Tauler Sermons Week 1
True and False Spirituality Compared
Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent
In this rather long sermon Tauler examines various false attitudes regarding the spiritual life. It is a good place to begin as it shows us what traps we should avoid as we travel along the journey.
He presents an explanation of what can be understood by the devil which, in spiritual writing usually refers to ungodly appetites in our natures.
He also explains a number of other symbolic terms and you may find it useful to keep a separate notebook of these for future reference. Understanding these can be useful when you encounter Christian art and other spiritual writings. He uses the word unmortified and mortification can only be understood as physical chastisement in a limited sense. It really refers to a much wider range of spiritual disciplines which help to subdue earthly desires. He also mentions ‘a Jew or a heathen’ and care needs to be taken here. As with Christians, some Jews are profoundly mystical. Often in Christian spiritual writing a ‘heathen’ means an ‘unbeliever’ and a ‘Jew’ refers to one ‘still in the way of purification’, they are still living ‘under the law’.
In this sermon Tauler gives an explanation which serves to refute all accusations made against Tauler of following the false teaching of quietism. He explains ho far removed this is from the highest contemplative state.
Thou shalt walk on the asp and the basilisk; and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon. (Ps. 90:13)
Thus does the Holy Spirit address devout, spiritual men; and we may use these four beasts to typify four great delusions, four subtle temptations in the spiritual life.
The asp, or snake, represents the devil and his more secret attempts to ruin the soul, which are also signified earlier in the same Psalm, Thou shalt not be afraid of the terror of the night, referring to the nocturnal terrors which beset beginners in God’s service.
By the second beast, the basilisk, we may understand impurity. For the basilisk of fable was so venomous that even to look upon it was to die instantly—just as the soul dies that dallies wilfully with the occasions of unchastity. Again, the prophet in the same Psalm says that the true friend of God shall, not be afraid of the arrow that flyeth in the day. He means that those who enter upon devout life will be assailed by open enemies of chastity, striving first to corrupt their heart, and then to sully their outward conduct.
By the third beast, the dragon, we mean love of money, elsewhere called by the Psalmist, the business that walketh about in the dark—the spectre of greed. For this ugly vice may take spiritual form, as when God’s truth is sold for a price by its teachers or by learned men.
By the fourth beast, the lion, we understand spiritual pride, the invasion, or the noonday devil. St Paul thus describes him: For satan himself transformeth himself into an angel of light. (2 Cor. 11:) Under this disguise the evil one openly and grievously deceives men, watching till they have gone on well for a while, and then leading them astray by some wickedness under the appearance of good—good works done against good order, or fasting and vigils obstinately persisted in against obedience, and thereby turned into evil.
Let us consider the significance of each of these beasts; and first, the asp, or snake, a creature naturally hateful, creeping silently to its deadly work. This means the insinuating temptations that afflict devout men, who are self-indulgent in eating and drinking and lodging and all personal comforts. These will not tolerate a hard manner of living. Both to themselves and to others they are soft and good natured, and in a scheming way manage to enjoy all sorts of conveniences. But, like a snake, they turn venomously on those who are different-minded, and who hinder their self-indulgence; they condemn them for singularity; and, while pretending to a kindly disposition, they yet violate charity. They gratify every natural inclination, secretly if need be, ever obstinately following their own will. Because they may happen to belong to devout community and can count many years of external piety free from gross sinfulness, they imagine that God will condone their enjoyment of worldly relaxations. Nearly all Christians living in the world are in our days subject to this delusion, and the same is to be said of not few living in the religious state. But alas, they slip almost unknowingly into mortal sin, open or secret, doing deadly harm to their own souls and to those of their soft-natured associates.
By the basilisk we may understand men outwardly spiritual, but interiorly addicted to impurity. In dress and manners they are classed as edifying Christians, but God sees that their minds are filled with unchaste desires. This state comes from their performing good spiritual exercises without the right interior dispositions. The devil, therefore, finds the door open. Now and again they fall into impurity, sometimes in secret, even sometimes in the open. Notice in them that they are variable in their moods, and that they are keen observers of other men’s sins. How different is a true Christian; steady-minded, simple-hearted, disinclined to watch his neighbours, and drawn by God’s interior light to an intimate union with Him—a condition wholly unknown to the other class.
