LET us consider awhile this strange and simple story. It is a story of the love and tenderness of Him who has compassion on the ignorant, and on them who are out of the way, regarding not how much light they have, but how true is the longing of the heart for Him. With clearer light, and fuller teaching, the heart of Nicholas would long before have found peace, and comfort, and assurance in Christ, and he would have gone on his way rejoicing. For he would have understood that the work done on the cross for him, had brought him not only out of death and condemnation, but had brought him near to God, so near, |that he could not nearer be| -- had made him well-pleasing in the eyes of God, in Christ the Beloved.
But though of Nicholas it could hardly be said that, he knew this, it is humbling to us to see that he felt it, as few feel it, who could put it into words.
He was not like some who talk of the love of God, meaning thereby that He passes over sin as if it were as light a matter as men consider it. He was well aware that only through the death of the Lord could salvation come to him. But his first thought was not one of gladness that he was thus saved, but of deep sorrow and shame that such love and such bitter suffering were so lightly regarded amongst men, and most of all, that he himself, though he knew these things by the hearing of the ear, had lived as though they had never been.
As with the sinful woman at the feet of the Lord, the assurance of His love led her first to weep, and to kiss His feet, before she could pour out the oil of joy, which was to tell His praise to all around. And thus with Nicholas, who was lost rather in the sense of his sin, than in the marvel and wonder of the blessedness which Christ had gained for him by His cross and passion.
He felt the things which now we see; and whilst in all such cases there is the danger of measuring them by our feelings, there is, on the other hand, the danger of our receiving them too easily, and too lightly.
Nicholas, as we know, had never forgotten the sermon he had heard as he sat by his father's side in the old church at Basle, and it was because that sermon was still lying as a hidden treasure in the depths of his heart, that on the eve of his betrothal he had knelt, as he ever did, before his crucifix; and remembered, blind and ignorant as he still was, that for him the Lord had died.
And now that the voice of Him who hung upon the cross had spoken to Him, not from the crucifix, but from the glory, he knew that he had forgiveness of his sins, and that he was saved eternally. But he knew it, as he truly describes it, from the voice of the Lord to his heart.
He now began again to read the Bible so constantly, and with such earnest prayer for the teaching of the Spirit, that he says the light broke in upon him as a flood, and that in the short space of thirty weeks he had learnt to understand the Scriptures, and to speak of the truths he learnt, |as a man who had studied all his days in the schools.|
It seems clear from all we can learn of him, that he really possessed a rare knowledge of Scripture, but often clouded by his tendency to delight in visions, and in the workings of imagination.
He continually refers in his tracts to Scripture passages, and requires that all should be proved by Scripture.
But the teaching of the Spirit, acting upon the heart and conscience is, he says, a further witness, and the Word and the Spirit must go together, for the Scripture can only be understood by the enlightenment of the Spirit, and the teaching of the Spirit must always be in accordance with the Word.
Still, we find in reading his strange accounts of his own conversion, and of that of others, that like all who have been taught of God, he was liable more or less to confound the working of his own mind with the voice of the Spirit.
And, moreover, as a true work of God is always followed up by a counterpart imitation on the part of the evil one, so can we trace in these histories various delusions which came from a power outside of himself, taking advantage of his craving after communion with God. Probably in the case of all those who have the most direct spiritual intercourse with God, these temptations and wiles of Satan would be most frequently traced.
We must bear in mind, also, that in the days when Nicholas was living, an atmosphere of legends and miracles, and old wives' fables was, as it were, the air breathed by all alike, Catholics and |Brethren.| And we can easily assure ourselves, if we look around us, that early teaching, and prejudice, and circumstances, exercise a power from which none of us entirely escape, and to which many are in bondage, even amongst the people of God.
But it is just this fact which the more enhances the wonderful truth, that at all times, and in all places, we find that the same great message of God was taught alike to every heart that turned to Him. The great truths of the blessed Gospel were taught alike by God the Holy Ghost, to Paul and to Patrick, to Nicholas and to Dr. Tauler, to John Bunyan and to Dwight Moody.
And the |music of the Lord| which sounded forth from a thousand chords of different tone, was, and ever will be, Christ alone.
When his penances and tortures were amongst the forgotten things that were left behind, Nicholas could teach that these inflictions and this will-worship were a sign that the heart had never as yet bowed to the will of the Lord. But when He is known and loved and obeyed, the sufferings sent by Him will be sweet and pleasant, as a sign that His grace is fashioning the soul, to conform it to the image of His Son.
As time went on Nicholas gained a wide and most extraordinary influence over Catholics and |Brethren.| At the time when the priests were silenced by the interdict, and the hungry sheep who had no shepherd were looking all around for help and comfort, Nicholas, and such as he, were sought after and reverenced as the special messengers of God.
To Nicholas went many an anxious soul, confessing sin not lightly, as in a confessional, but in the anguish of their hearts. And it must be admitted, that to great numbers he became a pope, and in some respects more than a pope. For his disciples consulted him about all matters great and small, and he claimed from them an obedience which was dangerous to them, and to himself.
Nicholas was not wanting in those weaknesses and shortcomings which we know so well in the experience of our own hearts. The strange part of his history is that, as far as it was possible, he led a life of absolute seclusion, and was yet known and reverenced far and wide, even in distant lands. Every now and then he appeared himself, to speak to those for whose souls he was anxious. But more often he sent a writing by a messenger charged to tell no man where he was, and to call him by no name but that of |the Friend of God from the Oberland.|
It was, as we know, twelve years after his conversion that he paid his memorable visit to Dr. Tauler. A year or two later, he paid a similar visit to his old friend, the knight, of whom he heard that he was living a life of sin, much to the grief of his deserted wife.
The knight received him angrily. He called him a sorcerer and a heretic. But at last, at the earnest entreaty of Nicholas, he allowed him to speak to him alone in his garden. After many conversations the knight was touched and melted. Nicholas spoke to him of the sufferings of Christ, and of the love of God, and also of |righteousness, temperance, and the judgment to come.| And at last the knight confessed his sin, and gave his heart to Christ.
He and his wife then besought Nicholas that he would write down rules for their future course. Nicholas refused to do this, but he desired the knight to write down the conversations he had had with him in the garden. He then advised the knight and the lady to cast aside all worldly pomp and show, but to wear at the same time suitable and well appointed clothing, plain and simple, to bring up their children in the faith and fear of God, and to spend their large fortune in helping the poor and needy.
From this time the knight was known as the defender of the oppressed, and the friend and peacemaker among all his neighbours.