Possessing all things

Apr 17th, 2006 | By | Category: Spirituality

What is Easter about?

I read a passage from Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Friendship‘ in church yesterday evening that seemed to capture the life-changing significance of what happened on that Sunday morning in Jerusalem.

“On one of the coldest mornings of that spring, after she had learnt from a London specialist that she might not have more than two years to live, she went for a walk past Clare Leighton’s cottage to a farm further up the hill. She felt tired and dejected; her mind, still vigorously alive in her slow, impaired body, rebelled bitterly against her fate. Why, she wondered, should she, at thirty-three, not yet in the fullness of her developing powers, be singled out for this cruel unforeseen blow? She knew, for the constant demands of her friends had made it clear to her, that her life was infinitely valuable to others. She thought of all the half-dead people who ‘put in time’, as though time were not the greatest gift in the universe, while she, who could use it so superbly, was soon to be deprived of it for ever; and she felt that her mind could hardly contain the rising anguish of that realization.

Just then she found herself standing by a trough outside the farmyard; the water in it was frozen and a number of young lambs were struggling beside it vainly trying to drink. She broke the ice for them with her stick, and as she did so she heard a voice within her saying: ‘Having nothing, yet possessing all things’. It was so distinct that she looked round, startled, but she was alone with the lambs on the top of the hill. Suddenly, in a flash, the grief, the bitterness, the sense of frustration disappeared; all desire to possess power and glory for herself vanished away, and never came back. She walked down the hill with the exhilaration which, says Storm Jameson in ‘Civil Journey‘, ‘springs from the sense of having lost everything. It is a feeling like no other, a curious form of spiritual intoxication, perhaps not repeatable.’

Winifred never told me of this incident nor of the sentence of death passed upon her, until June 1935, when she had only three months to live. By that time she thought – or, as I now suspect, allowed me to believe that she thought – that she had outwitted the doctors. The moment of ‘conversion’ on the hill at Monks Risborough, she said with tears in her eyes, was the supreme spiritual experience of her life. She always associated it afterwards with the words of Bernard Bosanquet on Salvation:

‘And now we are saved absolutely, we need not say from what, we are at home in the universe, and, in principle and in the main, feeble and timid creatures as we are, there is nothing anywhere within the world or without it that can make us afraid.’

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