Soul Care in Life and in Death: On the Borders of Eternity
We would be mistaken to assume that Susanna Wesley provided spiritual direction without commensurate soul care. True, in her humility and honesty, she felt at times unfit to offer sustaining and healing counsel. John Wesley wrote his mother concerning affliction and the best method of profiting from it. On July 26, 1727, she responds, “It is certainly true that I have had large experience of what the world calls adverse fortune. But I have not made those improvements in piety and virtue, under the discipline of Providence, that I ought to have done; therefore I humbly conceive myself to be unfit for an assistant to another in affliction, since I have so ill performed my own duty.”[i] Though perhaps overly self-depreciating, her words do remind us of the truth that the best
preparation for soul care is taking our own soul care issues to the great Soul Physicians.
That Susanna was overly deferential about her soul care abilities is easy to discern given the records we have of her care for hurting people. When an unnamed female friend was afflicted in body and depressed in spirit, Susanna describes to another female acquaintance how she empathized with her. “I heartily sympathize with the young lady in her affliction, and wish it was in my power to speak a word in season, that might alleviate the trouble of her mind, which has such an influence on the weakness of her body.”[ii]
Of course, Susanna realizes that human comfort only carries so much weight. So she points this sufferer to her caring Savior. “It is with relation to our manifold wants and weaknesses, and the discouragements and despondencies consequent thereupon, that the blessed Jesus hath undertaken to be our great high priest, physician, advocate, and Saviour. . . . His deep compassion supposes our misery; and his assistance, and the supplies of his grace, imply our wants, and the disadvantages we labor under.[iii]
After sustaining this hurting young women by helping her to see that her illness is normal and not due to her sin, Susanna then shares healing care by persuading her to see Christ goodness. “And here, madam, let me beseech you to join with me in admiring and adoring the infinite and incomprehensible love of God to fallen man, which he hath been pleased to manifest to us in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.”[iv] Understanding that there are no spiritual quick fixes, including in spiritual conversations, she invites ongoing connection. “I shall be very glad to hear often from you.”[v] Given her many duties in the home and in her neighborhood ministry, it is remarkable what an open heart Susanna demonstrates.
To her son, Charles, who had been struggling with his faith, she writes empathetically on October 19, 1738, “It is with much pleasure I find your mind somewhat easier than formerly, and I heartily thank God for it. The spirit of man may sustain his infirmity,—but a wounded spirit who can bear? If this hath been your case, it has been sad indeed.”[vi]
Humble as she was, Susanna could receive soul care just as easily as she dispensed it. Writing to Charles on December 27, 1739, she shares about a recent visit from his brother, John. “You cannot more desire to see me, than I do to see you. You brother . . . has just been with me, and much revived my spirit. Indeed, I have often found that he never speaks in my hearing without my receiving some spiritual benefit.”[vii] She increases her vulnerable openness when she admits, “But, my dear Charles, still I want either him or you; for indeed, in the most literal sense, I am become a little child, and want continual succor. ‘As iron sharpeneth iron, so doth the countenance of a man his friend.’ I feel much comfort and support form religious conversation when I can obtain it.”[viii]
She could equally accept care from non-family members. “I have been prevented from finishing my letter. I complained I had none to converse with me on spiritual things; but for these several days I have had the conversation of many good Christians, who have refreshed in some measure my fainting spirits.”[ix]
Perhaps there is no life event where soul care is more necessary than the end of life. John gives the following account of his mother’s last moments as she began her ascent to heaven. “I left Bristol on the evening of Sunday, July 18, 1742, and on Tuesday came to London. I found my mother on the borders of eternity; but she had no doubts nor fear, nor any desire but as soon as God should call, ‘to depart and be with Christ.’”[x] How we live on the borders of eternity says much about how we have lived up to that point. It also speaks either comfort or despair to our loved ones.
On Sunday, August 1, 1742, John writes of his mother’s funeral and shares Susanna’s grave inscription.
Here lies the body of Mrs. Susannah Wesley,
the youngest and last surviving daughter of Dr. Samuel Annesley.
In sure and steadfast hope to rise
And claim her mansion in the skies,
A Christian here her flesh laid down
The cross exchanging for a crown.
True daughter of affliction, she,
Inured to pain and misery,
Mourn’d a long night of griefs and fears,
A legal night of seventy years:
The Father then reveal’d his Son,
Him in the broken bread made known;
She knew and felt her sins forgiven,
And found the earnest of her heaven.
Meet for the fellowship above,
She heard the call, ‘Arise, my love,’
‘I come,’ her dying looks replied,
And lamblike, as her Lord, she died.[xi]
Susanna Wesley could die “lamblike” and could die granting comfort to her mourning children because she believes that God is our supreme good. Seven years before her death, on November 27, 1735, a few months after her husband’s death, she shares that experiential truth with John. “God is Being itself! The I AM! And therefore must necessarily be the supreme Good. He is so infinitely blessed, that every perception of his blissful presence imparts a vital gladness to the heart. Every degree of approach toward him is, in the same proportion, a degree of happiness.”[xii] In this last letter she ever penned, she offers spiritual consolation based upon spiritual communion with God. Truly this was a fitting legacy to her life.