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Chronicles of the Schonberg-Cotta Family By Elizabeth Rundle Charles Characters: 28708

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Friedrich's Story.

St. Sebastian, Erfurt, January 20, 1510.

The irrevocable step is taken. I have entered the Augustinian cloister. I write in Martin Luther's cell. Truly I have forsaken father and mother, and all that was dearest to me, to take refuge at the foot of the cross. I have sacrificed everything on earth to my vocation, and yet the conflict is not over. I seem scarcely more certain of my vocation now than while I remained in the world. Doubts buzz around me like wasps, and sting me on every side. The devil, transforming himself into an angel of light, perplexes me with the very words of Scripture. The words of Martin Luther's father recur to me, as if spoken by a divine voice, "Honour thy father and thy mother!" echoes back to me from the chants of the choir, and seems written everywhere on the white walls of my cell.

And, besides the thunder of these words of God, tender voices seem to call me back by every plea of duty, not to abandon them to fight the battle of life alone. Elsè calls me from the old lumber-room, "Fritz' brother! who is to tell me now what to do?" My mother does not call me back; but I seem ever to see her tearful eyes, full of reproach and wonder which she tries to repress, lifted up to heaven for strength; and her worn, pale face, growing more wan every day. In one voice and one face only I seem never to hear or see reproach or recall; and yet, Heaven forgive me, those pure and saintly eyes which seem only to say, "Go on, Cousin Fritz, God will help thee, and I will pray!"-those sweet, trustful, heavenly eyes, draw me back to the world with more power than anything else.

Is it, then, too late? Have I lingered in the world so long that my heart can never more be torn from it? Is this the punishment of my guilty hesitation, that, though I have given my body to the cloister, God will not have my soul, which evermore must hover like a lost spirit about the scenes it was too reluctant to leave? Shall I evermore, when I lift my eyes to heaven, see all that is pure and saintly there embodied for me in a face which it is deadly sin for me to remember?

Yet I have saved her life! If I brought the curse on my people by my sin, was not my obedience accepted? From the hour when, in my room alone, after hearing that Eva was stricken, I prostrated myself before God, and not daring to take His insulted name on my lips, approached him through His martyred saint, and said, "Holy Sebastian, by the arrows which pierced thy heart, ward off the arrows of pestilence from my home, and I will become a monk, and change my own guilty name for thine,"-from that moment did not Eva begin to recover, and from that time were not all my kindred unscathed? "Cadent a latere tuo mille, et decem millia a dextris tuis; ad te autem non approprinquabit." Were not the words literally fulfilled; and while many still fell around us, was one afterwards stricken in my home?

Holy Sebastian, infallible protector against pestilence, by thy firmness when accused, confirm my wavering will; by thy double death, save me from the second death; by the arrows which could not slay thee, thou hast saved us from the arrow that flieth by day; by the cruel blows which sent thy spirit from the circus to paradise, strengthen me against the blows of Satan; by thy body rescued from ignominious sepulture and laid in the catacombs among the martyrs, raise me from the filth of sin; by thy generous pleading for thy fellow sufferers amidst thine own agonies, help me to plead for those who suffer with me; and by all thy sorrows, and merits, and joys, plead-oh plead for me, who henceforth bear thy name!

St. Scholastica, February 10.

I have been a month in the monastery. Yesterday my first probation was over, and I was invested with the white garments of the novitiate.

The whole of the brotherhood were assembled in the church, when, kneeling before the prior, he asked me solemnly whether I thought my strength sufficient for the burden I purposed to take on myself.

In a low, grave voice, he reminded me what those burdens are-the rough plain clothing; the abstemious living; the broken rest and long vigils; the toils in the service of the order; the reproach and poverty; the humiliations of the mendicant; and, above all, the renunciation of self-will and individual glory, to be a member of the order, bound to do whatever the superiors command, and to go whithersoever they direct.

"With God for my help," I could venture to say, "of this will I make trial."

