(Continued from page 11.)
But soon some of the hostility she had sensed in the US re-emerged. On 23 September, 1984, she complains that she can’t find kindred spirits in the English Catholic Church, writing: “People are so desperately political. I am sick and tired of all the propaganda we have everywhere. It’s unbearable any more to hear some pretty ignorant characters kicking my country of birth, which remains one of the greatest cultures, especially spiritually.”
This was a precursor to her well-publicised return with Olga, late in 1984, to what was still the Soviet Union, albeit in the process of perestroika. She made some public statements there, decrying the West and reclaiming her Russian citizenship, but the journey was not a success and by 1986 she was back in America. Her attempts to build bridges with her two older children had failed. She settled in rural Wisconsin but was restless as her one remaining child flew the nest.
By 3 March, 1990, she is back in London, camping at her daughter’s flat and distraught. “I feel like a rabbit, chased into some labyrinth.” She has no money. On 1 July 1990, she reports that she has moved into sheltered housing next to Westminster Cathedral, provided by the Carr-Gomm Society, and writes: “I only hope there will be no animosity against me. It seems that recently I just can’t show my face anywhere (publishers too) without making people cringe … as soon as they know who I am.” On 6 April, 1991, she writes that she had again been looking for a convent to take her. She had spent some happy weeks at St Joseph’s, at Monks Kirby near Rugby, but had returned home to London to find “how strongly I do love and need what is called the world”. In 1992, she moves to another CarrGomm house in west London. The correspondence ends in 1993, with Peters living in west London in one room and broke, no closer, it seems, to finding a third way to live with her past and her dual allegiances.
It appears she did briefly return to Fribourg, but it brought her no peace. In 2001, she was living in a care home in the west of England. By 2007, she had returned to Wisconsin, to a small cottage in Richland Center. She no longer wrote letters and refused invitations to give interviews. Her son, Josef, a doctor in Russia, had died in 2008.
At the time of her death – from colon cancer – Peters’ daughter Olga, now known as Chrese Evans, was living in Portland, Oregon, but had remained in daily contact with her mother. Her half-sister, Catherine, is a scientist, believed to be living in eastern Siberia.
In her 1983 autobiographical essay about her grandmother, Peters wrote, in the third person, a candid description of her own faith. It serves well as an epitaph to a troubled, rootless life of spiritual searching: “She learned a lot of things her illiterate grandmother never knew, but she had that same simple faith of her grandmother, faith of simple poor people, for whom God is all, without any doubt or any intellectual speculation.”
■ Peter Stanford is a freelance journalist.
‘Without notice or consultation, it had appeared on public land for private profit’
The Magi got much clearer and more definite responses.
“Has anything happened on the island since I was here?” It was far too leading a question to ask an island resident. But listen to the pauses and the silence as well as the evasive answer and you might guess whether anything significant has transpired and even where you might look for it.
I heard about John W, only in his sixties, who died recently after a long illness and a turbulent life on oil rigs and at sea before returning to the island with a Chinese wife. Everyone liked her and spoke of how loyally and lovingly she cared for him through his last illness. With her, he found an emotional and domestic stability he had not known before.
Until the day before he died, he smoked like a chimney and indulged his passion for betting on the horses until his vision failed and he could no longer see the television. Shortly before the end, he put on a party for his friends, which is to say almost the entire island. “Why should you have all the fun at my wake without me there?” he asked them. They came and had a long great craic even though he had to go to bed early.
Changes don’t happen alone. One leads on to another; so, we ring in the changes like bells tolling, continuously yet seemingly unexpected. St Augustine knew what time was until he had to describe it. Heraclitus said of the river of time that we never go down to the same one twice. Continuity and change and sometimes a finality like the last sound of a fading gong. New Year only reminds us that time ever flows, flies like an arrow in one direction till it falls. John’s absence means many things, one thing to Min, another for the islanders. It means we will no longer see a quiet, self-possessed Chinese woman walking the lanes of this Irish island taking a short break from her carer’s work.
These deep thoughts melted in the practical world during my first walk on the island after several months. Looking up to the crest of the hill, I saw not just the cross, which is lit up at night and is visible from the mainland as soon as the island comes into view on the road from town. There was also a strange new thing, awkwardly present, like an uninvited guest wearing the wrong clothes. A single wind generator, a three-blade turbine, rudely taller than the 1950 Jubilee Cross.
Retrospectively, the silence that my innocent question had evoked became more understandable. This was something that had happened all right and people had their feelings about it. Without notice or consultation, it had appeared on public land for private profit. But if people spoke about it at all, they spoke guardedly. It was an event, unlike John W’s departure, that could cause division for years to come. Any personal remark travels fast through the ether of a small community and acquires spin as it travels. I could hear the danger of my own too direct comment. We spend much of our life denying death. When other unpleasant things happen we instinctively find ways to deny them too. Isn’t this what must have happened in the cases of clerical child abuse over decades? You begin by downplaying its importance. It will go away. Wait and see. Don’t cause unnecessary offence. God will take care of it with time.
