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Things As They Are by Amy Wilson-Carmichael

CHAPTER VI Missed Ends

|If you could only know what one feels on finding
oneself . . . where the least ray of the Gospel has not penetrated! If those friends who blame . . .
could see from afar what we see, and feel what we
feel, they would be the first to wonder that those
redeemed by Christ should be so backward in
devotion and know so little of the spirit of
self-sacrifice. They would be ashamed of the
hesitations that hinder us. . . . We must remember that it was not by interceding for the world in
glory that Jesus saved it. He gave Himself. Our
prayers for the evangelisation of the world are
but a bitter irony so long as we only give of our
superfluity, and draw back before the sacrifice of
M. Francois Coillard, Africa.

|Someone must go, and if no one else will go, he
who hears the call must go; I hear the call, for
indeed God has brought it before me on every side,
and go I must.|
Rev. Henry Watson Fox, India.

THE tom-toms thumped straight on all night, and the darkness shuddered round me like a living, feeling thing. I could not go to sleep, so I lay awake and looked; and I saw, as it seemed, this:

That I stood on a grassy sward, and at my feet a precipice broke sheer down into infinite space. I looked, but saw no bottom; only cloud shapes, black and furiously coiled, and great shadow-shrouded hollows, and unfathomable depths. Back I drew, dizzy at the depth.

Then I saw forms of people moving single file along the grass. They were making for the edge. There was a woman with a baby in her arms and another little child holding on to her dress. She was on the very verge. Then I saw that she was blind. She lifted her foot for the next step . . . it trod air. She was over, and the children over with her. Oh, the cry as they went over!

Then I saw more streams of people flowing from all quarters. All were blind, stone blind; all made straight for the precipice edge. There were shrieks as they suddenly knew themselves falling, and a tossing up of helpless arms, catching, clutching at empty air. But some went over quietly, and fell without a sound.

Then I wondered, with a wonder that was simply agony, why no one stopped them at the edge. I could not. I was glued to the ground, and I could not call; though I strained and tried, only a whisper would come.

Then I saw that along the edge there were sentries set at intervals. But the intervals were far too great; there were wide, unguarded gaps between. And over these gaps the people fell in their blindness, quite unwarned; and the green grass seemed blood-red to me, and the gulf yawned like the mouth of hell.

Then I saw, like a little picture of peace, a group of people under some trees, with their backs turned towards the gulf. They were making daisy chains. Sometimes when a piercing shriek cut the quiet air and reached them it disturbed them, and they thought it a rather vulgar noise. And if one of their number started up and wanted to go and do something to help, then all the others would pull that one down. |Why should you get so excited about it? You must wait for a definite call to go! You haven't finished your daisy chains yet. It would be really selfish,| they said, |to leave us to finish the work alone.|

There was another group. It was made up of people whose great desire was to get more sentries out; but they found that very few wanted to go, and sometimes there were no sentries set for miles and miles of the edge.

Once a girl stood alone in her place, waving the people back; but her mother and other relations called, and reminded her that her furlough was due; she must not break the rules. And being tired and needing a change, she had to go and rest for awhile; but no one was sent to guard her gap, and over and over the people fell, like a waterfall of souls.

Once a child caught at a tuft of grass that grew at the very brink of the gulf; it clung convulsively, and it called -- but nobody seemed to hear. Then the roots of the grass gave way, and with a cry the child went over, its two little hands still holding tight to the torn-off bunch of grass. And the girl who longed to be back in her gap thought she heard the little one cry, and she sprang up and wanted to go; at which they reproved her, reminding her that no one is necessary anywhere; the gap would be well taken care of, they knew. And then they sang a hymn.

Then through the hymn came another sound like the pain of a million broken hearts wrung out in one full drop, one sob. And a horror of great darkness was upon me, for I knew what it was -- the Cry of the Blood.

Then thundered a Voice, the Voice of the Lord: |=And He said, What hast thou done? The voice of thy brothers' blood crieth unto Me from the ground.=|

. . . . . . .

