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§ 30. John Tauler of Strassburg.
To do Thy will is more than praise,
As words are less than deeds;
And simple trust can find Thy ways
We miss with chart of creeds.
– Whittier. Our Master.
Among the admirers of Eckart, the most distinguished were John Tauler and Heinrich Suso. With them the speculative element largely disappears and the experimental and practical elements predominate. They emphasized religion as a matter of experience and the rule of conduct. Without denying any of the teachings or sacraments of the Church, they made prominent immediate union with Christ, and dwelt upon the Christian graces, especially patience, gentleness and humility. Tauler was a man of sober mind, Suso poetical and imaginative.
John Tauler, called doctor illuminatus, was born in Strassburg about 1300, and died there, 1361. Referring to his father’s circumstances, he once said, "If, as my father’s son, I had once known what I know now, I would have lived from my paternal inheritance instead of resorting to alms."468468 Preger, III. 131. The oldest Strassburg MS. entitles Tauler erluhtete begnodete Lerer. See Schmidt, p. 159. Preger, III. 93, gives the names of a number of persons by the name of Taweler, or Tawler, living in Strassburg. Probably as early as 1315, he entered the Dominican order. Sometime before 1330, he went to Cologne to take the usual three-years’ course of study. That he proceeded from there to Paris for further study is a statement not borne out by the evidence. He, however, made a visit in the French capital at one period of his career. Nor is there sufficient proof that he received the title doctor or master, although he is usually called Dr. John Tauler.
He was in his native city again when it lay under the interdict fulminated against it in 1329, during the struggle between John XXII. and Lewis the Bavarian. The Dominicans offered defiance, continuing to say masses till 1339, when they were expelled for three years by the city council. We next find Tauler at Basel, where he came into close contact with the Friends of God, and their leader, Henry of Nördlingen. After laboring as priest in Bavaria, Henry went to the Swiss city, where he was much sought after as a preacher by the clergy and laymen, men and women. In 1357, Tauler was in Cologne, but Strassburg was the chief seat of his activity. Among his friends were Christina Ebner, abbess of a convent near Nürnberg, and Margaret Ebner, a nun of the Bavarian convent of Medingen, women who were mystics and recipients of visions.469469 Christina wrote a book entitled Von der Gnaden Ueberlast, giving an account of the tense life led by the sisters in her convent. She declared that the Holy Spirit played on Tauler’s heart as upon a lute, and that it had been revealed to her in a vision that his fervid tongue would set the earth on fire. See Strauch’s art. in Herzog, V. 129 sq. Also Preger, II. 247-251, 277 sqq. Tauler died in the guest-chamber of a nunnery in Strassburg, of which his sister was an inmate.
Tauler’s reputation in his own day rested upon his power as a preacher, and it is probable that his sermons have been more widely read in the Protestant Church than those of other mediaeval preachers. The reason for this popularity is the belief that the preacher was controlled by an evangelical spirit which brought him into close affinity with the views of the Reformers. His sermons, which were delivered in German, are plain statements of truth easily understood, and containing little that is allegorical or fanciful. They attempt no display of learning or speculative ingenuity. When Tauler quotes from Augustine, Gregory the Great, Dionysius, Anselm or Thomas Aquinas, as he sometimes does, though not as frequently as Eckart, he does it in an incidental way. His power lay in his familiarity with the Scriptures, his knowledge of the human heart, his simple style and his own evident sincerity.470470 Specklin, the Strassburg chronicler, says Tauler spoke "in clear tones, with real fervor. His aim was to bring men to feel the nothingness of the world. He condemned clerics as well as laymen." He was a practical every-day preachers intent on reaching men in their various avocations and trials.
