Peace, Reconciliation and the Radical Outsider: Sergei Hackel Memorial Lecture

Archbishop’s Chapel, Lambeth Palace, London, 4 May 2006

The Fr Sergei Hackel Memorial Lecture

by Jim Forest

Fr Sergei Hackel on the day of the canonization of St Maria Skobtsova and her co-workers at the Cathedral of St Alexander Nevski in Paris. Photo: Jim Forest

Given that we meet in time of war, it is not surprising that the speaker should be asked to address the topic of peace and reconciliation in the light of his religious tradition, but perhaps it is surprising that the role of the radical outsider is included. On the other hand, this is a memorial lecture in honor of Fr Sergei Hackel, a radical outsider if ever there was one — not only a black sheep among white sheep, but a black sheep among black sheep. Fr Sergei was the outsider par excellence: His Russian family was forced into outsiderhood by the Stalin regime. In the late 1920s, they fled St Petersburg for Berlin, where Sergei was born in 1931. With Hitler’s election as chancellor in 1933, dangers similar to those posed by Stalin led the family to move to the Netherlands. Again not many years passed before another move was imposed by the expanding borders of the Third Reich. With his mother, he escaped to Britain as the German Army overran Holland in May 1940, but his father remained behind. Sergei never saw him again.

From an early age Sergei Hackel was an expert outsider, a vocation he retained until his death.

He was not only an outsider, but a man out of step. In Britain, a society that many regard as exceptionally civil, complete with stiff upper lip, Sergei was a man who could easily ignite; anyone who knew him will have a memory or two of Sergei’s volcanic temper. Ignoring the rules of polite society regarding appropriate male attire, he did without ties, a small but telling gesture; ties were useful, he remarked, only if your trousers were falling down and you had misplaced your belt or braces. (For this event, I am wearing the Sergei Hackel Memorial Non-Tie.) In a largely Anglican country, a religious culture with a remarkable ability to adapt, he was Orthodox, a tradition remarkable for its refusal to change with the times. Yet, even in his own church, he was by no means a perfect fit. He was outspoken regarding the failings he perceived in the church he served as priest. In a church in which one can, without great effort, find anti-Semites, he was deeply engaged in campaigning against anti-Semitism, most notably through his active engagement with the Council of Christian and Jews. Also notable was his distress with Christians, Orthodox and otherwise, for their reluctance to see Christ in the poor. This resulted in his close association over many years with St Gregory’s Foundation and other missions reaching out to the hungry, the homeless, the displaced, the abandoned, the poor. Via the Russian Service of the BBC, he was a familiar and trusted voice to countless Russians during and after the Soviet era, carefully avoiding propaganda and the incitement of enmity.

For all his outspokenness, Fr Sergei Hackel, the radical outsider, could be a man of patience and diplomacy. His gentle, reconciling skills, when brought into play, were renowned.

It is no bad thing to be an outsider. The Greek word is xenos, which is part of the Greek word for hospitality is filoxenia, literally, love of the outsider. Cultures still exist in which the outsider, the stranger, the foreigner, the pilgrim is — by divine election — an instant guest. In such places there is no need of a hotel. Hospitality is not only a generic duty but a blessing, and a shared one at that. One can speak of the sacrament, or mystery, of hospitality. The guest is seen potentially as an angel in disguise, like those heaven-sent guests who were welcomed by Abraham and Sarah under the oak of Mamre. There are still societies in which one can experience filoxenia. Russian friends tell me that if you go to the village that lies adjacent to the Monastery of the Caves near the city of Pskov, all you need do to find shelter is knock on any door and say, “Gospodipoi miloi — Lord have mercy.” You will be the well-cared for guest of that household. I can personally vouch for the existence of a similar quality of hospitality in Palestinian villages. Sometimes it even happens in Britain and America, though one must be more cautious in these countries about arriving unannounced and unexpected.

One learns a great deal about a person by taking note of his library. Blok, Akhmatova and Dostoevsky were among the most important authors for Sergei Hackel. Another was Albert Camus. It is Camus’ writings that I want to focus on. In his novels and plays the theme of the outsider, the stranger, the exile is always prominent. Camus’ first novel, published in France during the time of Nazi occupation, had the title (depending on which translation you prefer) The Stranger or The Outsider.

It’s a tale of two murders, with the narrator of the book guilty of the first killing. As we read the book, we soon become aware that the narrator is so minimally socialized as to be nearly autistic. His act of deadly violence is committed on impulse while in a dazed condition brought on by the fierce heat of the Algerian day. He shoots a man who is unknown to him, a stranger who was threatening him with a knife. As is always the case with murder, it’s an ugly crime, yet the killer can never comprehend why society reacts as it does to this event; he was under threat, and, after all, the victim was “only an Arab”. Had a more skillful defense been offered, he would have escaped a guilty verdict on the grounds that he had acted in self-defense. But he is badly defended and unfairly prosecuted. In the trial, the crime is of less consequence than the defendant’s social failings. The accused is condemned to death less for shooting a man than for smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee while on nighttime vigil at the side of his mother’s coffin. He has also failed to have a religious faith or to exhibit regret. Clearly, the prosecutor argues, this man is a criminal type. Even while awaiting his execution, with seemingly endless days to reflect on what he has done, our narrator remains a two-dimensional man, unable to empathize, love, or repent. His chief virtue, one that has cost him dearly, is that he is a man who seems incapable of lying or pretending. A few tears might have saved his life.

