Tag Archives: Johannes Tauler

God Beyond Words

Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

…then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Genesis 2:7

On Ash Wednesday, we remember our origins—that we are dust of the ground. In Hebrew, adam (humankind) and adamah (ground, land) are cognate. No preposition links adam (humankind) and aphar (dry earth, dust) min-hā·’ă·ḏā·māh (of the ground), indicating the closest affinity between humankind and dust of the ground. 

Like a mother, the Lord God blew into the nostrils of adam the breath of life. The word for breath (neshamah) is derived from the Hebrew verb nasham (to pant or gasp like a woman in labor). Since labor pains were pronounced a penalty after the transgression, postlapsarian language strains to express the inexpressible. 

God who is beyond thought and speech “clothed Himself in our language, so that He might clothe us in His mode of life,” writes St. Ephrem the Syrian.1

It is our metaphors that He put on—
though He did not literally do so;
He then took them off—without actually doing so:
when wearing them, He was at the same time stripped of them.
He puts on one when it is beneficial,
then strips it off in exchange for another;
the fact that He strips off
and puts on all sorts of metaphors
tells us that the metaphor
does not apply to His true Being:
because that Being is hidden,
He has depicted it by means of what is visible.2

Language that developed “east of Eden” now serves as a bridge over the chasm between creation and its Creator.

Mystics testify that the journey into God eventually leaves words and thoughts behind. The Dominican mystic John Tauler (c. 1300-1361) writes of this divine abyss:

No one can imagine the solitude which reigns in this wilderness, no one at all. No thought can enter here, not a word of all the learned treatises on the Holy Trinity with which people busy themselves so much. Not a single word. So inward is it, so infinitely remote, and so untouched by time and space. This ground is simple and without differentiation, and when one enters here, it will seem as if one has been here from all eternity and as if united to God, be it only for an instant. This experience sheds light and bears witness that man was everlasting in God, before his creation in time. When he was in Him, he was God in God.3

The language of the mystic can be misinterpreted as denying the distinction between God and creation, but it is actually pointing to an experience beyond words. Trying to express in words a wordless reality is like trying to produce a whole sheet of paper using a pair of scissors. Language is a scissor.

Jesus calls us to return to oneness with God. When Eve’s mind turned to the question of the serpent, her thoughts scattered and dispersed from one-pointed union. Adam became distracted along with his wife. Ever since the exile, humans have been looking to their left and right for approval rather than living directly in the Light of God.

“[But] take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

Matthew 6:1-4

Looking left and right is not only an external phenomenon but an internal one as well, in self-congratulation and self-righteousness. When the left hand knows not what the right hand is up to, the person is single and simple: 

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light.”

Matthew 6:22

“The Father and I are one,” Jesus said (John 10:30). The “I” of the Son of God includes adam, all humankind, which he assumed. Hidden prayer draws us into that original intimacy and communion with the Father:

But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

Matthew 6:6

Words enfleshed God till
God became flesh.
When the Word enfleshed
Stripped flesh of words,
Flesh became God.

-GMC

1 St. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Faith, no. 31. From The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, trans. Sebastian Brock (Cambridge: Aquila Books, 2013), 85-6.

2 Ibid.

3 Sermon 44 from Johannes Tauler, Sermons, trans. Maria Shrady, Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1985), 148.

Living Tabernacles

Russian icon of the Crucifixion by Dionysius, ca. 1500, Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow

Why did the Son of God die on the Cross?

Many theories of atonement have been proposed since the early Church, but none of them are definitive. The Catechism of the Catholic Church simply states that the crucifixion is “part of the mystery of God’s plan” (599). 

Images of blood, sacrifice, temple, and altar dominate the book of Hebrews as Christ is shown to be the eternal high priest, final sacrifice for sins, and the fulfillment of the Old Covenant.

Jesus repaired what was broken in the center of the cosmos, temple, and heart of humanity. Blood spilled on the altar of the Cross to atone for the primordial disobedience in the garden of Eden. The first instance of animal sacrifice, according to many interpreters, took place when God clothed Adam and Eve in animal skins (Genesis 3:21). Fratricide and deicide followed in the wake of expulsion in the next generation.

