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Amy Carmichael :: Ponnamal—Chapter XVI: In the Midst of the Furnace

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And it was victory, though that victory was not always apparent at the time. And because to‐day there are many called to stand on the outer side of just such fires, I will try to set down that which every now and then was shown to us for our comfort, till we learned that for those who suffer in righteousness there is appointed an angel of the Lord who smites the flame of the fire out of the furnace, and makes in the midst of the furnace as it had been a moist whistling wind, so that the fire cannot touch them at all, neither hurt nor trouble them-though indeed for the moment, to us who observe them, things may seem far otherwise.

We had not, at the time I am thinking, of now, used morphia; aspirin still sufficed to keep things tolerable. But that drug ran short, and a substitute was supplied which was useless. I wired to those of our family who were on the hills-for it was our hot season and they had to be away-and they sent a supply of the right medicine to us as soon as possible; but the five days which passed before it came were such that at last we had to give a hypodermic, only to find that the morphia recently supplied had lost its power. Those who have lived through such a time will know how every minute sensation bites into the soul, etched into it as with a red‐hot needle.

But now for the comfort: Ponnamal told me afterwards that when the pain was at its height it was as if the Lord Himself stood by her, quoting to her familiar words; and she said, 'The waters did not overflow me, nor did the flame kindle on me; no, never once.' There had been no indication that things were so. All we had seen was a poor, tormented, or at best stupefied body, a house with its blinds drawn down, whose words, when there was speech at all, were only about its pain.

Later, when we were together again, she longed for her music; and one evening one of her Sitties played softly at some little distance from her room, hoping by suggestion, if it might be so, to woo those sweet strains back to her. Did the angels smile tenderly on our poor attempts, I wonder? Ponnamal did. 'I heard the baby organ last night,' she remarked next morning. 'Did it ease you? Did it make you sleep?' and she turned her great, dark, loving eyes upon us and smiled. And then, fearing she had been ungrateful, she said, 'It was Prémie Sittie, was it not? Indeed, I enjoyed listening.' But she never spoke of it as resembling that other music, which never came now.

Sometimes she was a little troubled because she had none of the ecstatic feelings she had read that others had when death was near; and one day, when we were talking about walking by faith, and of the mark of His confidence it was when our God trusted us to do it and to be content to do it, she said: 'Yes, I know that is what I am to do; for the life to come is as a sealed book to me. I do not fear, I have peace, but I have no feeling of great joy: all is silent and sealed.' This continued to be so till one night a comforting dream was granted. Early in the morning long before dawn she sent for me; she could not wait till morning to tell it. She was sinking, she said, in a deep stream, and the weeds grew thick and entangled her, and she called, and instantly the Lord Himself was with her, and the next moment-but 'a moment' does not express the instantaneousness of it-she was with Him. Then she began to praise, saying, 'Amen. Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.' And then thinking I was there, she turned to me. 'O my mother, where are the children?' she asked; and awoke on earth again. But the seals of the book had been broken by the gladness of that bright dream.

As often as we could through those months she had what Samuel Rutherford calls the comfort of 'Christ's fair moonlight in His word and Sacraments.' Hallowed hours those were, set in stillness, and filled with a peace that neither pain nor grief nor any fear could touch. When, in the days that came after, the waters compassed her about, even unto the soul, and the depths closed her round about, and the weeds were wrapped about her head, she would recall her light, and in the strength of her Risen Lord forbid the darkness to engulf her. Thus, receiving abundance of grace, she reigned in life by One Christ Jesus.

She was still as clear in brain as ever. The storms of pain that swept over her, the large doses of depressing drugs she had to take, appeared to have no ill‐effect on her wonderfully powerful mind. She followed the war news closely, and to her the story of the angels at Mons which reached us long before the news‐papers had begun to argue over it, was natural, not wonderful; and so was the still more intimate account of the White Comrade. But when the gallant young brother of one of the Sitties was left wounded on the field, and 'Missing' was the only word that came to us about him, then the thought of the War became too personal and poignant, and we had to keep its heavy shadow from her: she had not strength to bear it. Almost to the end she heard all the family news; advised with her old wisdom; was still in all ways her loving, ardent, eager self. So full of vitality she was that it seemed as if she could not die.

