Sunday, January 9, 2011

"Paul rose from the ground and with open eyes saw nothing"

This quote from Acts (9:8) begins Meister Eckhart's 19th sermon (Vol. I, Walshe's edition).  I love Meister Eckhart's sermons for the way he takes a simple story from Scripture and subverts its literal meaning to wring higher truth gloriously from it.  (His sermon on Martha and Mary is highly recommended as the most subversive of the genre.)  Acts 9 recounts (S/)Paul's conversion, where he was struck by lightning, fell to the ground, and hear the voice of Jesus: "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?"  It's a simple story because the three-day blindness is a practical consequence of the event, a moral and symbolic lesson, and also a means for Paul (through Ananias) to validate his conversion among the naturally suspicious Christian community.  The translator faithfully renders the Latin (straight from the Vulgate), but it's a stripped-down translation, compared with the Douay-Rheims (an English translation of the Vulgate):  "And Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he saw nothing."  The striking phrase "and with open eyes saw nothing" serves Meister Eckhart's opening paragraph:
I think this text has a fourfold sense.  One is that when he rose up from the ground with open eyes he saw Nothing, and that Nothing was God; for when he saw God he [Luke, the author of Acts] calls that Nothing.  The second: when he got up he saw nothing but God.  The third: in all things he saw nothing but God.  The fourth: when he saw God, he saw all things as nothing.
Eckhart bypasses both the literal story (flash of light causes physical blindness) and the allegorical lesson (physical blindness symbolizes Saul's moral and spiritual blindness) to draw a metaphysical conclusion that seems to have nothing to do with either!  This kind of sermon, however, can only come from someone who has studied and internalized Scripture completely: now the words serve as keys to insights, rather than stories or lessons.  How I wish I knew it that well!

I mention this sermon of Eckhart's because last night I was leafing through a volume of his sermons and treatises that I found in a used book store this weekend.  This one stuck with me and I was thinking about it as our sub-choir set up to sing the Introit near the manger.  I had to miss all the Christmas liturgies up to Epiphany due to family-related travel, so it was striking to stand next to the manger, a bit messy with straw and pine branches and neglected after the Christmas holiday, and be reminded of the great Nothingness of God made a tiny baby -- Nothing made nothing. 

Meister Eckhart, Qabalah, and the Tao Te Ching complement each other nicely, incidentally ;-)