Friday, 16 February 2018

Next Excerpt from "The Poor Preachers: Adventures of the First Lollards." Chapter 3: The Making of a Shepherd


Soon William found himself in almost luxurious circumstances, partaking of good tender venison, fresh bread that melted in his mouth, butter, cheese and sweetmeats. He had never been treated as an honoured guest like this before, and once again, he felt overwhelmed. God was treating him right royally, as a king’s son. 

At first, he felt rustic and uncomfortable, not knowing how he should conduct himself amongst such exalted men, but their geniality and genuine interest in what he had to say set him at his ease. They were far more interested in William’s intellect and spiritual state than his social graces, status and appearance.

Hereford introduced the two other masters. 
Master John Parker, the eldest among them, was the one who had lost the wager, and Hereford made a little merriment over this, calling him the ‘Doubting Thomas’ among them. But, as Hereford explained to William, Master Parker was valued for his gift of objectivity, which kept their feet on Terra firma.
He was once a professor of Mathematics at New College, and dealt only in facts -- a characteristic of which he constantly boasted. He had studied further in Theology and joined the Wycliffeite Masters.

The other, Master William Smith, was a quiet man with dreamy eyes.
A lecturer in Theology at University College, where Hereford was based, he favoured the devotional side of Christianity, strongly advocating the doctrine of the Priesthood of Believers and a personal experience of God.
Some dismissed him as strangely mystical, but the dreams and visions he experienced were of far more practical use than most mystics of his day. He was in constant, good-humoured conflict with John Parker over spiritual matters, and had won that last wager.

Once they had assuaged the first pangs of hunger, Doctor Hereford asked William to tell his story, and not to hurry.

As William spoke, Hereford bent his powerful mind to what was being said, occasionally stopping him to ask very insightful questions. 
Every now and then, especially when William hesitantly came to describe his vision of the Great Shepherd, the men looked at each other in wonder. 

When William described Brother Joseph’s dream, Smith’s eyes grew wide, and he interjected:
'Tis the same! The memory cometh again unto me. In mine own vision I saw thy face with the Rod of Authority given from heaven!’ 
Looking toward his colleagues, he said with great conviction, ‘Gentlemen, let none further doubt this man’s credentials.’

‘Not indeed!’ agreed Doctor Hereford. ‘But pray continue, Master Shephard.’

Emboldened by this confirmation given, William was able to tell them of his experiences with the miraculous, without hesitation.
They listened intently and sat silently for a moment when William finished his tale. 

Then Master Smith commented to his colleagues, ‘Doctor Ashton had a like call, had he not? Yet he hath not wrought the miraculous that here we have heard. Even without them, I would cast my vote for this man’s admittance to our league of disciples. What sayest thou, John?’

‘Amen! So I do, and thy pardon I beg that I doubted thee, Nicolas,’ said the other. ‘Thomas the Doubter hath been schooled. But what sayeth this godly man? Will he join us indeed?’

‘Well, so we must ask it of him. And our tale we must tell also, that he may choose aright with understanding,’ declared Nicolas. 
He began by speaking glowingly about Doctor John Wycliffe, Head of Balliol College, the greatest mind in the whole of England, and a personal friend and mentor. 
They shared the same concern for the deterioration of morals, the poor morale throughout the land, the despair and suffering of the common people, and the profligacy of many of the hierarchy of Holy Church
Wycliffe and his men had become more and more impatient with the established church hierarchy, its arrogance and failure to address the ‘manifold iniquities’ within herself, while ignoring the sufferings of the people. 

The Wycliffeites had begun to pray earnestly and study the Latin Scriptures to find answers. Wycliffe had pointed out that the church in the apostolic age was so much simpler in her lifestyle, yet far more powerful and effective than the complicated and corrupt system of the present day.
He had become more and more outspoken in his criticism of the bloated and ungodly princes of the church, who demanded tithes and sold indulgences to build both their own wealth and huge cathedrals, while common people starved.

The eyes of the three men kindled as Hereford spoke of Doctor Wycliffe’s vision for the church and the nation, where the church functioned as God intended and the common folk found hope and comfort in the scriptures, in the same way as they had.

Master Nicolas spoke of the labours that Doctors John Wycliffe, John Purvey and himself had done over the years, translating the scriptures into the common tongue.
God had stirred the hearts of many of the Masters, students and even some Doctors who heard John Wycliffe proclaiming the Word of God in their own tongue, for they felt as though God was speaking directly into their hearts.

