Part II - The Answer of the Tongue
10 - Jane's Illness
WE must go back a little way to pick up the thread of Catharine's account of things. She had gone to Hertford and London almost in the capacity of an investigator. She had seen, had heard, had understood, and, as she said, "the thought of going home to my friends and having to speak to them about these things became exceedingly distressing to me". She obviously anticipated arguments about Bernard and Matilda in her father's study, in her older sisters" bedrooms, and in the drawing-room with the family friends. She prayed much: she was keyed up to be ready, but on arrival she found that things had taken an unexpected turn. Jane was seriously ill - indeed, spiritually ill, it might be said - and instead of the family engaging in verbal arguments, the Lord set before them a living demonstration of the helplessness of human will-power and the reality of His free gift of mercy "to whom He will have mercy".
"At last the time came," writes Catharine, "when I felt I must go home to Pulverbach. At seven o'clock in the morning of December 22nd, 1834, I took my journey. When I arrived at the Rectory, which was not till the middle of the day following, I went into the house almost trembling, and my sister Mercy came out of the dining room and took me into a room alone, and with affectionate tenderness told me, what I had only imperfectly heard by letter before, that our sister Jane was very ill, and very low in her mind. I presently went up to see her."
The case with Jane was that she felt she had all too lightly handled those things that the Lord had shown her, that she had become very much lifted up in herself, saying, my prayers, my faith, my trust have procured these blessings for me, but she thrust away from herself, she said, whatever she thought would make her unhappy, such as conviction of sin and the knowledge of her own heart. Writing about it later, she says, "For two or three months before my illness I had been strongly convicted of the sinfulness of my heart and life by an awful feeling under that verse, "If we sin wilfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sin". This subsided when I was first taken ill, but gradually returned and my trouble increased to a fearful extent. It was as though God told me Himself, and that in a voice too powerful and dreadful to be misunderstood, that the threatenings contained in His word against the ungodly were the lot of my inheritance. Oh! I would fain have turned my eyes from these threatenings to the sweet promises contained in other parts of the Scripture, but how could I? That was where I erred before. I thought they were all mine. I wanted none now to press me to take the promises. Oh, I was glad, strange as it may appear, I was very glad, when I found that Catharine, who was the first person to whom I opened my mind, pursued a different course. She attempted no such vain comfort. She had been with some who had had experience of these matters themselves and had been enabled to teach her another lesson.
"After making some enquiries about Bernard, I said, "Well now, tell me, how do those you have been with talk upon the subject of religion?". "Jane," she replied, "religion with them seems to be the most humbling work in the world." I believe I received these words humbling work as a message from God. I then told her something of my distress, and that I was almost without hope. "Jane," she replied, "do you not think you feel what is the truth? The threatenings of God against sinners do belong to you. They belong to us all, till He of His own free grace takes them out of the way. As to His promises, He must give them to you before they are yours. We cannot apply them to ourselves. It is vain to attempt it. Salvation belongs altogether to God. It is His gift. Of this, however, you may be sure, that those to whom He giveth it will be made to feel their own ruined state by nature and to acknowledge His righteousness in the punishment of their iniquity, and to feel they are at His mercy whether He will save or condemn."
"It would be impossible for me to describe the effect these few right words had on my mind. I had not one word to answer, for I was powerfully convicted of the truth of God, but a distant ray of hope did glide into my heart that perhaps this was the way He dealt with His people, and that He might "return and repent and leave a blessing behind Him"."
Catharine, writing to Matilda, says, "I felt a great drawing of affection to her. It was wonderful how she received the words that were put in my mouth to answer her. The Lord had long been preparing her by some heavy afflictions and she was now brought into a most humble spirit so that she was just like a child. I always agreed with her as to everything she said respecting her own sinfulness, and told her we could none of us feel more sinful than the Scriptures represented us to be, nor more so than God well knew we were, or would be, when from eternity He made an everlasting covenant which He would have respect unto without looking unto anything in us. I could not help speaking thus to her, for you know that truth has been brought with much power to my own soul, so that I spoke what I felt. She seemed fully to feel the truth of it, and observed that we could be saved no other way; we must become as little children.