The tom-toms still beat heavily, the darkness still shuddered and shivered about me; I heard the yells of the devil-dancers and the weird wild shriek of the devil-possessed just outside the gate.

What does it matter, after all? It has gone on for years; it will go on for years. Why make such a fuss about it?

God forgive us! God arouse us! Shame us out of our callousness! Shame us out of our sin!

* * * * *

One afternoon, a few weeks after that night at the precipice edge, Victory and I were visiting in the Red Lake Village, when we heard the death-beat of the tom-tom and the shriek of the conch shell, and we knew that another had gone beyond our reach. One can never get accustomed to this. We stopped for a moment and listened.

The women we were teaching broke in with eager explanations. |Oh, he was such a great one! He had received the Initiation. There will be a grand ceremonial, grander than ever you have!| Then they told us how this great one had been initiated into the Hindu mysteries by his family priest, and that the mystical benefits accruing from this initiation were to be caused to revert to the priest. This Reverting of the Initiation was to be one of the ceremonies. We watched the procession pass down the street. They were going for water from a sacred stream for the bathing of purification. When they return, said the women, the ceremonies will begin.

A little later we passed the house, and stood looking in through the doorway. There was the usual large square courtyard, with the verandah running round three sides. The verandah was full of women. We longed to go in, but did not think they would let us. The courtyard was rather confused; men were rushing about, putting up arches and decorating them; servants were sweeping, and cooking, and shouting to one another; the women were talking and laughing. And all the time from within the house came the sound of the dirge for the dead, and the laugh and the wail struck against each other, and jarred. No one noticed us for awhile, but at last a woman saw us, and beckoned us to come. |We are all defiled to-day; you may sit with us,| they said; and yielding to the instincts of their kindly Tamil nature, they crushed closer together to make room for us beside them. How I did enjoy being squeezed up there among them. But to appreciate that in the least you would have to work in a caste-bound part of old India; you can have no idea, until you try, how hard it is to refrain from touching those whom you love.

The house door opened upon the verandah, and we could hear the moan of the dirge. |There is sorrow on the sea; it cannot be quiet.| There was no quietness, only the ceaseless moan, that kept rising into a wail; there were tears in the sound of the wail, and I felt like a sort of living harp with all its strings drawn tight.

But the women outside cared nothing at all. It was strange to see how callous they were. It was not their own who had died, so they chatted and laughed and watched the proceedings -- the tying of the garlands round the arches, the arrangement of offerings for the Brahmans. It was all full of interest to them. We tried to turn their thoughts to the Powers of the World to Come. But no. They did not care.

Presently there was a stir. |The men are coming!| they said. |Run! there is a shady corner under those palms on the far verandah! Run and hide! They are here!| And, even as they spoke, in streamed the men, each with his brass water-vessel poised on his head, and they saw us standing there. We thought they would turn us out, and were quite prepared to go at a sign from the head of the clan. But he was a friend of ours, and he smiled as we salaamed, and pointed to a quiet corner, out of the way, where we could see it all without being too much seen.

To understand this, which to me was a surprise, one must remember that by nature the Indian is most courteous, and if it were not for Caste rules we should be allowed to come much closer to them than is possible now. To-day they were all ceremonially unclean, so our presence was not considered polluting. Also the Indian loves a function; sad or glad, it matters little. Life is a bubble on the water; enjoy it while you may. And they sympathised with what they thought was our desire to see the show. This was human; they could understand it. So they let us stay; and we stayed, hoping for a chance later on.

Then the ceremonies began. They carried the dead man out and laid him in the courtyard under the arch of palms. He was old and worn and thin. One could see the fine old face, with the marks of the Hindu trident painted down the forehead. He had been a most earnest Hindu; all the rites were duly performed, and morning and night for many years he had marked those marks on his brow. Had he ever once listened to the Truth? I do not know. He must have heard about it, but he had not received it. He died, they told us, |not knowing what lay on the other side.|

The water-bearers laid their vessels on the ground. Each had a leaf across its mouth. The priest was crowned with a chaplet of flowers. Then came the bathing. They threw up a shelter, and carried him there. It was reverently done. There was a touch of refinement in the thought which banished the women and children before the bathing began. Tamils bathe in the open air, and always clothed, but always apart. And as the women's verandah overlooked the screened enclosure, they were all ordered off. They went and waited, silent now, awed by the presence of the men. While the bathing was going on the priests chanted and muttered incantations, and now and again a bell was rung, and incense waved, and tapers lighted. Now they were causing that mysterious Something which still hovered round the lifeless form to leave it and return to them, and when the bathing was over they signified that all was done; the Influence had departed, descended; the funeral ceremonies might proceed.

