I do not mean to give a complete exposition of Christianity. I want to take a certain number of points which I think are relevant for the Christian and which are relevant for anyone who wishes to understand himself and the situation in which we as Christians find ourselves. Perhaps when I say ‘we Christians’ I go beyond the limits of what I should say; perhaps I should say ‘the way in which one Christian who belongs to the Russian Church understands it’, because it will be a personal contribution. It is offered not as a teaching but to stimulate thought.
Periodically there are words that emerge that characterise a situation. When one uses the words ‘problem’ and ‘problematic’, one means things that had seemed to be absolutely clear to the generation before but which now have unfolded themselves in a new way and have acquired a depth of vision which requires new thinking. We are no longer content with a simple repetition of views which belonged to a previous generation. I am talking about such things as the historical meaning of tragic events like the Russian Revolution, suffering—communal or family—and national tragedies.
Nowadays it seems that the words which come easily to mind are bewilderment, perplexity, and they result in an attitude of mind because the trouble with words is that they begin by defining a situation that exists and then they try to crystallise the situation, making out of it a sort of world outlook. People confronted with a problem are perplexed; they say so, and that is right. Later, however, people have come to the perplexity before the problem and think that they are up to date if they are perplexed, but that doesn’t always lead to a solution.
Therefore, before we start to consider anything more concrete in our faith or world outlook, I would like to focus attention on perplexity and on doubt, in an attempt to provoke thought about a few words like faith, doubt, reality and truth. I am not a theologian; I am a scientist by training and a physician, so you will not find in my words any depth of philosophical probing into things. I am writing as an ordinary human being who is confronted with life and its problems.
First of all, concerning faith, one preliminary remark. Faith is very often understood by people as a defeat of intelligence. In other words, faith begins when I can no longer think creatively, when I let go of any attempt at rational understanding, and when I say ‘I believe’ because it is so absurd that it is the only way of facing the problem. This may be an act of credulity, it may be an act of cowardice, it may be a preliminary act, full of wisdom and intelligence, that teaches us not to draw conclusions or to come to conclusions before we have understood. But this is not faith as understood by the great men of all religions, and particularly the Christian faith. In the Epistle to the Hebrews in the eleventh chapter, faith is defined as ‘certainty of things unseen’. We usually lay the stress on ‘things unseen’ and forget the ‘certainty’ about them. So when we think of faith we usually think of the invisible and instead of certainty put against it an interrogation mark. Then to solve the problem, we accept in a childish way, in an unintelligent way very often, what we are told by others—usually our grandparents of three generations back, or whoever else we choose to believe for reasons that are not always reasonable. But if you try to see the way in which faith originates in those people who were the great men of faith, the heroes of faith, you can see that it always originates in an experience that makes the invisible certain, and which allows them, having discovered that the invisible is as real as the visible, to go further in searching the invisible by methods of their own.
There is a passage for instance, in the works of Macarius of Egypt, a man who lived in the fourth century. He says ‘The experience of God, the vision of the world in God, is something which can happen only at a moment when all our thoughts, all emotions, are arrested to such a degree that we can no longer both be within the experience, perceive the things, and step out of the experience, watch ourselves and analyse what is going on. The moment when an experience is “lived” is a moment when we cannot observe it.’ And he says that this would be quite sufficient for someone who has had an experience of God. He would not wish to go back to another stage. But he also says, ‘God has concern, not only for those who have this experience, but also for the people who haven’t got it; that someone should come to them as a witness of things unseen, and yet experienced, real, and he steps back away from them.’ At that moment begins, as he says, the realm of faith. The certitude remains even though the experience is already of the past; the certainty is there because what has happened to him is as certain as anything around him, is tangible, visible, perceived by the senses, so that the moment of faith begins as a result of a first contact with the invisible, discovered, disclosed somehow.
That means that we must be very severe and sober when we speak of our faith, for we often say ‘I believe this and that’ when we have taken it from someone else that it is true—we don’t care to investigate it in depth, and as long as this truth or illusory truth is not destroyed or broken down, then we take it for granted. This is a bad faith; this is what one of our Russian theologians called ‘the aged sacrament of the faith that does not think’.