Master Nicolas went on to describe how a great movement had begun amongst these academics to study the scriptures more closely. Many ‘disciple gatherings’ came together to study copied portions of Wycliffe’s scriptures, and in doing so, had discovered wonderful truths that had been hidden or ignored for many years.

‘In very sooth,’ said Master Smith fervently, ‘‘tis a wondrous journey of discovery into the very heart of God! The love of God is, at last, clearly revealed in the Blessed Pages of Holy Writ. To feel Him come nigh and quench the thirsty soul when thou dost read the Psalms thou hast translated into the mother tongue, Hereford, my friend, what a priceless gift!” 
For a moment he forgot where he was; it was as though he was back in his own daily devotions in his study. 
‘“They that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall dwell under the shadow of the Almighty.”’ he quoted with a rapt look on his face.

Parker smiled as he turned his grizzled, bearded face to William to add his own perspective.
‘A time there was when I would have mocked them that be like to my mystical friend here, Master Shephard. But I have beheld with mine own eyes the power of God at work in the lives of those who have found God through the Holy Scriptures. ‘Twas not the traditions of men that turned loose-living profligates into humble, generous, holy men. Many of them that be drunken, or went a-whoring or fought in the riots at Merton Square, now find hope and instruction in the scriptures read at the disciple gatherings. Long have I observed the lives of them like to Doctors Wycliffe and Hereford here also, and seen the truth take root and bear fruit mightily. Logic alone brought me unto conviction that he that studieth the Living Word with his whole heart findeth the life-changing power of God. When one hath seen the results thereof, how can one think other?”
He shrugged his shoulders and added, ‘Quod est Demonstratum!

Hereford smiled at how the two men approached the truth in different ways.
‘Much more could we speak of all that God hath done in our midst, but we must now turn to thine own calling, Master Shephard, for it concerneth us also. Of late, the name of William Shephard hath come to mine heart when I have sought the face of God in my times of devotion. Then Master Smith received that self-same message that the holy brother at the Abbey of St Bartholomew did dream. But winter cometh on a-pace, and as our office here be in abeyance for this season, my friends and I sallied forth to our havens at Leicester. But this morning at prayers, Master Smith and I felt in our heart to tarry -- yea -- against reason!

Mea culpa!’ interjected Master Parker ruefully. ‘Mine was the reasoning to continue our journey north, and so I persuaded them. But even in mine own heart was there the still, small voice -- but I heeded it not. The call of the hearth, the fire and the feast of mine own hovel was stronger, I confess. But the conviction to turn back could not be stayed in my colleagues. They resolved to turn back and seek thee at the Bull and Book, for so did they feel it in their hearts. In mine unbelief, I fleered and I challenged them, wagering my copy of Hereford’s works against Smith’s copy of the New Testament that thou wouldst not so be found thither. But the scorn hath come upon mine own head, and much to learn have I. Strange doth it seem, that the more one learneth, the less doth one understand!’

Credo ut Intelligam.’ quoted Hereford, and as William looked mystified, he translated, ‘“I believe in order that I may understand.”’ 

He looked at his colleague and friend with approval.
‘But thus do we have deep respect unto thy scholarship and humility, Master John, that thou hast so learned of God cheerily and hardened not thine heart, as have many a proud master.’

He clapped his friend on the shoulder, then turned once again to William.
‘And so merrily do we meet, Master Shephard. Students all in the School of God are we all, not exalted fonts of wisdom. We would also learn of thee, for thy schooling hath been both stern and harsh, yet hath God spoken unto thee face-to-face.’

Impressed by the wisdom and humility of the men before him, William said, ‘Hither have I come to learn what I must to fulfil my calling, good masters. Proud would I be to be schooled of such men as ye be. But I wot not whither nor what I must do to be enrolled as clerk*, neither do I have the means anon. Also if classes be in recess for Yule-tide, I must winter me somewhither. I will not beg for my meat, but have resolved me to work for it, or starve. Wilt thou give me good rede³ in these matters?’

Master Hereford turned his keen gaze upon him and appeared to come to a decision. ‘I perceive that the hand of God is upon thee, Master Shephard!’

He leaned forward and put his goblet aside.
‘Thou’rt a lettered man, if I err not. It is custom and privilege for a Doctor of College to take unto himself a novice clerk that sheweth good promise as intern of his household. There that clerk doth assist the master in his labours and will, in turn, eat at his patron’s board and find shelter, hearth and bed until he complete his studies. I am in need of a skilled scribe, one who will copy and aid in my translations and lectures, yet with spiritual understanding. But a man of character and godliness he must be. What sayest thou? Wilt thou be Nicolas Hereford’s apprentice?’