Then the prior replied,-

"We receive thee, therefore, on probation for one year; and may God, who has begun a good work in thee, carry it on unto perfection."

The whole brotherhood responded in a deep amen, and then all the voices joined in the hymn,-

"Magna Pater Augustine, preces nostras suscipe,

Et per eas conditori nos placare satage.

Atque rege gregem tuum, summum decus pr?sulum.

Amatorem paupertatis, te collaudant pauperes;

Assertorem veritatis amant veri judices;

Frangis nobis favos mellis de Scripturis disserens.

Qu? obscura prius erant nobis plana faciens,

Tu de verbis Salvatoris dulcem panem conficis,

Et propinas potum vit? de psalmorum nectare.

Tu de vita clericorum sanctam scribis regulam,

Quam qui amant et sequunter viam tenent regiam,

Atque tuo sancto ductu redeunt ad patriam.

Regi regum salis, vita, decus et emperium;

Trinitati laus et honor sit per omne s?culum,

Qui concives nos ascribat supernorum civium."[5]

As the sacred words were chanted, they mingled strangely in my mind with the ceremonies of the investiture. My hair was shorn with the clerical tonsure; my secular dress was laid aside; the garments of the novice were thrown on; and I was girded with the girdle of rope, whilst the prior murmured softly to me, that with the new robes I must put on the new man.

Then, as the last notes of the hymn died away, I knelt and bowed low to receive the prior's blessing, invoked in these words:-

"May God who hath converted this young man from the world, and given him a mansion in heaven, grant that his daily walk may be as becometh his calling; and that he may have cause to be thankful for what has this day been done."

Versicles were then chanted responsively by the monks, who, forming in procession, moved towards the choir, where we all prostrated ourselves in silent prayer.

After this they conducted me to the great hall of the cloister, where all the brotherhood bestowed on me the kiss of peace.

Once more I knelt before the prior, who reminded me that he who persevereth to the end shall be saved; and gave me over to the direction of the preceptor, whom the new Vicar-General Staupitz has ordered to be appointed to each novice.

Thus the first great ceremony of my monastic life is over, and it has left me with a feeling of blank and disappointment. It has made no change that I can feel in my heart. It has not removed the world further off from me. It has only raised another impassable barrier between me and all that was dearest to me;-impassable as an ocean without ships, infrangible as the strongest iron, I am determined my will shall make it; but to my heart, alas! thin as gossamer, since every faintest, wistful tone of love, which echoes from the past, can penetrate it and pierce me with sorrow.

My preceptor is very strict in enforcing the rules order. Trespasses against the rules are divided into four classes,-small, great, greater, and greatest, to each of which is assigned a different degree of penance. Among the smaller are, failing to go to church as soon as the sign is given, forgetting to touch the ground instantly with the hand and to smite the breast if in reading in the choir or in singing the least error is committed; looking about during the service; omitting prostration at the Annunciation or at Christmas; neglecting the benediction in coming in or going out; failing to return books or garments to their proper places; dropping food; spilling drink; forgetting to say grace before eating. Among the great trespasses are: contending, breaking the prescribed silence at fasts, and looking at women, or speaking to them, except in brief replies.

The minute rules are countless. It is difficult at first to learn the various genuflexions, inclinations, and prostrations. The novices are never allowed to converse except in presence of the prior, are forbidden to take any notice of visitors, are enjoined to walk with downcast eyes, to read the Scriptures diligently, to bow low in receiving every gift, and say, "The Lord be praised in his gifts."

How Brother Martin, with his free, bold, daring nature, bore those minute restrictions, I know not. To me there is a kind of dull, deadening relief in them, they distract my thoughts, or prevent my thinking.

Yet it must be true, my obedience will aid my kindred more than all my toil could ever have done whilst disobediently remaining in the world. It is not a selfish seeking of my own salvation and ease which has brought me here, whatever some may think and say, as they did of Martin Luther. I think of that ship in the picture at Magdeburg he so often told me of. Am I not in it,-actually in it now? and shall I not hereafter, when my strength is recovered from the fatigue of reaching it, hope to lean over and stretch out my arms to them, still struggling in the waves of this bitter world? and save them!