What we should do whenever we are faced with that kind of faith is to confront it with experience. We ask ourselves whether we have any experience of it. If we haven’t, it must remain a field to be investigated. It remains a field that was conveyed to us by someone who knows, but which is not known to us. It is promising, but it must hold its promise in the future. We cannot yet say ‘I know, I am certain, I understand with experience.’
This kind of faith—the faith of one who simply takes things on trust—sooner or later will be badly battered by life and by problems, by doubt in fact, or if you prefer, by perplexity. What happens so often with people is that when they are young, they are given a number of certainties which they accept on trust from their parents, their teachers, their surrounding, the milieu in which they live. After that, this minimum of faith is kept as a sort of treasure. We develop in all sorts of ways, but our awareness of the world invisible and of the certainties it entails does not grow with it. A moment comes round the age of 18, perhaps earlier or later, when a child in us, the little child of 8 who has collected all the faith he was capable of and formed a world outlook which is childish, is confronted with an opponent, an adversary within himself. A girl, a young man, of 18, 20 or 25, says ‘Nonsense, you can’t believe that’, and then an argument starts which is doomed to lead to the defeat of faith simply because it is the argument between a little child with a pure heart and uninvolved thinking, against someone who poses to the childish nature the problems of another age, another level of understanding, another level of perception of the world.
At 8 the world can be taken on trust; at 18, at 25, it cannot; and in certain circumstances, there are things that can never be taken on trust. I will give you an example. The Eucharist, the central event of Christian worship, is centred on an act of thanksgiving in which we say to God ‘Thank you for all things’. Now, can we honestly say, ‘thank you for all things’ in the face of the tragedies of the world unless we have a reason to see beyond the tragedy to their solution and a meaning within them ?
Doubt is not simply contradiction. Doubt is a moment of dividedness, a dichotomy in our minds; a moment when, having followed a very simple straight road, we come to a fork, and we ask ourselves ‘Do I go this way or that way ?’ The one may be more convincing, the other may be more alluring. Which one are we going to choose? It is the situation of someone who has been weighing up the problems of life in a very simple way and suddenly discovers there is a much more subtle balance between things and that a simple solution is no solution at all. What are we going to do at that moment?
There are two absolutely different attitudes to doubt in the mind—there is that of the scientist and that of the believer. For the scientist, doubt is a systematic weapon; it is a joy. For the believer when he takes the wrong attitude to doubt and to the problems he is facing, it is a moment of anguish. What happens usually to the believer is that having believed in all simplicity that everything is clear, simple, straightforward, he suddenly discovers that life gives the lie to what he thought to be true. Then his answer is ‘I am disloyal to what I thought, I am disloyal to my faith, to my Church, to my God’. The problem is not only about subtleties but about basic things, about God Himself, about the Church, about what is at the core of the believer’s life. Then he feels that what is at stake is the breaking down, the destruction, the disappearance of the object of faith, and God’s existence is now questionable. The values which were essential, which were existential values for him, are questionable, and therefore his very existence becomes a problem and seems to be insuperably problematic.
But when a scientist engages in research, he gathers together all the facts he is capable of collecting. Once he has gathered his facts, he must hold them together in a way that makes it possible for him to handle the totality of the facts, and he builds a hypothesis, a theory, a model, a construction, an architectural building, that is capable of holding everything together. If the whole object of research for the scientist was to make himself a name, he will try to protect his model against any criticism, against any doubt and against any questioning, with greater or lesser honesty. But if as a scientist he is a man who is out to discover what things are in reality, his first action will be to go round and round his model in all directions, examining and trying to find where the flaw is, what the problems are which are generated by the model he has built, by the theory he has proposed, by the hypothesis he has now offered for the consideration of others. If he cannot find a flaw, then he will try through research to go farther in the field and discover such facts that do not fit with his theory or his model, because when he will find a fact that will explode his model, make his theory questionable, he will have opened up a new window on reality. So the aim of the good research scientist is to create models of theories or hypotheses as a preliminary exercise to questioning and to discovering something which will make him break them down in order to create another model which is as doubtful as the preceding one, but which allows him to keep the new facts together in a manageable way.
At the root of the scientist’s activity there is the certainty that what he is doubting is the model he has invented—that is, the way in which he has projected his intellectual structures on the world around him and on the facts; the way in which his intelligence has grouped things. But what he is also absolutely certain of is that the reality which is beyond his model is in no danger if his model collapses. The reality is stable, it is there; the model is an inadequate expression of it, but the reality doesn’t alter because the model shakes.
