Along the streets of the city of Bedford, in England, the poor and illiterate preacher, John Bunyan, is conducted to prison. Years roll on; to human appearance all his earthly prospects are cut off; he has no books with the single exception of the Bible and the Lives of the Martyrs. Had he not been imprisoned, he would have lived and died, as do many other men, known perhaps, and useful, within the limits of a single town, and for a single generation. But, shut up in prison, and cut off from worldly plans, God was enabled to work in him, in his own wonderful way, and to guide his mind to other and higher issues. It was there he wrote that remarkable work, the Pilgrim’s Progress. Had his enemies not been allowed to prevail against him, it probably would not have been written. It was thus that God turned that which was designed for evil into good. It was a wisdom higher than man's wisdom, which shut up the pilgrim himself in prison. The Pilgrim's Progress, which was the result of the imprisonment of the pilgrim whose progress it describes, free as the winds of heaven, goes from house to house, knocks at every heart, teaches all classes, visits all nations.
Nearly at the same time with the pious individual to whom we have just referred, there lived in England another person, whose extraordinary powers of intellect and imagination were developed and cultivated in the best institutions of that country. In the revolutionary contests of that period, his pen, exuberant with the riches of thought and eloquence, was frequently employed with great effect. He became blind. The sun, the pleasant sky, the societies of men, were all shut off from him. "These eyes," he says in one of the sonnets written in his blindness,
"Bereft of light, their seeing have forgot;
Nor to their idle orbs doth sight appear
Of sun, or moon, or stars, throughout the year,
Or man or woman."
He was, indeed, in a dark and solitary place; but it was God, who, in the administration of his providence, constructed it for him. And there, in what seemed to the world a lonely prison-house, the light of the soul grew bright in the darkness of the body; and he wrote the Paradise Lost. In the enlargements of his own will, when he went where he chose to go, he gave his powers, too great to be thus limited, to a party; but, in what may be termed the solitude and captivity of God, he gave himself to religion and to mankind.
Wisdom can never be separated from providence, nor can goodness. And the darker the providence, the greater the wisdom. Souls that are formed for great and good purposes are so especially the objects of Providence, in its most mysterious arrangements, that they may be called, with scarcely a metaphorical use of the expression, the prisoners of God.
For reasons which are perfectly known only to himself, they are hedged in by him on every side. He does with them what he thinks best; and he does not allow them, in the exercise of their own wisdom, to think what is best for themselves, because he intends to make them the subjects of his teachings, as well as the instruments of his own designs. The way in which he leads them is not only a narrow one, and built up with walls on every side, but is often precipitous and, to human sight, full of dangers. But out of that road they find, if they follow the true light, they have no liberty to go; and in it they must receive, not what they might choose, but what God sees fit to give them. He smites them, and he heals them; he pours light upon their path, or he leaves them in sudden darkness. "They are clay in the hands of the potter." They are broken to pieces, that out of their earthly fragments he may build up a heavenly habitation. He makes them nothing, that they may have divine strength. He cuts them loose from the creature, that they may be made receptive of the Creator. But in everything there is wisdom. Men may not see it; but it is there.
THE LIGHT ABOVE US
There is a light in yonder skies,
A light unseen by outward eyes;
But dear and bright to inward sense,
It shines, the star of Providence.
The radiance of the central throne,
It comes from God, and God alone;
The ray that never yet grew pale,
The star, that "shines within the veil.”
And faith, unchecked by earthly fears,
Shall lift its eye, though filled with tears,
And while around 'tis dark as night,
Untired, shall mark that heavenly light.
In vain they smite me, — men but do
What God permits, with different view;
To outward sight they wield the rod,
But faith proclaims it all of God.
Unmoved, then, let me keep my way,
Supported by that cheering ray,
Which, shining distant, renders clear
The clouds and darkness thronging near.
— Life of Madam Guyon, vol. ii, p. 317.
— edited from A Treatise on Divine Union (1851) Part 6, Chapter 5.