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out in the field. ”When they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord asked Cain, Where is your brother Abel? He answered, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” God then said: What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!

Genesis 4:8-10

Bloodshed was the last step in a series of thoughts and passions ignited in the human heart. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus identified the root of murder in the angry, hateful heart.

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. ’But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Matthew 5:21-24

The book of Genesis stands as primeval witness to the heart of the “New Law” before lawmaking even began.

Then the Lord said to Cain: Why are you angry? Why are you dejected? If you act rightly, you will be accepted; but if not, sin lies in wait at the door: its urge is for you, yet you can rule over it.

Genesis 4:6-7

When his brother lay dead, consciousness of the law immediately sank in:

Cain said to the Lord: “My punishment is too great to bear. Look, you have now banished me from the ground. Anyone may kill me at sight.”

Genesis 4:13-14

A vague sense that Cain owed his own life for the life he had taken was expressed in his fear of retaliation. The Levitical law of “life for life” was instinctual.

Whoever takes the life of any human being shall be put to death.

Leviticus 24:17

Life is sacred on account of its divine origin. Since Adam is made in the image of Christ, the “firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), any harm done to Adam is done to Christ. Fratricide is deicide.

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? …I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Acts 9:4-5; 22:7-8; 26:14-15

These words could have also been addressed to Cain, for Abel is a type of Christ. 

All the blood spilled in the sacrificial system of the Old Law sought to restore the original unity of God and humankind but failed. No amount of animal blood could bring back the dead or grant access to the divine presence (shekinah) in the Holy of Holies. 

And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.

John 12:32

The Son of God assumed the humanity of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel—the whole human family—and united what was split asunder. With forgiveness and mercy on his lips and in his heart, Jesus laid down his life and rose victorious over sin and death. 

The New Law of theosis or transformation into Christ superseded the Mosaic law and Levitical priesthood. The animal instincts of the murderers Cain and Lamech were transformed by the grace of the Holy Spirit to enable the human heart to respond with divine charity from the Father’s heart:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil… “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:38-39, 43-48

The ultimate end of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is to pour out the Holy Spirit on the earth, deify the children of Adam, and unite human persons and the cosmos in the love of God the Father. Persons and the cosmos are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the heart is God’s sanctuary and Holy of Holies.

“This is the covenant I will establish with them after those days, says the Lord:
‘I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them upon their minds,’”

he also says:
“Their sins and their evildoing
I will remember no more.”

Hebrews 10:16-17

Each one of us can build a tabernacle for God in himself. For if, as some before us have said, this tabernacle represents a figure of the whole world, and if each individual can have an image of the world in oneself, why should not each individual be able to fulfill the form of the tabernacle in oneself? …For that part within you which is most valuable of all can act the part of priest—the part which some call the first principle of the heart, others the rational sense or the substance of the mind or whatever other name one wishes to give to that part of us which makes us capable of receiving God.

Origen (fl. c. 200-254)1

The Image of the Blessed Trinity rests in the most intimate, hidden, and inmost ground of the soul, where God is present essentially, actively, and substantially. Here God acts and exists and rejoices in Himself, and to separate God from this inmost ground would be as impossible as separating Him from Himself… And thus in the depth of this ground the soul possesses everything by grace which God possesses by nature.

Johannes Tauler (c. 1300-1361)2

Fractured Adam
Shattered glass
Made one in Christ
By Love on the Cross
Not glued together
Nor sewn in patches
But indivisibly divided
Divided indivisibly
Trinity in Unity 
Unity in Trinity
We are children of God
Living tabernacles

-GMC

1 Origen, Homilies on Exodus 9.4. From Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Hebrews, Erik M. Heen and Philip D. W. Krey, editors, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 132-3.

2 Sermon 29 from Johannes Tauler, Sermons, trans. Maria Shrady, Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1985), 105.

Beyond Descartes

Friday of the First Week in Ordinary Time (Year I)

Hebrews 4:1-5, 11; Mark 2:1-12

The aim of the Christian life may be expressed in many ways: union with God, communion in the Trinity, deification (theosis), the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, returning to the Father’s house (the heavenly Jerusalem), or in the words of the author of Hebrews, entering into God’s Sabbath “rest.” The seventh day is unending peace and joy in the Lord, according to Rabbinic glosses, because unlike the first six days of creation there is no mention of evening. The sun never sets on the glory of God (Revelation 21:23; 22:5).

