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CHAPTER VIII

NICHOLAS TELLS HIS STORY TO DR. TAULER

DR. TAULER was now convinced that Nicholas, though only a layman, knew some secret of the Lord which he himself had never known. So he said to Nicholas, “I pray thee, for God’s sake, to tell me how it is that thou hast attained to such a life. Tell me how thou didst begin thy spiritual life, and what has been thy history.”

The man said, “That is indeed a request which I cannot fulfil. For I tell you truly, if I should recount, or write all the wondrous dealings of God with me, a poor sinner, for the last twelve years, I verily believe you have not a book large enough to contain it. However, I will tell you somewhat thereof for this time.”

So the man went on to say how he had striven hard at first to bring his flesh into subjection, and that he had so great a desire to be saved, that he was ready to do anything at any cost, if only he knew what to do. And this desire he says, God found in his heart. But for a while he had no knowledge of the right way, and he thought that he should attain his end by ill treating his body.

“The devil,” he said, “often stirs up a man to practise great austerities, with the intent that the man may grow sick and infirm thereby, or weak in his brain, or do himself some other injury. I will tell you,” he went on to say, “how it befell me in the beginning. I was reading the German books about the lives of the saints, when I thought to myself, ‘These were men who lived on this earth as well as I, and perhaps it is that they had not sinned as I have.’

“Therefore because of my sins I began to practise some severities, but grew so sick thereby that I was brought to death’s door. And it came to pass one morning at break of day, I had been so chastising myself all night, that my eyelids closed from very weakness, and I fell asleep. And in my sleep it was as though a voice spoke to me and said, ‘Thou foolish man, if thou are bent upon killing thyself before thy time, thou wilt have to bear a heavy punishment. But if thou didst suffer God to exercise thee, He could exercise thee better than thou by thyself, or with the devil’s counsel.’

“When I heard speak of the devil I awoke in a great fright, rose up, and walked out into a wood nigh to the town.

“Then I thought within myself, ‘I will go to the old hermit who lives in the wood, and tell him all that has happened to me. And I did so, and told him the words I heard in my sleep, and besought him in God’s name to give me the best counsel he could.

“So the hermit said, ‘Thou must know that if I am to advise, thou must first tell me all that thou hast done to thyself.’

“So I did, and he said, ‘By whose counsel hast thou done these things?’

“And I answered, ‘Of my own will.’

“Then the hermit said, ‘Then know that it has been the devil’s counsel, and thou must not obey him any more as long as thou livest, but thou must give thyself up wholly to God. He can exercise thee much better than thou thyself, or the devil.’

“Behold, dear Master, thereupon I ceased from these exercises, and yielded up myself and my doings altogether to God.

“For the rest, dear sir, you must know that I was by nature a very clever, ingenious, kind-hearted man; but I had not the Scriptures in my hand, like you, but could only learn to know myself by my natural intelligence. And once upon a time, I thought within myself, ‘Thou hast such good understanding, it may be, if thou shouldst, give thy mind to it with all earnestness, thou couldst attain to comprehend somewhat of the things of God.’

“But as this thought came into my head, I marked straightway that it was the devil’s counsel, and saw that it was all false.

“So I said, ‘O thou evil spirit, what impure counsel hast thou put in my heart, thou bad, false counsellor! If we had such a god’ (he meant a god who could be understood by natural reason) ‘I would not give a berry for him!’

“After that, another night, when I was saying my matins at three o’clock in the morning, an ardent longing came over me, so that I said, ‘O eternal and merciful God, would that it were Thy will to make known to me something that should be above all our sense and reason!’

“As soon as I had said it, I was sorely affrighted at this great longing, and I said fervently, ‘Ah, my God and my Lord, forgive me of Thy boundless mercy for having done this, and that it should have entered into the heart of a poor worm like me, to desire such a great gift of such rich grace. I confess I have not lived as I ought to do. I confess, moreover, dear Lord, that I have been unthankful to Thee in all things, so that methinks I am not worthy that the earth should bear me, therefore my body must be punished for my sin.’”

Then the man went on to relate, how in spite of the advice of the hermit, he “threw off his garments and scourged himself till the blood ran down his shoulders.”

Poor heart of man! the Lord had indeed answered his prayer. He had showed him great and mighty things which till then he knew not — even the greatness of his sin — his unworthiness, and his guilt. He felt as Peter felt when he entreated the Lord to depart from him, for he was a sinful man.

And yet the next thought in that heart into which the light had begun to break, was not the thought of Christ the Saviour, but the strange dark delusion that he must punish himself for his sin.

In these days perhaps, the second thought would have taken a different shape. He would have said, “I must turn over a new leaf,” or “ I must attend to religion,” or “I must begin to live a useful life.”

Let us not think that the heart of Nicholas was more benighted than ours have been — or are. You may say we have now higher thoughts of God — we should not suppose He would be pleased at the sight of a man scourging himself till the blood ran down. But to suppose that He can be pleased with any of our vain attempts to put away our sin, is an ignorance equally great. Our own religion, our feelings, our tears and prayers, and our works, are of as much value before God as the stripes which Nicholas laid upon his shoulders, and of no more. He had been taught in his day of one false way to heaven, and men have been taught since of many other ways equally false. But one true Way has through all the ages remained the same, unchanged and eternal. And in all ages those taught of God have found it, and passed in by that way into Paradise — Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Jesus only.

Yet the Lord did not consider the unworthy thoughts that Nicholas had of Him. He knew the thoughts He had towards that poor benighted man, “thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give him,” not “an expected end,” but an end far beyond all that he could expect or hope for.

“In that same hour,” continued Nicholas, “as the day broke, and the blood was flowing down, in that same hour God showed His mercy upon me, so that my mind was filled with light and clearness. And in that same hour it seemed to me that my natural reason was gone from me, and I had an understanding far above it. The time seemed all too short to me. I saw that it was a supernatural and mighty wonder wrought by God, and I could have cried with S. Peter, ‘Lord, it is good for me to be here!’

“Now know, dear sir, that in that self-same short hour I received more truth, and more illumination in my understanding, than all the teachers could ever teach me from now till the Judgment Day by word of mouth, and with all their natural learning and science. Now, dear Master, I have said enough at this time, as to how it stands with you.”

Then said the Master, “If God should give thee grace to say still more, I should heartily rejoice in it, for I tell thee in all sincerity that I have listened to thee gladly, dear son. Now I beg thee, for God’s sake, do not leave me, but stay here, and if thou lack money I will not let thee want for anything, if I have to pledge a book for it.”

Then said the man, “God reward you, dear sir — know that I need not your kindness, for God hath made me a steward of His goods, so that I have of earthly wealth 5000 florins, which are God’s. And if I knew where there was need of them, or where God would have them bestowed, I would give them away.”

Then said the Master, “Dear son, thou art indeed the steward of a rich man and a great Lord!”

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