Eckhart’s Call for a ‘Portable’ Solitude

Meister Eckhart, great mystic and prophet that he was, honored solitude but he challenges us to think differently about it. He writes: “Spirituality is not to be learned by flight from the world, by running away from things, or by turning solitary and going apart from the world.  Rather we must learn an inner solitude wherever or with whomsoever we may be.  We must learn to penetrate things and find God there.” 

“International Women’s Day” Photo by Dmitry Dreyer on Unsplash

Learning an “inner solitude” is key for him and once you learn this you carry it with you wherever you go—it is a kind of “portable solitude” therefore that we can learn to take with us in our busy lives of protest.  Whether in the market place or a monastic cell, on the streets or at home, one is always” in the right place at the right time” he tells us once we have learned the art of letting go and letting be—which for him is the art of an “inner solitude.”  We carry this inner solitude everywhere and therefore we also carry our powers of creativity wherever we go.

“Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.” Painting by Johannes Vermeer. Wikimedia Commons.

Eckhart applies this teaching to the classic Mary and Martha story from the Gospels.  When Jesus came to visit the home of these two sisters, Mary stayed in the living room listening to Jesus while Martha stayed in the kitchen preparing a meal.  The traditional interpretation of this story is that Mary “chose the better part” because she was being full-time in Jesus’ presence listening to him while Martha was busy doing the food prep and was somehow a lesser person for it.  But Eckhart offers a radically new interpretation.  He says Mary was the immature one, spiritually speaking, because she could only do one thing at a time: namely listen to Jesus.  But Martha was the mature one spiritually because she could both work and listen at the same time.

The lesson is clear: Bring solitude with you and even while working you employ your deep listening skills (contemplation) while busy (putting a meal on the table for a guest).  For Eckhart service is not in opposition to solitude.  One can do two things at once if one has learned the right skills.  Work need not diminish contemplation or being fully present.  We are meant to incorporate our deep presence and listening into our work.  The inner work marries the outer work and all benefit from that oneing.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Meditations with Meister Eckhart, p. 90. 
See also: Matthew Fox, Passion For Creation: The Earth-Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart, 478-494 (Eckhart’s sermon on Martha and Mary).

Banner image: “Golabgiri (“Making Rosewater”) is a ceremony taking place annually from mid-May to mid-June in Kashan, Isfahan Province, Iran.” Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

For Deeper Contemplation

Are you learning to bring solitude with you throughout the day, whether in quietness or in busyness?  Deepening one’s capacity to let go and let be allows that to happen.

Recommended Reading

This book of simple but rich meditations exemplifies the deep yet playful creation-centered spirituality of Meister Eckhart, a 13th-century mystic, prophet, feminist, activist and defender of the poor who was condemned shortly after he died. “These quiet presentations of spirituality are remarkable for their immediacy and clarity.” –Publishers Weekly.


Matthew Fox’s comprehensive translation of Meister Eckhart’s sermons is a meeting of true prophets across centuries, resulting in a spirituality for the new millennium. The holiness of creation, the divine life in each person and the divine power of our creativity, our call to do justice and practice compassion–these are among Eckhart’s themes, brilliantly interpreted and explained for today’s reader.

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9 thoughts on “Eckhart’s Call for a ‘Portable’ Solitude”

  1. Avatar

    Interesting interpretation of the Mary / Martha story. I thought it was a validation of women learning (sitting at the feet of a teacher) the Law and spiritual matters.

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Janet,
      Thank you for commenting on this meditation. The story of Mary and Martha from LUKE 10, has caught many people’s imaginations and, like any good story, has many interpretations. Many women, myself included, regard this story as an invitation to women to step beyond their homemaker rolls to study the scriptures. the laws, and spiritual matters. Eckhart used a different lens with the story. He was interested in exploring the idea of solitude. Perhaps gender did not factor into Eckhart’s interpretation at all. He just considered Mary and Martha as sibling souls, each on a journey.
      Gail Sofia ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team..