"We had much to fear on account of the great increase of her illness. On Thursday, which was Christmas Day, neither Mercy nor I could leave her throughout the whole day. Her conversation was of the same sort but uttered with great earnestness and authority of manner. To anything I say she has but one answer "It is the revelation of God's wrath in my soul, and it is not that I am afraid I shall be, but that I am consumed by it. O Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger, neither chasten me in Thy hot displeasure". She said that verse and others like it were so powerful in her heart that it led her to ponder over the sufferings of Christ, and being made partakers of them. "It says we must be," she said, "but we cannot stand it, neither you nor I.""
Mercy says, "Hearing Jane's bitter cries sometimes quite overpowered me. But Oh! what added to our inward fear and suffering at that time was that not only had we then placed before our eyes, in our sister, a living witness to the truth of that incontrovertible doctrine - "it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy", but also that it pleased God we should at the same time see it evidenced before us that the will of man and carnal reason will dispute on this point, though firm as the pillars of heaven".
This refers, says her biographer, to "the strenuous opposition to this doctrine maintained by her beloved father and many of the religious friends of the family".
Catharine says again, 'she would ask if there was any hope for her; she was like no other person. Sometimes she was in great terror, saying that such blasphemous thoughts were given her to think she was afraid she must speak them; but I think she never did. Also she would say, "Now He is going to give me up and now I shall be gone for ever!". I think I should have felt it all as a matter for rejoicing in hope if it had not been for the bewildered state of her mind at times, which did render it too, too distressing for me to witness, and when I saw that her soul was, as I may say, beyond the reach of any help from us, I left her, and Mercy did likewise. We could only find comfort in reading such Psalms as the 38th and 39th. We felt as though there was not a word in the 38th, for instance, but what in a measure might be said to be fulfilled in her. I did feel it for her, and I felt a persuasion that in God's good time help would come. One night she had lain for some hours so still that we could hardly perceive she breathed, and we were afraid she was dying".
At this time these three sisters were very closely drawn together. Mercy had been longing for Catharine's return from London. She said, "My soul was intent upon hearing what she had to say of my brother and sister, and the other friends she had been with. All she said sank deeply into my heart, nor could I resist one word; for it came powerfully to me that the Lord had put His truth into their hearts, and I dared not controvert many things that she repeated which she had heard said by one and another. I remember the expression by one who had the witness of the Spirit in his heart - "I am more certain of these divine verities than I am of my own existence". I felt real gladness of heart that such certainty could be attained, and a very encouraging hope that I should one day possess this confidence of faith in my own soul".
"The Lord seemed to guide us," says Catharine, "in much mercy in all our dealings with Jane. What I said seemed to enter her heart as the truth of God, and the presence of God was truly with us in a wonderful way while we conversed together. Yet none can imagine the trial which some things occasioned me; but the Lord had so effectually convinced me of the truth and had put such a power of it into my heart that I could not dare to compromise the least part of it. Indeed He did give me and my two dear sisters a very firm persuasion that though our sins were as the hairs of our head yet that we were on His side in this trial - that the battle was not ours but His."
Jane went down into the very depths in her illness (which lasted about six weeks), and then was granted a most sacred revelation of the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ, which she was able to describe a little later. She never forgot this to the end of her life. She had sunk down, she says, to that place where hope never comes (and she really believed she was there) when the Lord Jesus drew near to her. She saw Him as "a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and, she says, I stood before Him in silence. I dared not ask Him to save me. We spoke not, but we gazed on each other. Then He laid His hand upon me and made me feel that He loved me with a love that knew no bounds. And he communicated into my soul an unutterable love towards Him, so that I grieved for Him with unspeakable sorrow. Then the whole place where we were became changed. Hushed was the windy storm and tempest, the tremendous power and fury of the enemy was driven far away, and behold, my soul found a place of deepest rest with Jesus Christ in His own grave. And in this holy place of deepest sorrow I was shut up with Jesus Christ alone. I am sure the things He was pleased to teach me here were great and mighty things, and altogether too wonderful to be in anywise understood by the natural heart, and too mysterious to be set forth by words; but God teaches man knowledge in that way which pleases Him. And surely I can say "O Lord Thou hast searched me and known me. Thou hast beset me behind and before and laid Thine hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me: it is high - I cannot attain unto it". And I can also say, "Thou hast known my soul in adversity." "Now when it pleased Him, and when the number of days was accomplished, He caused me to feel a hand that touched me, and a voice spake to me saying, "Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light". And immediately I received strength to raise myself up in the bed whereon I had been chained down, as it were, hand and foot, with no more power to move than a corpse, insomuch that I did believe my soul had left my body. Yes, "the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God", and so did I. And I arose and sat up in the bed. From that time I daily felt a replenishing of health and strength. But the feeling I had when I found myself again a living soul upon the earth was exactly as though I had left my Lord behind me in the sepulchre, and I kept mourning many days, like Mary weeping at the door of the sepulchre. I knew I had looked on Him whom my sins had pierced, and I did "mourn for Him as one mourneth for his only son" and was "in bitterness for Him as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn". But that sorrow was not without hope. There was an ineffable sweetness in it, that made me love the very name of sorrow. And I often think of the words He spoke to me in that deep, deep sorrow - "Ye now therefore have sorrow, but I will see you again and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you"."
