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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