Save them; yes, save their souls! Did not my vow save precious lives? And shall not my fastings, vigils, disciplines, prayers be as effectual for their souls? And, then, hereafter, in heaven, where those dwell who, in virgin purity, have followed the Lamb, shall I not lean over the jasper-battlements and help them from Purgatory up the steep sides of Paradise, and be first at the gate to welcome them in! And then, in Paradise, where love will no longer be in danger of becoming sin, may we not be together for ever and for ever? And then, shall I regret that I abandoned the brief polluted joys of earth for the pure joys of eternity? Shall I lament then that I chose, according to my vocation, to suffer apart from them that their souls might be saved, rather than to toil with them for the perishing body?

Then! then! I, a saint in the City of God! I, a hesitating, sinful novice in the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt, who, after resisting for years, have at last yielded up my body to the cloister, but have no more power than ever to yield up my heart to God!

Yet I am in the sacred vessel; the rest will surely follow. Do all monks have such a conflict? No doubt the Devil fights hard for every fresh victim he loses. It is, it must be, the Devil who beckons me through those dear faces, who calls me through those familiar voices; for they would never call me back. They would hide their pain, and say, "Go to God, if he calls thee; leave us and go to God." Elsè, my mother, all would say that; if their hearts broke in trying to say it!

Had Martin Luther such thoughts in this very cell? If they are from the Evil One, I think he had, for his assaults are strongest against the noblest; and yet I scarcely think he can have had such weak doubts as these which haunt me. He was not one of those who draw back to perdition; nor even of those who, having put their hand to the plough, look back, as I, alas! am so continually doing. And what does the Scripture say of such?-"They are not fit for the kingdom of God." No exception, no reserve-monk, priest, saint; if a man look back, he is not fit for the kingdom of God. Then what becomes of my hopes of Paradise, or of acquiring merits which may aid others? Turn back, draw back, I will never, although all the devils were to drive me, or all the world entice me, but look back, who can help that? If a look can kill, what can save? Mortification, crucifixion, not for a day, but daily;-I must die daily; I must be dead-dead to the world. This cell must to me be as a tomb, where all that was most living in my heart must die and be buried. Was it so to Martin Luther? Is the cloister that to those bands of rosy, comfortable monks, who drink beer from great cans, and feast on the best of the land, and fast on the choicest fish? The Tempter! the Tempter again! Judge not, and ye shall not be judged.

St. Eulalia, Erfurt, February 12, 1510.

To-day one of the older monks came to me, seeing me, I suppose, look downcast and sad, and said, "Fear not, Brother Sebastian, the strife is often hard at first; but remember the words of St. Jerome: 'Though thy father should lie before thy door weeping and lamenting, though thy mother should show thee the body that bore thee, and the breasts that nursed thee, see that thou trample them under foot, and go on straightway to Christ.'"

I bowed my head, according to rule, in acknowledgment of his exhortation, and I suppose he thought his words comforted and strengthened me; but Heaven knows the conflict they awakened in my heart when I sat alone to-night in my cell. "Cruel, bitter, wicked words!" my earthly heart would say; my sinful heart, that vigils, scourging, scarcely death itself, I fear, can kill. Surely, at least, the holy father Jerome spoke of heathen fathers and mothers. My mother would not show her anguish to win me back; she would say, "My son, my first-born, God bless thee; I give thee freely up to God." Does she not say so in this letter which I have in her handwriting,-which I have and dare not look at, because of the storm of memories it brings rushing on my heart?

Is there a word of reproach or remonstrance in her letter? If there were, I would read it; it would strengthen me. The saints had that to bear. It is because those holy, tender words echo in my heart, from a voice weak with feeble health, that day by day and hour by hour, my heart goes back to the home at Eisenach, and sees them toiling unaided in the daily struggle for bread, to which I have abandoned them, unsheltered and alone.