Once while I was reading to her from the Song of Songs, a book which was as honey in the comb to her, she laughed with joy. We had just read the verse, 'Who is she that cometh up from the wilderness leaning upon her Beloved?' when she exclaimed, 'Oh, that is a happy word!' and she told me that a few nights before, when the medicine failed to give her sleep, she lay tossing about and turning from side to side, finding ease nowhere, till at last she cried aloud and said, 'O my compassionate Lord, I want to rejoice, but I cannot. The air is hot, and my bed is hot, and the pain is weariness to me.' And it was as if He came quickly very near her and soothed her, telling her He understood; and reminding her of this very word, He told her she was coming up out of the wilderness, not long to stay in it. 'Because the way is short, I thank Thee, Lord'-and yet she was not hurried in spirit to go; she was far more eager to stay, if only she could help us by staying. But the human part of her stood on tip‐toe to be off, and once she said longingly, speaking of Christiana and how she received her token, an arrow with a point sharpened with love let easily into her heart, 'It is a long ten days since I received my token, and I am not away yet. When will the good day come?'

One morning Purripu, who was one of her devoted nurses, brought her a great vase of unopened violet passion‐flowers, trained in light sprays over branches of henna, our Indian mignonette. 'Watch; they will open at nine o'clock,' she said, as she put the vase on the table beside her mother. And Ponnamal watched; and just before nine o'clock the interlaced filaments began to stir as if conscious of the time, and by the hour appointed all the flowers were open. Ponnamal had long known the ways of Passion‐flowers, but the morning hours are busy in the nursery, and she had never had leisure to watch the little moving miracle. 'Just at the hour we keep holy as the hour He was crucified, His flower of Sorrow opens, and shows all mysteries,' she said; and her thoughts travelled back to Calvary, and she sucked sweet comfort from the word that tells us we have not a High Priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities. Her room was full of the scent of the flowers when a little later I was with her, and in her face was peace.

'Words I have known all my life have a new force within them now,' she said suddenly one day; and she told how a great dread had been upon her, lest when, near the end, the pain grew more violent, and her will weaker to endure, she would not be able to bear it. And once when this fear oppressed her, almost like a voice speaking aloud, the words of the promise reassured her: 'God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way of escape, that ye may be able to bear it.' That negative verb, which in Tamil idiom has it that God will not give room for such a thing to happen, was an immense comfort to Ponnamal, and she took delight in Ridley's words to Latimer: 'Be of good cheer, brother; for God will either assuage the fury of the flame, or strengthen us to abide it.'

Often during those last weeks if one of us went in the twilight to her room we would find a little silent figure sitting close beside the bed. It was Tara, or Evu, or Lullitha, three of the merriest, most healthily restless little mortals ever created. But they would sit by Ponnamal in perfect silence for an hour at a time. Others of her nurslings would come too, steal in for a kiss, and slip out again, awed by the unwonted aspect of life in that little room; but those three children minded nothing if only they might be with her. If she could bear to listen, they would tell her stories of the others, and of their gardens, and pet birds, and games; and all the old hunger of love would be in her eyes and in the tones of her voice as she listened and asked questions, drawing out their little tales. Another constant visitor was her old father, who stayed with us for months so that he might be near her. One day he asked if he might bring the barber, from time immemorial India's only physician; and finding that celebrity proposed to do no more than feel pulses, we consented, and he came.

It was a curious scene; the barber, a good friend of ours, and in his way an intelligent man, felt first the right pulse, then the left, and steadfastly regarded Ponnamal. 'How long has she to live?' demanded the old father; but this was too much for Ponnamal's sense of the ludicrous; she broke into a peal of weak laughter, and the doctor amazed turned to the father. 'There is a vitality in her,' he replied in his best medical manner, 'which it will take some weeks to reduce.' 'That is so,' murmured the old man, I much strong food has she; milk in infinite quantities, and the essence of foods.' 'And owing to this she is as yet full of the spirit of life,' continued the doctor affably; but he stood looking at her with a puzzled expression, for she was being fed on what he regarded as nothing short of poison-rice‐water for diet, with, when the pulse fails, a decoction of pig's tusk, stag's, or rhinoceros' horn, tiger's claw, and a little silver and gold, added to the ordinary medicine, being the correct treatment. Ponnamal knew this, and understanding his mind, began to tell him in Whom lay her strength and confidence and happiness; but he hardly listened. He had seen; and to that Hindu man accustomed to something very different in a sick‐room, the sermon that told was written in her face.

