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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : CHAPTER VII |The Dust of the Actual|

Things As They Are by Amy Wilson-Carmichael

CHAPTER VII |The Dust of the Actual|

|This may be counted as our richest gain, to have
learned afresh one's utter impotency so completely
that the past axiom of service, 'I can no more
convert a soul than create a star,' comes to be
an awful revelation, so that God alone may be
exalted in that day.|
Rev. Walter Searle, Africa.

WE have just come back from a Pariah village. Now see it all with me. Such a curious little collection of huts, thrown down anywhere; such half-frightened, half-friendly faces; such a scurrying in of some and out of others; and we wonder which house we had better make for. We stop before one a shade cleaner than most, and larger and more open.

|May we come in?| Chorus, |Come in! oh, come in!| and in we go. It is a tiny, narrow slip of a room. At one end there is a fire burning on the ground; the smoke finds its way out through the roof, and a pot of rice set on three stones is bubbling cheerfully. No fear of defilement here. They would not like us to touch their rice or to see them eating it, but they do not mind our being in the room where it is being cooked.

At the other end of the narrow slip there is a goat-pen, not very clean; and down one side there is a raised mud place where the family apparently sleep. This side and the two ends are roofed by palmyra palm. It is dry and crackles at a touch, and you touch it every time you stand up, so bits of it are constantly falling and helping to litter the open space below.

[Illustration: An ancient Pariah, but the baby in her arms is a son of the Caste of Palmyra Climbers. Both faces -- the old crone's and the baby boy's -- are very typical. The baby is a |Christian,| I should explain, and his parents are true Christians, otherwise the Pariah woman would not have been allowed to touch him.]

Five babies at different stages of refractoriness are sprawling about on this strip of floor; they make noises all the time. Half a dozen imbecile-looking old women crowd in through the low door, and stare and exchange observations. Three young men with nothing particular to do lounge at the far end of the platform near the goats. A bright girl, with more jewellery on than is usual among Pariahs, is tending the fire at the end near the door; she throws a stick or two on as we enter, and hurries forward to get a mat. We sit down on the mat, and she sits beside us; and the usual questions are asked and answered by way of introduction. There is a not very clean old woman diligently devouring betel; another with an enormous mouth, which she always holds wide open; another with a very loud voice and a shock of unspeakable hair. But they listen fairly well till a goat creates a diversion by making a remark, and a baby -- a jolly little scrap in its nice brown skin and a bangle -- yells, and everyone's attention concentrates upon it.

The goat subsides, the baby is now in its mother's arms; so we go on where we left off, and I watch the bright young girl, and notice that she listens as one who understands. She looks rather superior; her rose-coloured seeley is clean, and two large gold jewels are in each ear; she has a little gold necklet round her throat, and silver bangles and toe rings. All the others are hopelessly grubby and very unenlightened, but they listen just as most people listen in church, with a sort of patient expression. It is the proper thing to do.

I am talking to them now, and till I am half-way through nobody says anything, when suddenly the girl remarks, |We have ten fingers, not just one!| which is so astonishing that I stop and wonder what she can be thinking of. I was talking about the one sheep lost out of one hundred. What has that got to do with one finger and ten? She goes on to explain, |I have heard all this before. I have a sister who is a Christian, and once I stayed with her, and I heard all about your religion, and I felt in my heart it was good. But then I was married| (|tied,| she said), |and of course I forgot about it; but now I remember, and I say if ten of our people will join and go over to your Way, that will be well, but what would be the use of one going? What is the use of one finger moving by itself? It takes ten to do the day's work.|

|If ten of you had cholera, and I brought you cholera medicine, would you say, 'I won't take it unless nine others take it too'?| I replied. She laughs and the others laugh, but a little uneasily. They hardly like this reference to the dreaded cholera; death of the body is so much more tremendous in prospect than death of the soul. |You would take it, and then the others, seeing it do you good, would perhaps take it too|; and we try to press home the point of the illustration. But a point pricks, and pricking is uncomfortable.

