The Metaphysical and Social Context of Meister Eckhart

"Therefore St. Augustine says: "The finest thing that we can say of God is to be silent concerning him from the wisdom of inner riches." Be silent therefore, and do not chatter about God, for by chattering about him, you tell lies and commit a sin. If you wish to be perfect and without sin, then do not prattle about God. Also you should not wish to understand anything about God, for God is beyond all understanding. A master says: "If I had a God that I could understand, I would not regard him as God." If you understand anything about him, then he is not in it, and by understanding something of him, you fall into ignorance."
Meister Eckhart [1]


Meister Eckhart (1260 - 1328) has been known as the father of German mysticism and the greatest of all mystics. Several authors reference him with the honour "the man from whom God hid nothing." He is known as a philosopher and a theologian but it was as a mystic that Meister Eckhart excelled. In his day Meister Eckhart enjoyed success as a popular preacher and churchman of high rank in his order, the Dominicans. However, Meister Eckhart was the only theologian of the medieval period to be formally charged with heresy. The shock of his trial for heresy and the condemnation of some of his work by Pope John XXII in Argo Dominco has cast a shadow over his reputation and a lingering suspicion over his orthodoxy that has lasted to this day.

Today there is universal agreement among scholars and historians that his condemnation by Pope John XXII was unjustified. In 1985 the current Pope, John Paul II said, "Did not Eckhart teach his disciples "All that God asks of you most pressingly is to go out of yourself - and let God be God in you'? One could think that, in separating himself from creatures, the mystic leaves his brothers, humanity behind. The same Eckhart affirms that, on the contrary the mystic is marvellously present to them on the only level where he can truly reach them, that is in God." [2] That Meister Eckhart should be used as a model for Christian meditation is not shared by all leaders of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Cardinal Ratzinger in a Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation referenced Meister Eckhart and wrote, "Still others do not hesitate to place that absolute without images or concepts, which is proper to Buddhist theory, on the same level as the majesty of God revealed in Christ, which towers above finite reality...Thus they propose abandoning not only meditation on the salvific works accomplished in history by the God of the Old and New Covenant, but also the very idea of the One and Triune God, who is Love, in favour of an immersion "in the indeterminate abyss of the divinity." [3] What was true in his day, continues to be true 700 years later - Meister Eckhart continues to generate both interest and controversy.

This essay will focus on the intellectual and social history of Meister Eckhart. The development in thought of any theologian emerges from the lebenswelt (life world) of the theologian. [4] The lebenswelt is formed by the meeting of the cultural, social, and religious history of the day. Theologians are continually searching for new and meaningful ways to interpret religious experience. Meister Eckhart interpreted the religious experience of his day in a way that no others at the time did. I will explore in this paper some of the intellectual forces at work at the time and how he interpreted and connected with these.

Secondly, it is important to understand the social history of the time. No theologians' thought is ever formed by simply offering commentary on previous thinkers. As a preacher Meister Eckhart would certainly have been aware of the needs and various expressions of the community. I will explore some of the religious social movements that emerged from the lebenswelt of the era, particularly the Beguine movement and Eckhart's affinity with it. There is little doubt that Meister Ekchart was aware of the Beguines and some of their greatest mystics. Not only did Eckhart listen to them but they listened to him; for it is from women - both nuns and Beguines - that we have the German texts of his preaching. [5] No essay on Meister Eckhart is complete without mentioning some of the Beguine mystics like Mechthild of Magdeburg and Marguerite Porete who shared so much of Eckhart's mystical vision.

Finally, I will assess the impact he has had and how the current resurgence of interest in him can continue to be of benefit for a modern audience. That Meister Eckhart is difficult to understand and has been the subject of multiple interpretations is an understatement. With characteristic wit Meister Eckhart recognized this, saying in one sermon, "Many people say: "You make fine speeches to us, but we don't understand anything." I have the very same complaint !" [6]

Intellectual History

By Meister Eckhart's time the spirited and daring thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great and Bonaventure had died. Scholasticism was in decline and what was left of the method was rehearsed answers to rehearsed questions, boredom, dullness and a rising anti-intellectualism. [7] Meister Eckhart probably entered the Dominican order in the late 1270's. Eckhart was steeped in the Scholasticsm of the day although he departed from its' form in many of his writings and sermons. Meister Eckhart departed from Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great in his insistence that in the ground of reality there is absolute identity between God and the soul particularly the intellect, the highest part of the soul. This controversial notion of unity was described and understood in the medieval period in the Eckhartian terms as a unitas indistinctionis. [8]

Locating Eckhart within a clear school or tradition is a daunting task. We tend to view the medieval period as one in which Scholasticism as framed by Thomas Aquinas dominated. Certainly Scholasticism was an important and dominant movement. However, even within Scholasticism there were two schools of thought between the Franciscans who stressed the role of the will (amor) and the Dominicans who stressed the role of the intellect (intellectus). Eckhart, as a Dominican, was certainly in the latter camp arranging the relationship between the will and intellect in the more traditional Dominican manner. "The masters ask whether the kernel of eternal life lies more in the intellect or the will. Will has two operations: desire and love. The intellect's work is onefold, and therefore it is better." [9] The Catholic Encyclopedia says that his mystical thought derived from the teaching of Hugh of St. Victor. Others claim that he was a neo-Platonist. There is evidence of that as he often quotes from Dionysius and his theology has a decidedly Eastern Christian flavour. Others like Fox convincingly argue that his insights spring from a rich prophetic biblical tradition. [10] Fox argues that it can be evidenced that Eckhart was steeped in biblical modes of thinking not only by the quantity of his scriptural references but also the themes he wrestles with. Fox draws similarities between Eckhart's famous term "spark of the soul" [11] to medieval Jewish philosophers Isaac Ben Solomon Israeli and Judah Halevi. Certainly there is ample evidence to support Fox's contention since most all of Eckhart's sermons are exegesis of biblical texts as are many of his theological treatises. In addition to Scholasticism, there was monastic theology and "vernacular" theology as typified in many of the Beguine mystics of the time such as Marguerite Porete and Mechtild of Magdeburg. Eckhart as a travelling preacher would no doubt have been aware of these currents and would have been conversant with them. The Dominicans had a particularly close historical relationship with the Beguines. There is a view that historical influence may be interpreted from a broader and more phenomenological perspective. By discussing some of the Beguines, I am not attempting to draw a direct corollary in terms of influence. Instead, I am framing Eckhart's conversation with them in the Latin understanding of conversatio which means more of a contemporaneous living with or familiarity of. It includes but is not limited to verbal discussions. [12] The similarity between Eckhart's mysticism and that of the Beguines are so similar that no historical analysis of Meister Eckhart is complete without a discussion of the Beguines.

