IT was plain, from these words, that the Master did not yet know that he was but a lost, dead sinner. He did not know that he needed, not to better his life, but to receive from God a new life which he could not give himself. He was still hoping so to cultivate the dead tree, that it should at last bear fruit.
How far Nicholas could have put this truth into words, I know not. But the Lord directs the heart, and He puts His words into the mouth of those, however imperfectly taught, who look to Him for guidance.
And thus, just as when the Lord replied to the rich young man, |If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments,| so did Nicholas reply to the Master.
He said, |Dear sir, do not be wroth with me, but I tell you of a truth such counsel is scarcely to be given you; for if you are to be converted, all your wonted habits must be broken through with great pain, because you must altogether change your old way of life. And besides I take you to be near fifty years old.|
Then said the Master, |It may be so; but, O dear son, to him, who came into the vineyard at the eleventh hour, was given his penny, the same as to him who came in at the first. I tell thee, dear son, I have well considered the matter and my heart is so firmly set, that if I knew this moment that I must die for it, I would yet, with the help of God, cease from my carnal life, and my earthly reasonings, and live according to thy counsel. I beseech thee, for God's sake, not to keep me longer waiting but to tell me this moment how I must begin.|
Yes, to begin a work! To begin to build the tower whose top was to reach to heaven! To wash and mend the foul and ragged garment, and make of it a dress fit for the courts of the King, whilst he who was to wear it had no place within those courts, even could he have cleansed it and made it new!
Then answered the man, |Dear sir, because through the grace of God you are willing to humble yourself and submit yourself to a poor, mean, unworthy creature; for all this let us give the glory to God, to whom it is due, for this grace proceeds from Him, and flows back to Him. Since then, dear sir, I am to instruct you, and counsel you in God's name, I will look to Him for help and do so for love of Him. And I will set you a task such as they give children to begin with at school, namely the four-and-twenty letters of the alphabet, beginning with A.|
And Nicholas wrote down for the Master one of the alphabets of practice which were used by the Waldenses from ancient times.
This Alphabet had no pretence to be the Gospel. It was simply a set of rules which were taught to young Christians relating to their daily conduct. Good and wise rules, and taken from the Bible.
It is perplexing to find, that in many of the oldest printed accounts of Dr. Tauler's conversion, one rule in this Alphabet stands as follows: |Ye shall evermore, without ceasing, beseech our lady that she help you to learn this our lesson well.| But a far older MS. account reads thus, |Ye shall beseech our lady that He help you, &c.| And the word |lady| is evidently written over the true word, |Lord.| |Fronen| (in old German, Lord) could easily be turned into |Frowen| (lady), but the unfaithful scribe overlooked the pronoun following, which tells the tale of the original text.
The master looked ruefully at the little Alphabet.
|Now, dear sir,| said Nicholas, |take kindly this child's task of the A. B. C.|
Then said the Master, |However thou mayest call this a child's task, methinks it needs a man's strength to attack it.
|Letter A. After a manly, and not a childish sort, ye shall with thorough earnestness begin a good life.'
|Letter B. Bad ways ye shall hate, and practise all goodness with diligence, and with full purpose of heart.'
|Tell me now, dear son,| continued the Master sadly, |how long a time wilt thou give me to learn this lesson?| The man answered, |We will take five weeks, in honour of the five wounds of Christ, that you may learn it well.|
To what purpose were the five wounds of Christ, if men could inherit eternal life, by making rules and keeping them? We should perhaps have put the Gospel, clearly, as now we know it before the Master at once. But Nicholas perceived that the Master had first to learn his need of it. It was well that he should find even the children's Alphabet too much for him.
It was well that the Master should be thus reminded, that it was not by his own work but by the work of another, that life was to be won. But the Master did not understand, for his eyes were holden, and he thought only like one of old, |What good thing shall I do, that I may inherit eternal life?|
So the man proceeded, and said |You shall be your own schoolmaster, and when you are not perfect in any one of these letters, and think yourself hardly able to learn it, then cast aside your garment, and chastise your body, that it may be brought to submit to your soul and reason.| And the Master replied, |I will gladly be obedient.|
So the man went his way, and at the end of three weeks he went again to the Master, and he said, |Dear sir, how goes it with you?| The Master said, |Dear son, thou must know that I have received more stripes in these three weeks about your lesson, than I ever did in all my days before.|
Then said the man, |Sir, you well know that no man giveth his pupil a new task before he have learnt the first lines.|
Then said the Master, |If I said that I knew them, I should say what is not true.|
Then said the man, |Dear sir, go on as you are doing till you know your lesson right well.|
At the end of another three weeks the Master sent for Nicholas, and said to him, |Dear son, rejoice with me, for I think, with God's help, I could say the first line. And if thou art willing, I will repeat over the whole lesson to thee.|
|No, dear sir,| said the man, |I will gladly rejoice with you, and take your word for it that you know it.|
Then the Master assured Nicholas that it had been a hard task, and he prayed him now to teach him further.
