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Preaching a Practical Spirituality – A Sermon by Johannes Tauler (14th Century, published in 1515/16)

Many of the sermons of Johannes Tauler (c. 1300-61), a German Dominican from Strasbourg, were preached to nuns and Beguines in the city of Basel. His teaching is more concrete and practical than that of his teacher, the great Meister Eckhart (Eckhart von Hochheim, c. 1260-c. 1328). Tauler turned Eckhart’s principles of negation and his denial of the world into a more positive theology of engagement in the life of the world. He found many followers in the Friends of God lay circles that flourished in the cities of the Rhine Valley, especially Basel, Strasbourg, and Cologne. Tauler’s sermons were much admired by Martin Luther, who annotated and published an edition of them in 1515/16. At the time, Luther was an Augustinian friar in Erfurt. Like The German Theology, Tauler’s sermons belong to a German tradition of spiritualizing (and often mystical) religious teaching that became relatively popular among both clergy and some laity, chiefly in monasteries and towns. In this Ascension Day sermon, Tauler guides both the religious (monks, friars, nuns, and Beguines) and lay people alike toward a living spirituality founded on faith and obedience.

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Recumbentibus undecim discipulis.
When the eleven disciples were sitting together… (Mark 16:14)

When the disciples of our Lord were sitting together, our Lord Jesus appeared to them and chastised them for their lack of faith and the hardness of their hearts.

Our Lord rebukes people from places all over the world every day and hour for their lack of faith and the hardness of their hearts. He especially punishes the clerics, whether they be members of long-established orders or more locally formed communities like Beguines and sisters and the like.

Sometimes our Lord disciplines them (externally) via their teachers and sometimes internally, if they are really willing to accept the punishment.

These clerical individuals merit especially severe punishment when they are hard of heart and disbelieving, because it is an extraordinary honor to be selected by God and called into the spiritual nobility of a clerical life. My children, we, the elected, accordingly owe God great love and above all things extreme gratitude.

Thus the Lord punishes these people for their lack of faith and their hardness of heart. If they should desire to admit the hardness of their hearts and their lack of faith, confess to these, and be punished, then they could be helped.

Saint James said: "Faith without works is dead" (James 2:26). Christ said: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). We all confess faith with our mouths. Saint Paul said: “We are all baptized into the death of Jesus Christ” (Romans 6:3). Saint Augustine said: “That is not true faith, which does not hurry to God with active love and good works. That is only a proclamation of the mouth.” This lack of faith is evidenced when one longs for that which tastes good or lusts after a thing, when we should be saying: “Lord, you are my God, and nowhere am I better off than with you.” These people have fallen away from a true living faith entirely, especially those with clerical names, who at some point have been touched by God, whether asleep or awake, and have nevertheless fallen away.

Our Lord punishes them, too, for the hardness of their hearts. My children, it is a truly terrible thing when those whom God has called to him are still hardened so that divine things do not appeal to them, whether it be prayer or other good deeds and exercises. Meanwhile sensual pleasures, frivolous and entertaining, appeal to them whilst their hearts are like stone towards God. Our Lord spoke of such people through the prophet [Ezekial 36:26]: “I will take out your stony heart and give you a heart of flesh.” What makes one’s heart so hard that one becomes brittle and cold to all the good things that one should do and behaves unreasonably? It must mean that the heart has something that is not from God, be that itself or something else, and this does not want to be punished.

Our Lord spoke through the prophet Jeremiah [2:12-13] about such people: “O heavens, be amazed and troubled; o gates of heaven, be closed before the vice of my people, for they have done two evils: they have abandoned me, the source of living water, and they have dug themselves a well, a well that holds no water of its own,” and that which is in it seeps in from the ground or comes in from above, and the rain and other water is putrid and stinks, but there is no source of water in the well itself. God laments this great vice to heaven and earth, to all his creatures and all his friends. Who are these people about whom God thus complains? They are his folk, the clerics, and they have abandoned the living water completely and have very little true light or life in the ground. Rather, they are occupied with exterior things and busy with outer sensual pleasures and works and rituals. These are all external, carried in by hearing or sensory impulses. Meanwhile, there is too often nothing in the ground from which the water should spring and flow.

Are these not truly the wells in which there is no water that springs from the ground, in which everything flows in from the outside, and perhaps even drains away as quickly as it fills? And precisely that is supposed to be good about these people, their rituals and knowledge, which were conceived with good intentions. But these do not lead them to the ground: they have neither an internal spring nor thirst, they do not look any further. They do their own thing and the impulses of their senses from without convince them that this is enough. They remain at the well which they themselves have dug, and they do not taste God. Neither do they drink from the living water, they leave it alone. And so they lie down and sleep, and in the morning they continue in their old ways; they are entirely satisfied. In a blind, cold, arid, hard manner, they remain by the wells that they have made for themselves, and they leave the living fountain alone.

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