Notice in them, again, a fertile imagination, dressing up their musings on high spiritual matters, in pretentions and winning words; meanwhile they themselves are void of an inner taste for such things, while vainly trying to create it in others. The really devout man has an infused wisdom; he knows truth easily and teaches it fruitfully, all in simple words; treating not of lofty and difficult things, more calculated to mislead than enlighten, but giving plain and useful instruction for an interior life. The false spirit is the reverse of simple; it is, besides, quarrelsome, and readily attacks the teaching of others, no matter how admirable it may be. Such men do little that is praiseworthy, for they are quickly wearied with works of zeal. And, whatever they may do, they are puffed up with spiritual pride.
See the difference: The right minded Christian ever blossoms out into universal love for all in Heaven or on earth; the false-minded has some favourite or other. But at the bottom he loves only one single man, and that is his own beloved self, whom he esteems the wisest and best of mankind. He would have everybody follow him in all he teaches and does, and no one else, and if he notices that you follow anyone else, he is fully sure that you are wrong. He yields to his appetites in excess; makes little of venial sins; he is not fair toward his neighbour; he has no real humility; toward the poor and unfortunate he is not kind or pitying, and in his heart of hearts he has no real virtue nor love of God. But let us be on our guard, lest we look around us and judge anyone to be thus miserably placed; let us rather sit in judgment on ourselves. Let us fix our eyes on Christ as our model, who offered Himself up, body and soul, for all mankind. So far have we considered the kind of temptation typified by the basilisk, namely, that of interior and external impurity. It is rooted in false spirituality, fair-appearing outwardly, but with no Divine spirit within, being infected with sensuality in the inner springs of life.
The dragon may be taken to mean a still worse condition, namely, that of men whose piety is infected with a sort of spiritual avarice, which is shown in four different ways. Some of these have an inordinate desire for bodily relaxation and creature comfort, which consumes them like fever. They must also know about everything, talk about everything, oblivious only of themselves. They encumber their souls with the care of things which concern them not at all; you may distress them with any trifling matter; their minds teem with useless anxieties—now about this, again about that. All the day long they are entangled in other people’s affairs; sleeping and waking, they are distraught with cares. All this may not mean mortal sin, but it is yet seriously hurtful to the interior spirit.
A second kind of spiritual avarice is like a fever which returns every other day; that is to say, an alternation of too much fervour and too much indifference. It is the disease of men who, having received God’s grace, presently feel the lack of the sweetness of devotion. Then they waver in fidelity, and beat about for one and then another practice of penance to recover it. They resolve to keep silence; that failing, they will try pious conversation. They resolve to join a certain order, and soon they would choose different one. At one time they purpose to practice poverty, at another to retain their earthly goods. They plan a long pilgrimage; they aspire to become hermits; they purpose to prepare for holy communion, and presently forget all about it. Now they will devote themselves to pious reading, and soon will change it for meditation.
All this endless change comes from inconstancy of heart. It results from an extravagant esteem for the temporal and external side of religion. Instead of the simple love of God in all things both inward and outward, for that would free the soul from all inconstancy. And even when the thought of God is present in such minds, it is too often held subordinate to that of self-chosen pious observances, and this is an even worse sort of inconstancy of heart. A corrupt nature may easily mingle its influences with really religious ones, and that so imperceptibly that they remain unobserved for a time. Such men choose now one, and again another confessor. They are forever seeking advice, but very seldom do they follow it, often quickly forgetting it. If you reprove them they resent it; and yet they are habitually reproving themselves. They have fine spiritual talk, with no interior fruit. They gladly welcome praise for their virtues—even great praise for trifling virtues. All the good they do they publicly parade.
Thus they are interiorly vain and empty and lack the savour of virtue. They presume to instruct and guide others, but they will not tolerate to be guided themselves, least of all to be admonished for their faults. Just commonplace self-love dominates their conduct, and hidden pride. This explains their inconstancy. They ever tread on the brink of grave sinfulness; a single false step casts them downward into hell.