‘Model’ can be replaced by another word when it is not used in a scientific way—it can be replaced by the word ‘truth’. Truth is something which is an expression of reality, and an expression means two things: first, that the reality which surrounds us is perceived (obviously incompletely); secondly, that it is expressed (also incompletely, because of our inability to express identically in words and in expressions). Only one occasion in human history sees the moment when truth and reality coincide. That moment is in the incarnation Christ, because he is God, the plenitude, the fullness of creation, and at the same time the perfect expression of it. Then truth no longer answers the question ‘What?’, it answers the question ‘Who?’, and when Pilate said ‘What is truth?’ Christ gave him no answer for the simple reason that if he had said to him what he had said to the disciples, ‘I am the Truth’ Pilate would have understood even less than the disciples, and the disciples understood nothing at that particular moment.
Truth and the expression of it is bound to be formulated in human terms, in the language of a given tribe, a nation, an epoch and so forth. Obviously it is limited, but it has also another quality: truth can be either static or dynamic. You can express the truth in two ways. A snapshot is true and yet it is perfectly untrue. Everyone must have seen snapshots of preachers, lecturers or politicians delivering a speech. They are usually taken at a moment when the subjects stand with their mouths open like a hippopotamus. Well, the snapshot is perfectly true, but it expresses only a split second and gives you a ridiculous image of something that perhaps at that moment was profoundly moving for the people. It is a petrification, a sort of fossil of something which is dynamic; it is true, and yet it does not express the truth because the truth at that moment was emotion. When you want to express the truth—that is, reality—dynamically, you discover that the truth becomes a problem of a quite different sort. Perhaps an example or two will explain what I mean.
There is a painting by the French painter Gйricault called The Derby at Epsom. If you look at the painting, you will see that the horses are galloping, but if you are interested in zoology or in the mechanics of movement and examine the horses, you will discover that no horse gallops that way. Some are spread out in such a way that if they went on they would fall flat on their bellies; others stand with their four feet gathered together and couldn’t even jump from the position in which they are painted. But what was Gйricault aiming at? He aimed at showing the gallop and not the horses. The problem was to express the movement and not the anatomy, the physiology. And he chose deliberately (because he knew perfectly well how to draw a horse) to falsify things as the only way of convincing the viewer that the horses were moving.
This is what we are always doing in theology or philosophy: we falsify things when we want to convey a dynamic moment, but often the reader takes them to be an adequate and immobile picture of what reality is. This is true, for instance, of the Trinity. There is another example which I should like to give about reality. It is that of false teeth. When we say these are false teeth, we are making a judgement of value but not of reality. We start with the common assumption that real teeth grow spontaneously in peoples’ mouths. This is true; from this point of view those teeth which you can remove in the evening, wash under the tap and keep in a glass are evidently false. But from the point of view of the dentist, they are perfectly real (false) teeth. It sounds like a joke, but that is the kind of mistake which we make continually. We don’t notice it, but we start to speak of something from an angle, move to another and we discover that the two don’t work together. No, reality is something within us which is the total thing which includes God and all things visible and invisible. This is what we aim at expressing in glimpses when we speak in terms of truth. These terms of truth may be adequate, they are never identical with their object. In the field of art something very interesting may be discovered in the works of primitive painters particularly of one Russian painter called Rublev who lived 600 years ago. He was trained by a man who had mastery of three-dimensional painting, and strangely enough, for most of his painting he reverted to two-dimensional. A Soviet historian of art made a study of the problem, and he showed that Rublev expresses all historical events in three-dimensional, because particularly in time and in space they have thickness. But things which belong to the eternal, he expresses only in two dimensions because they have no thickness—they are not within time and within space. When you look out of the window during the night in a thunderstorm, you may see the scenery in a flash—but it goes so quickly that you can’t see whether one tree is farther or nearer than another, or any so precise detail. This is the way that truth is both adequate and inadequate. When we say that the truth is inadequate, that our intellectual, philosophical, theological, scientific model is inadequate in comparison with reality, it simply means that we are saying ‘How marvellous, I have come to a point when I can outgrow the limitations in which I have lived and I can move into a greater, deeper, more enthralling vision of things as they are.’