And whoever enters into God’s rest, rests from his own works as God did from his. Therefore, let us strive to enter into that rest…

Hebrews 4:10-11

How are the people of God to “enter into that rest?” The author of Hebrews calls our attention to the faculty of hearing, for failure to “enter” resulted from a failure in listening:

Therefore, let us be on our guard while the promise of entering into his rest remains, that none of you seem to have failed. For in fact we have received the good news just as they did. But the word that they heard did not profit them, for they were not united in faith with those who listened.

Hebrews 4:1-2 (New American Bible Revised Edition)

Original manuscripts differ concerning the second verse. The alternative reading is exemplified by the Revised Standard Version which reads:

For good news came to us just as to them; but the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers.

The basic message is the same in either version: listening was not accompanied by faith. The hearers did not listen as did their leaders Joshua and Caleb, and the message failed to be received with faith in the heart.

“Oh, that today you would hear his voice: ‘Harden not your hearts.’”

Hebrews 3:7-8; 4:7; Psalm 95:7-8

When faith is alive, the voice of the Lord awakens the heart of the beloved:

The sound of my lover! here he comes
springing across the mountains,
leaping across the hills.
Let me see your face,
let me hear your voice,
For your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely.

Song of Songs 1:8, 14

Almost 1500 years after the bitter desert wanderings, the Bridegroom appeared and called the attention of his Bride to the vital connection between hearing and the heart:

This is why I speak to them in parables, because ‘they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.’ Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: ‘You shall indeed hear but not understand, you shall indeed look but never see. Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and be converted, and I heal them.’

Matthew 13:13-15; cf. Mark 4:11-12; Isaiah 6:8-10

Seeing and hearing are our windows onto reality, are they not? “All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason,” Immanuel Kant tells us. “There is nothing higher than reason.” Yet according to Jesus, something far surpassing seeing and hearing is required to “understand with the heart.”

The biblical language of the “heart” is foreign to empiricism and rationalism, but it is the key to “understanding,” “conversion” and “healing.” 

The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place “to which I withdraw.” The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant.

Catechism of the Catholic Church 2563

The spiritual heart is the hidden center of union and communion in the Trinity, the Sabbath “rest” of God. 

Johannes Tauler (c. 1300-1361), one of the greatest German Dominican mystics, wrote some of the most striking statements about the interior “Promised Land.”

The Image of the Blessed Trinity rests in the most intimate, hidden, and inmost ground of the soul, where God is present essentially, actively, and substantially. Here God acts and exists and rejoices in Himself, and to separate God from this inmost ground would be as impossible as separating Him from Himself… And thus in the depth of this ground the soul possesses everything by grace which God possesses by nature.1

“No path of the senses will ever lead you there,” Tauler writes. “Within this ground the Heavenly Father begat His only-begotten Son.”2 This union of created and uncreated natures (theosis) surpasses sense perception, images, forms, words, thought and reason.3

The very being (hupostasis) of the Father and Son spoken about in Hebrews 1:3 is found in the heart and “ground” of every human person united to God by grace. 

You were more inward to me than my most inward part; and higher than my highest.

St. Augustine, Confessions, 3.6.11

Faith is the key to entering the Promised Land. 

For we who believed enter into [that] rest.

Hebrews 4:3

The faith of four friends circumvented every barrier between their paralytic brother and Jesus, and made a way where there was no way.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven… I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.”

Mark 2:5, 11

There is more to God than meets the eye (or ear). 

May sight and sound 
give way to
Light in the ground
By faith in the heart
beyond the mind of Descartes.

-GMC

1 Sermon 29 from Johannes Tauler, Sermons, trans. Maria Shrady, Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1985), 105.

2 Ibid., 106. 

3 Sermon 37 from Ibid., 126. In different words, the testimony of an imageless, formless “eye of the soul” (spirit, heart, nous, ground) has been present from the time of the ancient desert tradition.