True freedom is freedom from oneself.[1]” So writes a Benedictine monk in reference to the current Covid pandemic. “…in this current situation we learn unquestionably that we all have a responsibility to our fellow humans, that we all share the same human nature.”

Yet in the secular West, freedom is almost universally understood to mean freedom for oneself. Freedom becomes something external to ourselves, something granted or curtailed by others (witness the protests against lockdown restrictions). This focus on externals diverts attention from the need for inner transformation – conversio – a need that is rarely acknowledged in modern society.

Our spurious freedom offers so much… The distractions of consumerism and technology lull us into a comfortable sleep. But inevitably, trauma comes to interrupt that sleep. On a mass level, awakening may occur in a time of war, natural disaster or pandemic. On an individual level, shocks such as abuse, bereavement or illness invite us to engage in self-enquiry and transformation. In my own life, addiction pushed me onto a path that led beyond the purely material and rational.

That path began in St Petersburg in 1999 (Leningrad was renamed St Petersburg in 1991). There I met people who had survived the impossible. Seventy years ago Nazi forces surrounded the city and laid siege to it for two and a half years. By the end, half the city of three million had died, most from starvation. From 1941 to 1944, they lived through circumstances that defied the imagination. Siege rations provided too few calories to sustain human life, electricity and running water supplies were cut off, there was almost constant shelling and bombardment, and temperatures fell below minus thirty degrees.

Times of crisis bring behavioural polarisation (today we contrast the selflessness of healthcare workers with the wilful flouters of restrictions). The men and women I met in St Petersburg had viewed the choice that lay before them with stark urgency. They knew that if they did not resist the baser human instincts, which, in the words of a siege diarist, were constantly clamouring: ‘to eat is to live!’, they might succumb to what was termed ‘moral dystrophy,’ in which human qualities were consumed. The cannibals who scoured the streets of Leningrad for corpses were witness to that spiritual death.

Those I met had resisted their baser instincts; they had embraced an inner freedom that enabled them to transcend their circumstances. Most of those who survived did so because they made the decision to act to the full upon this sense of responsibility towards their fellow human beings.

They told me that those who shared their miserable rations with others were more likely to survive. If they had no food they shared their creative energy. They sang, danced, wrote poems and diaries, gave lectures, or simply sat and held the hands of the wounded. Although they were too humble to express it in such terms, they were truly people who had ‘loved their neighbours as themselves.’ Despite their physical hunger, the spiritual nourishment they gave others served to replenish their own reserves.

The writer Iulia de Beausobre, who did much to explain Russian Orthodoxy to the West, and who was herself a survivor of Stalin’s penal system, expressed the belief that it is in circumstances of the greatest evil that the greatest good may be found, and this is the process of transfiguration: To us, the greatest mystery of life on earth… [is that] evil must not be shunned, but first participated in and understood through participation, and then through understanding transfigured[2]

During the war this transfiguration took place in Leningrad. People who rationally and logically should not have remained alive discovered a way to survive by freeing themselves from themselves.

I returned from St Petersburg with the awareness that I lived on a similar knife-edge. The baser coping instinct that had led me to drink was now countered by the knowledge that: ‘to drink is to die.’ Spiritually, I had been dying for three decades. Two choices lay before me; by the grace of God I turned in the direction those siege survivors had shown me.

 

Caroline Walton, Oblate Novice of Chevetogne, Belgium

 

 

[1] Pere Philippe Vanderheyden in Kroniek van Chevetogne 2020-21 Epifanie (my translation)

[2] Iulia de Beausobre Creative Suffering (SLG Press 2011)

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