The three men begin to shuffle their feet and talk about other things; the old mother-in-law proposes betel all round, and hands us some grimy-looking leaves with a pressing invitation to partake. The various onlookers make remarks, and the girl devotes herself to her baby. But she is thinking; one can see old memories are stirred. At last with a sigh she gets up, looks round the little indifferent group, goes over to the fireplace, and blows up the fire. This means we had better say salaam; so we say it and they say it, adding the usual |Go and come.|

It will be easier to help these people out of their low levels than it will be to help their masters of the higher walks of life. But to do anything genuine or radical among either set of people is never really easy.

|=It takes the Ideal to blow a hair's-breadth off the Dust of the Actual.=|

It takes more. It takes =God=. It takes =God= to do anything anywhere. Yesterday we were visiting in one of the Caste villages, and one old lady, who really seems to care for us, said she would greatly like to take my hand in hers; |but,| she explained, |this morning one of the children of the place leaned over the edge of the tank to drink, and he fell in and was drowned; so I have been to condole with his people, and I have now returned from bathing, and do not feel equal to bathing again.| If she touched me she would have to bathe to get rid of the defilement. Of course I assured her I quite understood, but as she sat there within two inches of me, yet so carefully preserving inviolate those two inches of clear space, I felt what a small thing this caste-created distance was, the merest |Dust of the Actual| on the surface of the system of her life; and yet, |to blow a hair's-breadth of it off, nothing less is needed than the breath of the power of God.| |Come, O Breath, and breathe!| we cry. Nothing else will do.

Something in our talk led to a question about the character of Jesus, and, as we tried to describe a little of the loveliness of our dear Lord to her, her dark eyes kindled. |How beautiful it is!| she said; |how beautiful He must be!| She seemed |almost persuaded,| but we knew it was only almost, not quite; for she does not yet know her need of a Saviour, she has no sense of sin. Sometimes, it is true, that comes later; but we find that if the soul is to resist the tremendous opposing forces which will instantly be brought to bear upon it if it turns in the least towards Christ, there must be a conviction wrought within it; nothing so superficial as a feeling, be it ever so appreciative or hopeful or loving, will stand that strain.

So, though the eyes of this dear woman fill with tears as she hears of the price of pain He paid, and though she gladly listens as we read and talk with her and pray, yet we know the work has not gone deep, and we make our |petitions deep| for her, and go on.

In India men must work among men, and women among women, but sometimes, in new places, as I have told before, we have to stop and talk with the men before they will let us pass. For example, one afternoon I was waylaid on my way to the women by the head of the household I was visiting, a fine old man of the usual type, courteous but opposed. He asked to look at my books. I had a Bible, a lyric book, and a book of stanzas bearing upon the Truth, copied from the old Tamil classics. He pounced upon this. Then he began to chant the stanzas in their inimitable way, and at the sound several other old men drew round the verandah, till soon a dozen or more were listening with that appreciative expression they seem to reserve for their own beloved poetry.

After the reader had chanted through a dozen or more stanzas, he stopped abruptly and asked me if I really cared for it. Of course I said I did immensely, and only wished I knew more, for the Tamil classics are a study in themselves, and these beautiful ancient verses I had copied out were only gleanings from two large volumes, full of the wisdom of the East.

They were all thoroughly friendly now, and we got into conversation. One of the group held that there are three co-eternal substances -- God, the Soul, and Sin. Sin is eternally bound up in the soul, as verdigris is inherent in copper. It can be removed eventually by intense meditation upon God, and by the performance of arduous works of merit. But these exercises they all admitted were incompatible with the ordinary life of most people, and generally impracticable. And so the fact is, the verdigris of sin remains.

I remember the delight with which I discovered that Isaiah i.25 uses this very illustration; for the word translated |dross| in English is the colloquial word for verdigris in Tamil; so the verse reads, |I will turn My hand to thee, and thoroughly purify thee, so as to remove thy verdigris.|

Most of the others held a diametrically opposite view. So far from Soul and Sin being co-eternal with God they are not really existent at all. Both are illusory. There is only one existent entity. It is the Divine Spirit, and it has neither personality nor any personal qualities. All apparent separate existences are delusive. Meditation, of the same absorbing type held necessary by the other, is the only way to reach the stage of enlightenment which leads to reabsorption into the Divine essence, in which we finally merge, and lose what appeared to be our separate identity. We are lost in God, as a drop is lost in the ocean.

Some of the men advocated a phase of truth which reminds one of Calvinism gone mad, and others exactly opposite are extravagantly Arminian. The Calvinists illustrate their belief by a single illuminating word, Cat-hold, and the Arminians by another, Monkey-hold. Could you find better illustrations? The cat takes up the kitten and carries it in its mouth; the kitten is passive, the cat does everything. But the little monkey holds on to its mother, and clings with might and main. Those who have watched the |cat-hold| in the house, and the |monkey-hold| out in the jungle, can appreciate the accuracy of these two illustrations.

