A Stunning Teaching from Eckhart: Soul as Compassion

The Soul of the Ocean by Pexels from Pixabay

In Eckhart’s Sermon, “The Soul as an Ocean,” he lays out profound teachings about compassion. He ends his sermon in search of the meaning of the word “soul.”

We are all today searching for an understanding of the word “soul,” for we are between times in understanding it.  In a previous Daily Meditation, I shared the Celtic scholar John Donohue’s teaching that “soul is imagination,” and also Donna Richard’s teaching that soul represents 

the essence of the human in the universal order and through it with all Being….To ‘touch’ our soul is to touch us most deeply.

Light in the Darkness by MonikaP from Pixabay

We saw how Leonard Barrett calls soul a force:

Soul-force is that power of the Black man that turns sorrow into joy, crying into laughter, defeat into victory. It is patience while suffering, determination while frustrated, and hope while in despair.

In his book, The Dying Self, written fifty years ago, Charles Fair proposes that when the meaning of soul is lost, a culture is ending.  With a new meaning of soul comes a new civilization.

The great psychologist and cultural historian student Otto Rank felt that the meaning of “soul” is humanity’s quest for immortality and that its definition has evolved over human history ranging from the tribe, the double, beauty (Greeks), law (Romans), family, and now, something new.

Butterfly by Adina Voicu from Pixabay

Eckhart steps up and offers his startling understanding of “soul” at the end of his sermon on Compassion.  First, he says, the soul is a great mystery—no wonder we are still searching for an understanding:

A master who has spoken the best about the soul says that all human science can never fathom what the soul is in its ground. To know what the soul is, one needs supernatural knowledge.

Human knowledge alone cannot fathom what the soul is or how it works. We can know something about it  from its actions, but not very much. He goes on to say:

We do not know about what the powers of the soul do when they go out to do their work; we know a little about this, but not very much.

Unfurling by skeeze from Pixabay

Eckhart respects the mystery that the soul is. Like God, it is bigger than words.  What the soul is in its ground, no one knows.  

But then Eckhart offers his own definition of soul, and I think when he did so the entire congregation fainted when he ended his sermon with these words: 

What one can know about it must be supernatural, it must be from grace. The soul is where God works compassion.  Amen.

Notice what Eckhart is saying: If the soul “is where God works compassion,” then if we are not immersed in working compassion, we don’t have a soul yet.  We might have a plant soul or an animal soul, but not a human soul. 

This is so stunning a climax to a stunning sermon that I suspect not only all Eckhart’s listeners fainted when he ended his amazing sermon, but maybe Eckhart did also.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Passion for Creation: Meister Eckhart’s Earth-Honoring Spirituality, p. 442

See also Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion: Uniting Mystical Awareness With Social Justice:

Banner image: “Close the Camps.” San Francisco demonstrators demand that Gov. Newsom and AG Becerra immediately end all California cooperation with ICE. Photo by Leon Kunstenaar / Pro Bono Photo in “San Francisco March Demands State Shut Down Concentration Camps” on Indybay.org.

  • Did you think you were born with a soul and simply need to use it and polish it up and cash it in when you die?  Or do you agree with Eckhart that one’s “soul” is proportionate to one’s actions of compassion? 
  • What else follows from Eckhart’s understanding of soul as compassion and compassion as soul?  How do you understand “soul”?

Responses are welcomed. To add your comment, please click HERE or scroll to the bottom of the page.

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11 thoughts on “A Stunning Teaching from Eckhart: Soul as Compassion”

  1. Avatar

    Wow, there is so much to ponder here! I resonate with the sense of our understanding of Soul coming through grace. And that Soul develops as we grow in our spiritual maturity. I’m not so clear about the size of ones soul being proportionate to ones actions of compassion- as if I can will myself to choose compassion more often (like the good catholic girl I was raised to be- trying to do the right thing all the time). I sense that I need to continue to unlearn “trying” to be compassionate and instead open to Receive God’s compassion. From here, my soul-force naturally flows with love and compassion.

    1. Richard E Reich

      In wrestling with the existential question of “trying to be compassionate” versus simply being “open to receive God’s compassion” you have resolved the compassion issue for yourself–“Thanks be to God!”

  2. Avatar

    I understood the end of Eckhardt’s sermon as written here to be naming soul as a place, created by God in Compassion (the Compassion that is God and is of God, not the compassion of one human to another), where God then works or grows Compassion, the compassion of that human toward others. To me this is more powerful because it honors each of us as an established creation of Compassion, distinct from anything that follows, but one that can also never be divorced from what follows, a continually developing force of compassion, nourished in the womb of God, becoming more ourselves, more mature, more like God, etc., in our giving birth to Compassion in the world through our thinking, speaking, acting, and way of being.

    1. Richard E Reich

      Aami, thank you for sharing your understanding of compassion and how it works, for as you say, it is a continually developing force, nourished in the womb of God, becoming more ourselves, more mature, more like God, etc., in our giving birth to Compassion in the world through our thinking, speaking, acting, and way of being. Thanks again for sharing!

  3. Avatar

    “To gauge the soul we must gauge it with God, for the Ground of God and the Ground of the soul are one and the same.” Meister Eckhart

    “The soul lives by that which it loves rather than in the body which it animates. For it has not its life in the body, but rather gives it to the body and lives in that which it loves.” St. John of the Cross

  4. Avatar

    About 20 years ago I went into a second hand book store picked up this tattered book just because it said Matthew Fox I took it home placed it into my book shelf as you do & forgot all about it,
    i bet you have all done this, books on your bookshelf which you have never opened,
    anyway while reading/ contemplating the last few days on meister Eckhart’s Sermon 31 ,the penny dropped I think iv got that book after searching my book shelf there it was (breakthrough mister eckhart creation spirituality introduction and commentary by brother Matthew Fox) 580 pages published 1980 updated 1991 so I looked up sermon 31
    And underlined by the previous owner was the exact reading that Matthew has been sharing over the last few days (omg ) I was so excited what caught my awareness
    was to know what the soul is, one needs supernatural knowledge.
    we do not know what the powers of the soul do when they go out to do their work
    ,we know a little about this, but not very much.
    what the soul is in its ground, no one knows,
    what one can know about it must be supernatural
    ,it must be grace.
    that is where god works compassion.amen
    this blew my mind away.i thought about it all day contemplating about it the next day September the 8th our contemplation was about the soul.
    I believe we are extremely fortunate to have brother Matthew Fox teaching us in the year 2020 , your books videos, audios, Matthew your books will be read for hundreds of years to come
    a million thanks from Scotland
    take care my dear friends
    stay safe
    there even a commentary with all the sermons in this book and Matthew says compassion is the best name there is for god I know Matthew you have a book called the 80 names of god ,,,I think
    is compassion on that list ???

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