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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER VIII Roots

Things As They Are by Amy Wilson-Carmichael

CHAPTER VIII Roots

|It is not an easy thing in England to lead an old
man or woman to Christ, even though the only
'root' which holds them from Him is love of the
world. As the Tamil proverb says, 'That which did
not bend at five will not be bent at fifty,' still
less at sixty or seventy. When a soul in India is
held down, not by one root only, but by a myriad
roots, who is sufficient to deliver it? Only He
who overturneth the mountains by the roots. 'This
kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.'|
An Indian Missionary.

|AMMA, you are getting old.|

|Yes (grunt), yes.|

|When we are old then death is near.|

|Yes (grunt), yes.|

|Then we must leave our bodies and go somewhere else.|

Three more grunts.

|Amma, do you know where you are going?|

Then the old woman wakes up a little, grunts a little more, |Who knows where she is going?| she mumbles, and relapses into grunts.

|I know where I am going,| the girl answers. |Amma, don't you want to know?|

|Don't I want to know what?|

|Where you are going.|

|Why do I want to know what?|

The girl goes over it again. The old woman turns to her daughter-in-law. |Is the rice ready?| she says. The girl tries again. The old woman agrees we all must die. Death is near to the ancient; she is ancient, therefore death is near to her, she must go somewhere after death. It would be well to know where she is going. She does not know where she is going. Then she gazes and grunts.

[Illustration: Enlargement of one of the old dames seen in chapter vi. A capital typical face. We have a number of these keen, interesting old people, but very rarely find they have any desire to |change their religion.| They are |rooted.|]

The girl tries on different lines. Whom is the old woman looking to, to help her when death comes?

|God.|

|What God?|

|The great God.| And rousing herself to express herself she declares that He is her constant meditation, therefore all is well. |Is the rice ready?|

|No.|

|Then give me some betel leaf,| and she settles down to roll small pieces of lime into little balls, and these balls she rolls up in a betel leaf, with a bit of areca nut for taste, and this betel leaf she puts into her mouth -- all this very slowly, and with many inarticulate sounds, which I have translated |grunts.| And this is all she does. She does not want to listen or talk, she only wants to scrunch betel, and grunt.

This is not a touching tale. It is only true. It happened this evening exactly as I have told it, and the girl, a distant connection of the old woman, who had come with me so delightedly, eager to tell the Good Tidings, had to give it up. She had begun by speaking about the love of Jesus, but that had fallen perfectly flat; so she had tried the more startling form of address, with this result -- grunts.

I spent an afternoon not long ago with a more intelligent specimen. Here she is, a fine sturdy old character, one of the three you saw before. She was immensely interested with her photo, which I showed her, and she could not understand at all how, in the one moment when she stood against a wall, her face |had been caught on a piece of white paper.| A little explanation opened the way for the greater thing I had come about. We were sitting on a mud verandah, opening on to a square courtyard; two women pounding rice, two more grinding it, another sweeping, a cow, some fowls, a great many children, and several babies, made it exceedingly difficult to concentrate one's attention on anything, and still more difficult to get the wandering brains of an old woman to concentrate on a subject in which she had no interest. She had been interested in the photograph, but that was different.

The conversation ended by her remarking that it was getting dark, ought I not to be going home? It was not getting dark yet, but it meant that she had had enough, so I salaamed and went, hoping for a better chance again. Next time we visited the Village of the Tamarind she was nowhere to be seen; she had gone to her own village, she had only come here for the funeral. Would she return, we asked? Not probable, they said, |she had come and gone.| |Come and gone.| As they said it, one felt how true it was. Come, for that one short afternoon within our reach; gone, out of it now for ever.

In that same village there is one who more than any other drew one's heart out in affection and longing, but so far all in vain.

I first saw her in the evening as we were returning home. She was sitting on her verandah, giving orders to the servants as they stood in the courtyard below. Then she turned and saw us. We were standing in the street, looking through the open door. The old lady, in her white garments, with her white hair, sat among a group of women in vivid shades of red, behind her the dark wood of the pillar and door, and above the carved verandah roof.

The men were fresh from the fields, and stood with their rough-looking husbandry implements slung across their shoulders; the oxen, great meek-eyed beasts, were munching their straw and swishing their tails as they stood in their places in the courtyard, where some little children played.

The paddy-birds, which are small white storks, were flying about from frond to frond of the cocoanut palms that hung over the wall, and the sunset light, striking slanting up, caught the underside of their wings, and made them shine with a clear pale gold, gold birds in a darkness of green. A broken mud wall ran round one end, and the sunset colour painted it too till all the red in it glowed; and then it came softly through the palms, and touched the white head with a sort of sheen, and lit up the brow of the fine old face as, bending forward, she beckoned to us. |Come in! come in!| she said.