Then at times the thought comes, Am I, after all, a dreamer, as I have sometimes ventured to think my father,-neglecting my plain, daily task for some Atlantis? and if my Atlantis is in Paradise instead of beyond the ocean, does that make so much difference?

If Brother Martin were only here, he might understand and help me; bu

t he has now been nearly two years at Wittemberg, where he is, they say, to lecture on theology at the Elector's new university, and to be preacher. The monks seem nearly as proud of him as the University of Erfurt was.

Yet, perhaps, after all, he might not understand my perplexities. His nature was so firm and straightforward and strong. He would probably have little sympathy with wavering hearts and troubled consciences like mine.

March 7.-SS. Perpetua and Felicitas.-

Erfurt, Augustinian Cloister.

To-day I have been out on my first quest for alms. It seemed very strange at first to be begging at familiar doors, with the frock and the convent sack on my shoulders; but although I tottered a little at times under the weight as it grew heavy (for the plague and fasting have left me weak), I returned to the cloister feeling better and easier in mind, and more hopeful as to my vocation, than I had done for some days. Perhaps, however, the fresh air had something to do with it, and, after all, it was only a little bodily exultation. But certainly such bodily loads and outward mortifications are not the burdens which weigh the spirit down. There seemed a luxury in the half-scornful looks of some of my former fellow-students, and in the contemptuous tossing to me of scraps of meat by some grudging hands; just as a tight pressure, which, in itself would be pain were we at ease, is relief to severe pain.

Perhaps, also, O holy Perpetua and Felicitas, whose day it is, and especially thou, O holy Perpetua, who, after encouraging thy sons to die for Christ, was martyred thyself, hast pleaded for my forsaken mother and for me, and sendest me this day some ray of hope.

St. Joseph.-March 19.-

Augustinian Cloister, Erfurt.

St. Joseph, whom I have chosen to be one of the twenty-one patrons whom I especially honour, hear and aid me to-day. Thou whose glory it was to have no glory, but meekly to aid others to win their higher crowns, give me also some humble place on high; and not to me alone, but to those also whom I have left still struggling in the stormy seas of this perilous world.

Here, in the sacred calm of the cloister, surely at length the heart must grow calm, and cease to beat except with the life of the universal Church,-the feasts in the calendar becoming its events. But when will that be to me?

March 20.

Has Brother Martin attained this repose yet? An aged monk sat with me in my cell yesterday, who told me strange tidings of him, which have given me some kind of bitter comfort.

It seems that the monastic life did not at once bring repose into his heart.

This aged monk was Brother Martin's confessor, and he has also been given to me for mine. In his countenance there is such a peace as I long for;-not a still, death-like peace, as if he had fallen into it after the conflict; but a living, kindly peace, as if he had won it through the conflict, and enjoyed it even while the conflict lasted.

It does not seem to me that Brother Martin's scruples and doubts were exactly like mine. Indeed, my confessor says that in all the years he has exercised his office, he has never found two troubled hearts troubled exactly alike.

I do not know that Brother Martin doubted his vocation, or looked back to the world; but he seems to have suffered agonies of inward torture. His conscience was so quick and tender, that the least sin wounded him as if it had been the grossest crime. He invoked the saints most devoutly-choosing, as I have done from his example, twenty-one saints, and invoking three every day, so as to honour each every week. He read mass every day, and had an especial devotion for the blessed Virgin. He wasted his body with fastings and watching. He never intentionally violated the minutest rule of the order; and yet the more he strove, the more wretched he seemed to be. Like a musician whose ear is cultivated to the highest degree, the slightest discord was torture to him. Can it then be God's intention that the growth of our spiritual life is only growing sensitiveness to pain? Is this true growth?-or is it that monstrous development of one faculty at the expense of others, which is deformity or disease?

