AT this time, his friend the knight returned from his long wanderings beyond the sea, and inquired at once for his old companion. When he heard all that had happened, he determined to bring Nicholas to a better mind, and to renew the match in which he was so much interested.
He came one day to the quiet house in the back streets, and brought with him a merry party of friends, who were curious to see the transformation in the gay young citizen. Nicholas entreated his friend to see him alone, and he then related to him the history of the eventful night which had changed the course of his life. The knight told him he was a madman, and left him with words of bitter mockery.
Thenceforth he broke off all communications with him, and Nicholas lived a still and solitary life, meditating upon the things of God.
It was at this time that he began, as he had told the Master, to read the Lives of the Saints. He also provided himself with a hair shirt, into which he fixed a number of sharp nails. Having scourged himself till the blood ran down, he put on his shirt, and drove the nails into the bleeding flesh, and having worn the shirt for some days, he would tear it off, so as to re-open the wounds, into which he rubbed salt, and then again scourged himself, and again wore his shirt with the iron nails.
It is not wonderful that living in his lonely house, worn out with fastings and torments, he began, like Rulman Merswin, to see visions, and dream dreams. The descriptions of this time are strange and sad, and we cannot be surprised that his friend the knight had become fully persuaded that he was beside himself.
But to what lengths will not a reproachful and benighted conscience lead a man without Bible knowledge, and without a teacher! We are reminded of the history of John Bunyan in later days, who also for want of Gospel light, wandered far and wide from the City of Destruction, before he came to the wicket gate, which, had he known it, stood close at hand, at the very gates of the City from which he fled.
For the whole of one of the four years, which Nicholas calls the |time of his conversion,| did he thus wander in the dark, and he heard no more the still sweet voice, but consoled himself from time to time with strange dreams and delusions, and then again all was dark and hopeless to him.
And towards the end of this year, he says, |I prayed and said, O my God and my Lord, I know not how it is with me! I find in these visions and dreams, nothing that will give peace to my soul. O beloved Lord, might it be that Thou Thyself wouldest satisfy the cravings of my heart, for that alone would comfort me, and it would be a comfort immeasurable!' But the Lord answered me not.
|Then again did I begin my penances and torments, till the day came which was the same day of the year as that when first the Lord had spoken to me.
|And then it was with me even as it was on that first day that I had known Him, and my heart was filled with the same desire after Him. And then did the Lord fulfil to me my desire, but it was not by a vision or a form, but by that which is beyond all images or forms, or understanding, for it was that which is far above all thoughts or words. And the time of this joy was all too short, and the hour passed by, and I found that I was alone in my little chamber, and again there spake to me that voice, the gladdest and the sweetest, which had spoken to me at the first, and thus spake the voice to me:
|Tell Me, My friend and My betrothed, how hast thou lived through this year?'
|Then said I, O beloved Lord, it seems to me that I live not and have not lived as I ought to live.'
|Then spake the sweet voice again, and said, Thou speakest truly.' And further did the voice speak to him in his heart, and told him that he had had indeed light given him to see his sin, and to long after God, but that herein he had lacked humility, such as was found in Mary when she gave her will to God, and said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord,' and such as was in John when he said, The latchet of His shoes I am not worthy to unloose.'
|Now behold,' did the voice say further, see what thou hast done. Thou hast desired to have great visions of God, and He has not granted them to thee. But I will tell thee how thou hast seen Him. Thou hast seen Him even as if thou wert in the deep dungeon of a tower, where high up in the tower there was a window, and the sun shone in through the window, and a little beam of light fell down into the dungeon and gave a little cheer of gladness to thy heart. Even thus has God dealt with thee. He has given thee a little glimpse of Himself, though He was as yet hidden from thee. And yet this little glimpse was sweet to thee, and no wonder, for like delighteth in like, and thy soul was made in the image of God, and can never be satisfied with aught that is less than God. But to the enjoyment of this love can no man come till he has forsaken himself and is as a man who is dead and gone. And so must it be with thee, that thou must cast thyself down before the will of God, and leave Him to work His works in thee, in time and in eternity, according to His own desire. Wilt thou do this?' said the sweet still voice.
|Then,| continues Nicholas, |did I speak to Him in my own voice, and told Him I had done that which was evil, and I besought Him in His endless mercy to take from me the pride and the self-will, and to make me say from my heart, as He had said to His Father long ago, Not My will, but Thine be done.'
|And when I had said this, the sweet voice brake forth, and spake again, and said, If now thou wilt be obedient to Me, thou shalt be led in the true and the right way, the way in which all loving souls are led into the presence of the Father in Heaven.'
|Then spake I with my own voice and said, O my God and my Lord, gladly will I obey Thee, as far as it can be with such as I am, even unto death. And now, Lord, do with me a poor sinner, in time and in eternity, as Thou wilt, and not as I will.'