As an example of Eckhart's thought I will explore two of the dominant themes in his work. One is his understanding of the intellect as the imago Dei of man and the other his metaphysical understanding of being. As William Placher wryly notes, "Mysticism may be in fact the only field in which metaphysics is more controversial than sex." [13] The differences between Aquinas' metaphysics and Eckhart's have been exaggerated due to the historic gobbling up of Aquinas by Suarez particularly on the notion of esse. Gilson notes , "...the genuine meaning of the Thomistic notion of being is around 1729, completely and absolutely forgotten. To Wolff, Thomas Aquinas and Suarez are of one mind concerning the nature of being, and it is not Suarez who agrees with Thomas Aquinas, but Thomas Aquinas who agrees with Suarez. In short Suarezianism has consumed Thomism." [14] To appreciate the affinity Eckhart had with Aquinas as far as the notion of esse is concerned, I will outline some of the debates which were swirling at the time between Aquinas and Siger of Brabant. It is not well known that at the time the Bishop of Paris, Stephen Templier, condemned several theses some of which were critical of Thomas Aquinas' thought. [15] Eckhart would certainly have been aware of these condemnations. The fact that he fully absorbed Aquinas' metaphysics, subtly and carefully inverted it while simultaneously freeing himself from the precision and exactness of the scholastic method says something of his creativity and confidence in light of a less than supportive ecclesiastic leadership.

Entering into the mystery of God, or as Eckhart would say "sinking eternally" into this One, was for everyone. As Mcginn points out, Eckhart's mysticism is decidedly exoteric, universal and open to all. [16] To underscore this point Eckhart preached the message in the German vernacular to lay audiences. Even in its' orthodox form mysticism has a democratic flavour as one does not need education, office, or influence to seek and find God within. This is part of the reason the Church hierarchy remained chronically nervous about mysticism as the claim to direct encounter with God risked rendering the hierarchy irrelevant. [17]

Absent from Eckhart is the fall/redemption theology so characteristic of Augustinian and later Lutheran and Calvinist traditions. Interior renewal, and the indwelling of God were key elements in Eckhart's theology. Jesus' desire is that we experience this fully and completely. Christ became a child of a human being in order that we might become children of God. "Our Lord said: "I have not called you servants; I have called you friends, for a servant does not know what his master wishes" (John 15:15)...Why did God become man? So that I might be born of the same God. " [18]

200 years before Luther Ekchart would emphasize the futility of any works whatsoever which might somehow merit God's grace. God's gift was completely free and could not be purchased. Commenting on Matthew 21:12, and reinforcing that the temple that God wants to dwell in all alone is the soul of a person, Meister Eckhart writes, "Behold how all those people are merchants who shun great sins and would like to be good and do good deeds in God's honor, such as fasts, vigils, prayers, and similar good deeds of all kinds...God is not at all in debt to them for their deeds and gifts unless he should wish to do something of his own free will and favor...These people who wish to bargain in this way with our Lord are very silly. They have little wisdom or none at all. Therefore, our Lord threw them out of the temple and drove them away. Light and darkness cannot exist with one another. God is truth and light in himself...The merchants therefore are driven away as soon as truth is known, for truth does not long for any kind of commercial deal. God does not seek his own interest. In all his deeds he is unencumbered and free, and accomplishes them out of genuine love." [19]

To enter into the mystery of God and give birth to God, a certain degree of asceticism was necessary. Like all of Eckhart's theology, asceticism was not understood as external practice. On the contrary for Eckhart asceticism meant an interior detachment from all created things and images. Eckhart's ascesis is an internal self denial, an abegescheidenheit (a "cutting away" or "letting go" of things). [20] A modern understanding of Eckhart's ascesis can be found in the expression of Henry David Thoreau, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear...I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to cut a broad swath and shave close..." [21]

This dimension of Eckharts' theology is key to understanding him. Detachment, or abegescheidenheit is an integral part of Eckhart's theology as it forms the praxis of his mysticism and speaks in a practical way to appropriate psycho/spiritual disposition. His ascesis is far removed from some of the more morbid ascetical understanding of the medieval period. As Fox says, in many respect in today's parlance Eckhart could be called more of a psychologist. [22]

Metaphysical Context

The early Patristic teachers were deeply divided over the extent to which Greek philosophy should enter a Christian universe. Some, such as Tertullian, Tatian, and Arnobius, were passionately opposed to Greek philosophy and culture in the fear that their influence would adulterate the gospel. Others, however, such as Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, endeavoured to articulate the message of the gospel using Greek philosophical concepts. [23] The baptism of Greek thought into Christianity eventually happened. The notion of who God was varied greatly. The Greek philosophers spoke of an unchanging, unaffected Divine principle far removed from the multiplicity and chaos of our world while Israel worshipped a God who could grow angry, changed His mind, and was deeply involved in history. [24] Christianity would eventually affirm both these as true of God.

By Meister Eckhart's time Greek thought had fully permeated and was being used by both Christians and Muslims. In fine inter-religious spirit, Eckhart took full advantage of the contribution of non-Christian theologians like Avicenna whom he regularly and often cites in his theological works. The debate at the time was the debate that the earliest Greeks had - namely what is being.

