The Fetal Waters of Compassion: Eckhart on the Yin Side of Compassion

One of the most moving sermons ever preached by Meister Eckhart is about the yin side of compassion.  I call it: “Compassion is an Ocean—the Mystical Side to Compassion” and it is sermon #31 in my book on Eckhart where I present 37 of his sermons with a commentary after each. 

First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska singing, Mothering God You Gave Me Birth. Video originally posted to the First-Plymouth YouTube Channel.

Eckhart also dealt strongly with the justice or yang side of compassion, as we will see in later DM meditations.  Here I want to share some of his sermon #31 that, frankly, so moved me that for many years whenever I read it, it brought tears to my eyes.

Says Eckhart: A master says: “The highest work that God has ever worked in all creatures is compassion.” The most secret and forbidden work that he ever worked on the angels was carrying them up into compassion; this is the work of compassion as it is in itself and as it is in God. Whatever God does, the first outburst is always compassion, and I do not mean that he forgives a person his sins or that a person takes compassion on another. The master means much more. He means that the highest work that God works is compassion. Compassion is something that touches all creation intimately and deeply, a union between God and creatures, a radical caring.

Monochrome yin yang coffee. Photo by Alex on Unsplash.

Eckhart says that compassion is the best name for God. ”The work of compassion is so close to God that although truth and riches and goodness name God, one of them names him better than the other”—and that is compassion.

Now he tries to picture what happens when God and creatures interact. The highest work of God is compassion and this means that God sets the soul in the highest and purest place which it can occupy: in space, in the sea, in a fathomless ocean and there God works compassion.  Notice how fetal are Eckhart’s images–space, sea, a fathomless ocean. How maternal.  How womb-like, since the word for compassion comes from the word for womb in both Hebrew and Arabic.  Compassion takes us to a deep, vast place.

A one minute reflection from Benedictine Sister and Theologian, Joan Chittister OSB, on compassion. Video originally posted to the YouTube Channel of the Monasteries of the Heart

Eckhart continues: Therefore the prophet says: “Lord, have compassion on the people who are in you.”  What people are in God? Saint John says: ”God is love and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him” (1 Jn. 4:16). Eckhart is naming what goes on in panentheism—a lot of in-ness is going on.  We are in love and love is in us; therefore we are in God and God is in us.  All of us.  All creation.

Pregnant woman caressing womb. Photo by freestocks on Unsplash.

In Eckhart’s day there was much debate about whether knowledge of God was better than love of God.  Eckhart offered a third alternative: To move beyond both love and knowledge to…compassion. 

Reason can never comprehend God in the ocean of his unfathomableness. I say that beyond these two, beyond knowledge and love, there is compassion. In the highest and purest acts that God works, God works compassion.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Passion for Creation: Meister Eckhart’s Earth-Honoring Spirituality, pp. 441f.

Banner Image: Surfer walking a beach at sunset in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash.

Queries for Contemplation

Do you sense being invited into fetal waters and the maternal side of divinity when meditating on this sermon from Eckhart? 

What follows from that? 

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2 thoughts on “The Fetal Waters of Compassion: Eckhart on the Yin Side of Compassion”

  1. Richard E Reich

    Matthew Fox tells us that “the word for compassion comes from the word for womb in both Hebrew and Arabic” and so compassion, he says “takes us to a deep, vast place.” And the womb to is the place of birth, so we must be reborn into compassion, which is to also be reborn into God…

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