And all this time, without a break, the dirge was being sung by the mourners in the house. It was a sort of undernote to all the sounds outside. Then the old man, robed in white and crowned and wreathed with flowers, was carried round to the other side; and oh, the pitifulness of it all! St. Paul must have been thinking of some such scene when he wrote to the converts, |That ye sorrow not even as others which have no hope.| And I thought how strangely callous we were, how superficial our sympathy. The Lord's command does not stir us, the sorrow of those we neglect does not touch us; we think so much more of ourselves and our own selfish pleasure than we think of the purpose for which we were saved -- and at such a tremendous cost! Oh for a baptism of reality and obedience to sweep over us! Oh to be true to the hymns we sing and the vows we make! God make us true.

Forgive all this. It was burnt into me afresh that day as I sat there watching the things they did and listening to what they said. We had come too late for that old dead man, too late for most of the living ones too. Can you wonder if at such solemn times one yields oneself afresh and for ever to obey?

Rice was prepared for the dead man's use, and balls of rice were ready to be offered to his spirit after his cremation; for the Hindus think that an intermediate body must be formed and nourished, which on the thirteenth day after death is conducted to either heaven or hell, according to the deeds done on earth. The ceremonies were all characterised by a belief in some future state. The spirit was somewhere -- in the dark -- so they tried to light the way for him. This reminds me of one ceremony especially suggestive. All the little grandchildren were brought, and lighted tapers given to them; then they processioned round the bier, round and round many times, holding the tapers steadily, and looking serious and impressed.

Then the widow came out with a woman on either side supporting her. And she walked round and round her husband, with the tears rolling down her face, and she wailed the widow's wail, with her very heart in it. Why had he gone away and left her desolate? His was the spirit of fragrance like the scented sandal-wood; his was the arm of strength like the lock that barred the door. Gone was the scent of the sandal, broken and open the door; why had the bird flown and left but the empty cage? Gone! was he gone? Was he really gone? Was it certain he was dead? He who had tossed and turned on the softest bed they could make, must he lie on the bed of his funeral pyre? Must he burn upon logs of wood? Say, was there no way to reach him, no way to help him now? |I have searched for thee, but I find thee not.| And so the dirge moaned on.

I could not hear all this then; Victory told it to me, and much more, afterwards. |Last time I heard it,| she said, |I was inside, wailing too.|

As the poor widow went round and round she stopped each time she got to the feet, and embraced them fervently. Sometimes she broke through all restraint, and clasped him in her arms.

[Illustration: A photo rarely possible. The dead woman lies in her bier; the white on her eyes and brow is the mark of Siva's ashes. Some of the mourners are so marked, as they are all Saivites. The fire is lighted from the pot of fire to the right. Just before it is lighted, the chief mourner takes a vessel of water, pierces a hole in it, walks round the dead, letting the water trickle out, pierces another hole and repeats the walk. After the third piercing and walk, he throws the pot backwards over his shoulder, and as it smashes the water all splashes out. This is to refresh the spirit if it should be thirsty while its body is being burned.]

After many ceremonies had been performed, the men all went away, and the women were left to bid farewell to the form soon to be carried out. Then the men came back and bore him across the courtyard, and paused under the arch outside, while the women all rushed out, tearing their hair and beating themselves and wailing wildly. As they were lifting the bier to depart the cry was, |Stop! stop! Will he not speak?| And this, chanted again and again, would have made the coldest care. Then when all was over, and the long procession, headed by the tom-toms and conch shells, had passed out of sight, the women pressed in again, and each first let down her hair, and seized her nearest neighbour, and they all flung themselves on the ground and knocked their heads against it, and then, rising to a sitting posture, they held on to one another, swaying backwards and forwards and chanting in time to the swaying, in chorus and antiphone. All this, even to the hair-tearing and head-knocking, was copied by the children who were present with terrible fidelity.

