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Sermon for Septuagesima Sunday

By John Tauler


      (From the Gospel for the day)

      In this Sermon following we are taught how we must perpetually press forward towards our highest good, without pause or rest; and how we must labour in the spiritual vineyard that it may bring forth good fruit.

      Matt. xx. 1.-"The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard."

      THIS householder went out early at the first hour, and again at the third and at the sixth hours, and hired labourers for a penny a day. But when it was quite late in the evening he went out again, and still found men standing idle. Then he said unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you.

      Dear children, this householder signifies our Lord Jesus Christ; His house is the heavens, and this earth, and purgatory, and hell. He saw that all nature had gone astray, insomuch that His lovely vineyard lay a barren waste; and man, whom He had made to possess this fair and fruitful vineyard, had wandered far away from Him, and left this excellent vineyard to be untilled. But the Lord of the vineyard determined to invite men to return into this vineyard for which He had created him, and went out early to that end.

      Dear children, in one sense Jesus Christ went out early from the divine bosom of the Father, and yet evermore dwells there. But in another sense, He went out early in human nature, that He might hire us into His service, and bring us back again into His noble vineyard, and so there might be labourers to till it. And He went out at the first hour, and also at the third, and sixth, and ninth hours. And at the eleventh hour He went out once more, and again found men standing idle, to whom he spoke roughly, saying, Why stand ye here all the day idle? Then they answered, No man hath hired us, Lord. These idle men whom no man hath hired are those who are still in their original, uncorrupt, and innocent state, and hence they are rightly called blessed; for God saw as He looked on them, that they were unhired; that is, not held in servitude to the world and the creatures. There are some who are God's hired labourers, and these are in a higher sense free, and at large, and not held in servitude to the world or the creature. But these of whom we are now speaking are still standing idle, which ought not to be; that is, they are standing in apathy, cold, loveless, and devoid of grace; for so long as a man is not standing in the grace of God, he is standing alone in nature. And if such a man (were it possible, which it is not) were to fulfil all the good works which have ever been done in this world, he would still, nevertheless, be living altogether idly, unprofitably, and in vain, and it would avail him nothing. Again, this going out early in the morning is a type of the dawning of the grace of God in the soul; for the morning is the end of the night, when the darkness vanishes, and the day-spring of grace arises in the soul of man, and God says, Wherefore stand ye here idle? Go ye into my vineyard, and what is right, that will I give you.

      But the men entered after a very unequal manner into the vineyard. One class are those who are mere beginners; these work in God's vineyard with outward acts, and bodily exercises, and self-imposed tasks, and are persuaded that they are accomplishing great good works with their fasting, watching, and praying; while they never look to the purity of their motives, but retain their love of earthly enjoyments, and their own likes and dislikes. And therefrom do spring up injustice, false judgment, and many faults; such as pride, earthly or spiritual, bitterness or enmity, and more of the like, that greatly hinder the outpouring of divine grace, if we allow these untoward dispositions to break forth in words or actions. Let one who has thus been building upon a false foundation give heed to himself, and watch how he may best condemn and destroy this inward falsehood, that it lead not to his own ruin, nor cause harm to those with whom he may hold converse.

      A second class of men who have likewise entered into God's vineyard, are those who are above living for mere temporal things, and have also overcome their grosser sins, and have turned their minds towards higher things. Their life is spent in the rational practice of virtue; and in this they find such pleasure and delight, that they are contented with their condition, and miss the highest and sublimest truth; for they abide in the present sense of satisfaction, and do not pant to reach upward through and above this enjoyment to the eternal God Himself. For our delight ought to be in God Himself, not in these gifts of His.

      But the third class of those who go into God's vineyard are truly noble and highly-favoured men, who in deed and truth rise above all creature things in God's vineyard; for they seek and love nothing but simply God in Himself. They neither look to pleasure, nor to any selfish end, nor to that which is a mere outflow from God; for their inner man is wholly plunged in God, and they have no end but the praise and glory of God, that His good pleasure alone may be fulfilled in and through them and in all creatures. Hence they are able to bear all things and to resign all things, for they receive all things as from God's hand, and offer up to Him again in simplicity of heart all that they have received from Him, and do not lay claim to any of His mercies. They are like a river that flows out with every tide, and then again hastens back to its source. So do these men refer all their gifts back to the source whence they proceed, and flow back again unto it themselves likewise. For inasmuch as they carry all the gifts of God back unto their divine fountain, and do not claim any ownership in them, either for pleasure or advantage, and do not purpose this or that, but simply God alone, God must of necessity be their only refuge and stay, outward or inward.

      But although this aim carry a man so completely out of himself, and be perfectly simple and directed to nothing but God, yet nature has some regard to herself, of which a man cannot be wholly bereft. Whether he choose it or no (this is a simple fact), he cannot but always desire to feel God's presence; and so too it is a natural instinct to wish to be happy. But this desire should be far from his strongest, and the least part of what he takes into the account in his purposes. [ [46] And here I wish to rebuke all those religious persons who are leaning on their good works, and as it were keep a right of property in them, thinking themselves free to do or not to do them. For whenever they see or imagine any new undertaking or religious practice which can afford them inward or outward satisfaction, they give themselves to it with prayer, and striving, and weeping, and watching. And as long as they find pleasure in it, they cannot have enough of it; but if this sense of pleasure and interest passes away, their devotion passes away likewise, and they come to dislike their good and holy work, and then they grow lukewarm and careless, performing all they do without devotion. All this is owing to their not having had a single eye to God's glory. They have been prompted and sustained in their labour by the pleasure it has yielded them, and now this has fled. For we must not seek enjoyment and sweetness in the gifts of God, either in holy exercises, or in words or works; but we must take delight in God alone, and not in his gifts.

      There are, however, some religious persons who will not be left without solace or stay. For rather than be left simply and truly without a solace, destitute and bare, they set up for themselves heavenly beings, such as the saints and angels, and claim a sort of right to them as a source of spiritual enjoyment, and look to them as a consolation. Thus they will say: "Such a saint or angel is dear to me before all others;" and if you throw down this prop of their own raising, and say that they ought not to speak thus, you leave them little peace; nay, they are greatly disquieted; and this is worst of all, and doing God a great wrong. Thou must not place thy reliance on any creature in heaven or on earth, nor repose nor lean on any save God alone. If thou didst trust Him really and truly, all His saints would be truly and rightly honoured and reverenced by thee; for the departed saints are always absorbed in the divine, fatherly abyss of the Holy Trinity. For I tell thee by that Truth, which is God Himself, if thou art ever to become a man after the will of God, everything must die in thee to which thou art cleaving, whether it be God's gifts, or the saints, or the angels, or even all that would afford thee consolation for thy spiritual wants: all must be given up. If God is to shine in on thy soul brightly, without a cloud, and accomplish His noble and glorious will in thee, thou must be free and unencumbered by all that affords thee comfort out of God.

      We are not, therefore, forbidden to honour the blessed saints, but only to claim any property in their merits for the sake of our own delight in them; for I tell thee, that if thou hadst all manner of heavenly grace from God, and didst possess the good works of all mankind, so soon as thou shouldst claim it as thine own, for the sake of thine own delight therein, that moment all this goodness would be sullied and defaced with thine own evil. For a true and faithful servant of God shall be always pressing upward to what is before him, not suffering himself to be held back by comfort or pleasure, joy or sorrow, wealth or poverty. Through all this he shall urge onward, till he come unto the infinite ocean of the Godhead. And therein he shall be lost without his own knowledge, and dazzled by excess of light and love. There it shall be given him to know all that belongs to true perfection.]

