Scripture abounds with crippling images of God as warrior, power-grabbing king, and patronizing parent who would not let anything bad happen to us. The God of Exodus 20.5 says, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generations.” These images created by the authors of scripture, rob us of any personal authority we have as human beings and they have had such a hold on us, that we relinquish the freedom given to us by the real God who is beyond all images. No wonder Meister Eckhart pleads, “I pray God that he may quit me of god.”
Eric Fromm, the human potential psychologist, escaped the Holocaust and thereafter recognized the evils of manipulating God as a way to legitimate genocide. He chose atheism as his path. He has left us with a passionate analysis of the self-annihilation that results when we totally immerse ourselves in an image of God as a “magic helper.” Fromm reminds us t hat we lose ourselves in this image-making. Human beings “…project the best [they] have onto God, and thus impoverish themselves.” (Psychoanalysis and Religion pg. 49) Fromm’s atheism is different from Eckhart’s, which is a death to negative images, not to the God beyond the images; however, Fromm’s analysis wakes us up, and invites us to rid ourselves of debilitating images of God.
Fromm’s analysis and Eckhart’s plea came together for me as I watched a 60 Minutes presentation May 18, entitled, “Three Generations of Punishment.” It was about Shin Dong-Hyuk, who escaped from Camp 14 in North Korea, after 23 yrs. He was born in the prison. His parents were imprisoned because their parents had advocated against the government. The guards behave like gods; warlike and vengeful on one hand, and patronizing “magic helpers” on the other hand. Until he befriended a new prisoner, Shin dong-Hyuk had no knowledge of the outside world. He thought that the rules of the camp were right and he was happy to obey, to the point of turning in his parents for disobeying, and feeling no remorse at their execution. His experience was very much like the experiences of those suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. A survivor of the TWA Flight 847 terrorist hijacking said of her captors, “They weren’t bad people; they let me eat, they let me sleep, they gave me my life.”
I believe that many of us today suffer from a kind of spiritual Stockholm Syndrome, constructed with the false god-images we have made and worshipped. We stay safe within these images rather than accept the freedom and responsibility of living as fully human persons. I pray for myself and all of us each day, that we may have the courage to let God be God in and through us. I pray that we may rid ourselves of god.
“…true poverty of spirit consists in keeping oneself so free of God and of all one’s works that if God wants to act in the soul, God himself becomes the place wherein he wants to act- and this God likes to do….Here, in this poverty, people attain the eternal being that they once were, now are, and will eternally remain.” Meister Eckhart Sermon Fifteen
This time Meister Eckhart describes the goal of the spiritual journey as a radical letting go of all ego entrapments so that if God wants to act in the soul, God becomes the place wherein God wants to act. This is the GodPlace where we existed before we were creatured.
The poem I share here emerged after the death of my parents, many years ago. Since then I have experienced enough “ego-deaths” to fuel a massive funeral pyre! Every time we choose Spirit over ego, we die a little and are born a little, becoming more authentically our true selves.
Leaves reign down
Leaving long limbs
Exposed like raw pain.
“The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.
Blessed be the name of the Lord?”
As leaves to earth
We return to the
Genes of our souls
Bare, not barren,
Becoming at last
Who we always were.
Rita Hemmer Kowats
“Every human person is noble and of royal blood, born from the intimate depths of the divine nature and the divine wilderness.” Meister Eckhart
“What we plant in the soil of contemplation, we reap in the harvest of action.” Meister Eckhart
Without outward focus, spiritual development can become naval gazing for its own sake and self aggrandizement. Instead, spiritual growth is about uniting with the Other, and from within that union, invite others to do the same. This invitation requires us to help create a just and peaceful environment which allows us the space to develop, and in turn, invite others to join in the process. Meister Eckhart was an academic, a mystic, and a prophet. Through his own spiritual journey he came to the realization that we are all “aristocrats,” born from the nature of God. Instead of focusing on his own mystical experiences, he went into his medieval marketplace and preached to the masses in their vernacular German. He condemned a “merchant” mentality which denied the nobility of the soul, and which bound serfs to church and state by unjust contracts. Without outward focus our spirituality exists for its own sake. Our relationship with God gives us the moral authority to address injustices in our community.
Recently, near Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, a garment factory in the Rana Plaza collapsed, bringing the whole plaza down on itself. As of this writing the death toll is 600. A few days before the collapse cracks had appeared in the building and police ordered it evacuated. The owners ignored the order, threatening to cut pay if workers did not report for work. There were some arrests of engineers who worked without permits and insisted the building was safe. One owner fled the country.
This is not Meister Eckhart’s Middle Ages. We don’t have a feudal system which supports the wealthy on the backs of the poor…do we? Bangladesh has one of the largest garment industries in the world, supplying cheap knock-offs to fashion-addicted western buyers like me.
What is our call in response to this situation? In our prayer and study we can come to believe that by virtue of our relationship with God, we are noble. The Bangladeshi factory workers are noble. Because we believe it, we can participate in boycotts which put pressure on factory owners to recognize the nobility of their workers by giving them safe working conditions and just wages. We can better monitor our own consumption of cheap knock-off clothes, helping to create new and just markets. May our contemplation spill into acts of justice so that these hundreds of workers have not died in vain.