Wednesday 24 January 2018

Continuing excerpt from "The Poor Preachers: The Adventures of the First Lollards.

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

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Second Excerpt from the First Publication: "The Poor Preachers -- The Adventures of the First Lollards."

Continuing from Chapter 1: "The Two Shepherds."

William grew to be a man -- tall, thin, hardened of muscle, but not hardened in heart.  Nonetheless, his future seemed rather bleak. Was there anything beyond his purposeless existence? He loved his sheep and his friends, but would he be a shepherd forever?
Because of the bitter disappointment in his youth, he had set his face against the church as a profession -- the only avenue of success open to intelligent, young men and women amongst the lower classes in those days. 

He had to admit, however, that among the clergy there were a few good men and women who had a genuine love for God and for people. Brother Joseph was such a man, for all his struggles with his vows of celibacy. William had once seen him in the woods with one of the loose village girls, but he thought nothing of it.  Brother Joseph was a kindly man, in spite of it all, and would often stop and talk to William when he could. If the village gossipers were right, there was hardly a brother at St. Bartholomew’s that had not either had secret affairs or even a concubine in keeping.
William shrugged his shoulders and accepted the situation. After all, he was far from guiltless himself and had the common English resentment for the imposition of the foreign Norman-Romish rules, such as mandatory celibacy for the clergy. It was only when the same lecherous brothers spoke scathingly of the decaying morals of the poor laity, while doing little to relieve their sufferings, that his old resentment surfaced.

So he pondered and he thought deeply about the world around him. Sometimes despair drove him to drink, but he began to see that it did him no good at all. Realising this, he turned instead to the only one who could really help -- God Almighty.

He began to pray as his godly mother had taught him, pleading for relief from the hardships he and the poor people faced.
And God heard his prayer.
While out in the fields minding the flocks one day, he cried out to God for the miseries of his life and the poor of his world. 
‘O Great God in Heaven!’ he cried. ‘Thou knowest all things! Wherefore then is this curse upon our land? Have we sinned so grievous that we must be struck down with sword, famine and plague?’   
Then he pondered on his own situation. Raising his face to the skies, he wondered aloud, ‘And wherefore was I not slain as were my mother and my father, yea as also were my kinsfolk by the Black Plague? For what reason am I thus preserved?’ 

He heard a voice from behind him saying in a gentle yet strong voice,
‘´Tis the calling upon thy life. Thou shalt indeed be a tool fashioned of God to ease the sufferings of many in this generation.’
Embarrassed at being overheard in his private soliloquy, yet not alarmed, William turned in surprise to see one who seemed like a travelling friar, seated behind him. He wore a plain, russet-coloured clerical gown with his hood up.  His face was in shadow. 

William normally had little respect for the wandering friars, many of whom were living immoral and profligate lives, often favoured by the rich, and lately having little regard for the poor. But there was something so mysterious yet wholesome about this man, that William somehow felt drawn to him. He wore no jewellery, his habit was plain, his shoulders were broad from heavy toil and he looked all muscle, with little spare flesh. Although he kept his head bowed, the hint of a beard showed. An indefinable air of kindness mixed with sorrow hung about him.
‘Wherewithal knowest thou this, good brother friar?’ asked William, looking at the stranger with nervous respect. ‘Art thou a prophet?’

‘So some hath said,’ replied the stranger. 
There was a quality in his gentle voice that yet had the power to shake mountains.  But what William noticed most were the dried bloodstains on the strong, work-calloused hand that held his staff. The back of his habit was also stained with dried blood.
‘Art thou a flagellant, then?’ He had heard of the groups of fanatical folk that wandered the countryside, publicly lashing themselves with whips in an attempt to earn their salvation, never satisfied until they drew blood.

‘Nay, for these wounds were delivered unto me in the house of my friends.’ came the strange answer. ‘Once was I an artisan, a carpenter, but now am I a shepherd, like as thou art. But my sheep I would raise up as shepherds also. Wilt thou also shepherd the flock of God?’

‘I understand thee, good friar,’ said William, wondering whether he really did understand. ‘But in my youth, I swore never would I be a holy man. For such as I have seen oft have seemed unholy indeed, saving thy presence.’

A hint of anger came into the tone of the stranger’s voice.
‘Verily thou hast said, for many that be called shepherds are no shepherds. Rather are they as wolves, sparing not the flock. But God looketh upon the heart, not the outward piety, and whatsoever God maketh holy, call thou not unholy. For He hath seen thine heart, William the Shepherd, and so thou hast been named. He hath seen thy pain and sorrow, for so also His great Heart hath been broken for the sorrows of His people. Therefore he seeketh for them that will stand with Him to slay the demon-wolves of evil that would devour the flock. This desire is hidden within thine heart, for so hath God formed thee. ‘Tis thy destiny, William the Shepherd, if thou wilt so choose!’

Astonished that the stranger knew so much about him, and spoke with such authority and power, William gaped at him, deeply moved and overwhelmed. Had God sent one of the Holy Saints to speak to him? Or an Holy Angel? But who was he, a lecherous drunkard and a thief, to be spoken to so graciously by this truly holy Man of God? He was so used to being treated with contempt by supposed holy men. He sat down and hid his face in his hands, shaking. It all seemed like a dream.

