History and Life of the Reverend Doctor John Tauler with Twenty-Five of his Sermons
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Charles Kingsley

IT is with great diffidence that I have undertaken to furnish a preface to these Sermons. It must always be an invidious task to stand toward a far wiser and better man than one’s self in a relation which is likely, at every moment, to be mistaken either for that of a critic or that of a commentator.

The critic of Tauler, no man has a right to become, who has not first ascertained that he is a better man than Tauler.

The commentator of Tauler, no man has a right to become, who has a strong belief (as I have) that Tauler’s Sermons need no comment whatsoever: but that all which is good and eternal in them will recommend itself at once to those hearts, let their form of doctrine be what it may, who have hold of, or are seeking after, Eternal Goodness.

The historical and biographical information which may be necessary for a right understanding of the man and his times, will be found in the Life and the Introductory Notice which are appended to the Sermons; while any notions of mine as to the genesis of Tauler’s views, as to how much of them he owed to divines, how much to his own vital experiences, are likely to be equally unsafe and uninteresting. The English churchman of the present day, enjoying a form of doctrine far more correct than that of any other communion, and resting on the sound dogma that nothing is to be believed as necessary to salvation but what can be proved by Scripture, has (whether rightly or wrongly, I do not here ask) become so satisfied with the good fruit, as to think little of the tree which bore it. The Church controversies, and the metaphysical inquiries, by which, after many mistakes, and long struggles, that form of doctrine was elicited from Scripture, are to him shadows of the past, and “Schoolmen’s questions.” The element in the ancient worthies of the Church which is most interesting to him is their human sorrows, temptations, triumphs, with which, as having happened in men of like passions with ourselves, we still can sympathise. We cannot, however, now understand how strong and generally just an influence those private and personal experiences had, in forming the opinions of the old worthies upon Scriptural doctrines, which we have been taught from childhood to find in Scripture, and are therefore astonished, if not indignant, that every one in every age did not find them there at first sight.

Thus, standing upon the accumulated labours of ages, we are apt to be ungrateful to those who built up with weary labour, and often working through dark and dreary nights, the platform which now supports us. We complain impatiently of the blindness of many a man, without whom we should not have seen; and of the incompleteness of many a man whose doctrine was only incomplete because he was still engaged in searching for some truth, which, when found, he handed on as a precious heirloom to us who know him not.

For the many, therefore, it will be altogether uninteresting for me to enter into any speculation as to the spiritual pedigree of Tauler’s views. How far Philo-Judæus and the Brahmins may have influenced the Pseudo-Dionysius; how far the Pseudo-Dionysius may have influenced John Erigena; how far that wondrous Irishman may have influenced Master Eckart; how far that vast and subtle thinker, claimed by some as the founder of German philosophy, may have influenced Tauler himself, are questions for which the many will care little; which would require to be discussed in a large volume, ere the question could not merely be exhausted, but made intelligible. Such matters may well be left for learned and large-minded men, to whom the development of Christian doctrine (both in the true and the false sense of that word) is a scientific study.

But let me express a hope, that such men will turn their attention more and more, not merely to the works of Tauler, but to those of his companions, and to that whole movement of the fourteenth century, of which Tauler is the most popular and easily accessible type, as to a most interesting and instructive page in the book of Christian, and indeed of human, thought. I say human; for it will be impossible for them to examine the works of such men as Erigena, Tauler, Eckart, and Ruysbroek, any more than those of the later mystics, whether Romish or Protestant, without finding that their speculations, whether right or wrong in any given detail, go down to the very deepest and most universal grounds of theology and of metaphysics; and howsoever distinctly Christian they may be, are connected with thoughts which have exercised men of every race which has left behind it more than mere mounds of earth. They will find in the Greek, the Persian, and the Hindoo; in the Buddhist and in Mohammedan Sufi, the same craving after the Absolute and the Eternal, the same attempt to express in words that union between man and God, which transcends all words. On making that discovery, if they have not already made it, two courses will be open to them. They can either reject the whole of such thoughts as worthless, assuming that anything which Christianity has in common with heathendom must be an adulteration and an interpolation; or, when they see such thoughts bubbling up, as it were spontaneously, among men divided utterly from each other by race, age, and creed, they can conclude that those thoughts must be a normal product of the human spirit, and that they indicate a healthy craving after some real object; they can rise to a tender and deeper sympathy with the aspirations and mistakes of men who sought in great darkness for a ray of light, and did not seek in vain; and can give fresh glory to the doctrines of the Catholic Church when they see them fulfilling those aspirations, and correcting those mistakes; and in this case, as in others, satisfying the desire of all nations, by proclaiming Him by whom all things were made, and in whom all things consist, who is The Light and The Life of men, shining for ever in the darkness, uncomprehended, yet unquenched.