If we think of a scientist and a believer, then we will see that the scientist’s doubt is systematic, it is surging, it is hopeful, it is joyful, it is destructive of what he has done himself because he believes in the reality that is beyond and not in the model he has constructed. This we must learn as believers for our spiritual life both in the highest forms of theology and in the small simple concrete experience of being a Christian. Whenever we are confronted with a crossroads, whenever we are in doubt, whenever our mind sees two alternatives, instead of saying ‘Oh God, make me blind, Oh God help me not to see, Oh God give me loyalty to what I know now to be untrue’, we should say ‘God is casting a ray of light which is a ray of reality on something I have outgrown—the smallness of my original vision. I have come to a point when I can see more and deeper, thanks be to God.’ That is not perplexity, it is not bewilderment, it is not the anguished doubt of the believer who hides his head and hopes that he will be able to revert to the age of 8.
This is very important because unless you are prepared to see reality and your own thoughts and the thoughts of others with keen interest, with courage, but with the certainty that the last word is not doubt, not perplexity and not bewilderment, but that it is discovery, then you are wasting your time. You will die in the way in which in ancient mythology we are told: an ass that stood between a bucket of water and some straw and could never decide whether he was more hungry than thirsty or more thirsty than hungry.
I should like to talk now of the situation of being a Christian in the world; and I should like to preface my remarks by saying that we have a tendency to exaggerate the meaning which we attach to the expression ‘the contemporary world’. The world is always contemporary to someone: at every moment it will be contemporary to a generation of people, and there are general rules that are human and historical which I believe can serve as a basis for our judgement and action. Another thing which I should like to underline is the fact that God is always contemporary. This we very often forget, trying by all sorts of theological efforts to make Him contemporary with us, when He is perfectly contemporary, needs no change to be Himself and to be up to date.
This being said, I take as a first starting point two stories of the Gospel which are too well known for me to describe them in detail—the stories of two storms on the Lake of Galilee. The scheme of these two stories is practically identical. The disciples leave the shore, they are caught up in a storm and they are confronted with the unexpected in the person of their Lord and of their God, Jesus Christ. In the first story the disciples left the shore, then they were caught up in the storm alone in their boat. Christ had remained behind, dismissing the crowds after the miracle of the multiplication of the bread and fish. Their only protection against the storm was the frail shell of their boat. They fought with all their energy, with all their skill, with all their courage, yet death was enveloping them on every side, pressing hard, trying to break through their precarious security. At a certain moment they saw, right in the middle of the storm, walking on the seas, blown around by the wind, Christ himself. They looked and saw and they cried out in fear because they knew it could not be Christ, they knew it was a ghost. Why? Because they knew that God, their God, their Master, their Teacher, stood for harmony, for peace, for salvation, for life, and there he was right in the middle of the storm which spelt death, disharmony and horror; it could not be God, because God’s presence could not be in harmony with what was going on.
This is the reaction we have so often, and we react as wrongly as the disciples when dramatic events occur in our lives. Whether it is history at large—wars and earthquakes—whether it is the small history in which we are involved—our own lives, our own families, our own religion, colour, group—if the presence of God is felt and is not accompanied by immediate harmony, by the coming of peace, by salvation, by the relief of pain and by the relief of anguish, we shout out that it is a ghost. He cannot be there. We forget that God is the Lord of the storm just as he is the Lord of the stillness, the serenity and the harmony of things.
I will leave this story at this point and take the next one, and come back to both. In this one we read that Christ has left the shore with his disciples. He is asleep in the prow of the boat; he is asleep comfortably, resting his head on a cushion. A storm springs up, death is abroad, fear enters and conquers the hearts of the disciples. They fight again within the precarious protection of the shell of the boat, and they feel that they are being defeated. Then they turn towards Him who is their salvation, or should be; and they see Him who should be their salvation completely indifferent, asleep, at rest, and—to add insult to injury—he is not only asleep but he has made himself comfortable with his head on a cushion.
This is what we accuse God of continuously. We never stop accusing him of that. We are fighting against death; anguish disrupts our lives; fear makes them unbearable; death is abroad, suffering is killing us, and God is not only there, indifferent, but in perfect comfort because he is beyond reach of these things. Are we fair and are we right ? I will try to answer this question a little later. Let us go back to more features of the story.
