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Chronicles of the Schonberg-Cotta Family By Elizabeth Rundle Charles Characters: 15774

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Eva's Story.

Cistercian Convent, Nimptschen,

September 2, 1521.

They have sent me several sheets of Dr. Luther's translation of the New Testament, from Uncle Cotta's press at Wittemberg.

Of all the works he ever did for God, this seems to me the mightiest and the best. None has ever so deeply stirred our convent. Many of the sisters positively refuse to join in any invocation of the saints. They declare that it must be Satan himself who has kept this glorious book locked up in a dead language out of reach of women and children and the common people. And the young nuns say it is so interesting, it is not in the least like a book of sermons, or a religious treatise.

"It is like every-day life," said one of them to me, "with what every one wants brought into it; a perfect Friend, so infinitely good, so near, and so completely understanding our inmost hearts. Ah, Sister Eva," she added, "if they could only hear of this at home!"

October.

To-day we have received a copy of Dr. Luther's thesis against the monastic life.

"There is but one only spiritual estate," he writes, "which is holy and makes holy, and that is Christianity,-the faith which is the common right of all."

"Monastic institutions," he continues, "to be of any use ought to be schools, in which children may be brought up until they are adults. But as it is, they are houses in which men and women become children, and ever continue childish."

Too well, alas! I know the truth of these last words; the hopeless, childish occupation with trifles, into which the majority of the nuns sink when the freshness of youth and the bitter conflict of separation from all dear to the heart has subsided, and the great incidents of life have become the decorating the church for a festival, or the pomp attending the visit of an Inspector or Bishop.

It is against this I have striven. It is this I dread for the young sisters; to see them sink into contented trifling with religious playthings. And I have been able to see no way of escape, unless, indeed, we could be transferred to some city and devote ourselves to the case of the sick and poor.

Dr. Luther, however, admits of another solution. We hear that he has counselled the Prior of the Monastery at Erfurt to suffer any monks who wish it freely to depart. And many, we have been told, in various monasteries, have already left, and returned to serve God in the world.

Monks can, indeed, do this. The world is open before them, and in some way they are sure to find occupation. But with us it is different. Torn away from our natural homes, the whole world around us is a trackless desert.

Yet how can I dare to say this? Since the whole world is the work of our heavenly father's hands, and may be the way to our Father's house, will not He surely find a place for each of us in it, and a path for us through it?

November 10.

Nine of the younger nuns have come to the determination, if possible, to give up the conventual life, with its round of superstitious observances. This evening we held a consultation in Sister Beatrice's cell. Aunt Agnes joined us.

It was decided that each should write to her relatives, simply confessing that she believed the monastic vows and life to be contrary to the Holy Scriptures, and praying to be received back into her family.

Sister Beatrice and Aunt Agnes decided to remain patiently where they were.

"My old home would be no more a home to me now than the convent," Sister Beatrice said. "There is liberty for me to die here, and an open way for my spirit to return to God."

And Aunt Agnes said,-

"Who knows but that there may be some lowly work left for me to do here yet! In the world I should be as helpless as a child, and why should I return to be a burden on my kindred."

They both urged me to write to Elsè or Aunt Cotta to receive me. But I can scarcely think it my duty. Aunt Cotta has her children around her. Elsè's home is strange to me. Besides, kind as every one has been to me, I am as a stray waif on the current of this world, and have no home in it. I think God has enabled me to cheer and help some few here, and while Aunt Agnes and Sister Beatrice remain, I cannot bear the thought of leaving. At all events I will wait.

November 22.

Fritz is in prison again. For many weeks they had heard nothing from him, and were wondering where he was, when a letter came from a priest called Ruprect Haller, in Franconia. He says Fritz came to his house one evening in July, remained the night, left next morning with his pack of Lutheran books, intending to proceed direct to Wittemberg, and gave him the address of Aunt Cotta there. But a few weeks afterwards a young monk met him near the Dominican Convent, and asked if he were the priest at whose house a pedlar had spent a night a few weeks before. The priest admitted it; whereon the young monk said to him, in a low, hurried accent,-

"Write to his friends, if you know them, and say he is in the prison of the convent, under strong suspicion of heresy. I am the young monk to whom he gave a book on the evening he came. Tell them I did not intend to betray him, although I led him into the net; and if ever they should procure his escape, and you see him again, tell him I have kept his book." The good priest says something also about Fritz having been his salvation. And he urges that the most strenuous exertions should be made to liberate him, and any powerful friends we have should be entreated to intercede, because the Prior of the Dominican Convent where he is imprisoned is a man of the severest temper, and a mighty hater of heretics.

