AS time went on, Nicholas felt yet more deeply and painfully, the sin and misery of the fallen Church. He determined to withdraw to some secret and solitary place, there to pray for Christendom, and from thence to go forth from time to time, as God should send him, to preach repentance, and to call sinners out of the world to God.
The history of his life now becomes more difficult to trace, for his mysterious dwelling-place was only known to four friends, and to two servants, who joined themselves to him, placing themselves entirely under his directions; and to some true and worthy men who went out as his messengers, with letters to the friends of God in distant places.
It seems clear that the retreat of Nicholas was high up on some mountain in the Bernese Oberland. Some think, and with some probability, that it was on Mount Pilatus, near the shores of the lake of Lucerne.
During his many travels, Nicholas had found here and there like-minded men, and his four friends appear to have shared his belief, his joys and sorrows, in sympathy that is rarely found.
The first was a man who had lived for eighteen years in the practice of penances and mortifications, till the Lord had set him free, and filled him with a joy which passed all the thoughts of men.
The second was a young knight, one of those who had come in the company of his old friend, to mock at him, and revile him, when he had given up his Margaret, and had retired to the house in the back streets.
This young knight had married a wife to whom he was deeply attached, and had in the course of four years, two children. But he fell into a state of gloom and sadness, for the world could not satisfy him, and he was troubled at the thought of his sins. He desired to give himself up to the Lord, forsaking wife, children, and all that he had.
He went to consult his priests and teachers, but could find peace nowhere. He then told his wife that he felt that he must leave her. He reminded her of various saints, especially of S. Oswald and S. Elizabeth, who had left wife and husband and children, and he told her that she also ought to give herself up to the Lord. For it would be better to lose one another for a few short years, and to have eternal joy together in Heaven with God.
His wife, however, assured him that he was a madman, but yet, as he had taken her for better or for worse, he ought to remain with her, and be a good husband to her, and a good father to his children.
The poor young knight knew not where to go for counsel, and at last remembered his old friend of former days, whom he had once regarded as a madman, as his wife now regarded him.
To Nicholas he betook himself, and told his mournful tale. Nicholas said to him that it would be right for him to go home, and live peaceably with his wife, for that as long as she lived, he had no right to leave her. For some years this went on. The young knight had to suffer much from the reproaches of his wife, and her friends and acquaintance, who gave him many hard names, and pitied her for having a husband who was a |right-down fool.|
We can only wish that the knight had had to bear these persecutions in a better cause, but he too was like a man in a dark dungeon, upon whom one little ray of light had fallen from above, and a benighted conscience will lead us into many strange and evil ways.
After a time his wife died, sincerely repenting of her unkindness. She left her children in charge of her relations. The knight now betook himself again to Nicholas, who told him to claim his children, to live on good terms with his wife's relations, to live quietly, and yet to have all things in his household and dress, suitable to his condition, neither allowing show and vanity, nor unseemly disorder.
It happened, however, very shortly afterwards, that first one child, and then the other, died from accidents. The knight was now alone in the world, and he entreated Nicholas to let him live with him, at first at Basle, and afterwards in his mysterious home upon the mountain.
The third friend had been a lawyer, and the prebend also of a cathedral. On joining Nicholas, he was ordained as a priest, as was also the young knight.
The fourth friend, who joined the party somewhat later, was a rich and learned Jew, called Abraham. This man had been troubled in his mind for a long time, because it seemed to him very evident that the great prophecies about the reign of the Messiah had never been fulfilled. The Messiah, he said to himself, has never come, though so many ages have passed by. And it troubled him also, that the chosen people of God, to whom the promises were made, were scattered and persecuted, and their land was trodden down by the Gentiles.
At times the thought came to him, |Can it be that the Christians after all are right, when they say that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, and the Saviour who was promised?| And again he said to himself, |It cannot be so, for if He were, how could His followers live in such forgetfulness of Him, leading lives of sin, and hating one another?|
He prayed to God that He would enlighten him, and show him where to find the answer to his question, |What is truth?|
Again, as in all these stories, dreams and visions were sent to him, which need not be related. We will limit ourselves to the credible part of the story, which is that he went to lodge with a Christian shoemaker, called Werner -- that Nicholas, in consequence of a dream that he had, went to seek him out, and had many conversations with him.
Finally, the Jew believed and was baptized, and received the name of John.
With these four friends Nicholas determined to retire to his mountain, though at first the whole party lived together at Basle. They were each of them men possessed of considerable wealth, which they determined to keep in their own hands, spending it to relieve the poor, and to pay the expenses of their missionary journeys.
