Wake up your spiritual life with best-selling author, theologian and educator Matthew Fox. In his newest book, Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times, Fox inspires us by connecting dots between the medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart—and the lives of visionary men and women in our times who we, at ReadTheSpirit, would call Interfaith Peacemakers.
For our readers who already love inspirational reading, “Matt” Fox is well known as a global leader in opening up almost-forgotten Christian treasures to help heal today’s fractured world.
Matt has had a long, hard journey to this current popularity. In the 1980s and 1990s, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm was a religion writer for American newspapers and covered the Vatican’s investigation that eventually drove Fox out of the Catholic church. (He is now an Episcopal priest.) The man behind Matt’s inquisition later became Pope Benedict XVI. Then known as Cardinal Ratzinger, he claimed that Matt was dangerous to the Catholic church, because Matt kept insisting that God created the world in an “original blessing” rather than under the Vatican’s doctrine of “original sin.” In that era, Matt Fox headlines were about the international conflict over what became known as Matt’s teachings on “Creation Spirituality.”
FLASH FORWARD—Today, any reader of inspirational books is familiar with names such as Meister Eckhart and also Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century mystic. For example, brief writings from both of their collected works are sprinkled through the pages of Matt’s 365-day inspirational reader: Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations. (That’s a perfect gift, by the way, for friends who want to start a new year with a commitment to daily meditation.)
During their turbulent lives in the Middle Ages, both Eckhart and Hildegard faced critics. Eckhart actually was condemned by the church. However, in recent decades, the Vatican has warmed to both of them: Pope John Paul II publicly wrote about the importance of Eckhart’s writings; Pope Benedict XVI finally declared Hildegard a saint and, much more significantly, Benedict declared her one of the highly respected “Doctors of the Church.” With that official nod, Hildegard became one of only three women (along with St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese of Liseux) to be so honored as a major, Vatican-endorsed, timeless theologian and teacher.
But, today, many readers have forgotten who began pitching for this fresh appreciation of their wisdom as mystics and teachers—way back in the 1980s. It was Matthew Fox, who produced contemporary English-language books on each of them: the 1983 book Meditations with Meister Eckhart and the 1987 book Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works: With Letters and Songs. These books represented a major scholarly effort and we can still highly recommend those two books to dig deeper into these mystics’ original writings.
NOW, as a new century is unfolding, Matt Fox headlines in the news media are about his work as a writer, educator and popular theologian working toward a more peaceful world. As he has traveled in recent years, he has heard from many of his readers that they want help in connecting spiritual dots in the works of Hildegard and Eckhart with other religious heroes who inspire us today. In his 2012 book, Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century, Matt has Hildegard “meet” and compare ideas with a wide range of modern heroes from the poet Mary Oliver and the Jungian psychoanalyst and poet Clarissa Pinkola Estés.
This summer, in his brand new Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times, Foxx has Eckhart “meet” and compare spiritual notes with such heroes as Rabbi Heschel, Howard Thurman, Thich Nhat Hanh, Marcus Borg and Oscar Romero. NOTE: We are devoting this week’s entire Interfaith Peacemakers department within our website to highlighting our own profiles of these heroes.
As he has many times over the past 30 years, David Crumm interviewed Matt Fox. Here are …
OUR INTERVIEW WITH
ON ‘MEISTER ECKHART’
DAVID: I love your technique in these new books, especially this latest one on Meister Eckhart—having them “meet” contemporary men and women as you compare some of their major teachings and show the timeless importance of these ideas. Way back in the late 1970s, I interviewed TV talk-show host Steve Allen when he produced that marvelous series for PBS called Meeting of Minds. For each episode, Steve and his co-writers would have actors dress up as famous figures throughout world history and they would meet, in the TV studio, and talk. Fascinating!
MATT: I do remember watching that series and enjoying it very much.
DAVID: We’ve already dated ourselves, I guess, but let’s fix a dating problem in your Wikipedia entry, today, by establishing your birth date. Based on that Wiki entry, which has been missing your specific birth date, journalists never know your actual age.
MATT: Oh, my birthday is December 21, so I’m 73 right now. I’ll turn 74 in December.
HILDEGARD: ‘Creation formed in love’
DAVID: I’m 59 and I’m so glad we’ve both lived long enough to get past all the controversy over the Vatican’s inquisition in the ’80s and ’90s. Today, we can actually have some spiritual fun in connecting the dots between these medieval figures and people who many of our readers consider heroes. And let’s start, for just a moment, by looking back at the earlier book on Hildegard.
MATT: I wrote that book when I heard that the Vatican was going to canonize her. And I suspect Benedict did that because he’s German and she’s popular in Germany. But, in my book, I call her a “Trojan horse,” because I don’t think the Vatican is emphasizing her most important messages. When she was alive, she was a great proponent of the divine feminine and I didn’t trust the Vatican to emphasize that properly. Hildegard was very much a critic of the patriarchal church in the middle ages and I think that’s one reason she wasn’t canonized for eight centuries.
