for others a picture of how massive my ego might be. (And it is. It really is.) But there’s something else going on here, and that, at its foundation, is a useful struggle about ideals.
Eckhart writes of the difference between experiencing God as an internal force as opposed to an external one. And here I am, excising God, and plunking in ideal. (Who knows. Maybe that’s partly what secular humanism does, a movement I know far too little about.) But where do our ideals come from? I can’t even pretend to know the answer to that, though I expect life experiences and circumstances have something to do with both the building up and beating down of them. At some point, I suppose, ideals are also at least partly decisions.
And I suppose hope (in my case, with regards to human nature) is always also at least partly a decision and that redemption is always possible, and I suppose I should let go of egotistical concerns and forgive people who have acted in ways that have left me feeling foolish or like I haven’t fully grasped the whole picture, and I suppose, in the end, I probably do. I suppose, also, that I should admit how confusing people can be and that confusion isn’t necessarily cloudy or benign.
Ultimately, reading Eckhart has been a good reminder to yours truly to let go of ego, and pride to boot, the cardinal sin of all Leos. Sometimes, I think, when I let go of my pride, I can admit to deeper feelings layered underneath, ones that are ickier, yuckier, less palatable, and, when they pop up, leave me feeling much, much more vulnerable. I don’t like to feel sad, but at the moment, it feels like the most honest emotion. I’m naturally ebullient and indefatigable, so I won’t feel sad for long, but I suppose one should admit where one is, at least for a moment.
Off to enjoy more Meister Eckhart. Thanks for reading.