The early Greeks endeavored to find out what the "stuff" of reality is. Several attempts were made to reduce it to, water, air, then fire until Parmenides of Elea eventually said the thing that they all have in common is being. While all things are changing, the one thing that we can say with certainty is that something is. Hence his oft repeated statement that "being is" whereas "it is impossible that non-being be;" in other words "either being exists or it does not exist." [25]

Plato and Aristotle would pursue these ideas and come to different metaphysical conclusions concerning the Divine Principle supporting being. For Plato it was the "One" and for Aristotle it was the "Prime Mover" (or First Cause). Although they differ by way of definition neither Plato's "One" nor Aristotles "Prime Mover" were intimately connected with the world. These conceptions were radically altered when they entered a Christian universe in which God is understood as Emmanuel. Although Augustine would caution against a literal interpretation of Genesis, it is inescapable that however we understand it, it is clearly revealed that man is created in the image and likeness of God. There is an intimate connection between God and His creation. "God said, "Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves..." or alternately, "Yahweh God fashioned man of the dust from the soil. Then he breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and thus man became a living being." [26] To understand and explain the significance of these texts the Scholastics would employ Greek concepts. It was not a matter of trying to fit Greek conceptions of God into the text but to understand the depths of the text through the most scientific and poetic language available at the time.

During the middle ages thinkers and philosophical schools were divided on the questions of universals; how can the species be present in each individual, or how can the multiplicity of the individuals share in the unity of the species? [27] Aquinas concluded that Aristotle made one fundamental mistake in understanding the term esse. Gilson traces the problem to Aristotle and his followers. Fundamentally their problem was to use the verb esse (to be) in a single meaning whereas actually it has two. If it means that a thing is, then individuals alone are and forms are not; if it means what a thing is then forms alone are and individuals are not. [28] Aquinas would carefully demonstrate how it is both. Aristotle was still close to Plato's Ideas in his conception of essences, even though he located the essences in each particular species. For instance, each individual human being partook of the universal essence or form of "humanness". Aristotle writes, "The individuals comprised within a species, such as Socrates and Corsico, are the real beings; but inasmuch as these individuals possess one common specific form, it will suffice to state the universal attributes of the species, that is the attributes common to all its individuals, once for all." [29] Gilson comments, "This "once for all" is indeed dreadful. It is responsible for the immediate death of those positive sciences which Aristotle himself had so happily fostered. For centuries and centuries men will know everything about water, because they will know its' essence, that which water is; so also with fire, with air, with earth, with man. Why indeed should we look at things in order to know them? Within each species they are all alike; if you know one of them, you know them all. What a poverty stricken world such a world is! How much deeper the words of the poet sound to our ears: 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.'" [30]

Aquinas maintained that the very first thing we experience before we even begin to think about anything is existence. This seems obvious enough. However for Aquinas, essences don't exist only real things do! Existence (esse) is not some "thing" superadded to a being. Existence is the very "isness" of a being. God does not create essences he creates existents. Our fear of the real world makes us want to get lost in the fixed and unchanging world of Greek essences. As Dr. Centore wrote, "The more we concentrate on mathematics and science the more we become entrenched in what is determined and unchanging. We want "laws" of chaos and probability. Real life change is swallowed up and solidified in formulas. Human freedom is buried amid psychological causes and "drives" while even God and the human soul disappear under the transient flickerings of scientific instruments always striving to stabilize the world's becoming." [31]

Although we can classify things into various categories and come to scientific understanding of them, we can never forget that the first principle of each particular life is it's particular existence. Each creature, even those of a similar species has its' own private act of esse that it shares with no other creature, even within its' own species.. There is a lot of truth in the folksy maxim "no two snowflakes are alike". Creation is not a one time event but on-going and ever new. For Aquinas, creatures are possessors of existence by participation; each is a habens esse. [32] God as Ipsum purum esse is absolutely above every creature but intimately connected with each creature whom he providentially and lovingly holds in being. Aquinas would declare that God is being. - Deus est esse. [33] Before getting into where Eckhart would go with this, it is helpful to contextualize this idea by placing it within the debate that Siger of Brabant had with Aquinas.

To begin, to declare that each being has its' own particular esse unshared by any other creature would mean that there is an element of mystery to life itself. For Siger if something has no conceptual intelligibility we cannot discuss it meaningfully. For Aquinas, we can indeed talk about existence (esse) meaningfully even though it does not have a specific "whatness". There is more than one way to come to know something. We can quite legitimately know something by way of analogy or relationship. Naturally, in order to illustrate his point with respect to existence, Aquinas is going to have to use words. However simply because he is using words to explain esse does not mean that he is defining it. This is a critical point that Siger of Brabant, Suarez and so many later Thomists would fail to grasp. As Gilson writes, "For what he (Siger) does is to ask Brother Thomas: 'What is existence?' and, of course, Brother Thomas cannot answer. Unfortunately, unable as he was to say what existence is, he had at least tried to point it out, that is, to call our attention to it, so that we might realize that it is. In order to do so, he could not help using words, each of which means something whose "whatness," if so desired, we could define. While so doing, Brother Thomas obviously gives the impression of trying to define existence, although as a matter of fact, he is merely pointing to it." [34]

If existence itself , although so evident is a mystery, how do we talk about God as - Ipsum purum Esse?! Aquinas would logically conclude that minus revelation we cannot know God as He is in Himself. "Now because we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not." [35] By saying that God's essence and existence are identical, Aquinas would eventually be brought to the point of saying that we do not come to "know" God the way we do everything else, which we can divide into essence and existence - at least conceptually. Speaking analogously is really about the only way that we can speak of God. As for coming to know God, we do so through His creation and the revelation of Scripture. Sacred writings are bound in two volumes - that of creation and that of the Holy Scripture. [36]

Siger of Brabant typifies the Aristotelian based thinkers of the time. Aquinas although often referencing Aristotle was not Aristotelian in his metaphysics. For Siger, if existence is neither an accident or a substance what is it ? For Thomas this is precisely the point, existence is not a "what", it is an "is". Thomas does not want existence (esse) to be substance itself, because he wants it to be the existence of the substance, that is, the very principle which, present in the substance makes it to be. [37]

