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The History And Life Of The Reverend Doctor John Tauler by Catherine Winkworth

XXVII Sermon on a Martyr's Day

Of three sorts of spiritual temptation by which holy men are secretly assailed; to wit: spiritual unchastity, covetousness, and pride.

James i.12. -- |Blessed is the man that endureth temptation; for when he is tried he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love Him.

ALL our life (says Job), so long as we are upon earth, is full of struggle and temptation, insomuch that this life is not called a life by the Saints, but a temptation. When one temptation is over, straightway others are awaiting us, and the cause is that our Lord will have us to go and bring forth fruit; and the fruit is to walk in the ways of God and go forward; for the fruit consists in the very overcoming of temptation, from which we may draw out a hidden spiritual sweetness, as the bees suck honey from the thorn-bushes as well as from all other flowers. He who has not been tempted, knows nothing, nor lives as yet, say the wise man Solomon, and the holy teacher St. Bernard. We find more than a thousand testimonies in Scripture to the great profit of temptation; for it is the special sign of the love of God towards a man for him to be tempted and yet kept from falling; for thus he must and shall of a certainty receive the crown, like the martyr whose death the Christian Church commemorates this day, singing of him that he is blessed because he hath endured temptation, and has been tried and proved therein, that he might receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to them that love him.

Now observe, dear children, that there are two kinds of temptation. The one is carnal, and has its sphere in the kingdom of sense in this present life, as when a man is tempted through his outward senses to seek his happiness in other men, be they friends or relations, or any others, or to undue fondness for the outward show of life, such as dress, jewels, books, instruments, a pleasant abode, and other transitory creatures, and wilfully cleaves thereunto with manifold affections, and they stick to him like burrs. At times our outward senses are left in peace, and are quit of assaults, yet is the man strangely assaulted inwardly in his flesh and blood by unseemly thoughts; but, however impure may be these temptations, and however horrible they may look, they cannot of themselves defile a man's purity. St. Gregory says: |Temptations do not defile a man except through his own slackness and want of diligence in turning aside from them.|

The other sort of temptation is inward and spiritual, and has its seat in the realm of the intellect. The workings of the Spirit and of Nature are so mingled together and interwoven as long as we are in this present life, that all our inward exercises and converse with God are carried on at the same time with all the motions and workings of nature. Moreover, our Lord has so ordained it for our good, that the Evil Angel, Satan, has power to transform himself before the inward eye of the mind into an Angel of Light; and he does it most of all at those times when a man gathers up all his powers to enter into communion with God. Observe, dear children, that St. John divides sin into three kinds, when he says, all that is of the world is |the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.| As these three sins that reign in the world exist together in the flesh, so do they also reign inwardly in the mind, under a spiritual guise. Outward sins are very clear and easy to see, if a man have a mind to watch himself; but these mental sins are in many ways more covert, and can put on such a good face, that we are often hardly aware of the grievous fall that is close at hand.

Now mark: it is to be counted as spiritual unchastity or wantonness, when a man seeks himself too much, and with eager desire strives after warmth and sensible devoutness, to the end that he may always be in a state of contentment, and none may have a right to reprove him, though he should give himself to his own special prayers and religious exercises, while leaving unfulfilled the work that is his duty. When such an one has none of these sweet emotions, he is quite troubled and becomes peevish and very impatient in the trifling mishaps that befall him, though they are really of no importance whatever; and when he cannot enjoy or obtain inward peace according to his desire, he complains of the great grievances and temptations which he has to endure. St. Bernard says that our Lord bestows these graces of sensible emotion upon such as have done nothing to deserve them nor are worthy of them, but He does this in mercy, that He may draw such to His love; and He withholds these gifts from some who have undergone long and painful exercises, and were well fit to receive them; yea from some He withholds them all their life long, but He will give them a great recompense for it in the next life. The reason of His thus withholding sensible delight is that our spiritual fruitfulness and highest blessedness do not lie therein, but in our inward trusting and clinging to God, in our not seeking ourselves either in sorrow or joy, but through joy and sorrow devoting ourselves to God, and like poor unworthy servants offering ourselves to Him at our own costs, though we should have to serve him thus for ever. Yet it may indeed be permitted to a young, weak Christian, at the outset of his course, to pray for such graces or gifts from our good God, in order to be able to glorify Him with the greater activity, and to be grounded the more firmly in His love. But when we desire such inward fervours and sweet peace (which are His gifts and not our deserts) more for their own sakes than the Giver Himself, we fall into spiritual wantonness and black disloyalty, which our good Lord has not deserved at our hands with His utter renunciation of Himself outwardly and inwardly.