In fact, I open my new book on Hildegard with this passage: “I heard a voice speaking to me: ‘The young woman whom you see is Love. She has her tent in eternity … It was love which was the source of this creation in the beginning when God said: ‘Let it be!’ And it was. As though in the blinking of an eye, the whole creation was formed through love. The young woman is radiant in such a clear, lightning-like brilliance of countenance that you can’t fully look at her … She holds the sun and moon in her right hand and embraces them tenderly.”
To me that amazing passage from Hildegard’s visions is a tremendous teaching on what I call original blessing.
DAVID: And then, as the book opens up, you use this technique of having her “meet” various contemporary figures. I like Joan Chittister’s Foreword to that Hildegard book in which she writes: “Those who have lived well for their own time have lived well for all time.”
MATT: Yes, in that book, I put Hildegard in the room with Mary Oliver, Albert Einstein, Howard Thurman and others and then I used that methodology again in my new book with Eckhart.
DAVID: Just to clarify, let’s explain to readers of this interview that your books are not like Steve Allen screenplays. You don’t actually imagine a dialogue between these figures. So, let’s describe your technique this way: You choose central ideas shared by these pairings of people and, then, in each chapter they “meet” as you compare and contrast their teachings. It’s very creative stuff!
POPE FRANCIS: ‘Making up for some very lost ground’
DAVID: After your many decades of feuding with Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict, I know you’ve got higher hopes for what Pope Francis might be able to do. One of the heroes in your new Eckhart book is Oscar Romero. Were you surprised by Pope Francis’s decision to go 180 degrees on Romero—from banning him as a candidate for sainthood to putting him on a fast track?
MATT: Your readers will remember that Pope Francis is from Argentina and he’s quite aware of the many sacrifices and accomplishments made by the base-community movement and the liberation theology movement. Francis has made strong statements against what he calls “savage capitalism,” which is in line with what Oscar Romero fought for and died for. Francis sees these Latin American movements as very much in line with the spirit of Vatican II. Thanks to the previous two papacies the Catholic Church has been decimated in Latin America and millions have left the church to join new Pentecostal churches. This pope is trying to make up for some very lost ground.
RUMI: ‘One spark flew …’
DAVID: Let’s give readers some examples of famous figures, we call them Interfaith Peacemakers, who you introduce to Eckhart in this book. Let’s start with Rumi, the Sufi mystic who, to this day, is still a best-selling poet.
MATT: They were from about the same era, but they did not know each other. Eckhart was 13 when Rumi died. But there is this phrase that comes up often in Eckhart, “spark of the soul,” which is similar to passages in Rumi’s writings. There are lots of connections. I also point out in my book that Eckhart liked to refer to the Muslim philosopher Avicenna, who came before Rumi in the Islamic tradition.
DAVID: You mention the similar phrases.
MATT: One of Rumi’s famous lines is, “Ah, one spark flew and burned the house of my heart.” I compare that with Eckhart’s “In the spark of the soul there is hidden something like the original outbreak of all goodness, something like a brilliant light which incessantly gleams, and something like a burning fire which burns incessangly. This fire is nothing other than the Holy Spirit.” So, right there in the opening of that chapter you can see some of the connections.
Eckhart and Rumi were on the same path in many respects. I point out in that chapter that when I published my first big book on Eckhart in the 1980s, the very first response I got was not from a Christian but from a Sufi. I remember he sent me a 12-page article that analyzed passages from Eckhart and he was convinced that Eckhart really was a Sufi. I’ve been thinking about that connection for the last 30 years.
THICH NHAT HANH
DAVID: So, Eckhart might be seen as thinking like a Sufi, but you point out in another chapter that he almost might be considered a Buddhist. You quote Thich Nhat Hanh saying, “If we bring into Christianity the insight of interbeing and of non-duality, we will radically transform the way people look at the Christian tradition, and the valuable jewels in the Christian tradition will be rediscovered.”
MATT: And I quote Eckhart writing, “Love God as God is—a not-God, a not-mind, not-person, not-image—even more, as he is a pure, clear One, separate from all twoness.”
DAVID: And you point out that the Catholic monk Thomas Merton similarly saw connections. Merton read Eckhart along with his readings in Zen and saw kindred spirits. In the latter years of his life, the Christian-Buddhist connection was a powerful pathway in Merton’s reflections and writings.
MATT: This is another example of Eckhart’s amazing insights as a mystic. As far as I can tell, Eckhart never met a Buddhist in his life and he didn’t study Buddhism. So, how did Eckhart make these connections? Well, the answer is that Eckhart discovered bigger truths by going deep into his soul as a Christian.
