Yesterday's tale — “Klaus the Pirate” — explored Meister Eckhart as a creative and controversial preacher. This second tale — “Femke the Runaway” — sketches Eckhart as a compassionate spiritual director. Here is the tale…
The Tale of Femke the Runaway
Meister Eckhart peered out the little diamond-shafted panes of glass, held together by a web of lead, into the dim cold light of morning. As he peered out into the dawn’s light, he washed his hands in the cold water of the basin in front of him. He stopped for a moment, and said aloud…. “God’s Mirror.”
The Meister never had quiet thoughts resting in his mind. The thoughts flashed into words, and they tumbled out of his mouth. Meanwhile, he donned the clothing habit of the Order of Friars Preachers: a long white tunic, and a long white scapular in the front and the back. Outside he would wear a great black cape that gave all the friars the name by which they were known: Blackfriars.
Eckhart lifted the small mirror from the table and gazed into it. He thought: “Am I really a mirror of My Creator? Straw hair like a stack of autumn hay. Blue eyes cold as winter ice… and that stubby beard! I do need a shave, but not today. I will be in the cathedral. How dark it will be in the nave, and darker still in the confessional! Besides, the House of God is not a place to see, but to listen…”
As he walked to the Bremen Cathedral he was not sure that the sun had risen. The foggy grey sky was defuse with a weak light and he could see the fuzzy shapes of houses and warehouses. They were colored a dull grey, a sooty black, a flat white, a dirty brown.
But everywhere there was sound. The seagulls squawking; the wooden carts clunking along the cobblestones; and the voices of the people of Bremen with their strange Low German dialect.
“What do I know about this place, Bremen? Images come through my eyes, sounds through my ears, and the cold winter air patters upon my unshaven face. But who these people are, and what their world is… Well, of that I have only ideas. Not true knowledge.”
Arriving at the Cathedral, he warmed himself at fire in the kitchen area just beyond the sacristy. A boy swept the floor, while a girl polished the brass doorknobs. Priests, and deacons, and acolytes, vested and unvested. At the wooden table near the fire, sat a pewter pitcher. Eckart reached for it, and poured the brown beer into his tankard. The drink washed down his breakfast of dark rye bread and salty cheese.
Meister Eckhart made his way into the great church, entered the dark wooden confessional and sat in silence for a long time. The silence comforted him. It flowed through his body, and seeped through his pores. His breathing was slow and subtle. He had no thoughts.
Then he heard the rustle of clothing, the shuffle of shoes, and the thump of a penitent falling on their knees. More silence in the darkness. And then a soft female voice began to recite the formula of prayers for confession.
The Meister held his tongue, and merely had his thoughts: “A young woman. Hesitant. A bit fearful. A Low German dialect. No, she is mixing Low German and Frisian. Maybe she is only a girl fresh from a farm in Friesland. High pitched musical voice…”
He caught himself thinking.
“That, Eckhart, is your idea of her. But your idea is not who she is. Only God knows who she is. She herself does not know who she is…”
When she had finished her perfunctory prayers confessing that she had sinned and was asking for God’s forgiveness, she hesitated and then continued…
“Since I prayed at Mass on Christmas Eve, I have had the most terrible thoughts and I am so afraid. I feel such an emptiness, a nothingness, inside me. But I do not know what I had done. Christmas Eve was so mysterious this year. Almost terrifying. And yet somehow joyful. Then I was filled with joy. But now I afraid. I don’t know what happened.”
Eckart spoke the little Frisian that he had learned from the friars who had studied with him in Paris, They came from that nearby land, just down from Bremen Town, where the Wesser River empties into the North Sea.
“Tell me what happened, femke (which means “little girl” in Frisian).”
She gasped, “How did you know that I am Femke (which is also a girl’s name in Frisian)? Who told you my name? What do you know about me?” She was frightened.
His voice was gentle. “Do not be afraid, Femke. God knows your name. And now I know it, too. Now tell me what happened on Christmas Eve. Take your time and tell me everything…”
She gathered up her courage so that he would take no advantage of her. “Well, Meister Eckhart… Yes, you see I know your name. I asked which confessional you might be in, and they told me. My own meister who owns the donkey shed where I sleep at night told me that it was foolish of me to be frightened by the Greyfriars, and that I should talk with one of the Blackfriars who would help me.”