Aquinas will speak of the distinction between essence and existence in a creature but not in the dualistic way of Siger and the later cadre of Christian Aristotelians. We can speak of a creature as having an essence but when we do so it is we who are making the distinction. We do not derive our existence by anything else other than Pure Existence itself, the First Act - Ipsum Purum Esse. Rather than speaking of essence and existence, we could just as well speak of potency and act in a being. Change is simply part of the procession of life - of all corporeal beings. To any creature we could say "Become what thou art." Or again, "The smallest mustard seed becomes the larges shrub which birds come and nest in." [38]

The cause of all being, the Pure Act whom we call God, has not these distinctions between potency and act or essence and existence. Consequently the Pure Act creates existents not abstract essences. Becoming is simply part of the nature of created beings. There are no irreconcilable dichotomies within being. Eckhart, in his quest for unity and oneness would say that in being opposition has no permanence. "The second thing that acts as a hindrance for us is when anything has an opposition within itself. What is meant by opposition? Love and sorrow, white and black-these are in opposition to one another, and opposition has no permanency in being." [39] The celebration of that metaphysical mystery is at least part of our intellectual response to life. As Victor Frankl, the modern existential logotherapist observed "What is the meaning of life? I made this inversion in my first book Arztliche Seelsorge, when I contended that man is not he who poses the question, for it is life itself that poses it to him." [40] There is a unity and relationship between our individual life and Life itself.. Eckhart will fully digest Aquinas and continue to resonate more with Aquinas' metaphysical position as opposed to Siger's and the other Aristotelian Christians of the period. For Eckhart, it is the connection of being in God not from God and that is the source of joy. Ekchart radically states this when he says in one sermon "All creatures are a pure nothingness. I do not say that they are of little value or that they are something at all - they are a pure nothingness. Whatever has no being is nothing. All creatures lack being, for their being depends on the presence of God. If God were to turn away from all creatures only for a moment, they would come to nothing." [41]

Eckhart's Departure from Aquinas

Eckhart will say that in God there is an intelligence (intellectus) which precedes being. In his Parisian Questions and Prologues, Meister Eckhart clearly moves away from the strict Thomistic position. "Third, I declare that it is not my present opinion that God understands because he exists, but rather he exists because he understands. God is an intellect and his understanding itself is the ground of his existence. It is said in John 1, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. "The evangelist did not say: "In the beginning was being, and God was being." Our saviour also says in John 14, "I am Truth". Truth has reference to an intellect...For, "In the beginning was the Word" which is entirely related to the intellect. Consequently, among perfections intelligence comes first and then being or existence." [42]

Truth precedes Being. Simone Weil, the modern philosopher/theologian captured this idea and expressed it as follows: "For it seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms." [43]

As Fox points out Eckhart is more of an exclusive spiritual theologian than Aquinas who related philosophy to theology. In his departure from Aquinas' metaphsyics, Eckhart did not then become a neo-Platonist. Christianity has always had a place for Plato's Ideas while at the same time affirming the goodness of creation. Far from neglecting the world, or the body or seeing it in a dichotomous framework as so many neo-Platonist and Gnostics did, Eckhart saw creation as the utterance of God. "The Father speaks the Son from his entire power and speaks him in all things. All creatures are words of God. My mouth expresses and reveals God but the existence of a stone does the same and people often recognize more from the actions than from words....All creatures may echo God in all their activities. It is, of course, just a small bit which they can reveal." [44]

We, as rational creatures, gifted with a spiritual soul created in God's image and likeness can quiet our hearts and dwell in the Divine nature through creatures who have their being in God. "To my outer person all creatures taste like creatures only - like wine and bread and meat. My inner person does not taste things as a creature but rather as a gift of God... My innermost person, however, does not taste a creature as God's gift but rather as something eternal..." [45]

It is important to pause at this point and discuss what we mean by reason or intellection. In our modern era, when we hear reason or rationality we think only of discursive reasoning. In fact rationality has echoes of pure logic devoid of compassion, heart or organic body. When applied to God, we may begin to understand this means that God is a cold, impersonal God - a pure Thought. In response to such spirit suffocating conceptions of rationality many jump to a false kind of mysticism/enthusiasm that is grounded more in superstition and anti-intellectualism. The Cartesian duality, and technological language that held that the soul was some kind of spirit kicking around in the "machine" (body) making it "tick" is foreign to the Thomistic concept of mens (mind) which was dominant in Eckhart's time. When Eckhart says that "God exists because he understands"; "understanding" should not be understood in this context as a "gnosis" separate from existence. In fact, in Question I of the Parisian Questions, Meister Eckhart specifically goes to great length to demonstrate how existence and understanding are the same in God. It is we who have the problem with duality not God. "The prophet says: "Lord, you say one and I understand two" (Psalm 62:11) [46]

