Author: David Torkington
(Taken from ‘Wisdom from the Christian Mystics’)

When he was only twenty-eight the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky was condemned to death. It was the spring of 1849.  He was condemned to death for reading subversive literature and frequenting suspect gatherings of anarchists. There was nothing in these charges but at the time the Tsar, like other monarchs who had survived the aftermath of the French revolution, was still paranoid. Two days before Christmas he was taken to the place of execution. The prison yard where he was to meet his death, was arranged with funereal decorations to suit the occasion and strike further terror into the condemned. The whole thing was a farce, a pantomime ordered by the Tsar. It seemed to appeal to his obscure sense of theatre.  As the executioners raised their rifles the procedure was suddenly interrupted by a messenger from the palace with a reprieve – the charade was over. The sentence was commuted to eight years’ hard labour in Siberia. Later, Dostoyevsky said that day, 23 December 1849, was the happiest day of his life, for on that day he experienced both death and resurrection. It influenced him for the rest of his life. 

It was the same for those first Christians who came out of the pool where they had died with Christ, died to their old selves and to the world they now rejected. It was this death that enabled them to enter into a new life in Christ to whom they totally committed themselves, as they were signed with Chrism. When Jesus rose from the dead he was wearing a shining white garment. To express their new identity, after their anointing the newcomers were clothed with a shining white garment too, which they would wear for a week and then reverently retain to remind them of the new life they received from the Risen One. His glorified life did not cease to flow onto and into them after the ceremony. It continued, not only on every day, but at every moment of their lives. Now they were dead to their old selves and to their old life they were free to live for the truth and to bear witness to the truth as never before.

Some years ago I saw a film, called Last Holiday. The protagonist in the film played by Alec Guinness, was a salesman for agricultural machinery. On being told that he only had three months to live he sold his home, cashed in his insurance policies and went to spend his final days in a five-star hotel on the South Coast of England. While putting on the first dinner jacket he ever bought he suddenly became frightened. He had never stayed in a place like this, never mixed with the great and the good before. He felt socially inferior. He was just about to pack his bags to leave when a thought struck him. What did it matter anymore, he was as good as dead, dead to the world of social class, and dead to all that previously intimidated him. He not only mixed with those he would once have considered his social superiors but he spoke to them bluntly, telling the truth to those who never heard it before. He prevented the divorce of newly married aristocrats by telling them to stop acting like spoiled children. He saved the livelihood of a business tycoon by telling him the design of his new combine harvester was flawed and he saved the job of the bar man by telling him how he should stand up to his boss. Because he was all but dead he could speak the truth as never before and do more good for others in a couple of weeks than he did in his life time.

This was the experience of the first Christians. They had died with Christ and to the world that intimidated them before. Their mystical dying enabled them to speak the truth loudly and clearly to all who would listen to them, and even to those who would not. If they were to pay for this with their life, what did it matter? They were dead anyway. There was only one death that really mattered to them, that they dreaded more than anything else, and that was the death that came from the separation from Christ into whose life and love they had been baptized forever. 

In the first three centuries, wave after wave of persecutions meant that tens of thousands of believers became martyrs so that martyrdom came to be seen as a sacrament. They believed that in their dying the Risen One would in some way rise up and manifest himself, not just to the martyr, but to onlookers too. It might be through the smile on an old man’s face, like St Polycarp as he slowly burned to death, or the ecstasy of the slave-girl Blandinia when, after being whipped and scalded she was thrown to the beasts in the arena. Carpus the deacon was actually laughing and smiling as he was being nailed to the cross. Many pagans who came to scoff were so moved that they too became believers and later martyrs themselves.

Perhaps the attitude to martyrdom amongst the early Christians can best be summed up in the story of St Perpetua and St Felicity. When the soldiers were about to throw them to the beasts, they saw that Felicity was pregnant so they held them back for another day lest the crowd were moved to compassion. When later, the jailer heard Felicity crying out with pain as she was giving birth he said, “If that is how you carry on now, what will it be like when they throw you to the wild beasts?” Then came the famous reply. “Now”, she said, “It is I who suffer, then it will be another who suffers in me.” Although they were both cruelly tortured before they were thrown to the wild animals to be torn to pieces they did not say a single word, deeply moving those who had only been moved by hatred before. 

Not all were martyred, and these others came to see that there was another way of bearing witness to the truth and therefore dying with Christ each day. It was through what later came to be called white martyrdom, to which all Christians were called. It was the daily dying to self of those who tried to follow Christ day after day through turning to God both inside and outside of prayer, taking up and carrying their daily Cross with Jesus. Their initial enthusiasm for their faith in the Risen Christ, enabled them to pass through, what later came to be called their first fervour or first enthusiasm in a comparatively short period of time, and then into what later came to be called the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’.

Two things are necessary for prayer to grow beyond the stage of set formulas and petitions to the stage when it becomes a personal encounter with the most loveable man ever to walk on this earth. The first thing is to find space and time in which to stop being busy about many things so there can be time to come to terms with Christ’s death, and to celebrate his continuing life and love.  The second thing needed is to read and re-read every word that has been written about him in the Gospels and to read everything that he said, because what he said is addressed to us personally. These sacred words are precious so they should be read slowly and carefully to experience their impact, as you would pore over poetry to penetrate its meaning. Gradually in time and under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the faith that once seemed solely cerebral will deepen, as hearts and minds that were like stone before, soften and become porous to receive and experience the love of Christ ever more deeply.  

When this happens the feelings and the emotions react as the whole personality begins to respond in a perfectly human way to the most perfect human being of all. Prayer begins to grow, to develop and deepen as in any loving relationship. It expresses itself in the language of love as it responds to the One who now seems to rise out of the sacred texts, out of history to enter into the heart and mind of the person who has persevered in prayer beyond first beginnings. As love grows and deepens into union, words finally fade away as they give way to a profound and pregnant silence. Meditation gives way to contemplation – the still, silent and loving gaze upon the One whose life we now experience within us because we have finally come to terms not only with his death, but with his Resurrection.