Let me read from a passage in that chapter where Eckhart writes about loving God in a way that seems close to Buddhist practice. He writes, “How should one love God? You should love God mindlessly, so that your soul is without mind and free from all mental activities, for as long as your soul is operating like a mind, so long does it have images and representations. But as long as it has images, it has intermediaries, and as long as it has intermediaries, it has neither oneness nor simplicity. And therefore your soul should be bare of all mind and should stay there without mind.”
DAVID: I realize that we’re talking in shorthand here—very briefly touching on some of the topics readers will find in your book. I want to continue, in this way, mentioning a few more people in your book. Our readers may find one name we’ve mentioned helpful, another irrelevant, so let’s list a couple more. And, next, I want to ask about your chapter with Eckhart “meeting” Heschel.
MATT: I have tremendous tremendous respect for Rabbi Heschel. He is one of the great religious minds and activists in the 20th century. He marched with Dr. King in Selma much to the consternation of many people who supported Heschel otherwise. He said he wanted to go “beneath the dogmas and traditional formulations of the Judeo-Christian traditions which so often have served as substitute for the root experiences of biblical faith.” He was a great scholar and teacher, yet he did not stay in the comfortable halls of academia. He went out and prophetically acted. He walked his talk.
In the title of my Eckhart book, I use the phrase “Mystic-Warrior” in the sense of a prophet being a warrior. A prophet interferes with injustice. When it comes to compassion and justice, awe and wonder, Heschel and Eckhart are on the same page.
DAVID: You’ve got Howard Thurman in your Hildegard book and he’s also a figure you compare to Eckhart. And I should add: If our readers aren’t familiar with some of the figures we’re mentioning here—I’m hoping they’re going back and forth between this interview to our Interfaith Peacemaker series of profiles. Heschel is profiled there and Howard Thurman, too.
MATT: In many ways, Howard Thurman was the spiritual genius behind the civil rights movement. Everytime Dr. King went to jail, he carried his copy of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited with him. And Thurman had actually studied Eckhart. As a young man, Thurman studied under the Quaker teacher Rufus Jones, who often cited Eckhart. There are many connections here, but one of them is Eckhart’s sense of social justice.
Eckhart was very aware of the oppression around him in his day and he stood up and was counted by courageously stepping on the toes of the powerful. And that really is what led to his condemnation for many many years—it was a political act against him for his activism on behalf of the poor. Eckhart was the first intellectual to preach in German. At the time, German was associated with the peasants. He was preaching to the peasants in their language about their being noble people who were bringing Christ daily into the world. At the time, this was considered very offensive by the powerful.
MARCUS BORG / JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN
DAVID: And I was pleased to see our friends Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan featured in your new book. You write that Eckhart was a pioneer in sorting out what today we would call “the historical Jesus”—separating Jesus the teacher from the Christ figure who is lifted up by Christianity after his crucifixion.
MATT: In that chapter you’re mentioning, I have Eckhart “meet” three figures in the Jesus Seminar—Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and Bruce Chilton. I’m so struck that Eckhart, in his era, was writing about what is often referred to as a breakthrough in contemporary theology—the assertion that the historical Jesus came from the wisdom tradition of Judaism. Eckhart knew this and wrote about it in his time.
No, Eckhart didn’t reach his conclusions in the same way that Borg and Crossan and the others reached it through their textual and historical analysis. They have resources available to them that Eckhart didn’t have. Crossan and Borg followed different forms of analysis, but ultimately we discover that what we’re hearing from people like Borg and Crossan today actually rests on the similar conclusions drawn many centuries ago by Eckhart, based on his reflections on scriptures as a mystic.
DAVID: So what lies ahead for you as you finish this second book in this “meeting of minds” style? You’ve always got so many projects underway.
MATT: Well, you can give readers links to my website and Facebook page and we try to put my updates there. I definitely will keep traveling and teaching and writing more books. I’m blessed with decent health and I plan to keep going. I’m doing an exciting event in October in Mexico where I’ll be in a program talking about reinventing education, which is one of my major passions. Leonardo Boff, the liberation theologian, will be on that program, too. I met Boff the year I was silenced by the Vatican myself. I went to Brazil to meet and talk with him, then, but I haven’t seen him in person since that time. I’m told this conference likely will draw about 30,000 people and I’m looking forward to the good work we can do together.
Care to read more about Matthew Fox?
MEET THE PEACEMAKERS—Visit our Interfaith Peacemakers department to read more than 100 inspiring profiles of the kinds of men and women Matt Fox includes in his recent books.
VISIT MATT ONLINE—Matt recommends that new readers start with his main website, www.MatthewFox.org, where you can learn more about Creation Spirituality, learn about his various public appearances and keep in touch with news about upcoming publications. You also can keep in touch via Facebook by looking for Rev.Dr.MatthewFox
GET THE BOOKS—Click on any of our recommended links above. If you’re interested in his 365-day inspirational reader, you might enjoy reading our 2011 interview with Matt about the preparation of that book.
(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)