The fourth kind of spiritual avarice arises out of the other kinds, and is yet worse than any of them. From inconstancy of heart toward God comes forgetfulness of Him, disregard of one’s self, obliviousness to all truth and virtue, and finally such condition of error and doubt as to know not what to believe or what to do. Forgetfulness of God soon results in disregard of all devout practices. The least thought of reforming one’s life is oppressive. The grossest sins are very likely to follow; soon it is as if God were not known at all. Nor is it easy for such a person to recover grace, unless it may be by taking refuge in thoughts of the passion and death of the ever-merciful Saviour.
A man of this sort may stand his ground against open sinfulness, and may even make a career in studies, may be chosen for various offices and the management of business affairs, having an appearance of spirituality and apparent firmness of character. And all this is harmful to the really interior spirits who may happen to be subject to his jurisdiction. Men like these are often overstrict in enforcing outward observances, and they are harsh to their inferiors. They love to play the master over others, but not to move them upward to God. They are always full of pride and self-conceit—true dragons, devouring all that approach them and resist them.
The lion, the king of beasts, typifies the highest grade of sin and error; namely, spiritual pride. It means religious men, members of communities, who follow their devout practices without having really given themselves up to God. Absorbed in themselves, making the object of life earthly things, the end they have in view cannot be good.
All men by their very nature seek peace and joy—good men in God, the wicked in themselves and in other creatures. And these last are often little aware how great their delusion is. Joy and peace seem to be their possession in a sort of natural quiescence of soul, and it becomes extremely difficult for them to perceive that they are blinded by spiritual pride. It is good, so they are persuaded, thus to rest and be content in peace and quiet of soul, and from this dangerous state they cannot easily recover. It is young men, inexperienced and unmortified, who are mostly subject to this delusion. They imagine this false peace to be a true and good spiritual condition.
Now, nature cannot be content with any natural repose, for God alone can content us; therefore this counterfeit tranquillity is presently an occasion of sin. A man may, indeed, be detached and recollected from things of the senses, and settled in a sort of rest and quiet of mind, freed from all activity; but in this he has arrived at a merely natural state of tranquillity; namely, that of his sensitive nature. Any man may attain to this without the aid of God’s grace; he only has to empty his mind of all imaginings, and at the same time cease from all external activity. But no good man can continue in that mental and bodily sloth; Divine love cannot rest indolent. This is only a form of self-seeking. This natural quiet, this resting in complete emptiness of mind and stillness of body, with the sole object of being at peace and unhindered by all things, is nothing less than sinful. It makes mental blindness and ignorance and stagnation the object of the soul’s endeavour taken in themselves and separated from all good works.
Such quiet is nothing but false recollection of soul, in which one forgets God and oneself and all else, as far as the real duty of life is concerned. On the contrary, the holy quiet of the soul in God is loving seclusion from all things for the sake of God, and it is joined to single-minded contemplation of the incomprehensible glory of God. This means that the soul seeks this union with God by an interior activity of desire which never is at rest. This holy quiet is only acquired in the form of an altogether energetic longing, is enjoyed in an ever-burning love, and, when wholly possessed, it is none the less ardently and energetically longed for.
This shows the deception in the other and false state of quiet, in which men by mere natural effort sink away into natural repose of the mental and bodily powers. They do not yearn for God; they do not seek Him with positive aspirations of love, and do not, of course, find Him. The quiet of soul they reach leads only to detachment from self, and from what by nature and habit they are inclined to; but this by no means is to find God. It is an emptiness of soul that a Jew or heathen might attain, or any wicked man; they have only to cease questioning their conscience, live wholly self-absorbed, and withdraw from all active life—a state of quiet very enjoyable to a certain class of men. Taken in itself, it is not sinful, for it is only what all men naturally are when entirely void of active exertion. But it is far otherwise if one positively seeks to have it and enjoy it to the exclusion of the good works of Christian life. Then it becomes sinful, and produces a state of spiritual pride and self-assurance from which the soul seldom recovers.
Such a man imagines at times that he possesses God, in fact, that he has been made one being with God; whereas he is in reality in that state which is most absolutely incompatible with union with God. In this false quiet and false detachment, he considers that all our devout religious exercises only hinder him in his inner peace, and this delusion is only in reality to resist the entrance of God into his soul.
