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The Inner Way by John Tauler

III Notes on Tauler's Teaching

Only to Tauler's Sermons must recourse be had to ascertain his teaching; and even of these, as has been noted, a critical edition is desirable. The other works once attributed to him, and printed as his in the Latin version of Surius, are now accounted doubtful, if not certainly spurious. These works are: 1. |The Following of the Poor Life of Christ|; 2. |Exercises on the Life and Passion of our Saviour Jesus Christ|; and 3. |Divine Institutions,| also called |The Marrow of the Soul.| All these are spiritual works of high value, and they deserve a place in any library of devotion; but, as attributed to Tauler, they are not authentic. Such at least is the present verdict of the critics.

Judged then solely by his Sermons, Tauler is described by Von Loe, his latest biographer, as |one of the foremost among the medieval German mystics and preachers, uniting the intellectual depth of Eckhart with the interior spirituality of Suso and the fervour of Berthold of Ratisbon.| The first-named was mystical; the last-named was practical; Suso was both; but he was rather a director than a preacher. Tauler also was both, and, like Berthold, he preached for his times. Herder criticizes him, saying that to have read two of his sermons is to have read them all; but this is hardly a verdict to be accepted; for his method varies largely, and the Sermon numbered xi. in this volume, for the most part so dull and in places barely intelligible, would strike a critic as not the work of the same author as the Sermon numbered xv. which the German editors have described as |a most precious and thoughtful exhortation,| and perhaps the best example of Tauler's method. Sometimes moreover he expounds a text like a homilist; sometimes his text is barely referred to, and becomes a mere peg on which to hang a discourse on a subject of which he was full. No doubt there are readers to whom his allegorical interpretation of Scripture will be distasteful. Kingsley admits that it is |fantastic and arbitrary|; and the method is, of course, one that can easily be abused, especially when the interpretation of numbers is in question. But it has its justification, both in the fact that it is in accordance with Christian tradition -- it is found in St Paul, in the early Fathers (as Keble's Tract lxxxix. made abundantly clear), and in the offices of the Church, whether those for the choir or those for the altar, and traces of it are left in the Anglican Prayer Book -- and also in the experience of sympathetic souls, who find light and consolation in its use. But Tauler's mysticism (of which more is said below) by no means exhausted itself in the allegorical interpretation of Scripture. To him, as to Keble and to Kingsley, the book of Nature was full of parables of things spiritual; and, beyond that again, he clearly enjoyed (for he was no hypocrite) an intuition of things divine, wherein he found more light and certitude than in mere submission to the dogmatic magisterium of the Church.

Further, as to his manner, he is eager and earnest in his presentation of his subject; he uses homely illustrations from daily life, yet without loss of dignity, and when he disparages, as he often does, |outward works,| he is saying nothing against the performance of the duties, even the humblest, of ordinary life; he is merely protesting against reliance on ecclesiastical routine, such as fasting, self-discipline, long prayers, and such-like; and this protest is of course quite compatible with Catholic orthodoxy; nor is it unnecessary for these times any more than for his own. But the manner of his sermons, as they have come down to us, is sometimes hard and even menacing; and readers may not always find it easy to reconcile his frequent use of the words |dear children| with such an apparent lack of tenderness and sympathy. But, likely enough, this defect of manner was less noticeable in the discourses as delivered, than it is in the reports as now read.

Readers will also fine it necessary to bear in mind that the mystical standpoint in religion does not by itself free a man from contemporary views and prepossessions. The mystic is of his own age and race; and it is amply evident that the articles of Tauler's creed were just those of any other Catholic believer of his time. There is throughout a spiritual element in his teaching; but it does not exclude the use of what we should now account popular and conventional language about the fall of man, the pains of hell, and so forth. True, he says in one place, what indeed any Catholic preacher may say, that the chief pain of hell is the consciousness of being excluded from the Presence of God; but he does not go on to suggest, as a spiritually-minded teacher might now, that all other language about the pains of hell, |the worm that dieth not and the fire that is not quenched,| is merely figurative of that one pain, and that such language was and is necessary to bring home men, -- to all men in different degrees, -- the exceeding greatness of that pain or penalty, as it will hereafter be realised. He is liberal indeed in extending to the spiritually-minded heathen a sufficient knowledge of things divine. He holds that in the |inner ground| Plato and Proclus apprehended the Holy Trinity; he things that in Plato can be found the whole meaning of the opening verses of St John's Gospel, though in veiled words. He teaches that a king, remaining such, may yet rise to the height of |interior poverty,| if there is nothing that he is not ready cheerfully to resign to God's Fatherly love. He extols the |evangelical counsels|; but teaches also that the highest perfection is attainable by a married cobbler working to maintain his family. His doctrine of Purgatory does not differ from that usually held by Catholics; but he regards it more as a place for the purging away of self-will than for the expiation of sin. In his sermon for the second Sunday in Lent there is a passage somewhat in disparagement of the invocation of Saints. A good soul, he says, once prayed to the Saints; but they were so lost in God that they did not heed her. Then she betook herself humbly to God direct, and straightway she was lifted far about all media into the loving abyss of the Godhead. But perhaps he comes nearest to the Protestant position in his language about the |Friends of God.| They are, he teaches, the true pillars of the Church, and without them the world could not stand. In his sermon for Laetare Sunday he bids his hearers |beg the dear Friends of God to help them (in the way of perfection), and to attach themselves simply and solely to God and to his chosen Friends.| And there is a similar passage in the sermon for All Saints (see pp.218-222, and cf. pp.93 and 174). But, in his teaching, the |Friends of God| do not form, as they would have formed for the later Puritans, |the Church invisible|; they constitute rather a second visible Church, to which the hierarchical Church is in some respects inferior. Some thirty years after Tauler's death the Inquisition at Cologne condemned as heretical certain propositions of Martin of Mayence; one of which was that these |Friends of God| (who were laymen) understood the Gospel better than some of the Apostles, even better than St Paul; and another was that submission to their teaching was necessary to perfection. But Tauler never went so far as this.

It may be added that, from the modern Christian social point of view, Tauler's limitations are obvious. True, that in his sermon for Septuagesima he exhorts his hearers to use |natural gifts| for God. But his conception of |nature| is a very narrow one. Rightly it should include, besides those natural gifts which constitute personal character, such social virtues as patriotism, love for the community and for the family, a desire to master the earth and to make it the seat of a well-ordered Christian society, a realization of the Kingdom of God on earth. But Tauler manifests no conception of anything of this. For the social elevation of mankind, here and now, he has nothing whatever to say.

Nevertheless, whatever were our author's limitations, Preger's judgment on the value of Tauler's sermons is one to command general assent: -- |Their strength lies in the fact that Tauler knew how to put into them his whole heart, the fulness of his moral being. So utterly and completely is he penetrated by love of God and of Christ, so happily is the sublime and unworldly zeal of the orator blended with gentleness and freedom, that he masters the will unawares, and lays the heart open to the demands he makes upon it ...His sermons will never cease to hold their place among the most perfect examples of pure German speech, of fervid German faith, and of German spirituality in all its depths.

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