If we are to follow the History of Tauler’s Life and Conscience, which appeared in the first published edition of his works, 1498, Tauler underwent a remarkable spiritual change when he was fifty.471471 A translation of the book is given by Miss Winkworth, pp. 1-73. It calls Tattler’s monitor der grosse Gottesfreund im Oberlande. See § 32. Under the influence of Nicolas of Basel, a Friend of God from the Oberland, he was then led into a higher stage of Christian experience. Already had he achieved the reputation of an effective preacher when Nicolas, after hearing him several times, told him that he was bound in the letter and that, though he preached sound doctrine, he did not feel the power of it himself. He called Tauler a Pharisee. The rebuked man was indignant, but his monitor replied that he lacked humility and that, instead of seeking God’s honor, he was seeking his own. Feeling the justice of the criticism, Tauler confessed he had been told his sins and faults for the first time. At Nicolas’ advice he desisted from preaching for two years, and led a retired life. At the end of that time Nicolas visited him again, and bade him resume his sermons. Tauler’s first attempt, made in a public place and before a large concourse of people, was a failure. The second sermon he preached in a nunnery from the text, Matt. 25:6, "Behold the bridegroom cometh, go ye out to meet him," and so powerful was the impression that 50 persons fell to the ground like dead men. During the period of his seclusion, Tauler had surrendered himself entirely to God, and after it he continued to preach with an unction and efficiency before unknown in his experience.
Some of Tauler’s expressions might give the impression that he was addicted to quietistic views, as when he speaks of being "drowned in the Fatherhood of God," of "melting in the fire of His love," of being "intoxicated with God." But these tropical expressions, used occasionally, are offset by the sober statements in which he portrays the soul’s union with God. To urge upon men to surrender themselves wholly to God and to give a practical exemplification of their union with Him in daily conduct was his mission.
He emphasized the agency of the Holy Spirit, who enlightens and sanctifies, who rebukes sin and operates in the heart to bring it to self-surrender.472472 One of the sermons, bringing out the influence of the Spirit, based on John 16:7-11, is quoted at length by Archdeacon Hare in his Mission of the Comforter. See also Miss Winkworth, pp. 350 358. The change effected by the Spirit, which he called Kehr — conversion—he dwelt upon continually. The word, which frequently occurs in his sermons, was almost a new word in mediaeval sermonic vocabulary. Tauler also insisted upon the Eckartian Abgeschiedenheit, detachment from the world, and says that a soul, to become holy, must become "barren and empty of all created things," and rid of all that "pertains to the creature." When the soul is full of the creature, God must of necessity remain apart from it, and such a soul is like a barrel that has been filled with refuse or decaying matter. It cannot thereafter be used for good, generous wine or any other pure drink.473473 Inner Way, pp. 81, 113, 128, 130.
As for good works, if done apart from Christ, they are of no avail. Tauler often quoted the words of Isaiah 64:6. "All our righteousnesses are as a polluted garment." By his own power, man cannot come unto God. Those who have never felt anxiety on account of their sins are in the most dangerous condition of all.474474 Miss Winkworth, pp. 353, 475, etc.
The sacraments suffer no depreciation at Tauler’s hands, though they are given a subordinate place. They are all of no avail without the change of the inward man. Good people linger at the outward symbols, and fail to get at the inward truth symbolized. Yea, by being unduly concerned about their movements in the presence of the Lord’s body, they miss receiving him spiritually. Men glide, he says, through fasting, prayer, vigils and other exercises, and take so much delight in them that God has a very small part in their hearts, or no part in them at all.475475 Inner Way, p. 200. Miss Winkworth, pp. 345, 360 sqq.
In insisting upon the exercise of a simple faith, it seems almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that Tauler took an attitude of intentional opposition to the prescient and self-confident methods of scholasticism. It is better to possess a simple faith—einfaltiger Glaube — than to vainly pry into the secrets of God, asking questions about the efflux and reflux of the Aught and Nought, or about the essence of the soul’s spark. The Arians and Sabellians had a marvellous intellectual understanding of the Trinity, and Solomon and Origen interested the Church in a marvellous way, but what became of them we know not. The chief thing is to yield oneself to God’s will and to follow righteousness with sincerity of purpose. "Wisdom is not studied in Paris, but in the sufferings of the Lord," Tauler said. The great masters of Paris read large books, and that is well. But the people who dwell in the inner kingdom of the soul read the true Book of Life. A pure heart is the throne of the Supreme Judge, a lamp bearing the eternal light, a treasury of divine riches, a storehouse of heavenly sweetness, the sanctuary of the only begotten Son.476476 Preger, III. 132; Miss Winkworth, p. 348.
