"Elisabeth, your mother and I have decided it is time for you to go to school at the convent," her father announced.
Perhaps Elisabeth van Roder didn't really need go to school, and certainly she didn't need to learn to work. She lived in a large palace, with servants of her own, for her father was one of the rulers of the land near the city of Vuren. But even the wealthy daughter of a nobleman needed to learn how to read and write in the Latin language, how to play the lute or recorder, and how to do embroidery.
"But the convent, Father? Isn't that a place where women spend their time chanting prayers and hymns, and never getting married?" asked Elisabeth anxiously.
Her father laughed. "You need not fear. When the time comes, we will find you a husband suitable to your position in life. Who knows? Perhaps the son of a man richer and more powerful than myself, if you are clever. But don't worry about the praying and singing. My cousin is head of the convent, and I can assure you there is no danger of anyone getting too religious there. You'll receive a good education, good food, good clothes -- we will see to that."
Elisabeth was relieved. Though she didn't know how to express it, she had always felt there was something threatening about church, and she was glad to keep it at arm's length. She had heard stories from the Bible about God's mighty power. That was fine as long as He didn't use His power on her.
At the convent, Elisabeth began to study Latin for the first time, and she found it easier than she expected. "The language of the Romans," she said to herself. "Vox, a voice; vocis, of a voice; voco, I call; vocat, he calls."
One morning, while at a book-seller's shop in Vuren, Elisabeth found a little book she hadn't seen before. "NOVUM TESTAMENTUM," the cover read. "That means New Testament," Elisabeth translated, and she felt again that old fear. But something compelled her to open it at random, and she read these words in Latin, "There is therefore no condemnation in Christ Jesus, for the law of the spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death."
The message took her breath away. Yes, it was the power of God, but power to help her, not to hurt her. She shook her head a few times. "I think I'll take this book," she announced to the book-seller. "It should help my studies. Wrap it up for me, please."
And Elisabeth never actually told anyone at the convent that she had bought a New Testament. For as she read, it seemed to take her farther and farther from her teachers and fellow students, as if she were in a lifeboat looking up at a great ship on which she had been sailing just minutes before, watching the ship as it began to sink. She felt lost, overwhelmed, by the truth of God's Word, yet she was now afraid to go back to being the girl she had been.
Like King Josiah, Elisabeth was hearing the Law of the Lord for the first time, and she saw how far short of it she, and everyone else she knew, had fallen. Judgement was coming for all those who disobeyed it. But she knew her parents, and her teachers, wouldn't understand what she was feeling. "God has laid out a path for me in his Word," she thought, "but the path is so different from the one everyone else follows, that I'm convinced they won't let me follow it."
Elisabeth had no one to trust in now but God. She pondered her alternatives, praying to God for wisdom as she never really had before, and she concluded that she must secretly escape from the convent. But how? Her teachers watched her constantly on orders of her powerful father, who knew what kind of wickedness his daughter was prone to. She stood by her window and looked longingly at the girls who milked the cows for the convent. If only she could be like them. They wouldn't understand how a rich, privileged girl could be so trapped.
Then a idea came to her. Early in the morning, she crept out to the barns. A girl about her own age was preparing to begin milking. "That's a pretty dress you have," Elisabeth told the girl. The milkmaid looked at her so strangely that Elisabeth became embarrassed, but she really meant it. "Listen, can you help me?" she asked. "Can I have your dress?" The milkmaid stared at her, mouth open.
"I know it sounds strange," Elisabeth said. "But I will let you have my dress, and you can sell it or wear it or whatever you want to do. You see, I need to leave the convent and they won't let me. But if they thought I was a milkmaid..."
The other girl nodded her head, though she didn't really understand. "Now?" she asked.
"Yes!" whispered Elisabeth. "When the milking is over, I will follow the other girls to your house and ask them to bring you another dress, so that nobody will see you wearing mine."
Later that day, dressed as a poor girl for the first time, her New Testament in her sack, Elisabeth was walking swiftly down the streets of Vuren, praying for God to guide her. She passed a woman sweeping her front steps with a ragged broom, and somehow felt inclined to stop there.
"Excuse me," Elisabeth asked, "Do you know of a place where a girl like me could stay?"
Elisabeth was afraid the woman would ask her questions, but instead the woman smiled and replied, "My home is not very big, but I do have a bed prepared for those whom the Lord sends to me. Come inside and we can talk. Have you eaten today?" Elisabeth admitted that she hadn't.
"Then let me give you some bread and cheese as well, you poor thing," the kindly woman said as she scurried into her kitchen. And Elisabeth found herself telling the whole story.
As it turned out, God had answered Elisabeth's prayers, for He had led her to the home of Margaret, a godly widow whose husband had been an Anabaptist teacher. Elisabeth had left the convent to live for God, and now here was someone who could tell her how. Elisabeth had never met a believer before. It was a glorious time, but soon Margaret realized that Elisabeth needed to leave, for her father would be searching for her so close to home.
"I know just the person whom you can stay with," Margaret told her with a smile. "Haddie lives alone in Meenen, and she loves the Lord, though she hasn't known Him long." And with a older brother to guide her, Elisabeth was soon on her way to live with Haddie Byler.
The two young women became best of friends. Haddie was delighted, for here was someone who had a New Testament and could read it to her. In turn, Haddie taught Elisabeth how to work at home, something she had never learned.
"And now it's your turn, Haddie!" concluded Elisabeth with a bright smile.
Previous Chapter Next Chapter