Christmastide in Bremen Town
Beginning in the Year of Our Lord 1303
Introducing Meister Eckhart
The stories I tell these next two days will be challenging. First they are longer than most of my tales, and also complex in their structure. So begin them only if you have some quiet and are not rushed. If you rush to read them, you will lose your way…
But the biggest challenge will be Meister Eckhart himself. He was a 14th Century mystic and philosopher, a Dominican Friar whose unconventional preaching and teaching led to his being investigated by The Inquisition… that dreaded word in the history of Christianity. Today, he is both highly respected by many, and still under suspicion by others. So, I invite you to enter into these two tales and make your own judgement.
If you do not know Meister Eckhart, I recommend two books: Meister Eckhart, Selected Writings, edited by Oliver Davies. Excellent introduction. Identifies the major themes: Oneness, Creation, Birth of God in the Soul, The Ground of the Soul, and Detachment.
The Way of Paradox: Spiritual Life as Taught by Meister Eckhart, by Cyprian Smith. Best and most clear explanation of Eckhart I have ever read. Wonderful!
This first tale — “Klaus the Pirate” — explores Meister Eckhart as a creative and controversial preacher. The second tale — “Femke the Runaway" as a compassionate spiritual director.
— Robert Béla Wilhelm
The Brementown Christmas Market Today
One of the most festive Christmas markets in Germany can be found in Bremen… or Brementown as it is called in the famous children’s story of The Brementown Musicians.
Over the past year I have been searching for ways to tell the story of the German mystic Meister Eckhart. He was controversial as a preacher, a teacher, and a philosopher. And I have learned much from his wisdom. But who is the fascinating person behind the scholar? Little is known of his personal life, but enough to suggest that he may have written four of his best sermons in a place like Bremen over the Christmas season of 1303-1304.
In my search to see the face of Eckhart, and not just the printed words of his sermons, I have explored medieval Bremen in my mind’s eye over many months this year. And one of the clues I found — a crucial and playful teaching metaphor — was the old folktale of the Bremertown Musicians.
The story is mine, but the teachings are his.
Suppose Meister Eckhart knew the tale of the Donkey, the Dog, the Cat, and the Cock, and adapted it for one of his Christmas sermons? “Outrageous to think that”, the scholars would cry.
But suppose… Just suppose… What would have happened if someone as brilliant and playful as the Meister decided to be outrageous with a storytelling sermon?
Chapter 1• Feast of the Holy Innocents
The Tale of Klaus the Pirate
Meister Eckhart of Hochheim had just been appointed as prior of the Dominican friars in the Province of Saxony, in North Germany. And so he began to make the rounds to all the monasteries and convents northward along the Rhine, and finally to the North Sea. This morning, as he awakened before sunrise, Eckhart was a guest at the Dominican house called Katherinenkloster — the monastery of St. Catherine of Siena in Bremen Town.
He came in mid December, and he would remain here until the Feast of Magi ended the Christmas season. And then he would travel on foot to the next community of Dominicans in his far-flung province.
A warm wind had blown in from the North Sea, and the Christmas snow had mostly melted over the past three days. He washed his face in the bowl that sat in front of the leaded window panes that looked out over the cloister. Eckhart thought of the quiet place he had discovered a week ago.
“I must go there and bring my scattered life together. So many demands, so much hustle and bustle here in Bremen Town.”
The Meister reached for a linen cloth and slowly dried his hands. Then he looked down on the wash water in the pewter bowl. It had stilled itself from his stirring and splashing.
At first he could only see the window panes of glass glowing with the light of dawn which was reflected by the water. But then Eckhart leaned forward, his head over the bowl. He looked down.
“The nothingness of the water reflects my face so perfectly. Every line on my brow, the stubble on my chin, my uncombed hair locks. But if I pull back…” and with that he stepped back a pace or two. “…I only see the panes of glass glowing with light.
And then Meister Eckhardt stepped back again, and the reflection of light from the window disappeared. The round pewter bowl now darkened like the ceiling above it. No image. No light rested on its surface.
“So it is without the Face of God. If God withdraws his gaze on the waters of creation…” He took the cloth and wiped his face dry “…the world no longer exists.”
Eckhart donned his black and white Dominican habit, walked down the stairs, and quickly strode the already busy streets of Bremen Town. He took the footbridge across the River Weser, and soon was walking through the flat farmlands. Soon he saw the top of the broken windmill. His pace slowed. Now there was only the sky above, and the dried grass and straw along the footpath. And the fluttering of the windsails, tattered and ragged, on the four wings of the abandoned windmill.
