I can’t explain why I held his manuscript in my hands. I should have consigned it to the flames. I’d built the fire for just that purpose, carefully selecting the driest of wood and bracken. It was too warm a day for a fire, and the light thread of smoke stung my eyes. I’d considered sending someone for the local priest to come and witness the book’s destruction…but I hadn’t. Instead, I stood still, holding the manuscript, the fragrance of leather and ink, like perfume around me.
Did I want to read it? I would admit to a curiosity. The Latin words and phrases that I knew so well, he had translated into common English. I couldn’t imagine the sound of the words tripping off my tongue. It seemed heresy even to consider it. The scholar in me longed to look, to ponder his word choice and sentence structure, to see if the beauty of the book was marred beyond recognition. English was such a crude language, devoid of grace and poetry.
I remembered the look of his face as he handed it over – handing it over to me, one who had spoken passionately against him and his work. I was his enemy, and yet he entrusted the manuscript into my hands. Like a man haunted, red rimmed eyes, and dark shadows, there was a sprinkling of coarse grey hairs around his jowls. He had the air of someone who hadn’t slept, or eaten for that matter, for days.
“How hard the command given me,” he said, “to surrender my work to you. He asks too much of me.”
He wouldn’t enter the house, but stood by the door, his shoulders crumpled in defeat. The manuscript, wrapped in dark blue cloth, was pushed into my arms, his hands quickly knotted into fists and pulled sharply away. His eyes lingered, tracing every contour of the cloth.
“I have lost my way,” he confessed. “This…this…task consumes me so much that I don’t know any more if it is His task given to me, or mine claimed selfishly. I cannot see clearly now. I hear whispers…but I cannot tell if He speaks, or another.”
“Of course, it’s not the Lord’s voice you are hearing.” The words were not said, but he heard them anyway from the expression on my face, the set of my brows, and the tight line of my lips.
“It’s not fair,” he said, “that they are denied His word. Latin means nothing to them. They are at the mercy of the Church to tell them the truth. They cannot read it for themselves. And the Church lies to them.” He sputtered to halt, clamping his lips down on words that would spill out.
I knew enough about the Church to know the truth of his accusations. Was I too naïve to believe that the Church couldn’t find its own way back to truth and honesty?
“I have prayed and fasted…surrendered myself before Him. It weighs so heavy on me. This Church is His Church, created by Him, loved by Him…His Church. Is this, my work, the sword that will pierce their hearts? Is it the stone that they will stumble over? So easy it would be to give this to a friend. A man who knows me, who thinks like I do…to have his hand of approval on my shoulder and listen to words my ears agree with. He would say that it is God’s task and God’s voice. How easy! But I give it to you…do with it as you wish. If it is God’s work it will not burn though the flames leap high. If it is my task alone…it is only ashes.”
The deed done, he hastened to leave, dragging his body away from the door, driving his legs to walk down the road back to his university rooms.
“And burn it will.” I determined. John Wycliffe, the scholar, the theologian, the translator was just a stupid man for all his learning.
And I was a stupid man too. I sat at the table and I read his manuscript. As the evening light faded, I kept reading in the gentle glow of candlelight. The words might have been fashioned by a man, but God approved, filling each and every phrase with His power and authority. I heard Him speak to me, not in a cold and scholarly voice. He chose His words warm with friendship.
Wycliffe’s Bible did not burn that night, but my heart did.
Author’s Note: - John Wycliffe, an Oxford professor, scholar, and theologian produced the first hand-written English language Bible manuscript in1380.
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