THE day of the betrothal was fixed, and all was made ready for the feast which was to be given on the occasion. Many friends were invited. The eve of the day, so long looked for, had at last come.
What follows shall be told in the words of Nicholas himself.
|I had come to think myself,| he says, |one of the best and strongest of men who could be found living upon the earth. But it came to pass that night, that I went into my chamber according to my custom, and sat down before the crucifix, around which I had set some lighted candles. There was I all alone till the early morning, and I thought how vain and false was all the world could give me, and I thought of the bitter end of all the things of the world. And I said thus to myself, Oh thou poor unhappy man, how senseless hast thou been, that thou hast loved and chosen the things of time, rather than the things of eternity! Thou and all the men around thee, how foolish and senseless are ye all, for though God has given you richly your senses and your understanding, yet have you been dazzled with the glory and the pleasure that last but for a little while, and that gain for you at last an eternity in hell; whereas you might have gained a reward, and honours and joy that are eternal, in the presence of God and His angels!
|And when I had said this, I thought further, Alas, poor man, what doest thou? Leave other men unjudged, and judge thyself, for of that is there Deed enough.
|And when this thought came to me, there fell upon me a great fear and sorrow, that I had so sinned against my Lord and my God, that I had wasted all the senses that He gave me, in seeking the pleasures of this world, and had not turned to Him with my innermost heart.
|And kneeling before Him on my knees I said, O merciful God, I implore Thee now to have mercy upon me a poor sinner, and to come to my help, for I must needs with this evil heart of mine, take leave for ever of this false and deceitful world, and of all the creatures in it; and especially must I give up the one who is right dear to me, and to whom I have lost my heart. O blessed Lord, I have thought till now that I was one of the best of men who walk upon the earth. Beloved Lord, Thou who wert holy and sinless, Thou best suffered a bitter death for me, a wretched sinner, and shall not I, who deserve to die, choose to suffer even to death for Thee, rather than depart from Thee? And I entreat Thee now, that Thou wilt look upon me in Thy fathomless mercy, and that Thou wilt be to me as my betrothed and my beloved. For, O Lord, my heart tells me that a man cannot exist without love, and it must be either the love of God, or the love of the creatures, and Lord, I know in my heart, that the love of God and of the creatures cannot stand together. And now, Lord, that I have owned this before Thee, behold I will choose the better part, and I will give up her who is my betrothed according to the flesh, and I will give up the whole world, and all the creatures therein, and cleave to Thee, O Lord, firmly and for ever, to Thee, Lord, only.'
|And when I had said this, I felt as though my whole nature gave way, for it was a terrible and solemn time of warfare against my own will and desire, so that the blood flowed from my mouth and nose, and I thought within myself the bitter hour of death was come. But I said to myself, O nature, if it cannot be otherwise, even so it must be; if thou must die, thou must die.'
|And again I entreated the Lord and said, O beloved Lord, Thou art now the betrothed of my heart, strengthen me, I pray Thee, in Thine endless mercy.'
|And then I stretched forth both my hands, and I said, Beloved Lord, this right hand shall stand for Thee, the righteous and the loving God, and this left hand shall stand for my evil self, which has gone to the left hand in the way that leads to hell.'
|Then did I place my left hand in my right hand, and said, Thus have I vowed and given myself up to God, to be His alone and for ever, having no love besides, for He shall be my everlasting love.'
|And further I said, O beloved Lord, he who is betrothed desires always to serve and please his beloved. But, Lord, Thou knowest I have learnt nothing of Thy ways, and I have never walked in them, therefore I beseech Thee in Thy great mercy that Thou wilt give me understanding that I may know how to pray, and how to order all my ways according to Thy blessed will, for, Lord, I give myself up to Thee, that thou mayest do with me what Thou wilt, and not what I will, be it sweet to me or bitter.'
|And then as I thus offered up my will to God, and my whole nature sank within me because of the great and bitter pain, at that moment the loving mercy of God shone down upon me, as a fair and lovely light that filled the chamber, and I forgot myself and all creatures besides, and was lost in joy and wonder, such as I can never tell, nor can the heart conceive it.
|And thus would I fain have rested for ever in this joy and blessedness, for the time was all too short for me. And when I came to myself, it was as if my heart would leap from my body for joy unspeakable.