Eckhart closed his eyes. He knew that if he kept his eyes open, they would be scanning the landscape. “I would be seeking the beauty of His creation, but then I would see only creatures and not Him.”
He listened to the whistling of the wind, the flapping of the windsails, the sound of the gulls. “But I do not need to look for Him. Now He speaks to me. I do nothing. I listen and I hear the voice of God.”
The Meister sat on the edge of an old cart, with one wheel whole and one wheel broken, for the longest time. The old cart was now rooted in the ground like the windmill in front of him. His thoughts turned from his body downward towards the ground.
His sandaled feet seemed to push into the tufted grasses, down, down, down into the ground. Eckart was one with the music that played itself around him, dancing and swirling in the ocean breezes. And time was no more.
The friar suddenly took a deep breath, and sighed “Ahhh, Father Time beckons me back from Eternity.”
Walking slowly towards Bremen Town, the friar thought of his preaching for the Feast of the Holy Innocents today. He had prepared a sermon, but he was not happy with its grim images of Herod’s slaughtering the children and the mothers wailing, sobbing in grief. If fact, Meister Eckhart hated December 28. “How I wish I had been born on Christmas Day…” he smiled to himself “…but at least I am thankful that I was not born on Innocents Day.”
He imagined as he walked: “…The choir boys would process from the merchants church of St. Nicholas to the Cathedral. All the way they would horseplay, pull pranks, sing bawdy songs. They would celebrate as the Lords of Misrule, a role they donned on St. Nicholas’ Day, December 6. Now, they would be dethroned in the Cathedral. Slaughtered like Innocents! And the Bishop of Bremen would establish order once again as he stripped the imposter Boy Bishop from his clerical garb.” Eckhart had seen all this in other German cathedrals in years past.
By now the Meister was seated on the steps of the Domkirche, the Cathedral, as the mischief-making boys arrived and a merry crowd gathered. The lads were still at their antics, and Eckhart delighted in their playfulness.
But all was not play. A stonemason was finishing the figures alongside the entrance. The Meister had watched him work just before Christmas and learned of the story he was carving into the hard ground of the stone. On the bottom was a donkey. Atop the ass was a dog. And on top of the dog stood a cat. Finally, perched above the cat was a cock.
As the boys sang and caroused around him, the stonemason chipped away revealing the shallow relief of the cock. Eckhart could see that the work of the stonemason was coming to an end, just as the rowdy antics of the boys were also ending. But something was beginning, too. Ideas and images danced in the Meister’s mind’s eye.
Eckhart quickly sprung up, a grin across his face, and his feet dancing as he entered the cathedral. “I am carried…” he thought “…by the same wind that played with the tattered sails of the old windmill.”
The Friar breathed in, his lungs filling with the salt air that blew through Bremen Town. “Yes, I have my sermon.”
Tucked in among the other clergy, The Meister amusedly watched the real bishop pull the boy bishop from the episcopal throne as he struck him lightly three times with a switch. And the boy bishop was transformed back into a mere choir boy. Eckart smiled “… The lad has been struck by the magic wand of his fairy godmother.”
The Mass began, the choir sang joyously, the bishop prayed seriously, and Eckhart laughed guardedly. And when the Gospel reading was done, the Meister sprang from his seat and skipped up the winding stairs of the stone-carved pulpit. He smiled at the choir boys, nodded to the bishop, and then turned to the congregation.
“ ‘When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.’ (Hosea 11:1) God calls his children out of Egypt. But you will be surprised that it is not only Egypt, but Rome, and Cologne, and yes — do not be shocked — Bremen. For we know we are in exile when we work day and night like slaves for Pharaoh.
“The citizens of Bremen have no time to be one with ourselves, nor with God. We are busy gutting and salting herring, unloading timbers from the ships, selling bolts of woolens in our shops, fingering our silver bracelets and amber jewels, hoarding our coins of gold in the iron boxes we hide under the wooden floors of our homes.
“Here in Bremen Town, you must have seen that old donkey who carted goods up and down the Langenstrasse, the long street, for years. Bones ached, and the back was bent. And one day, the owner of that poor ass said, “You are too old to work. Time to take you to the butcher and flay your hide.
