DARK DESPAIR AND BRIGHT HOPE
In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and he heard me.
Psalm CXX, 1.
One often hears it stated that miracles do not happen nowadays, sometimes the statement is modified to recognise wonders in the everyday process of nature. I am about to tell the story of a miracle, which even after years of pondering, is still to me a fresh inspiration of awe and grateful praise to a loving Heavenly Father.
Firstly I must ask the reader to compose his spirit in at attitude of reverence for this is holy ground. Indeed I have held the matter so sacred, that for many years I told no one of this wonderful experience, with the exception of my wife and even in that case I broke down several times. Only when some minutes had elapsed after each falter, could I control my voice sufficiently to proceed.
I feel that I have now reached a point where I must force back my shrinking reticence, such that the story may enhance the glory of God to the reverent reader and encourage any hesitating would be follower of Jesus.
At the time of which I now write, I had endured the weary loneliness of the prison cell for many dreary months. I had just moved cells and found myself reinstated in Hall C, Ward 3, Cell 33. This return to my old quarters that I had occupied for the greater part of my second sentence, had a depressing effect on me. I had at one time in my life made a study of scriptural arithmetic, that is the numbers in the bible, particularly those associated with prophecy and I think that it is for this reason that my thoughts began to dwell on the number attached to this cell. I could not fail the notice the collection of threes, including the third letter of the alphabet. From this, my thoughts idly drifted to pondering upon the numbers of all the cells in which I had been confined and here a curious and striking discovery awaited me.
At Wormwood Scrubs in my first sentence I had occupied cells with numbers 3 and 24. At Wandsworth in my second sentence, cell numbers 12, 45 and 33 and up to this point in my third sentence numbers 48, 54, 15 and 33 again. The remarkable circumstance about this sequence of numbers is that they are all multiples of three! Surely this was nothing more that a singular coincidence. However I inclined to the belief that it could not be so and the conviction fastened upon me that I would not be released from prison and the army until the sequence of threes became broken. Singular as it may appear, such in fact proved to be the case, but at that moment the conviction induced in me a sense of black and utter despair. I had entered upon this struggle for liberty of conscience, feeling that in this enlightened age such intolerant persecution could not continue for long. But as the dreary days and weeks dragged on and the procession of months grew into years, I experienced the truth of the saying, ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick’. The bright vista of release receded farther and farther into the dim distant future, until it had passed out of sight over the horizon.
I have since read into the series of threes a happier meaning. The number is associated in the Bible with the perfection of the divine spirit and is used in the Revelation through John as the symbol of the complete body of the perfected saints. I believe therefore that these cell numbers were an indication that I was in the place where God would have me be. Or in other words, that my location from the divine point of view was perfect. As one of our English philosophers has said, “Under an unjust system, the right place for a just man to be is prison”.
But when the feeling of despair was at its greatest, the lust of the flesh for ease and comfort began to tempt me and to war with my spirit. Why should I remain in this cheerless prison when by merely signing a paper I could end my lonely confinement? I need have nothing to do with the war and I could do more for God and the cause of peace if I had my freedom. How could such a small body of men as we were, hope to accomplish anything by opposing ourselves against the might of the most powerful empire the world has ever known? Was I not kicking against the pricks and wasting my life in futility? And what of those whom I had left outside? Was not my first duty to them?
Only he who knows the prison cell can have the faintest realisation of the force of such a temptation. In the innermost recesses of my soul I knew that the smallest compromise with the forces of evil would be wrong, but should I not be justified by the virtue of the greater activity that I could acquire outside?
I struggled with these alluring sophistries for hours, my distress of mind becoming greater by the minute. At length I felt that my mind must become unhinged and as reason gave way under the strain the thought of insanity produced an irresistible impulse to laugh. I realised with horror that I was hovering on the borders of hysteria and remembered that the best antidote was a good shaking. But I was alone and who could administer the necessary treatment? I comprehended that I must apply it myself, before I reached a condition where self-help was rendered impossible. Springing up from my stool, I threw myself violently against the cell wall.
The rough treatment had the desired effect and the impulse to laugh passed, but my tired mind was still trouble with the vexed question of compromise. Having reached the limit of my endurance, I poured out my soul before the Mercy Seat in earnest and passionate entreaty that God would remove me from the tyrannous powers, by the sure hand of death. Ah! Never have I prayed with such intense longing as I did for death that night. I must have felt the same desolation, as did Elijah when he cried out, “It is enough, now let me die.” But as I reached out to God, he met me with his love and my spirit grew calmer and more confident. Nevertheless, as I crept into the comfortless bed that night, I prayed that if it were not God’s will to remove me from this strife, He would grant me some definite and unmistakable assurance of his divine approval. Surely while I was presenting my petition, God had already despatched his messenger, for as I lapsed into the unconsciousness of sleep, I dreamed.
In my dream I was in a large but plain building that was filled with men and women, all of whom seemed to be members of an orchestra, or integral parts of a choir. While I was wondering why I should be there, apparently the only individual who had no part to perform, the performers got to work and the place was filled with exquisite music. The tune was unknown to me, neither could I distinguish the words which the choir sang. But as I listened enraptured, one voice eventually seemed gradually to detach itself from the body of the chorus and sang in solo.
I looked around, searching for the singer and when I had singled her out, I beheld the face of my own sister, but the voice was the beautiful rich contralto of Madame Edna Thornton. I listened with delight as the voice rose and fell in lovely cadences. Yet still the music and words were unknown to me.
Presently I seemed to detect something familiar entering the strains and as the singer continued, I became sure that I knew the piece, yet I could not assign a name to it or recall where I had heard it. But suddenly the words the soloist sang sprang into prominent clearness: -
If I still hold close by to Him, what hath He at last?
Sorrow vanquished, labour ended, Jordan past.
The entrancing voice gradually swelled until the last line was reached in glorious triumph.
I had not heard the tune for many years, but I identified it some months later and at Quaker meeting when someone requested the hymn sung to the tune Bullinger: -
Holy Father, in Thy mercy
Hear our anxious prayer,
Keep our loved ones, now for absent,
‘Neath Thy care.
The words of the singer once more lapsed into indistinction and the soloist gradually sank back into the chorus. I awoke with my heart shouting, “Halleluiah!” Could I wish for a more definite assurance than this? In the darkness of the cell, my heart rose in gratitude and praise to the Throne of Grace and presently I fell into a peaceful sleep.
In the morning the music of this angelic message was still echoing through my mind and I felt confident in facing the dreary prospect before me. In the superabundance of the exuberance of my heart and in utter disregard of the prison rules, I scratched with the point of a needle on the cell wall the first verse of Dr. Bonar’s hymn: -
Here, O Lord, I see Thee face to face,
Here would I touch and handle things unseen,
Here grasp with firmer hand the eternal grace,
And all my weariness upon Thee learn.
Whose Image and Superscription?
The story of a First World War conscientious objector