Jane gradually recovered her health and strength, but it was by very slow degrees indeed. She writes:
"One time I had a very distressing dream. It was that someone put a Church prayer-book in my hand and told me to find the service for Christmas day. I began to search through the book over and over again but could not find it. At length the words "Blotted out" were fearfully portrayed before my eyes and I awoke in a great fright. This dream brought a dreadful gloom over my spirit. I thought surely it could mean nothing else than that Jesus Christ was never born for me. I got up and tried to find some way of escape but my very foundation seemed removed: it was no use to pray without Christ and surely it was clearly made out to me that the Saviour was never born for me. After I had finished my breakfast I threw myself on the sofa and there I lay like one bereft of all good. During the morning Catharine came into the room. I had not named my trouble to anyone. She said, 'shall I read you a chapter?" and turning over the leaves of the Bible she said, "I think I will read this". It was the second chapter of Luke. O how wonderfully blessed this her choice of that chapter appeared to me, for I felt quite sure that none other than the Lord Himself had
directed her to it as He knew the anguish I lay under. As she read the horrors of the dream and the temptation vanished, and I felt I was still within the precincts of mercy's door, still allowed to hope in Jesus the Friend of sinners, the 'saviour which is Christ the Lord"."
The long dark winter nights shut up in her room, probably within a curtained bed, at last gave place to emergence - and we read of the sisters taking her into the garden one warm day in January. "As I was wheeled round the garden," she says, "my eyes rested upon a fresh-blown flower and I had such an unutterable feeling of blessedness as altogether passed knowledge. It must have been one drop of heaven's bliss which the Lord Jesus Christ distilled into my soul. Truly I can testify "He maketh poor and maketh rich; He bringeth to the grave and lifteth up again". That feeling lasted but one single moment as I passed that shining flower and the recollection of it is present with me as often as I look upon those same yellow blossoms when they open in the spring."
Mr. Bourne wrote his first letter to the sisters at this time, having heard of Jane's illness and the strain the others were under.
"Your sister now knows some little of the meaning of this," he writes," "The publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner". It is not - "I have nothing to fear: I never doubt the mercy of God" with many other such words. Oh no! but now it is - "Wilt Thou, canst Thou, have mercy upon me?" Oh how the language changes when the fire has taken hold of the poor soul, and has begun with a most vehement flame to burn up much pride, vain conceit and frivolous profession, that would never bring any glory to God!
"If ever we are vessels meet for the Master's use, we shall have need of sharp work and much cleansing for that honourable purpose. A bad servant will leave the dirtiest corners: but in this fire, as your sister says, how are hidden things sought out, as well as counsels of the heart which we in false liberty seek deeply to hide!
"Under your present difficulties you have need of a Stronghold, and I am sure He is nearer than you are aware of, and you will find "double" for all the sorrow you have had. Your casting-down is that you may long remember the wormwood and the gall; that your soul may have them still in remembrance and be humbled within you; that there be no trampling on the blood of Christ nor lightly esteeming the Rock of our salvation; no flourishing profession covered with a double deceit, but transparency and godly simplicity; no kings and lords, but little children whom Christ can take up in His arms and bless."
