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A Handful of Stars: 18: Catherine Booth's Text

By Frank W. Boreham


      I

      Who that was in London on October 14, 1890, can forget the extraordinary scenes that marked the funeral of Catherine Booth? It was a day of universal grief. The whole nation mourned. For Mrs. Booth was one of the most striking personalities, and one of the mightiest spiritual forces, of the nineteenth century. To the piety of a Saint Teresa she added the passion of a Josephine Butler, the purposefulness of an Elizabeth Fry, and the practical sagacity of a Frances Willard. The greatest in the land revered her, trusted her, consulted her, deferred to her. The letters that passed between Catherine Booth and Queen Victoria are among the most remarkable documents in the literature of correspondence. Mr. Gladstone attached the greatest weight to her judgment and convictions. Bishop Lightfoot, one of the most distinguished scholars of his time, has testified to the powerful influence which she exerted over him. And, whilst the loftiest among men honored her, the lowliest loved her.

      Such strong lives have their secrets. Mrs. Booth had hers. Her secret was a text. As a child she learned it by heart; as a girl she pinned her faith to the promise it enshrined; amidst the stress and strain of a stormy and eventful life she trusted it implicitly; and, with all the tenacity of her keen, clear intellect, she clung to it at the last. In the standard Life of Catherine Booth--a huge work of a thousand pages--four chapters are devoted to the scenes at the deathbed. And then we read:

      'The lips moved as though desiring to speak. Unable, however, to do so, the dying woman pointed to a wall-text, which had for a long time been placed opposite to her, so that her eyes could rest upon it.

         MY GRACE
         IS
         SUFFICIENT FOR THEE

      It was taken down and placed near her on the bed. But it was no longer needed. The promise had been completely fulfilled.'

      'That,' said a speaker at one of the great Memorial Meetings in London, some of which were attended by many thousand people, 'that was her text!' And, as so often happens, her text explains her character.

      For, considered apart from the text, the character is an insoluble enigma. It is like a consequence without a cause. I was talking a week or two ago with an old man, who, in Australia's earlier days, did a good deal of pioneering in the heart of the bush.

      'Once,' he told me, 'soon after I first came out, I really thought that I had reached the end of everything. I was hopelessly lost. My strength was utterly exhausted. I had gone as far as I could go. The country around me was flat and dry; my thirst was a perfect agony; and my poor dog followed at my heels, her tongue hanging out, and her sides panting pitifully. We had not seen water for several days. I sat down under a great gum-tree, hoping that an hour's rest would bring me fresh heart and new vigor. I must have fallen asleep. When I awoke, Fan was standing near me, wagging her tail. She seemed contented and satisfied; her tongue no longer protruded. An hour or two later, I suddenly missed her; she had vanished in the scrub. She was away about twenty minutes. I determined to watch her. Presently she set out again, and I followed. Surely enough, she had found a tiny spring in a slight hollow about half a mile away; and by that spring we were saved.'

      I have seen something like this in a higher realm. I recall, for example, Richard Cecil's story of his conversion. Richard Cecil--the friend and biographer of John Newton--was one of the great evangelical forces of the eighteenth century, as Catherine Booth was of the nineteenth. But, in his early days, Richard Cecil was a skeptic. He called himself an infidel, but he was honest in his infidelity. He could face facts; and the man who can look facts fairly in the face is not far from the kingdom of God. Richard Cecil was not, his skepticism notwithstanding. 'I see,' he says, in telling us of the line of thought that he pursued as he lay in bed one night, 'I see two unquestionable facts.' And what were they? They both concerned his mother.

      'First, my mother is greatly afflicted in circumstances, body and mind; and I see that she cheerfully bears up under all her suffering by the support that she derives from constantly retiring to her quiet room and her Bible.

      'Second, my mother has a secret spring of comfort of which I know nothing; while I, who give an unbounded loose to my appetites, and seek pleasure by every means, seldom or never find it. If, however, there is any such secret in religion, why may I not attain to it as well as my mother? I will immediately seek it!'

      He did; and those who are familiar with his life-story know of the triumphant result of that quest. It was precisely so with Mrs. Booth. Her children knew that, like the bushman's collie, she found refreshment at some secret spring. Later on, she told them of the text and led them, one by one, to the fountains of grace. 'My grace is sufficient for thee.' And when, at last, the avenues of speech and hearing were closed, they hung the golden words before her clouding eyes. Again she greeted them with rapture, and, with unwavering confidence, pointed her children to their deathless message.

