To heaven approached a Suﬁ saint,
From groping in the darkness late,
And tapping timidly and faint,
Besought admission at God’s gate.
Said God, “Who seeks to enter here?”
“’Tis I, dear Friend,” the saint replied,
And, trembling much with hope and fear.
“If it be thou, without abide.”
Sadly to earth the poor saint turned,
To hear the scourging of life’s rods;
But aye his heart within him yearned
To mix and lose its love in God’s.
He roamed alone through weary years,
By cruel men still scorned and mocked,
Until from faith’s pure ﬁre and tears
Again he rose, and modest knocked.
Asked God, “Who now is at the door?”
“It is Thyself, beloved Lord,”
Answered the saint; in doubt no more
Of an exceeding great reward.
— Translated from the Persian
We have sought to show that fullness of life can only follow reality of death with Christ. If we shrink from laying the life of nature upon the altar of Christ’s Cross, if the sense of desolation and apparent abandonment by God and man affright us, we shall never reach the goal towards which the Holy Spirit has been leading us from the very commencement of the impartation of the life of God.
In one of his wonderful sermons, Tauler gives a powerful description of what he calls the three stages of the dying life, remarking that “in what measure a man dies to himself and grows out of himself, in the same measure does God, who is our life, enter into him.”
"God leads the soul through these exercises and operations of His hand as through ﬁre and water by turns, until the workings of self-sufﬁciency are driven out from all the secret corners of the spirit, and the man henceforward is so utterly ashamed of himself, and so casts himself off, that he can nevermore ascribe any greatness to himself, but thoroughly perceives all his own weakness in which he now is, and always has been. Whatever he does or desires to do or whatever good thing may be said of him, he does not take it to his own credit, for he knows not how to say anything else of himself, but that he is full of all manner of inﬁrmity."
[This sermon is now so difficult of access, owing to the rarity and costliness of the volume which contains it, that we propose to give in this chapter some of its main features, believing they will prove of great value to those who read these pages.]
In the ﬁrst stage, men are apt to taste little sweetness in loving God, save when they hope to enjoy something of His love; as for instance to escape hell and get to heaven. Such begin to abandon self while they love themselves far too well. They desire that all men should be as they are, and whatever methods of avoiding sin they have practiced, and still make use of by reason of their inﬁrmity, they desire, nay demand, that every one else should’ observe; and if any do not do so, they judge them, and murmur at them, and say that they pay no regard to religion.
Such men, who are standing on the lowest steps of abandoned self-life, are very niggardly of their spiritual blessings towards their fellow Christians; for they devote all their prayers and religious exercises to their own advantage; and if they pray or do any other kind act for others, they think it a great thing, and fancy they have done them a great service thereby. Their whole life is full of care, full of fear, full of toil and ignoble misery; for they see eternal life on the one side, and fear to lose it; and they see hell on the other, and fear to fall into it; and all their prayers and religious exercises cannot chase away their fear of hell, so long as they do not die unto themselves. They make long stories of what is of no consequence, and talk about their great difﬁculties and sufferings, as if they were grievously wronged; and they esteem their works, though small, to be highly meritorious, and that God owes them great honor and blessing in return. From this ﬁrst step many, through unwillingness to go forward, fall back from the little they have attained, and plunge into folly and wickedness.
In the second stage, Tauler describes the experience we have referred to in the previous chapter. The soul can endure insult, contempt, and such like deaths, so long as he is sustained by a gracious sense of the Divine presence, but directly that is withdrawn, the man falls a prey to mistrust of God, fancying that God has forgotten him and is not willing to help him towards perfection. When the Lord shows him some kindness, he feels himself so rich as if he could never be poor, and thinks to enjoy the presence and favor of God (though as yet he is quite untried) just as if the Almighty were his own personal, special friend; and is ready to believe that our Lord is, so to speak, at his disposal to comfort him in adversity, and enrich him with all virtue. Seeing that such a man will be very apt to rely upon his imagined powers, and thus to fall grievously, seeing also that the best and ripest fruit is being lost, inasmuch as the man has not yet attained to that perfection to which our Lord desires to lead him, in due time our Lord withdraws from such a one all that He had revealed to him, because the man was too much occupied with himself, thinking about his own perfection, wisdom, holiness, and virtues.