But running through every form of Hinduism, however contradictory each to the other may be, there is the underlying thought of pure and simple Pantheism. And this explains many of the aforesaid contradictions, and many of the incongruities which are constantly cropping up and bewildering one who is trying to understand the Hindu trend of thought. So, though those men all affirmed that there is only one God, they admitted that they each worshipped several. They saw nothing inconsistent in this. Just as the air is in everything, so God is in everything, therefore in the various symbols. And as our King has divers representative Viceroys and Governors to rule over his dominions in his name, so the Supreme has these sub-deities, less in power and only existing by force of Himself, and He, being all-pervasive, can be worshipped under their forms.

This argument they all unitedly pressed upon me that afternoon, and though capital answers probably present themselves to your mind, you might not find they satisfied the Hindu who argues along lines of logic peculiar to the East, and subtle enough to mystify the practical Western brain; and then -- for we are conceited as well as practical -- we are apt to pity the poor Hindu for being so unlike ourselves; and if we are wholly unsympathetic, we growl that there is nothing in the argument, whereas there is a good deal in it, only we do not see it, because we have never thought out the difficulty in question. Quite opposite, sometimes we have to meet a type of mind like that of MacDonald's student of Shakespeare, who |missed a plain point from his eyes being so sharp that they looked through it without seeing it, having focussed themselves beyond it.| Assuredly there is much to learn before one can hope to understand the winding of the thread of thought which must be traced if one would follow the working of the Hindu mind. Let no one with a facility for untying mental knots think that his gift would be wasted in India!

The word that struck those men that afternoon was 1 John v.11 and 12: |God hath given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He that hath the Son hath life, and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.| I was longing to get to the women, but when they began to read those verses and ask about the meaning, I could not go without trying to tell them. Oh, how one needed at that moment Christ to become to us Wisdom, for it is just here one may so easily make mistakes. Put the truth of God's relation to the soul subjectively -- |He that hath the Son hath life| -- before thoughtful Hindus such as these men were, and they will be perfectly enchanted; for the Incarnation presents no difficulty to them, as it would to a Mohammedan; and perhaps, to your sudden surprise and joy, they will say, that is exactly what they are prepared to believe. |Christ in me| -- this is comprehensible. |The indwelling of the Spirit of God| -- this is analogous to their own phrase: |The indwelling of the Deity in the lotus of the heart.| But probably by trading on words and expressions which are already part of the Hindu terminology, and which suggest to them materialistic ideas, we may seriously mislead and be misled. We need to understand not only what the Hindu says, but also what his words mean to himself, a very different thing.

That talk ended in a promise from the men that they would arrange a meeting of Hindus for the Iyer, if he would come and take it, which of course he did. I should like to finish up by saying, |and several were converted,| but as yet that would not be true. These deep-rooted ancient and strong philosophies are formidable enough, when rightly understood, to make us feel how little we can do to overturn them; but they are just as |Dust| in comparison with the force of the |Actual| entrenched behind them. Only superficial Dust; and yet, as in every other case, nothing but the Breath of God can blow this Dust away.

[Illustration: Another widow. She was never a wife; and, moved by some sort of pity, they let her keep one jewel in each ear. She is a Vellalar; her people are wealthy landowners. She was ashamed of having yielded to the weakness of letting us take her photo; and when we went to show it to her, she would not look at it. She has no desire whatever to hear; and she and the young girl on the step at her feet are resolute in opposing the teaching.]

We left the old men to their books and endless disquisitions, and went on to the women's quarter. There we saw a young child-widow, very fair and sweet and gentle, but quieter than a child should be; for she is a widow accursed. Her mind is keen -- she wants to learn; but why should a widow learn, they say, why should her mind break bounds? She lives in a tiny mud-built house, in a tiny mud-walled yard; she may not go out beyond those walls, then why should she think beyond? But she is better off than most, for she lives with her mother, who loves her, and her father makes a pet of her, and so she is sheltered more or less from the cruel scourge of the tongue.

