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Three Friends Of God by Frances Bevan


WE have seen one side of this marvellous picture -- the side upon which shone forth the grace and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. We have been told in these simple words of the great treasure poured into the earthen vessel.

And now we must look awhile at the other side, at the heart that loved so truly, but was yet so veiled by the effect of the evil teaching of 1200 years. We must hear the story of the earthen vessel itself, in the years that followed.

And it must be here remarked, that the same difficulty presents itself in relating this story, as in the story of Nicholas of Basle. It was Henry Suso himself who told the history of his life, but unhappily it was not he who wrote it, but a nun to whom he related it from time to time, his |spiritual daughter,| Elizabeth Staglin. Unknown to Henry Suso, this nun wrote down from memory all he told her. She seems to have regarded everything which he said and did, at all periods of his life, as almost equally good and praiseworthy. She tells the tale of his childish devotion to the Virgin, as if that were already a sign of spiritual life. She writes down disconnected tales with no regard to chronology. She therefore relates strange acts of superstition which betray the darkness and ignorance of those beclouded days, jumbling them in hopeless confusion with acts of true faith and devotedness. She also delights, as did all in those days, and no doubt women more especially, in dreams, and visions, and marvellous tales, told her by other women who dreamt at times of Henry Suso, and told her also by himself.

For like Rulman and Nicholas, he gained for himself, as Dr. Tauler said, |weak brains and disordered fancies,| in the years that followed his blessed knowledge of the Lord and Saviour; and dreams and visions, strange and wild and senseless, were the consequence. It seems to have been in those days so entirely a matter of course, that the flesh was to be kept in subjection by tortures and penances, that every man or woman who desired to take up the cross and follow Christ, began naturally to torment themselves, without pausing for a moment to inquire, |What saith the Lord?|

In the case of Henry Suso, it was certainly not in order to escape the punishment of sin, or to |gain heaven,| that he began a course of tortures which has seldom, if ever, been surpassed. After carefully reading his life, and the book really written by himself, |The Book of the Eternal Wisdom| (and therefore a truer picture of his mind than the partly fabulous book of Elizabeth Staglin), we learn that there were two reasons which led him to spend twenty-two years in constant pain and torment. In the first place, he desired to |keep under his body and bring it into subjection,| and no better way had ever been taught him, than that which Dr. Tauler describes as breaking through a stone wall with one's head. |They break their heads,| he had said, |and leave the wall standing.|

In the second place, it seemed to Henry Suso that a life of suffering and pain and self-torture was more seemly for those who were following in the steps of Christ, than a life of ease and comfort. And thus, again to quote Dr. Tauler, did he proceed |to mix up bitter cups of myrrh for himself,| instead of waiting for any bitter cup the Lord might be pleased to give him. Nor did he realise that he who follows the Lord fully, will find that |the fellowship of His sufferings| is a needful result of so doing, and that to be hated of all men and to become as the offscouring of all things, is harder to bear, than self-inflicted torments for which men were admired, and honoured, and at last canonised and worshipped.

It was very soon after this first blessed knowledge of the Eternal Wisdom, that one day, when he had been thinking of the love of the Lord to him, he felt a desire to have some outward mark of his love to the Lord. |And,| he said, |oh could I but think of some sign of love, that should be an everlasting token of the love between me and Thee! and a sign that I am Thine, and that Thou art the One only Beloved of my heart, never to be forgotten by me.| And then, taking an iron pen, he uncovered his breast, and cut into the flesh in large letters, the name of JESUS. And having this, he knelt down and prayed, saying, |O Lord, the one Beloved of my heart and soul, look upon the great desire of my heart. O Lord, I cannot write Thy name within my heart, therefore O Lord, I pray Thee that Thou wilt do the work I cannot do and imprint Thyself in the depths of my heart, so that I may be truly marked by Thy holy name, and that Thou Thyself mayest be present in my heart for evermore.| The name which he had graven on his heart remained there till his death, but he kept it secret, and showed it to none but to one friend long afterwards.

