Distinct Grunt Work: Eckhart’s Mystical Anthropology, Apophatic Spirituality, and the Holy Spirit

  1. Introduction

After qualifying his use of language in his German works, I will explore Eckhart’s vernacular theology, primarily, and articulate the character of Eckhart’s mystical anthropology and apophatic spirituality.  The human soul, or more precisely a something in the soul, is presented as both indistinct and distinct from God.  These relate to the Neoplatonic theme of emanation and return which Eckhart reforms by giving it a kenotic character.  Eckhart’s metaphor of the ground of the soul and of God is seen as the place out of which one is called to live, which involves a certain role of the person and a role of the Holy Spirit in this distinctive work in the ground.

  1. Paradoxical and Apophatic Language

In the endeavor to properly understand Eckhart, it is imperative to fully consider the context of his preaching and writing.  As lesemeister and lebemeister, teacher and preacher, scholastic and vernacular theologian, and in both Latin and German works, Eckhart demonstrates his theological and philosophical genius and his mastery with language.  At first glance Eckhart’s German preaching seems quite different from his Latin teaching; but a more thoughtful study shows the common consistent theological underpinning of his Latin works in his German.  The vernacular theology of his German works must be understood in the context of the women’s spirituality within which Eckhart ministers.  Eckhart develops a systematic theology to ground and validate the spirituality of the women to whom he is pastorally responsible.  It has been noted that Eckhart had most likely read Margaret Porette’s The Mirror of Simple Souls,[1] and this work provides a window into the spirituality of the Beguines to whom at least some of Eckhart’s sermons were addressed.  Thus it could well be argued that Eckhart is a master of language and a very astute spiritual guide who, while speaking the language relevant to the spirituality of his listeners, secretly reframes their thought so to provide the theological grounding for it, in order that he may shepherd his flock while simultaneously validating their good intentions.  Therefore viewed in this understanding and charitable way, Eckhart’s preaching can be seen as entirely orthodox.

It is also to be noted that Eckhart’s preaching is designed to do something in the listener more so than it is to teach something.  Therefore it is not entirely appropriate to take what Eckhart preaches at face value.  It is not so much what he says, but what happens in the person who hears what he says.  Consequently it is misleading to evaluate the information of the preaching without interpreting it alongside the formation that occurs when it is listened to with an open heart, as well as interpreting it with a knowledge of the scholastic theology within which Eckhart’s thought is rooted.  Most easily misunderstood is Eckhart’s use of paradox and hyperbole.  Bernard McGinn comments on Eckhart’s use of paradox, and such, as a way of facilitating spiritual awakening in the listener.  He writes,

Throughout this mystical symphony Eckhart deliberately engages his audience in a dialogue designed to bring them to a new level of awareness ….  Speaking to a restricted group of learned God-seekers, he also feels free to indulge as much as anywhere else in paradox, oxymoron, and hyperbole … that comprise the “shock-treatment” of a mystical discourse designed to awaken by challenging traditional modes of speaking and understanding.[2]

Also in The Darkness of God, Denys Turner sees Eckhart’s use of paradox as the “transposition” of negative theology onto “ascetical practice”, or one might say the integration of negative theology with apophatic spirituality.  Here Turner also notes the possible influence of Porette on Eckhart’s “new theme” of the self in his apophatic anthropology.  Turner writes,

Contained in the Mirror and in some of Eckhart’s German Sermons is a daring, thoroughly original and often startlingly paradoxical transposition of the dialectics of apophatic theology onto the sphere of ascetical practice, a transposition productive of what may be called an ‘apophatic anthropology.’  …  Not the least startling effect of this transposition is the emergence of a new theme, powerfully introduced by Marguerite and developed systematically by Eckhart, that of ‘the self’, in particular, that of the ‘nothingness’ of the self.[3]

  1. Mystical Anthropology

It is this theme of the “nothingness” of the self that is at the core of Eckhart’s apophatic mystical anthropology.  Eckhart’s use of “nothing” often means “all that is not God”.  All that a person is in contradistinction to God is “nothing”.  What a person truly is is beyond creature and yet part of creature; it is hidden in the soul.  McGinn notes that “Eckhart, like John Scottus Eriugena, taught a form of negative mystical anthropology in which God and soul are ultimately one because both are radically unknowable.”[4]  As something ineffable, it is not surprising that language fails to describe the indescribable.  For Eckhart, God is hidden in the soul in a hidden part of the soul which he calls the soul’s ground (grunt).  Paradoxically, one must seek God “nowhere”, that is, not “out there” or in the created but in this uncreated hidden part, since God is there hidden in the ground of the soul.  It is in the negation of seeking God (elsewhere) that we become open to him within us.  As Eckhart puts it in Sermon 15, ““Truly you are the hidden God” (Is. 45:15), in the ground of the soul, where God’s ground and the soul’s ground are one ground.  The more one seeks you, the less one finds you.  You should so seek him that you find him nowhere.  If you do not seek him, then you will find him.”[5]

The uncreated hidden part of the soul is also called the “spark” (vünkelîn) of the soul or the light of the soul.  Turner summarizes the equivalent metaphors at the center of Eckhart’s mystical anthropology and concludes that the self is “nameless”.  He puts it as follows:

The metaphor of the ‘light of the soul’ is at the centre of Eckhart’s theology and mysticism.  Alternative metaphors proliferate:  it is ‘a spark of the soul’, ‘a something’, ‘the innermost part’, the ‘fortress of the soul’, the ‘ground of the soul’, a ‘refuge of the spirit’, a ‘silence’, a ‘desert’.  These are the metaphors of what might be called an ‘apophatic anthropology’, as if to say that there is something unknowable about the self, as much as, in more familiar terms, of a ‘apophatic theology’, for which God is unknowable.  Hence, above all, ‘the self’ is nameless.[6]

Eckhart uses these metaphors as pointers to a reality which is linguistically indescribable.  Any one of these may not be understood as intended if taken in isolation; but the whole of Eckhart’s discourse on the “uncreated something” taken together provide an enclosed linguistic space, so to speak, within which the ineffable thing lies.  Frank Tobin describes the integrated quality of Eckhart as philosopher and mystic, or teacher and preacher, in his effort to describe the indescribable:

The difficulties confronting both the mystic and the philosopher are similar, if not indistinguishable.  The mystic is trying to depict an indescribable realization, both hidden and ineffable, which is by definition impenetrable by human language.  The philosopher, using the negative way, is attempting somehow to reach an infinite object, whose nature as intellegere is indeterminateness, by means of an indeterminate vünkelîn that is “neither this nor that.”[7]

Thus “spark” (vünkelîn) and other such descriptive terminology together depict that which language in itself cannot depict, and which is perfectly consistent with his apophatic theology in his Latin works.