      A good and devout man shall be like the labourer in the vineyard, who works all the day long, and nevertheless he must take food. But the labour is long and the meal barely lasts an hour, and he only takes it for the sake of the work. He must eat that he may work, and the nourishment he takes diffuses itself through every part of his body, continually supplying it with fresh strength, which again is consumed in his labour; and when it has been consumed with labour he eats again a little, that he may again consume it by working in the Lord's vineyard. So is it with a noble-minded man. When he feels an inclination in himself to enjoy God or His heavenly grace and what is thereof, let him for a little while seek and purpose his own good, but not longer than is needful for the nourishing of his soul, that he may consume his spiritual strength again in labour; and when it has thus been spent in the noblest of all ways, from a love flowing back unto God who has inspired it, then the man must go for refreshment again into the river of life that floweth out from the throne of God, that it may again bring forth in him the fruit of good works. All these spiritual men who thus know how to resign or to return again unto God, with their body and their spirits, the gifts that He has mercifully bestowed on them, with deep, humble self-renunciation, these do continually grow more able and more worthy to receive blessing from God. Where such admirable, god-like men are to be found, they are worthy, as none else are, to be fed with gold and silver and fine pearls, and the best that the world contains as their heritage. But there is many a poor noble man of God, who has none of all these things; let such an one humbly cast himself on the all-powerful God and trust him utterly; without doubt thy heavenly Father will and must provide thee well, yea, wert thou hidden in a rock.

      These exalted and most noble men are just like the wood of the vine, which is outwardly hard and black and dry, and good for no purpose whatever; and if we had never seen it before, we should think it of no use at all, and good for nothing but to be thrown into the fire, and burned. But in this dry wood of the vine, there lie concealed the living veins of sap, and power of yielding the noblest of all juices, and of bringing forth a greater abundance of fruit than any other sort of wood that grows. And thus it is with these beloved and lowly children, who are at all times and seasons plunged in God; they are outwardly in appearance like unto black rotten wood, seeming unto men dry and unprofitable. For there are many of these who are humble, noways remarkable for their gifts, outward or inward, nor for any extraordinary works or sayings or exercises of devotion, and who move in the narrowest sphere; but living veins from the fountain of truth lie hidden within them, forasmuch as they have asked for no earthly heritage, but God is their lot and their portion, their life and their being.

      Now the vine-dresser goes out and prunes the vine, lopping off the wild shoots; for if he neglected this, and suffered them to remain on the good stem, the whole would yield bad, sour wine. So likewise shall good men do: they shall cut off from themselves ill that is not according to God's order in their conduct or dispositions, likings or dislikings, and destroy it to the very root; thou shalt cut away all evil failings from thy heart, and it will do thee no harm, either in head or in hand, or any member. But hold thy knife still, till thou hast really seen what ought to be cut off. If a vine dresser be not skilled in his art, he is as likely to crop off the good branches which bear the grapes as the wild shoots, and thus spoil the vineyard. So it is with those who do not understand this spiritual art; they leave the roots of vice and evil dispositions alive in the heart, and hew and lop at poor nature, and thereby destroy this noble vineyard. Nature is in itself good and noble, why shouldst thou hew away aught that belongs to it? For I tell thee that when the time is come for it to yield fruit in a godly, blessed, devout life, then it will be seen that thou hast spoiled thy nature.

      After this the labourer binds up the vine, putting in stakes; he bends the upper branches down towards the earth, and fastens the vine to a strong framework, that it may have a support. This is a type of the sweet and holy life, the sacred example and sufferings of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ, for these and nothing of our own should be a man's stay. For the higher powers of his reason shall be drawn down into due control, and he shall sink low in deep submissive humility before Our Lord, in truth and not with hypocrisy, with all his powers, outward and inward. For when both the appetites of the body, and the highest intellectual powers of the soul are thus trained and bound down, each in its own place, so that neither the senses nor the will, nor any faculty, is left too free and too proud, but they are at all times controlled and trained into due rightful order under the Divine will, and man's desire at all times, and in all things, is to be by the help and grace of God, to the utmost of his power, outwardly and inwardly obedient to the Divine will, without contradiction, in all that the Eternal God, our Heavenly Father, has determined in His eternal divine counsels;-[and when all the powers humbly act in this way, in dependence upon God, whether they are exercised or kept in check,-were it within the bounds of reasonable possibility that a man could be conscious of possessing all the good works, and all the heavenly graces of all mankind, and yet took none of all this unto himself, but, calling nothing his own, stood up destitute and bare, in free, simple love to God, as if all this goodness belonged to another, and not himself;-Children, wherever such noble men may exist or live in this age of grace, in them may the Father of Heaven truly and absolutely accomplish His divine and mysterious work without any hindrance. And in him whose heart is not sincerely standing thus toward God, as to the guiding principle of his life, in him doubt not that this holy, divine birth cannot be truly brought to pass or be made fruitful.]

