God uses the traits we dislike as well as our weaknesses to create something great, beyond our abilities and imagination. This is the message that pervades the pages of “The Woman with the Book”, the biography of the missionary Gladys Aylward.
Her short stature and straight, pitch-black hair were the traits that had frustrated Gladys Aylward throughout her childhood and adolescence. Born at the turn of the century in the borough of Edmonton, North London, Gladys longed to be beautiful, just like her sister, and get good grades at school. Her only gift, however, seemed to be the skill of telling beautiful stories; all she could do was to talk—the most frequent reproach her father made. The gift of being a storyteller did not seem to be of any use to her, either during school or in the years when she worked as a maid in the homes of the wealthy inhabitants of the city.
“At least 200 missionaries are needed in China.” This short ad, read in a missionary magazine, would radically change her future plans. The thought of the millions of Chinese people who died without knowing that Someone loved them enough to have already died for them gave a different impetus to Gladys’s life, although friends and family vehemently rejected these plans from the beginning. Thus she enrolled in a battle in which she had no chance of success, unless she detached herself from any outside support and clung to the One who had called upon her to love, serve, and suffer for a people whose language and customs she didn’t even know.
Towards the end of her life, Gladys herself wrote to a missionary friend, telling her that it was unrealistic to expect a smoother path than the Son of Man had walked towards Golgotha.
As the story of Gladys Aylward unfolds, the book deconstructs myths about how God intervenes in fulfilling the plans He Himself outlines. The story of the “woman with the book” does not flow without leaving an alluvium of disappointments and deep suffering. Real challenges and dangers sprang up throughout the days she lived among strangers, who responded to her attempts at getting close to them with insults—some even threw dung at her.
In fact, the miracles that marked her experience were mirrored by very vivid shortcomings, hardships, and soul struggles. Fragility and fear were present in every moment of danger, but Gladys did not allow herself to be overwhelmed by them, and she did not allow herself to be crushed by resistance or threats.
Although she had longed, for years, to go to the Far East, thinking of the millions of Chinese people who had not heard the good news of the gospel, the trip to China was long delayed, the doors were slammed loudly in her face, and her gestures of support were more like footnotes rather than the centre of the story. After three months of preparation for the mission in mainland China, the examination board decided to suspend her training, considering her incapable of mastering Chinese.
Finally, at the age of 30, she left with her own savings, boarding the Trans-Siberian train that was supposed to take her across Asia, at half the (costly) price of travelling by ship. Unfortunately, the employee of the travel agency warned her that there was a war in Manchuria, so the train was likely to be stopped at the Russian border. The idea of war did not frighten her. In fact, she did not even think it was worthy of consideration, as long she had a calling that came from beyond her.
As predicted, the train did not cross into the war zone, and she spent a night in the open air, in the frost and snow of Siberia. She was arrested in Vladivostok, but she managed to escape and run aboard the Japanese ship that was to take her to China. She was caught by Russian soldiers just before boarding the ship, but in the end she was released in exchange for a British Pound, a note received from a couple she had been acquainted with during the voyage, a gift that seemed completely useless at the time of receipt, given the destination towards which Gladys was heading.
The beginnings of her ministry in Yangcheng, Shanxi Province, were not promising either, from the hatred with which the people of the city greeted her to the cold attitude of the elderly missionary with whom she would eventually found and manage The Inn of the Eighth Happiness. In time, the inn became famous because it offered the best accommodation and food at reasonable prices. The two “not only provided hospitality for travellers, but would also share stories about Jesus, in hopes of spreading nascent Christianity.”
Seemingly not built for the harsh life of a missionary, in a country crushed by civil wars and conflicts with other expanding powers, Gladys proved to be the right person in the right place. She often did not know what decisions to make in times of great danger, so she prayed to receive counsel from the One who is never wrong. Sometimes, the answers came through biblical verses memorized long before, or after a hymn of praise sung with their last bit of energy—unexpected answers, bearing the signature of God, who never works in half measures.
Although remarkable, her faith sometimes faltered, and she was not shy to admit it in front of her listeners, simple Chinese people, hungry for biblical insights: she admitted that the trials she had been through bred fears and doubts in her, and that she struggled to surrender herself to the arms of God.
The answers to her prayers came unexpectedly and overwhelmingly, and bearing the signature of God, who does not work in half measures.
In fact, this surrender was the source of her unusual courage. She intervened, on the mandarin’s orders, to stop a massacre in a men’s prison. Although unusual, the mandarin’s command was based on the belief that the woman with the book served the living God because He lived in her, so nothing bad could happen to her—even if she entered a cell where prisoners were hacking at each other with axes, without the guards even daring to try to stop them. And the miracle followed this courageous step into the arena because Gladys knew that, especially in the vortex of trials, she had to practice what she preached.
Love is what kept her on the path of ministry, whenever an orphaned, starving child came to her door. Eventually, her family became too large to be supported by anyone other than the One who multiplied bread and fish. Love kept her in Yangcheng, when Japanese soldiers followed in her footsteps and steered her on a tough journey of more than 30 days, carrying more than 100 children with her on the dangerous mountain paths to the unoccupied regions across the Yellow River.
Furthermore, she was called by the Chinese ‘Ai-vo-te’ (“The one who loves us”), and for her, love had other meanings than the ones already engraved into the word. In her notes, she wrote that the real way to love is to seek closeness, not in order to obtain, but to offer. A love that “is not self-seeking”, seeks only God, in order to be with Him. This is the love that made her give up her British citizenship, in order to acquire Chinese citizenship, although this uprooting brought her a series of inconveniences (among them, the obligation to go to the police periodically for a residence visa during the years she returned to Great Britain because she was being hunted by Chinese communists).
Her certainty that she was going exactly in the direction she needed to go was as impressive as the miracles that took place during her ministry.
One of the recurring themes in today’s literature and cinema is that of perfect choices. The main character of a recently published novel, The Midnight Library, arrives in a library, “out beyond the edge of the universe”, where she can read countless books, each presenting a different version of her life. It is both fascinating and terrifying reading about someone who is tormented by regrets and finds themselves at an eternal junction between what could have been, and how they actually chose to live.
Gladys Aylward never doubted her mission, and her conviction that nothing could detract from the beauty of the divine plans was the backbone on which she built each day of her ministry. When the results of her work fell apart, when people close to her betrayed her trust, and when her name became well known enough for her to be invited to dine with the Queen of England, Gladys remained a servant. She was one who knew exactly where she was going, not because she knew the way, but because she knew the One who promises (to her and to anyone who commits to the cadence of ministry): “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand” (John 13:7).