The other two men nodded in complete approval.
William’s voice was suspended as a lump formed in his throat. God had more than supplied his needs. This was a dream come true.
Finally, he mastered his emotions enough to say huskily, ‘Can any man refuse such generosity, such an honour? But is there none other more worthy amongst the body of clerks in Oxenford that ….”

‘If there were such a one, Hereford would have chosen him anon,’ smiled Master Smith. ‘And methinks thou hast begun thine apprenticeship already, from thine history that thou hast related.’

‘But art thou soothly of a mind and hardihood that thou wouldst serve such an hard taskmaster?’ quipped Master Parker jovially. ‘He would of a certes make thee to pour his wine and scour his floors, and if thou leeren not thy Latin, he would scourge thee sore!”

They all laughed and Hereford protested that his stomach could not handle wine and opted for ale instead. Then they made plans to leave for Leicester, with William, the next day.

So William began his academic studies under the aegis of one of the greatest translators of his time. Being both intelligent and diligent, he progressed rapidly through his studies, and Hereford encouraged him to complete his Bachelor of Theology over the years that followed. 

There was much to do in between his studies.
Hereford had a large capacity for work himself, for he was translating the whole of the Old Testament, and more. But William felt like he was in heaven.

From Hereford himself he learned principles of translation and hermeneutics. But more than that, he absorbed much from the spirit of the man and his vision to reach the poor with the gospel.

From Master Parker he learned the principles of exegesis, systematic study and logical thought.

From Master Smith he learned to develop his devotional life and prayer.

From Master Ashton he learned much of the dynamics of homily, although his confidence took a while to build, and it was not until his encounter with the Spirit of God that he truly began to preach with power and authority.

He threw himself into his studies and college life, but he avoided much of the trivialities that students often indulged in. His escape from the trammels of daily life was to walk out into the countryside he loved and chat to the villagers nearby, sometimes rolling up his sleeves, girding himself with a labourer’s smock and helping with the work.

Villagers got to know and love him. He still retained all of the animal lore he had learned in his previous vocations, and the local herdsmen and animal keepers frequently asked his advice or shared their own experiences with him.

William was of invaluable help to his mentor. He was quick with the quill and an excellent listener when Hereford needed a sounding board for his translations or when preparing his lectures or sermons. Eventually, Hereford began to ask William’s opinion on points of doctrine, exegesis and exposition of the scriptures.

Hereford and other preachers of Wycliffe’s persuasion occasionally travelled around Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Leicestershire proclaiming Wycliffe’s message of the gospel. A few of Hereford’s most telling lectures included some of William’s input.

Once the people realised that Wycliffe and his party truly had their interests at heart, they had invitations and acclaim wherever they went.
With William’s help, Nicolas Hereford worked tirelessly to spread the Word of God, and people wondered greatly to hear the scriptures in their own language. After their lectures and homilies, folk from all walks of life would approach them to ask questions.

Many of the common folk, that were able to hear him, found new hope, and this rejoiced William’s heart. Often he would chat outside the church with those who were interested, giving them portions of scripture he had copied -- often in his own time. He encouraged them to form discipleship groups that followed the same model as those at Oxford, and he occasionally attended the groups to instruct and shepherd them. 

Doctor Hereford commended him for this innovation, noting that he was developing his calling quite rapidly. 

William drank in every word that Wycliffe, Hereford, Ashton and others spoke in their lectures, and his diligence, devotion, insights and wisdom soon made him top student whichever class he attended.

He attended Wycliffe and Hereford’s disciple gatherings to discuss the deeper and more controversial matters of scripture as it was read in English. They would often follow this with prayer. Chiefly, they prayed for the nation -- that God would reach the people with His healing hand and open the floodgates of Truth.

William avoided some of the more extreme and political disciple gatherings, such as the fanatical Master Swynderby’s, although he admired the man’s courage and bold, outspoken railings against the abuses in the church and state. 

He once heard Swynderby’s intern, the fiery Father John Ball, deliver a tirade against the rich aristocracy, both secular and the church. He stridently advocated equality of classes and had aroused the wrath of the authorities against himself for it more than once.
His imprisonments and floggings only made him more embittered and determined.  

His battle cry was:

‘When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?’

William preferred to see social change by the power of God, than by the violent arm of the flesh.

......... to be continued.

*Clerk = Cleric. Also a student and lawyer.

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