4. Eckhart, Brethren of the Free Spirit

Submitted by Ross Arctor on October 3, 2014

St. Francis is not only the most attractive of all the Christian saints, he is the most attractive of Christians, admired by Buddhists, atheists, completely secular, modern people, Communists, to whom the figure of Christ himself is at best unattractive. Partly this is due to the sentimentalization of the legend of his life and that of his companions in the early days of the order. Many people today who put his statue in their gardens know nothing about him except that he preached a sermon to the birds, wrote a hymn to the sun, and called the donkey his brother. These bits of information are important because they are signs of a revolution of the sensibility — which incidentally was a metaphysical revolution of which certainly St. Francis himself was quite unaware. They stand for a mystical and emotional immediate realization of the unity of being, a notion foreign, in fact antagonistic, to the main Judeo-Christian tradition.

“I am that I am” — the God of Judaism is the only self-sufficient being. All the reality that we can know is contingent, created out of nothing, and hence of an inferior order of reality. Faced with the “utterly other,” the contingent soul can finally only respond with fear and trembling.

If God is immanent in the world and if the unknowable Trinity has in its Second Person become the comrade of man, the world is charged through and through with joy. “And honde by honde then shulle us take / And joy and bliss shulle we mak / For the Devil of Hell man haght forsak / And Christ Our Lord is made our mate,” as it says in the Middle English poem by some anonymous Franciscan. This is not a matter of doctrine. The Alexandrian and the scholastic philosophers of the Church had worked out a sensible relationship of the deity to the world. It is a matter of religious sensibility.

Many others before him had called for a return to the life of the historical Jesus and his companions, but no one before St. Francis had preached that life, both the life of Christ and the Christ-like life, as one of intense abiding joy. When late in his own life St. Francis, entranced in prayer, was to be marked on the hands and feet and side with the stigmata, the wounds of the crucifixion, it was during a transport of pure joy.

Had St. Francis been a philosopher or preacher, and simply taught the virtues of a life made new, he would have been only another out of so many, and his words would have been subject to dispute, modification, or denial. But he lived the new life, more intensely than anyone else and with an always manifest joy, and he gathered a band of companions who shared and also manifested that life.

It would seem to have been the sheerest accident that the Church accepted him and the pope permitted the foundation of his order. There were other little bands of poor men trying to live the life of the Gospels in the same years but they were condemned. Had Peter Waldo encountered only slightly more sympathetic officials in the hierarchy of the Church he might have superseded St. Francis. Certainly his original message was a much safer one.

The Church permitted the establishment of the Franciscan order because it met an immediate need. Heretical movements were springing up everywhere at the end of the twelfth century; and the old monastic organization, although it had undergone two drastic reforms, could not meet the need of which these movements were a symptom. Not only had Benedictine monasticism become wealthy and its abbots part of the power structure, but its relationship to society had become reversed, centripetal. The secular world existed for it, not it for the world. Franciscanism was dynamically centrifugal, outgoing, to use the contemporary slang, as of course had been the Gospel itself.

Central to the evangelism of St. Francis was his notion of poverty as a virtue. He began his religious career by giving away literally everything he had, clothing himself in a ragged robe and preaching to the poor. Poverty had been a form of ascetic penance like fasting, a disciplining of the soul. To the hermit in the desert the point of poverty was that it was painful. To St. Francis it was a joyful way to live.

To the first great Franciscan theologian and philosopher, St. Bonaventure, the virtue of poverty was secondary, as a means to the primary virtue of charity. To St. Francis poverty was the condition of interior perfection. It was the pure, transparent glass, unclouded by the distractions of possession, through which the soul can see God, not darkly, but face to face. In Giotto’s great mural St. Francis marries Poverty, the handmaid of the Lord. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” The Virgin Mary was the handmaid of the Lord and in the mystical Franciscanism of St. Francis and the later Franciscan Spirituals poverty came to mean the perfect receptivity of the soul to God — “be it done unto me according to thy word.”