This was but the beginning of his many strange inventions, yet scarcely more strange, though far more painful, than the many inventions which men and women seek out for themselves in these our days, and in this our land of Bibles. There was at least a reality, and a simple love for the Lord, in the childish desire to have the name of Jesus graven on his heart. And may it not be that to the heart of the Lord that act of ignorant devotion was sweet as the loving service of a child -- far more so than are the golden and jewelled crosses that give the finishing touch to some costly costume in concert-rooms and gay assemblies; than the crosses upon the decorated prayer-books of those who seek out the churches where their eyes and ears may find an hour's enjoyment, and where the Eternal Wisdom |calls and is refused -- she lifteth up her hand and no man regardeth.|

To Henry Suso the Lord was a real Presence, and His death and sufferings were a reality of which he knew not all the power, but to which he turned for rest and comfort, and with adoration and love. |It was all as present to him,| he says, |as if in bodily nearness he stood by His side, and followed Him whithersoever He went. And at times he would think, When King David was driven from his kingdom, there were true knights who followed him, and delighted to serve him, and so would I be to my rejected Lord.' And he would take out the book, wherein was written the portion which saith: Who hath believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?' and he would read through to the end, all that chapter which speaks of the Lord led forth as a lamb to the slaughter, and then would he entreat Him that neither life nor death, nor joy nor sorrow, might ever separate the servant from his beloved Master.|

How well would it have been had he known that to him who believes, the death of the Lord is the death of the old man, and that it is in the power of His resurrection that we have victory and triumph! But he knew not these things, and he was grieved and troubled to find that the old nature yet remained, and that the flesh was strong, and |it was bitter and grievous to him, to find himself continually as a heavy burden, of which he knew not the way to rid himself.| And in his earnestness and ignorance, he provided himself with a hair shirt and iron chain, which he wore till the blood ran down from the wounds it made. And he wore a belt studded with sharp nails, the points of which he drove into his flesh. And in this belt he slept all night, or tried to sleep. And when he was bitten and stung by insects in the hot weather, he would not drive them away, but let them settle upon him and sting him, tying up his hands to a collar he had made, lest he should use them for his relief. And later he made himself leathern gloves with brazen points, so that if in his sleep he should perchance move his hands, the points might wound his flesh. And on his back he wore a wooden cross, with thirty iron nails driven through it, which he wore for eight full years, and once when he had blunted the points with a grindstone, he repented of it, and sharpened them again with a file. And daily did he scourge himself with leather straps, into which he had fixed iron points, with hooks like fish-hooks. And into his wounds he rubbed vinegar and salt, altering his penances for different days in the calendar of the Church.

For his bed he had an old door which had been cast away, upon which he slept without any blankets, but covered only by an old mat made of rushes. For a pillow he had a sack stuffed with pea-shells, and he wore the same garments night and day, and under him was the cross with pointed nails. And as his mat was too short to cover his feet, they were frozen on the cold winter nights, and covered with chilblains. And he had many sores from the wounds he gave himself. But he did it all willingly, for he said, |I must partake of the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ,| little knowing that such were not the sufferings of Him who for righteousness' sake bore the hatred of men, and for sin the judgment of God, -- the first, the sufferings of which His own are made partakers; the last, the suffering which He endured alone, that it might never be known to them, the awful, unfathomable depth of the curse of God. But Henry Suso imagined, as many others have done, that all suffering was a gain -- if not to atone for sin, at least to mend and improve the sinner.