There is another class of readers worthy of all respect, who may be dissatisfied, if not startled, by many passages in these sermons. Men well skilled in the terminology of the popular religion, and from long experience, well acquainted with its value, are apt to be jealous when they find a preacher handling the highest matters, and yet omitting to use concerning them the formulæ in which they are now commonly expressed. Such men I would entreat to have patience with, and charity for, a man whose character they must so heartily admire. Let them remember that many of our own formulæ are not to be found verbatim in Holy Writ, but have been gradually extracted from it by processes of induction or of deduction; and let them allow to Tauler, as far as is consistent with orthodoxy, Christian liberty to find likewise what he can in that Scripture, which he reveres as deeply as they do. Let them consider also, that most of those expressions of his which are most strange to our modern pulpits, are strictly Scriptural, and to be found in the Sacred Text; and that no man can be blamed at first sight for understanding such expressions literally, and for shrinking from reducing them to metaphors. God has ordained that the Pauline aspect of Christianity, and the Pauline nomenclature, should for the last three hundred years at least, mould almost exclusively the thoughts of His church: but we must not forget, that St. John’s thoughts, and St. John’s words, are equally inspired with those of St. Paul; and that not we, but Tauler, are the fit judges as to whether St. Paul’s language, or St. John’s, was most fit to touch the German heart in the dark and hideous times of the Fourteenth Century. The important question is—Did Tauler, under whatsoever language, really hold in spirit and in truth the vital doctrines of the Gospel? That can only be ascertained by a fair and charitable induction, and of the result of such an induction I have little fear.

Some again, whose opinions will be entitled to the very highest respect, will be pained at the fantastic and arbitrary method (if method it can be called) in which Tauler uses Scripture to illustrate his opinions. Let them remember, that this was not a peculiarity of the man, but of his age; that for various reasons, a simple, literal, and historic method of interpretation (which doubtless is at the same time the most spiritual) was then in its infancy; that it is by no means perfect yet; and that it is quite possible that our great grandchildren may be as much surprised at our use of many a text, as we are at Tauler’s.

But there are those—and thanks to Almighty God they are to be numbered by tens of thousands—who will not perplex themselves with any such questionings; simple and genial hearts, who try to do what good they can in the world, and meddle not with matters too high for them; persons whose religion is not abstruse, but deep; not noisy, but intense; not aggressive, but laboriously useful; people who have the same habit of mind as the early Christians seem to have worn, ere yet Catholic truth had been defined in formulæ; when the Apostles’ creed was symbol enough for the Church, and men were orthodox in heart, rather than exact in head. For such it is enough if a fellow-creature loves Him whom they love, and serves Him whom they serve. Personal affection and loyalty to the same unseen Being is to them a communion of saints both real and actual, in the genial warmth of which all minor differences of opinion vanish, and a truly divine liberality enables them to believe with St. John, that “Thereby know ye the spirit of God; every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is born of God.”

To such these sermons, should be, and I doubt not will be, welcome. If they find words in them which they do not understand, even words from which at first sight they differ, they will let them pass them by for awhile, in charity and patience. Seeing (as they will see at the first glance) that John Tauler was one of themselves, they will judge of what they do not understand by what they do, and give him credit for sense and righteousness, where their own intellects fail to follow him.

