Chapter 2: Oxford
William had to sit for a while, still cradling the sleeping lamb.
An immense lightness and sense of freedom, unlike anything he had ever experienced before, flooded his being. He felt clean. He felt more alive than he had ever been. The greatest Being of the Universe loved him.
He jumped to his feet and gave a loud laugh of pure joy, much to Prodigal’s startled annoyance, which he vehemently expressed as he tumbled off William’s lap.
Lifting the protesting wanderer, William ran back to his flock, laughing and weeping. There he put the lamb down so it could run to its relieved mother for a long overdue feed.
But would he ever see that blessed face in this life again?
He continued his duties for the next day, and the next, still in his exalted state, wondering what his next step would be.
Could he just abandon his post and head north? Surely not. The Great Shepherd Himself would have forbidden it.
William was thinking on this when none other than Brother Joseph approached him. The good brother was looking a little bemused, for some reason, but gave him a kindly greeting.
Brother Joseph was not like his fellow Brethren of St Bartholomew’s.
With all his faults, he had a heart for people, especially the younger ones.
‘Well met, and God save thee, William Shephard! Many a time and oft have I seen thee at the back of the schooling room and the vault of archives, but thou wert a student at heart, I trow, so I minded it not.’
‘And so do I thank thee of thy kindness, Brother Joseph.’ William responded, touching his forelock respectfully.
The brother looked keenly at the young man before him.
‘Wherefore this glow that is upon thee? Almost it would seem thou’st seen heavenly visions.’
William wasn’t sure how even this kind brother would take the news of his calling, so he just smiled and said,
‘I but rejoice in the goodness of God, Brother Joseph!’
Recalling his errand, Brother Joseph knit his brows and looked down thoughtfully.
‘Ferly¹ days of wonders these be,’ he uttered cryptically, and William only just stopped himself from saying, ‘Amen!’
‘Strange dreams and portents came to me a’ nightertale last,’ continued the brother. ‘I saw thy face, William, glowing as I see it now. Thou didst mind the sheep and thou didst hold a common shepherd’s crook in thine hand. Then a great hand stretched forth from the heavens toward thee. Thou gavest thy crook into the hand and, in return, received a rod of authority. Simple in fashion it was, but held great power. Yea, even infinite more powerful than the crozier of the Pontiff himself. With that staff, I saw thee go north to a great place of learning, like unto the great University in Oxenford, of which I once beheld in my youth. Then thou didst go forth westward and south. Whithersoever thou goest, and didst raise that staff, many sheep gathered unto thee.’
He paused, looking at the young man before him, who was nearly bursting with excitement.
‘So clear was this dream, it hath haunted me sorely since. What sayest thou to this?’
‘Indeed, this be my calling Brother Joseph!’ William burst forth eagerly.
Then he stopped and thought a moment. ‘But wherewithal can I forsake the animals if none else care for them? Young Wilfred, perchance?’
Pleased with the responsible answer, the brother smiled and said, ‘Thou hast learned thy lessons well, William. I will see they are cared for. Go forth! And take this with thee.’
He handed him a small purse with jingling coins.
William’s eyes glinted when he felt the riches in his grasp, but then he realised that many things that would have seemed acceptable two days ago now seemed vain and worthless.
He looked guiltily at the generous gift, then shook his head.
‘Mine hearty thanks, Brother Joseph, but I confess that I owe somewhat unto the Abbey. I pray ye that it should pay for what hath been already eaten. Let it be my penance if thou wilt. I will henceforth earn my bread by the labour of mine hands.’
Impressed by the young man’s honesty and integrity, the brother was moved to say, ‘I perceive that God hath His hand upon thee, William! Honesty and wisdom beyond thy years sitteth upon thy brow. Would that there were others of higher estate that had such goodness! Wherefore needest thou to tarry then? Go forth, my son, and God speed thee!’
This was how William found himself setting forth to Oxford, forsaking everything he had known and stepping into the unknown. But he was embarking on a new life, a quest and a God-given mission.
As he shouldered his very few possessions and took to the road, it felt as though he was walking into a dream.
But even newborn believers need food in their stomachs, so he began looking for work along the way, and God provided for him at each turn.
The Black Death had decimated so much of the rural labour force that farmers and landlord’s stewards were now thankful to find a willing and honest worker, even if he was only passing through.
The old feudal system was passing away, and the age of the paid itinerant worker was dawning.
Some of the stewards even offered him a well-paid post, but although this was very attractive to a man who had been paid next to nothing, the vision and call on his life made him politely decline.
Later, he realized it was the enemy of his soul trying to distract him from his destiny.
He harboured enough of his earnings to keep him in health and strength, but gave liberally to destitute widows and other poor folk along the way. God rewarded his giving many times over. William felt like a wealthy man.
It occurred to him that many of the survival skills he had learned were no longer needed. He was a servant of the Most High, and in His service there was no need to merely survive. This faith in God’s provision helped him many times when food or money became scarce. God always provided for him just in time.
On his journeys William learned to pray, in his own fashion. Rightly disregarding the pious ostentation that Friar Harding displayed in his style of prayer, he spoke from his heart. He had learnt that these were the prayers the Lord loved the most, and often answered in quite remarkable ways. After all, this was how he had come face to face with the Great Shepherd Himself.