It was in this way that the bad angels acted; for what else did they do but turn away from God to themselves and follow their own natural lights? That was the cause of their blindness; it was that which led to their expulsion from the light and the repose of heaven into the eternal unrest of hell. But the good angels, from the first instant of their creation, turned absolutely to God as the only end and object of all their existence, and thereby were granted everlasting happiness. Now, as the lion is the king of beasts, so do these falsely guided souls imagine themselves to be the masters of all virtues; whereas they are the worst enemies of virtue, and in God’s sight are hypocrites. Such is the state of souls whose spirituality is based upon merely natural detachment.
This delusion leads to yet another evil, namely, a kind of spiritualized impurity; for spirituality without a sincere yearning for God lays one open to all sorts of errors and temptations. By this a man is averted from God and devoted to self; hence he instinctively seeks pleasure and solace in natural ways. This soul is like a merchant who thinks of nothing but gain; all his spiritual labour’s and sufferings are for his own selfish profit, which soon leads to seeking satisfaction in forbidden pleasures. They sometimes practice severe mortifications, but always in a selfish spirit and so that they may be honoured as holy men. It may happen, too, that they do austerities with a view to the eternal reward; self-love craves praise, and works for recompense in time and in eternity.
They demand great favours from God, and are deluded with the thought that they have received them, for sometimes the evil one serves their ends, thereby puffing them up with yet greater pride, in which they remain fast fixed, meanwhile God’s grace is absent from their interior life. They are elated by trifling feelings of apparently spiritual joy, little dreaming of the real inner comfort their selfhood has cost them. The interior sensuality, the spiritual lust of our fallen nature, quite absorbs them, being totally enamoured of self, always passionately addicted to self, seeking their own selfish interests in everything. None can be more obstinately self-willed; if they fail to get what they want, even from God Himself, they are almost bereft of their senses, and sometimes say and do abominable things. And it has happened that some have allowed themselves actually to be possessed by evil spirits, in order to obtain what neither God nor man was willing to grant them.
Alas, how manifestly do they live in contradiction to the Holy Spirit! How different are they from a good, humble Christian, who unceasingly offers to God all that he is and all that he has, and who can only be content with the possession of the supreme and incomprehensible good that God alone is! Natural love and Divine love are as much alike as two hairs of man’s head, as far as outward activity and appearances go, but totally unlike in the interior of the soul. The good spirit seeks God’s honour within and without the soul, seeks and longs for it alone, and with ever-increasing earnestness. Natural love invariably seeks self in one form or another, and when it has grown so strong as to dominate Divine love in the soul, four vices enter into possession—spiritual pride, avarice, gluttony and impurity.
Such was the fall of Adam in Eden, and with him fell all human nature. It was because Adam made himself the object of his natural and inordinate love, that he turned away from God and in his pride regarded the Divine law with contempt. His craving for knowledge and wisdom was his sin of spiritual avarice; upon this followed his indulgence in gluttonous eating and drinking; and then came impurity. But behold Mary, the mother of God! She recovered the grace that Adam lost, and greater grace besides. Hence she is called the mother of fair love, for all her works of love were directed straight to God. She conceived Christ in her womb in all humility; from the depths of her soul she offered to the heavenly Father all her trials and sufferings; she coveted neither knowledge nor wisdom; no, nor even any virtue in spirit of selfishness or avarice. She did not seek any joy or solace in the consciousness of her virtues, any more than in earthly comfort; in all her life and in all her soul and body she was unspotted. She alone, therefore, has overcome all heretics and hypocrites.
Out of these two illusions comes forth a third, and in every way the worst that can mislead men who are considered to be contemplatives. It is detected in their state of natural quiet and detachment. For they have the presumption to claim that they are exempted from the liability to sin; that they are united to God directly and without any intermediation whatsoever, understanding this in a perverted meaning. They consider that they are emancipated from obedience to holy church; that they are not bound by God’s commandments; and that they are no longer required to practice virtue. They justify these errors by saying that their detachment is so noble a state, that nothing whatever must be permitted to interfere with it. Thus, then, they stand free from all authority, without a single good work in things either high or low—as idle as a workman’s tool waiting for his hand to take it up and use it.