This is a very inflammatory evangel to preach to the poor and does anything but make them content with their lot. The powers of State and Church were self-evidently sunk in opulence and luxury and always greedy for more — which could of course come only from the labor of the poor. Although the Christianity of St. Francis might be called immediate Christianity, Christianity without eschatology, without apocalypse, it did in fact internalize the eschatology of the Gospels. The Last Things were now in the immediate relationship of man to man and man to God. So his audience could form a simple, if logically frail conclusion. If the saving remnant were poor, the poor were the saving remnant. Around the unity of being in the joy of revelation, a unity made possible by virtue of poverty, and reinforced by community, would revolve the heretical movements of three hundred years.

When he founded his order St. Francis had envisaged a little band of utterly devoted comrades, a group small enough for perfect communion, agreement of principle, and identity of aim. There were only twelve brothers when Pope Innocent III approved the order and its first rule in 1209. Ten years later it had spread all over Europe and to the Holy Land. The whole body no longer met at the tiny Church of the Portiuncula at Assisi, but were represented by delegates, central administrative officials, and provincial authorities. But the original gospel of St. Francis was incompatible with delegated authority and long before the death of the founder, powerful factions had begun to advocate change in the original principles. The Order of Friars Minor was repeating the history of Christianity itself.

One of the commonest clichés of American politicians and businessmen is “I just model my life on the Sermon on the Mount,” something they obviously have never read. The Sermon on the Mount and the original gospel of St. Francis represent an etherealized and internalized apocalypticism, an eschatological ethic. It has been called an impossibilist ethic, and so it is in the sense that no social order since the invention of organized religion and politics could stand if it were put into practice.

St. Francis was aware of what had happened and as he was dying he wrote a testament insisting on the preservation of the literal principles of the original rule and forbidding any appeal to the pope to change them. But the order had ceased to be a comradeship of poverty and joy, a communion, and had become an institution, spread to the farthest reaches of the Western world and one of the principal bulwarks of the papacy and of the power structure of the Church. He was no sooner dead than the order did appeal to the pope and his testament was set aside and poverty was defined in purely symbolic, legalistic terms. The order was permitted to use property through trustees appointed by the pope. Then began a struggle which would last for two generations within the order, and then be continued outside of it, and finally outside of the Church, to restore the original life of mystical poverty.

The faction that wished to restore obedience to St. Francis’s original rule and testament were known as Zealots or Spirituals. They were probably never more than a sizable minority in the order. The majority were moderates or Conventuals who stood between them and the faction, originally led by Elias of Cortona, who wished to change the order into just another monastic institution with rank, power, and great properties. The struggle would not be resolved until John XXII permitted the formation of the Observants, who were allowed to practice a modified poverty, a poor and scanty use of property. Meanwhile many of the Spirituals were driven deeper and deeper into antagonism to the main body of the order and finally into a separate movement, the Fraticelli, who were condemned as heretics.

Since they were unable to win over a majority of the order, the Spirituals early began to appeal to the laity, and to form third-order groups owing allegiance solely to them. The popular influence of the Spirituals grew as the Conventuals became more and more worldly and finally corrupt. By Chaucer’s time the order of Friars Minor was thought of as being corrupt, as having failed to practice its promise to society, and it had thus become a common butt of satire. The lay followers of the Spirituals seem to have been most common in Provence where they were gathered in small organized communities and where they were first called Béguines. The term was probably derived from the Albigenses, and the memory of the older heresy and the destruction of Provençal culture and the Crusade against it certainly contributed to the growth of the movement.

In the meantime a new and explosive ingredient had entered into the ideology of the Spirituals and their followers. Administratively cornered and hopeless of changing the establishment, they turned to apocalypticism.

In the previous century Joachim of Fiore (c. 1132-1202), a Cistercian abbot, had written a series of expositions of the apocalyptic books of the Bible. He divided the history of humanity into three periods: the age of the Father, under Jewish Law; of the Son, under the Gospel; and the coming age of the Holy Spirit, when all law would pass away, because all men, immersed in contemplation, would act only according to the will of God, a kind of utopia of contemplative monks, the everlasting Gospel of an everlasting Sabbath. This rather simple picture was enormously elaborated by an immense pseudonymous literature attributed to Joachim and written mostly by Spirituals.