      Afterward the vine-dresser digs about the stems of the vine, and roots out all noxious weeds. Thus shall a devout man dig about the soil of his own heart by close observation and testing of his own principles, to see whether there be aught for him to root out. And if he find anything, let him that moment pluck it up, however trifling or unimportant it may be, that the beams of the eternal and divine sun may penetrate the farther into his very midst, shining with unbeclouded force, and fructifying his noblest powers. For thus the glorious sun draws the juices outward into the living vessels which lie hidden in the bark, and then the fair clusters begin to appear. Ah! children, if man knew how so to tend his vine, that God's sun might shine in on and vivify his soul, what sweet, excellent, delicious fruit would the eternal sun draw forth from him! For the lovely sun shines with all its fulness into him, and works within these precious clusters, and makes them flourish in sweetness and beauty. Their blossoms send forth a sweet and delicate fragrance, which dispels all poisonous vapours; neither serpent nor toad can endure their perfume, when the eternal divine sun shines direct among the branches, and through the clusters. The fruit is so entirely of God's producing, and flourishes in such beauty and richness, in pure looking up to God, whose rays draw forth from it such wondrous and delicious favour and perfume, that it needs must destroy the venom of the old serpent; yea, had all the devils in hell, and all the men on earth conspired together, they would not be able in the least to injure a thoroughly godly-minded and God-loving man, but the more they strive to injure him, the deeper he is rooted and the higher he is built up in God with all his powers. And if such an admirable man, bearing his precious fruit, were to be cast down to the depths of hell, he must needs turn it into a kingdom of heaven, and God and eternal blessedness would exist in hell. And a man who should bear such fruit would not need to fear in anywise all the reproach that could be heaped upon him. When we have no aim but God, nothing can part us from Him, or lead us astray.

      Now after that the vine has been well pruned, and its stem cleared of all weeds, the glorious sun shineth yet more brightly, and casteth his heat on the precious clusters, and these grow more and more transparent, and the sweetness begins to disclose itself more and more. And to such a man as we have described, all means of communication between God and his soul begin after a time to grow so transparent that the rays and glances of the divine sun reach him without ceasing, that is, as often and as soon as he turns himself towards them in feeling and thought. This divine sun shines much more brightly than all the suns in the firmament ever shone; and in its light all the man's ways, and works, and doings are so changed into its image, that he feels nothing to be so true as God, with a certainty that is rooted in the very midst of his being, yet is far above the sphere of his reason, and which he can never fully express, for it is too deep and too high above all human reason to be explored and understood.

      After this the vine-dresser loves to strip off the leaves, that thus the sun may have nothing to hinder its rays from pouring on the grapes. In like manner do all means of grace fall away from this man, such as images of the saints, teachings, holy exercises, set prayers, and the like. Yet let none cast these things aside before they fall away of themselves through divine grace: that is to say, when a man is drawn up above all that he can comprehend, then do these precious and divine fruits grow more sweet and delightful than either sense or reason may conceive, and it is possible for him to be carried so far that his spirit is as it were sunk and lost in the abyss of the Deity, and loses the consciousness of all creature distinctions. All things are gathered together in one with the Divine sweetness, and the man's being is so penetrated with the Divine substance, that he loses himself therein, as a drop of water is lost in a cask of strong wine. And thus the man's spirit is so sunk in God in divine union, that he loses all sense of distinction; and all that has brought him to this point, such as humility, the seeking God's glory,-nay, his very self,-loses its name, and there remains a secret, still union, without cloud or colour. And all good purposes are fused into a true and pure oneness, and a real but silent mystery, such as human powers can scarce apprehend. [Children, could we but truly stand in this holy of holies for an hour or a moment, it were a thousand times better and more profitable for us, and more pleasing and praiseworthy in the sight of the Eternal God, than forty years spent in our own self-imposed tasks.]

      That we may thus give place to God, [for Him to do His work in us, and die to all to which we ought to die, that we may live truly and only to that to which we ought to live, if this exalted work of God is to be accomplished in us and through us,] may He help us. Amen!

      NOTES:

      [46] The parts enclosed between brackets are wanting in the Strasburg mss.; but, according to the Frankfort Edition of 1826, exist in the edition of 1498.

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