Sayers on suffering

Dear [friend in a dark time],

You might be interested in a letter written during WW2 by a leading British radio personality (Dorothy L. Sayers). She spoke to fellow Brits about a Christian perspective on suffering.

I know you yourself are Catholic. But I would add that I think it may actually be fortifying for those in other faith traditions as well. I hope its Christian perspective won’t be off-putting for our Jewish friends, because the same principle — that the life of God is a pattern of suffering, and so all history shares in it — resonates with equal power and depth within the Jewish religious tradition. Substitute “story of the Jewish people” for the “story of Christ” or “going to Jerusalem” for “going to Calvary” and you have the same point.

Something like this — a robust attitude toward our calling to suffer in unity with the sins of our fellow humans, citizens, and communities — may paradoxically become welcome news in dark times. It is good news for those who suffer that by doing so we are sharing in the very life of God. In this way lies hope.

Some quotes from Sayers’ letter:

“They could not understand why earthly hopes should turn out to be illusory, human ideals issue (in practice) in hideous travesties of themselves, ‘progress’ turn round and go backwards, the old brutality burst up under the crust of civilization, and chaos appear to have come again. It was not only that they suffered – they were dumbfounded, and the bottom of their universe had fallen out.”

“All living is a desperate adventure, and there is no point at which we can sit back and say ’the war is over.’… You are perpetually walking along a razor-edge of peril.”

“You are going to Calvary. Everything that is of God in you is going to be crucified; and everything in you that is of corruption is going there to crucify the good part.”

“In great things and small, it is all the same story: the men who fell before Dunkirk without the weapons that could have saved them were bearing in their bodies the sins of the whole world – the neglects and egotism and the self-seeking of the rulers and voters and citizens… who let that situation come about; whether they knew it or not, they died as God died for the sin and folly of those to whom they were bound in the unity of the flesh…. The weariness of waiting in queues, the stuffiness of the black-out, the irritation of saving fuel and paper, are little hourly crucifixions by which the innocent redeem the waste and destruction of the guilty. We take each others’ sins – Hitler’s, the Government’s, the Church’s, yours and mine – everybody’s – up into our own lives, and by great or small acts of suffering make the damage good… It is the pattern of the life of God.”

“You have got to choose between crucifying God and being crucified with him; no other choice is open to you or me or any man.”

The entire letter (9 pages, printed) is published in Suzanne Bray, ed., Dorothy L. Sayers: The Christ of the Creeds and Other Broadcast Messages to the British People during World War II (Dorothy L. Sayers Society, 2008), pp. 76-84.

In 1943, Sayers wrote in reply to a letter she received from Stephen Grenfell, a junior employee of the BBC. At this time she corresponded regularly with the Religious Broadcasting Department of the BBC. Given the positive reception of her own earlier radio talks, and the relationships she had developed there, her views helped shape religious radio programming during WW2. Portions of this letter, with Grenfell’s permission, were anonymously broadcast on air. (See Suzanne Bray’s comments on the letter, pp. 22-23.)

The original of this document, and the letter from Grenfell which prompted it, are kept in the remarkable Marion E. Wade Center Special Collection at Wheaton College, in Illinois. They have an enormous collection of Sayers correspondence and other primary source materials. The co-director of the Wade, Crystal Downing, is a Sayers scholar.

Dorothy L. Sayers is best known for writing the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries and for her translation of Dante for Penguin (which kept the rhyming pattern and relentless pace of the original). She was a noted mid-20th-century playwright, and delivered a number of broadcast talks for the BBC during WW2. Her friend C. S. Lewis re-read her play on the gospels, The Man Born To Be King, every Lent for the rest of his life. Sayers was among the first women to receive a degree from Oxford — awarded five years after the fact, for when she completed her course of study with first class honors, Oxford had not yet begun to award official degrees to women. An excellent biography is Catherine Kenney, The Remarkable Case of Dorothy L. Sayers. (Here’s Sayers’ Wikipedia page.)

I hope these words of Sayers’ and the example of her faith during WW2 might paradoxically be of some encouragement to you in these difficult and dangerous times.

This entry was posted in Theology and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *