I’ve been slowly making my way through the collected sermons and treatises of Meister Eckhart lately. In my opinion, he was an exemplary theologian and mystic who was completely misunderstood in his time. A profound German scholastic, Meister Eckhart found himself under fire from the Inquisition on charges of heresy. He stood by his words, which he argued were perfectly orthodox, and faced excommunication. Ultimately, Meister Eckhart went to his eternal reward before a final verdict could be offered. Unfortunately, Meister Eckhart was excommunicated for heresy, his body exhumed and reburied in unconsecrated soil. But this is not why I am writing this, rather, I came across an excerpt from Eckhart’s tenth sermon which fits well into my own previous ideas on the composite nature of being of creatures.
‘If the soul knew herself she would know all things. Deity flowed into the Father and into the Son and into the Holy Ghost: in eternity into itself and in time into creatures, to each as much as it can hold: to the stone its being, to the tree its growth, to beasts sensation, to the angels reason and to mankind all four of these natures. When God was made man he took upon himself by grace, in time, the nature of all things, which in eternity was his by nature.’Meister Eckhart, Sermon X: ‘Man has to seek God in error and forgetfulness.’
I found myself blown away by this statement from this great, misunderstood mystic and theologian! What he illustrates are simple, basic truths about the hierarchical order of being and the nature of creatures. It hearkens back to what I wrote regarding corpus-anima-spiritus, the three-fold composite nature of creatures, which can be found throughout creation. Meister Eckhart lays it out in a similar manner; expressing the being of corpus in non-living creatures such as rocks or basic elements. Further, the composite nature of corpus-anima in living things such as animals and plant life. Finally, the presence of spiritus in celestial minds such as angels and devils. With all three culminating in the nature of mankind: corpus-anima-spiritus.
What really struck me about Meister Eckhart’s rendition of basic ontology is the fact that the angels, who exist on a higher plane than man and corporeal beings, only possess one of these ontological properties; namely, pure reason, as they are creatures composed entirely of intellect and will. Some philosophers and theologians have speculated whether there is a material element to these spiritual creatures, but at their basest they are just one mode of being. Yet mankind, possesses all of these modes of being; we are made up of basic corporeal materials, we move and live, and we reason thanks to an essential spiritual component of our nature which is the soul.
Many philosophers and theologians within the Catholic and/or wider Christian traditions boil down the notion of man being ‘made in God’s image’ to that of our reason; our incorporeal intellect and will. And this is absolutely true. Yet, there is also the truth that all things are found in God, and I believe this truth is reflected in mankind too. As mankind incorporates all of the aforementioned modes of creaturely being into his own nature, he reflects God’s own all-being as the image of God.
Meister Eckhart proves this point when he speaks of God taking on ‘all things by grace’ through the Incarnation ‘which in eternity was his by nature.’ God not only puts on the clay of humanity, but He also elevates it beyond that of any other creature including the angels. Through the Incarnation, mankind is given the opportunity to be elevated and transfigured (see: Theosis or divinization) into the nature of the Deity. He partakes of this share of Godliness which had been previously expressed in his own composition, corpus-anima-spiritus, while at the same time further transcending that nature by participating in divinitas or the ‘divine nature of God.’ Whereas Christ reclaimed within His humanity what was His by nature, man receives through grace what is his by participation. Therefore, with the Ascension of the Incarnate God back to the Father, mankind was elevated through Jesus Christ to an entirely new and complete nature: corpus-anima-spiritus-divinitas.
Now the gift of grace surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking of the Divine Nature, which exceeds every other nature. And thus it is impossible that any creature should cause grace. For it is as necessary that God alone should deify, bestowing a partaking of the Divine Nature by a participated likeness, as it is impossible that anything save fire should enkindle.St Thomas Aquinas. Summa theologica I-II, cxii, ad. 1.
Man, through his ultimate participation in the Divine nature, becomes the perfection of God’s image. Not to say that man enters the Godhead and becomes God, but through his grace-guided imitation of Jesus Christ he becomes an adopted son of God. Therefore, divinizing him with a newfound Divine inheritance that could never have been previously been attained. Through Christ mankind becomes the image of God which Adam was originally intended to be.
“The Son of God became man, that we might become god”St Athanasius of Alexandria