Especially too, if they be distracted and disheartened (as such are wont to be) by the sin and confusion of the world; by the amount of God’s work which still remains undone, and by their own seeming incapacity to do it, they will take heart from the history of John Tauler and his fellows, who, in far darker and more confused time than the present, found a work to do, and strength to do it; who, the more they retired into the recesses of their own inner life, found there that fully to know themselves was to know all men, and to have a message for all men; and who, by their unceasing labours of love, proved that the highest spiritual attainments, instead of shutting a man up in lazy and Pharisaic self-contemplation, drive him forth to work as his Master worked before him, among the poor, the suffering, and the fallen.

Let such take heart, and toil on in faith at the duty which lies nearest to them. Five hundred years have passed since Tauler and his fellows did their simple work, and looked for no fruit from it, but the saving of one here and there from the nether pit. That was enough for which to labour: but without knowing it, they did more than that. Their work lives, and will live for ever, though in forms from which they would have perhaps shrunk had they foreseen them. Let all such therefore take heart. They may know their own weakness: but they know not the power of God in them. They may think sadly that they are only palliating the outward symptoms of social and moral disease: but God may be striking, by some unconscious chance blow of theirs, at a root of evil which they never suspected. They may mourn over the failure of some seemingly useful plan of their own: but God may be, by their influence, sowing the seed of some plan of His own, of which they little dream. For every good deed comes from God. His is the idea, His the inspiration, and His its fulfilment in time; and therefore no good deed but lives and grows with the everlasting life of God Himself. And as the acorn, because God has given it “a forming form,” and life after its kind, bears within it, not only the builder oak, but shade for many a herd, food for countless animals, and at last, the gallant ship itself, and the materials of every use to which nature or art can put it and its descendants after it throughout all time; so does every good deed contain within itself endless and unexpected possibilities of other good, which may and will grow and multiply for ever, in the genial Light of Him whose eternal Mind conceived it, and whose eternal Spirit will for ever quicken it, with that Life of which He is the Giver and the Lord.

There is another class of readers, to whom I expect these sermons to be at once very attractive and very valuable; a class of whom I speak with extreme diffidence, having never had their experiences; and of whom I should not have spoken at all, were they not just now as much depreciated, as they were in past centuries rated too highly; I mean those who are commonly called “Mystics.” Doubtless, they are paying a penalty for that extravagant adoration which was bestowed of old upon the “Saint.” Mankind has discovered that much of what once, in such persons, seemed most divine, was most painfully human; that much of what seemed most supernatural, was but too degradingly natural, the consequences of diseased brain, deranged nervous system, or weakness brought on by voluntary asceticism; and so mankind, angry with its idols for having a flaw anywhere, has dashed them peevishly to the ground. Would it not have been better to give up making idols of such persons, and to have examined patiently, charitably, and philosophically what they really were, and what they were not? By so doing, I believe, men would have found that in these mystics and saints, after all bodily illusions, all nervous fantasies, all pardonable “confusions between the object and the subject,” had been eliminated, there still remained, in each and every one of them, and not to be explained away by any theory of diseased body or mind, one of the very loveliest and noblest human characters; and on that discovery the question must have followed,—Was that, too, the product of disease? And to that there can be, I trust, but one answer from the many. If here and there a man shall be found daring enough to assert that the most exquisite developments of humanity are grounded on a lie; that its seemingly loveliest flowers are but fungi bred of corruption; then the general heart of mankind will give their cynicism the lie, and answer, “Not so! this is too beautiful and too righteous to have been born of aught but God.”

And when they found these persons, whatsoever might be their “denomination,” all inclined to claim some illumination, intuition, or direct vision of Eternal truth, Eternal good, Eternal beauty, even of that Eternal Father in whom all live and move and have their being; yet making that claim in deepest humility, amid confessions of their own weakness, sinfulness, nothingness, which to the self-satisfied many seem exaggerated and all but insincere; they would have been, perhaps, more philosophical, as well as more charitable; more in accordance with Baconian induction, as well as with Saint Paul’s direct assertions in his Epistles to the Corinthians, if they had said: “The testimony of so many isolated persons to this fact is on the whole a fair probability for its truth; and we are inclined to believe it, though it transcends our experience, on the same ground that we believe the united testimony of travellers to a hundred natural wonders, which differ as utterly from anything which we ever saw, as do these spiritual wonders from anything which we have ever felt.”