Powerful friends! I know none whom we can entreat but God.

It was in July, then, that he was captured, two months since. I wonder if it is only my impatient spirit! but I feel as if I must go to Aunt Cotta. I have a feeling she will want me now. I think I might comfort her; for who can tell what two months in a Dominican prison may have done for him?

In our convent have we not a prison, low, dark, and damp enough to weigh the life out of any one in six weeks! From one of the massive low pillars hang heavy iron fetters, happily rusted now from disuse; and in a corner are a rack and other terrible instruments, now thrown aside there, on which some of the older nuns say they have seen stains of blood.

When he was in prison before at Mainz, I did not seem so desponding about his deliverance as I feel now.

Are these fears God's merciful preparations for some dreadful tidings about to reach us? or are they the mere natural enfeebling of the power to hope as one grows older?

December, 1521.

Many disappointments have fallen on us during the last fortnight. Answer after answer has come to those touching entreaties of the nine sisters to their kindred, in various tones of feeling, but all positively refusing to receive them back to their homes.

Some of the relatives use the bitterest reproaches and the severest menaces. Others write tenderly and compassionately, but all agree that no noble family can possibly bring on itself the disgrace of aiding a professed nun to break her vows. Poor children! my heart aches for them, some of them are so young, and were so confident of being welcomed back with open arms, remembering the tears with which they were given up.

Now indeed they are thrown on God. He will not fail them; but who can say what thorny paths their feet may have to tread?

It has also been discovered here that some of them have written thus to their relations, which renders their position far more difficult and painful.

Many of the older nuns are most indignant at what they consider an act of the basest treachery and sacrilege. I also am forbidden to have any more intercourse with the suspected sisters. Search has been made in every cell, and all the Lutheran books

have been seized, whilst the strictest attendance is required at all the services.

February 10, 1522.

Sister Beatrice is dead, after a brief illness. The gentle, patient spirit is at rest.

It seems difficult to think of joy associated with that subdued and timid heart, even in heaven. I can only think of her as at rest.

One night after she died I had a dream, in which I seemed to see her entering into heaven. Robed and veiled in white, I saw her slowly ascending the way to the gates of the City. Her head and her eyes were cast on the ground, and she did not seem to dare to look up at the pearly gates, even to see if they were open or closed. But two angels, the gentlest spirits in heaven, came out and met her, and each taking one of her hands, led her silently inside, like a penitent child. And as she entered, the harps and songs within seemed to be hushed to music soft as the dreamy murmur of a summer noon. Still she did not look up, but passed through the golden streets with her hands trustingly folded in the hands of the angels, until she stood before the throne. Then from the throne came a Voice, which said, "Beatrice, it is I; be not afraid." And when she heard that voice, a quiet smile beamed over her face like a glory, and for the first time she raised her eyes; and sinking at His feet, murmured, "Home!" And it seemed to me as if that one word from the low, trembling voice vibrated through every harp in heaven; and from countless voices, ringing as happy children's, and tender as a mother's, came back, in a tide of love and music, the word, "Welcome home."

This was only a dream; but it is no dream that she is there!

She said little in her illness. She did not suffer much. The feeble frame made little resistance to the low fever which attacked her. The words she spoke were mostly expressions of thankfulness for little services, or entreaties for forgiveness for any little pain she fancied she might have given.

Aunt Agnes and I chiefly waited on her. She was uneasy if we were long away from her. Her thoughts often recurred to her girlhood in the old castle in the Thuringian Forest; and she liked to hear me speak of Chriemhild and Ulrich, and their infant boy. One evening she called me to her, and said, "Tell my sister Hermentrud, and my brother, I am sure they all meant kindly in sending me here; and it has been a good place for me, especially since you came. But tell Chriemhild and Ulrich," she added, "if they have daughters, to remember plighted troth is a sacred thing, and let it not be lightly severed. Not that the sorrow has been evil for me; only I would not have another suffer. All, all has been good for me, and I so unworthy of all!"