Eckhart was amused. He was always bumping into the many Grayfriars — the Franciscans — who had multiplied across Lower Saxony like rabbits. Their preaching was so vivid in images that they stirred people up… usually for the better, but sometimes for the worse. What had they told Femke on Christmas Eve? More importantly, what did she think they told her? But he was also curious about why she sought him out.
“And why did you look for the Blackfriar who is called Eckhart of Hochheim?” He did not use the word Meister.
“Because my meister said that you were the wisest of all the Blackfriars, and had brought all your learning from Paris with you. He has here on Christmas Eve when you preached. He called you Meister… Meister Eckhart.”
The friar repeated his questions, “Now tell me, Femke, what happened to you on Christmas Eve at the Greyfriars church? Don’t be afraid. I will listen.”
She began: “After I had worked all morning gutting and salting the herring down in the Schnoor, the fisherman whose boat was mine… you see, he is my other meister… he said, ‘Femke, here is your wage for today, and an extra coin as a Christmas gift. And take a bucket of herring to your home for tonight’s meal after Midnight Mass.’ And when I got home… well it’s not my real home since I am from a farm in Friesland… my first meister there said ‘Take the Donkey to the Greyfriars church. They need the Donkey every Christmas Eve.’
“Well, I had never been to the Greyfriars church, though I had seen them everywhere here in Bremen Town — preaching in the streets and helping the poor and the sick. And when I led the Donkey to the door of their church, not knowing what I should do next… Well, a young greyfriar took my donkey inside the church. Imagine, a stupid donkey inside God’s house! And he told me to enter as well, and stay for Christmas Eve.”
Meister Eckhart could imagine the scene. It was what the Franciscans did every Christmas Eve. They brought live animals into the church that might have been at Bethlehem when the Christ Child was born. He smiled to himself and wondered if St. Francis had really said to his friars, ‘Go preach. And use words if you must.’
But the Blackfriars always used words. St. Dominic loved words, and so did Eckhart. “Words both reveal and they hide. They point to the many images of the world. And they also point to the hidden truths that play hide-and-seek with those images. Revealing, yet hiding. Hiding, yet revealing.” Oh, how Eckhart loved to play with words.
Femke continued: “And so I waited a long time in that dark church. I was one of the first there. Along with another girl who brought a cow. And a fat boy who brought a pig. Imagine, a sow in the church! Right there, where they built a flimsy and dirty barn so close to the holy altar. I was shocked. But then I became so excited, for they brought a feeding trough strewn with hay. And I remembered how the Baby Jesus was wrapped with cloth and put in a manger.
“A long time passed, and people came into the church. Some lamps were lit, and the Greyfriars came out singing the most beautiful songs. Some of them I knew from my farm, and so I sang in Frisian as they sang in German. I was so happy. I kept looking at that straw in the feeding trough.
“The Mass began, and then the friar preached a long sermon. I did not understand everything he said, but I kept looking a the empty bed of straw. And I wondered, when would the Baby Jesus be placed in it? For surely he would be here soon. I was so happy, for the first time since I ran away from home in Friesland last summer. I wanted to laugh I was so happy, but instead I started to cry…”
Meister Eckhart was in the Greyfriars church with Femke, but there were no tears in his grey-blue eyes. Instead he could see clearly in his mind’s eye the Christmas creche that she so vividly described. He could see it, a nest, a crib, a womb, a dark hollow piercing downwards through the stones of the church to the deep ground below. He knew that place. He was home there.
“But then, as I cried,” said Femke, “I felt a choking in my throat, and then a jab in my heart, and then… it was so strange… a fullness in my belly. A warmth, and the warmth melting out of my belly and flowing to the tips of my arms and legs. And I laughed.
“The pig boy scowled and nudged me, but I did not care. And when the Mass ended I was the last to leave, leading my donkey back to our home. My meister's Frau had cooked the herring, we ate, and I fell into a deep and warm sleep. Inside I was warm, and I imagined that my body burned like lingering embers in the fireplace.”
There was silence from Femke, and Eckhart’s memory went back to a reading that he had heard in Paris, in the Grayfriars Hall, a few years earlier. It was a story that Brother Leo told of Christmas in the hills of Greccio when St. Francis made the first Christmas Creche. And how Francis had left the feeding trough empty, so that people could imagine the Christ Child. But Count Giovanni had actually seen the Christ Child in the Crib. He saw how Francis had leaned forward and comforted the Child. But no one else saw it. Only Giovanni.
