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.
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.
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.
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”?