Nicholas, though he was a layman, and two of his friends were priests, took the direction in all respects, and all obeyed him most implicitly. Besides these four friends who lived with him, he had others who were in constant communication with him, in Hungary, Italy, Lorraine, Switzerland, and Bohemia.
The mission to which these Friends of God believed themselves to be called, was the reformation of the Church -- not so much with regard to doctrine and to forms, but rather, it was laid upon them to rouse the dead consciences of professing Christians, that faith might be to each one a reality, and that souls might pass from death to life.
It would seem that it was not till about the year 1374 that Nicholas retired to his mountain. From this secret dwelling he sent constant messengers to the Friends of God in most of the countries of Western Europe. These messengers had private signs and passwords, by which they might know one another when they met in distant places. They returned from their various missions, to bring Nicholas reports of the work of God in the countries through which they had travelled. He used the information he thus obtained about individual persons, firstly, for the purpose of writing letters of warning or counsel, only saying that |the Lord had made known to him| this or that matter, which had called forth his letter; and secondly, in order that their affairs might be made the subject of prayer in the mountain home.
He almost always refused to receive visits, as he wished his dwelling-place to remain a profound secret. Nor did he confide his own affairs to any one, except an unknown friend. |When God takes this friend from me,| he said, |I must find another, but only one.|
The story of the journey of the five friends to their mountain home is also mixed up with legendary tales. They say that they were guided to the place where the Lord would have them build their house, by following a dog, having asked the Lord thus to make known to them the exact spot which He had chosen. They therefore followed the dog over hedges and ditches, over crags and bogs.
Once the dog stood still near a large town (perhaps Lucerne), which dismayed them greatly, for they |did not love towns,| and had only lived so long in Basle in obedience to the Lord.
However, the dog started afresh, and at last stopped again in a lonely place on a high mountain, where they were rejoiced to see a clear and beautiful stream flowing down to the valley below.
They could not begin to build their house without leave from the Duke of Austria, in whose territory they were, and as he was gone to the wars, this delayed them for a whole year. They then began their operations, intending to build a dwelling-house and a chapel. Each friend was to have a comfortable bedroom of his own, and there were to be spare rooms for any foreign Friends of God who might be allowed on rare occasions to spend a time of seclusion with them, for the purposes of readings and prayer.
The two servants, Conrad the cook, and Rupert the messenger and man-of-all-work, were also amongst the Friends of God. Although Conrad had undertaken the kitchen department, it is not out of place to call Rupert the man-of-all-work, for Conrad is described by Nicholas as going into trances, and having visions, even at the moment when dinner was in a state of preparation. |One morning,| he says, |when the brethren were praying in the chapel, it came to pass that Conrad went into a trance as he sat before the kitchen fire, where the pot was boiling, with the great spoon in his hand. And there he sat, and knew nought of all that was going on. And when we saw that he was not likely to come to himself, and that he neither spoke nor moved, we called in a poor little boy to be with him in the kitchen.
|And as he still sat there, and gave no answer when the boy spoke to him, the boy thought he was dead, and came crying into the chapel whither we had gone back, and said, Come quickly! my master the cook is sitting in the kitchen before the fire, quite dead!' Then we all went quickly into the kitchen, and found him still sitting there, with the great spoon in his hand. Then we tried to get the spoon out of his hand, but we could not do so. So we took him sitting just as he was, and set him down outside the kitchen, because he was too near the hot fire, and we left him as long as it should please God that he should continue thus. And one of our brethren finished the cooking out of good will.
|So much for our beloved cook, whose dishes we eat with more pleasure than those cooked by any one else, and when he cannot cook, we cook for ourselves.|
Rupert, on the other hand, seems to have been always wide awake, for, says Nicholas, |it is he who looks after the whole house, and everything that we have. And from time to time we have pleasant little talks with him, and sometimes we say, Dear Rupert, how comes it that you are not such a holy man as our cook?'
|And then he says, And if I were, who would look after all your affairs, I should like to know?'
|Then we speak further to him and say, According to God's word, the cook has chosen the better part,' to which he answers promptly, The Lord can do what He will, and had Martha done what Mary her sister did, there would have been no dinner, unless He had worked a miracle, as He did with the five loaves.'
|Such talks have we with Rupert, and he answers to all we say in such godly wise, that I cannot but trust that he is, in his way, one of the dear friends of God, for he shows all godly faithfulness to us as if to himself, and godly love more than to himself.|