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THE SERMON OF DR. TAULER
IT came to pass in the year 1340, or thereabouts, that the streets of the city of Strasburg were crowded with men, women, and children, who were all going in the direction of the great church.
There were knights and nobles and ladies from the castles around, and citizens and their wives, and monks and priests. And there were the Beguine “sisters” and the Beghard “brothers,” who nursed the sick, and took care of homeless and infirm people, and orphans, and neglected children.
And there were, most of all, working men and peasants, and poor people from the dark narrow streets of the city.
And there were foreigners from other countries, for many people came from distant lands, to hear the great preacher of Strasburg.
He was a learned and eloquent man, and he had a loving and tender heart, and he spoke from his heart, not from his head only. He had been preaching at Strasburg for ten or twelve years back, or longer still, for he was now, in 1340, fifty years old, and his name was well known far and near.
The people of Strasburg valued their great preacher all the more, because sixteen years before nearly all their priests and preachers had left the city, and the great cathedral and the churches were shut up, except when a few priests who remained in tile city, or who came there from other places, had an occasional service. And even this was forbidden.
By whom? It was by the man who called himself the Vicar of Christ on earth, and whose commands were therefore to be obeyed as if the voice of God Himself had spoken.
It came to pass thus. In the year 1314, two German princes, Frederick of Austria and Lewis of Bavaria, were elected at the same time as Emperors of Rome. Each one had a strong party on his side, and the Pope had taken part with Frederick. The Pope had good reasons for so doing. Twelve years earlier it had been declared in the famous Bull of Boniface VIII, called Unam Sanctam, that it was a necessary condition of the salvation of every human being, that he should own himself a subject of the Pope of Rome. Boniface had already, two years before, appeared at the great Jubilee, dressed on alternate days as Pope and Emperor. From this time it became a distinctly avowed article of faith, “that there is no power ordained of God but that of the Pope, all other power only exists as subservient to his power, and in so far as he deputes his authority to such power.” The Emperor Lewis had no thought of acknowledging such an article of faith. There were not wanting thousands in Germany who rose in opposition to this marvelous addition to the Word of God. At the head of this opposition stood the brave and God-fearing Emperor, of whom we have the testimony of eleven German cities, that “he was a man doing justice, and striving after righteousness: of all the princes of the world, it is he who lives most conformably to the teachings of Christ; and in faith, as well as in modesty and in moderation, he shines as an example to others.” In the year 1324 a Bull of Pope John XXII declared Lewis a protector and furtherer of heretics, especially of “heretics of Lombardy.” In 1327 a Bull of the same Pope declared him to be himself a heretic, and summoned him to appear at Avignon to receive his sentence. The Emperor took no notice of this summons. The following year the Rector of the University of Paris, Marsilius of Padua, was excommunicated as the author of manifold heresies. He betook himself to the court of the Emperor Lewis, and presented to him the book he had written, which had brought down upon him the ban of the Pope. “What in the world,” said the Emperor, “has induced you to leave the peaceable land of France, and come here, where we are all at war with one another?” Marsilius replied, that love to the Church of Christ had brought him to Germany. “For the Church of the Pope,” he said, “is full of vain pretensions. I am prepared to defend the truth, as I have learnt it, against all who oppose it, and if needful, to lay down my life for it.” What were the heresies of Marsilius? We find that those contained in his book are precisely the same as those of which the Waldenses in his day, and Wyclif in later days, were accused by Rome. “The Church,” he said, “is a word commonly used to mean bishops, priests, and deacons.” (Just as even now, in Protestant England, we may be told that a young man has gone into the Church, by which is meant that he has become a clergyman.) “This use of the word,” said Marsilius, “is entirely in opposition to the meaning attached to it by the apostles. For they have taught us that the Church is the Assembly, that is to say, the entire body of those who believe in Christ. In this sense does Paul use the word, when he writes ‘to the Church’ — that is, the Assembly — ‘at Corinth.’” He explained also, that it is God alone, not the priest, who can forgive sins. “He alone can forgive sins who died for our sins. The only sense in which the priest can give absolution, is the sense in which the gaoler unlocks the prison door; he has no authority to let out the prisoner; but when the judge declares him free, the gaoler may let him out. And God alone looks at the heart, not the priest. An impenitent man may receive absolution, but that does not give him remission of sins, and the penitent man who confesses his sin to God is absolved, whether the priest consents to it or not. For it is written that there is One only who is able to save and to destroy.” More might be related, did space permit, of the teaching of Marsilius. For the present history it is only needful to say further, that the Emperor Lewis gave him a warm welcome, appointed him his physician, and esteemed him greatly. Six years later he was required by the Cardinals of John XXII to dismiss Marsilius, as a condition of peace with Rome. But Lewis refused. Later on Benedict XII required it also. But Lewis never yielded. Marsilius died in his service in the year 1342. It is therefore not to be wondered at, that of the two rival princes, the Pope should have preferred Frederick, and should have been the bitter enemy of Lewis.