“And then there was a mutt of a dog who belonged to a fowler. But he grew old, his senses dulled, and he was useless in fetching the birds who fell from the sky into the marsh whenever the fowler’s arrow or his snare found their mark. And so the dog was thrown into the streets, and found his food by gnawing on the bones tossed into the ditch from the butcher shops along Knochenhauerstrasse.
“The cat who was such a keen and wily mouser, now rested from her years of work, and sat idly by the warmth of the fireplace. And hearing that her mistress planned to drown her, she fled from the Schnoor.
“And there in the Schlachte, the hen wife who sells eggs in the city market, is planning a Sunday meal for her daughter’s suitor. She’s just raised a fine young rooster, and can rid herself of the old cock. Chop off his head, pluck his feathers, and toss him into the soup pot with some leeks, onions, and a sprig of thyme.
“And rather than be slaughtered, the old rooster runs down to the narrow city gate, the one called the Bishop’s Needle, in the middle of the night.
“There, by the moonlight, the Rooster sees the Donkey, the Dog, and the Cat. And all together they slip through the city walls, cross the bridge over the dark waters. And braying, barking, meowing, and crowing, they come out of… Egypt.”
The Meister’s listeners were jolted. Were they not prowling the night streets of Bremen Town just a moment ago with these unfortunate beasts? And now this preacher has told them that they have just fled Egypt? Some of the choir boys giggled as they imagined the braying, the barking… until the Lord Bishop cast his cold eye upon them and they fell into silence.
Eckhart paused for a moment and then said: “And where could they go, after passing through the gate that you call the Bishop’s Needle, and that little meandering river that is the Kleine Wumme? You have surely walked there yourselves many times when you sought to escape the busyness of the world and wanted desperately the stillness of God?”
And the Friar paused again, knowing that his listeners would all mumble the name in the silence of their hearts, but not dare to utter it aloud in the Domkirk, the solemn and holy Cathedral of St. Peter. And then Eckhart waited a bit longer than he thought right for a preacher. But he could not resist. He looked upwards to the high windows of the great nave. The outdoor winter light barely filtered through the glass into the dark caverns and crevices of the cold cathedral stone.
Eckhart was lost in memory, sitting on the broken cart in front of the abandoned windmill. But it was not Father Time who brought him back. A strong, sharp voice shattered the silence:
“ ‘The Blocklands, of course. We all know that…” snapped the Bishop of Bremen. A choir boy cupped his mouth, but not before a laugh half-escaped. And the Bishop cast his eyes down to his laced leather booths without a further word.
“ ‘Yes, My Lord Bishop, they all trotted, and trampled, and scampered, and fluttered into the Blocklands…” Eckhart regained his balance, and was now enjoying the words as they tumbled from his mouth. How he loved to play with words!
‘And the Scripture says, They shall walk after the LORD, who shall roar like a lion; for He shall roar, and the children shall come trembling, shouting, singing…’ (Hosea 11:10) For it was not the Donkey, nor any of them, who roared like a Lion. It was the Silent God.
‘And the Silent God became a small light in the distance. And they were drawn to it. When they emptied themselves from the noise and the glitter of Egypt, then they were given the glimpse of a tiny light. And it would draw these children away from slaughter and death. They would escape the knife of King Herod.
“A yearning would draw them towards that ever receding light. And, in time they would never reach it, though they longed for it. But the compassionate God took them from the realm of Father Time and Father Death into the Here. Into the Now. God drew them into the ground of his being, to a Little Castle… which was an old abandoned windmill in a hidden corner of the Blocklands.
‘As they came close, they imagined that there might be thieves or murderers lurking in this remote place. But they saw a window above the entrance door — and under the outstretched angel-wings of the windmill — where the light still glowed inside. And what did they do, so that they might peer inside? Tell me choir boys… for you know this Bremen Town story very well…’
The boys jostled with each other to spit out the words of the folktale. One said, ‘The Donkey stood firmly on the bottom…” and the second choir boy spoke more loudly “And the Dog stood on the Donkey…” and then a third choir boy said in a soft whisper “And the Little Pussy Cat sat on the Doggie.” And finally a rather tall choir boy added “…and the Rooster sat on top of them all and peeked inside the window…”
Preacher Eckhart laughed and interrupted the lad before he could say what was in the room filled with the light. He had thought this out carefully, thinking to himself. ‘Of course every Bremen lad and lass knows that there are thieves inside… and that the Four Bremen Town Musicians will bray, and bark, and screech, and cock-a-doodle-do to frighten the Thieves away… but that is not the story I will tell.”
Eckhart spoke of Angel wings not windmill sails.
