TO WHATEVER UTMOST DISTANCE
The story this chapter tells has been told in brief elsewhere; but it is essentially Ponnamal’s, and cannot be left out of this record of her life.
We had all been camping out in an interesting village, where some of the most riotous of the opposing Hindus had been converted; and we were full of happiness as we started for home. With us, in our bullock‐cart, was a young wife whose husband wanted us to take her into our Starry Band for awhile, in order that she might return home able to help others. She was a silly little thing, not his equal in any way, and untouched by his ideal; but in those good days we were rich in hope, and we took her. As we rumbled along the road, the husband, who had been talking to the Walkers, who were in the bandy ahead of us, now dropped back to ours, and asked his wife to give him her jewels “the word covers all the gold and silver ornaments worn by women in South India”, which he did not think became anyone who wanted to live the kind of life he desired for her. She obeyed; there was nothing in her act but just obedience, for her heart desired otherwise; but I saw an expression of intense interest in Ponnamal’s face, and she told me that the evening before, while she was speaking in the open air, she had overheard a child say to her mother that when she grew up she would join that band and wear jewels ‘like that sister’“herself”. The words had smitten Ponnamal. She felt this was the last impression she wished to leave upon anyone’s mind; she had gone to her Lord about it, and the answer that seemed to come to her was this: ‘Thou shalt also be a crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of thy God.’ She did not argue as to the meaning of these words. She saw in the flash of a moment herself, unjewelled, a marked woman among her own people; an eyesore, an offence. But—and the thought overwhelmed her with the joy in it—not so to the Lord her God.
When we went home she took off her jewels. How minute, how inoffensive the words appear now, set down in one short sentence! But every syllable in them burned for us then. Are your hearts set upon righteousness, O ye congregation? and do ye judge the thing that is right, O ye sons of men? The answer to that question will be given otherwhere.
In South India, a woman’s life down to its merest detail is governed by the law universal, called custom. Her husband, however, has power to override custom. The action therefore of the wife provoked no comment, beyond a passing wonder; besides which it was recognized by a sure instinct that the thing would not proceed far in that direction: when the time came to marry the daughters they would be suitably jewelled. Ponnamal’s case was different. If she had taken off her jewels at the time of her husband’s death, that would have been all right, because according to custom; but she had done this thing out of sheer love to her Lord. It broke the conventions of life: it would lead who knew how far? It was therefore unnatural, disgraceful; worse, it was pharisaical. ‘Be not righteous overmuch,’ was the word flung at Ponnamal.
Then what was to be, happened. A few—how few! but still to the startled and indignant eyes that watched, it was most ominous—‘inebriated with Divine love,’ eager to forsake and defy the spirit of the world, stript themselves of every weight that they might the less laden run the race that lay before them; and they either returned their jewels to their families, or, if free to do so, gave them to the C.M.S. for China. One who had a long struggle with herself told me that she had never gone to sleep at night without her hand on the gold chain she wore round her neck. ‘If I had loved my Saviour more, I should have loved my jewels less,’ she said. The last to do this difficult thing had a hard time afterwards: she was taken from the band by her people, and suffered many things. None of us touched on the subject except when privately asked what we felt about it; but it was impossible to speak without seeming to allude to it.
How vividly, as I write, comes back to me an afternoon meeting in a church in the country. The place was full, for we were in the middle of a mission; and to the Indian Christian, meetings are a sweet delight. Before me sat rows of women, and the village being rich, their ears, cut into large loops, were laden with ornaments. But to me it had been given that day to look upon Christ Crucified. I could only speak of Calvary. Far, far from me then was any thought of the women’s golden toys: all eternity was round me, and that common little building was the vestibule thereof. Then, as I spoke, I saw a woman rise. She told me afterwards that she could not bear it. Time, and the scorn of time, and its poor estimates, how trivial all appeared! ‘I saw Him,’ she said, ‘naked of this world’s glory, stript to the uttermost; and I went and made an ash‐heap of my pride.’
Then the word flew round that we three, the Walkers and I, especially that I, preached heresy; and one whom we all respected, a most devout and dear Tamil fellow‐worker, had an alarming dream in which he perceived me wrecking the Tamil church; and he implored Mr. Walker to allow him to deal with me. So on the floor at the entrance to the tent we, Mr. Walker, he, and I, sat for two serious hours, and he talked. We ended where we began, but we ended in affection, which was a great relief to me. Still, he was disappointed; for we could not un‐see what we had seen, nor deny the change that obedience had wrought in the lives of those who had obeyed, counting it joy to have something more to offer. We left it, saying only to any who pressed us, ‘If ye be otherwise minded, God, if you truly desire it, will reveal even this unto you.’
