The Crucified Master Teaches Us

Man can be devilishly ingenious in devising new forms of cruelty and torture; we see this above all in the act of crucifixion.  One person who knew this all too well was Maiti Girtanner a veteran of the French Resistance. Maiti was a gifted pianist. Her piano recitals to the German elite provided a cover to gather information, intercede for arrested comrades, and help smuggle fugitives across the border to Vichy France. Eventually the suspicions of the gestapo were aroused and she was arrested. For four months she was subjected to refined methods of torture. Supervised by a young doctor, the base of her spinal column was methodically cudgeled. Her body showed no outward sign of injury but she was left in crippling pain.

While in prison Maiti was sustained by the example of the suffering Christ which helped her to carry on her resistance in her mind.  Just as he had to suffer, so she believed that the threads of what she was living would be woven into a story which would one day reveal its meaning and perhaps even its beauty. 

She assumed a moral responsibility for her captors. She treated the command of Christ to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you as a moral imperative. She had no choice but to obey his command. She endeavoured to pray for her torturers and especially for the doctor supervising them. She had to resist what she saw as the evil in her own thoughts and keep the poison of rancour from entering her soul.

After release, she realised that she would never recover from her injuries: she was to bear debilitating pain until she died at the age of 92; she was not strong enough to start a family and she could not return to playing the piano. Maiti was blessed with an inner spiritual resilience. She resolved to make Christian sense of her life, to live it with integrity and not let her life become a tragedy. She could not waste her life mourning for the loss of what she had been nor lamenting what she might have become. Instead she had to love what she was and seek what she ought to be.

In 1984, she was contacted by the doctor whose treatment had ruined her life. He was old and terminally ill. He wanted to see her and beg her forgiveness. They met on a day when her pain was particularly bad and she was confined to her couch. As he bowed down before her, she took his head between her hands and kissed him on the forehead. The gesture was unplanned, but she said ‘it couldn’t not have been’. Having seen her pardon confirmed she remarked ‘afterwards, one is no longer the same.’ As Christ asked the Father to forgive his enemies so she forgave hers. Like Christ, she too was victorious over evil and sin.

For her, Christ’s passion should not be just an object of devout meditation, but a pattern for the building of a life. She saw that a life closed in on itself bears no fruit, and through Christ’s sacrifice we see how a seed of forgiveness may break open, germinate and grow and release its 77-fold potential. For Christ’s redemptive grace to be received and take effect, courage and determination must slowly mature.

The passion and death of Christ was the acid test of the validity of his teaching. He never ceased to be true to himself and what he had taught. Christ’s suffering on the cross proves to us that all things, no matter how terrible, will pass. Whatever hardship we have to endure in this life is finite. If we hold fast to the cross, if we let the crucified master teach us, then we shall be victorious over both suffering and evil. They will not defeat us. The awful sight of the crucified Christ spurs us on to persevere along the difficult and costly way of the Christian life. It reminds us in the most evocative way of his immense love for us,

For Inscribed upon the cross we see, in shining letters, ‘God is love.’

 

Maiti Girtanners experiences are chronicled in The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance by Erik Varden, Bloomsbury Continuum, London, 2018.