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Copyright © 2001
AMY CARMICHAEL'S WIDOW
(Introducing The Widow of the Jewels, a narrative by Amy Carmichael, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London. 1928.)
1. AMY CARMICHAEL IN INDIA
Amy Carmichael was born on December 16, 1867 in Northern Ireland. She was preparing to go to China as a missionary, but the China Inland Mission doctor did not pass her to be medically fit for work in China. After a year, she decided to go to Japan. She was in Japan for fifteen months, but she was ill with neuralgia. Soon she was back in England. Dedicated to God's work of evangelization at any cost, Amy arrived in India in the later part of the year 1895 as a young woman, and never returned to England. She went to be with the Lord "in the early morning hours of January 18, 1951." On September 24, 1931, "Amy failed to see a pit some workmen had dug in an area where none was planned, and taken unaware in the dim light, she slipped" (Kathleen White, Amy Carmichael, Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, 1986). She remained an invalid, mostly confined to her bed, for twenty years, until her death in 1951.
The first-ever Protestant missionary to India, Zigenbalg Bartholomew, was also planning to go to the West Indies, but the Lord took him to India in 1706! He went to be with the Lord even before he was in his mid-thirties, but what a magnificent servant! God enabled him to lay the foundation for the Church in south India.
The Lord had equipped Amy in so many ways with spiritual disciplines, social awareness, and a literary skill and sensibility that moved the hearts of men and women then, and her life and writings continue to be a beacon of light even today. Between 1895 and 1950, she wrote thirty-five books. As her biographer Kathleen White informs us, her books were translated into fifteen languages.
2. MINISTRY AMONG THE PROSTITUTES, DESTITUTE WOMEN AND CHILDRENThe Widow of the Jewels by Amy Carmichael was first published in the year 1928. By this time, Christian missionaries and the Church in India had laid out a network of secular schools in India that changed the traditional caste-restrictive schooling to caste-neutral schooling. Gandhi had come into prominence in the Indian struggle for freedom from British rule. But he was not yet the unquestioned leader of the Indian masses. The Muslims had not yet orchestrated their demand to carve a Muslim nation for themselves out of British India as soon as the British would leave India. The 1921 Census of India showed that there was less than two percent of total population of India who professed the Christian faith. The English language was well established as the lingua franca among the educated classes cutting across ethnic groups. The zeal for social and religious reform of Hindus evinced in the nineteenth century was being replaced by the zeal to attain political freedom. In southern India, the non-Brahmin social movement was taking roots in a very significant way. There was already talk among the Hindus themselves to abolish the dreadful practice of temple prostitution and the ill treatment of the widows. However, the legislation to ban this practice would come only later on. Amy Carmichael's fictionalized true story happens in this context in the far south, among the Tamils. Unfortunately, the practice of temple prostitution is still practiced in some parts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in south India.
3. THE WIDOW OF THE JEWELS
The Widow of the Jewels is not about the temple prostitutes and their rescue from the clutches of their masters. Actually, this is a fictionalized true story of two women who were seekers of God, and how God met them in different circumstances. The conversion of these women, one from the uppermost caste of the Brahmans, and the other from one of the low castes, is a fascinating story. The conversion itself was not dramatic. It came in sublime tones. But these women were widows. And the status of the widow was and still is the most despicable status among the Hindus. Jesus meets them in ways beyond comprehension. There is no Jew or Gentile before him, neither is the distinction of the Brahman and the Untouchable, nor is He the respecter of other social positions.
4. LINNET AND THE OLD SHEPHERD - A MODERN GENTILE AND JEW DISTINCTION
The Widow of the Jewels is the name of the woman whose life is narrated in the story. She is given the pet name "Linnet" in the narrative, because "she was of so tranquil a nature and such a singing bird." She had four daughters and no son. "Not one of the four died, as so many Indian babies die. … But her husband died." She wanted to worship just once at the Hindu temple of the Virgin (Kanya Kumari) in Cape Comorin, the southernmost tip of India, where three oceans meet. But when she went to the temple, she was asked to, "Go, go, go. Clear out!" "For a glance had told him (the priest) Linnet's caste. It was not a caste allowed to worship there!" She was not from the so-called untouchable community, and "there were castes below hers in the land, (but) hers was a caste forbidden in all the greater temples." She wondered whether her attempt to enter the temple offended the goddess. "Would she take some fearful vengeance?" She comes across a shepherd, "an old, weather-worn man." He told her of a god, "very interesting and friendly," who carried a stick across the shoulder, and a sheep across his shoulder. But the old man insisted that this god was only for the shepherds. The god was found on the foot-hills, because that is the place shepherds go. Linnet was sadly disappointed when the shepherd said that this God was not a god of people like her, but He is God only to the shepherds.