  1. Apophatic Spirituality

The ascetical disposition of detachment (abegescheidenheit) and the ascetical practice of letting go (gelâzen) constitute Eckhart’s apophatic spirituality of spiritual poverty.  Eckhart writes in Sermon 52, “A poor man wants nothing, and knows nothing, and has nothing.”[8]  McGinn writes that for Eckhart “the goal of the Christian life was union of identity or of indistinction (unitas indistinctionis) in which there was no difference at all between God and human.”[9]  Thus for Eckhart, the highest goal of the spiritual life is to become nothing and to become all:  to become nothing in terms of creature in contradistinction with God; to become all in terms of being and existence (esse) in indistinction with God, that is, as God is in creature and as the creature is in God – one’s true self.[10]  A person per se is nothing, and one’s true esse is God’s very own esse.  Thus for Eckhart, true spiritual poverty is to be nothing in order that God may be all.

In his article “Fundamental Themes of Eckhart’s Mysticism,” John Caputo discusses Sermon 52.  According to Caputo, Eckhart is talking about living in the deepest “sphere” of life which is beyond the level of the faculties of the soul.  In other words, there is a place within the person which is beyond all that makes us creature; “a place for God to work in.”[11]  If we were to live and act out of that place, then life would not be about doing good or evil; it would not be about doing but being – letting go and letting God be God in you.  Caputo writes,

The difficulty with such people is that they do not live in the same sphere in which Eckhart’s discourse takes place.  They live on the level of “works,” of doing this or that, of everyday activities.  Expressed in the terms of scholastic metaphysics, Eckhart would say that their lives are totally spent on the level of the “faculties” of the soul, and that they are unmindful of the soul’s “essence” or what he calls in German its “Grund” or ground.  On the level of the faculties, there are those who perform bad works … and there are those who perform good works ….  But the sphere in which Eckhart discourses is beyond their good and evil.  It is deeper that good works.  It has to do with the ground and source and deeper essence of all good works.[12]

Caputo continues and concludes that poverty of spirit is a radical apophatic spirituality, a way of living in the sphere of the grunt by emptying self of false self:

To be poor in spirit is to completely strip ourselves, to “divest” ourselves of our personal goals and desires, to empty out every vestige of self-love and self-will, not in order to replace them with higher goals and desires, but rather in order to “let” something else – the impulse of God’s own life within us – take over.[13]

Likewise Turner describes this spiritual stance of poverty as one’s becoming “nothing” in desire, so that one’s desires are God’s own desires.  This does not mean desiring God or what God desires, but becoming in desire an indistinct unity with God’s desires.  Turner writes, “Detachment does not consist simply in an act of transferring our human created desires for created objects from those objects on to an alternative, uncreated object, God.  …  True detachment, on the contrary, is my becoming in desire what I am in myself:  nothing, an unum indistinctum.”[14]  In Sermon 52, Eckhart makes clear that the truly poor person who “wants nothing” does not choose God’s will with one’s one will, but the person is free of their own “created” will which has come into existence distinct from God’s will.  Eckhart writes, “For if a person wants really to have poverty, he ought to be as free of his own created will as he was when he did not exist.  For I tell you by the truth that is eternal, so long as you have a will to fulfill God’s will, and a longing for God and for eternity, then you are not poor; for a poor man is one who has a will and longing for nothing.”[15]  To want God’s will is to want something, which is to remain in a life lived out of one’s own false self.

Turner also points out that human desire is not the problem, but the attachment created by it.  It is the possessiveness of human desire to which detachment is the solution.[16]  Desire is not eliminated but affirmed:  it becomes free of desire to possess objects, is restored to a place of objectivity, and becomes the basis of genuine love.  As Turner puts it, “Detachment, for Eckhart, is not the severing of desire’s relation with its object, but the restoration of desire to a proper relation of objectivity; as we might say, of reverence for its object.  Detachment is therefore the basis of the true possibility of love, which is why, for Eckhart, it is more fundamental than love, being the condition of its possibility.”[17]  Furthermore, Turner relates detachment to a way of living out of one’s true self.  The true self is not one’s own, actually, but all that is one’s own is a created false self.  The true self is one with God.  According to Turner, “That is why, for Eckhart, ‘my’ self is not in the last resort mine at all.  And any self which I call my own is a false self, a self of possessive imagination.  To be a self I must retain within myself the void and the desert of detachment.  To live by detachment is to live without an explanation, without rationale, namelessly one with the nameless God.”[18]  The true self is “nothing”, an unum indistinctum.

