Homily given at the Annual Conference of the Eckhart Society on 30 September 2012
I wonder which phrase in the readings would be picked out by Eckhart. Perhaps he would invite us to think about all those people in heaven without feet, hands and eyes. Or focus on that strange phrase in the first reading which tells us that the men on whom the Spirit came prophesied 'but not again'.
It is comforting to know that Joshua, who had been with Moses since his youth, and John, a young disciple with whom Jesus had a special relationship (as we are told elsewhere), that these two who ought to have known failed to understand. Joshua wants Moses to prevent Eldad and Medad prophesying because they had not fulfilled all the requirements. John wants Jesus to stop somebody casting out demons because he was 'not one of us'. And so we think we know where the boundaries are within which the Spirit will be working, or more likely that we know where the boundaries are within which the Spirit will NOT be working. Moses and Jesus seek to lead their eager followers into a deeper understanding.
It is comforting that such close disciples could still fail to understand but it is also a warning to anybody interested in gaining knowledge of God, or understanding God's presence and action. What we have seen already, what we have touched and experienced, the places to which our feet have already taken us: all this we must be prepared to cut off and throw away, the eye that has seen, the hand that has touched, and the foot that has walked. It is knowledge, experience and understanding but it becomes a kind of riches for us, to be relied on, settled into, and trusted.
James warns us in the second reading that riches corrode and distort. What begins as a help becomes an obstacle. It applies to material wealth: James and Luke are the two New Testament writers who warn us most consistently about the danger of wealth, without any 'spiritual' qualification. And we can apply it to any kind of possession, power, or comfort. St Thomas says that the beatitude of weeping applies particularly to those whose business is knowledge and understanding, to teachers and students, searchers and researchers, academics and intellectuals. Why must they particularly be ready to weep? Because if they are to enter more fully into the truth they must let go of ideas, understandings, theories, to which they have become attached, sometimes very strongly attached. It can be very difficult to let go of things that have become so dear to us, on which careers have been built, with which we have come even to identify ourselves, but obedience to the truth requires it, if we are to go on learning, if we are to grow in knowledge and understanding.
Such readiness to weep is also essential if we are to protect the 'little one' who is seeking to believe. What we have seen, experienced and come to understand, can become obstacles to the freedom of that little one. The little one is, perhaps, another (deepest?) level or aspect of ourselves, that can be blocked in, drowned out, overwhelmed by the self-assurance and confidence of eye and hand and foot. We throw the word 'infinite' around without, it seems, stopping to think about what we are claiming. And then go on talking as if we have 'finitised' the inifinite. The little one is the self that believes, remaining open to wonder and newness as she wanders (if she is not held back) through the landscape of revelation.
Aquinas quotes frequently a saying that came down from the Fathers of the Church to the effect that 'any truth, no matter by whom it is spoken, is from the Holy Spirit'. We can say also, in light of today's gospel, that any cup of water given to a person because they belong to Christ, earns an infinite reward. It is not a cup of water given according to the right conditions, or a cup of water given by someone who is 'one of us': any cup of water, given to anybody because they belong to Christ (that is belong to truth), earns a reward that is infinite.