Meister Eckhart: Request or Receive?

  • The text: The Talks of Instruction
  • The author: Meister Eckhart
  • Read it yourself: I’m reading the Penguin Classic version, which has a collection of Eckhart’s sermons as well. There’s a copy of the same book on the Internet Archive.

What is the appropriate way to pray? It’s one of those basic Christian questions, the sort of thing that you start asking when you convert and that you never really get a proper answer for. Each of the Gospels has its own, slightly different take on how you should pray – for instance, Matthew 6 has the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus prefaces with the instruction “Pray then in this way.” Luke 11 has a shorter version of the Lord’s Prayer, given to the disciples rather than to a crowd, and Jesus follows it by instructing his disciples to ask for whatever they need: “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” Mark 11 has a similar emphasis on our ability to receive whatever we ask for in prayer (“So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours”), and John 15 says something to the same effect again (“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you”).

And that’s all well and good, but I think any believer would tell you that you don’t always get what you ask for. How many Christians must have prayed for world peace, or for an end to poverty? How many have prayed fruitlessly for revival, or for the end of days? So people add caveats to their theories of prayer. You can ask for whatever you want, but if you don’t ask in alignment with God’s will, you’re not going to get it. For instance, the Billy Graham website has an FAQ about prayer, where it claims that “sometimes [God] lovingly refuses to give us what we request, because He knows it isn’t according to His perfect plan.” So you can ask for whatever you want, but if God doesn’t want to give it to you, then He won’t. It almost seems like if you want your prayers to be answered, you need to know what God’s will is before you even ask. Otherwise, you’re just barking up the wrong tree.

And this is where Meister Eckhart comes in. Meister Eckhart, or Eckhart von Hochheim, is a late 13th century German mystic. He’s not to be confused with Eckhart Tolle, the 20th century spiritualist and author of The Power of Now. Most of his surviving works are sermons or commentaries on Scripture, although we also have a couple of treatises that he wrote in German, as opposed to the more scholarly Latin. It’s one of those that we’re dealing with today: The Talks of Instruction. This treatise is made up of a series of instructions for young monks, apparently arising from evening conversations while Eckhart was governing a monastery in Thuringia, in the middle of Germany.

The first entry in the Talks is on obedience. In it, Eckhart takes very much the opposite view of prayer to what we’ve discussed above:

“In true obedience there should be no ‘I want this or that to happen’ or ‘I want this or that thing’, but only a pure going out of what is our own. And therefore in the very best kind of prayer that we can pray there should be no ‘give me this particular virtue or way of devotion’ or ‘yes, Lord, give me yourself or eternal life’, but rather ‘Lord, give me only what you will and do, Lord, only what you will and in the way that you will.’ This kind of prayer is as far above the former as heaven is above earth.”

This approach resolves some of the difficulties that we’d identified before. Rather than going around making demands of God – demands which may or may not be answered – we should offer God our acceptance of whatever comes our way. It matches the type of prayer we see in Luke 22, where Jesus says “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” We also have similar verses like Galatians 2:20 or Colossians 3:3, which talk about how we as believers must die to ourselves and our desires, and take on Christ instead. These are the verses that underpin ideas around divinization, which we’ve discussed with reference to Maximus the Confessor – and that’s partly what we’re talking about here, right. It’s the idea of ‘no longer I, but Christ in me’ – it’s the disappearance of the self, such that God becomes all in all. When it comes to prayer, maybe that’s all we’re supposed to do. Maybe we’re just supposed to kick back and let God do what He do.

That said, we should probably still distinguish between prayer and action. If our actions are governed by Christ, then we should be trying to act in a Christ-like manner – whether that’s turning moneylenders out of the temple or ending racial injustice or doing whatever else is necessary to bring about the Kingdom of God. After all, God has given us the ability to act. Not using that ability would be sort of like refusing to use a fire extinguisher when your house is on fire. The means and the opportunity are available to us, and we should be taking those up – not necessarily with the expectation that we’ll succeed, but definitely with the understanding that it’s the right thing to do. However, if we maintain Eckhart’s logic, we can try to act to end injustice, but we can’t pray that God helps us along the way. That would be asking God for something, rather than accepting whatever success or failure He gives us.

Is that a weird conclusion? It seems pretty unreasonable. The trouble is that we’re dealing with a conflict between the now and the not yet. As Christians, we exist in a space split between those two poles. Christ has already cast down death and broken the power of sin. That action reverberates throughout time; we exist in that freedom right now. And yet we still die, and we still sin. Freedom is now, and it is not yet. When we petition God, we ask Him for things that do not currently exist. World peace, an end to poverty. Those things belong to us in the now, but they are not yet manifested. There’s a tension there. We’ve been promised justice, and told to claim it and receive it, but it doesn’t always happen. Really I don’t have the words to resolve this tension – and maybe it’s not supposed to be resolved. Eckhart’s position on prayer is one response. It takes refuge in the blessings that we have now, in the relationship with the divine that already exists. But there are plenty of other valid perspectives from which to criticize Eckhart. He’s not offering an aggressive, political theology of prayer supporting the liberation of oppressed people. His position is, by itself, ultimately insufficient. Maybe that’s part of the point?

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