The confessor said thoughtfully, when I suggested this-

"The world is out of tune, my son, and the heart is out of tune. The more our souls vibrate truly to the music of heaven, the more, perhaps, they must feel the discords of earth. At least it was so with Brother Martin; until at last, omitting a prostration or a genuflexion would weigh on his conscience like a crime. Once, after missing him for some time, we went to the door of his cell, and knocked. It was barred, and all our knocking drew no response. We broke open the door at last, and found him stretched senseless on the floor. We only succeeded in reviving him by strains of sacred music, chanted by the choristers, whom we brought to his cell. He always dearly loved music, and believed it to have a strange potency against the wiles of the devil."

"He must have suffered grievously," I said. "I suppose it is by such sufferings merit is acquired to aid others."

"He did suffer agonies of mind," replied the old monk. "Often he would walk up and down the cold corridors for nights together."

"Did nothing comfort him?" I asked.

"Yes, my son; some words I once said to him comforted him greatly. Once, when I found him in an agony of despondency in his cell, I said, 'Brother Martin, dost thou believe in "the forgiveness of sins," as saith the Creed?' His face lighted up at once."

"The forgiveness of sins!" I repeated slowly. "Father, I also believe in that. But forgiveness only follows on contrition, confession, and penance. How can I ever be sure that I have been sufficiently contrite, that I have made an honest and complete confession, or that I have performed my penance aright?"

"Ah, my son," said the old man, "these were exactly Brother Martin's perplexities, and I could only point him to the crucified Lord, and remind him again of the forgiveness of sins. All we do is incomplete, and when the blessed Lord says He forgiveth sins, I suppose He means the sins of sinners, who sin in their confession as in everything else. My son, He is more compassionate than you think, perhaps than any of us think. At least this is my comfort; and if, when I stand before Him at last, I find I have made a mistake, and thought Him more compassionate than He is, I trust He will pardon me. It can scarcely, I think, grieve Him so much as declaring Him to be a hard master would."

I did not say anything more to the old man. His words so evidently were strength and joy to him, that I could not venture to question them further. To me, also, they have given a gleam of hope. And yet, if the way is not rough and difficult, and if it is not a hard thing to please Almighty God, why all those severe rules and renunciations-those heavy penances for trifling offences?

Merciful we know He is. But the emperor may be merciful; and yet, if a peasant were to attempt to enter the imperial presence without the prescribed forms, would he not be driven from the palace with curses, at the point of the sword? And what are those rules at the court of heaven?

If perfect purity of heart and life, who can lay claim to that?

If a minute attention to the rules of an order such as this of St. Augustine, who can be sure of having never failed in this? The inattention which caused the neglect would probably let it glide from the memory. And then, what is the worth of confession?

Christ is the Saviour, but only of those who follow him. There is forgiveness of sins, but only for those who make adequate confession. I, alas! have not followed him fully. What priest on earth can assure me I have ever confessed fully?

Therefore I see Him merciful, gracious, holy-a Saviour, but seated on a high throne, where I can never be sure petitions of mine will reach him; and, alas! one day to be seated on a great white throne, whence it is too sure his summoning voice will reach me.

Mary, mother of God, Virgin of virgins, mother of divine grace-holy Sebastian and all martyrs-great father Augustine and all holy doctors, intercede for me, that my penances may be accepted as a satisfaction for my sins, and may pacify my Judge.

March 25.-Annunciation of the Holy Virgin.

My preceptor has put into my hands the Bible bound in red morocco which Brother Martin, he says, used to read so much. I am to study it in all the intervals which the study of the fathers, expeditions for begging, the services of the Church, and the menial offices in the house which fall to the share of novices, allow. These are not many. I have never had a Bible in my hands before, and the hours pass quickly indeed in my cell which I can spend in reading it. The preceptor, when he comes to call me for the midnight service, often finds me still reading.

It is very different from what I expected. There is nothing oratorical in it, there are no laboured disquisitions, and no minute rules, at least in the New Testament.

