Faith and Reason: The escape from Doubting Castle: Earlier articles in our series on God's guilt have considered the problem of evil from the outside. Today the Rev John Cole examines God's purposes in pain from a personal angle.

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The Independent Online
IT TOOK ME two years to travel from the world of light and of sight into the world of darkness and of blindness. During this period I learnt much about my own sickness and about God's power to heal, about my frailty and God's strength.

'Many kinds of darkness in this world are found.' This record of some of the events which occurred during my own descent into darkness is made in the hope that it may give encouragement and comfort to others as they enter into their own particular darkness, and that they may learn, as I have learnt, that although God may not heal their bodily sickness, yet, if they allow His spirit to touch their souls, they will find that always there is healing in His wings.

Very early on my journey, like Christian in Pilgrim's Progress I fell into the Slough of Despond. I did so because I asked why should this happen to me, and as long as I continued with this absurd question I foundered and sank deeper and deeper into the Slough. I only found firm ground under my feet and managed to escape when I began to change my question and asked not why should this happen to me, but why shouldn't it? What right had I who had never been tortured, hungry, a refugee, nor seen my family murdered before my eyes, to claim immunity from suffering which is so much a part of human life?

Soon after emerging from the Slough of Despond I was attacked by Giant Despair and thrown limp and wounded into his dungeon in Doubting Castle. There I suffered greatly, doubting the goodness of God, the desirability of continuing to live, the helpfulness of prayer and sacraments, the validity of my faith, the glory of God in his creation and my own ability to survive.

Then, one day I was reading the account of Our Lord's agony in the garden of Gethsemane and came to the passage where St Luke, the beloved physician, tells us that an angel appeared unto Him strengthening Him. From that moment angels began to appear to me strengthening me so that I was able to wrench out the iron bars from my prison windows, break down the stone walls and escape into freedom from Doubting Castle and the power of Giant Despair.

These angels were no hallucinations of the mind but good, solid, earthy, practical human beings. Chief among these angels is the resident one, my wife, who when I told her that I was going blind announced 'We are in this together and we must deal with it together.'

Then Sunday by Sunday, when the time comes 'to draw near with faith' and take God's holy sacrament, I rise from my pew in church and standing in the aisle I hold out my hand and always some passing angel, not always the same one, takes it and leads me to the altar rails where together we kneel and receive that holy mystery which is 'what His word doth make it'. Then rising, we return and before we part there is a clasp of a hand that is as highest an expression of Christian fellowship as I know.

With such a magnificent rescue operation mounted by so glorious a band of angels, who could remain imprisoned in a dungeon of Giant Despair?

Later in my journey into darkness I was confronted by the terror of that foulest of fiends which Bunyan calls Apollyon. It happened in this manner: I was lying awake in bed in those dread small hours of the morning when the fiend came and so gently and so softly whispered, 'Last evening you were unable to read even with your glass. You could read a fortnight ago; in another fortnight you will be even more blind. In fact, you will be unable either to read or write - illiterate]

'Today, you can no longer see the Pole Star, tomorrow or a few days hence, you will be unable to see the birds as they fly and sometime later you will not see the flowers in the garden, and then the very outline of the trees and buildings will fail as you go down into the darkness that awaits you. You will never ever again see a human face and the voices of your friends will come to you as a voice of a telephone caller in a large empty dark room, and this blackness in which you will dwell by day and by night will be for ever, for ever blackness, and you cannot escape.'

I sat bolt upright in bed, the sweat of agony and terror streaming down my face unable to think or act. Then, by the gracious mercy of God, I found myself repeating over and over again, the Agnus Dei: O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us Thy peace.

After about five minutes I suddenly realised that I was saying not 'have mercy on me', nor 'grant me Thy peace', but 'have mercy on us', 'grant us Thy peace'.

The pronoun was plural not singular. I was praying not only for myself, but for others who were suffering. Then, slowly, one by one, I began to think of those whom I knew were entering into some darkness and then the sufferings of the hungry, the prisoners, the tormented came into my mind and I prayed with all my soul for them.

Then I thought of my Lord on the Cross and remembered that He in His agony prayed almost half the times of which we have any record of what He said for others, for the soldiers who nailed Him to the Cross, for His fellow sufferer, a dying thief, for His beloved mother and disciples whom He loved. He, surely, was teaching me in my agony to pray as He prayed for others and not think only of my own pain. And now the foul fiend has fled, no longer were his fearful whisperings in my ear and I lay down again and slept.

Now I am blind and my soul is scarred, but my scars are the healed scars of a victor and I know the Cross to be not a symbol of suffering passively to be accepted and endured, but a symbol of victory and of healing.

Judge as you listen to a blind man communing with his God: 'Lord of the Cross, Thou badest me not cringe nor whine before my fate, but in Thy strength not mine, with head erect forward, to stride into darkness to be engulfed. This done, Thou dost about my path shine forth a light the darkness cannot quench, and in that light my soul doth tread the stony way to peace.'