      II

      In his Grace Abounding, John Bunyan tells us that there was a period in his spiritual history when his soul was like a pair of scales. It partook of three phases. At one time the right-hand balance was down and the left-hand empty and high; then for awhile they were exactly and evenly poised; and, at the last, the left-hand balance dropped and that on the right-hand was swinging in the air.

      At the first of these stages he was being tormented about the unpardonable sin. He reminded himself that, for Esau, there was no place for repentance; and he felt that there was none for him. The scale in which he laid his despair was heavily weighted; the scale in which he placed his hope was empty!

      And the second stage--the stage that leveled the balances? 'One morning,' he says, 'as I was at prayer, and trembling with fear, lest there should be no word of God to help me, that piece of a sentence darted in upon me: My grace is sufficient! At this I felt some stay as if there might yet be hope. About a fortnight before, I had been looking at this very scripture, but I then thought that it could bring me no comfort, and I threw down the book in a pet. I thought that the grace was not large enough for me! no, not large enough! But now it was as if the arms of grace were so wide that they could enclose not only me but many more besides. And so this about the sufficiency of grace and that about Esau finding no place for repentance would be like a pair of scales within my mind. Sometimes one end would be uppermost and sometimes again the other; according to which would be my peace or trouble.'

      And the third stage--the triumphant stage? Bunyan felt that the scales were merely level because, in the balance that contained the hope, he had thrown only four of the six words that make up the text. 'My grace is sufficient'; he had no doubt about that, and it gave him encouragement. But 'for thee'; he felt that, if only he could add those words to the others, it would turn the scales completely. 'I had hope,' he says, 'yet because the "for thee" was left out, I was not contented, but prayed to God for that also. Wherefore, one day, when I was in a meeting of God's people, full of sadness and terror, these words did with great power suddenly break in upon me; My grace is sufficient for thee, My grace is sufficient for thee, My grace is sufficient for thee, three times together. And oh! methought that every word was a mighty word unto me; as My and grace, and sufficient, and for thee; they were then, and sometimes are still, far bigger than all others. Then, at last, that about Esau finding no place for repentance began to wax weak and withdraw and vanish, and this about the sufficiency of grace prevailed with peace and joy.' And so the issue was reversed; the scale that held the hope overweighed completely the scale that held the despair.

      If it were not that others have passed through an identically similar experience, we should feel inclined to marvel at Bunyan's reluctance to cast into the balances the tail of the text: My grace is sufficient--for thee! It seems strange, I say, that Bunyan should have grasped with such confidence the four words and then boggled at the other two. And yet it is always easier to believe that there is a Saviour for the world than to believe that there is a Saviour for me. It is easy to believe that

         There is grace enough for thousands
            Of new worlds as great as this;
         There is room for fresh creations
            In that upper home of bliss;

      but it is much harder to believe that there is grace and room for me. Martin Luther believed implicitly and preached confidently that Christ died for all mankind, long before he could persuade himself that Christ died for Martin Luther. John Wesley crossed the Atlantic that he might proclaim the forgiveness of sins to the Indians; but it was not until he was verging upon middle life that he realized the possibility of the forgiveness of his own.

      It is all very illogical, of course, and very absurd. If we can accept the four words, why not accept all six? If we credit the head of the text, why cavil at the tail? Sometimes the absurdity of such irrational behavior will break upon a man and set him laughing at his own stupidity. Mr. Spurgeon had some such experience. 'Gentlemen,' he said, one Friday afternoon, in an address to his students, 'Gentlemen, there are many passages of Scripture which you will never understand until some trying or singular experience shall interpret them to you. The other evening I was riding home after a heavy day's work; I was very wearied and sore depressed; and, swiftly and suddenly as a lightning flash, that text laid hold on me: My grace is sufficient for thee! On reaching home, I looked it up in the original, and at last it came to me in this way. MY grace is sufficient for THEE! "Why," I said to myself, "I should think it is!" and I burst out laughing. I never fully understood what the holy laughter of Abraham was like until then. It seemed to make unbelief so absurd. It was as though some little fish, being very thirsty, was troubled about drinking the river dry; and Father Thames said: "Drink away, little fish, my stream is sufficient for thee!" Or as if a little mouse in the granaries of Egypt, after seven years of plenty, feared lest it should die of famine, and Joseph said: "Cheer up, little mouse, my granaries are sufficient for thee!" Again I imagined a man away up yonder on the mountain saying to himself: "I fear I shall exhaust all the oxygen in the atmosphere." But the earth cries: "Breathe away, O man, and fill thy lungs; my atmosphere is sufficient for thee!"' John Bunyan enjoyed a moment's merriment of the same kind when he threw the last two words into the scale and saw his despair dwindle into insignificance on the instant.