  2. Avatar

    Thank-you Matt – I like the idea of portable solitude – it goes well with my frequent prayer that (by some miracle!) I might be a mobile blessing

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Sue,
      Thank you for sharing your desire to take your silent center with you as you go through your days. We hope that this meditation can makek you even more effective at offering mobile blessings.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditations Team

  3. Avatar

    Doesn’t seem like to me Mary nor Martha need to be seen as right or wrong, mature or immature. They both served Jesus.

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Jenifer,
      Thank you for writing. This story from Luke 10 has sparked many imaginations and many interpretations. Could we say that the essence of this story is a contrast between the way Mary honored Jesus as a guest in her home, and the way Martha honored him? Comparison is an effective story telling device. It invites a dialogue between two natures, or choices, or activities which reveals more than a linear set of characters. The comparison that Mary is more immature than Martha need not mean that Martha is the better sister. Maturity is the direction we all want to head. But immaturity has so much delicious learning ahead of it, the opportunity to see with new eyes, and to experience wonder and revelation. I may not be right about Eckhart seeing these women as equal but different. But your comment inspired me to consider it and I thank you for that.
      Gail Sofia ransom
      For the Daily Meditations Team

  4. Avatar

    I agree with Jennifer Elam. They BOTH SERVED JESUS. Which is better service??
    One has to know what is most needed at any given time in order to FILL that need. In this case, perhaps Mary was listening carefully to make certain she understood ALL that Jesus was saying to her/them/group. Martha was, in fact, legitimately asking for help with her duties. But she did it in a whining manner that did not attract anyone into the hot kitchen to prepare food for the body instead of substance for the Brain’s enlightenment. I do not see Mary as immature for sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening quietly. I do think Jesus’ acknowledged response to Martha was a gentle scolding for interrupting the gathering with a complaint, when she could just as easily have asked permission to postpone the meal until that particular discussion was finished in order that she, also, could join the others in hearing her Friend’s feelings about the subject. They could eat immediately afterward, and they all would be satisfied in both mind and matter. I think, personally, that Mary was MORE mature than Martha, and that we followers are reminded which of the two are more necessary for thorough service to God’s Kingdom on Earth. Amen.

  5. Avatar

    I’m very interested in these thoughtful responses to the Mary and Martha story. Because of Eckhart’s view of the story, I have had to look at my own ego and see how it has been in play in my own interpretation of the story (my own interpretation being the traditional one that Mary was the better because she put her full attention on Jesus’ teachings, undistracted by so-called worldly concerns). I saw myself as Mary and my own sister as Martha. Didn’t that make me feel good?! Didn’t that feed my ego?! Well, pride cometh before the fall or at least before a reckoning with my own ego. Hearing Eckhart’s interpretation has, thanks be to God, humbled me. Good going Meister Eckhart! I wonder if that may’ve been part of his point. Maybe others in his congregation were full of themselves due to their piousness. Maybe too few were doing the prophetic work that needed to be done in his community, too few moving from the Via Negativa to the Via Transformativa. In any case, I believe sacred teachings always have more than one interpretation. I think that the more we study and grapple with scripture, including all its possible interpretations, the more likely we are to deepen our spiritual experience.

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Michele,
      You have certainly grappled with both the traditional interpretation of the Mary and Martha story and this new-to-us Meister Eckhart’s interpretation. Thank you for sharing so openly with us. The image that stays with me from Eckhart’s interpretation is immature Mary at the feet of Jesus. I see a sweetness, a vulnerability, and a heart-mind-spirit eager to be shaped and filled. I don’t see Mary as less just because she is not as far along her journey. I have some suspicions that in Eckhart’s day, women were respected for their housekeeping role and. So criticizing the cook would would not be in Eckhart’s best interest. or cultural norm. Thus he has tr-interpreted the story and given us his concept of portable silence. This i merely creative conjecture on my part – and this story never ceases to invite new interpretations!.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

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