We soon made friends with her. She was a Saivite and we heard afterwards had received the Initiation; the golden symbol of her god had been branded upon her shoulder, and she was sworn to lifelong devotion to Siva; but she had found that he was vain, and she never worshipped him, she worshipped God alone, |and at night, when the household is sleeping, I go up alone to an upper room, and stretch out my hands to the God of all, and cry with a long, loud cry.| Then she suddenly turned and faced me full. |Tell me, is that enough?| she said. |Is it all I must do for salvation? Say!|

I did not feel she was ready for a plunge into the deep sea of full knowledge yet, and I tried to persuade her to leave that question, telling her that if she believed what we told her of Jesus our Lord, she would soon know Him well enough to ask Him direct what she wanted to know, and He Himself would explain to her all that it meant to follow Him. But she was determined to hear it then, and, as she insisted, I read her a little of what He says about it Himself. She knew quite enough to understand and take in the force of the forceful words. She would not consent to be led gently on. |No, I must know it now,| she said; and as verse by verse we read to her, her face settled sorrowfully. |So far must I follow, so far?| she said. |I cannot follow so far.|

It was too late for much talk then, but she promised to listen if we would come and read to her. She could not read, but she seemed to know a great deal about the Bible.

For some weeks one of us went once a week; sometimes the men of the house were in, and then we could not read to her, as they seemed to object; but oftener no one was about, and she had her way, and we read.

She told us her story one afternoon. She was the head of a famous old house; her husband had died many years ago; she had brought up her children successfully, and now they were settled in life. She had a Christian relation, but she had never seen him; she thought he had a son studying in a large school in England -- Cambridge, I knew, when I heard the name; the father is one of our true friends.

All her sons are greatly opposed, but one of her little girls learnt for a time, and so the mother heard the Truth, and, being convinced that it was true, greatly desired to hear more.

But the child was married, and went away, and she feared to ask the Missie Ammal to come again, lest people should notice it and talk. So the years passed emptily, |and oh, my heart was an empty place, a void as empty as air!| And she stretched out her arms, and clasping her hands she looked at the empty space between, and then at me with inquiring eyes, to see if I understood.

How well one understood!

|I am an emptiness for Thee to fill,
My soul a cavern for Thy sea, . . .
I have done nought for Thee, am but a Want.|

She had never heard it, but she had said it. We do not often hear it said, and when we do our whole heart goes out to meet the heart of the one who says it; everything that is in us yearns with a yearning that cannot be told, to bring her to Him Who said |Come.|

We were full of hope about her, and we wrote to her Christian relative, and he wrote back with joy. It seemed so likely then that she would decide for Christ.

But one day, for the first time, she did not care to read. I remember that day so well; it was the time of our monsoon, and the country was one great marsh. We had promised to go that morning, but the night before the rivers filled, and the pool between her and us was a lake. We called the bandyman and explained the situation. He debated a little, but at last -- |Well, the bulls can swim,| he said, and they swam.

We need not have gone, she was |out.| |Out,| or |not at home to-day,| is a phrase not confined to Society circles where courtesy counts for more than truth. |I am in, but I do not want to see you,| would have been true, but rude.

This was the first chill, but she was in next time, and continued to be in, until after a long talk we had, when again the question rose and had to be faced, |Can I be a Christian here?|

It was a quiet afternoon; we were alone, only the little grandchildren were with her -- innocent, fearless, merry little creatures, running to her with their wants, and pulling at her hands and dress as babies do at home. Their grandmother took no notice of them beyond an occasional pat or two, but the childish things, with their bright brown eyes and little fat, soft, clinging hands went into the photo one's memory took, and helped one the better to understand and sympathise in the humanness of the pretty home scene, that humanness which is so natural, and which God meant to be. I think there is nothing in all our work which so rends and tears at the heart-strings within us, as seeing the spiritual clash with the natural, and to know that while Caste and bigotry reign it always must be so.

We had a good long talk. |I want to be a Christian,| she said, and for a moment I hoped great things, for she as the mistress of the house was almost free to do as she chose. I thought of her influence over her sons and their wives, and the little grandchildren; and I think my face showed the hope I had, for she said, looking very direct at me, |By a Christian I mean one who worships your God, and ceases to worship all other gods; for He alone is the Living God, the Pervader of all and Provider. This I fully believe and affirm, but I cannot break my Caste.|

|Would you continue to keep it in all ways?|

|How could I possibly break my Caste?|

|And continue to smear Siva's sign on your forehead?|

|That is indeed part of my Caste.|

More especially part of it, I knew, since she had received the Initiation.