|And I said, O my God, my Beloved, what must Thou be to those who for long years have served Thee, if thus Thou art to me, a wretched sinner, who now for the first time have turned from this world to Thee! Oh, how do I hate myself, that I have wandered on for so many years afar from Thee in the dark valley of this miserable world!'
|And at that moment there spake to me a voice, the sweetest and the gladdest that ears have ever heard, and thus it spake. Thou beloved of my soul, know thou that I who speak to thee am the Lord of lords, and the Lord of all things that have ever been, or that ever shall be, and thou hast well done that thou hast given up time for eternity, for few there are who do so in these evil days, therefore will I take thee for My betrothed, and I will be thy Lord and Master, and look thou to thyself that thou be obedient to Me, thy Betrothed, and to Me only, and that thou do nothing more of thine own will and after thine own heart. Wilt thou do thus?' said the sweet still voice.
|And I answered with my own voice and said, Oh how gladly will I obey Thee, my God and my Lord! but I am only now come out for the first time from this evil world, and I am ignorant, and I know not what to do. Therefore teach me Thy sweet and blessed will, O Lord, that I may do it, now and for evermore.'|
It is well for us to read this true story of a soul awakened by the grace and power of the God whom we know more clearly, in the light of these latter days. We can see in all that passed that night in the room of Nicholas, how entirely unknown to him were the truths that we are taught. He had no thought as yet of the power and the value of the work done by the Saviour on the cross for him. But he knew that for him the Lord had died, and though he did not know the value of that work, his heart had felt and owned the love that brought the Saviour to the cross of shame, and it was already true of him, blind as he was to much of the blessed Gospel, that he loved the Lord, because He had first loved him.
But he had yet to grope his way through the darkness that might be felt, the thick darkness of evil teaching and unbelief that covered the professing Church, and that was deepest and darkest where the name was claimed of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
As yet the one thought of Nicholas was to do to the uttermost all that seemed to him the will of his Beloved. He had not learnt that in things Divine, it is the reverse of that saying which is true in our relation to men, |It is more blessed to give than to receive.| More blessed, and far less easy, is it to receive than to give, when first the convicted sinner is brought into the presence of God. |If thou knewest the gift of God!| might well be said to that poor man, so earnestly longing to give, so little aware of the great gift held out to him, and which he was to receive at last.
At last! but it was not yet. We must not be surprised to hear how the rest of that night he began in the earnestness of his ignorance, to scourge his body, thus to chastise himself because he had loved the world so long, and had sinned so grievously. And in the excitement of his mind it seemed to him, as he looked at the crucifix in the flickering light of the candles, that the figure upon the cross bent forward towards him, and as though again and again a voice spoke to him and said, |Rise up, and take thy cross, and follow Me.|
The morning came, and with it the bride, and the bridal guests.
Then Nicholas came in, pale and solemn, and he told them his marriage was at an end, for he was espoused to another, and must be His, and His alone, for ever.
In wonder and in anger, the bridal party broke up, and the poor young bride was taken weeping to her home. He had determined to see her no more. But a few days after, her confessor invited him to a house, to which he had taken the maiden, and they were left together. It was a terrible moment for Nicholas, for he was quite unprepared for the meeting. The young maiden wept bitterly and said, |What have I done to thee, my beloved, that thou hast thus forsaken me?| Nicholas wept also, but he explained to her that the Lord had called him to be His alone, and to take up his cross and follow Him. And the maiden saw that he had chosen the better part, and she told him that she too would give up the world, and devote herself to the service of the Lord. And she gave him all her jewels, that he might sell them for the work of God, and they said farewell to one another, and Nicholas saw her no more.
This sacrifice was but a part of the cross which Nicholas, in his will-worship, had taken up. He became a laughing-stock to knights and citizens, he was called a fool and a heretic. But nothing moved him, though he felt deeply the shame and disgrace, and the scorn of his former friends.
To escape their remarks, he let his house at |the best end| of the town, and took a house with a quiet garden in the poorer quarter, where he was surrounded only by the dwellings of the poor. He was very soon known to his neighbours as a kind and loving man, and they loved him in return. He would have given away all his money, but the Lord, he said, forbade him to do so, and told him to keep it as His steward, and use it for Him.