Spiritual covetousness is when a man is always coveting to have more than bare necessaries while pursuing this earthly pilgrimage. For what more should a pilgrim take with him by the way than such things as are needful to sustain him till he come safely to his home? Believe me, it is a great blemish in true outward poverty to desire aught beyond necessaries; so likewise it is a still greater blemish in the inward poverty of the spirit. Ah, who has ever been so poor as He, who, in utter poorness of spirit, stood forsaken by Heaven and by the creatures, cast out alone in utter exile, when He sent forth that bitter cry: |My God, my God! why hast Thou forsaken me?| And this was all that He might be an ensample unto us, to comfort our poverty and bereavement by teaching us true submission. I hear thee saying: |Yes; if it were not my own fault, and if I had not failed to receive the blessing through my own heedlessness, or thrown it away by my own guilty folly, I could bear it all the better; what should I then have to mourn over? But now it is all my own doing: I have brought the mischief upon myself.| I answer: Do not let this lead thee astray; dost thou not know how that it is written: |The just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again;| and dost thou think to stand always? Yes; I assert and confess with thee, that it is thine own fault, that thou hast brought it upon thyself, and well deserved it; yet, nevertheless, it is better that thou shouldst, with firm trust, pray our kind God for His grace (who knows thy weakness, and is ready to forgive thy trespasses seventy and seven times in a day), than that thou shouldst thus drive thyself back in thy course with such faint-heartedness. O child, hast thou fallen? arise, and go, with childlike trust, to thy Father, like the prodigal son, and humbly say, with heart and mouth: |Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired servants.| And what will thy Heavenly Father do but what that father did in the parable? Assuredly He will not change His essence, which is love, for the sake of thy misdoings. Is it not His own precious treasure, and a small thing with Him to forgive thee thy trespasses, if thou believe in Him? for His hand is not shortened that it cannot make thee fit to be saved. Therefore, beware of spiritual covetousness; for the poorer thou art in thine own eyes when thou comest to Him, the more acceptable art thou in His sight, and the more richly He will endow thee and clothe thee out of His treasures.

Spiritual pride is when a man is not willing to be put to shame in his own eyes on account of his transgressions, but is ever trying to excuse and gloss over his faults, and is never willing to abase himself, even in small matters. And this often leads people to make many useless and wrong speeches in order to excuse themselves and to justify themselves in every respect; as much as to say, I am not the man to be accused of this and that; and they are unwilling to remember, or consider, that he who cannot clear himself with the simple truth will not be helped by the untruths by which he often adds to his guilt; and that a man who humbles himself before God is more in his eyes than an arrogant, self-righteous man, who deems himself able to answer for all his deeds with his own righteousness. Hearken, dear child; what does all our righteousness come to at last? Isaiah says: |All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags;| and however great our righteousness is, or might become, yet, if the Lord should sit in judgment on us, without doubt we should have to confess ourselves His debtors, and place all our hope in His mercy. The Lord often disciplines a man by his own failings, if he is humble under them and throws himself at God's feet; for God will have every knee to bend before Him, and will have the praise and glory of all goodness. Hence we may observe that there is often a secret pride within us from which many unseemly fruits do grow. But he who gives diligence to beware of spiritual wantonness, covetousness and pride, shall be kept from straying out of God's ways, or falling into error in his inward exercises.

But in order to keep yourselves from these sins, and withstand this kind of temptation, you must observe three rules which I will tell you. The first is: none of the inward difficulties that rise up from within, or the adverse circumstances that stay our hands from working, by which we are drawn or pressed into likeness and conformity to the humble image of Christ and His saints (not alone outwardly, but that of their inward condition), can be the work either of evil spirits or of nature, but without a doubt come from God. For He is the Highest Good, and from the Highest Good nought but what is good can flow; and all the goodness that God gives us of His stores, and that we render back again to Him, has proceeded from Him as its source; just as all streams flow back again to their source, the Ocean whence they have arisen, and all things do rejoice in their return. But all that draws us and leads us aside from such conformity and likeness proceeds without doubt from the Spirit of Evil, who is ever on the watch to disturb and draw us down, as our Lord said: |He who is not with me is against me, and he who gathereth not with me, scattereth.| This rule is against the first spiritual vice, that of wantonness.

