Eckhart's Eye

by Richard Woods

When the great Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart was first hailed into court by the heresy-hunters of the Archbishop of Cologne in 1326, one of his sayings they objected to was this famous and mysterious remark: "The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me: my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing and one love." (From German Sermon No. 12.)

Eckhart replied by citing a famous passage from Saint Augustine about God's intimacy with us. Not that it did much good, although the objectionable passage did not make it into the final list denounced by the pope's bull of condemnation two years later and published a year after Eckhart's death. For in fact, what he was teaching was not heretical, but ancient Christian spirituality.

But the Cologne censors also objected to a similar statement in Sermon 10, which makes the point even clearer if less dramatically:

"The nearness of God and the soul makes no distinction in truth. The same knowing in which God knows Himself is the knowing of every detached spirit, and no other. The soul takes her being immediately from God. Therefore ‘God is nearer to the soul than she is to herself,' and therefore God is in the ground of the soul with all His Godhead."

Here again, Eckhart was citing Saint Augustine on the divine intimacy. In another sermon (German Sermon 5b), he put it this way: "God's ground is my ground and my ground is God's ground."

What Eckhart is getting at in all these koan-like passages is that our union with God is so intimate that it is impossible to distinguish the Lover from the Beloved. (The implication must have upset the inquisitors deeply: then why bother to?) For Eckhart, such total union with God is both the original source of our existence and the final point of our destiny. Still, between our original unity in the eternal womb of the Godhead and our ultimate union with God, the goal of all our questing, the difference made by awareness is all-important.

In German Sermon 68, Eckhart said, beginning again with his favorite passage from Augustine, "God is closer to me than I am to myself: my being depends on God's being near me and present to me. So God is also in a stone or a log of wood, only they do not know it. If the wood knew God and realized how close God is to it as the highest angel does, it would be as blissful as the highest angel. And so a human is more blessed than a stone or a piece of wood because she or he is aware of God and knows how close God is. And I am the more blessed, the more I realize this, and I am the less blessed, the less I know this. I am not blessed because God is in me and is near me and because I possess Him, but because I am aware of how close God is to me, and that I know God."

Eventually, however, Eckhart insists that we must go beyond even this awareness. As long as we are aware of the difference between God and our own selves, between the "I" and the "Thou," we are not truly one. So Eckhart could say in all sincerity, as he did in Sermon 52, "I pray God to rid me of God."

Eckhart never confuses God and creatures. But he denies that union with God ultimately admits of any experienced duality of Lover and Beloved.

It is like the ecstasy of lovers gazing into each others' eyes, oblivious of anything except their love. True intercourse means forgetting any distinction between "your" joy and "my" joy, or love, or being, or presence, or anything else. Such awareness expands even beyond any awareness of "our" into an unimaginable and ineffable dimension of one-ness, what in Hindu teaching is called Sat-chit-ananda -- "being-awareness-bliss."

No wonder that Hindus think of Eckhart as a Hindu, Buddhists think of him as a Buddhist, and Sufis regard him as one of their own. He speaks the mystical language of the world's greatest lovers, those who really KNOW.

Richard Woods, O.P. is a leading authority on Meister Eckhart. He is author of many books including the classic Another Kind of Love, one of the first gay-positive books written from a Catholic pastoral perspective.

Editor's note: I was especially pleased that Rick Woods agreed to contribute a response to my request for a piece on Meister Eckhart's saying about the eye of God. And I was pleased that he described the saying as koan-like, that is, like those mystically evocative, intellectually baffling, mind-blowing "ideas" used in certain forms of Zen Buddhist meditation practice.

"The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me" is an aphorism I hold in mind frequently in meditation. Like the Zen thought-puzzles, this phrase opens out with so many elusive meanings -- and then into states of awareness beyond meaning (like bliss). Certainly one such meaning is in the pun in English (does this work in German?) "eye" for "I." Hence: "The I with which I see God is the I with which God sees me." My experience of my own subjectivity is my experience of the general consciousness of the universe which is "God." Indeed, my act of realizing that my consciousness participates in "God's" consciousness is God seeing me. God sees me in my self-awareness because who is seeing me is "God."

Meditation is a practice of holding in mind a thought that can't exactly be thought, so that you're forced to rise to a higher perspective, a higher level of consciousness. Eckhart's words are wonderfully elusive. They move and awaken the mind and call it past themselves in to that void or openness beyond ego. (See Campbell, p. 18)

The world that I experience is me. It is also, to one who has the eye to see, the Face of God. Deeper than the personal being that in the course of my day I think of as me -- the focus around which all activity is happening, I am a tiny spark of consciousness that with all the other sparks of consciousness make up the Body and Mind of "God." It is through the filter of my own "personal" being that I see "God" as personal and it is through the human projection of personality onto "God" that "God" evolves a personhood. We are responsible for the kind of person we make God out to be!

What I think of as I is an eye with which I experience the multitudinous diversity of consciousness from the point of view called "me." We are all the eyes of consciousness, the sensory organs of "God," seeing the world -- which is the variety of manifestations in three dimensions of multidimensional consciousness. We are consciousness experiencing consciousness experiencing consciousness.

My act of meditation is a choice to pass beyond the little self of ego (that's going to die in a matter of years anyway) and to remember -- and thereby experience and become -- the "spark" of consciousness that is what I really am (and that will one day wake up from my individual life to become all life). Then I can say "Yes" to life , say "It's great just the way it is" -- in spite of suffering and disappointment and death -- and wish happiness for all beings, judging no one, wishing harm on no one. And that, I think, is the purpose of meditation -- and, indeed, of all religious activity.