He described the soft inviting fireplace light and how angels descended. One folded his eagle wings on the straw mat. Another angel settled with his butterfly wings behind the door. And the next angel its owl wings by the warm ashes by the fire. And then a last and glorious angel with wings of an Osprey perched on a rafter of the great room.
And then the Meister finished his quote from Hosea: “They shall come trembling as a bird out of Egypt, and as a dove out of the land of Assyria; as an ass out of Langenstrasse, as a dog out of Knochenhauerstrasse, as a cat out of the Schnoor, as a rooster out of the Schlachte and I will make them to dwell in their houses, saith the LORD.
“And so the four musician ‘citizens’ of Bremen Town (for is not anyone who lives in Bremen Town for a year and day a free ‘citizen’ of Bremen?) came out of their exile in Bremen free from the burdens of everyday work. Free from the sorrows and joys of every day life. Free from shackles and obligations. They were now rooted in the ground of rest and peace.
“The Donkey laid on the straw and was enfolded by the wings of an angel. The Dog rested snuggly behind the door. The Cat curled up at the warm edge of the fireplace, and the Cock fell asleep perched on the great oaken beam up by the loft.
“And all night long the winds from the North Sea slowly turned the sails of the windmill, slowly turning the grinding stone. But it ground no wheat, nor barley, nor rye. Instead it ground out Manna, the food of heaven. And the four Bremen Town Musicians ate to their hearts content when they arose in the morning as the Sun sprung from the depths of the sea and the ground of the earth, high into the blue sky. And they were forever hungry no more… hungry nevermore.
“The Good God had had called them out of Bremen, as he calls all of us out of Egypt. He has called everyone to leave the shackles of worldly care behind, and to find peace and rest in Him and the heavenly host that feeds our every need with Manna from heaven.”
Eckhart slowly descended from the pulpit. The Lord Bishop moved toward the altar, and the Choir Boys became song birds as they raised their voices in praise.
After Mass, in the sacristy where they stripped their liturgical vestments off their backs, the oldest choir boy carefully removed his own church clothes from atop his street clothes. All the while the lad kept scowling at the Meister.
The Eckhart noticed, and thought “The lad is trying to gather up his courage and tell me that I told the story all wrong. But he is afraid to speak. But his doubt about what I said, has already taken him on a journey. He is now on the road to God’s house He questions… and he should not be ignored.”
“Well, lad, what did you think of the way I told the Bremen Town Musicians? Did you like it… or hate it?”
The boy was taken aback. What could he dare say? And there was the Lord Bishop himself who turned towards the boy when the question was asked.
“What is your name, lad?” asked Eckhart.
“And the story?”
The boy snapped, “Well it was all wrong. The animals came to Bremen from the countryside, not the other way around. And it wasn’t a windmill. It was a farmhouse. And they found murderers, or thieves, or pirates there…”
“Pirates, Klaus? Like the Pirate Klaus… Klaus Stortebeker?”
Klaus blushed and nodded, yes.
“If you told the story you would not have thieves or murderers there, would you? You would have your hero, Klaus Stortebeker.”
The Meister knew this was his chance to engage the lad… “But what would he do when he heard the Musicians braying and barking outside his hideaway?”
Klaus’ face lit up. “Oh, he would never be afraid. No, never ever. He would pull out his sword, dash outside, and see what the commotion was…” Klaus hesitated, “… but he would not harm the animals or anything like that. I would — I mean HE would — invite them in and share his food with them. And then they would become pirates, too, and be free…”
Meister Eckhart quickly interrupted “…and be free from his reading and writing assignments at the Cathedral School and the long hours of practicing in the choir?”
Klaus laughed, “Yes, Meister. I would.” And with that he folded his choir garb, put it aside, and roughhoused with his friends as they left the sacristy.
His Lordship, Bishop Heinrich, now turned to Eckhart. “You are certainly a clever man. So you know the story of our famous pirate Klaus Stortebeker as well our favorite tale of the Bremen Town Musicians. And you had the lad improvise that story in a similar manner to the way you changed the Musicians story. And so the boy was satisfied. And you were off the hook. A good piece of pedagogy, Meister Eckhart.”
Eckhart was relieved. The Lord Bishop was now in good humor. He had not misunderstood. Heinrich had grasped what Eckhart did with his sermon. And now Eckhart would press the case to his advantage.