And, if men are willing (as they may be hereafter) patiently to examine the facts still further, they may possibly find, in the very circumstances which now make them scornfully incredulous of “mystic raptures,” a moral justification of their reality.

It will be found that these “mystics” are, in almost every case, persons who are suffering; perhaps disappointed, perhaps lonely, perhaps unhealthy, perhaps all three at once, bereaved of all social comfort, and tortured with disease.

It is easy enough to say that such persons are especially liable to melancholic delusions, liable to mistake the action of their diseased nerves for external apparitions and voices; liable, from weakness of brain, and the too intense self-introspection which disease often brings with it, to invest trifling accidents with an undue importance, and to regard them as supernatural monitions. Be it so. Mystics in all ages have not been unaware of their own dangers, their own liability to mistakes; and have tried to distinguish, by such canons as their age afforded them, the false from the true, the fleshly from the spiritual. But meanwhile, has this hypothesis no moral justice, and therefore moral probability (which must always depend on the amount of moral justice involved in any given hypothesis),—namely, the hypothesis that to these lonely sufferers more was granted than to the many, because they needed more? that some direct and inward “beatific vision” of God was allowed to them, because they had no opportunity of gaining any indirect and outward one from a smiling world, seen in the light of a joyful heart? There are those who have health and strength, health and beauty, wife and child; a past which it is pleasant to remember, and a future which it is pleasant to work out. Such find no difficulty in saying that God is Love; that God cares for them, and His mercy is over all his works. But if they had lain, and lain perhaps from childhood, in the lowest deep, in the place of darkness, and of storm, while lover and friend were hid away from them, and they sat upon the parching rock, like Rizpah, the daughter of Aiah, beside the corpses of their dead sons, dead hopes, dead health, dead love, as on a ghastly battlefield, stript among the dead, like those who are wounded, and cut away from God’s hand; if they had struggled in the horrible mire of perplexity, and felt all God’s billows and waves go over them, till they were weary of crying, and their throats were dry, and their sight failed them with watching so long for their God, and all the faith and prayer which was left them was: “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither suffer Thy holy one to see corruption”—If all this—or less than this had come upon them; then they might have felt it not altogether so easy to say that God is Love. They, too, might have longed for some inward proof, some token which transcends all argument, that though they go down to hell, God is there; that in their most utter doubt and darkness, and desolation, all is well; for they dwell in God, and God in them. They might have longed for it: and God might have been just and merciful in giving it to them; as He may have been in giving it already to thousands, who by no other means could have been able to face the fearful storm of circumstances, which seemed to proclaim the Devil, and not God, the master of the world. Why not let the mystics tell their own story? It is more philosophical, after all, perhaps, as well as more Scriptural, to believe that “wisdom is justified of all her children.”

As for the impossibility of such a direct assurance, it is an assertion too silly to be seriously answered in the nineteenth century, which is revealing weekly wonders in the natural world, which would have seemed impossible to our fathers. Shall the natural world, at every great step, transcend our boldest dreams: and shall the spiritual world be limited by us to the merest commonplaces of everyday experience, especially when those very commonplaces are yet utterly unexplained and miraculous? When will men open their eyes to the plain axiom, that nothing is impossible with God, save that He should transgress His own nature by being unjust and unloving?

But whether or not the popular religion shall justify and satisfy the aspirations of the mystics, Tauler’s sermons will do so. They will find there the same spiritual food which they have found already in St. Bernard, a Kempis, and Madame Guyon; and find there also, perhaps more clearly than in any mystic writer, a safeguard against the dangers which specially beset them; against the danger of mistaking their passing emotions for real and abiding love of good; against exalting any peculiar intuition which they may think they have attained, into a source of self-glorification, and fancying that they become something, by the act of confessing themselves nothing. For with Tauler, whether he be right or wrong in any given detail, practical righteousness, of the divinest and loftiest kind, is at once the object, and the means, and the test, of all upward steps. God is the Supreme Good which man is intended to behold: but only by being inspired by Him, owing all to Him, and copying Him, can he behold Him, and in that sight find his highest reward, and heaven itself.