Then the disappointment got into my voice, and she felt it, and said, |Oh, do not be grieved! These things are external. How can mere ashes affect the internal, the real essential, the soul?|

It was such a plausible argument, and we hear it over and over again; for history repeats itself, there is nothing new under the sun.

I reminded her that ashes were sacred to Siva.

|I would not serve Siva,| she answered me, |but the smearing of ashes on one's brow is the custom of my Caste, and I cannot break my Caste.|

Then she looked at me very earnestly with her searching, beautiful, keen old eyes, and she went over ground she knew I knew. She reminded me what the requirements of her Caste had always been, that they must be fulfilled by all who live in the house, and she told me in measured words and slow that I knew she could not live at home if she broke the laws of her Caste. But why make so much of trifling things? For matter and spirit are distinct, and when the hands are raised in prayer, when the lamp is lighted and wreathed with flowers, the outward observer may mistake and think the action is pujah to Agni, but God who reads the heart understands, and judges the thought and not the act. |Yes, my hand may smear on Siva's ashes, while at the same moment my soul may commune with God the Eternal, Who only is God.|

I turned to verse after verse to show her this sort of thing could never be, how it would mock at the love of Christ and nullify His sacrifice. I urged upon her that if she were true, and the central thought of her life were towards God, all the outworkings would correspond, creed fitting deed, and deed fitting creed without the least shade of diversity. But faith and practice are not to be confused, each is separate from the other; the two may unite or the one may be divorced from the other without the integrity of either being affected: this is the unwritten Hindu code which she and hers had ever held; and now, after years of belief in it, to face round suddenly to its opposite -- this was more than she could do. She held, as it were, the Truth in her hand, and turned it round and round and round, but she always ended where she began; she would not, could not, see it as Truth, or perhaps more truly, would not accept it. It meant too much.

There she sat, queen of her home. The sons were expected, and she had been making preparations for their coming. Her little grandchildren played about her, each one of them dear as the jewel of her eye. How could she leave it all, how could she leave them all -- home, all that it stands for; children, all that they mean?

Then she looked at me again, and I shall never forget the look. It seemed as if she were looking me through and through, and forcing the answer to come. She spoke in little short sentences, instinct with intensity. |I cannot live here and break my Caste. If I break it I must go. I cannot live here without keeping my customs. If I break them I must go. You know all this. I ask you, then, tell me yes or no. Can I live here and keep my Caste, and at the same time follow your God? Tell me yes or no!|

I did not tell her -- how could I? But she read the answer in my eyes, and she said, as she had said before, |I cannot follow so far -- so far, I cannot follow so far!|

|Reverence for opinions and practice held sacred by his ancestors is ingrained in every fibre of a Hindu's character, and is, so to speak, bred in the very bone of his physical and moral constitution.| So writes Sir Monier Williams. It is absolutely true.

Oh, friends, is it easy work? My heart is sore as I write, with the soreness that filled it that day. I would have given anything to be able truthfully to say |yes| to her question. But |across the will of nature leads on the path of God| for them; and they have to follow so very far, so very, very far!

All trees have roots. To tear up a full-grown tree by the roots, and transplant it bodily, is never a simple process. But in India we have a tree with a double system of roots. The banyan tree drops roots from its boughs. These bough roots in time run as deep underground as the original root. And the tap root and its runners, and the branch roots and theirs, get knotted and knit into each other, till the whole forms one solid mass of roots, thousands of yards of a tangle of roots, sinuous and strong. Conceive the uprooting of such a tree, like the famous one of North India, for instance, which sheltered an army of seven thousand men. You cannot conceive it; it could not be done, the earthward hold is so strong.

The old in India are like these trees; they are doubly, inextricably rooted. There is the usual great tap root common to all human trees in all lands -- faith in the creed of the race; there are the usual running roots too -- devotion to family and home. All these hold the soul down.

But in India we have more -- we have the branch-rooted system of Caste; Caste so intricate, so precise, that no Western lives who has traced it through its ramifications back to the bough from which it dropped in the olden days.

This Caste, then, these holding laws, which most would rather die than break, are like the branch roots of the banyan tree with their infinite strength of grip. But the strangest thing to us is this: the people love to have it so; they do not regard themselves as held, these roots are their pride and joy. Take a child of four or five, ask it a question concerning its Caste, and you will see how that baby tree has begun to drop branch rootlets down. Sixty years afterwards look again, and every rootlet has grown a tree, each again sending rootlets down; and so the system spreads.

But we look up from the banyan tree. God! what are these roots to Thee? These Caste-root systems are nothing to Thee! India is not too hard for Thee! O God, come!

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