The convergence of the Christ-like life of St. Francis and the apocalypticism of Joachim was like the mixture of oxygen and hydrogen. Before St. Francis, and in the established Church after him, the historical Jesus played little role in medieval religion. Christ was a ritualized figure only briefly human in the crib at Christmas and on the cross on Good Friday. Spiritual Franciscanism, like all the movements which would descend from it, was intensely evangelical and it was made possible by the growth of literacy, specifically through the reading of the Bible and devotional literature in the vernacular. Poverty was the central issue in the struggle with the order and the papacy. To the Spirituals poverty was not only the life of Christ and his apostles, and the joy and innocence of St. Francis; it was a foretaste of the bliss of the kingdom that would come at the end of apocalypse. St. Francis and later Peter John Olivi, a Franciscan commentator on the Book of Revelation, became actual figures of the apocalypse: St. Francis, the Angel of the Sixth Seal, Oliver the Angel with the Face like the Sun. When the papacy condemned first the doctrine that Christ and the apostles lived in absolute poverty, then that which said poverty was essential to the Franciscan rule, and then the Spirituals as such, the pope became Antichrist.

The Spirituals, the Béguines of Provence, and the Fraticelli did not believe that Christ and the apostles held their goods in common; they believed they held none. The poverty of these mendicant Franciscans thus was absolute. They lived from day to day by begging. Since the injunction to poverty in the rule was obviously the foundation stone of the order, John XXII was patently wrong and so the pope could err. This was one of the most important and enduring results of the controversy.

The use of wealth held from the pope by trustees for the order appointed by him meant he had at his disposal the credit of a reserve fund of immense wealth, and in its exile at Avignon the papacy was continuously borrowing money. In his final bull on the controversy John XXII broke the connection within the Church and the Gospel and promulgated the doctrine of the sanctity of property as such. The Church was ranged on the side of property and power, lordship, explicitly in so many words, as had never been done before. In the course of the argument between John XXII and the philosopher William of Occam, and the expelled head of the order, Michael of Cesena, originally a Conventual, the disputants raised some fundamental questions. If the use but not the ownership of property was permitted, what about money? What about the bag of Judas? The disputants struck close to the meaning of money, property as such in its pure form. Again, if property is evil, whoever holds property and permits its use is to that extent un-Christian. The users are parasitic and guilty of complicity. Therefore a truly Christian society would abolish property altogether. By standing against the creation of a religious order devoted to total poverty and self-sacrifice, evangelism, the growing popularity of mysticism, and the laity’s demand for community life devoted to such objectives, the Church had locked itself into an impasse.

The continuous papal suppressions and the prohibition of the formation of any new religious order by the Fourth Lateran Council had the effect of smashing globules of quicksilver and resulted in the metastasis of mystical communities of laymen free of ecclesiastical control or even knowledge throughout society. Communities and meetings became entirely secret and their beliefs occult. The Béguine communities spread over Europe, but especially along the Rhine and in northern France, where the women were known as Béguines and the men as Béghards. Many of these were communities of lay people who wished to live together and devote their lives to prayer, contemplation, common labor, and begging. Some became simply poorhouses, others conventicles of mystical piety, but all through them, moving like the cells of a new growth, were the Brethren of the Free Spirit.

The doctrines of the Brethren of the Free Spirit go back to the heresies of the first century of Christianity. By mystical contemplation, they taught, man can become united with God, so united he is God, and therefore rises above all laws, churches and rites made by God for common man, and can do whatever he wishes. United with God it is impossible for the mystic to sin, therefore he can do whatever he wants. Theft, lying, especially sexual license, are permitted; prayer and all religious observances are useless. This is a kind of mirror image in a clouded and distorting glass of the morality and ethics of mysticism, and it is not peculiar to Christianity. At the same time, Sufis preaching the same doctrine were being persecuted and crucified in Persia. Hinduism, Buddhism, contemporary American Zen have all produced the same distortion.

