Faith And Work: The German Mystics
January 17, 2007 • By Allistair Mackenzie
It is the German mystics who first push beyond the monastic understanding of vocation. This is because Eckhart and Tauler and others recognise a call of God which comes to a person completely independent of monasticism or entrance into an order. They are even willing to apply to the laity the highest title of monasticism, that of ‘the friend of God,' and, in spite of their fascination with the mystical, with all its joy in suffering and insistence upon that which is inward, they also acknowledge that at times external work is more useful than internal. Hence Meister Eckhart can say, ‘If one were in an ecstasy, even if it were as high as that of Paul, and knew that beside him there was an infirm man who needed a bowl of soup from him, it would be better for him to abandon his ecstasy and serve the needy man’.
This is also demonstrated in the way that Eckhart and Tauler deal with the familiar biblical story of Mary and Martha. Medieval authors generally used this text to assert the superiority of the vita contemplativa. Eckhart and Tauler however take a much more sympathetic view of Martha’s predicament. In his sermon on ‘The Contemplative and Active Life’ Eckhart uses the word ‘calling’ to refer to Martha’s activity:
'...One (means) ... without which I cannot get into God, is work, vocation or calling in time ... He who works in the light rises straight up to God without let or hindrance: his light is his calling, and his calling is his light. This was the case with Martha ... Temporal work is as good as any communing with God, for it joins us as straitly to God as the best that can happen to us, barring the vision of God in his naked nature. [Such works are] just as good and unite us as closely to God as all Mary Magdalene’s idle longings.'
In his sermon on ‘Vocation’ Tauler maintains Jesus rebuked Martha ‘... not because of the things she did, for these were good and sanctified; but because of the ways in which she did them, with too much worry and anxiety’.
Eckhart also maintains that it is the nature and purpose of our occupations to lead us to God: ‘We are brought forth into time in order that our sensible worldly occupations may lead us nearer and make us like unto God’. ‘Not everyone is called to God in the same way’ is how Eckhart translates 1 Cor 7:20. Even the lowest work and lowest occupation is compatible with the demand of the highest. According to Eckhart, ‘One can gather nettles and still stand in union with God’.
According to Tauler, ‘to abide in one’s calling’ means one should not aspire to the monastic estate. There are different ways of serving and knowing God and one is ‘external works’. Tauler identifies the person who ‘knows all the secrets of commerce’. He criticises those people who think such an estate is ‘an obstacle for perfection’ for it is ‘certainly not God who has put this obstacle’. He condemns ‘all those who would stop at contemplation, but scorn action’.
In fact, Tauler intensifies this argument by applying it to himself. He says that if he were not a priest, he would like to be a shoemaker and earn his bread with his own hands. Tauler, unlike Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart, clearly found it painful to live from alms and would have preferred the secular class even to his priestly position and says he would have chosen differently if he had realised as a minor that other options were open to him.
Here for the first time we discover the thought of a secular calling and the possibility that a person can experience the highest ideal of the nearness of God in the practice of secular work. However, it is still a very restricted view of secular calling because in the end the mystics never really dispute the superiority of monasticism, although some of Tauler’s thinking is starting to move in that direction. A monk who completes a genuine conversion undoubtedly stands at the pinnacle of spiritual achievement. For the mystics, suffering is better than service, and work in the calling is more renunciation, more martyr-like living, than joyful service. Diligence in secular work is called for, so that a person can return as quickly as possible to inner contemplation. The mystics still consider themselves friends of God in a special way. They consider themselves ‘noblemen’, a nobility set over against the common heap of ordinary Christians. Hence it is still the monastic ideal that dominates. And there is still no hint of a universal priesthood to which each individual is called.
But, in spite of this, the German mystics clearly did contribute to raising the religious evaluation of secular work in the last centuries of the Middle Ages. And sermons from Dominican preachers from the latest part of this period show that 1 Corinthians 7:20 begins to have a greater influence in shaping thinking, as the words ‘vocation’, ‘calling’ and ‘religious’ (which previously had been used only within monasticism) begin to be applied to those who work faithfully in the secular positions in which God has placed them.
So by the time of Martin Luther the word ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’ in the sense of class or profession, was already in general usage. But this is not to suggest that the division of labour which emphasises that some care for the necessities of life while others pray for them was overthrown so early. The contemplative life was still considered superior to the active. Mary chose the better way, even if Martha is indispensable. The monk’s prayers do result in the granting of a higher level of blessedness in eternity. Clearly, despite the skirmishes with its Renaissance critics, the ideal of Monasticism was still flourishing and dominant when Luther came on the scene.
Excerpt from Faith and Work - A Thesis in Pastoral Theology, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, Dec. 1997 by Alistair Mackenzie. www.faithatwork.org.nz. Content distributed by HisChurchatWork.org > used for non-profit teaching purposes only.