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Chronicles of the Schonberg-Cotta Family By Elizabeth Rundle Charles Characters: 17402

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Eva's Story.

Nimptschen, 1517.

Great changes have taken place during these last three years in Aunt Cotta's home. Elsè has been married more than two years, and sends me wonderful narratives of the beauty and wisdom of her little Margarethe, who begins now to lisp the names of mother, and father, and aunts. Elsè has also taught the little creature to kiss her hand to a picture they have of me, and call it Cousin Eva. They will not adopt my convent name.

Chriemhild also is betrothed to the young knight, Ulrich von Gersdorf, who has a castle in the Thuringian Forest; and she writes that they often speak of Sister Ave, and that he keeps the dried violets still, with a lock of his mother's hair and a relic of his patron saint. Chriemhild says I should scarcely know him again, he is become so earnest and so wise, and so full of good purposes.

And little Thekla writes that she also understands something of Latin. Elsè's husband has taught her; and there is nothing Elsè and Gottfried Reichenbach like so much as to hear her sing the hymns Cousin Eva used to sing.

They seem to think of me as a kind of angel sister, who was early taken to God, and will never grow old. It is very sweet to be remembered thus; but sometimes it seems as if it were hardly me they were remembering or loving, but what I was or might have been.

Would they recognize Cousin Eva in the grave, quiet woman of twenty-two I have become? For whilst in the old home Time seems to mark his course like a stream by growth and life, here in the convent he seems to mark it only by the slow falling of the shadow on the silent dial-the shadow of death. In the convent there is no growth but growing old.

In Aunt Cotta's home the year expanded from winter into spring, and summer, and autumn-seed-time and harvest-the season of flowers and the season of fruits. The seasons grew into each other, we knew not how or when. In the convent the year is sharply divided into December, January, February, March, and April, with nothing to distinguish one month from another but their names and dates.

In our old home the day brightened from dawn to noon, and then mellowed into sunset, and softly faded into night. Here in the convent the day is separated into hours by the clock.

Sister Beatrice's poor faded face is slowly becoming a little more faded; Aunt Agnes's a little more worn and sharp; and I, like the rest, am six years older than I was six years ago, when I came here; and that is all.

It is true, fresh novices have arrived, and have taken the irrevocable vows, and fair young faces are around me; but my heart aches sometimes when I look at them, and think that they, like the rest of us, have closed the door on life, with all its changes, and have entered on that monotonous pathway to the grave whose stages are simply growing old.

Some of these novices come full of high aspirations for a religious life. They have been told about the heavenly Spouse, who will fill their consecrated hearts with pure, unutterable joys, the world can never know.

Many come as sacrifices to family poverty or family pride, because their noble parents are too poor to maintain them suitably, or in order that their fortunes may swell the dower of some married sister.

I know what disappointment is before them when they learn that the convent is but a poor, childish mimicry of the world, with its petty ambitions and rivalries, but without the life and the love. I know the noblest will suffer most, and may, perhaps, fall the lowest.

To narrow, apathetic natures, the icy routine of habit will more easily replace the varied flow of life. They will fit into their harness sooner, and become as much interested in the gossip of the house or the order, the election of superiors, or the scandal of some neighbouring nunnery, as they would have become in the gossip of the town or village they would have lived in, in the world.

But warm hearts and high spirits-these will chafe and struggle, and dream they have reached depths of self-abasement, or soared to heights of mystical devotion, and then awake, with bitter self-reproaches, to find themselves too weak to cope with some small temptation, like Aunt Agnes.

These I will help all I can. But I have learned, since I came to Nimptschen, that it is a terrible and perilous thing to take the work of the training of our souls out of God's hands into our own. The pruning-knife in his hands must sometimes wound and seem to impoverish; but in ours it cuts, and wounds, and impoverishes, and does not prune. We can, indeed, inflict pain on ourselves; but God alone can make pain healing, or suffering discipline.

I can only pray that, however mistaken many may be in immuring themselves here, Thou who art the Good Physician wilt take us, with all our useless self-inflicted wounds, and all our wasted, self-stunted faculties, and as we are and as thou art, still train us for thyself.

The infirmary is what interests me most. Having secluded ourselves from all the joys and sorrows and vicissitudes of common life, we seem scarcely to have left anything in God's hands, wherewith to try our faith and subdue our wills to his, except sickness. Bereavements we cannot know who have bereaved ourselves of all companionship with our beloved for evermore on earth. Nor can we know the trials either of poverty or of prosperity, since we can never experience either; but, having taken the vow of voluntary poverty on ourselves, whilst we can never call anything individually our own, we are freed from all anxieties by becoming members of a richly-endowed order.

Sickness only remains beyond our control; and, therefore, when I see any of the sisterhood laid on the bed of suffering, I think-

"God has laid thee there!" and I feel more sure that it is the right thing.

I still instruct the novices; but sometimes the dreary question comes to me-

"For what am I instructing them?"

