Mystic, Pastor, and Preacher
Michael Suso Berry, 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
. . . 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)."
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 --to recognize the grace of God
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 , in Strasbourg. 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
in Cologne (founded by St. Albert the Great) to
continue his studies. Following philosophical studies, he would have
studied Peter Lombard's for two years, followed by
further training for the "office of preacher. "All in all his
education would have lasted seven to eight years. When ordained
Tauler would spend his life as a spiritual director () to
both Dominican nuns and to the laity, especially those of the Friends
of God (), 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 1324
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
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. 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? Tauler himself was a casualty of the second outbreak of
the plague (1361); he died in the convent of ,
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. 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. Tauler spent a
significant amount of time tending to the spiritual care of these
nuns, the 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 (, 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
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. (Walter, the leader of the Brethren, was burnt at the
stake in Cologne sometime in 1324.)
Along with Suso, Tauler was an major figure within a religious group
known as the Friends of God () 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." 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' " [emphasis
added]. For Tauler the mystical Christian, however advanced in
the life of prayer, received salvation 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 "; 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 ().
Whereas Meister Eckhart speaks of the uncreated "divine spark of the
soul" () wherein dwells God alone (carrying
pantheistic overtones), Tauler speaks of the "ground of the soul"
(), which is the center of the soul. 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 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"; in this union, Tauler
stresses, we "become God" by grace 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
() from the world and from ourselves, in us, at unity with Him, living a life in
God" (emphasis added). 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." Humility is the
paramount virtue in the one whose 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).
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." This is 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.) 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
, 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,
"To suffer God's work in us" means to first acknowledge the primacy
of grace, 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, related both
etymologically and conceptually with and 
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 or we suffer,
but will we suffer--. At the same time
the person in such a situation must acknowledge God's grace at work
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." 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." 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." 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. 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."
Tauler the Suffering of those to whom he preaches and he
preaches as a "wounded healer." His personal experience is the
primary vehicle for his preaching. His rhetoric follows one of the
eight precepts of Humbert of Romans, namely the topic of religious
experience (). He does not employ the
current preaching "techniques," but reaches the listeners by "meeting
them where they are" and thus convincing them of his authenticity.
Tauler's preaching in the German vernacular, rather than the Latin,
enabled him greater flexibility of expression and allowed him to
enter the world of his listeners through popular images, proverbs,
and stories. His sermons "do not show signs of systematic or direct
use of popular ancillary manuals," nor does he strictly follow a
structured form of preaching. A 1979 study, comparing the styles of
Eckhart, Tauler, and Suso, concluded that Tauler was the most
"spontaneous and audience-oriented" of the three preachers. "He
presents points of reflection that are almost self-contained units
without caring too much for a logical disposition. Sentences are
comparatively short and reflect an oral pattern." Clark writes,
"He is well-versed in proverbial lore and does not despise
alliteration, antithesis, and metaphor, though he is no rhetorician.
. . His imagery is derived from hunting, war, sea-faring,
viniculture, farming, trade and natural history." While a learned
Dominican scholastic, Tauler nonetheless made it his priority to
preach in a way they could understand--and his power
and authority flowed from his personal .
The preaching of Johannes Tauler addresses the fear and the
hopelessness encountered by the Christians of his time. Nothing for
Tauler is beyond God's power. Rather, humility is needed in order to
acknowledge the supremacy of God in all matters, especially as
regards our own failings. In Sermon 75 (on temptations) he insists,
"In temptation we are made aware of the ground of our own soul. . .
When temptation exposes the stain and the roots of sin, then these
are torn out, humility is born by the fear of God, and we are urged
to flee to God, to seek His help and to hand our battle against sin
over to him." This is remarkably similar to the "Twelve-Step
Spirituality" of Alcoholics Anonymous and other addiction-related
groups, which call for recognition of the "Higher Power" in order to
be truly free from addiction. Even faults "of which you cannot rid
yourself or overcome" can be used for the purpose of God, in the same
way that horse dung which is "unclean and evil-smelling" can be
strewn across the "fields where fine wheat and good sweet wine grow
from it, which would never grow so well if the dung were not there."
Tauter then exhorts those who are despairing of their faults,
"Scatter your dung on this noble field [the field of God's will] and,
without any doubt, there shall spring up noble and delightful
fruit." So then, Tauler is not only a "wounded healer" but he
preaches the word as if to extricate those of his listeners who are
caught in the briars of desperation, or to exorcise those overtaken
It isn't difficult to understand how it was that the recorded
preaching of Tauler exercised the greatest influence upon the
Carmelite mystic, St. John of the Cross. Perhaps Alois Haas best
summarizes Tauler's spirituality:
It is the imitation of Christ, placing an emphasis on His humanity
never to be abrogated, which makes His passion and suffering the sole
model to be followed. Not that the Areopagitic and Neoplatonic
language of apophasis is absent in Tauler. However, without shunning
ecstasy, [this apophasis] Thus this spirituality is characterized by a
decisive paradox: [emphasis added].
Christ is both a model as "crucified" and an efficient cause of grace
as "glorified." As mentioned above, this kind of preaching is
salvific, it proclaims to those who are powerless, because of sin or
unexpected misfortune, that the message of the Cross is relevant
today. For those who experience sudden tragedy or who grow fatalistic
in response to the complexity of the world's problems, or especially
those who experience inner chaos and doubt, Tauler offers an "image
of God [which] is one of unbounded beneficence."
