John Tauler (c. 1300-1361)

Isaac Padinjarekuttu

John Tauler was a popular German Dominican preacher and spiritual guide. Little is known of his life. He was born in Strasbourg and entered the Dominican Order and received a thorough education. Possibly he was fellow student with the famous German mystics, Henry Suso and Meister Eckhart at Cologne. He was certainly influenced by the writings of Eckhart. He was famous as a preacher and a spiritual director and had lasting influence on later German piety, both Catholic and Protestant. His spirituality is notable for its balance between inwardness and the external practice of virtues and of pious exercises. This theory of the spiritual life he explained through his sermons delivered in churches of Dominican nuns which were written from memory by the nuns. They manifest a mysticism rooted in Christ and the response of the Christian to his call. Like all spiritual masters, Tauler grades spiritual seekers into three groups: the beginners, those who are making some progress and the perfect. They are all responding to Christ’s call: “If any man thirst, let him come to me and drink.” (John 7:37). The response to this call is also a gift “for God is the Lord and allots to everyone his right degree.”

The beginners are devout laymen and women. They are only beginners but the important thing is that they have made a start and are walking in the way that leads to God. They are “placed in worldly state of life but are not “worldly hearted.” Their means of grace are the twofold commandments of love of God and love of neighbour. Prayer for the beginner will be mostly verbal. They must accept the suffering God gives them. “We know how carefully the painter calculates the strokes of his brush. God is a thousand times more intent upon making a man the masterpiece of His Divine art; and He does this by strokes of suffering and His colours of pain.” But his advice regarding external practices is that nothing is to be gained by attending mass or by reciting prayers apart from the improvement that they bring about in one’s inner disposition.

Then he speaks about the second group spiritual seekers, those who have advanced in the spiritual life having freed themselves from temporal wants. In addition to obeying the commandments, they should take seriously the counsels of perfection and they are the consecrated people. He warns them that the evangelical counsels are scarcely more than a token of the radical turning from the world that should take place in the life of those who embrace this state of life. He gives a sensible advice about asceticism and taming of the flesh. The problem is far deeper, namely, the claim of everyone “to be the proprietor of his own person and capacities.” We are held back from God by self-love and self-will. If God is to come into the soul, creatures must first go out. For Tauler, Christianity was life not a doctrine.

The third level of spiritual achievement is perfection as far as it may be achieved in this life. Perfection has nothing to do with external observances, “many prayers and kneeling, and much fasting, and other devout practices.” Perfection comes not through external practices but interior life and he warns those who indulge themselves in “devotional sweetness” and fall behind their proper vocation. What he calls for is transformation of the person “into a God-like form.” This is no mere exercise. When one truly yields the self, allowing God to do His work in the soul, a person’s “whole interior life is thrown into confusion. All his pious practices seem set at nought, and the spiritual lights heretofore granted him seem to have gone quite out.” But there will be a rush of heavenly joy. But this will be followed by great suffering as God begins the “terrible process of stripping and deprivation” that must take place before a man can behold the truth, after which every sorrow vanishes away. But however much he rejoices in contemplation, the God-formed man “goes forth in his outward activities and again returns into the same divine centre and source.” Action and contemplations are two sides of the same coin. They are inseparable and interdependent.

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