It was easy for the Brethren of the Free Spirit to quote texts like St. Augustine’s “Love and do what you will” and St. Paul’s “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (II Cor. 2:17), and the mystical theology of the great Rhenish mystics Meister Eckhart, Tauler, and Suso. In addition there was the occult, erotic mysticism of the spiritual alchemists. Arnold of Villanova and other leaders of the new spirituality were alchemists.

The Brethren of the Free Spirit did not set themselves up as an organized movement but functioned as a diffused body of esoterics, content to operate within the Church and the movement of lay mystical communities. They left few records behind except in the charges of their enemies and in testimony elicited under torture in their trials. From the Gnostics to the Mormons, the Church has always accused those she considers heretics of being guilty of orgies of unbridled sexuality. The Brethren of the Free Spirit seem to have actually indulged in such practices; the testimony is unanimous and this aspect is always central. It is impossible to tell whether these orgies were simply pastimes or rites in a cult of erotic mysticism. They seem to have been extremely common.

For a century popes, bishops, and inquisitors were busy condemning them and hunting them down. They managed to exist in the allegedly closed society of the later Middle Ages because in fact it was not all that closed. In the incoherent, unpoliced cities of the Rhineland and the Netherlands it was easy for a community to take over a house and pretend to be a legitimate association of pious laymen devoted to prayer, Scripture-reading, and work. The only danger was from informers, and once an informer was admitted under vows to what the Church considered diabolism he was at least guilty of complicity.

This was the principal problem facing the Church, separating the wheat from the tares. The fifteenth century witnessed a tremendous growth of religious associations and communities outside the regular religious orders. If the Church had not tolerated them, there would have been, as there was eventually, wholesale revolt. As the life and preaching of St. Francis had represented an alteration in the sensibility, so the new communities represented another. This sensibility was given literary and theological form in the writings of the Rhenish mystics, all of whom, at one time or another, came in conflict with the Church and had propositions drawn from their teachings condemned. Nor has any of them ever been granted the title of saint and only two are “blessed”; and though greatly popular, they are even today still only tolerated. The doctor of the new mysticism was Meister Eckhart.

Parallel with the growth of scholastic philosophy the Church had developed orthodox, systematic, mystical theology. Beginning with St. Bernard of Clairvaux, (1090-1153), the relentless opponent of Abélard, continuing through Hugh and Richard of the Paris monastery of St. Victor, to the Franciscan St. Bonaventure (1221-1274), the great mystical doctors of the Church had resisted the steady Aristotelianization, actually secularization, of the scholastic philosophers. Their roots were in the neo-Platonism of St. Augustine, the visionary writings attributed to St. Paul’s disciple Dionysius the Areopagite, and to John Scotus Erigena, the latter’s neo-Platonic disciple and translator, who lived in the time just after Charlemagne.

All had striven to resolve the dilemma posed by the mystical experience. That experience carries with it its own conviction of unquestionable reality. The mystic in his realization of God feels the indisputable power of empiric fact. Christian doctrine says that God created the world out of nothing. Man is utterly contingent, God utterly omnipotent and self-sufficient. How can any experience bridge this gap? In one way or another all the great orthodox mystics dismiss this ultimate problem of knowledge by making the knowledge of God in the soul primary. The knowledge of the reality of the world stems from it. As St. Bonaventure describes the ascent of the soul to God by love through the ladder of creatures, at the end the soul discovers that the last rung was the first, the scintilla animae, the spark of God in the soul which itself is not only the faculty of mystical knowledge but partakes directly of the divine Being. This process is only given a more emotional and intensely devotional tone by the impassioned rhetoric of St. Bonaventure. It is basic and explicit in the epistemology of Richard of St. Victor and more or less implicit in St. Bernard. Of course, it also goes back to Plato himself and is the subject of his dialogue with Phaedo. It is knowledge of God which enables knowledge of ideas. This central tradition of mystical theology was never to have its orthodoxy questioned because it always seemed to operate within the context of developing scholasticism. But the true situation was quite the other way around. Its exponents had a purely Christian tradition, or at least so everyone thought, on their side, whereas the Aristotelianizers had to defend their introduction of pagan and Arabic secular philosophy. So even St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus were placed on the defensive.