For long years the war lasted which was to decide the fate of the Empire. When at last it became evident that Lewis was gaining the day, and that
most of the German towns owned him as Emperor, the Pope, John XXII, laid the Empire under an interdict. He also excommunicated the Emperor Lewis. “May the Almighty God cast Lewis down, and give him into the hands of his enemies and pursuers! May he fall into an unforeseen snare! Cursed be his going out and his coming in! May the Lord smite him with folly and blindness! May the lightning of Heaven blast him! May the wrath of God, and of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, burn against him like fire, in this world, and in the world to come! May the whole earth arm itself against him! May the deep open and swallow him up alive! May his name be clean forgotten, and his memory perish from among men! May all the elements oppose him! May his house be left desolate, may his children be driven from their dwellings, and slain by his enemies before the eyes of their father!”
Thus sounded from Rome the voice of the shepherd of the flock! The Emperor Lewis allowed the Pope to curse, and took no notice of it, except by commanding the clergy in the German Empire to continue their services, and to turn a deaf ear to the Pope. The interdict forbade all services and all preaching.
It can easily be imagined what awe and terror took possession of the many thousands who looked upon the sacraments as the doors of Heaven, and who depended upon the priests for the forgiveness of their sins. When the people of Strasburg saw their priests leave the town, and saw the church doors shut, there were many amongst them who felt as though they were forsaken of God, and delivered over to the devil and his angels.
But the great preacher, Dr. John Tauler, did not share their fears. He stayed behind, and he taught and preached, and cheered and comforted the poor people, who would otherwise have felt themselves like sheep without a shepherd. So the people not only admired his sermons, but they loved him greatly, and whenever he preached, they went in crowds to listen, and they felt proud of their city, because their preacher was talked of in France, and Switzerland and Italy, as well as in the German towns far and near.
The preacher was a meek and modest man, but it was hard for him not to feel that he was wiser and, it may be, holier, than other men. For he who flatters his neighbour spreads a net for his feet, and Dr. John Tauler had heard many flattering speeches, and had perhaps come to believe that some of them were true.
On this day which I have mentioned, in the year 1340, Dr. Tauler watched the crowds who came into the great church, and his heart yearned over them, and he preached, as was his wont, earnestly and solemnly. And the people listened to him as though he were an angel from Heaven.
Amongst them there sat a stranger who came from a city thirty leagues distant, but whose home was still farther away, amongst the great Alps with snowy peaks, and wild glaciers, in the Bernese Oberland.
The stranger was a grave and yet a simple-looking man, and he kept his eyes fixed upon Dr. Tauler as though he loved to look at him. And he thought as he looked at him, “The Master is a very loving, gentle, good-hearted man by nature. He has also a good understanding of the Holy Scripture. But he is dark as to the light of grace, for he has never known it.”
Then the man’s heart yearned over Dr. Tauler, for he had been warned of God three times in a dream, when he was in Switzerland, that he should go and hear him. And he knew that it was God who had shown him how dark was the Master’s heart.
So when he had heard him preach five times, he went to him and said, “Dear and honoured sir, I have travelled a good thirty leagues on your account, to hear your teaching. Now I have heard you preach five times, and I pray you to let me make my confession to you.”
The Master answered, “With all my heart.” Then the man confessed to the Master, and continued to come to him and confess to him for twelve weeks. And all this time he went to hear the Master’s sermons. But he did not say the thing that was upon his heart, for the time was not yet come.
At last he went to him and said, “Dear sir, I beg you for God’s sake to preach us a sermon, showing us how a man may attain to the highest point it is given us to reach whilst we live in this world.”
But the Master answered, “Ah, dear son, what dost thou ask for? How shall I tell thee of such high things? for well I know thou wouldst understand but little thereof.”
Then the men said, “Ah, dear Master, even though I should understand little or nothing thereof, yet I cannot but thirst after it. And see what multitudes flock to hear you. If there were only one among them all who could understand you, your labour were well bestowed.”
Then said the Master, “Dear son, if I am to do as thou sayest, I must needs give some study and labour to the matter, before I can put such a sermon together.”
But the man would not cease from his prayers and entreaties till the Master promised him that he should have his desire.
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