  1. Indistinction & Distinction

According to Eckhart the human person is both distinct and indistinct from God.  “Eckhart’s notion of indistinct union, like all his thought, is fundamentally dialectical, that is to say, union with God is indistinct in the ground, but we always maintain a distinction from God in our formal being,”[19] writes McGinn.  On the one hand, a person per se is an unum indistinctum.  This conclusion necessarily and logically follows from the truths of the eternal nature and simplicity of God.  When pushed to the extreme, real human existence is ultimately God’s existence and true human life is God’s life.  As Eckhart puts it in Sermon 6, “What is life?  God’s being is my life.  If my life is God’s being, then God’s existence must be my existence and God’s is-ness is my is-ness, neither less nor more.”[20]  Indistinct oneness of a person with God is analogous to the divine Son’s oneness with the Father as seen in Eckhart’s teaching of the birth of the Son in the soul.  God begets God in the soul in the same way as uncreated goodness gives birth to good in the good person.  Goodness in a person is not one’s own, but it is gift and is received, “poured in and given birth by unborn goodness.”[21]  Born goodness has indistinct oneness with uncreated goodness, because goodness begets itself.  So in the birth of the Son in the soul, the Father begets the Son in the soul while begetting the soul as the Son.  As Eckhart writes in Sermon 6,

The Father gives birth to his Son in eternity, equal to himself.  “The Word was with God, and God was the Word” (Jn. 1:1); it was the same in the same nature.  Yet I say more:  He has given birth to him in my soul.  Not only is the soul with him, and he equal with it, but he is in it, and the Father gives his Son birth in the soul in the same way as he gives him birth in eternity, and not otherwise.  …  He gives birth not only to me, his Son, but he gives birth to me as himself and himself as me and to me as his being and nature.  In the innermost source, there I spring out in the Holy Spirit, where there is one life and one being and one work.  Everything God performs is one; therefore he gives me, his Son, birth without any distinction.[22]

On the other hand, this indistinct oneness with God needs some qualifications.  Tobin argues that Eckhart did not want to be understood as claiming an “utter identity of God and the soul.”  A person cannot become God so entirely that a person in oneself (in se) is God:  “creatures can never lose completely their in-se-ness, just as they can never become something else to the extent that they become it.”[23]  Richard Woods agrees Eckhart did not mean that the soul absolutely becomes one with God.  There is an infinite immediacy and yet God and creature remain essentially infinitely distant.  He writes, “It is clear, first, that Eckhart said and meant that the soul and God ultimately become one without differentiation or distinction.  …  It is equally clear that he did not mean that the soul became God or that the essential and infinite distance between Creator and creature was abrogated by the infinite immediacy they shared.”[24]  Furthermore, as Tobin interprets Eckhart, the differences between God and a person are retained even though the ground of God and the soul are substantially identical.  He writes, “Identity in substance is claimed, but a distinction between the Word and the creature in whom grace is operative, and hence who has not reached total identity with the esse divinum, is preserved as well.  Eckhart’s assertion of substantial oneness, then, does not necessarily remove all differences between God and creature.”[25]

Mark McIntosh points out that a creature’s distinction from God comes from the gift of will.  Regarding indistinction he writes, “Both Porete and Eckhart hold to a ‘principial’ (or exemplary) eternal presence of the soul in God – as the eternal object of divine love.”[26]  And yet with the gift of freewill, we find “the soul (in its principial indistinction from God) choosing and willing itself to become a distinct creature.”[27]  Thus a person is distinct from God as a result of one employing the gift of freewill.  McIntosh deduces that the true human self is either ontologically indistinct from God or literally “nothing” in that it is not a thing of creation – pure transcendent reality.  But in either case, it is the will that makes a person creature.  As he writes,

So one might begin to argue that the distinction of the creaturely self is not an ontological distinction at all, that at its ground (as Eckhart says) the soul’s being and God’s being are one being, or, alternatively, that the being of the creature is literally no-thing, nothingness, in the sense that the divine existence is not an item of reality.  What does in fact call the human person into creaturely existence is its gift of will, along with its intentionality and responsivity to the other who arouses this will.[28]

Turner further argues that a choice of will between the divine and the human creates disjunction between the created and uncreated part of the soul – it is the disintegration of the self.  Such an occurrence “can only be the result of that fracturing of the intimacy between God and the soul which we call ‘sin’.  Because sin destroys our union with God it destroys the unity of the soul within itself, it destroys the persona.”[29]  Thus, any choosing or willing oneself to exist in contradistinction with God is “sin”, which such choice is only possible if one is not living in union with God.  Turner sums it up as follows,

In short, it is the soul’s contact and union in its highest part with God which is the power by which it coheres in the simplicity and unity of all its powers.  Consequently, it will be only for that soul which has lost its union with God through sin for whom there could possibly be any choice between the divine and the human elements in it.  For the soul in union with God, the choice could not arise.[30]

  1. Emanation and Return

The Latin terms emanation and reditus and German terms ûzbruch and durchbruch respectively indicate the “flowing out” from the divine source and the “return” or “breakthrough” to the primal source in God.  Many have noted this theme as Neoplatonic, but an important additional feature should be noted.  As Neoplatonism involves the soul’s emanation from God and a process of return back to union with God, Eckhart teaches something more like an ongoing kenotic event of God’s self-gift and the soul’s self-emptying and receiving.  Detachment and “letting go” belong to the activity of self-emptying, i.e. of becoming spiritually poor.  Richard Woods writes, “The initial, kenotic character of Eckhart’s spiritual discipline … is encompassed by the two arms of active detachment or dispossession (Abgeschiedenheit) and its more passive complement, abandonment or ‘letting go’ (Gelassenheit).”[31]  This very act of self-emptying is equivalent to one’s receiving the divine life, given that “detachment compels God to love me” and “God must of necessity give himself to a heart that has detachment.”[32]  The process of emptying oneself of the created and of receiving the divine life involves a growing union with God and transformation into one image with God.  As in The Book of Divine Consolation Eckhart writes, “As the soul becomes more pure and bare and poor, and possesses less of created things, and is emptier of all things that are not God, it receives God more purely, and is more totally in him, and truly becomes one with God, and it looks into God and God into it, face to face, as it were two images transformed into one.”[33]

McIntosh describes God’s emanation in terms of trinitarian speech and one’s return in terms of silence.  God’s self-gift comes as the Word of the Father speaking all creation into existence.  The soul’s response of silence (or not-speech) is a negation of one’s own activity of creating oneself so to receive one’s true existence as God’s very own speech – which is to become aware of oneself already as God’s speech.  In McIntosh’s words,

Throughout the great Dominican’s works, we find the Neoplatonic scheme of procession and return presented in terms of trinitarian speech and silence.  The coming forth of all creation is the extension into time of the eternal speaking (Word) of the Father; and the fullness of rational creaturehood is likewise achieved as the soul recognizes itself as that very same eternal speech of God.  …  The awakening to mystical awareness is thus conceived as an event of trinitarian speech; the soul, in Eckhart’s extravagant language, begins its spiritual journey by discovering its mystical (hidden) identity as God’s self-expression.[34]

