Contemplation has its limits and to ignore those limits can invite shadow into our efforts at inner work.  This is true of all the Four Paths—each derives from what Rabbi Heschel calls our “recesses” and that is why they are each important for our work in the world, the work of justice-making and compassion, healing and celebrating our shared gratitude at being alive.  Each is powerful and can be all consuming if we allow it to be and that is one reason why naming the deep journey in all its dimensions is so important: So we do not cling to any one path and know when to move on.

“Lost in Thought” Photo by Jared Brashier on Unsplash

The art of Letting Go and Letting Be that we learn in the Via Negativa is something that we carry with us into the next paths of Via Creativa and Via Transformativa, as well as into the Via Positiva.  When Eckhart says we “sink eternally from letting go to letting go into the One” he is alerting us to the radical and constant practice of Letting Go.  There is even a time for letting go of letting go.  This is why he can say “I pray God to rid me of God.”  At times we have to let go of God to rediscover the Divine in more subtle places and actions.

Eckhart speaks to letting go of contemplation: “We ought to get over amusing ourselves with raptures for the sake of a greater love which is to minister to what people most need, whether spiritually, socially, or physically.”  Here he is echoing his teaching on Martha and Mary and why Mary is less mature than Martha because she can only contemplate but Martha can both do work and remain in the Divine presence.  Martha has learned to let go and let be.  Contemplation without action is for beginners in the spiritual life only. 

“Monk with Boys” Photo by Suraphat Nuea-on from Pexels

For Eckhart this was a familiar theme that he repeated often.  “I have told you this time and time again, If a person were in a rapture as great as St. Paul once experienced and learned that her neighbor were in need of a cup of soup, it would be best to withdraw from the rapture and give the person the soup she needs.” 

Clearly contemplation is not meant to be a substitute for action; nor a flight from action; nor a place to hide; nor an excuse for running from action.  Contemplation is not a refuge for the fearful.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Meditations with Meister Eckhart, pp. 92, 120.
Banner image: “Humanitarian Aid” Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Queries for Contemplation

Have you experienced what Eckhart is talking about—the tension between savoring and saving, silence and serving, action and non-action, contemplation and action?  Does this tension lessen as you get more used to the art of letting go and letting be?

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.


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2 thoughts on “Limits to Contemplation”

  1. Avatar

    Dear Matthew, for months now I have been spiritually fed by your wonderful daily meditations and I thank you so much for that. Your writings have nourished me for years and I keep going back to them and always finding food for my soul and energy to keep me sane in these very troubling times of climate crisis. There is a global movement to ban bottled water, knowing that plastic eventually lands in the ocean. I was shocked to see two picrtures of bottled water in today’s meditation. However, I do realize that in some cases bottled water is the only safe water to drink in some areas of the world. Is this something you would be willing to comment on?

    1. Phila Hoopes

      Dear Joan,

      Phila Hoopes here, blog coordinator and art curator for The photos were not a choice of Matthew’s, but mine; Matthew did not have a chance to vet them before he needed to leave for a speaking engagement.

      Like you, all of us on the team are deeply concerned about the issue of plastic pollution…however, I missed that filter for the banner photo, seeing the compassionate lifesaving action and thinking of the refugees who are dying of thirst while attempting to flee their countries. I apologize; I will be more conscious in future.

      I am confused, however – where did you see a second plastic bottle?

      Phila Hoopes

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