In the case of an illegal and antisocial wind turbine, you begin by describing, with some glee, how it broke down immediately it was turned on. But it is not easy to discuss seriously its rights and wrongs if there are no structures for discourse, no civic institutions except extended families where blood is thicker than water and stronger than the wind. It is the procrastination of unfinished business anywhere that feeds corruption in homes or in communities or states. Well, at least there is the liturgy. Here we experience sacred time not subject to the intrusions of fashion or faction or individual whim because the sacred can’t be created even by the highest Magisterium. It takes time to mature and for words to acquire the resonance and layered familiarity of funerals, weddings, anniversaries and the flow of ordinary days. But a fresh new Missal with its often dissonant piety and false-sounding archaisms, hard to understand and hard to read aloud, lay open on the altar, reminding us that nothing is sacred, even the sacred. No one I spoke to, lay or clerical, likes it. Maybe, in time, like people and scandals and the wind, it will go away.
■ Laurence Freeman is director of the World Community for Christian Meditation (www.wccm.org).
12 | THE TABLET | 7 January 2012 Lawrence case verdict
‘You are loved, Stephen’
The conviction this week of two racists for the killing of Stephen Lawrence comes 18 years after the schoolboy was knifed in south-east London. The case had profound consequences for race relations and policing in Britain. But at its heart lay the loss of a young man and his violent death. Here, the then advertising manager of The Tablet recalls how he and his wife encountered Stephen just after he was attacked, and sought to comfort him as he lay dying
Afew hours after my wife, Louise, and I walked down Well Hall Road in Eltham, south-east London, on the way home from our honeymoon in 1992, an Asian teenager, Rohit Duggal, was stabbed to death in a racist attack on the same street. Some 10 months into our new life together, on 22 April 1993, Louise and I were walking down the same road after a prayer meeting when we witnessed the death of Stephen Lawrence, the victim of another racist attack. We saw Stephen running along the pavement with his hand to his chest. His friend, Duwayne Brooks, was ahead, urging him to come on, and looking back towards Well Hall roundabout. Then Stephen crashed to the ground, and we went to be at his side, praying for him, as he breathed his last. It was the first time that I had ever been present at someone’s death.
Our first child was born on 20 March 1998, and six days later I was giving evidence to the judicial inquiry ordered by the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, and chaired by Sir William Macpherson, into matters arising from Stephen’s death. New life and death; death and new life. It was as though, for Louise and myself, God was emphasising their interrelation.
Now after the guilty verdict, I don’t rejoice. What I would love more than anything else is for those convicted to come to believe in God, to receive his forgiveness: that’s what I would long for. I don’t rejoice in punishment, I would rejoice in changed lives, in learnt lessons, in conversion, in good. But at the same time, justice is justice, God is just as well as forgiving.
Stephen shared his name with that of the first Christian martyr. When I first saw him running in the direction of Woolwich, I sensed immediately that something had happened and thought to myself that he might have been involved in a fight, that he might have been partly to blame for provoking some aggression. I later learnt that Stephen had done nothing at all to provoke the attack, other than bearing a black skin. He was innocent, as Stephen’s namesake was innocent. While I was crouching down beside him, I saw a wide flow of thickened blood. The image of that red blood on the grey concrete paving stones has stayed with me, and the thought that later kept coming back to my mind is that Jesus freely chose to spill his blood for us. Anyone in their right mind would flee from attack, as Stephen did – too late. But Jesus chose to undergo it. And if it is true that love motivated Jesus, then what an amazing, fearless and intense love he must have for each one of us. Suffering is the most powerful vehicle for the expression of love, and the ultimate suffering is the pain of wounds that lead to death itself. “No greater love has a man than that he die to save his friends.”
Stephen was accompanied by the prayers of fellow Christians in his dying moments – not only from Louise and myself but, incredibly, from an off-duty policeman and his wife who were returning home from another prayer meeting. In those last moments, Louise whispered into Stephen’s ear, “You are loved”, words that the Christian songwriter Garth Hewitt later set to music.
Stephen died just across the road from the
Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered by a racist gang in Eltham, south-east London, in 1993
Conor Taaffe during an interview for the Panorama series in 2006
Catholic Church of Sts John Fisher and Thomas More, and, after witnessing his death, Louise and I went back to the prayer meeting where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed and a healing service was about to begin, led by my father-in-law, now a deacon. I explained to him what had happened and the whole prayer meeting brought the situation before God, praying in tongues and interceding for Stephen “in sighs that cannot be put into words”, while Louise and I were prayed over with the laying on of hands. There, in front of the Blessed Sacrament, it was as if Stephen’s death was joined through prayer to that of Christ.
I had a strong sense of how much Stephen was loved, as Louise has said. Perhaps because Stephen had “the gift of a black skin” – in the words of the black Bishop of Croydon at one of many services at the site of the murder – we were being reminded how much God loves people, all people, all races, all colours.
God himself made the sacrifice that he stopped short of asking Abraham to make: he gave the only Son he had, knowing he would die at our hands. I was told that, on a television programme one Sunday morning, Stephen’s father, Neville, echoed this language, when he spoke of his son’s death as a “sacrifice”. The death of God’s Son was fruitful. The death of the first martyr, Stephen, was fruitful too, for “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”. Mr and Mrs Lawrence, I believe the death of your son, your Stephen, will also bear fruit, even if only in ways that we cannot yet see.
■ A version of this article first appeared in The Tablet on 25 April 1998.
7 January 2012 | THE TABLET | 13