In contrast to Neoplatonism this is a trinitarian view of the soul’s emanation and return.  The soul (by participation in God) lives by imitating the Trinity’s way of existing.  Within the Trinity there is a complete divesting of each Person’s self for the other and God’s self-gift to the other, in which each human person is called to participate by a reciprocal act.  McIntosh writes,

Just as God knows Godself by the outpouring of self-expression, so the soul must participate in this, its ground, by a reciprocal ecstasy of the self – and that means leaving behind all possessions, desires and aspirations which obscure the soul’s mystical identity as a form of divine speech.  …  In this mutual ekstasis, a true standing outside of self, the created distinction between God and the soul is overcome and God is able to ‘speak’ the soul as God’s own Word.[35]

Thus by becoming “nothing” in terms of self-created life, the soul’s true identity is unveiled as an expression of God and the soul is seen as indistinct from God, being an expression of his Word.

In The Book of Divine Consolation, Eckhart speaks of the birth (or speaking) of the Word in the soul as the emanation of God the Holy Spirit.  This “flowing out” of the Holy Spirit from God and “springing up” of the Holy Spirit in the soul is the means by which God’s Son is conceived in the soul.  Eckhart is describing the metaphysics of divinization.  The degree to which a person consents to this activity of the Holy Spirit, the greater a person is formed into Christ-likeness and the more a person is Christ.  A person’s true identity as a son of God is the flowing out of the Spirit and the conception and birth of the Son in the soul.  Eckhart writes, “Here [in the birth] is the flowing out and the springing up of the Holy Spirit, from whom alone, as he is God’s Spirit and himself Spirit, God the Son is conceived in us.  Here is the flowing out of all those who are the sons of God, to the measure, greater or less, in which they are purely born of God alone, formed in God’s likeness and in God.”[36]  The degree to which a person has become free of self-createdness in detachment and become spiritually poor is congruent with the proximity to God of one’s identity out of which one lives – the ‘who’ from which the ‘what’ of a person is actualized.  “The further we are away from the One, the less we are sons and the Son, and the less perfectly does the Holy Spirit spring up in us and flow out from us.  And the closer we are to the One, the more truly are we God’s sons and his Son, and also the more truly does God the Holy Spirit flow from us,”[37] says Eckhart.  Here also for Eckhart, the Holy Spirit seems to both flow out of the primal source in God and spring up in the soul of a person (in the birth of the Son in the soul), and in addition the Holy Spirit flows out again from the soul.  Thus a person’s return to God entails a life lived out of one’s true identity as “son and the Son” flowing from God.  This is similar (perhaps equivalent) to the Pauline theme of living by the Spirit.

Yet at the same time, Eckhart seems to be describing a metaphysics of union with God analogous to the relationship of perichoresis within the Trinity.  The degree of union with God and the degree of perfection of this analogical relationship of perichoresis is a function of one’s proximity to God.  When Eckhart talks of being closer to or further from the One, he is referring to distance in terms of “likeness” rather than a spatial distance.  Any created power of the soul, even the highest ones, “must lose their own image, and be transformed above themselves into the image of God alone, and be born in God and from God.  …  In this way they too are the sons of God and God’s Only-Begotten Son.  For I am the son of everything that forms and bears me to be like it and in its likeness.”[38]  There is a tight correlation between the degree of union and divinization or transformation.  Thus authentic union with God is necessarily fruitful and chiefly seen as active Christ-likeness in a person.

  1. The Ground of the Soul and of God

The “break-through” to one’s primal source in God is the highest goal of these flowing movements; it is “nobler” than flowing out.  In the break-through, growth in union with God has its completion and one has become perfect poverty of spirit.  A person has returned to what eternally he/she is – a no-thing in terms of self-createdness in contradistinction with God.  As Eckhart puts it in Sermon 52,

A great authority says that his breaking through is nobler than his flowing out; and that is true.  When I flowed out from God, all things said:  “God is.”  And this cannot make me blessed, for with this I acknowledge that I am a creature.  But in the breaking-through, when I come to be free of will of myself and of God’s will and of all his works and of God himself, then I am above all created things, and I am neither God nor creature, but I am what I was and what I shall remain, now and eternally.  …  Here God finds no place in man, for with this poverty man achieves what he has been eternally and will evermore remain.  Here God is one with the spirit, and that is the most intimate poverty one can find.[39]

Thus in the break-though a person has achieved a radical freedom – freedom of God and God’s works and will – because the person no longer lives from outside of that place or sphere called grunt.  The integrity of union is such that the person no longer has a dialectical relationship with God.  This means that the person must no longer be living as creature; but this does not mean the person is God himself.  And it sounds as if Eckhart would have us not affirm the human being as creature, since the goal of union is to be free of the created.  But in fact, Eckhart is promoting the perfection of incarnational living.  It is only in the deepest acceptance and understanding of oneself as creature, and therefore as essentially nothing, that one sees the necessity of becoming empty of createdness so that God may be all and fill all in and through this creation as this creation has already existed and does still exist in Godself.  Christ “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2.7 ESV), so that human beings might become ‘the Son’.  As we too “go out of all things” we “will have put on Christ.”[40]  Simply put, we are to become what God has created us to be and what we already truly are in God by losing that into which we have falsely created ourselves.  God finds no “place” in this person just as God does not require finding a “place” in Godself.  This person is all “place” and no “place” – God and spirit are one.

