Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
The Episcopal Church »  |  The Diocese of Virginia

Easter Reflection--Fear Not

Fear Not

Facing a firing squad is a pretty good test, I guess, of your theology of death. I didn't exactly pass the test with flying colors. Perhaps it all just happened too quickly, without any warning. There had been a revolt of the prisoners at Camp 5 in Norilsk, and when troops were called in to put down the revolt they divided the prisoners up into small groups and marched them off. I was rounded up in a group of thirty, one of the first groups herded out of the camp and led down to a sandpit about a mile away. We had no idea what disciplinary measures would be taken against us, but we never for a moment thought we would see the soldiers line up five yards in front of us with rifles ready, waiting only for the command to shoot. The command was given, the rifles raised, cocked on another command, and leveled at our heads. For a moment, as if in a dream, none of us really understood what was happening. Then the realization that we were actually looking into gun barrels awaiting only the command to fire came crashing into my consciousness with a force that stopped everything. My stomach turned once and went numb; my heart stopped; I'm sure I forgot to breathe; I couldn't move a muscle in my body; my mind went blank.

The first thought I actually remember thinking was a question: "Is this the end, Lord?" I know I started the act of contrition, but I remember the sensation of realizing that another part of me could not understand the words I was mumbling. The other part of me focused on the fact that in a fraction of a second I would stand before God, dumbfounded and unprepared, unable in the suddenness of my confusion and total terror to feel sorry for my sins, numbed into absolute inactivity, unable so much as to elicit a simple act of faith in the God I had learned to trust implicitly in every action of every day, let alone think with anticipation of meeting him face to face at last.

I can still remember vividly my awareness of the moment, and the second fear that gripped me, when I realized I was incapable of performing any Christian act to redeem myself, paralyzed and terrified and yet conscious of what I should be doing - indeed was trying to do by rotely reciting the act of contrition without comprehension or meaning - in the last moment of life left to me before the veil parted and I would stand before God.

I have no idea how long that one moment lasted. Suddenly there was a shot in the distance, shouts, and a group of officers dashed out to stop our execution. All I know is that when the moment passed, my heart was pounding, every nerve and muscle shaking, my knees weak and trembling, my mind once again able to follow the sequence of events in a coherent way.

When we were finally marched off again, I tried to figure out what had happened to me.

Often enough, during the years of prison, of interrogations, of life in the camps, I had lived with the thought of death. On more than one occasion, I had been told I would be shot and I knew those threats were truly meant. I had seen men die around me of starvation, or illness, or sometimes just out of a lack of wanting to live any longer. I had faced death in my mind time and time again, had helped others in their final moments, had lived with the talk and presence of death. I had thought about it and reflected on it, had no fear of it, sometimes looked forward to it. What was there, then, about this moment that so terrified me, so completely unstrung me and made me incapable of functioning, of praying, even of thinking? Was it just the suddenness, the surprise, that had betrayed me?

That had to be part of it. Then, too, there was the physical fear. Everyone, sometime in his life, has experienced the effects of a sudden fright, a bad scare - a close call in an accident, perhaps, or an unexpected fall, maybe just a sudden, loud, strange noise. Animal instinct takes over at such moments; the mind goes blank, the body reacts: muscles tense, the heart quickens, the stomach tightens, nerves tingle. And when the moment passes, if it passes without physical contact or bodily harm, a reaction sets in as the body grows limp. Those are simply the physical signs of fear, and it is not surprising that the body should fear injury or even death. I cannot be sure - perhaps I will never know for certain until the moment of death approaches again - but I suspect that most of my panic before the firing squad in that sandpit outside Norilsk was due to such animal instinct in the face of a sudden and totally unexpected physical danger.

For the thought of death itself does not terrify me, had not terrified me all through the war, or prison, or the prison camps. Death must come to everyone at the end of this earthly life, but it is not therefore an absolute evil. If the good news of Christianity is anything, it is this: that death has no hidden terror, has no mystery, is not something we must fear. It is not the end of life, of the soul, of the person. Christ's death on Calvary was not in itself the central act of salvation, but his death and resurrection; it was the resurrection that completed his victory over sin and death, the heritage of humankind's original sin that made a Redeemer and redemption necessary. This was the "good news" of salvation, meant to remove our last doubts, last fears, about the nature of death.

For the resurrection was a fact, a fact as certain and as sure as death itself, and it meant that death held no victory over men, that life beyond death is a certainty and not just a human hope or fable. This was the fact that made new men of his once fearful disciples, this was the "good news" they preached. The little sermons recorded in the Acts of the Apostles center on this theme: God has raised Christ up from the dead, he has risen, and of that fact we are witnesses.

From the fall of Adam, God had promised a Redeemer. From the day death came into the world, God has promised a conqueror of death. And the good news to be preached throughout the world was that the Redeemer had come, death had been conquered! This is the joy of Easter, this is the peace it brings. "O foolish and slow of heart to believe," he said to the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, "ought not the Christ to have suffered these things, and so entered into his glory?" The victory of God's "anointed one," the Messiah, was to be over the "kingdom" of death and of sin, but how could he triumph unless he first suffered death and then broke its chains? Easter was the victory, Easter was the "good news." The peace of Easter is the peace that comes from knowing that the thing men had feared most - the end of life, annihilation, death - really holds no fear at all.

That is not a Christian fable; it is a fact, and the proof of it is the resurrection. "If Christ be not risen," said St. Paul to his Christians, "then your faith is in vain." You cannot be a Christian and doubt that fact. Christ's coming upon earth, his taking on of human flesh, had no purpose if it was not to die and then to triumph over death. People had lived in expectation of his coming and his victory over death, until at last he came; since then, the "good news" of his victory over death has been proclaimed everywhere and has sustained in peace and joy those who have believed.

Walter J. Ciszek, “Fear Not,” from He Leadeth Me, by Walter J. Ciszek with Daniel Flaherty, copyright © 1973 by Walter J. Ciszek. Used by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.