How is the preaching and the message of this fourteenth-century
Dominican friar relevant for preachers at the turn of the millennium?
First, Tauler's preaching conveys a genuine optimism, borne by the
conviction of God's presence among us and His power to save. Such a
message befits our world which considers itself more and more a
"victim" of impersonal forces--war, crime, family breakdown, AIDS,
natural disasters, poverty and starvation. This preaching recalls the
first word of the resurrected Christ to His disciples in the Upper
Room--"Peace!" Tauler preaches of (God-with-us) present to
us at the "core of our being" and with us unconditionally. At the
same time he does not preach a message of "retreat" per se or an
absconding from tribulation, but instead a more truthful entrance
into reality--through suffering To a people who felt
, he assured them they were not. Today in a society where
suffering is considered scandalous and beneath human dignity, people
need to hear that suffering has been made redemptive through the
death and resurrection of Jesus. Because of Christ, that meaningless
"scandal" of suffering, which is inherent to human nature as
consequence of original sin, becomes an opportunity to receive God's
life within us.
Secondly, calling the people to a consciousness of God's immediate
presence to us, Tauler challenges us to be "present" to whatever
situation in which we find ourselves. "Whatever God ordains or allows
in our regard, happiness or misfortune, pleasure or pain, it all
contributes toward our eternal bliss, for everything that comes to us
has been foreseen by God from all eternity."
Who knows where and when and by what means God will choose to come
and bestow His gifts? It is a hundred times better to stand patiently
under the shelter of the divine will than to aspire toward high
virtue with its full-blown emotional satisfactions which we love so
In our technological world which often races to the next moment,
there is little or no sense of a "present." Yet how does one racing
toward the future find the God Who is ever in the present? Such
acceptance of the present is not meant to be an abject submission to
"what happens to be" but a faith-filled willingness to confront the
Lastly Tauler challenges today's preacher to be truly
. The ardent conviction of God's abundant goodness and
the acute awareness of his own dependency upon that goodness
compelled Tauler to preach compassionately. The main thrust behind
his preaching is the desire to confirm others and to lead them to
greater awareness of God's love and mercy. Tauler identified with his
neighbors' deepest hunger, and he was prompted to "speak the truth in
love." Today as much as at any time previously there is need for the
preacher to speak to the heart of the listener--to offer, as an
ambassador of Christ, the gift of salvation.
The fourteenth century message of Johannes Tauler is germane to our
day and age because it addresses human issues which are "ageless" and
without cultural bounds--God and suffering, grace and works,
mysticism and love of neighbor. The effectiveness of his preaching
stems from his self-knowledge, his humility, and his ability to
articulate his experience of God within. Inflamed with the knowledge
of God's power at work within his own life, he zealously but gently
directs his listeners toward that same knowledge.
l Simon Tugwell, , The Classics
of Western Spirituality Series, (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 193.
2 James M. Clark, , (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1949), 36.
3 Josef Schmidt, introduction to , by Johannes Tauler, The
Classics of Western Spirituality Series, (New York: Paulist Press,
1985), 4; Clark, 36.
4 Frank Tobin, Introduction to , Translated and edited by Frank Tobin, The Classics
of Western Spirituality Series, (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 13-
5 Hugh Trevor-Roper, , (New York: W W.
Norton and Company, 1966), 165-166.
6 Ibid., 165.
7 Gonzales, 328.
8 Tobin, 16.
9 Clark, 45.
10 Tobin, 17-18, Jordan Aumann, , (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 150.
11 Eric Colledge, Introduction to by Johannes
Tauler, Cross and Crown Series of Spirituality, ed. Jordan Aumann,
O.P, no 20., (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1961), 20.
12 Schmidt, 5.
13 Ibid., 6.
14 Clark, 46; Aumann, , 151-152.
15 Tauler, , 97.
16 Colledge, 23-24.
17 Tauler, , 38.
18 Ibid, 137.
19 Richard Kieckhefer, "John Tauler," In , edited by Paul E. Szarmach, (Albany:
State University of New York Press, 1984), 262.
20 Aumann, Spirituality, 152, 204. Tauler's conferences
and sermons--including pseudo-Tauleriana writings--were condemned or
forbidden in Spain, France, and Belgium during the sixteenth century.
The Jesuits banned Tauler's "writings" from the Society in March,
1575, because of their "Quietistic tendencies"; Alois Haas, Preface
to by Johannes Tauler, The Classics of Western
Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), xiv. At one point Pope
Sixtus V placed Tauler on the Roman Index.
21 Tauler, , 97.
22 Richard Kieckhefer, , (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,
23 Clark, 39.
26 Henry Suso, The Exemplar with Two German Sermons>, Translated and
edited by Frank Tobin, The Classics of Western Spirituality Series,
(New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 147ff.
27 Clark, 60.
28 Schmidt, 18.
29 Ibid., 20.
30 Ibid., 18.
31 Clark, 44.
32 Oliver Davies, ed., , (New
York: Crossroad, 1989), 80.
33 Ibid., 86
34 Aumann, , 195ff.
35 Haas, Preface, xv.
36 Richard Kieckhefer, "The Role of Christ in Tauler's Spirituality,"
96 (July 1978): 189.
37 Richard Kieckhefer, "John Tauler," 271.
38 Tauler, 83.
39 Ibid., 81.
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