Behind Meister Eckhart and his descendants lay another tradition peculiar to the Rhineland. Beginning with St. Hildegard of Bingen in the early twelfth century, and Elizabeth of Schönau, Elizabeth of Hungary, Countess of Thuringia in the thirteenth century and Mechthild of Magdeburg, this tradition was carried on by women, and was characterized by visionary experiences, emotionalism, erotic imagery, and passionate criticism of the abuses of the Church and the corruption of the papacy. Most of them wrote in the vernacular and are numbered amongst the most important of the founders of German literature. To judge from the visions from which she made paintings, St. Hildegard suffered from migraine and saw the intense light patterns which are symptomatic of that affliction. As her descendants, all these women give special prominence to the light mysticism which goes back through St. Bonaventure at least to the first-century Jewish neo-Platonist Philo, and which well may be based on constantly recurring visions of light which are the aura of the mystical experience itself. St. Mechthild’s The Flowing Light of the Godhead is one of the most beautiful works in the German language. Saturated with light mysticism and erotic symbolism, her poems, with only slight alteration, could be turned into songs of the most extreme romantic love.

The older mystical theology had grown up in the monasteries amongst learned and contemplative men. Rhenish mysticism flourished in the Béguinages and other semi-monastic communities of devout women associated in poverty, work, prayer, and meditation. Its teachers were just over the edge of orthodoxy from the least heretical of the Brethren of the Free Spirit. The testimony of the often patently insane and unfortunate enthusiasts trapped and tortured by the Inquisition is, to put it mildly, highly suspect. Even in the records of trials we have only one case in which a house of Béguines was given over to sexual orgies, that of the so-called Sisters of Schweydnitz. It was probably true, but it reads like the assembly-belt productions of modern pornography. Often the inquisitors seem to have been engaged in a war against women. One of the Béguines’ constantly reiterated “crimes” is the performance of the rites of the Church in their chapels and confession to each other, practices forbidden to women.

There is, in fact, only one questionable document of the entire movement of Béguine mysticism, presumably influenced by the heresy of the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Margaret of Parete was tried and burned in Paris in 1311 and accused of teaching that when the soul was consumed with the love of God it partook of God’s being and could do anything that the sensual body desired. In recent years the manuscript of her book, The Mirror of Simple Souls, has been discovered and printed. As would be true of Meister Eckhart and his successors the interpretation by the Inquisition is based on an equivocation. She taught that at the seventh stage of the illumination, the culmination of a process of seven stages which goes back in mystical literature to the very earliest time and is described in perfectly orthodox fashion, the soul becomes united with God. By His grace it is freed from sin. It realizes the whole Trinity and loses its own identity, and so it ceases to be able to sin. It lives from then on entirely in the love of God as one of the seraphim. It needs no Church, priesthood, or book. Its knowledge is direct participation in God’s knowledge. It cannot sin because its will is God’s will; poverty, prayer, sacraments, asceticism, penances, fasts, become of no importance to the soul, lost in God, where deprivations and symbols can have no existence. The soul uses them only to pay an indifferent tribute to nature, to the world, and to the religious community.

It is easy to see how just the slightest shift of emphasis could change this teaching to a justification of the immoralism attributed to the Brethren of the Free Spirit, or of the hysteria which was later to break loose in the revolutionary commune of the Münster Anabaptists. But in Margaret of Parete the emphasis lies the other way, as it does wherever we have bona fide documentation by the heretical mystics themselves. Of course from the point of view of the Catholic Church she is heretical enough.

Margaret of Parete was burned and soon forgotten. But the influence of Meister Eckhart is stronger today than it has been in hundreds of years. Eckhart met the problems of contingency and omnipotence, creator-and-creature-from-nothing by making God the only reality and the presence or imprint of God upon nothing, the source of reality in the creature. Reality in other words was a hierarchically structured participation of the creature in the creator. From the point of view of the creature this process could be reversed. If creatureliness is real, God becomes the Divine Nothing. God is not, as in scholasticism, the final subject of all predicates. He is being as unpredicable. The existence of the creature, in so far as it exists, is the existence of God, and the creature’s experience of God is therefore in the final analysis equally unpredicable. Neither can even be described; both can only be indicated. We can only point at reality, our own or God’s. The soul comes to the realization of God by knowledge, not as in the older Christian mysticism by love. Love is the garment of knowledge. The soul first trains itself by systematic unknowing until at last it confronts the only reality, the only knowledge, God manifest in itself. The soul can say nothing about this experience in the sense of defining it. It can only reveal it to others.