Much as Jane valued this letter, she was able to say later in a letter to Bernard, "I speak the truth when I say that it was neither you nor Matilda nor Catharine nor Mr. Bourne nor Mr. Abbott who struck into my heart the things I have received. Nor can I say that any one of these I have named nor yet any other person was even the means made use of in the first instance to convey these things to me. For God Himself, with a voice too terrible to be disregarded spoke to me out of the whirlwind, and then when I expected nothing but destruction behold, glad tidings of great joy, tidings which could not be believed they were so great! Nor did I believe them at that time. All this you have heard before and also of that little hope that was brought me by Catharine, who, coming from your company, was sent to me with living words, whereby I received a most sensible reviving, like life from the jaws of death. And if our dear father could but believe it, he would know it too. He would say, "What? is this it that I have been shutting my ears against and hardening my heart unto? and now, behold, it is become my very life!" ".
It is only in such an oblique reference that we see a little of the division of the family. By the omission in any of the papers of the names of Elizabeth, Margaret and Charles, we have to suppose they were on their father's side at this time. So, doubtless, were the servants and visiting friends, not to mention acquaintances round about. Says Mercy, "At that time I felt in such a dark and bewildered way that I saw not a step before me, but felt much instruction from what is said in Luke 14 about counting the cost, and thought surely the Lord was showing us that it was no light and easy matter to follow Him, but one of most solemn concern. Nor can I express how the reply that was made by one at that time did thrill through my heart oftentimes - "Lord, I will follow Thee, but let me first go and bury my father and bid them farewell that are at home at my house", but the answer as often came, and was too penetrating to be disregarded, "He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. He that findeth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for My sake shall find it".
"I cannot forget the feeling which Mr. Bourne's first encouraging letter to me brought. It was such a sweet surprise. He said, "Behold the eye of the Lord is upon them that fear Him, upon them that hope in His mercy, to deliver their soul from death and to keep them alive in famine" (Ps. 33, 18, 19). When I read these words my mind was looking straight towards you, since which time I have seen your letter [to Matilda] and am exceedingly desirous to write to you what has been much impressed upon my mind. I see you question whether you can give up all for Christ, and add "All must be forsaken". What is this all, or what is a part of it? I suppose in general terms, that inefficient profession you have hitherto lived in, in which are included many erroneous and fatal heresies, disputing the sovereignty of God and His eternal choice of His people, and the final perseverance of the saints, depending on the immutable purpose of God in Christ Jesus. Your religion was not the religion of the Bible, for these truths, or some of them, were left out of your creed, and instead of them were put in what is called "deep piety" - that is, dissembled love, sober looks, many works of outward kindness towards the Church.
"I would have you very tender of God's teaching, and not hold fast that which He bids you let go. Let the Word of God be your rule; it will make a straight line for your feet and teach you well to ponder your path. Withdraw from that which you see was your downfall. Ascertain by earnest prayer whence your profiting is to be derived. Take heed of the dangerous and stupefying effects of remaining in the use of such means as you have seen by the Spirit's teaching to be delusive. I know the perplexing fears and dark mistrust that you must feel; and if under these sensations you are led to an ungodly compromise, you will perceive the Lord will show His displeasure by double darkness, and confusion that may be felt. I desire to write most cautiously and tenderly, yet I dare not hide all I know. If you are determined to live godly in this present evil world you must be hated of all men, and be a living reproach to all the dead professors about you. If you love this world, and the applause of those that walk in what is called deep piety, you will never know when real good comes, but will be like the barren heath. Let me entreat you all not to trifle with the light and convictions you have, but to be much in earnest with the Lord to arm you against all enemies, and make you willing (as you say) to give up all for Christ. It will be presently noised abroad that "Mercy also is gone on pilgrimage". Let them say all manner of evil against you falsely for Christ's sake - you shall rejoice in your portion when the King says, "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world". "Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the Kingdom of their Father" though now covered with nothing but reproach. Yours in the Lord, J. B."
By these letters, with their penetrating honesty, we can gather that these three sisters were now looking at the same problem as Bernard's - a need to withdraw from the Church in which they had been brought up. Their positions were strangely similar in one point - that they were not permitted to leave their appointed place; Bernard had to brave a derisive Hertford, the three sisters became the gazing-stock of their village. There the similarity ended. Bernard stepped into a licensed room and was backed by kind friends: the sisters had no alternative place to worship in, no teacher to guide them. Bernard had Henrietta in the haven of his home: the sisters had to face daily the affronted members of their own family. "Mr. Bernard's" defection had doubtless been discussed throughout Pulverbach: now the whole thing came closer with three from the very Rectory itself finding fault with the Church ministry. It must have been doubly painful to the old Rector, doubly stinging to the family. It is hardly surprising that the sad word "bitter" is used to describe letters to Bernard from his father. "We cannot wonder," writes Jane to him, "at the great distress and anxious perplexity which our dear father's letters occasion you. O if he did but know how it was and what it is which has caused this most perfect difference between us, how surprised he would be, and how all his strong reasons would fall to the ground at once!"