Life has no future for them-only a monotonous prolonging of the monotonous present.

I try to feel, "I am training them for eternity." But who can do that but God, who inhabiteth eternity, and sees the links which connect every moment of the little circles of time with the vast circumference of the everlasting future?

But I do my best. Catharine von Bora, a young girl of sixteen, who has lately entered the convent, interests me deeply. There is such strength in her character and such warmth in her heart. But alas! what scope is there for these here?

Aunt Agnes has not opened her heart in any way to me. True, when I was ill, she watched over me as tenderly as Aunt Cotta could; but when I recovered, she seemed to repel all demonstrations of gratitude and affection, and went on with that round of penances and disciplines, which make the nuns reverence her as so especially saintly.

Sometimes I look with longing to the smoke and lights in the village we can see among the trees from the upper windows of the convent. I know that each little wreath of smoke comes from the hearth of a home where there are father and mother and little children; and the smoke wreaths seem to me to rise like holy clouds of incense to God our Father in heaven.

But the alms given so liberally by the sisterhood are given at the convent-gate, so that we never form any closer connection with the poor around us than that of beggars and almoners; and I long to be their friend.

Sometimes I am afraid I acted in impatient self-will in leaving Aunt Cotta's home, and that I should have served God better by remaining there, and that, after all, my departure may have left some little blank it would not have been useless to fill. As the girls marry, Aunt Cotta might have found me a comfort, and, as "Cousin Eva," I might perhaps have been more of a help to Elsè's children than I can be to the nuns here as Sister Ave. But whatever might have been, it is impatience and rebellion to think of that now; and nothing can separate me from God and his love.

Somehow or other, however, even the "Theologia Germanica," and the high, disinterested communion with God it teaches, seemed sweeter to me, in the intervals of an interrupted and busy life, than as the business of this uninterrupted leisure. The hours of contemplation were more blessed for the very trials and occupations which seemed to hinder them.

Sometimes I feel as if my heart also were freezing, and becoming set and hard. I am afraid, indeed, it would, were it not for poor Sister Beatrice, who has had a paralytic stroke, and is now a constant inmate of the infirmary. She speaks at times very incoherently, and cannot think at any time connectedly. But I have fou

nd a book which interests her; it is the Latin Gospel of St. Luke, which I am allowed to take from the convent library and translate to her. The narratives are so brief and simple, she can comprehend them, and she never wearies of hearing them. The very familiarity endears them, and to me they are always new.

But it is very strange that there is nothing about penance or vows in it, or the adoration of the blessed Virgin. I suppose I shall find that in the other Gospels, or in the Epistles, which were written after our Lady's assumption into heaven. Sister Beatrice likes much to hear me sing the hymn by Bernard of Clugni, on the perpetuity of joy in heaven:[8]-

Here brief is the sighing,

And brief is the crying,

For brief is the life!

The life there is endless,

The joy there is endless,

And ended the strife.

What joys are in heaven?

To whom are they given?

Ah! what? and to whom?

The stars to the earth-born,

"Best robes" to the sin-worn,

The crown for the doom!

O country the fairest!

Our country the dearest,

We press towards thee!

O Sion the golden!

Our eyes are now holden,

Thy light till we see:

Thy crystalline ocean,

Unvexed by commotion,

Thy fountain of life;

Thy deep peace unspoken,

Pure, sinless, unbroken,-

Thy peace beyond strife:

Thy meek saints all glorious,

Thy martyrs victorious,

Who suffer no more;

Thy halls full of singing,

Thy hymns ever ringing

Along thy safe shore.

Like the lily for whiteness,

Like the jewel for brightness,

Thy vestments, O Bride!

The Lamb ever with thee,

The Bridegroom is with thee,-

With thee to abide!

We know not, we know not,

All human words show not,

The joys we may reach;

The mansions preparing,

The joys for our sharing,

The welcome for each.

O Sion the golden!

My eyes are still holden,

Thy light till I see;

And deep in thy glory,

Unveiled then before me,

My King, look on thee!

April, 1517.

The whole of the Augustinian Order in Saxony has been greatly moved by the visitation of Dr. Martin Luther. He has been appointed Deputy Vicar-General in the place of Dr. Staupitz, who has gone on a mission to the Netherlands, to collect relics for the Elector Frederic's new church at Wittemberg.

Last April Dr. Luther visited the Monastery of Grimma, not far from us; and through our Prioress, who is connected with the Prior of Grimma, we hear much about it.