We sat down among them. They took our hands and rocked us in the orthodox way. But we did not wail and we did not undo our hair. We tried to speak comforting words to those who were really in grief, but we found it was not the time. A fortnight later we went again, and found the house door open because we had been with them that day.

But we could not help them then, so we rose and were going away, when, held by the power of that dirge of theirs, I turned to look again. The last rays of the afternoon sun were lighting up the courtyard, and shining on the masses of black hair and grey. As I looked they got up one by one, and put their disordered dress to rights, and shook out the dust from their glossy hair, and did it up again. And one by one, without farewell of any sort, they went away. An hour later we met groups of them coming home from bathing. They would not touch us then. Afterwards the chief mourners came out and bathed, and went all round the village wailing. And the last thing I saw, as the sun set over the hills and the place grew chill and dark, was the old widow, worn out now, returning home in her wet things, wailing still.

I write this under a sense of the solemnity of being |a servant . . . separated unto the Gospel.| I would not write one word lightly. But oh! may I ask you to face it? Are we honest towards God? If we were, would these people be left to die as they are being left to die?

We feel for them. But feelings will not save souls; it cost God Calvary to win us.

It will cost us as much as we may know of the fellowship of His sufferings, if those for whom He died that day are ever to be won.

. . . . . . .

I am writing in the midst of the sights and the sounds of life. There is life in the group of women at the well; life in the voices, in the splash of the water, in the cry of a child, in the call of the mother; life in the flight of the parrots as they flock from tree to tree; life in their chatter as they quarrel and scream; life, everywhere life. How can I think out of all this, back into death again?

But I want to, for you may live for many a year in India without being allowed to see once what we have seen twice within two months, and it cannot be for nothing that we saw it. We must be meant to show it to you.

[Illustration: This needs to be looked into. Gradually the middle clears. The women are holding each other's hands preparatory to swaying backwards and forwards as they chant the dirge for the dead. The lamp (you see its top near the vessel on the right) was lighted as soon as the old woman died, and placed at her head on the floor. So blindly they show their sense of the darkness of death. The brass water vessel, with the leaves laid across its mouth, was filled with the water of purification. This was poured in a circle on the floor round the body. The bits of grass are the sacred Kusa grass used in many religious ceremonies.]

The Picture-catching Missie and I were in the Village of the Tamarind Tree, when for the second time I saw it. They are very friendly there, and just as in the Red Lake Village they let us look behind the curtain, so here again they pushed it back, and let us in, and went on with their business, not minding us. We crouched up close together on the only scrap of empty space, and watched.

Everything was less intense; the dead was only a poor and very old widow who had lived her life out, and was not wanted. There were no near kindred, only relations by marriage; it was evident everyone went through the form without emotion of any sort.

The woman lay on a rough bier on the floor, and round her crowded a dozen old women. At her head there was a brass vessel of water, a lamp-stand, some uncooked rice, and some broken cocoanuts. Just before we came in they had filled a little brass vessel from the larger one. Now one of the old hags walked round the dead three times, pouring the water out as she walked. Then another fed her -- fed that poor dead mouth, stuffed it in so roughly it made us sick and faint. There were other things done hurriedly, carelessly; we could not follow them. The last was the rubbing on of ashes -- she had been a worshipper of Siva -- also they covered the closed eyes with ashes and patted them down flat. And all the time the gabble of the women mocked at the silence of death. There was no reverence, no sense of solemnity; the ceremonial so full of symbol to its makers, the thinkers of Vedic times, was to them simply a custom, a set of customs, to be followed and got through as quickly as might be by heedless hands. And yet they faithfully carried out every detail they knew, and they finished their heartless work and called to the men to come. The men were waiting outside. They came in and carried her out.