      III

      Some such thought shines through the passage in which Paul tells us how the great words came to him. He was irritated by his thorn; he prayed repeatedly for its removal; but the only answer that he received was this: My grace is sufficient for thee! Grace sufficient for a thorn! It is an almost ludicrous association of ideas!

      It is so easy for Bunyan to believe that the divine grace is sufficient for the wide, wide world; it is so difficult to realize that it is sufficient for him!

      It is so easy for Wesley to believe in the forgiveness of sins: it is so difficult for him to believe in the forgiveness of his own!

      It is so easy for Paul to believe in the grace that is sufficient to redeem a fallen race: it is so difficult for him to believe in the grace that can fortify him to endure his thorn!

      And yet, in a fine essay on Great Principles and Small Duties, Dr. James Martineau has shown that it is the lowliest who most need the loftiest; it is the tiny thorn that calls for the most tremendous grace. The gravest mistake ever made by educationalists is, he says, the mistake of supposing that those who know little are good enough to teach those who know less. It is a tragedy, he declares, when the master is only one stage ahead of his pupil. 'The ripest scholarship,' he maintains, 'is alone qualified to instruct the most complete ignorance.' Dr. Martineau goes on to show that a soul occupied with great ideas best performs trivial duties. And, coming to the supreme example of his subject, he points out that 'it was the peculiarity of the Saviour's greatness, not that he stooped to the lowliest, but that, without stooping, he penetrated to the humblest wants. He not simply stepped aside to look at the most ignominious sorrows, but went directly to them, and lived wholly in them; scattered glorious miracles and sacred truths along the hidden by-paths and in the mean recesses of existence; serving the mendicant and the widow, blessing the child, healing the leprosy of body and of soul, and kneeling to wash even the traitor's feet.' Here is a strange and marvelous and beautiful law! The loftiest for the lowliest! The greatest grace for the tiniest thorn!

      Is it any wonder that, this being so, Paul felt that his splinter positively shone? 'I will glory in it,' he cried, 'that the power of Christ may be billetted upon me.' He feels that his soul is like some rural hamlet into which a powerful regiment has marched. Every bed and barn is occupied by the soldiers. Who would not be irritated by a splinter, he asks, if the irritation leads to such an inrush of divine power and grace? It is like the pain of the oyster that is healed by a pearl.

      And so, with Paul as with Bunyan, the grace turns the scales. It is better to have the pain if it brings the pearl. It is better to have a thorn in the one balance if it brings such grace into the opposite balance that one is better off with the thorn than without it. Therein lies life's deepest secret--the secret that Catherine Booth and John Bunyan learned from the lips that unfolded it to Paul. In The Master's Violin, Myrtle Reed tells us the secret of the music that the old man's fingers wooed from the Cremona. You have but to look at the master, she says, and you will comprehend. 'There he stands, a stately figure, gray and rugged, yet with a certain graciousness; simple, kindly, and yet austere; one who had accepted his sorrow, and, by some alchemy of the spirit, transmuted it into universal compassion, to speak, through the Cremona, to all who could understand!'

      That is the secret--the old musician's secret; Catherine Booth's secret; Bunyan's secret; Paul's secret; the secret of all who have learned the text by heart!

      My grace is sufficient for thee--the inrush of the grace turned Paul's torturing splinter into a cause for life-long thankfulness!

      My grace is sufficient for thee--the inrush of the grace turned Mrs. Booth's fierce struggle into a ceaseless song!

      My grace is sufficient for thee! To the man who like John Bunyan, stands weighing his gladnesses and sadnesses with that text in his mind, it will seem that the one scale is overflowing and the other empty. For it is the glory of the grace that it takes what sadnesses there are and transmutes them into songs sublime.

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See Also:
   Introduction
   1: William Penn's Text
   2: Robinson Crusoe's Text
   3: James Chalmers' Text
   4: Sydney Carton's Text
   5: Ebenezer Erskine's Text
   6: Doctor Davidson's Text
   7: Henry Martyn's Text
   8: Michael Trevanion's Text
   9: Hudson Taylor's Text
   10: Rodney Steele's Text
   11: Thomas Huxley's Text
   12: Walter Petherick's Text
   13: Doctor Blund's Text
   14: Hedley Vicars' Text
   15: Silas Wright's Text
   16: Michael Faraday's Text
   17: Janet Dempster's Text
   18: Catherine Booth's Text
   19: Uncle Tom's Text
   20: Andrew Bonar's Text
   21: Francis D'assisi's Text
   22: Everybody's Text

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