Thus brought through poverty to dissatisfaction with himself, he humbly acknowledges that he has neither wisdom nor worthiness. He was wont to desire and thirst after the reputation of holiness, like a meadow after the dew of heaven. He fancied that men’s praise of him had proceeded altogether from real goodness and by God’s ordination, and had wandered so far from self-knowledge as not to see that he was in himself unsound from head to foot; he fancied that he was really as he stood in man’s opinion, and knew nothing to the contrary.
In order that he may learn to know himself, our Lord suffers him to fall into unspiritual temptations such as he never experienced in those past days in which he fancied himself very good and spiritually minded. Out of mercy God deprives him of all understanding, and over-clouds all the light in which he walked aforetime, and so hedges him in with the thorns of an anguished conscience, that he thinks nothing else but that he is cast from the light of God’s countenance; and he moans greatly, and often with many tears exclaims: “O my God, why hast Thou cast me off, and why go I thus mourning all the days of my pilgrimage!”
When he ﬁnds himself thus, from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot, unlike God and at variance with Him, he is ﬁlled with such a sense of his own unworthiness that he can hardly abide himself; and then he thinks many miserable things about himself from passages of Holy Scripture, and sheds many tears in the sense of his sinfulness, till he is weighed down to the earth with the pressure of God’s hand, and exclaims: “My sins have taken hold upon me that I am not able to look up!” He asks the heavens why they have become as brass, and the earth wherefore she is as iron, and beseeches the very stones to have compassion on his woes.
So God leads the soul through these exercises and operations of His hand as through ﬁre and water by turns, until the workings of self-sufﬁciency are driven out from all the secret corners of the spirit, and the man henceforward is so utterly ashamed of himself, and so casts himself off, that he can nevermore ascribe any greatness to himself, but thoroughly perceives all his own weakness in which he now is, and always has been. Whatever he does or desires to do or whatever good thing may be said of him, he does not take it to his own credit, for he knows not how to say anything else of himself, but that he is full of all manner of inﬁrmity. Then he has reached the end of this second stage; and he who has arrived at this point is not far from the threshold of great mercies, by which he shall enter into the bride-chamber of Christ. Then, when the day of his death shall come, he shall be brought in by the Bridegroom with great rejoicing.
Little trees do not strike their roots deep into the earth, and therefore they cannot stand long; but the great trees, which are intended to endure long upon the earth, these strike their roots deep, and spread them out wide into the soil. So it is with those who are great upon earth; they must needs pass through many a struggle before all the self-sufﬁciency of their heart can be broken down, and they can be surely and ﬁrmly rooted for ever in humility. It does, however, happen sometimes that the Holy Spirit ﬁnds easier ways than those of which we have spoken, whereby He brings such souls to Himself.
The third stage of this abandoned life is reached only by those who, with unﬂagging diligence and ceaseless desire, are ever pressing forward to perfection. In this stage, there is a mingling of sorrow and of joy. An overwhelming sorrow in the sense of the unspeakable wrong done to God by His creatures, and especially by the inconsistent disciples of Jesus Christ. An overwhelming gladness in the assurance that he is now to be ﬁlled with all the joys that the human nature of Christ possessed.
To this state a man cannot attain except he unite his will with God, with an entire renunciation and perfect denial of himself, and all selﬁsh love of himself, and delights in having his own will overmastered and quenched by the shedding abroad in his heart of the Holy Spirit in the love of God, so that it seems as though the Holy Spirit Himself were the man’s will and love, and he were nothing and willed nothing on his own account. Yea, even the kingdom of heaven he shall desire for God’s sake and God’s glory, because Christ hath earned it in order to supply his needs, and chooseth to bestow it on him as one of His sons.