Johannes Tauler, O.P.

Mystic, Pastor, and Preacher

Michael Suso Berry, O.P.

History and Theology of Preaching

Fr. John Burke, O.P.
November 3, 1994

Humbert of Romans' metaphorical imagery affirming "the preacher's acceptability in God's sight" would aptly epitomize the authentic mission underlying the preaching of the German Dominican Johannes Tauler.

. . . preachers are called hewers of wood, stone-cutters, bricklayers, and other similar names. They are the workmen who build in the hearts of men a home for God to inhabit in the Holy Spirit, and this home makes him glad, as the Lord Himself says: 'My delight is to be with the sons of men' (Prov. 8:31)." 1

Tauler lived during the tumultuous fourteenth century, marked by a series of calamities--plagues, earthquakes, civil war, widespread financial crises, and papal interdicts--all of which prompted an apocalyptic mentality, a marked rise in spiritual fervor, and a recourse to the inner life. In response to this impatient spiritual hunger, very often misdirected in its religious expression, Tauler applied his unique gift of masterfully articulating the inner experience of his contemporaries, while interpreting this experience in the light of orthodox Catholic tradition. He fervidly preached with the intention of guiding his listeners toward a recognition of the Kingdom of God within--to recognize the grace of God already at work in their lives, in spite of whatever hopelessness or confusion seemed to enshroud them. His ability to offer insightful spiritual direction by means of everyday, concrete examples enabled his audience to understand more sublime concepts, and his simple clarity gave force to the truths he preached.

It would seem that Tauler's own "spirituality of preaching," though he did not explicitly define it as such, is remarkably relevant to the preacher of the twentieth century, for it proffers to the modern preacher the arduous task of first articulating one's own spiritual experience, as one living in the midst of modern society, and then consequently identifying that experience with that of the listeners--thus providing some means for others to interpret their own experience in the light of faith.

Johannes Tauler was born around the year 1300 to a well-to-do burgher family which owned property in Strasbourg. His family was apparently religious, for not only did he enter the Dominican Order unhindered, so too did his sister who entered the Dominican convent of St. Nikolaus in Undis, in Strasbourg.2 Tauler entered the Strasbourg priory in 1314 to begin his novitiate and then to study logic for three years, after which he was sent for some time to the prestigious studium generale in Cologne (founded by St. Albert the Great) to continue his studies. Following philosophical studies, he would have studied Peter Lombard's Sentences for two years, followed by further training for the "office of preacher. " All in all his education would have lasted seven to eight years.3 When ordained Tauler would spend his life as a spiritual director (lebmeister) to both Dominican nuns and to the laity, especially those of the Friends of God (Gottesfreunde), and above all, he would preach (there are over eighty authentic sermons extant)

In order to gain some understanding concerning the motivation underlying Tauler's preaching as well as its content, one needs to have some appreciation of the times in which he lived. For the greater part of his life, Tauler traveled in the vicinity in his native Strasbourg, the major exception being the "Dominican flight" to Basel in 1339. Pope John XXII in Avignon, after a lengthy struggle of power, had excommunicated Emperor Louis IV of Bavaria in 13244 and placed under interdict all of the lands loyal to him, including Strasbourg. This instance of conflict between pontiff and secular ruler was only one of many in a persistent contest of power (emerging with the incipient rise of the sovereign state and a greater questioning of the pope's temporal authority) which, as in the case of the Strasbourg Dominicans, often bore heavily upon "the people in between."

The Black Death, which toward the end of 1347 had come from the Crimea to the ports of Genoa, raged across Europe for three years killing in some places a half, in general at least a third, of the population.5 Conveying some sense of the plague's utter devastation, Petrarch wrote:

When will posterity believe that there was a time when, without combustion of heaven or earth, without war or other visible calamity, not just this or that country but almost the whole earth was left uninhabited . . . empty houses, deserted cities, unkempt fields, ground crowded with corpses, everywhere a vast and dreadful silence?6 Tauler himself was a casualty of the second outbreak of the plague (1361); he died in the convent of St. Nikolaus in Undis, with his sister at his side.