Often his prayer was a simple, ‘O Father God, aid Thou me!’
The most remarkable instance of God’s answers to prayer was on the road to Hungerford.
William saw a hooded leper sitting cross-legged at the side of the road, ringing his clapper and crying, ‘Alms! Alms! Will ye not aid a stricken and weary pilgrim? I die ere I find an almshouse nor hospice!’
William was ashamed of all the times he had indulged in self-pity over his own situation.
Here was one cursed with a living death that made his own sufferings pale in significance.
But what could William do? He had spent his last coin at the previous village, to fill his belly and give him a bed for the night. He had just eaten his last apple and was hoping to find a farmer who could give him half a day’s work, feed or pay him and send him on his way. This poor wretch did not have that kind of freedom.
William instinctively walked up to the poor man, who saw him and cried out, ‘Unclean! Unclean! Good master come not nigh! If thou’st a coin, prithee cast it forth at my feet and I will pray thee God’s blessing upon thy head!’
Moved even more with compassion, William ignored the warning and touched the startled beggar’s hood, praying aloud, ‘O God, would that I had a pocketful of coins I would give it him. Have mercy O God! Yet I would that Thou didst heal the leper, even as Thou didst in the days Thou dwelt amongst us. Art Thou not the same God?’
He spoke out of the promptings of his heart, but he cursed himself for the inadequacy and apparent futility of his words. Was he giving the poor man false hope?
The beggar held out his withered hand to keep William from coming too close, but suddenly gave a shout and leapt to his feet.
‘‘Tis a fire upon mine head! A fire in my limbs! By all the holy saints! Mine hand is whole!’
He began to inspect all his limbs, looking for the familiar scars and missing digits he had learned to live without, but he was completely made whole, with even the toes and fingers that had fallen or broken off restored.
Sensation was returning to his extremities also.
So stunned was William by the result of his spontaneous prayer, he stepped back unwarily, tripped and sat down hard.
The ex-leper jumped for joy. His hood fell back, revealing a young face with thinning hair on top and a wispy beard. He had burning, intense eyes, now filled with almost incredulous joy at his change of fortunes.
‘O blessings abundant be upon thine head! Sickerly thou’rt a holy saint, good master. Yea, God verily be the same God, as thou hast said.’
He was so overwhelmed, he sat down and wept.
Still overcome, William came and knelt next to him, since his posterior was too sore to sit upon.
‘Nay, I be no saint. A sinner that hath found cleansing for his sin be I. But God can send his blessing through the vilest and dirtiest of vessels. William am I called, and Shephard also, although a shepherd of the flock of God do I hope to be. What be thy name, my friend?’
‘Good humble shepherd, when a man of worth I was, Richard Rolleton was my name,’ he said, overcoming his emotions. ‘Of a good family came I, until this curse came upon me, and my family cast me forth. Long have I contemplated my life if ever I returned from this living death. How vain are riches! How vain is fame! How vain is life indeed!’
The intensity of his eyes shone out strongly with a fanatical brilliance.
‘Well then, good Master Richard Rolleton,’ said William, warily observing the fanatical look, ‘a happy chance or the Hand of God it be that we have met. And whither away anon? Wilt thou return unto the house of thy kinsfolk?’
‘Never!’ swore Richard. ’God, Mother Mary and thyself alone hath been my friends and my kinsfolk. I curse them not that they cannot come nigh and suffer like fate as I. But to cast me ever forth and speak to me no more? Nay! I have vowed me a vow before God, the Blessed Virgin and the Holy Angels that if ever I returned to the land of the living again, I shall ever live as a hermit -- even as I have been these last seven years. A life of contemplation, where I seek the blessed Face and the Grace of the Holy Virgin Mother Mary!’
He turned to William, grabbed him by both shoulders and stared at him compellingly.
‘Had I not so vowed, good Father Shephard, mayhap I would become thy disciple and follow thee whithersoever thou leadest!’
William began to feel a little uncomfortable about his new friend, even though he honoured his devotion.
‘Nay, my friend, thou must follow thy calling. What canst thou learn of a common shepherd and herdsman withal? I have mine own calling to follow.’
William instinctively felt in his pocket to give the man a few coins to help him on his way, forgetting that he had spent his last coin.
To his surprise, he found his pocket was filled with money. Had he earned it all and forgotten that particular pocket?
Then he remembered his prayer over Richard. He picked up the man’s alms bowl and, before he changed his mind, quickly emptied his pocket into it.
Then he leapt to his feet, gave a parting benediction to Richard, who sat there gaping at his newfound wealth, and walked on.
The intensity of the young man had been a little suffocating to him, so William thought it was just as well they parted company.
But he would sadly miss those coins, wherever they came from.
He sighed, but still felt very happy. He had seen the mighty power of God in response to his simple and foolish prayers.
He was learning many things, and learning fast.
William was not comfortable with the notion of being thought a holy saint, however, since he had heard these saints lived impossibly ascetic lifestyles.
William was fond of a good meal, when he could get it, and shuddered at the very thought of voluntary fasting.
He struggled with his libido as much as any other man, having had the odd fling in the woods with loose women. He did not consider celibacy was the calling for him, unless the Great Shepherd insisted upon it.
1: "Ferly" (Middle English) strange
2: "Sickerly" (Middle English) surely