Although Eckhart would speak of the soul and the spirit he did not conceive of the soul (or spirit) and body in dualistic terms. One reason that people are dualistic in their thinking is that they think of the person in object terms rather than in spirit terms. As Fox notes, "Eckhart turns any object thinking about body and soul inside out when he says that "my body is more in my soul than my soul is in my body." [47] The power of reason or intellect in our soul is fundamentally an image and likeness of God. (Imago Dei) St. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:23, "You should be renewed in spirit." Eckhart comments, "You should be renewed in your spirit" - the Latin word mens means mind. This is what Saint Paul is saying in Ephesians 4:23. Now St. Augustine says that God has made a certain power together with the existence of the soul in the highest part of the soul which is called mens or mind." [48] Schurmann points out that the Thomistic concept of mens means "a fundamental disposition to know and to love, and the spiritual vestige of the of the divine life in man". Mens is not about collecting mathematical data and arranging and rearranging concepts. It is about receiving. This is why suggests Schurmann a better word for reason would be spirit as what is being meant by this is an "interior knowledge by intuition." [49] "This is the essential intelligence of God: the pure and unadulterated power of the intellect (intellectus) which the masters of the spiritual life call "receptivity". [50] Abegescheidenheit (letting go or detachment) becomes key in terms of receptivity of the Divine truth and becoming one with God (unitas indistinctionis). It is a particularly passive conception which lends itself to rich feminine imagery and metaphor. Eckhart frames abegescheidenheit in two ways - both of which speak to the same spiritual reality. Schurmann writes, "Detachment has been described as a passive attitude: the receptive intellect and virginity - one a philosophical figure of thought, the other biblical - both speak of the absence of any determination of the mind." [51] Such a passive disposition does not lead to withdrawal, quietism, or resignation. On the contrary it forms a pointe vierge for action. For medieval women and monastics, virginity, properly understood had less to do with physicality than it did with disposition. The narrow sexual resonances that we associate with the concept of virginity in our modern era, spring as Andrea Dworkin writes, from a male frame of reference which sees virginity as "a state of passive waiting or vulnerability; it precedes and is antithetical to wholeness." But in the women's frame, "virginity is a fuller experience of selfhood and identity. In the male frame, virginity is virtually synonymous with ignorance; in the woman's frame, it is recovery of the capacity to know by direct experience of the world." [52] It is in this positive, spirit affirming perspective, that Eckhart speaks of the "negative" concept of abegescheidenheit. Eckhart's feminine conceptions and practical applications of his theology was shared by Beguines such as Mechtild of Magdeburg and Marguerite Porete who echoed these themes.

The Beguines

In order to appreciate the Beguine movement it is helpful to get a sense of what was happening in the milieu. Bad crops and weather caused this period to be known as the "Little Ice Age". [53] There was an increasing divide between the rich and the poor and in addition to economic collapse due to diminishing agricultural resources and increasing social population, other social institutions were decaying. The institution of knighthood was devolving. Once considered protectors of the poor, they were becoming themselves oppressors. The Church as an institution was also falling into decadence. Fourteenth century saints Catherine of Sienna and Brigitta publicly lamented this sorry state of affairs. Becoming disillusioned with everything around them various apocalyptical mystical sects sprang up. The Beguines were but one manifestation of widespread religious ferment. Some of the religious groups which sprang up at about the same time as the Beguines were the Waldensians, Lollards, Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit, Spiritual Franciscans, Apostolici, Albigensians, Joachimites, and flagellants like the Knights Templar, the Falggelates and others. [54] For many reasons there were more single women than single men during this time in history. The Crusades created difficulties for many women. There were not enough men to go around for everyone to marry. [55] Religious orders accepted only nobility and so lower classes were being excluded. Furthermore, the convents were for the upper class families and had high entrance fees.

As a lay movement the Beguines sought to incorporate a spirituality for themselves and live out of their communal experience. There was no founder, no Rule, no constitution. Each Beguine community was autonomous and there was no one who supervised or regulated Beguine houses scattered throughout Northern Europe. Furthermore, they were not bound by vows, were not subject to papal enclosure, and did not totally renounce the possibility of marriage. [56]

Their relationship with the Church was an uneasy one. On the one hand the Church admired their piety and commitment to good works, but on the other the looseness of their groups made some nervous. There were also rumours of immorality among the Beguines. The Dominicans were repeatedly warned against associating with Beguines, and reminded that their mission was the intellectual battle against heresy rather than pastoral work. But on the local level this was largely ignored. In fact Beguines in the north were often closely associated with Dominican friars. [57] What is interesting about the Beguines is that in spite of the Church's mistrust of them and eventual declaration of eight errors of the Beguines by the Council of Vienne in 1311 , most of them considered themselves orthodox, but still Beguines. Many historians have noted that their piety was admired by some religious authorities of the day. As Elizabeth Kneute writes: "Many Beguines had a strong devotion to the Eucharist. This could take on dramatic forms, as in the case of Beatrice of Nazareth, whose reception of, or longing for, the sacrament provoked bleeding and physical collapse. More often, Beguines had the common medieval desire to see the consecrated elements. But they also had a desire to receive communion frequently, and this was not a widespread attitude, and was unusual enough to elicit notice. In an era when Eucharistic reception once yearly had to be mandated, and members of religious orders might commonly receive communion three times a year, Beguines wanted weekly or even more frequent communion." [58]

Saskia Murk Jansen points out that during this time much of the religious debate took place in the pulpit. Preaching was a popular forum and good preachers attracted large audiences. These audiences included a substantial proportion of women, and the immediacy and urgency of religious debate inspired and fuelled popular feminine piety. [59] Many Beguines and women would have been aware of Meister Eckhart as he often preached in the vernacular to lay audiences. In addition the Dominicans of the area were ministering to the needs of the spiritually sophisticated although diverse group of Beguines. Michael Sells points out that although Meister Eckhart was placed in a position of authority over nuns and other women, rather than controlling the powerful currents of women's spirituality, he was part of them.

One such woman who was in the same current and part of the conversatio with Meister Eckhart was Mechtild of Magdeburg. Both Eckhart and Mechitld had a restlessness for God. Ekchart craved to know, Mechtild had to see, hear and touch God. [60] On the point of being in God, Mechtild strongly believed that the remedy for distance and alienation from God is found in love as well as in nature and knowledge. [61] Mechtild's seminal work is known in the German middle-low language which she spoke and wrote in as (The Flowing Light of the Godhead). Oliver Davies argues that Eckhart was aware of her work although stops short of suggesting that Mechtild influenced Eckhart. However, he does point out similarities and "areas of congruence" between them. [62] The themes Mechtild treats - the creation of souls, the recognition of the Creator in all of his creation resonate with Eckhart. It is the congruence between Mechtild and Eckhart that I will briefly explore.