Then passing her thin hands over my head as I knelt beside her, she said, "Eva, you have been like a mother, a sister, a child,-everything to me. Go back to your old home when I am gone. I like to think you will be there."

Then, as if fearing she might have been ungrateful to Aunt Agnes, she asked for her, and said, "I can never thank you enough for all you have done for me. The blessed Lord will remember it; for did he not say, 'In that ye have done it unto the least.'"

And in the night, as I sat by her alone, she said, "Eva, I have dreaded very much to die. I am so very weak in spirit, and dread everything. But I think God must make it easier for the feeble such as me. For although I do not feel any stronger I am not afraid now. It must be because He is holding me up."

She then asked me to sing; and with a faltering voice I sung, as well as I could, the hymn, Astant angelorum chori:-

High the angel-choirs are raising

Heart and voice in harmony:

The Creator King still praising,

Whom in beauty there they see!

Sweetest strains from soft harps stealing,

Trumpet notes of triumph pealing;

Radiant wings and white robes gleaming,

Up the steps of glory streaming,

Where the heavenly bells are ringing,

Holy, holy, holy, singing

To the mighty Trinity!

For all earthly care and sighing

In that city cease to be!

And two days after, in the grey of the autumn morning, she died. She fell asleep with the name of Jesus on her lips.

It is strange how silent and empty the convent seems, only because that feeble voice is hushed and that poor shadowy form has passed away!

February, 1522.

Sister Beatrice has been laid in the convent church-yard with solemn mournful dirges and masses, and stately ceremonies, which seemed to me little in harmony with her timid, shrinking nature, or with the peace her spirit rests in now.

The lowly mound in the church-yard, marked by no memorial but a wooden cross, accords better with her memory. The wind will rustle gently there next summer, through the grass; and this winter the robin will warble quietly in the old elm above.

But I shall never see the grass clothe that earthly mound. It is decided that I am to leave the convent this week. Aunt Agnes and two of the young sisters have just left my cell, and all is planned.

The persecutions against those they call the Lutheran Sisters increase continually, whilst severer and more open proceedings are threatened. It is therefore decided that I am to make my escape at the first favourable opportunity, find my way to Wittemberg, and then lay the case of the nine nuns before the Lutheran doctors, and endeavour to provide for their rescue.

February 20, 1522.

At last the peasant's dress in which I am to escape is in my cell, and this very night, when all is quiet, I am to creep out of the window of Katherine von Bora's cell, into the convent garden. Aunt Agnes has been nervously eager about my going, and has been busy secretly storing a little basket with provisions. But to-night, when I went into her cell to wish her good-bye, she quite broke down, and held me tight in her arms, as if she could never let me go, while her lips quivered, and tears rolled slowly over her thin furrowed cheeks. "Eva, child," she said, "who first taught me to love in spite of myself, and then taught me that God is love, and that he could make me, believing in Jesus, a happy, loving child again! how can I part with thee?"

"Thou wilt join me again," I said, "and your sister who loves thee so dearly!"

She shook her head and smiled through her tears, as she said,-

"Poor helpless old woman that I am, what would you all do with me in the busy life outside?"

But her worst fear was for me, in my journey alone to Wittemberg, which seemed to her, who for forty years had never passed the convent walls, so long and perilous. Aunt Agnes always thinks of me as a young girl, and imagines every one must think me beautiful, because love makes me so to her. She is sure they will take me for some princess in disguise.

She forgets I am a quiet, sober-looking woman of seven-and-twenty, whom no one will wonder to see gravely plodding along the highway.

But I almost made her promise to come to us at Wittemberg; and at last she reproached herself with distrusting God, and said she ought never to have feared that his angels would watch over me.

Once more, then, the world opens before me; but I do not hope (and why should I wish?) that it should be more to me than this convent has been,-a place where God will be with me and give me some little loving services to do for him.

But my heart does yearn to embrace dear Aunt Cotta and Elsè once more, and little Thekla. And when Thekla marries, and Aunt and Uncle Cotta are left alone, I think they may want me, and Cousin Eva may grow old among Elsè's children, and all the grandchildren, helping one and another a little, and missed a little when God takes me.

But chiefly I long to be near Aunt Cotta, now that Fritz is in that terrible prison. She always said I comforted her more than any one, and I think I may again.

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