The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

An Encounter With Matthew Fox

Last Thursday, I attended a lecture by Matthew Fox on Meister Eckhart. Fox has done his own translation of Eckhart, titled Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart's Creation Spirituality, in New Translation (1980), and his devotion to Eckhart's thought was clear in the presentation. He had us break into groups and discuss the first page of Eckhart's first sermon, and my partner and I surprised each other with our slightly differing reactions--he was particularly moved by Eckhart's image of creation flowing in and out of God, like breath in respiration; I was struck by Eckhart's statement that if our image of God is comprehensible by us, then it is wrong--we will have shrunk God to our size.

Fox offered us a different perspective on the "divine dark" which Eckhart and pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite extol; he viewed it as the experience of desolation, of abandonment. I'm not so sure about this. Pseudo-Dionysius describes the dark as:
the ultimate summit of your mystical knowledge, most incomprehensible, most luminous and most exalted, where the pure, absolute and immutable mysteries of theology are veiled in the dazzling obscurity of the secret Silence, outshining all brilliance with the intensity of their Darkness, and surcharging our blinded intellects with the utterly impalpable and invisible fairness of glories surpassing all beauty.
This is not a transient stage of despair, or finding God in the experience of desolation, as well as in consolation, but the ultimate stage, for Dionysius (and I think for Eckhart) of mystical union. (This very aspect of their thought is one reason for Inge's discomfort with both Dionysius and Eckhart).

To be fair, Fox used Eckhart's distinction between God (the Mover) and the Godhead (the Wisdom of God--which he informed was a mistranslation of the Gottheit, more properly translated as the "Godness"). In Eckhart, the Godhead is at points equated with the Divine Dark; for Fox, he stressed Wisdom as traditionally feminine, as restoring the gender balance our patriarchal society denies the Divine. (Actually, Eckhart's disciple Henry Suso, the "Servitor of the Divine Wisdom," whom he saw as a Lady whose knight he was, also drew this concept from Eckhart).

Finally, in place of the traditional three-step mystical progression, Fox postulates a four step path, described by him as "The Via Positiva (joy, delight and awe); the Via Negativa (darkness, silence, suffering, letting go and letting be); the Via Creativa (creativity); and the Via Transformativa (justice, compassion, interdependence). One interesting distinction: Fox's four-fold path emphasizes modes of being leading to action, the traditional path--pugation, illumination, and union--describes a furthering of the soul's union with God. As summarized by Inge, the first step--purgation--includes what Fox describes as his fourth step, duty to our fellow human beings and creation at large. What for Fox is the culmination is for Inge the beginning--the sine qua non.


rick allen said...

I recall reading somewhere that Fox was quite unhappy with existing translations of Eckhart. As I have been reading Berard McGinn's "Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart," and since McGinn was at least a partial translator of the two Eckhart volumes in the Paulist Classics of Western Spirituality series, I have assumed that it is McGinn's work he has been dissatisfied with...but I don't know.

Do you happen to know? And have you any idea how far Fox's reading of Eckhart is from McGinn's?

(Interestingly, almost every quote from Eckhart, in English translation in the text of McGinn's book, is given in the original Latin or Middle High German in the endnotes. Might that reflect some sensitivity about the issue?)

Anglocat said...

Hi, Rick, welcome back.

Based on the lecture I attended, the particular translation that Fox was unhappy with was that of Raymond Blakney (MEISTER ECKHART: A MODERN TRANSLATION (1941)). (This one is still one of the most popular and readily available editions, from my experience).

Fox did not specifically address that of McGinn, but stated that those based on older texts that did not incorporate more recently found manuscripts, which were not edited by his disciples to pass the Church's threshold of orthodoxy, failed to reflect Eckhart's true thought and thus were inadequate. I note that McGinn's editions (1981 and 1986) are roughly contemporaneous with that of Fox (1980), so may not fall within his strictures.

Nice to hear from you again!

rick allen said...


I've never been much of a fan of
Fr. Fox. I read his book on creation spirituality when it first came out--was it 15 years ago or so? I just felt that he took a mostly unitary tradition, cut it into two, into the "good creation" tradition and the "fall emphasizing" part, and then affirmed the first against the second. I think he had an important point in emphasizing the centrality of "original blessing," but I thought he put that idea in opposition to the notion of "fall and redemption," rather than seeing both as part of the greater narrative sweep of the Christian narrative,and in that way he fragmented the tradition rather than understood it as a whole. But admittedly I haven't looked at him in some time.

What interested me more was your mentioning Eckhart in conjunction with Dionysius--I've been hoping to go back to them and try to understand them better (looks like next year more likely than this). For some reason my reading this last decade has switch to 75% historical, and I'd like to balance it a bit more. There is a problem, of course, with reading one author after being introduced by another--but I thought I probably needed McGinn's help with Eckhart.

Anyway, I enjoy the blog. Don't assume from silence that nobody's reading.

Anglocat said...

Yes, I found Fox very approachable and friendly (he was delighted to hear we were doing a mysticism book study at my parish), certainly interesting, but I think your critique is pretty fair. (I'm more of an Inge man, as you no doubt know--by the way, the discussion of Eckhart by Inge is v. worth your time; he discusses the extent to which Eckhart conforms with, challenges and flouts orthodoxy. Inge is likewise clear on both the beneficial and, in his mind, potentially harmful aspects in Dionysius).

Thanks for the kind words, Rick, and glad to know you're reading.