The second rule is: Whatever befalls a man inwardly, whereby he is brought to a closer and more sensible gathering up of all his affections and impulses, in singleness of heart, into a steadfast trust in and love of the Father's loving-kindness and not his own works and experiences, this is from God. And he who at all times sees himself to be a poor beggar, however fair his works may seem, the more narrowly he looks into his own heart, and the more mastery he gains over himself, the more does he discover his own nakedness of all virtue. He becomes aware in himself that he is nothing but an empty, worthless vessel, fitted not unto honour but unto eternal destruction, which vessel God alone must and will fill with His grace. When we cling to Him, suffer Him to have access to our spirits, and do not defend ourselves with ourselves, that work is no doubt of God, by which a man is driven into himself to learn his own poverty. But the suggestions of the Enemy and of nature rob and despoil a man of all the benefits of his virtues; and this is the case whenever a man does not know his own real state, and thinks to possess what he never had, and says (as it is written): |I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing,| and knows not that he is wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked. This is the rule against spiritual covetousness.

The third rule is: Whatever befalls a man by which he is lessened and humbled in his own inmost emotions, and which makes him bend under the Almighty Hand of God, under all creatures, abasing and annihilating himself in true humility, this comes no doubt from God. For as Lucifer and his followers desired to be great and lofty, and were therefore thrust down from heaven, so are we led back again to heaven by self-abasement, as it was said of the Kings of the East that they travelled back into their own land again by another way.

Thus does every being do and teach according to that which is his essence, drawing into his own likeness all whom there are to draw, as far as in him lies. The Evil Spirit is puffed up in his own obstinate conceit, and in the loftiness of his pride is so hardened and unbending in his own stiff-necked will and purpose, that neither to win heaven nor for anything else, will he humble himself for one moment, so fixed is he in his evil mind. So likewise is it with all the proud who have learnt of him to trust in their own understandings above all other men's opinion and reason; wherefore they fall into strife and variance with their neighbours, which begets much trouble and disquiet of heart, and hence arise many breaches of brotherly love. They will take reproof from none, and grow so hardened in their own obstinate evil will, and set upon their purposes, that they rashly dare to withstand all the admonitions of God and His friends, as the Jewish scribes and priests withstood our blessed Lord; and of such the prophet Isaiah, speaking in the person of Christ, complains: |I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people, which walketh in a way that was not good, after their own thoughts.|

But our blessed Lord, on the contrary, is meek and humble, yea, He is himself the essence of humility, whereunto He is unceasingly drawing all men whom there are to draw, and who are willing to be drawn. His Being is the cause, the essence, and the origin of all things. He is the life of the living, the resurrection of the dead, the restorer of all deformity and unfitness, and of those who have corrupted and despoiled themselves through sin. He calleth back those who have fallen away and wandered from His fold. He raiseth up and confirmeth those who are in temptation. He is the bulwark of those who stand, the awakener and guide of all who are looking and striving upwards towards Him, the source of all light, the lamp of all who walk in light, the revealer of mysteries, in so far as it is fitting for us to know, and the beginning of all beginnings. His Essence is incomprehensible, unspeakable, and without a name. Therefore should we honour and glorify His unspeakable mystery with holy reverence and silence, and nevermore covet to fathom or to taste aught except in so far as is to His honour and to our profit, but ever with fit reverence and devoutness turn with all our might in shamefaced awe to contemplate the radiance of His bright and spotless mirror. It behoves man to be ever in fear and to bethink him of the word that God, our Lord, spake by the mouth of Moses: |If a man or a beast touch the mountain, he shall be stoned;| which signifies that our animal senses must not presume to climb the Mount of the Divine Essence, but must rather keep themselves below and take the meanest place, until the time come when it shall be said unto man: |Friend, come up higher.| And then he shall not go up of himself, but he shall suffer himself to be led upwards, and his sensual nature shall be purified and endowed with the light of God, whereby he shall receive more light than he could ever win by all his great and strenuous labour. For the Divine Nature of Christ is a magnet that draws unto itself all spirits and hearts that bear its likeness, and daily unites them to itself through love.

Now Richardus says: |I receive Christ not alone on the cross, but also in His transfiguration on Mount Tabor. But I may not receive Him there except I find James, Peter and John, Moses and Elias with Him, who bear witness to me that it is truly Christ.| That is to say: in all our distresses, in all our painful inward destitution, we may boldly believe that Christ is present with us; but if He appears to us on the Mount of inward Contemplation, we need these witnesses that we may not enjoy the fruition of His gifts in a wanton spirit for the satisfaction of our own desires, nor too ardently covet more of His good gifts than we can put to a good use; but may ever abase ourselves so thoroughly that we fall not into any spiritual pride. These are the true witnesses that we may freely receive Christ in His glory on the heights of Mount Tabor without hindrance or error, for where these witnesses are of a truth, there we cannot be deceived by the Spirit of Falsehood. May Almighty God help us so to do! Amen.


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