Then answered the man, |I can for myself teach you nothing further, but if so be that God willeth to teach you through me, I will gladly do my part, and be an instrument in the Lord's hand by which He may work out His purposes.
|Hearken, dear Master, I will counsel you in godly love, and brotherly faithfulness.
|If it should happen to you as to the young man in the Gospel, to whom our Lord said, Go and sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and come and follow Me,' I will not be answerable.|
Then said the Master, |Dear son, have no fears on that score, for I have already left all that I have, and with God's help, am resolved to go forward, and be obedient unto God, and unto thee.|
Then Nicholas perceived that the Master had only grown more proud, and satisfied with himself. And he saw that to humble himself, would be like the task which the Lord put before the young man who was bent upon gaining for himself eternal life.
Therefore he told the Master that he must needs first of all be willing not to do, but to suffer; not to fill his treasury with his own works, but to empty it of all things.
That he must be content to be despised and hated, even by his brethren, and that he must let go his proud and ingenious reason, and that he must cease his studies and his preaching.
And should any come to him to confess their sins, he should only say to them, |I will learn how to counsel myself, and when I can do that I will also counsel you.|
|And if,| he continued, |you are asked when you will preach, say, as you can with truth, that you have not time at present, and so you will get rid of the people.|
The Master said, |Dear son, I will willingly do so, but how then shall I occupy myself?|
Nicholas replied that he should sit in his cell, and read his book of prayers, and also go to services if he felt inclined.
|And,| he said further, |what time is left, you shall set before you the sufferings of our Lord, and look at yourself in the mirror of His holy life and meditate on your wasted time, in which you have been living for yourself, and how small has been your love, compared to His love.|
And Nicholas also said that when the Lord saw that the time was come, He would make of the Master a new man, that he should be born again of God.
For Nicholas saw that the Master could as yet only come to God as rich and increased with goods, and thus be sent empty away. He would have to be hungry, and thirsty, and poor, before he could be filled with good things.
All worldly honour, Nicholas told him, he would have to renounce, all that in his carnal pride he called his own, all the pleasure and delight he had taken in himself, and he would have to fall down, like the sinful woman, at the feet of Christ.
|And then,| he said, |the Lord will put you to the test, that you may be tried and purified as gold and He shall give you to drink of the bitter cup of suffering and persecution that He gave to His beloved Son. And one bitter drop of this cup,| he went on to say, |will be, in my belief, that all your good works and refraining from evil will be despised and turned to nought in the eyes of the people. Those who learnt from you heretofore will forsake you, and think you are gone out of your mind, and your good friends and brethren will be offended, and say that you have taken to strange ways. When this happens, dear sir, be not dismayed, but rejoice, for woe be unto us when all men speak well of us. I see well, for the Lord shows it me, how you are thinking in your heart that I have said very hard things to you, and this is why I begged you beforehand to let me go, and I told you that if you went back like that young man, I would not have it laid to my charge.|
The Master said, |Thou sayest truly. I confess it does seem to me a hard thing to follow your counsel.|
For the Master had just been rejoicing that by means of the Alphabet, he had added somewhat to |those things that were gain to him,| and now must he count them all as loss? as dress and dung, and be nothing before God and man?
Yet he determined that he would try even this, and that he would set to work again with greater earnestness, and with fuller purpose of heart than before.
On the eleventh day after this, he sent again for Nicholas. He told him he had had great agony and struggle, and fighting by day and by night, against the flesh and the Devil. |But, by God's grace,| he said, |I am purposed to remain steadfast in this work, come weal, come woe.|
He also told Nicholas that the moment he had left him eleven days before, he had written down carefully all that Nicholas had told him, word for word.
Nicholas said he was rejoiced that the Master was so bold and steadfast.
|And now| he said, |in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, set forward.|
And so saying the man took his leave, and the Master began his work afresh in good earnest.