The plague drastically affected the economic stability of Europe, but it also had profound religious consequences such as calling into question the orderliness and the rationality of nature, encouraging superstition, prompting suspicion of an imminent apocalypse, and above all, fostering fear--fear of God the Judge, fear of death, fear of hell.7 For the people of the Rhineland, in addition to the plague, there was the frightening earthquake of 1356 at Basel. In this precarious environment arose novel religious movements, such as the flagellants, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the beghards and beguines, and many others. Usually the members of these groups ranged from the outright fanatical to those who were much less so, but who had nonetheless been refused entrance into a religious community (especially in the case of women).

More relevant to Tauler's immediate experience, it should be said that in accordance with this religious fervor, his relatively new Teutonia province of the Dominican Order grew rapidly in the early fourteenth century. More astounding is the number of Dominican convents (second order) established at this time, under the care of the Teutonia friars--seventy convents, each having some fifty nuns, some with up to eighty nuns. In Strasbourg alone where Johannes spent most of his time, there were seven such convents.8 Tauler spent a significant amount of time tending to the spiritual care of these nuns, the cura monialium as it was called.

Before considering the spirituality of Tauler's preaching, two other influences ought to be briefly considered: the influence of Eckhart and his involvement with the Friends of God, not to be confused with the heretical Brethren of the Free Spirit.

It is abundantly clear that the influence of Meister Eckhart (1260-1327?) gleams through much of Tauler's thought, though on the other hand Tauler is far less exuberant in the expression of his thought. Tauler, as disciple, is far more careful in his expression of mystical experience than Eckhart ever was (the same can be said of Tauler's confrere and fellow disciple, Bl. Henrich Suso). Yet, considering John XXII's condemnation of twenty-eight propositions of Eckhart (In agro dominico, 1329), such caution was simply judicious. Eckhart was largely a victim of his own utter disregard for expressing mystical experience within the "established doctrinal confines" (which sometimes gave rise to heretical thought by the uneducated). Eckhart's preaching is ebullient, hyperbolic, and paradoxical. But Tauler is far more practical and pastoral in his preaching. As James M. Clark writes, "Eckhart sees only the goal of the mystical way," whereas "Tauler stresses the way itself, the method by which the soul can be made ready for this great consummation."9

Tauler was very conscious of how easily a "mystical doctrine" could be misconstrued by those zealous and ignorant. Such was the case with the Brethren of the Free Spirit who believed that they could be so divinized through union with God, and thus entirely "freed" from sensuality, that they could reach the point where they were no longer bound by laws of the Church. Misconstruing an authority like Eckhart, they argued that once, through grace, it became impossible for them to sin, they could then engage in any carnal pleasures they wished.10 (Walter, the leader of the Brethren, was burnt at the stake in Cologne sometime in 1324.)11

Along with Suso, Tauler was an major figure within a religious group known as the Friends of God (Gottesfreunde) The Friends of God included men and women representing all social classes and states of life, clerical, religious, and lay. They sought as a community "to cultivate a life of interior devotion and intense prayer because they felt a need to draw together in times of social upheaval."12 Most notable concerning Tauler's role within the Friends of God was his stabilizing influence--he "'[saved] it from degenerating into the fanatical extravagancies of many contemporary sects' by maintaining contact with mainstream spiritual Christianity" [emphasis added].l3 For Tauler the mystical Christian, however advanced in the life of prayer, received salvation as a member of the whole Body of Christ.

After such brief consideration of Tauler's world and those influences forming him, we now consider in some detail the spirituality within his sermons and underlying his sermons. While considered by some to be a more mediocre preacher than his mentor Eckhart and less original as regards spiritual insight, Tauler's genius lies in his ability to articulate with precision the various aspects of the spiritual journey and then to communicate them to others with striking clarity. Any conscientious preacher, in seeking to offer keen insight to his listeners, must, for the spiritual well-being of the listeners, humbly acknowledge his own limitations in conveying this insight. Often, preachers who boldly attempt this "articulation" of the relationship between the human and the divine do not respect what ought to simply remain "as mystery"; Tauler on the other hand delicately offers subtle insights concerning the spiritual life, without so encroaching upon the "mysterious" as to destroy it. Our somewhat obscure point might be made more lucid as demonstrated in Tauler's understanding of "passivity" in prayer (leiden).