In the first story, having cried out their fear, the disciples hear the Lord say ‘Fear not, it is I’. They hear a voice which is strangely like the familiar and loved voice of their master. And Peter acting once more quickly than he thinks, says, ‘If it is you, tell me to walk on the seas and join you’. And then, because Christ says ‘Yes, it is I, come’, Peter of a sudden—because he has recognised Him who is life, who is meaning, who is harmony, in himself—of a sudden abandons the frail protection of their boat, and begins to walk and indeed he walks, and as long as he looks at Christ, and as long as his only desire is to be with Him, to be at that point where God stands in the storm, he can walk. But suddenly he remembers himself. He remembers that he is a man of flesh and blood, that he has gravity, that he has never walked on the sea, never withstood the raging waves, that he will drown; and the moment he turns his gaze, his interest, his concern on himself, he indeed begins to drown because he is still in that part of the storm where death is abroad.
In the case of the second story, the disciples feel defeated— death is there, they have no strength left, no hope, no peace left. Turmoil has overcome them completely; they turn to him, they awake him, perhaps even brutally, for their words are brutal. ‘For all you care, we are dead’. This is the translation which Moffatt gives of that passage. ‘For all you care, we are dead’. They don’t turn to him saying, ‘You are the Lord, a word of yours will be sufficient for us to be saved’. No, they recognise defeat, they accept the ruthlessness and indifference of God, they have no word for Him. What they want of this God become man who proves incapable of being a help and their salvation, if he can do nothing better, is to be in anguish, in despair, together with them and to die with them—not be drowned unconsciously, all unwitting of the oncoming defeat of life by death. And Christ turns away from them, brushes them away saying ‘How long shall I be with you, men of little faith?’ Then, turning to the storm, he commands the seas to be still and the wind to cease, projecting as it were, his own serenity, his own peace, his own stillness, his own harmony, on all things around Him. In the case of Peter as well as in the case of the other apostles, they had allowed the storm not only to rage around them, but to enter into them; the storm had become an internal experience; it had conquered. In Christ it remains outside himself; it is conquered. In a passage of St John’s Gospel, the Lord says ‘the Prince of the world has nothing in him which he can use to kill’. They are not His words but the implication is that He is free, He has overcome the world; he can project on it the measurement, the categories of eternity, stability, serenity, salvation, security, not the precarious and frail security of the little boat, but another security; not the peace, the naive peace of those who say ‘That will never happen to me’, or console others by saying ‘Don’t worry it won’t happen to you’, but the peace of one who has said ‘It may happen, it will happen, it has happened, and yet because I have lost all human hope, I stand firm and unshaken on divine hope.’
I have said that Christ was at the point of a storm, at a certain point of the storm which we should reach in order to be with God in the storm; that Peter nearly drowned because he did not reach it. Where is this point? This point of the storm is not a point where there is no storm, it is what one calls the eye of the hurricane, it is the point where all conflicting forces meet and where an equipoise is reached because there is no violence—not because there is no tension, not because there is no tragedy, but because the tragedy and the tension have come to such a pitch that they meet so violently as to balance each other; they are at the point of breaking. This is the point where God stands, and when we think of God, the God of history, the God of human life, the God whom we accuse all the time, to whom we give from time to time a chance by saying ‘ He must be right because he is God’—this is the God who has chosen to stand at the breaking point of things, and this is why He can be respected, why we can treat Him with consideration, why we can believe in Him and not despise Him.
Now, where is this point? Long ago a man once stood in anguish, in despair, before the face of God and before the judgement of his friends. This man was called Job. He was afflicted with all that can afflict a man—bereavement, loss of all he possessed, loss of all that was dear, but more than this, more tragically than this, with the loss of understanding. He no longer could understand his God. Meaning had gone out of his life, and in his argument with God and in his argument with his friends, he stood for meaning and refused consolation; he refused to be consoled and got out of tragedy and anguish by a consoling, appeasing and false image of God and of his ways. He believed, indeed he knew a living God, and that one he could no longer understand. And at
a certain moment, he says, ‘Where is the man that will stand between me and my judge, who will put his hand on my shoulder and on my judge’s shoulder; where is he that will step into the situation, take a place at the heart of the conflict, at the breaking point of the tension, stand between the two in order to re-unite them, and to make them one ?’ He had a sense that only that could be the solution of his problem. Indeed of the problem of the meaning of tragedy, ultimately of the meaning of history. He had a foreboding that only that could be true, and that indeed happened. It happened when the Son of God became the Son of Man, when the Word of God became flesh, when Jesus came into the world, who being truly man, could put his hand on the man’s shoulders without destroying the man by the fire of divine touch, and who could without blasphemy and sacrilege, put his hand on the shoulder of God without being destroyed.