After a while he gave up the old door, and slept only on his wooden chair, and he went into no room where fires were lighted, for five-and-twenty years, nor did he take a bath. And he ate but once a day, and fasted often, and on fast-days he ate neither eggs nor fish. And he ceased almost entirely to drink, allowing himself only a small cupful of water every day, and wine but once a year, at Easter-time. And at times he would spend the night standing barefoot before the altar on the cold pavement, and would rest afterwards only in his chair. And his thirst was oftentimes so great, that he scarcely dared to look at the bucket drawn up from the convent well, and he would say, |Alas! the wide lake of Constance is close at hand, and the broad Rhine runs past the convent walls! and yet a drink of water can never be for me!|

Let none think lightly of the evil teaching which in all ages, in one shape or another, comes between the soul and God. We can see the folly and the sin -- in the case of Henry Suso, the sin of ignorance, which clouded over the blessed teaching of the Spirit, and kept him constantly employed in self-torment and in will-worship, when he might have been telling forth the love of Him who had died to make him free from the law of sin and death, and to bring him into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

But we are more apt to be blind to the evil teaching in our own generation, than to that of former ages, and to satisfy ourselves with the fact that we can see where others err and fall. Let not those cast stones at Henry Suso who leave the flesh to master them without let or hindrance.

Some may be found in these present days, who are ready to blame his fastings and his long years of thirst, whilst they themselves are celebrating their |holy days| by feasting and drinking -- by dainty food whereby they mark the seasons when they profess to remember the Lord. How is the time observed amongst us, in remembrance of that solemn moment when He made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men? The hair shirts are found no more; but are there none who wear |Lenten costumes,| and Easter adornments, whilst living in a land of open Bibles, and |higher education|?

Nor let those denounce him, who |having begun in the Spirit, seeks to be made perfect by the flesh,| in returning to the yoke of bondage, and looking to the law given by Moses for the power of holiness, rather than to the grace and truth that came by Jesus Christ. Satan beset him also during this time with many and great temptations, such as he never had had before. He filled him with doubts and questions as to the nature of the Lord Jesus; and he would say to him: |How dost thou know that thou wilt not be eternally lost? For if thou art not one of the Lord's people, who are kept by Him, it matters not what thou believest or doest, thou must certainly perish for ever.| And he became sad and miserable, and he would say to himself, |Was ever a man so wicked as thou art?| and so for a while he walked in darkness, and had no light, for he knew not how to escape from the snare which Satan had laid for his feet.

At this time there was a great preacher, called Master Eckart, who had once lived at Strasburg, before the days when Master Tauler had received his first visit from Nicholas of Basle. Since that time, he had preached at several German towns, and had made many disciples. He had been also condemned for heresy by the Archbishop of Cologne, and by the Bishop of Strasburg. As far as we can learn from his sermons which have been preserved, he was more deserving of the name of heretic than many who ended their lives at the stake.

But the charges brought against him were not, as it would appear, founded upon the errors which he held, but rather upon the fact that he had much in common with the Beghards, or |Brethren,| or |Friends of God.| |It is true,| says Dr. Keller, |that Master Eckart was closely connected with the so-called Waldenses,' and with their apostles.| It seems probable that he had learnt much from the |Brethren,| and being a man who delighted in philosophy and human intellect, he worked out by degrees a belief of his own, made up of the teaching of |Brethren,| of heathen philosophy, and of Roman Christianity. But no doubt he strayed farther and farther from the truth of God, as men are apt to do, if once they begin to philosophize and exercise their reason upon that which is above reason, and there may have been a time when the teaching of the |Brethren| had a larger place in his sermons, than Plato or the heathens of old.

In any case we find that Henry Suso went to hear him preach, and to tell him of his troubles, and his doubts and fears were cleared away, and he rejoiced from that time to count himself amongst the despised and persecuted |Friends of God.| No doubt the mystical philosophy of Master Eckart passed over the head of the simple childlike monk, and he retained the thoughts so often told in Eckart's sermons, of the love of God, and the nothingness of man.

And in the company of the |Friends of God| he found comfort and joy. And he learnt to look beyond the boundaries of the Church that had so misled him, for all men knew that Master Eckart was under the ban of the Church; and later on he was condemned by the Pope himself. Therefore did Henry Suso think lightly of the condemnation of the Church, and did not suffer it to put a barrier between him and any man in whom he found the love of Christ.

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