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THE SECT EVERYWHERE SPOKEN AGAINST
IT is very difficult to separate truth from legend in the stories of other conversions related by Nicholas. He appears sometimes to write in symbolical language, as Bunyan describes the experiences of Christian, but it is evident also that he readily believed in supernatural appearances and transactions, and one can but sift out, as well as may be, the manifest working of God in all these cases.
We find that Nicholas had devoted followers amongst clergy and laymen, along the Rhine as far as Holland, in Swabia, in Bavaria, and in Switzerland. In the year 1350 he went on a mission to Hungary, to visit two of his converts. Amongst men and women of all classes, in convents and in Beguine houses, his name became a household word — that is to say, the only name by which he was known, “the Friend of God from the Oberland.”
This name, “the Friend of God,” when applied to others, seems henceforward to have had a more limited sense than formerly. It became an understood thing that a “friend of God,” was one who owned the mission, and followed the teaching, of Nicholas of Basle, and in consequence lived in secret communion with God, and apart from the world.
Thus does Tauler refer to these hidden saints, saying all those are blamed by the world, who walk not in their ways, but in the secret path of communion. “And as to separation,” he said, “there must be separation, but it must be in separating from this present evil world, and that, dear children, is no sect, unless it be that ancient sect ‘that everywhere is spoken against.’”
In Basle these friends of God became very numerous. A noble lady, called Frickin, who joined herself to them, said the blessedness of this fellowship was so great, that she felt as if she had come out from purgatory into Paradise. Many priests and monks were counted in the number of this unsectarian sect; the worthy day labourer mentioned by Tauler being an example of one in another class.
Rulman Merswin, as we have seen, became a devoted disciple of Nicholas, who visited him in secret, and sent him one by one the tracts from which we learn the history of his life. Sometimes he sent him tracts written by others, and copied out by him. And finally these tracts were almost entirely re-copied by another Nicholas, who was a scribe in the community founded later on by Rulman Merswin.
This scribe, Nicholas von Laufen, who appears to have been by no means amongst the most enlightened of men, was in the habit of adding or inserting passages, especially rhapsodies relating to the Virgin Mary, which confuse and deface the stories related by Nicholas of Basle. We must disentangle these various threads as best we may, only being thankful to know that this bewildering habit of Nicholas von Laufen is a matter of history, and not a convenient theory invented to explain the contradictions and inconsistencies in the writings of Nicholas of Basle.
At the same time it seems evident that Nicholas of Basle did not think of prayer to the Virgin Mary as a sin, when he met with those who were in the habit of praying to her. Yet he never directs any to do so, and in his own case, he appears on all occasions to have turned simply to the Lord.
During the great pestilence of the black death, which raged for three years, ending in 1350, he sent to his friends an address, warning them of the various sins which brought upon them this judgment.
He tells them that on Christmas Eve he was lying awake, feeling very ill, and that he got up and prayed that the Lord would cheer him with the joy of Christmastide. And in reply the Lord brought before him the great sins of Christendom, and the sorrow and anguish he felt, so added to the illness that was upon him, that he was carried to bed, where he remained till S. John’s day, when his strength returned, and he got up and prayed, saying: “My Lord Jesus Christ, God of all mercy, I marvel that Thou hast smitten me with this great grief at the time of the festival of Thy holy childhood.”
“And then,” he says, “it was shown to me by the light of God shining into my understanding, that it was not seemly that a man who had yielded himself to God, and who loved God, should be taken up with such child’s play, at a time so solemn. And therefore I could only pray that the Lord would have mercy upon Christendom, remembering the sorrow and affliction which He had endured for three and thirty years, and remembering the precious Blood which He had shed, and His bitter death, and all those afflictions which were left to be filled up by all His saints, who were to follow in His steps.”
And having spoken of the sins which grieved the Lord, he ends his letter by earnest counsel to those who called themselves Christians.
“I counsel you,” he says, “in true godly love, and in brotherly faithfulness, that you turn right round from this evil world, to behold the sufferings and the death of our dear Lord Jesus Christ. For in these our days His death and His sorrow are everywhere forgotten amongst us. And yet He is our Head, and Christian men are called to be His members. And He has called us to take up the cross and follow Him, whereas we have turned aside to our own ways, and have wandered far therein.
“But for those who break with this evil world, and turn to God, how blessed is the secret converse of their souls with Him, their Lord and their God! And when they come to the hour of death, and the lips can speak no more, yet can they in spirit speak in heavenly speech to Him.
“Ah, beloved Christian men, stand gladly up, and flee from this deceitful, unprofitable world! I tell you in honest truth, I too was once a man of the world, and well do I know the passing, empty joy the world can give. And I also know somewhat of God’s blessed grace, how He, here in this present time, dwells with His friends in His secret place.
“And therefore I can speak truly when I say that in one short hour I have found more comfort and more joy in God, than a man could find if he had all the comfort and joy of all the world, and knew that he could have it in full measure until the judgment day. And further, I speak truly, when I say that all the joy of the world would be but as a drop of water compared with the great and boundless sea.
“Further,” continues Nicholas, “I advise you gladly to hear preaching, and to read good books, whereby you may be well instructed. Some of your teachers will tell you that German books are hurtful and dangerous. In one way that is true — in another way it is false. But such books as are not contrary to Holy Scripture, are useful to simple laymen, and very good to read, and you should not allow your teachers to forbid you such books as these, be they teachers ever so great and learned, but seeking the honour of this world rather than God.
“But when you find teachers who are not seeking themselves, be obedient to them, for the counsel they give you comes from the Holy Ghost. And if Christendom, such as it now is, is ever to be brought again into Divine order, it must be by taking counsel of the Holy Ghost. And such counsel is never contrary to Holy Scripture, for the Holy Scripture and the Holy Ghost accord one with the other.
“But the teachers who are untaught in the knowledge of God, have led us on into a miry slough, and cannot tell us how we are to get out of it. And therefore whoever it be who should come to me and ask where he should go for counsel, I would advise him in all godly faithfulness to seek for the counsel that comes from the Holy Ghost, whether it come through a priest, or through a layman. But such men, who can give counsel that comes from the Holy Ghost, are scarcely to be found in these our days, but though they are few, they are yet here and there amongst us. Howbeit, though such men are rich in wisdom, they are mostly hidden and unknown. One such man in any land, would be a safeguard and a tower of strength to all that land, if men would learn of him, and follow his counsel. But this needs the faith that men have not.”
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