As already noted Eckhart has a name for the place where God and spirit are one, and that is the ground of the soul and of God, or grunt.  McGinn writes, “Grunt is employed by Eckhart in a rich variety of ways, but the basic intention of the semantic field of ground-language is always geared to one goal: achieving indistinct identity of God and human in what Eckhart calls the “simple One” (einvaltigez ein).”[41]  Turner clarifies that this uncreated place is only part of the soul:  “in the very same passage in which he speaks of the uncreatedness of the soul’s ground, Eckhart explicitly denies that the soul as such is wholly uncreated.”  Rather, he says that “there is a ‘place’ in the soul which is uncreated and uncreatable.”[42]  And grunt is the place from which the person of the “break-though” lives:  “As the unmoved source of all movement, grunt is the “place” from which the mystic must learn to live, act, and know.”[43]  This indistinct identity of God and the soul Richard Kieckhefer describes as a radical nearness where Godself is “lent” to the soul.  What he struggles to articulate is Eckhart’s teaching that the soul’s esse is God’s esse, without confusing their identity.  In other words, there is a sense in which God and the soul are the same being and there is a sense in which they are not the same.  Ontologically, the innermost part of the soul’s existence is God’s existence.  Existentially however, God’s “moral presence” (which I would say is the capacity to make God’s existence in the soul effectual by grace through faith) is not necessarily there in the soul.  Kieckhefer writes,

It is God’s being which is lent to the soul; God is near to the soul in the most radical of all possible ways, since the soul’s very being turns out to be God’s being.  It is in this sense that Eckhart emphatically denies that any creatures have their own proper existence.  In other cases Eckhart represents God as present in a moral sense, through grace; that is, he is present within a soul that is spiritually alive or blessed, but this presence is not inevitable.[44]

The innermost part of the soul, the spark of the soul or the ground of the soul, is the “place” where the image of God has been imprinted, according to Eckhart.  Here, again, it is unmistakable that Eckhart is possibly influenced by Porette (where the imprint of God is pressed onto the soul through the union of love like a seal upon wax).  The metaphors of mirror and image help articulate an indistinct union and identity of God and soul without teaching a pantheistic or monistic oneness.  Eckhart writes in Sermon 16b,

You should know that the simple divine image which is pressed onto the soul in its innermost nature acts without a medium, and the innermost and the noblest that is in nature takes form in a most proper sense in the image of the soul.  Here there is no medium, neither will nor wisdom.  …  Here God is without a medium in the image and the image is without a medium in God.[45]

Thus, the image of God acts directly onto the soul.  And Eckhart sees the unmediated relationship between the divine image and the image in the innermost part of a person as the means by which one lives in God and God in the person.

  1. The Primal Source of Knowing and Loving

Now how is the innermost part of the soul related to knowing and loving?  In scholastic metaphysics the rational faculty has an inferior part and a superior part.  One could conclude from Tobin’s translation that the innermost part of the soul is the superior rational faculty of a person.  Tobin translates Eckhart in Sermon 76, “The soul has something in it, a spark of intelligence, which never goes out, and in this spark, as the highest part of the mind, one places the image of the soul.”[46]  Tobin concludes that according to Eckhart the image of the soul is the superior rational faculty.  He writes, “When speaking of imago, he is referring to the ratio superior or supremum animae.  …  It is this superior rational faculty (ratio superior) which the preacher so frequently mentions in the vernacular sermons and for which he uses several different terms and images.”[47]  Reiner Schürmann clarifies that the “spark” or innermost part of the soul is not itself a faculty.  It is related to the superior rational faculty, but is itself uncreated:

On the one hand, the “spark” is “something” that is related to the power of intellection:  it is of an intellectual nature, “in” the mind and not “of” the mind, and yet it is not itself a faculty.  On the other hand, it is “never extinguished”: this spark is beyond time, in eternity.  Finally the spark, the “higher” part of the human being, bears in itself the image of God.  “In this spark, as the higher part of gemüete, is located the image of the mind,” which is to say: “the image of God that the mind is,” or, again, since Eckhart stresses the locus of this resemblance: “the image of God in the mind.”[48]

Perhaps Eckhart distinguishes between the image of the soul and the spark of the soul.  Tobin and Schürmann might agree if the image is understood as ratio superior and the spark is considered to be that which bears the image within it.

John Caputo discusses the Thomistic distinction between the substance of the soul and its faculties.  For Thomas Aquinas, “it is because the soul of man in its being is intellectual that man has an intellectual faculty.”  Then Caputo delineates how Eckhart’s thought diverged from Aquinas:  But Eckhart “saw the substance of the soul as a hidden chamber, a little castle, a little spark, a silent wasteland, in which an event could take place which is impossible for the faculties.”[49]  The innermost part of the soul is not a faculty but is higher than the faculties:   “Eckhart sees it as a citadel which has been especially reserved by God for a higher life than is permitted the faculties.  The fate of the faculties is to be destined for commerce with creatures.  They can operate only in conjunction with the body and the senses and hence they are bound always to begin with the sensible world.”[50]  James Clark refers to the innermost part as the “higher soul” or the spirit:

The word ‘soul’ has, therefore, a twofold meaning for Eckhart.  It may refer to the vital, vivifying principle of the body, or the true essence of this principle, independent of time and place, simple and unchanging.  The distinction here made is that between the ‘soul’ (sele) and ‘spirit’ (geist).  According to its lower functions, the soul (as distinct from the spirit) works in and through the body.  …  But the higher soul or spirit has the power of thought which can make present to us things that are absent or distant, and make them as clear as if they were visible, even more so.[51]

Schürmann agrees with Clark concluding that gemüete, which Tobin translates as mind (“In this spark, as the highest part of the mind”), is better translated as spirit.  It is not a faculty but the common root of intellect and will:

In the fourteenth century, when the first texts of Thomas Aquinas become accessible in Middle High German, gemüete is found wherever the Latin author says mens.  …  The word designates not another faculty along with the intellect and the will, but their common root insofar as it actuates man’s “return” upon the image of God in himself, which requires a certain conduct in life as well as in reflection.  The gemüete of the later Rhenish mystics largely agrees with this Thomist concept of mens: a fundamental disposition to know and to love, and the spiritual vestige of the divine life in man.  The only English word that expresses a similar semantic richness – psychological, moral, and metaphysical – is “spirit.”  Thus we translate: “In this spark, as the higher part of the spirit, is located the image of the mind.”[52]