Mr. Walker’s contribution to the weighty subject under dispute was characteristic. It was not in its outward form a thing that very closely touched an Englishman; but in essence it did, and he pierced through to the heart of it: ‘Let’s have liberty,’ he said; ‘people are always so anxious to circumcise Titus’—and he would not have Titus circumcised. Later, as the feeling grew more and more determined that at all costs Titus must be circumcised, he took the matter up more definitely; and as usual, careless of his own reputation for narrow‐mindedness or what not, spoke out his thoughts. Liberty, like duty, was one of his golden words; and another—and it was this he championed now—was obedience.
One day, soon after the last of the band had taken off her jewels, Ponnamal’s parents‐in‐law sent for her and said, ‘Do you know what you have done? You have closed the heart of the Hindus. Till now those who according to ordinary custom would have looked coldly upon you, have received you in a remarkable manner, for to their eyes you appeared a person of consequence.’ This was a new view of matters to Ponnamal, who, till she had joined the band, knew little of Hindus of the exclusive castes; however, she had an answer ready. ‘I told them,’ she said, ‘that I thought the Holy Spirit of God was strong enough to make a way for me, even without the help of my jewels.’ And to her surprise she found the difficulty did not exist. To the Hindu, what he calls piety is an attractive thing; piety includes and indeed chiefly consists in a renunciation of the good things of this life. Anything, therefore, which leans to this commends itself to him. Also, of course, an unjewelled widow was quite natural to him. So Ponnamal’s undecorated person was no offence to the Hindus. ‘There are no boundaries set to her devotion,’ they remarked, and thought no more about it, but respected her the more.
The furor passed; the violence of it, so absurdly out of proportion to its importance—at least according to Western thought—diminished at length; but it left its mark. The women who had braved the storm had made a new discovery: they were no more thereafter mere biscuits in a biscuit‐box, cut to correct pattern, fitted in rows, each the duplicate of the other; they had found a new thing, even their individuality; and in finding it they had gained in courage and in character. Things impossible before were now undertaken without a thought; they were free from a thousand trammels that before had entangled their feet with invisible threads. And going deeper, those who for love of the Crucified had counted all things loss and vanity, loved Him now with a new love, rejoiced with a new joy. Is there any limit to what God is prepared to do for the one who loves His Son well enough to meet His lightest wish? ‘After these things’—renunciation of temporal gain—the word of the Lord came unto Abraham in a vision, saying, ‘Fear not, I am thy shield and thy exceeding great reward.’ After these things—not dissimilar—the word was the same.
Among Ponnamal’s notebooks is one dealing with these years of camp‐life; and sitting on the window‐sill of the nursery yesterday, her daughter and dear little legacy to us, read to me page after page of prayers, in Ponnamal’s beautiful, eager Tamil: prayers written down, as probably all true recorded prayer has ever been, for the relief of a heart too full to contain that which boiled up within it. The prayer of the time we are dealing with now touched me most: ‘Thou knowest my desire: my life does not yet appear to me as thoroughly controlled by Thee. My Father, look upon the holy face of Thy Beloved, and in those of us who have thus dedicated ourselves to Thee, work so, thoroughly that to whatever utmost distance Thou canst lead us, to that utmost distance for the glory of Thy name, we shall be led by Thee.’
Looking back after fifteen years’ experience of what continued to the end to be a veritable reproach, she said: ‘It was to me a new emancipation. A new sense of spiritual liberty is bound up in my mind with that experience; it affected everything in such an unexpected way; it set my spirit free. I could not have done this new work “the work for the Temple children”, if it had not been for the new courage that came with that break with custom, and from bondage to the fear of man.’ Truly at that time Ponnamal learned to say, ‘A fig for the day’s smile of a worm!’ or for the day’s frown either; and we all went on in quietness, and let the little flies of criticism buzz as they pleased about us. ‘Walk before Me and be thou perfect.’ What a mercy it is that it does not say, Walk before Sarah!
It worked, too, into most convenient though lesser forms of freedom; for now the band could travel anywhere, unafraid. Night journeys along unfrequented roads had been impracticable before, and it was not always possible to travel by day. And when in after years the work for children was established, and a large company of girls, bereft of the protection the mere presence of a white man near by affords, was left with us alone in what was then an open compound in jungle‐land, the two old men of the robber caste who, according to the custom of the South, are subsidized to insure us from the attentions of that caste, came to us and said: ‘We agree to continue to be your guard; but if your girls were as others are, jewelled, we would not do it—no, not for lacs of rupees.’