5. JASMINE - A WITHERED FLOWER RENEWED BY JESUS
Jasmine, again a Tamil name translated into English, was a child widow, married when she was only five years old and soon became a widow when she was twelve years old. Hailing from the upper caste of Brahmans and cared for by a loving father who was a Brahman priest, she prayed for her release from this birth to all her gods with no avail. Her father was very hard on her mother, who gave birth to fourteen children, because she did not bring him a large dowry. "When Jasmine was fifteen and a half, two white saris were bought and kept in readiness for that sorrowful day when she must receive the brand of the widow. On that day she knew that her silken sari would be taken away, and her luxuriant hair would be cut off. Thereafter, once a month till her death she must be shaven by the barber appointed to perform that office." She grew old and visited temples across the country, with the hope that "Beyond them somewhere, far beyond, must be one who was supreme, eternal, all-powerful, alive." She was seeking "Him whom she knew not yet." On the very same day Linnet was forbidden to enter the temple of the goddess Virgin, Jasmine was entering the temple, but she found no peace. She was praying to the God she did not know.
And He heard. Footsore and worn, and with a grief and patience on her face which still haunt us who saw it, a Brahman widow with shaven, polished head, and the white cloth of the widow wrapped round her, stood waiting in the Dohnavur compound. That was what was seen. What was unseen? … if ever angels walk on earth and lead wayfarers by the hand, surely they were there that day. For now the search was over, the pilgrim had found rest.
6. ANSWER TO LINNET'S SEEKING GOD
The notorious dacoit Raj who escaped from prison visited Linnet's house one night, and sang that beautiful Tamil chorus, "Lover of souls, Lover of souls, what should I do without Thee," to her young daughter. Shortly after his visit, the dacoit was killed and she was implicated as a collaborator in dacoity committed by Raj. Her house was searched and the gold jewelry she had made with her own hard-earned money for her daughter was charged as stolen property. The policemen tortured her and put her in jail, but "the magistrate turned the case down because the jewels were so obviously newly made. She was sentenced only to a term of one month's imprisonment for "harboring" the dacoit Raj.
In all this tribulation, Linnet went on hoping that the shepherd God, whose name was given as Yessu, would somehow give her strength to go through the sentence. What irritated her most was the old man's declaration that this God, a god with the stick across his shoulder, was not for her. Desperate she had become, but the Lord met her one day.
"She was sitting forlornly on the flagstones at the Shermadevi railway station when He came. She did not know that He had come. She thought only of her sorrow. There she sat, her white cloth tightly drawn across her face, her form heaving with deep sighs, and on either side of her there was a policeman. But they were good-natured lads, and when we asked if we might speak to her, they consented at once, and presently the white cloth was pulled back, the two brown hands were in the two white ones, and the story of that confusion of distress was being told in little gasps, . . . But who can explain what happens when the healing of the Lover of souls flows over a troubled heart? Not that we said much. There was not much time-hardly a bare half-hour. But it does not take so long as that for light to shine upon a Face. There are times when all we have to do is to stand out of the way, so that the one with whom we are speaking shall not see us, but only that Face. I think Linnet must have seen Him that day, or at least something of His beauty, for nothing was ever quite the same after that half-hour."
7. AMY CARMICHAEL AND OTHER GREAT WRITERS OF HER TIME
The story ends with Linnet's baptism, and there are abundant interesting episodes in between relating to the lives of both Jasmine and Linnet. It is amazing to read how a woman whose given name is the Widow of the Jewel got involved in a court case because she had some jewelry that was considered to be stolen property, and how, through this court case, the widow came to find her Lord. Does not the Word of God tell us that our God knows us by our names and that He knows us even before we were formed in our mothers' womb? (John 10:3; Revelation 3:5; Psalm 139:13-16; Jeremiah 1:5)
Amy Carmichael's description of the countryside, the people, their beliefs and practices, their prejudices, and their eagerness to somehow reach God through meritorious works, and the portrait of the society at large along with the shining of the Face of God on those who seek Him, is, indeed, sublime. Anyone can understand the story, and you do not need any great understanding of the culture of the characters. Our Lord is the Lord of all cultures, and He is the same here and everywhere, the unchanging God.
Rudyard Kipling, who died in 1936, eight years before the publication of Carmichael's book under discussion, had developed "a passionate love for England and the English people" even as he narrated the stories with Indian characters and Indian scene. He presented India to the world, mainly from what he thought he saw and experienced. On the other hand, Amy Carmichael developed a passionate love for the people of India for what they could be and who they were in Christ, because she loved Jesus first. She was telling real life stories in a literary mode, not for the sake of entertainment, but to glorify God. The way she loved India is beyond description, because she loved the country and its people with all her heart and soul as her Lord willed it.
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster was published in 1924, four years before Carmichael's The Widow of the Jewels. Through his travels in India, E. M. Forster studied Indian character and the strong political bent of the educated Indian classes. His work was a work of an artist interested in the Romantic Movement. Once again, the soul- stirring message of the Gospel in the countryside and in Indian cities did not receive his attention. There are, of course, other great writers, such as Pearl S. Buck, who wrote great novels looking at and living in cultures not their own with great sympathy and understanding. But Amy Carmichael's position and literary works are quite different in the sense that for her portraying the lives that were transformed by the ministry of Jesus is the climax of all literary creation.
Amy Carmichael. The Widow of the Jewels. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London. 1928.