“Yes, My Lordship, the people listen to the Scriptures again and again, and take them for granted. They listen but do not hear. They are wed to their hopes and fears. They have not emptied themselves of their expectations so they can hear with Virgin ears. If they could only hear the Gospel as if it were the first time! Every time they hear the Scripture they should be younger than when they heard it the time before. Younger, not older, with every hearing.
“And so I ply them with another story that they know too well, the Bremen Town Musicians. And so they leave questioning my version. And they have then to reconstruct the story in the ground of their being. Their images have been destroyed, and now they must search for the deeper meaning of the story. They must struggle in their mind’s eye with the two versions of the tale. And they will then see God in both versions, but differently.”
As they walked out of the side door of the sacristy into the bishops’ garden, Heinrich asked: “And how is that, Eckhart? How is God in this frivolous tale? After all, it is meant for entertainment, nothing more. Just like our game of the Boy Bishop.”
The day was warm and sunny, and Bishop Heinrich sat on the stone bench that was his favorite spot in his garden. He motioned to Eckhart to sit next to him,. “Tell me, Meister, how is God in this tale?”
Eckhart closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. Then he opened this eyes and turned towards Heinrich. “My Lord, the citizens of Bremen believe that they are free and happy because they live in Bremen. Many of them have fled serfdom in the countryside and managed to live for a year and a day in the safety of the city walls without the henchman of their feudal lords capturing them by night and smuggling back to their slavery. And so, after a frightful year and a day, they become free citizens of Bremen.
“But they are afraid that as they age and become ‘useless’, in this busy Hanseatic port where merchandise and money is king, they will be forced to return to the dangers of the countryside. They will lose their human dignity and be reduced to their animal selves — along with the ranks of donkeys, dogs, cats, and cocks. And so they are filled with fear. In their ghostly dreams they see a poor farmhouse where death awaits them. It must be occupied by Thieves, Murderers, or even Devils. But they are trapped in Time and Space by their creatureliness and their fears.”
Heinrich nodded, “Yes, you are perceptive. And you are right about the people of Bremen. I have lived here all my life, and you are so right. But where is God in all of this? After all you were giving a sermon, not a storytelling.”
Eckhart now stood up and began to speak with greater animation. He was now performing for his audience of one as if a thousand souls were listening to his every word.
“We are Christians. And we are in exile. The grind of everyday life, the burdens that mingle with the joys, erodes the ground on which we stand. We make believe that Bremen is paradise, when we know it is Egypt. Yes, we are free citizens of Bremen, but we are slaves to our possessions. Not only our materials goods, but our feelings, our desires, our pride, our opinions, our self-importance. If we can only find that safe place where God embraces us as sons and daughters. Where we realize that we are nothing, and He is everything. For then He will find room in the empty space of our souls which we ourselves have stripped bare. When we are empty, God will enter our empty space. And we will find both peace and joy.
“And so I destroy the image of Bremen and replace it with the soft sea breeze that blows over the Blocklands. Fields of marshy grass next to fields of wheat and rye. And not a shabby farm cottage, but a great windmill that dances in the wind and grinds out Manna from heaven. This is the Garden of Eden, the only way we can imagine it here in North Germany. It is a place where God send his angels to comfort us so that we can rest in peace.
“What better image of peace than to rest on a mat of straw, or snug behind a door, or warm near a fire, or secure in a loft. In restful sleep the Prince and the Pauper are one. All these places are our home, the place where we are grounded in God.
“It is His Home, and he freely gives it to us because he loves us. We have emptied ourselves of the passion we have to possess the world. We have left Egypt like Moses, and Aaron, and Miriam. We are empty. And He fills our emptiness by showing us a little light on a distant horizon. We hunger for that Light. We approach it. We come to the Little Castle He has prepared for us. And when we arrive, He has His angels invite us in.”
Bishop Heinrich sat still in silence. Eckhardt stood motionless in front of him. Even the gulls, high in the sky were silent, But a soft wind blew. And the winter sun shone upon them.
“Yes, my Preacher, you speak to one old man with the same passion as your preach from the pulpit to hundreds. You hold back nothing. And perhaps God has hidden nothing from you.’
And so the two left the garden. His Lordship Heinrich to dine alone in his palace. Meister Eckart to share supper with his brother friars nearby at Katherinenkloster, named after another Dominican — St. Catherine of Siena. Eckhart liked her, for she was as outspoken as he.
And that is how Meister Eckhart preached the Gospel in Bremen Town in the Year of Our Lord, 1303. With the help of a Cock, a Cat, a Dog, and a Donkey.
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