‘Nor angel nor saint of old am I, William the Shepherd.’ said the stranger, answering his unspoken thought. ‘´Tis sooth that thine heart doth need cleansing e’er thou dost pursue thy calling, but abundant cleansing there be in God if thou wilt turn unto Him.  But mark: ‘tis cleansing without mediation of unholy priests.  Think well on this thy choice.’ 
And his voice faded into the distance.

William turned around too late. The stranger had gone.
He ran into the wood behind the man calling, ‘Good Stranger! Holy Friar! Await me, I beg of thee!’ 
Then he stopped. Where had he gone so quickly? It was impossible for him to have melted into the woods without a trace. But at that moment, the mysterious disappearance didn’t seem as important as the stirrings of his heart that the stranger had begun to stir.

He knew he had spoken of his future, for it had fanned the sparks of something that had lain dormant in his heart ever since his parents had prayed with him in his youth. Yes, this was his destiny, and it seemed as though the stranger was giving him time to count the cost.
But who? Who? Who was the stranger?
He walked slowly back to his flock, his mind in turmoil. How could God use him, only half educated, on the lowest rung of the social ladder, a sinner of sinners?
But did not Brother Joseph once speak of the disciples that came from humble beginnings?  Was not Christ Himself born in a manger?

He could not sleep that night. So many thoughts went through his mind. If he did follow this amazing new path that had been opened up to him, he would have to leave the life he was used to. He would leave his lowly friends, including his beloved animals, who gave him so much unconditional devotion. 

And where to begin? Must he become like those fat priests that had no interest in serving the people? Never! Yet the stranger called himself a shepherd of the flock of God, and William knew instinctively, though irrationally, that he could trust him with his life and follow him to the ends of the earth. 

But who, and where, was he?
If a shepherd of the flock of God he must be, he would model himself on that humble, gently-spoken stranger, whoever he was. Surely, if he had given him such a challenge, he would return to hear his answer. William prayed fervently that he would find the man again. It felt as though he had known him all his life. No, he was no stranger. He personified that whispering voice in his heart that had pursued him from his earliest memories, even through his most sinful, drunken moments.
Yes! He would do whatever it took to become like that man.

He rose early the next morning to tend to his sheep. One quick count and he let out an oath of exasperation. The most wayward of his young lambs, which he had named ‘Prodigal’, had wandered off again. 
Leaving the others in a safe place, William went off in the direction of Prodigal’s favourite haunt, the woods, calling the lamb’s name as he went.

He had not gone far into the wood when he came into a small clearing and cried out, ‘Oh, My God, I thank Thee!’

There sat the stranger, cross-legged, with young Prodigal curled up asleep in his lap.
Forgetting all about the lamb, William knelt by the stranger.
‘Father! Good friar!’ he panted, ‘Whomsoever thou be. Wilt thou have a poor sinner as thy disciple?’

Laying the sleeping lamb gently aside, the stranger stood to his feet.
‘Gladly do I receive thee as my disciple, yea, as my friend, William, thou good shepherd. Thou wert a wandering lamb, but now thou’rt found. Behold the face of thy new master!’
He threw back his hood, and what William saw stayed with him for the rest of his days, and beyond.

Pure, unconditional love shone like sunshine from the eyes of the man, almost blinding him. Pure, unadulterated, unconditional love personified. Yet also there was an uncompromising holiness, strong and powerful, that shone from his face. It was both glorious and terrifying.

William fell forward on his face. He lay there quivering for a moment, dread -- and yet a strange joy -- coursing through his being. He wondered if he would die, yet hoped the sensation would never leave him.
How could he have been so blind not to know Who the stranger was? But it never occurred to Him that the Lamb of God Himself would come down to commune with the scum of the earth. The King of Kings! The Great Shepherd Himself! The Lord of the Universe! And He called him His friend!

All the hurt and bitterness was being washed out of William’s soul as he wept and renounced all his sin, his past life. He became a total slave of his Redeemer. This commitment gave him much of the strength for all the tasks he was called to for the rest of his life.

Presently, the Great Shepherd touched him, bidding him rise. There was healing and strength imparted in that touch.
‘Fear not, William the Shepherd. Arise! Old things have passed away. Behold!  Now thou’rt a new man. I am sending thee to gather and feed my sheep.’

William lifted his head, but did not dare to do more than kneel and fix his gaze on the sandalled feet before him. He was sure that if he looked into that Face again, he would fall down once more. 

But again the gentle thunder addressed him.
‘Go thou north unto Oxenford, and seek thou for my servant, a man called Nicolas Hereford, a disciple of one John Wycliffe. He will care for thee and thou shalt be instructed and shalt feed upon My Word for a season. Then thou shalt go forth and preach the gospel to many in this land, making them My disciples. Go forth! And I shall ever be with thee….’

Then He faded away from William’s sight.  

To be continued......

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