It seemed impossible to think of a photograph then; it was most unlikely they would let us take one, and we hardly felt in the spirit of picture-catching. Yet we thought of you, and of how you certainly could never see it unless we could show it to you; and we wanted to show it to you, so we asked them if we might. Of course if there had been real grief, as in the other I had seen, we could not have asked it, it would have been intrusion; but here there was none -- that was the pathos of it. And they were very friendly, so they put their burden on the ground, and waited.

There it is. To the right the barber stands with his fire-bowl hanging from a chain; this is to light the funeral pyre. The smoke interfered with the photo, but then it is true to life. To the left stands the man with the shell ready to blow. At the back, with the sacred ashes rubbed on forehead and breast and arms, stand the two nearest relatives, who to-morrow will gather the ashes and throw them into the stream.

The picture was caught. The man with the shell blew it, the man with the fire came in front, the bearers lifted the bier; they went away with their dead.

[Illustration: These are three of the mourners, but they were only mourning ceremonially; and so, released for the moment from their duty, they quite enjoyed themselves.]

Then the old women, who had been pressing through the open door, rushed back in the usual way and began the usual rock and dirge. These Comparison Songs are always full of soul. They have sprung into being in times of deepest feeling, taken shape when hearts were as finely wrought moulds which left their impress upon them. And to hear them chanted without any soul is somehow a pitiful thing, a sort of profanation, like the singing of sacred words for pay.

The photograph was not easy to take, the space was so confined, the movement so continuous, the commotion so confusing. How it was taken I know not; the women massed on the floor were not still for more than a moment. In that moment it was done. Then we persuaded three of them to risk the peril of being caught alone. They would not move farther than the wall of the house, and as it was in a narrow street, again there were difficulties. But the crowning perplexity was at the water-side. It was windy, and our calls were blown away, so they did not hear what we wanted them to do, and they splashed too vigorously. Their only idea just then was to get themselves and their garments ceremonially clean, defiled as they were by contact with the dead.

But let those six whom you can partly see stand for the thousands upon thousands whom you cannot see at all. Those thousands are standing in water to-day from the North to the uttermost South, as the last act in the drama which they have played in the presence of the dead.

. . . . . . .

The women have gone from the well. The parrots have flown to other trees. The Tamils say the body is the sheath of the soul. I think of that empty sheath I saw, and wonder where the soul has flown. It has gone -- but where? Has it gone home, like the women from the well? Has it flown far, like the birds among the trees? It has gone, it has gone, that is all we know. It has gone.

Then I read these words from Conybeare and Howson's translation: |If the tent which is my earthly house be destroyed I have a mansion built by God . . . eternal in the heavens. And herein I groan with earnest longings, desiring to cover my earthly raiment with the robes of my heavenly mansion. . . . And He who has prepared me for this very end is God.|

The dead man missed his End. That old dead woman missed it too. And the millions around us still alive are missing their End to-day. |This very End| -- think of it -- Mortality swallowed up in Life -- Death only an absence, Life for ever a presence -- Present with the Lord who has prepared us |for this very End.|

Can we enjoy it all by ourselves? Will there be no sense of incompleteness if the many are outside, missing it all because they missed their End? Will the glory make us glad if they are somewhere far away from it and God? Will not heaven be almost an empty place to one who has never tried to fill it? Yet there is room, oh so much room, for those we are meant to bring in with us!

And there is room, oh so much room, along the edge of the precipice. There are gaps left all unguarded. Can it be that you are meant to guard one of those gaps? If so, it will always remain as it is, a falling-point for those rivers of souls, unless you come.

Are these things truth or are they imagination? If they are imagination -- then let the paper on which they are written be burnt, burnt till it curls up and the words fall into dust. But if they are true -- then what are we going to do? Not what are we going to say or sing, or even feel or pray -- but what are we going to do?

[Illustration: The ceremonial bathing. They are all old women, but the very oldest old woman in India bathes most vigorously. After this bathing is over, they are purified from the defilement contracted by going to the house of the dead.]

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