The 19th-century poet Thomas Gray defined literature as “Thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.” A more prosaic definition might say that literature is a work of letters that explores the human condition, that endures because it puts form to something we all feel.
Thomas Gray’s definition made me think of a poem by another 19th century poet, this one better known for her work as a missionary: Amy Carmichael, who wrote of words shaped by a lifetime of experience with the Consuming Fire of God. “O God, my words are cold,” the poem begins, and a voice answers:
Thou shalt have words
But at this cost, that thou must first be burnt …
Not otherwise, and by no lighter touch,
Are fire-words wrought.The whole poem is printed in Walker of Tinnevelly, Amy’s biography of a missionary friend.
A voracious reader all my life and a more discerning one now, I’ve seen a lot of literature that explores romance, loss, pain, beauty. But rarely have I found “words that burn” when they speak of God and relationship with Him. This part of being human — this walking with the ancient Spirit who once hovered over the deep — this, it seems, is hard to capture in words.
When I was 8, my father read Nancy Robbins’s God’s Madcap: The Story of Amy Carmichael out loud to us. Amy’s biography, which had secret visits to Hindu temples, ranked up there in my childhood imagination with Mary Slessor’s, which had cannibals. But God’s Madcap didn’t mention Amy’s writing — at least, not in a way that made any impression on an 8-year-old — and it wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I learned that Amy had ever wielded a pen.
Wield it she did. Amy was a writer’s writer. Extremely literate and well-read, she wrote poems, letters, songs, biographies and devotionals. Her earliest books, including the influential Things As They Are, told missionary stories and illuminated the needs of India. After a bad fall in 1931 left her bedridden almost continually until her death 20 years later, writing became her major outlet. She wrote fire-words. Amy wrote in Dust of Gold, the newsletter for her ministry, Dohnavur Fellowship, “Pray that every book, booklet, letter that goes out from this Fellowship may have blood and iron in it.”
By the time she died Amy had written 35 books and been translated into 15 languages, seven European and eight Asiatic. Her books went through multiple printings. Among those touched by Amy’s writing was Lady Brenda Blanch, wife of Stuart Blanch, Archbishop of York. At his wife’s urging he visited Dohnavur Fellowship as a young man, and years later husband and wife published an anthology of Amy’s writings called Learning of God.
The Archbishop tells his own story in the Preface, and remarks on the “catholic” reading which influenced Amy’s writing.
She found a strange and surprising affinity with those writers who — so it would seem — floated inconsequentially into her orbit. In her there was, as it were, a cry of recognition: “It is the Lord!” … It was by a miraculous alchemy that all these seemingly varied experiences of the living God combined in the hidden life of a largely unknown woman, confined to her room in a distant dependency of the British Empire.
Perhaps it was by a similar “miraculous alchemy” that Amy’s work found and profoundly impacted me. I won Learning of God through a Scripture memory program. When I first received my little booklet of verses, I got to check off three prizes from a list. I remembered God’s Madcap and so had some interest in Amy Carmichael, hence she got a check mark and I got the book. It came to our house and was packed away in a box until I’d finished memorizing.
By the time I actually read Learning of God, I was desperately in need of it. In her book Candles in the Dark Amy wrote, “Don’t be surprised if there is attack on your work, on you who are called to do it, on your innermost nature — the hidden man of the heart.” It was in the midst of such an attack that I first opened Amy’s work.
Learning of God took me by the hand and led me out of a scorched place back into the presence of God. A line from one of Amy’s poems, first published in Rose from Brier, summed up how I felt: “Shadow and coolness, Lord, art Thou to me.” I read the book in spurts and slept with it under my pillow; it was a quiet place of renewal that ministered to every dry and hurting place in me.
After that season was over and distance put between me and it, I came to realize how deeply Amy’s perspective on life with God, communicated so masterfully, had affected me. It still does. Certainly no other writer has taught me so much about writing about God — and the same lessons, it seems, apply to walking with Him.
