THE five friends did not live together after the manner of monks, for they had no rules, and said they required none, for they had placed themselves under the direction of God. They met in the chapel, but not at fixed hours, for prayers and worship. They fasted, or abstained from fasting, on the fast days of the calendar, leaving it to the Lord to direct them in this, as in all matters. They therefore observed no holy days.
Their time was filled up with walks in the woods around, for meditation, or for conversation with one another. They were also constantly occupied with hearing and answering the communications brought to them by the messengers. Occasionally they took journeys themselves to visit the Friends of God.
About the year 1365 Rulman Merswin had bought a small island in the Rhine, called the Grunen Worth, or the Green Meadow. He built on this island, out of the ruins of an ancient cloister, a large house, which soon became well known as the resort of the Friends of God. He had first intended to build a convent, but Nicholas told him there were more convents already than pious people to live in them, and it was therefore decided between the two friends that it should be a house set apart |for the help of the needy.|
Later, they decided further that it should be a |house of refuge for honourable and well-inclined men, either priests or laymen, knights or servants, who desired by the leading of God to retire from the world, and amend their lives.|
In the first written mention of this house, by Rulman Merswin (1377), he calls it a Gotteshaus, or House of God. This was the usual name of the Beghard houses amongst the |Brethren.| No church was attached to this house, only a small chapel; for Nicholas said he was no friend of |stone-vaulted churches,| and he warned his friend against the building of |great minsters, with costly vaulted roofs.|
The inmates of this house were to live at their own cost, being provided only with lodging, light, and fuel. The whole house was placed under the direction of Nicholas, who sent secret despatches to his friend, Rulman Merswin, and occasionally came himself to visit the house, but not the inhabitants, with the exception of the founder, who at first went there occasionally to inspect it, and later on retired there for the remainder of his days. The utmost that the other inhabitants ever saw of Nicholas or his messengers, was their shadow from time to time in the passage. Even the name of the |Friend of God from the Oberland,| was unknown to them, though they were well aware they were all placed implicitly under his direction.
In the year 1371, for reasons which have not been ascertained, Rulman made over the house to the religious order of the Knights of S. John. This order had been originally founded in the eleventh century, for the protection and relief of pilgrims at Jerusalem, and a hospital had been opened there under their charge, for sick pilgrims or crusaders. As the Saracens regained their power, and the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem came to an end, the knights were scattered, though having their headquarters at first in Cyprus, then Rhodes, and afterwards in Malta.
The knights of the Green Meadow were no less under the secret direction of Nicholas, than the former inhabitants had been. There appears to have been all along an understanding between this order of knights and the Beghard |Brethren.| Probably because both were so, generally employed in the care of the sick. And in days of the Emperor Lewis, the Knights of S. John had taken up a decided stand in defence of his cause.
There was therefore much in common between them and the |Brethren.| Most likely the House of the Green Meadow had been usually regarded as a Beghard |House of God.| Such houses were most commonly placed under the direction of a Waldensian apostle, or as he would be otherwise called, a |Friend of God.| And the complete submission of all the inmates of the house to Nicholas, was therefore a feature in common with Beghard houses.
In the year 1369 the Emperor Charles IV sent out from Lucca a decree of terrible severity against the Beghards, authorising the inquisitors to proceed to extraordinary measures against them. The Beghard and Beguine houses were seized, and the inmates driven forth, or in many cases burnt as heretics. The houses were made over very generally to the third order of the Franciscan monks, or to some of the religious orders of knighthood.
It seems probable that Rulman Merswin foresaw some such seizure of his |House of God,| and that he therefore made it over to the Knights of S. John, who were of all the orders, the most nearly allied to the Beghards. It is from this time that the names Beghard and Beguine have a different signification, meaning no longer |Brethren,| but members of a Roman Catholic order. But the original and true Beghards and Beguines were persecuted with relentless fury, as were the Waldensian |Brethren| in general, for a long time afterwards. Multitudes were burnt during the years that followed the decree of the Emperor Charles. At Steier alone 100 men and women perished in the flames in the year 1391, and a list of other towns where large numbers were burnt, would be a very long one. The Knights of S. John and the Teutonic knights did not altogether escape.
And it is amongst these knights that we can trace the unknown author of a book published nearly 150 years later by Martin Luther, who regarded it as a precious discovery. It is spoken of in the original preface as the work of |a Friend of God, of the order of German knights.| In sending it forth, Luther wrote: |Next to the Bible and S. Augustine's books, I have never met with any book out of which I have learnt more of God, Christ, man, and all things. For truly neither in Latin nor in German, have I met with theology which was more sound, or more in accordance with the Gospel.| He gave to this book the name of |German Theology.|
The knights, however, who were chosen by Rulman Merswin to inhabit his |House of God,| were neither enlightened, nor apparently remarkable for piety. On the contrary, he says, that being grieved by their worldly ways, he received them there in the hope of amending their lives. It would seem that the letters written by Nicholas were carefully worded in such a manner as not to shock their Romanist prejudices. Though his name remained unknown, his letters were received with the deepest reverence. Probably, had his name been known, his letters would have been less esteemed.
The knight commander, who was at the head of the house, determined to build and adorn a gorgeous choir for the chapel. But a message came to him from the unknown |Friend of God,| telling him that this building had been undertaken without the counsel of the Holy Ghost, and proceeded from secret pride and vanity, and a desire to outdo other religious orders.
|In three and thirty years,| wrote Nicholas, |I have remarked in many lands, how severely God has punished such outbursts of pride. In many towns have I seen how He has avenged His cause, when such blind undertakings have been set on foot. I have seen great and costly cathedrals overthrown by earthquakes, whilst simple wooden churches remained standing. Therefore, in the love of God, I beseech you to content yourself with a wooden building, suited to these dark days.|