The image of the desert was one that Mechtild employed. The desert imagery was used in the positive sense to describe the ascetic state of the soul ready to receive God. The desert is the landscape of the soul which when emptied receives the fullness of God. The soul must be a place of non-duality and oneness. Mechtild writes that God whispers to His beloved within the confines of the desert (einode) of the soul. [63] One lives in the true desert if one loves das niht (nothing) and flees das iht (something). For Mechtild, one must stand alone, not seek consolation, console others, keep busy, but be free of all things. [64] As Tobin suggests in his essay on Mechtild, her naming of God as das niht prefigures Eckhart and suggests that such apophatic traditions were well established in the "vernacular" theology of the day. Mechtild who described herself as an uneducated voice (ungelerter munt) would hardly have been intimidated or confused by Eckhart's use of this approach to God. It is our clinging to external forms, ideas and multiplicity that keeps us from entering the desert. Mechtild prays to Mary Magdalene, who tradition held spent her later years in the desert as an ascetic, "Mary, I live with you in the wustenunge (desert), for all things are foreign to me but God alone" [65] Eckhart would echo this notion of the desert being the place of union with God and continue the apophatic theological tradition writing." Where people still preserve some place in themselves, they preserve this distinction. This is why I pray God to rid me of God." [66] In this way, through this detachment the soul experiences a breakthrough, where "I am unborn, and following the way of my unborn being I can never die." The Lord leads the noble soul into a desert (einode) and speaks, "one with one, one of one, one in one, and in one forever." [67]

Tobin states that in Mechtild's Flowing Light of the Godhead, the unity of our being in the triune God was spoken of as both an ecstatic and personal vision and a spiritual doctrine. For Mechtild personal experience is universalized. Although her mysticism is based on personal experience its' message is for all the faithful. In this way she does resemble the Eastern theologians who held that personal experience can never be far from theological reflection. There is no higher or lower state. "One should do everything in equal measure to honour God. My most commonplace taking care of a natural need I would rank as high in God's sight as though I were in the highest state of contemplation that a person can attain. Why? If I do it out of love to honour God, it is all the same." [68] Mechtild, like Eckhart, would fiercely maintain her orthodoxy when called into question and maintain her loyalty to the Church and its teaching. [69] If there were seeming discrepancies, each would argue, it was because they were misunderstood but not because either they or the Church were in error. There was considerable tension between Dionysian tendencies and more orthodox expressions of mysticism within the Beguine community.

The Beguine most identified as containing Dionysian neo-Platonic tendencies is the author of the Mirror of Simple Souls, Marguerite Porete.. Marguerite Porete as a non-credentialed and non academic sought and gained the approval of three theological authorities, a Franciscan, a Cistercian and a Scholastic philosopher. [70] She was dissuaded by the bishops warnings not to spread her teaching and in 1310 was tried for heresy and became the first heretic burned in the Paris inquisition. It seems that Porete understood that her words were controversial to the religious and even to her fellow Beguines of the day. Perhaps that which gave religious authorities most of their difficulties was the way in which she framed the dialogue between Reason and Love. She alludes to the controversy that this manner of presentation provoked writing, "O my Lover, what will the Beguines say and religious types, When they hear the excellence of your divine song? Beguines say I, err, priests, clerics, and Preachers, Augustinian, Carmelites, and the Friars Minor, Because I wrote about the being of the one purified by Love, I do not make Reason safe for them, who make them say this to me." [71] In terms of Porete's direct influence on Eckhart, Edmund Colledge, like many modern interpreters, disparaged her work and influence on Eckhart accusing her of being a Valentinian Gnostic. [72]

Defenders of Porete would say that since she was a Beguine she did not have the protection of an ecclesiastic order which made her vulnerable to charges. Her teachings certainly were not so far out of bounds that they merited such an aggressive response. Politics no doubt plated a role as the king could demonstrate his unwavering orthodoxy to the Pope by vigorously going after heretics. [73] Marguerite Porete felt these tensions. Marguerite framed the tension as a tension between the "Lesser Church" ruled by reason and the "Greater Church" ruled by Love. She reordered love over reason. Ultimately reason would have to give way to make for the greater Love which reason cannot understand. By extension, although not collapsing the ontologized notion of hierarchy inherited from Dionysisus, she did invert it so that the "Greater Church" would rule the "Lesser Church". [74] Had Marguerite been associated with an approved ecclesial order which could have granted her some protection perhaps things may have been different. In any case, my intent is not to reopen the debate but to illustrate how the controversies of the day centred around the very themes Eckhart explored.

Maria Lichtmann points out the similarity between Eckhart and Porete on the point we've been discussing concerning abegescheidenheit. "Eckharts' abegescheidenheit or detachment, like Marguerite's aneantissement, or annihilation, relentlessly purifies the soul of attachment to works, to the will of God, or to heavenly reward. [75] Yet, where Eckhart has an abegescheidenheit that is literally a cutting away, reflecting the men's symbols to involve renunciation and reversal, Marguerite has an aneantissement, a gradual "becoming what one is most deeply" that Bynum sees as characteristic of women's stories." [76] Becoming what one is most deeply means being human in the fullest sense of the word. As Meister Eckhart writes, "Our upright people, however, say that we must become so perfect that no kind of joy can move us any longer, that we must be immoveable to joy or sorrow. They are wrong in this matter. But I say that there was never a saint so great that he or she could not be moved...This was not the case even for Christ. He let us know this when he said: "My soul is grieved to the point of death. (Mt. 26:38)" [77]

There are many other women mystics both nuns and Beguines like Beatrice of Nazareth, Hadewijch of Brabant, and Hildegard of Bingen all of whom are very much connected with the same dominant spiritual concerns of the time that Eckhart was concerned with. Each of the women mentioned as well as Meister Eckhart drank, as it were, of the same spring. The Dominican Richard Woods sums up succinctly that while the matter of influence of these women on Meister Eckhart and vice versa is largely inferenced based on the commonality of certain teachings and modes of expression, a complete understanding of Meister Eckhart's doctrine is not possible without referencing these women. "First, it is manifestly impossible any longer to fully understand or appreciate the mystical doctrine of Meister Eckhart without reference to the great women mystics who preceded him and to the influx of whose ideas he was directly or indirectly indebted." [78]