This is what we truly mean by Intercession. Christians spend their time interceding, and at times I listen to these intercessions with fear because to me intercession means an involvement that may spell death; and I am frightened when I hear a congregation of people intercede for one need after the other, piling up on their shoulders all the needs of the world just for the time Evensong lasts. After that they put it down on God’s shoulders, and they go out elevated with a new emotion.
About ten years ago I came back from India. I was asked in London to speak at a rather big meeting about hunger. I spoke about what I had seen and what had wounded me very deeply all the passion and violence I am capable of. For a while the people sat and listened, then when we came out I stood at the west door shaking hands, and a lady came up to me and said ‘Thank you for the entertaining evening.’ That is intercession very often with us. We have spied a need, we have become aware of a tragedy, and then from the security of our living, we turn to God, and say ‘O Lord, haven’t you noticed that? What are you doing about it ? And this ? And that ? Aren’t you forgetful of your duties to mankind ? This is not intercession. Intercession is a Latin word which means to take a step that brings you to the centre of the conflict, and in the image of Christ, in the person of Christ, we see that intercession means taking a step which is definitive—once and for all he becomes man, not for a while. And he doesn’t become a pleading advocate or a go-between equally different to the one on either side, who will go and find terms of agreement between the one and the other. He takes his stand in total, final solidarity between Man and God; turning to God, he is man and stands condemned; turning to men he is God and stands rejected. He must die. And his solidarity doesn’t go simply to the sweet selected few who will recognise him or believe in him. No, his solidarity goes to everyone. He is not God for the good versus the bad, the believers versus the unbelievers, or the creed or the colour of a nation, or of a social group. He has made himself solid with everyone. We discovered as exiled Russians in the early days of emigration when we had lost everything, when there was nothing left standing for us, when we were unwanted, rejected, despised, helpless, vulnerable to the utmost, we discovered we had also lost the God of the great cathedrals, the God of the beautifully engineered ceremonials. Where did we stand ? When we looked at ourselves, we discovered that we had lost faith in ourselves, and very often self-respect. And then we discovered our God in a new way. We discovered that in Christ God has revealed himself as vulnerable, as helpless, as contemptible, as overcome and vanquished, as trodden under foot, as rejected, and we discovered that we had a God who was not ashamed of us, because he had made Himself solid with what we were, in our misery, in our deprivation, in our rejection, and also that we had no reason to be ashamed of a God who knew how to love to the extent that he was prepared to become one of us, and to show by doing this that his faith in us was unshaken and that his respect of human dignity was whole and untouched.
This God is the one who stands at the middle of history. He is the one who stands at the breaking point of the storm, and he calls us to stand where He stands, to be involved, to be committed, to be committed to life and death within the storm, and yet neither to accept this fallacy of a ghost in the storm instead of God, or to turn to God and say ‘ If you can do nothing more, at least be together with us, in anguish and in despair’. He wants us to take a step, to be in the world at the point which I called ‘the eye of the hurricane’, but not of the world, because we are free from the uncertainty, from the fear, from the self-centredness of Peter, remembering himself at a moment when the whole sea was death and danger for the other disciples, for all the other boats around, and when God stood there as the key of harmony, but it was not the harmony that he expected.