There is first of all the care and hard work that went into her writing. Frank L. Houghton’s Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur quotes Amy in a letter to a friend, revealing how seriously she took every word: “I feel like offering a slab of chocolate to anyone who will tell me of a superfluous word, i.e. a word that has no work to do.” The effort of editing, revising, cutting everything “superfluous” lies at the heart of all really good writing. I find the same to be true of life: By the time I die, I would like to know that I took such care with the habits and routines of my life that I didn’t spend a superfluous minute.
Amy took the creation of beauty seriously: “Dowdiness is not acceptable to the Lord of beauty.” Beauty, however, was not to supersede truth: The “blood and iron” of life shouldn’t be buried by artistry. So it was from Amy I learned not to sugarcoat what I write or try to sound more spiritual than I feel, but to convey the whole truth as life brings it.
In Things As They Are she wrote of being mobbed by unfriendly villagers: “In theory I like this very much, but in practice not at all.” A poem in Kohila describes fear of the future: “Far in the future lieth a fear / Like a long, low mist of grey.” Candles in the Dark admits that the great tests of faith that “can knock a strong man over and lay him very low” are often “silly little nothings, things you are ashamed of minding one scrap.” Amy’s honesty about her humanness, about every shade of feeling and weakness, gave me permission to be imperfect and to let others see it. After all, it is not my perfection that matters; it is Christ’s.
At the same time I learned to make Scripture an integral part of my writing and even of my thoughts; to read it, to memorize it, and ever thereafter to breathe it. Amy’s writing quotes Scripture seemingly without knowing it. Everything in life is illustrated, illuminated, touched by the Word of God.
“June 3rd, 1851,” she wrote in Ragland, Spiritual Pioneer, “a breathless date, for no rain from the western hills had come as yet to cool the air, and the pitiless heat of six parched months makes the average Englishman feel akin to the yellow stubble of grass in the dry watercourses. All flesh is grass, and withered grass, in June before the rains.” The references to Scripture were not forced; the Bible was simply Amy’s lens for viewing all of life.
At the same time, Amy knew the value of deliberately making Scripture a part of ourselves.
When I was a little child I used to wish I could touch something that our Lord Jesus touched, or see something that He saw. Then suddenly to my delight I thought, But I can see something that He saw. He saw the very same moon and stars that I see. And I used to look at the moon and think, He saw you, He saw those funny marks in your face we call the man in the moon….
But how much more wonderful is it to think that we have, for our own use, the very same sword our Lord used when the devil attacked him … we have the same Book that He had, and we can do as He did. So let us learn the “definite utterances” that they may be ready in our minds: ready for use at the moment of need — our sword which never grows dull and rusty, but is always keen and bright. (Edges of His Ways)
Another influence of which I’m highly conscious is the way Amy viewed and wrote about other people, especially other Christians. The magnitude of what it means to walk among eternal souls, made in the image of God, is something we’re prone to miss, but Amy didn’t miss it. She saw the mystery, the tragedy and loveliness in people; she wrote about them as about players in a sweeping story. She taught me to value others in the story the Spirit is writing, and to value my own role as well.
Amy Carmichael’s work is truly literary because it so beautifully captures the experience of walking with God. I’ll always be grateful that she wrote, and grateful that God pointed me to her writing. In Gold Cord, Amy wrote,
It is the eternal in books that makes them our friends and teachers — the paragraphs, the verses, that grip memory and ring down the years like bells, or call like bugles, or sound like trumpets; words of vision that open to us undying things and fix our eyes on them.
As a writer now, I marvel at the eternal in Amy’s books, in her poems and letters, and her phrases are still ringing down the years of my life. The fire-words of a Christ-minded woman in “a distant dependency of the British Empire” are still burning and breathing today, jewels of refreshing and purpose and power for anyone who will seek them out.
Copyright 2009 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.