And he told Brother Leo. And Leo wrote it down. And one of the Greyfriars read that legend at Greyfriars Hall. And Eckhart heard it there for the first time. And Eckhart was in Greccio again, and in Bethlehem, and in Paris, and in Bremen Town as he sat in the darkness of the confessional listening to Femke’s sweet voice.
He said nothing, but he knew what she did not: That God has been born on Christmas Eve in Femke’s soul. Just as much as God had been born ithe Virgin Mary’s soul so long ago.
“But then,” Femke continued, “the next day I felt such an emptiness in me. On Christmas Day we feasted, and ate so much I thought I would burst like a cooked sausage. But no matter how much I ate I was hungry. And my belly was cold. Or I imagined it was. I don’t know. I was so confused. So empty.”
Meister nodded in the darkness but kept silence. Yes, he knew how this happened: God withdraws the gift of his presence so that we may yearn and actively seek him. This is what God loves: to see us questioning, seeking, and then finding Him again. But in a deeper loving way. This was the paradox: God hides from us so that we may have the joy of finding Him. Where? Deep in our heart, of course. For that is where he loves to hide.
But Femke kept talking excitedly, “I went back to work in the Schnoor the morning after Holy Innocents. My other meister's boat went out to fish for the first time since Christmas. It was a big catch, and I spent hours standing and cutting. Gutting and salting. Tossing the fish into tubs, and letting the guts drop to the ground. Every so often my meister's young son came with buckets of salt water to wash the guts from the stones into the sea.
“A hundred times, two hundred times, maybe a thousand times I slashed their little bellies open. Sometimes there was roe, and I saved it. But always there were guts, and I flung it away. and then I ran my thumb through the empty bellies. Empty and cold. And I started to sob.”
Femke choked on those words and sobbed for what she thought was eternity. Eckhart breathed slowly, lest he should start sobbing as well.
She stopped crying. Waited. And then spoke again: “ I stopped crying and cleaned some more herring, but I started to sob again. All morning, slashing and crying. And I felt such an emptiness in my belly.
“And I knew I must have done something terribly wrong. But I did not know what. Nor what to do… please, Meister, help me. Please…”
Meister Eckhart was already walking down the banks of the River Wesser and through the marshes and across the miles away from Saxony and into the fields of Friesland. He was looking for the farm that was once home to a little girl. And he knew what kind of place it must have been for her.
The Meister quickly returned to the confessional. He asked, “Femke, what hurt you so much at your farm in Friesland? What was so cold and so empty for you there?”
Now, she did not sob. Her voice rose and she bellowed out in pain and rage:
“He beat me. My father beat me. Again and again and again…” Her voice dropped. It became a whisper: “I don’t know why, I must have done something terribly wrong. No one would shield me from him. No one.” Then she wept again, and Eckhart waited. Tears filled his eyes.
“And now, here in Bremen Town, Femke? What will happen to you here — without Father or Mother?”
“At night I sleep in a stall with a donkey, and by day I gut and salt a thousand herrings. I’m just a runaway farm girl. I can’t speak German well. I have no skills. And I will never find anyone to marry. My belly will be a empty as those gutted herring.”
She stopped for a moment and rubbed the tears from her cheeks. “Meister, why has God forgotten me? What can I do so that He forgives me and loves me?”
Eckhart spoke slowly, “Listen Femke. This will be hard, but listen carefully. This is very important, and it is why an angel told you to come to this church today. An angel. God’s Angel. Are you listening, Femke?”
She nodded, and then realized he could not see her in the dark. So she spoke, “Yes, Meister, I am listening.”
“Femke, just as God came down to Bethlehem long ago, so He comes into our souls here and now. He did not come on a Yesterday, and He will not come on a Tomorrow. He only comes Here. He only comes Now… Today.
“But He cannot enter unless we open the door, and there is room in our heart, our mind, our soul, for God. He looks into the dark empty space that is free. No clutter, no possessions, nothing that we treasure. And the very moment we open the door, at that moment God enters.
“Femke, on Christmas Eve you came into God’s house with nothing. No Friesland, no father, mother, no home. The little Christmas creche of Bethlehem which you sat in front of… was it not like the Donkey’s stall where you sleep? And when you gazed at the straw in the empty food trough… was it not like your standing in the Schnoor and running your fingers through the empty bellies of those herring? And do you not, Femke, know that inside you are yearnings and longings to be filled? And so, in the Greyfriar’s church you opened the door. And God entered. And He is born in your soul. Just like the Baby Jesus is born in Bethlehem.”