There is another in the next courtyard; she is not sheltered so. She lives with her mother-in-law, and the world has lashed her heart for years; it is simply callous now. There she sits with her chin in her hand, just hard. Years ago they married her, an innocent, playful little child, to a man who died when she was nine years old. Then they tore her jewels from her, all but two little ear-rings, which they left in pity to her; and this poor little scrap of jewellery was her one little bit of joy. She could not understand it at first, and when her pretty coloured seeleys were taken away, and she had to wear the coarse white cloth she hated so, she cried with impotent childish wrath; and then she was punished, and called bitter names, -- the very word widow means bitterness, -- and gradually she understood that there was something the matter with her. She was not like other little girls. She had brought ill-fortune to the home. She was accursed.

It is true that some are more gently dealt with, and many belong to Castes where the yoke of Custom lies lighter; for these the point of the curse is blunted, there is only a dull sense of wrong. But in all the upper Castes the pressure is heavy, and there are those who feel intensely, feel to the centre of their soul, the sting of the shame of the curse.

|It is fate,| says the troubled mother; |who can escape his fate?| |It is sin,| says the mother-in-law; and the rest of the world agrees. |'Where the bull goes, there goes its rope.' 'Deeds done in a former birth, in this birth burn.'|

Much of the working of the curse is hidden behind shut doors. I saw a young widow last week whose mind is becoming deranged in consequence of the severity of the penance she is compelled to perform. When, as they put it, |the god of ill-fortune seizes her,| that is, when she becomes violent, she is quietly |removed to another place.| No one sees what is done to her there, but I know that part of the treatment consists in scratching her head with thorns, and then rubbing raw lime juice in -- lime juice is like lemon juice, only more acid. When the paroxysm passes she reappears, and does penance till the next fit comes. This has been repeated three times within the last few months.

I was visiting in a Hindu house for two years before I found out that all that time a girl of seventeen was kept alone in an upper room. |Let her weep,| they said, quoting a proverb; |'though she weeps, will a widow's sorrow pass?'| Once a day, after dark, she was brought downstairs for a few minutes, and once a day, at noon, some coarse food was taken up to her. She is allowed downstairs now, but only in the back part of the house; she never thinks of resisting this decree -- it, and all it stands for, is her fate. Sometimes the glad girl-life reasserts itself, and she plays and laughs with her sister-in-law's pretty baby boy; but if she hears a man's voice she disappears upstairs. There are proverbs in the language which tell why.

I sat on the verandah of a well-to-do Hindu house one day, and talked to the bright-looking women in their jewels and silks. And all the time, though little I knew it, a widow was tied up in a sack in one of the inner rooms. This wrong is a hidden wrong.

I do not think that anyone would call the Hindus distinctively cruel; in comparison with most other Asiatics their instincts are kind. A custom so merciless as this custom, which punishes the innocent with so grievous a punishment, does not seem to us to be natural to them. It seems like a parasite custom, which has struck its roots deep into the tree of Hindu social life, but is not part of it. Think of the power which must have been exerted somewhere by someone before the disposition of a nation could be changed.

This custom as it stands is formidable enough. Many a man, Indian and foreign, has fought it and failed. It is a huge and most rigorous system of tyrannical oppression, a very pyramid to look at, old, immovable. But there is Something greater behind it. It is only the effect of a Cause -- the Dust of the Actual.

What can alter the custom? Strong writing or speaking, agitations, Acts of Parliament? All these surely have their part. They raise the question, stir the Dust -- but blow it off? Oh no! nothing can touch the conscience of the people, and utterly reverse their view of things, and radically alter them, but =God=.

Yes, it is true, we may make the most of what has been done by Government, by missionaries and reformers, but there are times in the heart histories of all who look far enough down to see what goes on under the surface of things, when the sorrow takes shape in the Prophet's cry, |We have not wrought any deliverance in the earth!|

It is true. We have not. We cannot even estimate the real weight of the lightest speck of the Dust that has settled on the life of this people. But we believe that our God, Who comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, comprehends to the uttermost the Dust of the Actual, and we believe to see Him work, with Whom is strength and effectual working.

We believe to see, and believing even now we see; and when we see anything, be it ever so little, when the Breath breathes, and even |a hair's-breadth| of that Dust is blown away, then, with an intensity I cannot describe, we feel the presence of the Lord our God among us, and look up in the silence of joy and expectation for the coming of the Day when all rule, and all authority and power, yea, the power of the very Actual itself, shall be put down, that God may be all in all.

So again and yet again we ask you to pray not less for the Reform movement, and the Educational movement, and the Civilising movement of India, but far more for the Movement of the Breath of God, and far more for us His workers here, that we may abide in Him without Whom we can do nothing.

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