|Then spake the sweet voice and said, that it is the obedience of Abraham that thou must learn.| And the Lord told him further to burn the relics he had hoarded up, and to cease from his penances, and to let the Lord give him such inward suffering and exercise as He thought good, |and thus,| He said, |thou wilt of necessity forget to do the outward works that thou hast done hitherto. And now will I say no more, and it will be long before I speak to thee thus again.|
|Then,| said Nicholas, |I rose up at once, and I took my beloved pears, and my piece of cloth, and my golden ring| (these were the relics he had prized), |and I went secretly and laid them on the fire, and burnt them one and all. And when I had done this, I went back to my little chamber, and would have thought about good and holy things, but all at once my sins were brought before me, instead of these holy thoughts, and I saw as it were all the sins of all my life, just as if I were now to suffer the judgment of God for them all. And I then knew that in me there was nothing but sin, and that all that I could deserve was eternal hell. And in this bitter anguish I remained for one whole year, and no comfort came to me, either for body or soul, and were it not that the hidden strength of God sustained me, it would have been all over with me, for I became sick unto death, and I thought my hour was come.|
And thus the second year ended.
And the third year was Nicholas assailed with great and manifold temptations, which lasted for a year also. And in the fourth year the temptations were changed, But were yet greater and more grievous, and he suffered greatly also from pain and sickness, and could find no comfort in God.
It is as though we were reading again the journey of Christian through the valley of the shadow of death. And to Nicholas, as to Christian, did Apollyon appear in a shape of terror to assault and wound him. And the dark pitfalls were around him, and the evil ones mocked him, and railed at him, as he went on his way. And at the end of this year, it seemed to him that he came suddenly out of this dark valley, and the temptations and the terror left him. And his joy was so great at this deliverance, that he feared it was but another temptation of the evil one.
|Then,| he says, |I went at once to my chamber, and I fell on my knees and said, O my beloved Lord, behold my foolish heart, that is so rejoiced at being freed from suffering. I beseech Thee, beloved Lord, do not regard my weak and evil nature which thus rejoices, I only entreat of Thee that the suffering may be taken away if it is Thy will; and if it is Thy will, and for the honour of Thy Father, that it should not be taken away, I will gladly suffer all that Thou wilt lay upon me, and will esteem it an honour to suffer all that is for Thine honour. And I will make no account of the desires of my evil foolish nature, but desire only that Thy beloved will should be done in me, whether bitter or sweet to me. And be it as it will to my own nature, if it is Thy will, do not, O Lord, hearken to my own desires, but keep me, if Thou wilt, in grievous suffering, should it be needful for Thine honour, even till the day of judgment, and make me to be obedient, and to own that I have well deserved it.'
|And as I spake these words, there shone around me as it were, a fair and blessed light, the light that is love; and from the glory of that light, a radiance filled my soul, so that whether I were in the body or out of the body I could not tell, for my eyes were opened to see the wonder and the beauty that are far above the mind of man, and I cannot speak thereof, for there are no words to tell it.
|For the wondrous glory that I saw and felt, was far beyond all the thoughts of all men in all time on earth below, and my heart and soul were filled with this supernatural light and peace of which I may not tell, for I was lost in wonder and in gladness.
|And as I was marvelling thereat, and rejoicing greatly, I heard as it were the gladdest and the sweetest voice, which came not from myself, but yet it came to me as one who spake within me, but it was not my thoughts that it spake. And thus spake this inner and sweet voice to me:
|Thou beloved and betrothed of My heart, now at last art thou verily My betrothed, and henceforth shalt thou ever be, and thou shalt know that as I have dealt with thee, so have I dealt with all My beloved friends, leading them by the way which thou hast gone these four years past. And yet only now art thou at last in the true way, the way of love, receiving from Me the forgiveness of all thy sins; and knowing that there is no purgatory to come. For when thy soul shall pass from the earthly house, it will be to dwell with Me, where the martyrs have gone before, in the eternal joy which is thine for ever. And for this joy shalt thou wait in peace and gladness, and shalt be content to wait as long as it needs must be, till God shall call thee hence. And so long as thou art in the earthly body, thou shalt not torment thyself with hard penances and chastisements, but shalt simply obey the commandments of Christ. And thou shalt find enough to suffer in this present evil world, if thou hast learnt to see that thy fellow-men are wandering as sheep amongst the wolves. And this shall move thy heart to depths of pity, and this shall henceforth be thy cross and thy suffering, and thou shalt be well exercised henceforth therewith. And now I have said enough; go on thy way simply, as a childlike simple man, living in all Christian godliness, so that no man who beholds thee may see aught in thee but that thou art a brave and faithful man of God. And now, the peace of God be with thee; thou hast now been enlightened with the light of God, to know the way in which thou shalt go, and as thou wilt need it no more, thou wilt hear no more the sweet voice that speaketh, and the wonder and the glory shalt thou see no more in the days of thy life below.'
|And with these words the sweet voice was silent, and there was an end, and I came to myself again, and I found that I was in my little chamber all alone.|