We need to be careful about what we pray for. The irony of Meister Eckhart is that at the end of his own personal ministry of teaching, preaching and giving his life over to God he found himself not embraced and celebrated but on trial for heresy - his reputation sullied. Eckhart understood that truth is not arrived at by juxtaposition with error but by looking at things as a relationship between partial truth to whole truth. That orientation makes all the difference. "They have eyes but they cannot see, they have ears but they cannot hear." It was those minds who couldn't see or hear who condemned him. Of them Eckhart said, "They regard as error whatever they fail to understand and also regard all error as heresy, whereas only obstinate addiction to error constitute both heresy and the heretic." [79]

Eckhart lived on the margins, sympathetic to the Beguines, spreading the message of Wisdom 5:16 "The just shall live forever". "A just person is one who is conformed and transformed into justice. The just person lives in God and God in him...Ignorant people have to believe this, but enlightened ones should know it. The just person does not seek anything with his work, for every single person who seeks anything or even something with his or her works is working for a why and is a servant and mercenary." [80] Internal purity, working for the sake of Love - without a why and for God alone is the call. As Eckhart became only too well aware in his personal life, there is no guarantee of the outcome nor should we cling to one. We are not called to cling to an outcome but to sink into God. Such teaching involved paradox. Eckhart's problem was how do you talk about eternal life having already begun? What language do you choose for the really Good News? [81] Ultimately it was not truth but language that got Eckhart into the trouble with the Church. Simone Weil wrote, "When genuine friends of God - such as was Eckhart to my way of thinking - repeat words they have heard in secret amidst the silence of the union of love, and these words are in disagreement with the teaching of the church, it is simply that the language of the marketplace is not that of the nuptial chamber." [82]

For Ekchart glancing the truth and living fully out of the consciousness of that truth is more important than memorizing dogmas. In that respect Eckhart is thoroughly modern and speaks to the modern desire of living experience over static formula. Eckhart sprang from a Scholastic tradition that was rich in understanding creation to be ever new. Experience of joy and apprehension of living truth is our destiny. Christ came that we "might have life and have it more abundantly." Knowledge is not some robotic exercise but one that involves relationship and unity with the thing known. As Simone Weil put it, "The word of God is the secret word. He who has not heard this word, even if he adheres to all the dogmas taught by the Church, has no contact with truth." [83]

Our contemporary age has been described as a post-modern, post-Christian one. The former lines of division between the Soviet Bloc and the western bloc are broken down. Since September 11, and the violence visited upon North America many have commented that we will never be the same. Where is the Christian Church headed ? Can it maintain a universal vision in our current relativist climate ? We understand ourselves as inhabitants of the global village and yet feel increasing alienated from one another.

Simone Weil wrote in the 1940's that we are living in times without precedent requiring a saintliness demanded by the present moment, a new saintliness itself without precedent. Christian universalism - catholicity may need to be understood more deeply. Perhaps we need to see the Church not as an earthly country at all but a heavenly Jerusalem. The free floating anxiety created by the devolving of our institutions - civil and religious, our states, and even our Western civilization may be very things that we are called to let go of. We may need to learn to live with existential uncertainty; as the Beguine mystics and Meiser Eckhart taught "without a why". Paradoxically by giving up "God" - the God we have created - we open the way for God. As Eckhart prays, "I pray God to rid me of God" For Mechtild she does not sink away from God as she accepts this alienation. On the contrary, "the more deeply she sinks, the more sweetly she drinks." [84]

Eckhart's influence has been impressive. Martin Heidegger calls Eckhart a "master of letter and life" and took one of the words Eckhart invented gelassenheit (letting be), as a title for an address in 1955. [85] The strong appeal of Eckhart is the absence of dichotomous thinking - In God there is oneness and fullness. Unity with God not only is possible but is what Christ calls us to. While detachment is a dominant theme, he is understands that detachment is not indifference. In the famous passage in Luke 10:38, Meister Eckhart, the master of paradox, puts a whole fresh analysis of the Martha and Mary story arguing that in fact it was Martha and not Mary who was the most perfect in the household. Martha "had practically everything in the way of temporal and eternal goods that a creature could possess. By his first "Martha" he implied her perfection in temporal activities. When he said "Martha" a second time, he indicated that she lacked nothing of everything needed for eternal happiness. For this reason he said, "You are concerned." He meant by this that you are among things, but that things are not in you." [86] Martha, like all of God's friends, are among cares but not within cares. Salvation or enlightenment happens in the present - the eternal now. As the Zen proverb says, before enlightenment chop wood carry water, after enlightenment chop wood carry water. Indeed, Thomas Merton once wrote, "whatever Zen may be, however you define it, it is somehow there in Eckhart." [87]

For us Meister Ekchart urges a celebration of the paradox, a breakthrough, a being born again.

"Listen then to this wonder! How wonderful it is to be both outside and inside, to seize and to be seized, to see and at the same time to be what is seen, to hold and to be held - that is the goal where the spirit remains at rest, united with our dear eternity." [88]


[1.] Fox, Matthew Passion For Creation - The Earth Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart p.178 (Sermon 12)

[2.] Quote from The Eckhart Society : Introductory page Eckhart von Hocheim

[3.] Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of Christian Meditation - Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Ratzinger argues that Meister Eckhart speaks of an immersion "in the indeterminate abyss of the divinity" which is a "darkness which the light of the Trinity never shines." Cf. Sermo Ave Gratia Plena.

[4.] Savage, Allan A Phenomenological Understanding of Certain Liturgical Texts - p.5.

[5.] Fox, Matthew Passion For Creation - The Earth Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart p. 35

[6.] ibid. p. 356 (Sermon 25)

[7.] ibid. p. 14

[8.] Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics; Hadewijch of Brabant, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete edited by Bernard Mcginn p. 12

[9.] ibid. p. 22

[10.] Fox, Matthew Passion For Creation - The Earth Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart p. 25 - 26

[11.] The term "spark of the soul" is Eckhart's most famous image and has strong connections with Eastern Christian ideas like the Divine Indwelling which were important themes for the Eastern Church. Meister Eckhart explained it once as follows, "I have occasionally said that there is a power in the spirit that alone is free. Occasionally, I've said that there is a shelter of the spirit. Occasionally, I've said there is a light of the spirit. Occasionally, I've said there is a little spark. Now, however, I say it is neither this nor that. All the same, it is a something, which is more elevated above this and that than heaven is over earth. For this reason I name it now in a more noble way than I have ever named it in the past...It is free of all names and bare of all forms, totally free and void just as God is void and free in himself. It is totally one and simple, just as God is one and simple, so that we can in no manner gaze into it...For the Father really lives in this power, and the Spirit gives rise along with the Father to the same only begotten Son.." Fox, Matthew Passion For Creation - The Earth Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart ( Sermon 20 p. 277).