She spoke, “Oh, yes. I could feel my emptiness fill. I was so happy I wanted to cry. But I laughed. It was the same as crying.” Femke hesitated. “But why did the emptiness return?”
Her confessor leaned forward, and spoke so softly and slowly, “Femke, you let the here and now become the past. It was Christmas Day and you filled your being with all those things you thought you wanted. The food, the talk, the people gathered around the table. You wish you had been born into that family… true?”
“Yes, I thought my search was over. I thought I had found my home. A new home…”
Eckhart interrupted, “A home on the farm in Friesland became a home in the marketplace of Bremen Town. What you had emptied yourself of there was replaced here, by the same possessions. In a different place, in a different time, but still the same ideas. Forget your ideas: the place where there is Time-No-More is neither in Friesland nor in Germany. It is in the ground, the deepest part, of your soul. Deep down in the Ground of Your Soul where God is waiting for you.
“And once you open the door to God, He enters, even though He was already there. And He never leaves, even if you think He has. God is there, in your soul.
“But you forgot. You walked out of your depths into the shallowness of the world. You forgot that your soul lives in God… and the God lives in you.”
Eckhart could not see that Femke’s hands slipped from folded prayer near her face downwards. They unclasped each other, and her hands rested on her belly. Eckart could not see this, but he could hear her soft breath. Slowly she breathed in, deep and slow. Then there was silence. And then she slowly breathed out.
“Oh Meister Eckhart, I am warm again and… yes, and I feel… I feel something in me that is Full. And Good. Do you think that God… I mean, was He really born in me on Christmas Eve?”
“Femke, he is born in you now. And when tomorrow comes He will again be born in you. Every day in your life is now. And God is in you. But let me tell you something even more amazing: No matter what happens to you, you will always be in God.”
And she remained still and silent in that quiet and dark place of the great church. And she occupied the same ground that Eckhart did. They were both in God.
“Before you go, Femke, I must ask if you know that other meaning of your name? It is the same in Bremen Town’s German as it is in your home village’s Frisian. You are not only a “little girl”. Your name also means “free.” And now you are a “free woman.”
Femke laughed, “A free woman in the free city of Bremen?”
Eckhart nodded, but she did not see. Instead she heard:
“Yes, first, you emptied yourself and waited. Secondly, God came through the door of your soul and filled your emptiness. And, thirdly, you can now go out from the depths of your soul and walk on the ground of the world. The world will not corrupt, for you will see all its creatureliness with God’s eyes. Not your eyes, but God’s eyes.
“Now you can step out the door of your soul, and walk into all the hustle and bustle of Bremen Town with joy. And whether you salt herring, or tend pigs and geese… whether you marry or not… whether you stay poor or become rich… whether you are in the Grayfriars church or walking through the Blocklands towards the sea… you are always in God. And He in you.
“Now go, my free woman of Bremen Town. The world awaits you…”
Feeling free and playful, she teased: “Meister Eckhart, you have not given me a penance, as is your priestly duty.”
And so Eckhart raised his hand and blessed her in the darkness. She could not see him smile, but she heard him say:
“Femke, I give you a blessing rather than a penance. And you are to say this blessing every time you slit and gut a herring: ‘In empty places I find my God.’ Say it three times now.”
And prayerfully Femke lowered her head and said, “In empty places I find my God.”
And then more slowly and softly, “In empty places I find my God.”
and in a whisper, “In empty places I find my God."
Meister Eckhart then said, “Go in peace and joy, my daughter. In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
Dusk was approaching. Confessions were done, and a very tired Eckhart returned to his study and wrote for a short while. Then he read it, made a few changes. The Meister closed his eyes and listened again to all that Femke had spoken. He was glad that he had not seen her face, but rather had heard her voice in the darkness.
That evening, before a light supper, a dozen of the Dominican sisters of Bremen Town gathered together. Meister Eckhart sat among them. He spoke:
“This evening the Scriptural reflection is for the Sunday in Octave of Christmas. It is from Solomon’s Book of Wisdom, chapter 18:
Elkhart looked at each and every women before he said:
“While all things were wrapped in a peaceful silence…
Then he paused.
And night was in the midst of its swift course…
And then he smiled.
A secret word was spoken to me.”
And Meister Eckhart then spoke tenderly of how God was born in the Soul.
And for as long as he spoke, Eckhart saw clear and bright, in his mind’s eye, the face of Femke. No longer just a little runaway girl from Friesland, she was now free woman from the free city of Bremen.
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