Eckhart speaks of this “common root” in Sermon 52 as the primordial unity of knowing and loving.  Here, Eckhart is expounding on the blessedness of the poor in spirit on the point about the person who knows nothing.  This person knows “nothing”[53] because the person’s life is lived out of the innermost part of the soul where neither faculties of knowing or loving are pre-eminent, and from which knowing and loving are derived.  He writes,

Everything that ever came from God is directed into pure activity.  Now the actions proper to a man are loving and knowing.  The question is:  In which of these does blessedness most consist?  Some authorities have said that it consists in knowing, others say that it consists in loving; others that it consists in knowing and loving, and what they say is better.  But I say that it does not consist in either knowing or loving, but that there is that in the soul from which knowing and loving flow; that something does not know or love as do the powers of the soul.[54]

It may be concluded therefore that for Eckhart blessedness does not most consist in the experience of either intellective union or affective union.  Mystical experience is not the highest goal – if it is a goal at all.  Rather, authentic union with God is an ongoing self-emptying disposition and an interior work of the innermost person which results in a life lived from that place called ground.  Or as McGinn puts it well, “Indistinct union, for Eckhart, is a mutual and continuous state of nonabsorptive “awareness” of identity in the grunt.  Ecstatic states play at best a preparatory and nonessential role.  Union is also a form of deification, which, in the ultimate analysis, goes beyond knowing and loving, at least as we experience them in ordinary conscious states.”[55]

  1. Receptive Capacity

This primal root of knowledge and love, the innermost part which I will refer to as spirit, has a receptive capacity by which the image of God is received.  In receiving the divine image, the spirit also is that image by virtue of receiving it.  Eckhart thinks of the spirit as a vessel that takes in and contains.  Whereas material vessels remain what they are materially when containing something, spiritual vessels do not.  As Eckhart puts it in Sermon 16b,

It is different with a spiritual vessel.  Everything that is taken into it is in the vessel and the vessel is in it and it is the vessel itself.  Everything that the spiritual vessel takes in has the same nature [as the vessel].  It is God’s nature that he gives himself to every good soul, and it is the nature of the soul that it takes God in.  This can be said to be among the noblest things that the soul can do.  Thus the soul wears the divine image and is like God.[56]

One of the noblest things the soul can do is to receive Godself.  This is the soul’s great work:  to receive in the act of self-emptying (where God “must” give Godself), and so to be transformed into God’s likeness.  This interior work is to receive the Son and the Holy Spirit and to be born Son.  As Eckhart puts it in The Book of Divine Consolation,

And there is an interior work, which cannot be confined or comprehended by time or place; and in this work is what is divine and like to God, whom neither time nor place confine, for he is everywhere and present in all time, and this work is also like to God in this, that no creature can perfectly receive him nor form God’s goodness in himself.  And so there must be something more inward, more exalted, uncreated, lacking all measure, lacking all manner, in which the heavenly Father can form and pour and manifest his whole self; and that is the Son and the Holy Spirit.  And no one can hinder this interior working of virtue, any more than anyone can hinder God.[57]

The interior work receives and creates its whole being out of nowhere else than from and in the heart of God.  It receives the Son, and is born Son in the bosom of the heavenly Father.[58]

It is not the activity of our creatureliness that may transform us to be like God with effectiveness.  But this more inward part, the spirit, is capable of receiving Godself and becoming the image of God.

  1. The Holy Spirit

Oliver Davies notes different inferences of the Holy Spirit in Eckhart.  With regard to mystical union the Holy Spirit is connected with love.  For example Eckhart writes in Sermon 69, “For that same love by which God loves the soul is his life, and in this same love the Holy Spirit blossoms forth; and this same love is the Holy Spirit.”[59]  But also “there are a number of passages in which it is the Holy Spirit which is the divinizing principle.”[60]  Davies continues, “Here we must distinguish between those places in which Eckhart’s Logos mysticism shows a trinitarian dimension … and those in which it is the Holy Spirit itself which sanctifies us and draws us up into the Godhead.  In accordance with Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit is linked with the principle of love.”[61]  Another perspective is to consider which aspect of the mystical way (positiva/purgative, negativa/illumative or eminentiae/unitive) Eckhart is discussing, in order to distinguish between his implications about the Holy Spirit.

In the Latin sermon on Romans 11:36 (Sermon IV.1) the Holy Spirit is “existence in” and love.  Eckhart relates the properties of each Person of the Trinity to the prepositions of the verse:  “All things are from him, through him, and in him.”  “From him” refers to the Father, “through him” refers to the Son, and “in him” refers to the Holy Spirit.  Since everything (that is, all that truly exists) is in the Holy Spirit, anything that is not in him is therefore “nothing”.  Thus the listener ought to conclude, ‘the more I try to exist in my own right, the more I am nothing.’  The way to truly exist and to be other than nothing is to lose all of one’s ways of existing which are in contradistinction to God, from whom alone is existence and who alone is existence.  “Existence in” pertains to the Holy Spirit who is the “bond”, such that the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father.  This “bond” is also love.  Thus, the Holy Spirit is the bond and love by which the Father and Son exist in each other; and so also, the Spirit is that by which every person is to exist in God and God in them.  As Eckhart preaches,

“Existence in” does not belong to or agree with the Father or the Son, both because it does not fit the personal property of either, and also because it is special to the personal property of the Holy Spirit and thus agrees with it alone.  If it were to fit either the Father or the Son, the Father would now be the Holy Spirit, and so would the Son.  Hence 1 John 4: “God is love.”  I say, “God,” the Holy Spirit, “is love,” according to Augustine, and thus, “he who remains in love,” that is, in the Holy Spirit, “remains in God, and God in him” (1 Jn 4:16).  Romans 5: “God’s love is poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rm. 5:5); and John 14: “If anyone loves me, my Father will love him,” and what follow, “we will come to him and make our abode with him” (Jn. 14:23).  Hence, the Father and the Son love us by the Holy Spirit, and we ought to love God in the Holy Spirit.[62]

