Born into a Quaker family, Jane Tyson Clement lived a life of faith and service until her passing in the year 2000. Deeply affected by the suffering and injustice in the world around her, she entered into an intense spiritual search that brought her to God, and to the understanding that only in God lie the answers. Together with her husband she joined a spiritual community, the Bruderhof, and there put into practice the community’s core principles — nonviolence, sharing, social justice — while raising her seven children, teaching school, and writing poetry and fiction as a way to share the divine light she had found in her own life.
Her story of Simon the mercer is set in late fourteenth-century England, in a time of great suffering: universal fear that the Black Death of 1348 – 49 would come again; the established church corrupt, greedy, and hypocritical, the true teachings of Christ locked away behind veils of priestly secrecy and liturgical Latin incomprehensible to the people at large; the people themselves held down by a wealthy landed aristocracy. There were at the same time stirrings toward spiritual awakening. The Holy Bible had been put into English by John Wycliffe and was slowly wending its way across the country, borne by John Wycliffe’s Poor Priests, barefoot and ragged but fired with zeal to bring the light of Christ to everyman.
Simon is a successful merchant, wealthy and as secure in a worldly way as anyone could be in such a troubled time. The loss of his beloved wife and only child to a recurrence of plague has left him without hope for happiness in this world — until one day a stranger enters his shop, and does so, to Simon’s amazement, without arousing the snarling rage of the normally fiercely protective great mastiff chained by the door. The stranger describes himself as a shepherd, sent by his master, Lord Jesus Christ, to speak of the holy city that is his home — a place where peace dwells, where every sorrow is shared and turned to blessing, a place of labor without strife, where men speak only in honesty and love. Such a heavenly place Swamiji too describes, in “June in Ayodhya”: “Such harmony flows everywhere when men, with grateful hearts, offer their works to God. Then brotherhood needs no enforcing laws, no parliaments, no treaties sealed in fear: True peace is theirs to whom the Lord is near.”
This little time in the company of the stranger shocks Simon into seeing the crushing emptiness of his life. Like a bright light shining against the dark background of Simon’s despair stands this shepherd, a man free within and without, fearless, in whose eyes Simon reads only true joy, and through whose words he sees a vision of a place of love and brotherhood existing nowhere in the world he knows.
And so begins Simon’s journey of self-discovery — what the Festival of Light calls the Quest. Simon’s heart, so long closed in on itself, begins to open, and will not close again. Driven now by the dual torment of the great emptiness he feels inside and at the same time the growing desire to help those whose sufferings now touch him so deeply, Simon travels on — each encounter orchestrated by the Divine Playwright to guide His child on his homeward journey. Drawn to the local church, St. Botolph’s, Simon stands by the body of a Poor Priest, brought there after he collapsed at the city gate. Hearing of the great book the Poor Priest had with him, Simon retrieves it from the pile of trash to which the vicar had consigned it for burning, hides it under his cloak, and that night sits alone, reading by candlelight until dawn, rapt with wonder. For this book is the Holy Bible, Wycliffe’s translation into English, and Simon’s first sight of the words of Jesus.
Fascinated and horrified as he reads, Simon sees the edifice of church doctrine by which his life has been controlled crumble into ruins: “I wipe it all out; I cast it all away. I know naught. I am naked as the day I was born. Now I must find out. I must find what God is and who is His Son, and what He wants of me.” He reads of the Prodigal Son; of faith, hope, and charity; of Mary Magdalene with Christ risen at the tomb. And he knows, with the knowing beyond thought, that he is in the presence of God’s truth. What remains now is to discover what this God Whom now he so wholeheartedly embraces has for him to do.
His answer comes unbidden through a seemingly chance meeting with a forester, a man whose life has been changed by meeting the same shepherd who started Simon on his journey. The embers smoldering in his heart burst into flame. He will leave all, and seek the shepherd. He will be God’s fool, living only to know and to do God’s will. And so begins the final chapter in Simon’s life as a devotee — what the Festival of Light calls the Redemption. His heart now split wide open, Simon goes through much suffering, but little regards it, for the joy and love welling in his heart overwhelm every other feeling. He sees the world anew, a radiant beauty shining through nature, through everyone he meets, through glowing memories of the countless ways God has proffered love to him though he had not recognized the gift when it came: “What a fool was I,” Swamiji writes, “to turn away.”
Now he is helped on his journey by everyone he meets: the kindly warden of a hospice and almshouse, who sits up all night by his feverish body, and who asks him to remember him when he comes to the heavenly city, to send back for him, for now he cannot leave his poor charges; a hurt little boy who takes him home to his struggling family, his mother impoverished but lovingly sharing what little they have, who too longs for the heavenly city, but like the kind warden cannot walk away from her family. To her, as to the warden — and back in time, inwardly, to the forester who started him on his journey — Simon gives his promise, to come back somehow and guide each longing soul to the shepherd’s abode.
At last Simon is led to a steep and rocky ascent, towering heights and precipitous drops, step by step, his last strength called forth until, at the top, exhausted, he drops to the ground, his arms outstretched toward a golden radiance filled with angels. With his last breath, Simon cries out, “Master, I have come.” From his person the shepherd takes a scrap of parchment, on which are inscribed the names of all those he has promised to bring to the heavenly city, and these words: “To be gathered.” And in the morning, as Simon’s grave is being dug, the shepherd sets out to find the lost sheep.
“Oh! I will come back again and again! . . .
As long as I know that
One stray brother is left behind.”
In divine friendship,
For Ananda’s “Thank You, God” Tithing