But there are those oppressed by doubts, and fears, and sorrows, very different from those of which I have just spoken, who may find in Tauler’s genial and funny pages a light which will stand them in good stead in many an hour of darkness. There are those, heaped beyond desert with every earthly bliss, who have had to ask themselves, in awful earnest, the question which all would so gladly put away: Were I stripped to-morrow of all these things, to stand alone and helpless, as I see thousands stand, what should I then have left? They may have been tempted to answer, with Medea in the tragedy:—

“Che resta? . . . Io!”

But they have shrunk from that desperate self-assertion, as they felt that, in the very act, they should become, not a philosopher, but, as Medea did, a fiend. Tremblingly they have turned to religion for comfort, under the glaring eye of that dark spectre of bereavement, but have felt about all commonplaces, however true, as Job felt of old; “Miserable comforters are ye all! . . . . Oh, that I knew where I might find HIM. I would order my cause before Him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I should know the words which He would answer me, and understand what He would say to me!”

To such, Tauler can tell something, though but a little, of that still waste, where a man, losing all things else, shall find himself face to face with God, and hear from Him that which no man can utter again in words, even to the wife of his bosom. A little, too, though but a little, can Tauler tell him how he may die to those whom he loves best on earth, that he may live to them, and love them better still, in the ever-present heavens; of how he may lose his life, and all persons and things which make his life worth having, that he may find again all of them which God has indeed created, in that God to whom all live eternally.

There are those, too, who have endured a struggle darker still; more rare, perhaps, but just as real as the last; men on whom the “nothingness” of all created things has flashed, not as a mere sentimental and exaggerative metaphor, but as a stern, inevitable, logical fact; who have felt, if for a moment, that perhaps they and all they see and know,—

“Are but such stuff

As dreams are made of——”

who have hung, if but for one moment, self-poised over the abyss of boundless doubt; who have shuddered as they saw, if but for a moment, sun, and hills, and trees, and the faces which they loved, and the seeming-solid earth beneath their feet,—yea, their own body, flesh and blood,—reel, melt, and vanish, till nothing was left of the whole universe but solitary self with its eternal malady of thought; who have cried out of the lowest deep: “What is all which I love—all which I hate? I gaze on it; but I see not it, but a picture on my own eyeball. I clutch it in despair: but I feel not it, but the nerves of my own finger-tip: if, indeed, eyeball and finger-tip be not, like the rest, phantoms of a homeless mind, and the only certain existence in the universe is I—and that I at war with myself, self-discontented, self-despising, and self-damned.”

That problem Tauler will solve for no man; for he will say that each man must solve it for himself, face to face with God alone: but he can tell how he solved it for himself; how he came to find an eternal light shining in for ever in that utter darkness, which the darkness could not comprehend; an eternal ground in the midst of that abyss, which belonged not to the abyss, nor to the outward world which had vanished for the moment, nor to space, nor time, nor any category of human thought, or mortal existence; and that its substance was the Everlasting Personal Good, whose Love is Righteousness. Tauler can point out the path by which he and others came to see that Light, to find that Rock of Ages;—the simple path of honest self-knowledge, self-renunciation, self-restraint, in which every upward step towards right exposes some fresh depth of inward sinfulness, till the once proud man, crushed down, like Job and Paul, by the sense of his own infinite meanness, becomes, like them, a little child once more, and casts himself simply upon the generosity of Him who made him:—

“An infant crying in the night;

An infant crying for the light,

And with no language but a cry.”

And then, so Tauler will tell him, there may come to him the vision, dim, perhaps, and fitting ill into clumsy words, but clearer, surer, nearer to him than the ground on which he treads, or than the foot which treads it—the vision of an Everlasting Spiritual Substance, Most Human and yet Most Divine, who can endure; and who, standing beneath all things, can make their spiritual substance endure likewise, though all worlds and æons, birth, and growth, and death, matter, and space, and time, should melt in very deed,—

“And, like the baseless fabric of a vision,

Leave not a rack behind.”

If there be any to whom these sentences shall seem merely an enigmatic verbiage, darkening counsel by words without knowledge, I can only beg them not to look at Tauler’s wisdom through my folly; his siccum lumen through my glare and smoke. As I said at first, he needs no Preface. There are those who will comprehend him without comment. There are those, also, who will rise up and follow him, and his Master.

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