[12.] Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics; Hadewijch of Brabant, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete edited by Bernard Mcginn p.8

[13.] Placher, William A History of Christian Theology - an Introduction p.169

[14.] Gilson, Etienne Being and Some Philosophers p. 118.

[15.] Fox, Matthew Passion For Creation - The Earth Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart p. 20

[16.] Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics; Hadewijch of Brabant, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete edited by Bernard Mcginn p.56

[17.] Placher, William A History of Christian Theology - an Introduction p. 169

[18.] Fox, Matthew Passion For Creation - The Earth Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart p.356 (Sermon 25)

[19.] Fox, Matthew Passion For Creation - The Earth Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart p.451 (Sermon 32)

[20.] Mcginn, Bernard. The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart: The Man From whom God Hid Nothing (The Edward Cadbury Lectures, 2000 - 2001) p.4

[21.] Thoreau, Henry David, Walden and Other Writings, p.75

[22.] Fox, Matthew Passion For Creation - The Earth Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart p.30

[23.] First Things (April 1997) "Values, Virtues, and John Paul II" - Thomas D.Williams

[24.] Placher, William A History of Christian Theology - an Introduction p. 55

[25.] Gilson, Etienne Being and Some Philosophers. p. 8

[26.] Genesis 1:26 and Genesis 2:7.

[27.] Gilson, Etienne Being and Some Philosophers p.48

[28.] ibid. p.49

[29.] ibid. (Referencing Aristotle De Paribus animalium, A, 4, 644 23-27, in Selections, ed. By Ross, n. 54, pp. 173-174)

[30.] ibid p.51

[31.] Centore, Floyd Precis of Thomistic Philosophy

[32.] ibid. p. 5

[33.] Fox, Matthew Passion For Creation - The Earth Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart p. 89

[34.] Gilson, Etienne Being and Some Philosophers p. 67

[35.] Summa Theologica Part 1 Article 1, Q.3 prologue

[36.] Summa Contra Gentiles II. Ch. 4 n. 5 - tr. Matthew Fox in Sheer Joy.

[37.] Gilson, Etienne Being and Some Philosophers p. 67

[38.] Mark 4:31-32

[39.] Fox, Matthew Passion For Creation - The Earth Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart p. 86 (Sermon 4)

[40.] Frankl, Victor, Man's Ultimate Search for Meaning p. 29

[41.] Fox, Matthew Passion For Creation - The Earth Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart p. 400 (Sermon 29).

[42.] Eckhart, Meister Parisian Questions and Prologues p. 45

[43.] Weil Simone, Waiting For God. p. 69

[44.] Fox, Matthew Passion For Creation - The Earth Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart p. 59 (Sermon 1)

[45.] ibid. p. 77 (Sermon 3)

[46.] ibid. p. 58 (Sermon 1)

[47.] ibid. p. 123

[48.] ibid. p. 177 (Sermon 12)

[49.] ibid. p. 109

[50.] ibid. p.390 (Sermon 28)

[51.] ibid. p. 19 Fox quoting Schumann Meister Eckhart Philospher and Mystic

[52.] Norris, Kathleen, The Cloister Walk, p. 200

[53.] Fox, Matthew Passion For Creation - The Earth Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart p.11

[54.] The Beguines by Elizabeth Kneuth 1992

[55.] ibid.

[56.] ibid.

[57.] ibid.

[58.] ibid. referencing Bowie 27; McDonnell 314-15 on the point of Beatrice of Nazareth.

[59.] Murk - Jansen, Saskia Brides in the Desert : The Spirituality of the Beguines p. 15

[60.] ibid. p. 44

[61.] Gibson, Joan, "Mechtild of Magdeburg," in A History of Women Philosophers, ed. Mary Ellen Waithe (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989), 123

[62.] Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics; Hadewijch of Brabant, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete edited by Bernard Mcginn p.46

[63.] ibid p. 49.

[64.] ibid. p.49

[65.] ibid. p.48

[66.] Fox, Matthew Passion For Creation - The Earth Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart p.217 Fox (Sermon 15)

[67.] Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics; Hadewijch of Brabant, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete edited by Bernard Mcginn p. 50

[68.] ibid. p.56

[69.] ibid. p. 58

[70.] ibid. p.66

[71.] ibid.p.72

[72.] ibid. p. 70

[73.] ibid. p. 68 Maria Lichtman referencing Robert Lerner The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1972), 77

[74.] ibid. p.75

[75.] ibid. p. 84. Maria Lichtman notes the linkage that Schurmann makes between annihilation and detachment in his work Mystic and Philosopher p. 167.

[76.] ibid p.84

[77.] Fox, Matthew Passion For Creation - The Earth Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart p 484.

[78.] Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics; Hadewijch of Brabant, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete edited by Bernard Mcginn p.163

[79.] Fox, Matthew Passion For Creation - The Earth Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart p. 23

[80.] ibid. p.465 (Sermon 33)

[81.] ibid. p.15

[82.] Weil Simone, Waiting For God p.79.

[83.] ibid. P. 80

[84.] Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics; Hadewijch of Brabant, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete edited by Bernard Mcginn p. 51 quoting the Glowing Life of the Godhead "Mere ie ich tieffer sinke, ie ich susser trinke."

[85.] Fox, Matthew Passion For Creation - The Earth Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart p.2

[86.] ibid. p. 481 (Sermon 33)

[87.] ibid. p.3

[88.] ibid. p.481 (Sermon 33)

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