I have been reading through Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, and couldn’t help but share a rather poignant passage that closed out one of the chapters I read today. It is a very moving death-bed scene in which Mr. Allen Woodcourt attempts to give hope and comfort to a dying beggar.
First, a little background. Both of these characters are, to some extent, ancillary to the main plot of the story, but in many ways contribute to the tremendous pathos of Bleak House as a whole. Allen Woodcourt is a young surgeon who has just returned from India, having found that his financial prospects there are not any better than in England. He is also the man whom the main character- Esther Summerson- has loved for some time, and there is the hint that he shares a similar affection for him. However, in the time he was away in India, Esther fell deathly ill, contracting a contagion from Jo, a beggar who finds himself thrust unknowingly into the events of the story between parties of far grander social station than himself. Esther had come across Jo in her philanthropic endeavors and, when he was sick, took him in and cared for him, and by doing so contracted his malady. It nearly killed her and severely scarred her face. Because of this she gave up all hopes of a life with Allen.
Allen discovers what has occurred, and is deeply sorry and compassionate towards Esther, for his affection for her was always quite strong. After a chance meeting with her upon his arrival, he returns to London to begin to pick up the pieces of his life and begin anew. It is on this return journey that he runs into Jo. Actually, he begins by chasing him down, for he suspects that he has stolen a poor woman’s property. He soon discovers that the woman was merely trying to get Jo to come to her house, for she has cared for him in times past. Allen is made aware that Jo is in trouble with the law (because of people in positions of power using him as a pawn) and is simply trying to stay out of sight. He recognizes that Jo is extemely sick, and so persuades him to take refuge at his friend’s house. It is here that Jo lays down upon a bed for what may have been the first time in his life, and would certainly be his last. Jo learns of the connection between Allen and Esther, and begs forgiveness for making her sick, since he didn’t intend to as she had been one of the few people who had shown him kindness.
Jo’s end quickly approaches, and Mr. Woodcourt knows it. Throughout his life Jo has had no one to care for him, no one to comfort him, and only now in the end has he found someone to be near him; someone who, from all outward appearances, would have the least amount of reason to do so. The scene picks up here:
“It’s tuned wery dark, sir. Is there any light a-comin?”
“It is coming fast, Jo.”
Fast. The cart is shaken to pieces, and the rugged road is very near its end.
“Jo, my poor fellow!”
“I hear you, sir, in the dark, but I’m a-gropina-gropinlet me catch hold of your hand.”
“Jo, can you say what I say?”
“I’ll say anythink as you say, sir, for I knows it’s good.”
“Our Father! Yes, that’s wery good, sir.”
“Which art in heaven.”
“Art in heavenis the light a-comin, sir?”
“It is close at hand. Hallowed be thy name!”
The light is come upon the dark benighted way. Dead!
Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying around us every day.[1. Charles Dickens. Bleak House: Jo’s Will]
As I finished reading that, I don’t mind admitting that I had tears welling up in my eyes, for the poignancy of this moment that Dickens had captured was very real and immediate. It caused me to consider 1 John 3:16-23:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.[2. 1 John 3:16-23 NIV]
As I finished reading this portion of Bleak House, I couldn’t help but pray that God would make me into that kind of person- someone in whom even a stranger could recognize the love and light of Christ, enough that they could “say anythink as you say, for I knows it’s good.” This morning for my prayer time one of the short readings was from Tobit 4:14-19 which says:
Be careful, my child, in all you do, well-disciplined in all your behavior. Do to no one what you would not want done to you. Give your bread to those who are hungry, and your clothes to those who are naked. Whatever you own in plenty, devote a proportion to almsgiving. Bless the Lord in everything; beg him to guide your ways and bring your paths and purposes to their end.[3. Tobit 4:14-19, universalis.com]
It is no surprise that the reading for evening prayer is from James 1:22, 25:
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.[4. James 1:22,25 NIV]
My prayer is that God will make me into this type of person, for I am all too aware that on my own such an endeavor is doomed to failure. As I was going through some old stuff earlier today, I happened upon a prayer that I had written years ago in a journal that seemed quite apropos:
O God of the poor and needy,
bring others prosperity through my hands,
banish poverty through me, your servant.
O God of the hungry and thirsty,
brings others satisfaction through my hands,
banish hunger and thirst through me, your servant.
O God of the weak and oppressed,
bring other justice through my hands,
banish injustice through me, your servant.
O God of the lost and dying,
bring others salvation through my hands,
banish death through me, your servant.
Now unto the God who works through me and in me,
all praise and glory and honor forever.
The interesting thing for me at this moment is that I am only two-thirds of the way through Bleak House, and I have no idea how it ends. In a way, it kind of feels like our lives, in that we don’t know what the consequences of the actions we take, the kindnesses we show, or the compassion we offer may have on others. Ultimately, every action we take needs to become an act of faith, in which we offer all these moments into God’s hands, full of trust and confidence that he will do with them as he wants, and bring good out of whatever circumstances come our way through our faithfulness to following and obeying him.