I wish sometimes I had lived in the Old Jewish times, when there was one temple wherein to worship, certain definite feasts to celebrate, certain definite ceremonial rules to keep.

If I could have stood in the Temple courts on that great day of atonement, and seen the victim slain, and watched till the high priest came out from the holy place with his hands lifted up in benediction, I should have known absolutely that God was satisfied, and returned to my home in peace. Yes, to my home! there were no monasteries, apparently, in those Jewish times. Family life was God's appointment then, and family affections had his most solemn sanctions.

In the New Testament, on the contrary, I cannot find any of those definite rules. It is all addressed to the heart; and who can make the heart right? I suppose it is the conviction of this which has made the Church since then restore many minute rules and discipline, in imitation of the Jewish ceremonial; for in the Gospels and Epistles I can find no ritual, ceremonial, or definite external rules of any kind.

What advantage, then, has the New Testament over the old? Christ has come. "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son." This ought surely to make a great difference between us and the Jews. But how?

April 9.-St. Gregory of Nyssa.

I have found, in my reading to-day, the end of Eva's sentence-"God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

How simple the words are!-"Believeth;" that would mean, in any other book, "trusteth," "has reliance" in Christ;-simply to confide in him, and then receive his promise not to perish.

But here-in this book, in theology-it is necessarily impossible that believing can mean anything so simple as that; because, at that rate, any one who merely came to the Lord Jesus Christ in confiding trust would have everlasting life, without any further conditions; and this is obviously out of the question.

For what can be more simple than to confide in one worthy of confidence? and what can be greater than everlasting life?

And yet we know, from all the teaching of the doctors and fathers of the Church, that nothing is more difficult than obtaining everlasting life; and that, for this reason, monastic orders, pilgrimages, penances, have been multiplied from century to century; for this reason saints have forsaken every earthly joy, and inflicted on themselves every possible torment;-all to obtain everlasting life, which, if this word "believeth" meant here what it would mean anywhere but in theology, would be offered freely to every petitioner.

Wherefore it is clear that "believeth," in the Scriptures, means something entirely different from what it does in any secular book, and must include contrition, confession, penance, satisfaction, mortification of the flesh, and all else necessary to salvation.

Shall I venture to send this end of Eva's sentence to her?

It might mislead her. Dare I for her sake?-dare I still more for my own?

One hour I have sat before this question; and whither has my heart wandered? What confession can retrace the flood of bitter thoughts which have rushed over me in this one hour?

I had watched her grow from childhood into early womanhood; and until these last months, until that week of anguish, I had thought of her as a creature between a child and an angel. I had loved her as a sister who had yet a mystery and a charm about her different from a sister. Only when it seemed that death might separate us did it burst upon me that there was something in my affection for her which made her not one among others, but in some strange sacred sense the only one on earth to me.

And as I recovered came the hopes I must never more recall, which made all life like the woods in spring, and my heart like a full river set free from its ice-fetters, and flowing through the world in a tide of blessing.

I thought of a home which might be, I thought of a sacrament which should transubstantiate all life into a symbol of heaven, a home which was to be peaceful and sacred as a church, because of the meek and pure, and heavenly creature who should minister and reign there.

An then came to me that terrible vision of a city smitten by the pestilence which I had brought, with the recollection of the impulse I had had in the forest at midnight, and more than once since then, to take the monastic vows. I felt I was like Jonah flying from God; yet still I hesitated until she was stricken. And then I yielded. I vowed if she were saved I would become a monk.

Not till she was stricken, whose loss would have made the whole world a blank to me: not till the sacrifice was worthless,-did I make it! And will God accept such a sacrifice as this?

At least Brother Martin had not this to reproach himself with. He did not delay his conversion until his whole being had become possessed by an image no prayers can erase; nay, which prayer and holy meditations on heaven itself, only rivet on the heart, as the purest reflection of heaven memory can recall.

Brother Martin, at least did not trifle with his vocation until too late.

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