He strongly recommends the study of the Scriptures and of St. Augustine, in preference to every other book, by the brethren and sisters of his Order. We have begun to follow his advice in our convent, and a new impulse seems given to everything. I have also seen two beautiful letters of Dr. Martin Luther's, written to two brethren of the Augustinian Order. Both were written in April last, and they have been read by many amongst us. The first was to Brother George Spenlein, a monk at Memmingen. It begins, "In the name of Jesus Christ." After speaking of some private pecuniary matters, he writes:-

"As to the rest, I desire to know how it goes with thy soul; whether, weary of its own righteousness, it learns to breathe and to trust in the righteousness of Christ. For in our age the temptation to presumption burns in many, and chiefly in those who are trying with all their might to be just and good. Ignorant of the righteousness of God, which in Christ is given to us richly and without price, they seek in themselves to do good works, so that at last they may have confidence to stand before God, adorned with merits and virtues,-which is impossible. Thou, when with us, wert of this opinion, and so was I; but now I contend against this error, although I have not yet conquered it.

"Therefore, my dear brother, learn Christ and him crucified; learn to sing to him, and, despairing of thyself, to say to him, 'Lord Jesus, thou art my righteousness, but I am thy sin. Thou hast taken me upon thyself, and given to me what is thine; thou hast taken on thee what thou was not, and has given to me what I was not.' Take care not to aspire to such a purity that thou shalt no longer seem to thyself a sinner; for Christ does not dwell except in sinners. For this he descended from heaven, where he abode with the just, that he might abide with sinners. Meditate on this love of his, and thou shalt drink in his sweet consolations. For if, by our labours and afflictions, we could attain quiet of conscience, why did he die? Therefore, only in Him, by a believing self-despair, both of thyself and of thy works, wilt thou find peace. For he has made thy sins his, and his righteousness he has made thine."

Aunt Agnes seemed to drink in these words like a patient in a raging fever. She made me read them over to her again and again, and then translate and copy them; and now she carries them about with her everywhere.

To me the words that follow are as precious. Dr. Luther says, that as Christ hath borne patiently with us wanderers, we should also bear with others. "Prostrate thyself before the Lord Jesus," he writes, "seek all that thou lackest. He himself will teach thee all, even to do for others as he has done for thee."

The second letter was to Brother George Leiffer of Erfurt. It speaks of affliction thus:-

"The cross of Christ is divided throughout the whole world. To each his portion comes in time, and does not fail. Thou, therefore, do not seek to cast thy portion from thee, but rather receive it as a holy relic, to be enshrined, not in a gold or silver reliquary, but in the sanctuary of a golden, that is, a loving and submissive heart. For if the wood of the cross was so consecrated by contact with the flesh and blood of Christ that it is considered as the noblest of relics, how much more are injuries, persecutions, sufferings, and the hatred of men, sacred relics, consecrated not by the touch of his body, but by contact with his most loving heart and Godlike will! These we should embrace, and bless, and cherish, since through him the curse is transmuted into blessing, suffering into glory, the cross into joy."

Sister Beatrice delights in these words, and murmurs them over to herself as I have explained them to her. "Yes, I understand; this sickness, helplessness,-all I have lost and suffered,-are sacred relics from my Saviour; not because he forgets, but because he remembers me-he remembers me. Sister Ave, I am content."

And then she likes me to sing her favourite hymn Jesu dulcis memoria:-

O Jesus, thy sweet memory

Can fill the heart with ecstasy;

But passing all things sweet that be,

Thy presence, Lord, to me.

What hope, O Jesus, thou canst render

To those who other hopes surrender!

To those who seek thee, O how tender!

But what to those who find!

With Mary, ere the morning break,

Him at the sepulchre I seek,-

Would hear him to my spirit speak,

And see him with my heart.

Wherever I may chance to be,

Thee first my heart desires to see;

How glad when I discover thee;

How blest when I retain!

Beyond all treasures is thy grace;-

Oh, when wilt thou thy steps retrace

And satisfy me with thy face,

And make me wholly glad?

Then come, Oh, come, thou perfect King,

Of boundless glory, boundless spring;

Arise, and fullest daylight bring,

Jesus, expected long!

May, 1517.

Aunt Agnes has spoken to me at last. Abruptly and sternly, as if more angry with herself than repenting or rejoicing, she said to me this morning, "Child, those words of Dr. Luther's have reached my heart. I have been trying all my life to be a saint, and so to reach God. And I have failed utterly. And now I learn that I am a sinner, and yet that God's love reaches me. The cross, the cross of Christ, is my pathway from hell to heaven. I am not a saint. I shall never be a saint. Christ is the only Saint, the Holy One of God; and he has borne my sins, and he is my righteousness. He has done it all; and I have nothing left but to give him all the glory, and to love, to love, to love him to all eternity. And I will do it," she added fervently, "poor, proud, destitute, and sinful creature that I am. I cannot help it; I must."

But strong and stern as the words were, how changed Aunt Agnes's manner!-humble and simple as a child's. And as she left me for some duty in the house, she kissed my forehead, and said, "Ah, child, love me a little, if you can,-not as a saint, but as a poor, sinful old woman, who among her worst sins has counted loving thee too much, which was perhaps, after all, among the least; love me a little, Eva, for my sister's sake, whom you love so much."

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