They fancy that if they do anything, God will be hindered from acting through them, and so they are vacant and empty of every virtuous act. They go to the extent of ceasing to thank and praise God; they must have nothing, know nothing, love nothing, pray for nothing. They already have all they could pray for—such is their delusion. They think that they are truly poor in spirit because they have renounced all will and all proprietorship, whether present or future. They have arrived, as they imagine, at the complete and final possession of the holiness which the church was instituted to bestow, and no one can give them or take anything from them whatsoever. Nor can God Himself increase their sanctity, so they dream; for they consider themselves as placed high above all pious practices and all virtues, maintaining that perfect detachment consists in detachment even from all virtue, and that men should labour more diligently to be detached from virtue than to acquire virtue.
This accounts for their assertion of false liberty and their refusal of obedience to every authority, whether of pope, bishop or parish priest. If they do sometimes obey, it is only outwardly, for interiorly they consider themselves subject to none, either in soul or body; and they are determined to be exempt from all church authority. They say openly that as long as man strives after virtue he is still in a state of imperfection, knowing nothing of spiritual poverty and spiritual liberty. They rate themselves above all angels and men, above all human merit and faith, incapable of further increase in holiness, incapable of committing sin; for they live, as they think, in state devoid of the action of the will, in a spiritual quiet and detachment so perfect as to amount to self-annihilation and total absorption into God. Meanwhile, what nature craves, that they may freely grant themselves, all without sin; for they have reached the highest grade of innocence—no law can bind them. Hence when nature yearns for any self-indulgence, they yield without scruple in order that their liberty of soul may not be hindered. As to fast days, festivals and commandments, they pay no heed to them, except in order to keep up appearances; for they are no longer guided by conscience.
Let each one of us examine himself carefully, in case he may be tainted with these delusions. These falsely spiritual men are worse than any shameless sinners, even murderers, for the latter own that they are wicked and the others do not know it. It is extremely hard to convert them; sometimes they have even fallen under the control of the devil. They are clever reasoners, and it is almost impossible to silence their arguments, unless it is by the life of our Lord Jesus Christ and His holy Scriptures—a plain mark that they are under deception.
And now we are to consider the fourth kind of illusion which affects certain men calling themselves contemplatives, who resemble, but yet are differ from the class we have just been treating. This fourth class consider themselves as mere passive instruments of God, set totally free from all activity of their own. God works within them; and they have thereby, so they claim, more merit than others who do good works and whose personal activity is ever inspired by Divine grace. They call their state Divine passivity. Although they do nothing, they still merit reward, so they affirm, and are by no means to be blamed for their inactivity. They live a life of perfect interior rest in God, as they think; and, cultivating very humble demeanour, they pay no regard to anything whatever, and are quite patient with whatever befalls them—as bright souls which are mere instruments of the Divine will.
They have many points of resemblance with men of sound spirituality. But here is what proves that they are wrong: Whatever they feel themselves interiorly moved to do, whether it is good or bad, they are persuaded is the work of the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit never inspires men to be idle and useless, least of all, to do evil things, nor to do anything against the life and doctrine of Christ and His holy Scriptures. And this demonstrates that such men are under deception. But it is not easy to detect them, for they are cunning in concealing their vagaries. However, they are betrayed by their obstinate self-will. They will rather die than yield the least point of their infatuation. They are greatly opposed to those who tell them that they are not in a way of perfection, for they hold that they are in a most meritorious state. Be assured that all such men are fore runners of anti-Christ, preparing the way for the spread of unbelief and the eternal loss of Souls.
And now let us briefly consider how we may escape these fatal snares. No man can be dispensed from keeping the commandments of God and practicing virtue. No man can be united to God in a state of detachment from creatures without having the love of God and the desire of God. No man is holy or can be made holy without good works. No good man shall cease doing good works. No man can rest in God without loving God. No man can be raised to any state which he does not desire and which he does not experience. No man shall cease to do good works under the pretext that his works hinder God’s work in him, but rather he must co-operate with God in all thankfulness. No man shall serve God except with gratitude and with praise; for God is the creator of all men, Who alone has the right to give and to withhold—infinitely rich and powerful.