I should like to give you one example of what it means both to make an act of intercession and to stand where our place is. It is the story of a woman of whom we know nothing except the name. She was called Natalie. The story was told me by the other people involved in it. In 1919 at a moment when the Civil War was raging like a storm over Russia, when our cities were falling prey to one army after the other, a woman with two young children was trapped in a city which had fallen into the hands of the Red Army, while her husband was an officer of the White Army. To save her life and theirs, she hid in a small cabin at the outskirts of the city. She wanted to wait until the first surges were over and try to escape afterwards. On the second day someone knocked at her door towards the evening. She opened it in fear and she was confronted with a young woman of her age. The woman said ‘You must flee at once because you have been discovered and betrayed; you will be shot tonight’. The other woman, showing her children that stood there, said, ‘How could we do that? We would be recognised at once, and they can’t walk far.’ The young woman who so far had been nothing but a neighbour, someone living next door, became that great thing which one calls a neighbour in the Gospel. She grew to the full stature of the Gospel of God, of the good news of the dignity and graciousness of man, and she said ‘They won’t look for you, I shall stay behind.’ And the mother said ‘But they will kill you.’ ‘Yes’, said the woman, ‘but I have no children, you must go.’ And the mother went.
It is not easy, I would say it is almost sacrilegious, to try to imagine what happened in the heart and mind of this woman in the course of the hours that preceded her death. But we can look back to the Gospel and see what happened in the Gospel to those who were the prototype, the archetype of this great and holy woman. Almost two thousand years before, a young man of her age was waiting for his death. His name was Jesus. He was in a garden wrapped in the darkness of the coming night. There was no reason within him why he should die. He was young, healthy; he had done nothing wrong. He was waiting to die in a vicarious way other peoples’ death. He was waiting in the darkness of the night, and death was coming to kill life eternal itself. Three times he went towards his disciples, hoping for a word that would strengthen his heart, for companionship: not to be released, not to be saved from the oncoming death, but to feel that there was a human presence, compassion, love and awe. The disciples were asleep. He got no help.
Natalie in the coming night, in the gathering darkness, in the cold that was falling from the walls and the roof, had nowhere to turn; there was no-one to whom she could turn. She was alone, facing the coming of another woman’s death that would be enacted in her body, in her destiny. She could have walked out. The moment she had passed the threshold, she was again Natalie, not the mother. Two thousand years before on that same cold night when Christ was betrayed into the hands of his murderers, the strongest, the most daring of his disciples was challenged three times, twice by a little maid in the courtyard, once by a group of standers-by; he was not asked ‘Are you Jesus?’ he was told ‘You were with him!’ and three times he said ‘No’, and walked out of the courtyard. Into what? Into security. He turned round and the eyes of Christ met his eyes, and he remembered and he wept. But he walked out. Natalie did not walk out, she stayed inside.
How often must she have thought ‘Is there any hope that at least my sacrifice will be useful ?’ Again, two thousand years ago a man was waiting for death, John the Baptist, and before he died, when he knew that death was inevitable, he sent two of his disciples to Christ to ask Him ‘Are you He for whom we waited, or shall we expect another one?’ That means ‘If you are Him, then my life of asceticism, my aloneness, my preaching, my imprisonment and death, all the tragedy and hardship of my life, make sense. But if you are not, then I have been betrayed by God and by man, by my own inspiration and by the weakness of the living God. Are you He ?’ Christ did not give him a direct answer. He gave him the answer of the prophet’ Go and tell him what you see—the blind see, the lame walk and the poor proclaim the good news—news about God—news about man.’ The humility of the one and the greatness of the other.
Natalie probably asked herself the same question—was it in vain that she was dying? There was no answer, only the hours passed, the cold of the early morning came and with it, death. The door was brutally opened and they did not even take the trouble of dragging her out. She was shot where she was.
This is the answer which the Christian can give to the tragedy of history. The place where we must stand. Natalie stood where Christ had stood, and where indeed Christ stands now, risen in Heaven with his hands and sides seared with nails and the spear. He stands at the very heart of human history, human suffering, human death, human anguish and tragedy. But He stands there like a rock. He stands there firm, having endured everything, every human suffering in thought and body, and he says to us Christians, ‘ That is where you must stand, not in the dreamland of a faith that gives you the illusion that you are already in heaven while you have never been on earth. No, at the heart of human suffering and tragedy but with a faith unshaken, with the certainty that He who was expected by Job, has come’. And if we stand there, we may undergo all that was promised by him. You remember the passage: ‘Are you prepared and capable of drinking of the cup which I shall drink, of undergoing what I shall go?’ ‘Yes’, said his two disciples. This must be our answer, and when tragedy comes, we must answer again as Isaiah spoke: ‘ “Whom shall I send?” said the Lord. “Here I am, send me.” ‘ Like a sheep among the wolves; like the Son of God among men.