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The Honesty, Life, and Faith of Amy Carmichael

The Honesty, Life and Faith of Amy Carmichael

It was through my usual serendipitous searching on Amazon for a book that addressed whatever predicament I found myself in when I discovered Amy Carmichael. During a painful and difficult time in my life, how could I resist the review of her book, Rose from Brier which declared, “Especially helpful perspective of suffering from one who suffered.”

I had learned through my previous experiences that words of consolation from those who have traveled the same path carry great weight because they speak from an intimate position. Rose from Brier was inspired by a letter Amy received after an accident which was to incapacitate her for the rest of her life. In it the writer refers to Amy’s infirmity as an “enforced rest” to which Amy responded that such an assumption “rankled like a thorn … it held such an unkind conception of our Father” (Carmichael, p.19).

But rather than become bitter, Amy allowed this experience to help her better find her place in a world full of suffering people. “And I wanted to share my crumb of comfort at once, and tell them not to weigh flying words, or let their peace be in the mouths of men, or allow the ignorant stock phrases of the well to the ill to penetrate their shields” (pp. 19-20).

This book is a collection of what Amy called “letters and songs,” what we might think of as reflections, in no particular order as in “the way the trials and temptations and the weary little feelings of illness fling themselves upon us” (p. 9). It is written “from the ill to the ill” (p. 9). The more time I spent with her words, the more I began to wonder who was this woman who could confess to the profound fatigue that comes from unrelenting pain “especially between 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning when all the fight is drained out of us” (p. 96) and yet proclaim, “We cannot say of Him, ‘He has not been there’… We have not a high priest who cannot be touched with feeling of our infirmities” (p. 98).

…words of consolation from those who have traveled the same path carry great weight because they speak from an intimate position.

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Amy Carmichael was born in Millisle, Ireland on December 16th, 1867 into a devout Presbyterian household of eventually seven children. In her biography entitled, A Chance to Die, Elisabeth Elliot describes Amy as an adventurous yet extremely sensitive girl who as a teenager began to take seriously the message of God’s love she had heard about all her young life. Out of economic necessity the family moved to Belfast where Amy became aware of “how the other half lived,” having grown up in relative comfort. Providentially, this time was to be a formation period for her later work as a missionary. She began a Saturday morning program for boys and girls called the “Morning Watch” at which she encouraged Bible study and prayer. She later organized weekly prayer meetings for schoolgirls in their homes which were eventually moved to Victoria College.

But it was her work with the “shawlies” that seemed to foreshadow her eventual calling in India years later. No doubt much to the shock of its staid church members, Amy began Sunday morning classes at Rosemary Street Presbyterian for these mill girls who were too poor to afford a hat and so covered their heads with their shawls. So well-attended were the classes that eventually the mission had to be moved to “Welcome Hall” on the corner of Cambrai and Heather Streets to accommodate the hundreds of that were showing up each week.

In 1889 Amy got a taste of true missionary work when she was asked to live and work among the mill workers she was ministering to her. Unlike the atmosphere in which Amy was raised, she now shared her quarters with hard-working, hard-living people. But her time here was cut short by an illness that was to plague her for the rest of her life, neuralgia, often sending her to bed for weeks at a time.

It was at the Keswick Convention of 1887 that Amy seriously thought about becoming a missionary when she heard Hudson Taylor of the China Inland Mission speak. She applied to the CIM and received training, but before she could travel to Asia it was deemed that her poor health made her unfit for missionary work. Undaunted and with the influence of her mentor from Keswick, Robert Wilson, Amy eventually felt the call to go to Japan where she worked for 15 months. But again, her illness set a different course for her life as a missionary. After recovering at home, she spent a brief period in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) before eventually traveling to Bangalore where she would find her ultimate calling among the young girls in India. At the age of 28, Amy forsook marriage and family to spend the remainder of her life there in service to others and her Lord.

As honest about missionary work as she was about physical pain, in her book, Things as They Are Mission Work in Southern India, Amy unflinchingly relates the difficulties she encountered. She called it “a battle-book written from a battle-field where the fighting is not pretty but stern reality” (PDF loc. 301). Amy took to her new home expressing not only love but respect for its people, studying their Tamil language and adapting herself to their way of life. And like “the shawlies” of Ireland, the focus of her mission was to become the plight of the young girls of India.

But rather than become bitter, Amy allowed this experience to help her better find her place in a world full of suffering people.

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Besides her poor health, Amy had to contend not only with a climate that was unlike her homeland but also a very challenging and perplexing societal structure in the Hindu caste system of the early 1900s. Amy declared “Caste and religion! They are so mixed up that we do not know how to unmix them” (PDF loc. 497). One particularly alarming aspect of Hindu society at that time was the now outlawed practice known as devadasi, the dedication of young children, particularly girls, to temple worship and service. Originally enjoying a position of esteem, a devadasi in the time of colonial British India had been reduced to the level of child prostitute. It was through a girl named Preena, who fled her circumstances, that Amy became aware of the living conditions of such children. Despite threats to her personal safety, Amy gave Preena shelter and soon many other girls followed suit. Eventually in 1901, Amy founded the Dohnavur Fellowship which was to become a sanctuary to eventually thousands of children who were saved from an abject life.

Amy was to spend the last two decades of her life bedridden after a fall in 1931. “This fall broke a bone, dislocated an ankle, and caused more hurts harder to heal” (Rose from Brier, p.18). Upon her return from the hospital, Amy often managed the Dohnavur Fellowship’s affairs from her bed. Rendered fragile from decades of mission work in India without leave, Amy already suffered from a number of health issues such as heart trouble and hypertension, a case of irisitis which left one eye nearly blind, and frequent headaches. After the accident she was to endure 20 years of a disability which would be interspersed with hints of and hopes for recovery only to be followed by setbacks in the form of cystitis, neuritis, and arthritis. Although healing never came, she was still able to accept the same response God gave to Paul the Apostle when he asked for release from his affliction, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9, NIV).

In spite of her debilitating condition, Amy found yet another way to be of service to God through her writing. Her letters to the ill would become Rose from Brier. She recorded the story of the Dohnavur Fellowship in Gold Chord. And devotional collections, such as Edges of His Ways and Thou Givest…They Gather are still eagerly read today. All total, Amy wrote between 35 and 40 books, 13 of them after her accident.

She died in 1951, never having set foot on Ireland’s shores again. Her grave marker at Dohnavur, a simple bird bath, bears one word which speaks volumes, “Amma” (“Mother” in Tamil). Through the legacy of her missionary work, which still continues in the very vibrant Dohnavur Fellowship, from her honest accounts of life in her writings which speak to an unflinching faith in Our Lord despite circumstances, Amy’s devotion to the Gospel and its message of God’s redemptive love for us transcends the years. Hers are words of genuine comfort to me in times of distress for she speaks from that “intimate position” I deeply respect.

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Andrea was booted out of her senior high choir due to an over-abundance of altos, only to find out many years later that she is actually a soprano … one of the many life instances that's allowed her to see that sometimes you find out who you really are through failure.

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