A man may advance in virtue and in merit and in the practice of religion as long as he lives; but no one will receive more reward than he merits, however vainly he may imagine that he lets God work within him while he himself rests passive. God’s work is in itself eternal and changeless, done by Himself alone and not otherwise; and in this respect His work receives no increase from any creature, nor gains any value; for it is of God alone, of Whom there can be nothing greater or better. But creatures are granted by God to have activity of their own, and this is placed in works of nature, of grace, and, finally, in the glory of Heaven. And if it were possible (as it is not) that our spiritual nature should be totally deprived of its activity, and should be, as it were, annihilated in itself and absorbed into oneness with God, as it was in God’s mind before being created; if, in a word, a reasonable creature could bring about such a state of existence, then what would follow? Simply this: Such a man could merit nothing whatever, any more than he could before his creation. Such a human being could no more be holy nor happy than wood or stone. Let it be well understood, that without our own activity in knowing and loving God we can never be happy.
What does it benefit us that God is happy, and is so from all eternity, unless we shall know Him and love Him? Hence this emptiness of spirit, of which we have been treating, is undoubtedly deception. But the souls thus led astray are very hard to undeceive, so subtle is their spirit; indeed, they are not unlike the souls of the damned. The damned have neither joy in God, nor do they want to know Him; they have neither thanksgiving, nor worship, nor praise for Him, and they are lost eternally. The deluded souls whom we have been considering, have only this same fate awaiting them in eternity, when the justice of God shall be revealed in them.
Against them stands Christ and the example of His life. He lived His whole life long constantly loving, desiring, thanking and praising His heavenly Father, with Whom in the Divine essence He was most closely joined. Yet He never had the emptiness of soul these deluded men boast of. And all the saints of God incessantly hungered and thirsted with love for Him, always longing to possess Him, never having enough of Him. The blessedness of Christ and of all His saints was to enjoy God, in union beyond all power of heart to conceive or tongue to tell; to attain to this has ever been the object of the striving of all elect souls. They worked and struggled for that as their only bliss. And such must be the perfection of every good man—a state of virtue which is measured by the extent of his love, finally bestowing on him righteousness which shall never pass away.
And how shall we be safeguarded against all such delusions? By adorning our lives with interior and exterior virtues, and by good Christian living, docile in all such things to the guidance of holy Church and the teachings of Scripture, and constantly offering ourselves to God with that end in view. In this way we meet God with His own gifts, and these He makes use of to touch our hearts with love for Him, love active and energetic, resulting in the fullness of fidelity to Him. And now we overflow with love for all mankind; and presently, entering into our souls, we are filled with loving thanks and praise toward God in our interior life, rooted fast and firm in simple-hearted peace, well pleasing to God.
It is by love thus active, and by God’s light thus clear in our souls, that we are enabled to advance toward that union with God which is direct and without any intermediary influence, in the proper meaning of the words, in the enjoyment of perfect repose of spirit. Thus, besides, do we learn how to live life always interior, readily and constantly withdrawing into our soul’s depths to be alone with God—the truest means of acquiring and maintaining virtue.
That we may have such life, and be freed from all danger of delusion, may God mercifully grant. Amen.
Some important points:
The asp, or snake, represents the devil and his more secret attempts to ruin the soul. By the second beast, the basilisk, we may understand impurity. By the third beast, the dragon, we mean love of money. By the fourth beast, the lion, we understand spiritual pride.
All men by their very nature seek peace and joy—good men in God, the wicked in themselves and in other creatures.
Nature cannot be content with any natural repose, for God alone can content us.
The holy quiet of the soul in God is loving seclusion from all things for the sake of God, and it is joined to single-minded contemplation of the incomprehensible glory of God. This means that the soul seeks this union with God by an interior activity of desire which never is at rest. This holy quiet is only acquired in the form of an altogether energetic longing, is enjoyed in an ever-burning love, and, when wholly possessed, it is none the less ardently and energetically longed for.
Natural love and Divine love are as much alike as two hairs of man’s head, as far as outward activity and appearances go, but totally unlike in the interior of the soul.
No man can be dispensed from keeping the commandments of God and practicing virtue. No man can be united to God in a state of detachment from creatures without having the love of God and the desire of God. No man is holy or can be made holy without good works. No good man shall cease doing good works. No man can rest in God without loving God. No man can be raised to any state which he does not desire and which he does not experience. No man shall cease to do good works under the pretext that his works hinder God’s work in him, but rather he must co-operate with God in all thankfulness. No man shall serve God except with gratitude and with praise; for God is the creator of all men, Who alone has the right to give and to withhold—infinitely rich and powerful.
Without our own activity in knowing and loving God we can never be happy.