This is the neo-platonic way of negation taught by St. Augustine. But the neo-platonic deity lies beyond reality and cannot be said to exist in the same sense. Eckhart, so often accused of dualism, is actually an extreme monist, yet there is a subtle difference between his theory of being and the pantheism of someone like Spinoza. Since reality for Eckhart is dense, there is no gap between the internal process of God, the Trinity, and the world of his creation. The Godhead engenders the Son at the same time or in the same moment of eternity as the creation of the world. So far with a little training Eckhart’s teaching can be adjusted to orthodoxy, but the co-eternity of the Son and the world, his critics were quick to point out, is heresy.

“In the beginning was the Word,” says St. John, “and all things were made by him and without him was not anything made that was made.” The begetting of the Word is a dual process — internal and external — God’s knowledge of himself and the creation by Knowledge, the Logos, of the world. Creation is the garment of the uncreate.

Although in his Latin treatises Eckhart is rigorously intellectualistic — the soul ascends to God by knowledge, or rather, realizes God in the inmost recesses of self, and being, both absolute and contingent, is equated with knowing — in his popular sermons in German, preached mostly to Dominican nuns and congregations of Béguines, he adopts the long familiar language of the theology of the heart. “The soul,” he said, “to become the bride of God, must become in all things womanly, a virgin wife, free of all attachment, so that it can conceive Jesus in the soul and bring forth fruit.” The union of love is total and has its end only in itself. Love is not desire striving to satisfy a want; but it is the fullness of being shared by the soul in God. Prayer, good works, alms, are worthless unless they flow from a will completely consumed with the love of God and totally submissive to his will. Where Eckhart thought it was appropriate to his audience that he discuss his theology in terms of willing rather than knowing he was perfectly willing to do so. It is from his popular sermons that much of the later passionate mysticism of his descendants stems, to culminate in the spiritual nuptials of Ruysbroeck.

What is the primary datum of Eckhart’s knowledge of existence? It is the unpredictable, indescribable religious experience itself, a transcendental Cogito ergo sum, the Jehovah that said his name was “I am that I am.” As has been pointed out in recent years, if the word “God” with all its excess baggage, and what Whitehead called “metaphysical complements,” is abandoned as misleading, Eckhart’s mysticism is practically indistinguishable from the pure religious empiricism of Buddhism; and philosophically from the soul, the Atman, as perspective participation in Brahman, the ground of being, of the Upanishads and Vedanta; and from the Sufism of ibn-Arabi.

Each soul is in its final recesses a spark of the Uncreated Light, the source, the spring, from which all reality flows and which it can reach by contemplation. Here is the beginning of a doctrine of the Inner Light which would be characteristic of the mystical sects from this time on, and which is central to the theology of Quakerism. From Eckhart also descends the practical aspect — Quietism. The religious experience is one of ever-increasing stillness. “Stand in awe and sin not; commune within your own heart in your chamber and be still.”

Eckhart’s mysticism sounds like a very lonely business — one would think that it would dissolve not only the Church and its cult, but all communal religious experience altogether. On the contrary, it set in train a widespread development of the community life. The Friends of God, the Brotherhood of the Common Life, and similar groups of both priests and laymen spread rapidly over the Rhineland, the Low Countries, Western Germany, and Bohemia. It was as though the Church were developing antibodies as orthodox as prolific to combat the infection of the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Of course the teaching of Eckhart was not orthodox at all. It was only adjusted to orthodoxy where possible.

Toward the end of his life the archbishop of Cologne took proceedings against him. He appealed to Pope John XXII and in 1329, two years after his death, twenty-eight of his propositions were condemned. Once again we find John XXII, the worst of the popes, standing against the demands of the most devout of the Christian communities for a richer spiritual life than could be provided by the decadent medieval establishment.