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Caputo (MEHT:137-139) – Eckhart - Maria e Marta

quinta-feira 22 de setembro de 2022


I should like to conclude this survey of Meister Eckhart  ’s mysticism   with a short account of one of his most startling and inventive sermons, which lays to rest once and for all the charges of quietism which, while they may sometimes apply to other mystics, have nothing whatever to do with Eckhart’s genuine teaching. I am referring to Eckhart’s interpretation of the story of Mary and Martha   (”Intravit Jesus   in quoddam castellum,” Q, 280 ff.). This story served as the point of departure in the Middle Ages for the scholastic theory of the relationship of contemplation to action (cf. VA [1], 54-5). The Dominicans were students of Greek metaphysics   on this point, and they ranked theoria   before praxis  . Thus Thomas Aquinas  , following Aristotle  , identified contemplation as the highest end of man. And Thomas, like the other scholastics of the same mind  , pointed to the story of Mary and Martha to support his position. The story, we recall, goes   as follows. Jesus entered a small village and there visited two sisters, Mary and Martha. The one sister, Martha, kept herself busy serving Jesus, while the other sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to his every word. When Martha asked Jesus to chide Mary for letting all the work fall on her, Jesus responded by saying, “Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her” (Luke 10:41-2).

However, Aquinas’s position on this point was actually somewhat more complicated than we have so far said. For while St. Thomas thought that the contemplative life is higher than the active life considered “in themselves,” he nonetheless thought that in this life, on earth, where the contemplative does not have an immediate vision of the very being of God   (as do the blessed in heaven), the “mixed” life is better. The mixed life refers to a life which combines action and contemplation. The practitioner of the mixed life does not merely contemplate but he also engages in good works. Now this position of “brother   Thomas” led Eckhart to a most unorthodox interpretation of the Mary and Martha story. For if on earth the mixed life is better, then in some sense   Martha, who symbolized the active life, was superior to Mary, the symbol of contemplation. In other words, contrary to Jesus’s literal words, Martha had chosen the better part.

Eckhart expounds this as follows. When Jesus addressed Martha he spoke her name twice. This signified, according to Eckhart, that Martha possesses two gifts (Q, 282,30 ff.). The first gift is a temporal perfection, viz., that Martha is well   exercised in virtue and good works. But the second gift is an eternal gift, according to which Martha is united with God in the ground of her soul. Hence when Jesus said that Martha was concerned with many things, he meant that she kept herself busily occupied with her duties, but that none of these duties were obstacles for her. “You stand amidst things,” Eckhart paraphrases Jesus, “but things do not stand in you” (Q, 283,1-2). The created things with which Martha occupies herself do not enter the ground of her soul; they do not disrupt her unity with God. Martha therefore is seasoned and exercised in “life.” She has learned that which only a long life of virtue can teach, viz., to dwell in the world and to concern oneself outwardly with created things, all the while retaining an inner calm.

Mary on the other hand does not represent for Eckhart pure contemplative unity with Christ. Rather Mary is related to Martha as potency is to act, or as the imperfect is to the perfect. Mary sits at the feet of Jesus because she does not have the strength of Martha to deal with things. Mary would be hindered by creatures; Martha is not. Moreover, Mary listens to Jesus’s words; she wants to learn about union with God. But Martha already knows what such unity is, because she has been taught in the school of life, the only school indeed in which this can be learned. Thus when Martha asks Jesus to have Mary “stand up” and help with the work, she does so out of love for Mary and out of a desire to see her achieve a higher state of perfection. She is asking Jesus to dispel Mary’s illusion that perfection can be achieved by wishing for it and by basking in religious feelings. She is asking Jesus to show Mary that true perfection in this life is not withdrawn from activity but that it nourishes itself in the midst of activity.

Thus Eckhart proposes to us in this startling reinterpretation of the Gospel   story the paradigm of a religious inwardness which is completely at home with the world. The paradigm in fact anticipates the Reformation critique of monastic Christianity, that is, the conception that God could be found   only by withdrawing from the world. It also reminds one strongly of the problem which torments Joannes Climacus   in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript: if without God a man can do nothing, how am I to take a walk in the Deer Park? Eckhart’s reading of the story of Mary and Martha shatters once and for all the complaint that mysticism at least Eckhart’s mysticism is quietism and contemptus mundi. For Eckhart vividly shows that it is quite possible, indeed it is to be expected, that a man may be concerned with many things while still preserving the one thing necessary. The ground of the soul   is the source from which the faculties flow. Thus the man whose soul is united in its ground with the Godhead   takes creatures “in God,” not in themselves. He sees the creature not with secular eyes, not as a distraction and an obstacle, but with the eyes of eternity. Angelus Silesius   aptly expressed this theme in Meister Eckhart when he wrote some four centuries later:

The Rose
The rose that with mortal   eye I see,
Flowers in God through all eternity. (CW, I, 108/42)

Martha sees things in God, and sees God in them. She is at home with the world and with created things; she has learned to understand them in their essential being. She leads a life not of passivity and withdrawal but of active and robust commerce with things. For Eckhart the depth of mystical union is completely compatible with the bustle of virtue and good works. That is why the author of this austere doctrine of will-less-ness and mystical poverty can at the same time enjoin a life of moral activity. Hence the concluding line of this sermon reads, “May God help us to follow Him [=Christ] in the exercise of true virtue” (Q, 289, 17-8).


[1GA7 Vorträge und Aufsätze. 2. Auflage. Pfullingen: Verlag Günther Neske, 1959.