A person’s union with God involves love in a way analogous to love within the life of the Trinity.  This love is not generated by the person but is itself gift – the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Thus, the Holy Spirit is a significant feature of Eckhart’s mystical anthropology and mysticism.  As McGinn writes, “The very same love with which the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father must be the love by which we love God.  …  The love which draws us to God is not a form of created love, but is the very uncreated Love that is the Holy Spirit.  …  Hence, Eckhart’s mysticism has an important Spirit-centered dimension.”[63]  Therefore it must be concluded that concurrent with the ontological character of Eckhart’s unum indistinctum, loving relationship is involved.  Union is not merely ontological, it is also kenotic.  As Eckhart puts it in Sermon 5b, “Now God wants no more from you than that you should in creaturely fashion go out of yourself, and let God be God in you.  …  Go completely out of yourself for God’s love, and God comes completely out of himself for love of you.  And when these two have gone out, what remains there is a simplified One.”[64]

Kenotic union and participation within the kenotic event of the Trinity has an experiential aspect.  Mystical experience may not be a goal, but one cannot help encountering the experience of the Spirit.  In Sermon 10, the Holy Spirit is “a gift by God by which [the soul] is moved toward inward things,” and “the soul is touched immediately [without a medium, directly] by the Holy Spirit.”[65]  The experience of the love of God is an experience of the Holy Spirit “because in the love in which God loves himself he also loves me.”[66]  And the capacity to return love to God is also an experience of the Holy Spirit, for “the soul loves God in the same love in which he loves himself.  …  Where the soul loves God there is a warmth and a flowering forth of the Holy Spirit.”[67]

  1. Distinct Grunt Work

In The Soul as Virgin Wife, Amy Hollywood discusses the soul’s dual role in Eckhart’s thought of receptivity and of bearing or giving birth.  Eckhart’s thought is “shared with Porete, that the will and attachment must be annihilated in order for the soul to be virgin and wifely.”[68]  The soul is to be both virgin and wife:  pure and free like the good soil that receives seed; and fruitful, bearing forth from what has been received into the good soil.  The virgin metaphor describes the poverty of spirit achieved by detachment and letting go.  And the distinctive work of living out of the grunt[69] (or soil) is the “wife” part of being virgin and wife.  Although, contemplation and action, virgin and wife, are in fact united.  McGinn concurs, “Eckhart is arguing for a living union between action and contemplation.  …  If loving action comes from “the ground of contemplation” … it is all one.  “Thus too, in this activity,” says Eckhart, “we remain in a state of contemplation in God.  The one rests in the other, and perfects the other.””[70]  Both remaining in the grunt and living out of the grunt are two sides of one whole activity.  This active fruit bearing life is the goal of union.  Or as Kieckhefer writes, “the goal and climax of Eckhart’s spirituality is not contemplation [in the sense of mystical experience], but rather the fruition to which contemplation leads – in other words, the living manifestation of God’s efficacy in one’s life, in a “working union” with God.”[71]

  1. Conclusion

We have seen that Eckhart can be understood as anything but heterodox.  The language of his vernacular theology is not meant to be interpreted as one would his systematic and philosophical theology.  Rather, while speaking about the mystery of the inner journey in the context of Beguine spirituality, Eckhart uses language as an artist would paint a picture providing the theology and guidance to help his listeners see the true goal of their journey and not to get lost in the exotic jungle of mystical experience or the tar pits of quietism.

Eckhart’s mystical anthropology is apophatic in that the soul is ultimately unknowable, indescribable, and “nothing”.  The innermost uncreated “nothing” is the ground of the soul or the spark of the soul, where the soul’s ground is God’s ground.  Likewise, a spirituality which moves one toward union with God is also apophatic.  That is, becoming one’s true self involves a process of unbecoming a false self – all that one is in contradistinction to God.  If the true self is “nothing”, then absolute poverty of spirit – to want nothing, know nothing, and have nothing – is the true way of existing such that God may be all.

A person per se (as “nothing”) is an indistinct oneness with God just as goodness in a good person is indistinct from goodness.  Yet this does not negate creatureliness and aspects of distinction from God.  The soul could never become God since there is always an infinite distance between Creator and creature.  Most fundamentally, the creature is distinct by virtue of will, especially evident when it is employed to make choices against the will of God.

Eckhart reforms the Neoplatonic theme of emanation and return into a kenotic way of existing consistent with his apophatic spiritual discipline of growth toward union.  Becoming “nothing” is an ecstasy of the self and is one’s reciprocal response to God’s ekstasis.  It is the way of participating in the kenotic event at the heart of the Trinity.  The Holy Spirit flows out from God and springs up in the soul and flows out from the soul as Christ-likeness.  The return to God is the breakthrough to the ground of the soul and God.  Here a person might say as Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2.20 ESV).  In this way of living one’s identity is indistinct with God’s identity.  This is living out of the grunt.

The grunt is the uncreated innermost part of the soul and the primordial source of knowing and loving.  It is not itself a faculty and can be understood as what the New Testament refers to as human ‘spirit’ (cf. 1 Cor. 2.11).  The spirit becomes that which it receives, and it is our interior work to receive the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Thus the ground of the soul is the ground of God, and the spirit of the soul is the Spirit of God.  And this place, grunt or spirit, is that out of which we are to live.  In this light, then, it can be seen that Eckhart is teaching how one may comply with Paul’s instruction, “Live by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25).

The Holy Spirit is love and is the way to exist in God.  Though the experience of the Spirit is unavoidable in the growth toward this unitive life, the goal is not mystical experience but it is to live in a kenotic way of existing and to bear fruit.  Thus the distinctive grunt work involves both remaining in a state of contemplation, detachment, or self-emptied-ness, and living out of the grunt in active, fruitful, Christ-likeness.

Aertsen, J. A. “Ontology and Henology in Medieval Philosophy (Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart and Berthold of Moosburg).” In On Proclus and His Influence in Medieval Philosophy. Edited by P. A. Meijer and E. P. Bos. Leiden ; New-York: E. J. Brill, 1992, 120-140.

Caputo, John D. “Fundamental Themes of Eckhart’s Mysticism.” The Thomist 42:2 (1978: Apr.): 197-225.