Mr. Bourne did not consider the Rector's reasoning 'strong", and wrote one day, "I have seen your Father's letter to Miss Matilda. It has exceedingly excited her, but I am in hopes she will make manifest that like Ruth nothing but death shall part between her and the Church of God, and not that, we trust. But I never read so long an account of confusion before - and that from a Doctor of Divinity ruling a flock over forty years. The whole discovers an entire want of spiritual discernment, also a perfect ignorance of what he does want, no conviction by the Spirit set forth, no trembling at the hand of God upon him under his present dispensations, no light upon his path or in the word of God".
As Jane recovered from her illness, though slowly and with many 'sinkings" again, as she called them, the sisters were encouraged by Mr. Bourne to seek communion with a few others likeminded. "Till it please God to appear for you," he wrote, "I would advise you that seem united in spirit to fix certain stated times for divine worship, and let nothing interrupt you; reading the Scriptures or some good author, beginning with one of Hart's hymns and prayer. I believe if this be tenderly watched and diligently attended to, spiritual life will be maintained, and you will find the Lord as good as His word - "I will be to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they shall come" (Ezek. 11, 16). If such measures as these seem to meet your wishes, may the Lord prosper them, and make manifest his approbation by his presence. But if a thousand excuses are made, I fear spiritual death will come on.
"Your sister [Matilda] is every day with us at our morning reading. I am continually exhorting her not to be here for two, three, or four years, and then to leave us just as she came, but that she may be able, as the Apostle says, to "make her profiting to appear". I earnestly desire she may be watchful and sober, and let no outward circumstance divert her attention from what the Psalmist sets forth - "One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in His temple". I could wish you to find the same sweet power and light that I at times find in the Word, the savour of which sweetly mixes itself in all my worldly engagements, and affords a comfortable prospect of a good hope in my end. That hope you now have found counteracts the despairing thoughts you once laboured under. Deal tenderly with every check your conscience gives, and this will keep it tender."
Their difficult position is again reflected in a letter Mr. Bourne sent them later in the summer, in reply to one of theirs. "Perhaps," he writes, "through Satan's temptations you have sought for a cessation of arms, and have desired to rest upon your oars, and have sent over to the enemy some conditions of a truce. If so, no wonder you cannot pray, as you say; this is the most effectual way of stopping all spiritual intercourse. Our time is always ready, and we think we discover many things, especially when the natural passions are excited upon spiritual objects. We believe all things, we hope all things, and feel such softness upon our spirits that we think our loving hearts can never rise up against God, let him do what He will. We think we see the very way He means to lead us, and are quite armed, as we suppose, for the battle; that the Lord has so taken us out of the world that neither the laugh, nor the scorn, nor the kindness which is offered shall move us from the zeal we feel for the Lord of Hosts. But now comes the Refiner, and by due degrees makes manifest that all this is not pure gold; and the discovery sinks us amain. Our zeal abates; our spiritual strength withers; and we begin to perceive we are not so near heaven's gate as we supposed. But the Lord will both search His sheep and seek them out, in this tremendous cloudy and dark day, and will "feed them upon the mountains of Israel and by the rivers", signifying both the waters of life and waters of affliction. These shall be good feeding pastures, though thus mingled with gall; for by sanctified afflictions our proud hearts are brought low. Do not be disheartened. "I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away (by temptation), and will bind up that which was broken (in judgment), and will strengthen that which was sick (spiritually)"."
Thus their fatherly correspondent steadied them in their waverings, and the next year was able to write, "I cannot but admire how the Lord is bringing to light a little lot of His sheep in your dark corner; and how you find out one another's spirit, and what unity is felt. A few broken-hearted, cast-down afflicted ones can understand one another. They know the voice of the Spirit that speaks in them; and thus they fold together and Christ their Shepherd leads them."