After he left she talked of the young barber, and of her many Hindu friends in the villages about us. It appeared more than ever pitiful to her now that they should go on without the one Light which Lightens life's darkest places, slaves to the temporal, the unimportant. And a story Mr. Walker had told just before he left us seemed exactly to fit her feeling, and she longed to get all who came to see her to understand how much there was in it. It was about the carved device and inscription over three of the doors in the Milan cathedral. Over one door, roses, 'All that pleases is but for a moment,' over another a Cross, 'All that grieves us is but for a moment'; and over the central door only the words, 'Nothing is important but that which is eternal.'

Early in July we had our last sustained conversation. 'Last night,' she said, 'I had less pain than usual, and my mind was clear. When the confusion passes, and power to think returns, then my heart rises as if released from a weight; I can pray and praise. But first I examined myself to be sure all was well with me. For many days I had felt nothing, not even comfort, all was dimness and a blank and silence; then as I told my God about it He showed me that all through the days the joy of His salvation was within me, unchanged by any misery of pain. It was there, but I could not taste it. The darkness and the sadness of that time was caused by the medicine; it was not that I had lost anything. This comforted me, and I praised Him greatly and was content.' For many days her mouth had had that drawn look which those who have nursed anyone through sore suffering will know too well. But as she talked the old sweet, satisfied look returned, and all the old happy curves were there again. 'Oh, is it not wonderful!' she exclaimed with a sort of vigorous joyousness. 'For days and nights the waves beat hard on me, and then suddenly there is a great calm, and I lie back and rest.'

Then she asked for the last few verses of 1 Cor.15, repeating after me the words, 'Thanks be to God which giveth us the victory.' And then I read the 46th psalm to her, and she fell asleep.

After this her words were few. Only once, as she lay in what seemed to us who were outside it unimaginable misery of body, she from the innermost core of it told me how she had hoped to be allowed to stay; she thought she could help us a little 'if the pain did not pass this limit.' It seemed to me the most unselfish word I had ever heard from human lips. And as she spoke, her eyes, the most living part of her now, seemed to devour me with the passion of love in them, and her hands held mine as if they could never let them go. Verily love is eternal: many waters cannot quench it, neither can the floods drown it; if a man would give all the substance of his house for love it would be utterly contemned.

And by this token, sure and glorious, we know the best is always in front, never behind. What can death do to that which is eternal? That which pain could not kill can death destroy? What is death but a door? They stooped as they passed through, for the door is low. Then suddenly they were unclothed and clothed upon, and clad in new garments they walked on, who shall say in what new powers of life, who shall say to what new experiences of joy? But does the dress we wear change the spirit within us? Do new powers weaken that in us which was mighty before? Do new joys blot out old loves? By all the love that ever was since love first woke in the world, it cannot be. They loved us a moment ago; with the whole strength of their being they loved us. They love us now; they will love us for ever. The old story rings true today: Those our beloved, ever beholding that Face that doth minister life to beholders, will be glad when they hear the sound of our feet stepping over our Father's threshold; for they do not forget: they love, and love cannot forget.

And so, these things being true, it must be that the best we have known is only the foretaste of some very far better to come. Can less be contained in the word that tells us we shall be satisfied with the goodness of the house? Would less than life's best content us in the land of the immortals? We shall have our best again, purified, perfected, assured from change for ever.

Thank God, there is a limit set to pain, though to love there are no limits. Ponnamal touched hers, as I have told, on August 26. It was night; but the night was full of voices, saying, 'Her warfare is accomplished': and for her it was Day.

CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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