A distinctly democratic element showed itself in Tauler’s piety and preaching which is very attractive. He put honor upon all legitimate toil, and praised good and faithful work as an expression of true religion. One, he said, "can spin, another can make shoes, and these are the gifts of the Holy Ghost; and I tell you that, if I were not a priest, I should esteem it a great gift to be able to make shoes, and would try to make them so well as to become a pattern to all." Fidelity in one’s avocation is more than attendance upon church. He spoke of a peasant whom he knew well for more than forty years. On being asked whether he should give up his work and go and sit in church, the Lord replied no, he should win his bread by the sweat of his brow, and thus he would honor his own precious blood. The sympathetic element in his piety excluded the hard spirit of dogmatic complacency. "I would rather bite my tongue," Tauler said, "till it bleed, than pass judgment upon any man. Judgment we should leave to God, for out of the habit of sitting in judgment upon one’s neighbor grow self-satisfaction and arrogance, which are of the devil."477477 Preger, III. 131; Miss Winkworth, p. 355.
It was these features, and especially Tauler’s insistence upon the religious exercises of the soul and the excellency of simple faith, that won Luther’s praise, first in letters to Lange and Spalatin, written in 1516. To Spalatin he wrote that he had found neither in the Latin nor German tongue a more wholesome theology than Tauler’s, or one more consonant with the Gospel.478478 Köstlin, Life of M. Luther, I. 117 sq., 126. Melanchthon, in the Preface to the Franf. ed. of Tauler said: "Among the moderns, Tauler is easily the first. I hear, however, that there are some who dare to deny the Christian teaching of this, highly esteemed man." Beza was of a different mind, and called Tauler a visionary. See Schmidt, p. 160. Preger, III. 194, goes so far as to say that Tauler clearly taught the evangelical doctrine of justification.
The mood of the heretic, however, was furthest from Tauler. Strassburg knew what heresy was, and had proved her orthodoxy by burning heretics. Tauler was not of their number. He sought to call a narrow circle away from the formalities of ritual to close communion with God, but the Church was to him a holy mother. In his reverence for the Virgin, he stood upon mediaeval ground. Preaching on the Annunciation, he said that in her spirit was the heaven of God, in her soul His paradise, in her body His palace. By becoming the mother of Christ, she became the daughter of the Father, the mother of the Son, the Holy Spirit’s bride. She was the second Eve, who restored all that the first Eve lost, and Tauler does not hesitate to quote some of Bernard’s passionate words pronouncing Mary the sinner’s mediator with Christ. He himself sought her intercession. If any one could have seen into her heart, he said, he would have seen God in all His glory.479479 The Inner Way, p. 57 sqq. 77 sqq.
Though he was not altogether above the religious perversions of the mediaeval Church, John Tauler has a place among the godly leaders of the Church universal, who have proclaimed the virtue of simple faith and immediate communion with God and the excellency of the unostentatious practice of righteousness from day to day. He was an expounder of the inner life, and strikes the chord of fellowship in all who lay more stress upon pure devotion and daily living than upon ritual exercises. A spirit congenial to his was Whittier, whose undemonstrative piety poured itself out in hearty appreciation of his unseen friend of the fourteenth century. The modern Friend represents the mysterious stranger, who pointed out to Tauler the better way, as saying:—
What hell may be, I know not. This I know,
I cannot lose the presence of the Lord.
One arm, Humility, takes hold upon
His dear humanity; the other, Love,
Clasps His divinity. So where I go
He goes; and better fire-walled hell with Him
Than golden-gated Paradise without.
My prayer is answered. God hath sent the man,
Long sought, to teach me, by his simple trust,
Wisdom the weary Schoolmen never knew.
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