Whereas Meister Eckhart speaks of the uncreated "divine spark of the soul" (Seelenfunklein) wherein dwells God alone (carrying pantheistic overtones), Tauler speaks of the "ground of the soul" (Seelengrund), which is the center of the soul.l4 The "ground of the soul" is somewhat like an inner, hidden "room" wherein one turns to God in prayer. Tauler, like Eckhart, speaks often of the "birth of God" within the soul, but he is careful to state that nonetheless there is a real distinction between God the Creator and the soul, a mere creature. Hence, it might be said that "God grants the soul by grace that which He is by nature";15 in this union, Tauler stresses, we "become God" by grace not by nature

In the Third Sermon for Corpus Christi (Sermon XXXII), he preaches. "If we would truly know the unutterable and incomprehensible splendor of the Blessed Sacrament, we must live a life cut off (abescheidelich) from the world and from ourselves, suffering God's working (lidelich) in us, at unity with Him, living a life in God" (emphasis added).l6 There is a call for detachment from all creaturely things, through fasts, vigils, devotions, etc., so to be properly disposed to receive the Spirit in the "ground of the soul" In his Christmas Sermon (Sermon I) he declares: ". . . the greater the void, the greater the divine influx.''l7 Humility is the paramount virtue in the one whose grund is receptive to God. This humility is even willing to abandon accustomed forms of prayer and devotion. Tauler states, "Never believe that true prayer consists in mere babbling, reciting so many psalms and vigils, saying your beads while you allow your thoughts to roam. If you notice that such practices of devotion, however great and good they seem, get in the way of the prayer in spirit, give them up without hesitation" (Fifth Sunday after Trinity 1, Sermon 40).l8

In order to prepare a place for the Holy Spirit, "one must surrender one's own moral striving and let God accomplish what is necessary."19 This is not the abandonment of the moral life. The use of reason is called upon for the sake of detachment, in order to discern whether or not one's "moral striving" acts to impede God's working within (Interestingly, at different times in history since his death, Tauler has been interpreted by some as Pelagian and by others as Quietistic.)20 Here in particular, as mentioned above, is where Tauler is very careful to describe the mysterious interaction between grace and works. Good, freely chosen works and ascetic behavior are necessary as a manifestation of the faith, of the receptiveness to God which underlies the works; yet even so it is God at work within the one who does the works. Regarding the "pure simplicity of God" and the "unfathomable abyss" experienced in the Seelengrund, Tauler says, "To this the Holy Spirit leads all those who prepare a dwelling for Him so that He may fulfill those who allow Him to be their host and follow Him" (Second Sermon of Pentecost, Sermon XXVI).21

"To suffer God's work in us" means to first acknowledge the primacy of` grace, but it also entails willing to share in the Cross of Christ. It is not merely a resignation to whatever suffering one encounters, but rather an intentional desire to accept whatever "means" God sees fit to allow us, as instrumental in our preparation to receive Him within the ground of the soul. There is a delicate balance here contained in Tauler's understanding of "passivity," for as Richard Kieckhefer comments, "passivitas is related both etymologically and conceptually with patientia and passio."22 In a situation beyond one's control, one has the choice either to accept adversity keeping one's heart set on God, or else to "kick against the goad." The question is not whether or not we suffer, but in what manner will we suffer--patientia. At the same time the person in such a situation must acknowledge God's grace at work within--passio.

It is important to note that Tauler's preaching was not based on theory, but rather it flowed from his own experience of suffering. The turbulence which pervaded the world beyond the cloister also had a decided effect upon life within the cloister. In the fourteenth century, discipline and regular life reached their nadir during the plague At one point, apparently frustrated With conventual life he said, "If I had known what I now know, I should have lived on my inheritance and not on alms."23 There is also evidence that he suffered considerably during the last years of his preaching, rejected or scorned by those who did not receive his message kindly. His friend and fellow preacher, Heinrich von Nordlingen, wrote to the Dominican Margareta Ebner, "Pray for our dear father Tauler. He is generally in great distress because he teaches the truth as wholeheartedly as any teacher I know."24 Tauler himself mentions in one of his sermons, "If anyone comes and warns them of the dreadful peril in which they live and how anxiously they should meet death, they mock him and say he is a Beghard and call us visionaries. They jeer and sneer at us as neither Jews nor pagans ever did to Christians."25 This personal experience is reminiscent of that experienced by Tauler's friend Suso, whose reputation was marred horribly when he was falsely accused by a woman of having fathered her illegitimate child.26 Many of` his friends turned against him, as implied in the case of Heinrich von Nordlingen, who in another letter to Margareta Ebner, wrote, "My heart no longer clings to Suso as it did."27

Part two.

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