Clark, James Midgley. Meister Eckhart : An Introduction to the Study of His Works, with an Anthology of His Sermons. London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1957.

Colledge, Edmund, and J. C. Marler. “‘Poverty and Will’:Ruusbroec, Eckhart and the Mirror of Simple Souls.” In Jan Van Ruusbroec : The Sources, Content and Sequels of His Mysticism. Edited by P. Mommaers and N. de Paepe. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1984, 14-47.

Davies, Oliver. Meister Eckhart : Mystical Theologian. London: Spck, 1991.

Eckhart, Meister. Meister Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher. Edited by Bernard McGinn. New York: Paulist Press, 1986.

_____________. Meister Eckhart : The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense. Translated by Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and Bernard McGinn. New York: Paulist Press, 1981.

Forman, Robert K. C. Meister Eckhart : The Mystic as Theologian : An Experiment in Methodology. Rockport, Massachusetts: Element, 1991.

Hollywood, Amy M. The Soul as Virgin Wife : Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995.

Kertz, Karl G., S.J. “Meister Eckhart’s Teaching on the Birth of the Divine Word in the Soul.” Traditio : Studies in Ancient and Medieval History, Thought and Religion 15 (1959): 327-363.

Kieckhefer, Richard. “Meister Eckhart’s Conception of Union with God.” Harvard Theological Review 71 (1978): 203-225.

McGinn, Bernard. The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart : The Man from Whom God Hid Nothing. New York: Crossroad Pub., 2001.

McIntosh, Mark Allen. Mystical Theology : The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998.

Schürmann, Reiner. Meister Eckhart, Mystic and Philosopher : Translations with Commentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

Tobin, Frank J. Meister Eckhart, Thought and Language. Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.

Turner, Denys. The Darkness of God : Negativity in Christian Mysticism. New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Woods, Richard. Eckhart’s Way. Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1986.

[1] Edmund Colledge, “Historical Data” in Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, trans. Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and Bernard McGinn (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 8.

[2] Bernard McGinn, The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart : The Man from Whom God Hid Nothing (New York: Crossroad Pub., 2001), 55.

[3] Denys Turner, The Darkness of God : Negativity in Christian Mysticism (New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 139.

[4] McGinn, Mystical Thought, 48.  Interestingly, the influence of John Scottus Eriugena could derive from his commentaries in his translation of pseudo-Dionysius’ works which translation was used by Eckhart.

[5] Meister Eckhart, Meister Eckhart : The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, trans. Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and Bernard McGinn (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 192.

[6] Turner, 140.

[7] Frank J. Tobin, Meister Eckhart, Thought and Language (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986), 139.

[8] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 199.

[9] McGinn, Mystical Thought, 47.

[10] Tobin describes becoming one’s true self and becoming the Son as uncovering one’s preexistent divine image:  “Because God created man in his image and himself assumed human nature, the process of becoming the Son can be described as an uncovering of the divine image already existing by nature in individual human beings.  …  Human nature as divinely informed is the means by which men become one with God.”  Tobin, 104.

[11] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 202.

[12] John D. Caputo, “Fundamental Themes of Eckhart’s Mysticism” The Thomist 42, no. 2 (April 1978): 200.

[13] Caputo, 201.

[14] Turner, 181.

[15] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 200.

[16] Turner, 183.

[17] Turner, 183.

[18] Turner, 184.

[19] McGinn, Mystical Thought, 148.

[20] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 187.

[21] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 210.

[22] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 187-8.

[23] Tobin, 113.

[24] Richard Woods, Eckhart’s Way (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1986), 133.

[25] Tobin, 113-4.

[26] Mark Allen McIntosh, Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998), 222-3.

[27] McIntosh, 223.

[28] McIntosh, 223.

[29] Turner, 146-7.

[30] Turner, 147.

[31] Woods, 115.

[32] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 286.

[33] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 222.

[34] McIntosh, 127-8.

[35] McIntosh, 128.

[36] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 227.

[37] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 227.

[38] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 211.

[39] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 203.

[40] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 293.

[41] McGinn, Mystical Thought, 47.

[42] Turner, 145.

[43] McGinn, Mystical Thought, 49.

[44] Richard Kieckhefer, “Meister Eckhart’s Conception of Union with God” Harvard Theological Review 71 (1978): 209.

[45] Meister Eckhart, Meister Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher, ed. Bernard McGinn (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), 276.

[46] Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher, 327.

[47] Tobin, 129.

[48] Reiner Schürmann, Meister Eckhart, Mystic and Philosopher: Translations with Commentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), 144.

[49] Caputo, 206.

[50] Caputo, 206.

[51] James Midgley Clark, Meister Eckhart : An Introduction to the Study of His Works, with an Anthology of His Sermons (London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1957), 58.

[52] Schürmann, 145.

[53] That is to say, the faculty of knowing is in a receptive rather than an active capacity.

[54] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 201.

[55] McGinn, Mystical Thought, 148.

[56] Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher, 276.

[57] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 225.

[58] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 226.

[59] Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher, 312.

[60] Oliver Davies, Meister Eckhart : Mystical Theologian (London: Spck, 1991), 145.

[61] Davies, 145.

[62] Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher, 209.

[63] McGinn, Mystical Thought, 89.

[64] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 184.

[65] Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher, 264.

[66] Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher, 264.

[67] Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher, 264.

[68] Amy M. Hollywood, The Soul as Virgin Wife: Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), 143.

[69] In Sermon 5b, Eckhart calls for all one’s activity to come from the ground:  “As truly as the Father in his simple nature gives his Son birth naturally, so truly does he give him birth in the most inward part of the spirit, and that is the inner world.  Here God’s ground is my ground, and my ground is God’s ground.  Here I live from what is my own, as God lives from what is his own.  …  It is out of this inner ground that you should perform all your works without asking, “Why?”  I say truly:  So long as you perform your works for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, or for God’s sake, or for the sake of your eternal blessedness, and you work them from without, you are going completely astray.”  Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 183.

[70] McGinn, Mystical Thought, 67.

[71] Kieckhefer, 207.

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