It is, as I mentioned, a book about two murders. The second is worse than the first. It is a murder prepared with the utmost premeditation, a judicially-sanctioned murder, a murder that is carried out for “the good of society” and in the name of society. It is cold-blooded murder done cleanly and by the clock, a well-ordered murder with doctor and priest in attendance, a murder arranged by people who, in their domestic lives, may be the soul of kindness. A man’s head is cut off in what is regarded as a socially therapeutic action.

The Outsider was published in 1942. Five years later, Camus’ next novel appeared, The Plague. In it, the reader discovers that Camus was far from finished with the question of the outsider, the exile, the stranger — and not only the stranger from afar; Camus reminds us that it is quite possible to be a stranger even when living in the place where one was born. We also find Camus still wrestling with the issue of capital punishment, and not only when it is carried out by the state, but when committed by revolutionary organizations whose manifestoes call for the creation of a more humane, less murderous society.

Among those we meet in The Plague is Jean Tarrou. He enters the pages very quietly as a man of private means who is newly arrived in the Algerian port city of Oran. He enjoys life’s pleasures without being their slave. His diary, often quoted in The Plague, is striking for its acute insights and observations and also for the author’s compassion. As the people of Oran fall victim to the plague and are forced to isolate themselves from the surrounding world. It is Tarrou, stranger though he is, who organizes a corps of volunteers, the Hygiene Squad, to assist the afflicted and to attend to all the unpleasant, often dangerous, chores imposed by the plague. Each volunteer, of course, stands a good chance of falling victim to the plague himself.

Another key figure in the novel is Bernard Rieux, one of the city’s physicians. He and Tarrou set the highest standard for selfless response to the plague. For the reader, both men are heroes, and all the more impressive for their profound modesty. Yet neither man for a moment regards himself as a hero. In their own eyes, and in Camus’ view, they are simply being decent human beings. Their response to the plague is no more remarkable than that of a teacher before the blackboard explaining that two plus two equals four. They do not regard themselves as exceptional. Neither do they harbor any resentment for those who respond less bravely, try to escape, who make money on the black market, who do little or nothing for those around them. But the two of them give nearly every waking hour in fighting what seems an utterly futile and endless battle. When at last, after many months, the plague lets go of its grip of Oran, they take no credit for having speeded the day when the city gates are re-opened. Though they have been warriors along the lines of St George, they still see the dragon as undefeated. The beast has only gone into temporary retirement. He has not even been scratched by his opponents’ lances.

Many of those who battled the plague are outsiders in one way or another. Tarrou is a recent arrival in the city with no obvious reason to risk his life for his newly acquired neighbors. He seems to have come to Oran more for the sun and beach than the people. Though Dr Rieux is a native of Oran, he seems by temperament to be a man who stands at a slight distance from others. He even takes distance from the book he is writing — only in the final pages does the reader discover that Rieux is the book’s narrator. He has written it in the third person, with himself just one of diary’s participants.

Both Rieux and Tarrou are outsiders in another sense: neither professes the religious faith of their neighbors in Oran. In a town in which most people, however atheistic in their day-to-day behavior, profess belief in God and call themselves Catholic, neither Rieux nor Tarrou is able to make a similar confession. Neither calls himself an atheist, yet they are not believers. When a local Jesuit, Fr Paneloux, preaches that the people of Oran deserve the plague and describes it as harsh but needed medicine, both Rieux and Tarrou find his views deeply repellent. If the God Christians worship is the organizer of plagues, they want nothing to do with Him. They refuse to worship a deity who arranges the agonizing death of even one child. (Eventually the priest throws himself selflessly into work against the plague. Not Camus’s least significant trait is that he doesn’t  see his villains as conversion-proof.)

Late in the book we discover that at the core of Tarrou’s life is a Christian word: saint. In his most intimate conversation with Rieux, Tarrou confesses that he aspires to be “a saint without God.” [p 219]

Tarrou tells Rieux about a pivotal experience in his life when he was seventeen, a story that echoes Camus’ first novel. Tarrou’s father was a prosecutor. Tarrou attended court one day to witness his father in action on the closing day of a murder trial. His father, an entirely decent and caring man at home, becomes, in his blood-red robes, a passionate advocate of the death penalty. Calling on the jury to send the accused to the guillotine, it seems to Tarrou that snakes are gushing from his father’s mouth.

Meanwhile, the man in the dock makes no effort to justify his crime. He is resigned to his grim fate. “The little man of about thirty,” says Tarrou, “with sparse, sandy hair, seemed so eager to confess everything, so genuinely horrified at what he had done and what was going to be done with him, that after a few minutes I had eyes for nothing and nobody else. He looked like a yellow owl scared blind by too much light. His tie was slightly awry, he kept biting his nails, those of one hand only, his right… I needn’t go on, need I? You’ve understood — he was a living human being.”

For Tarrou, until that moment such a person had only been the accused, the defendant, a criminal. He had been a blurry man of inky dots in a newspaper photo, not a human being. Now a revolution occurs in his perceptions. It’s a change of heart which will help shape the remainder of his life. “I can’t say I quite forgot my father,” Tarrou tells Rieux, “but something seemed to grip my vitals at that moment and riveted all my attention on the little man in the dock. I hardly heard what was being said: I only knew that they were set on killing that living man and an uprush of some elemental instinct, like a wave, had swept me to his side.”

Tarrou’s bond with his father, now seen as a man swimming in blood, is irreparably damaged. Not many months pass before Tarrou leaves home, an event that coincides with the day of the condemned man’s execution. A head is separated from a body and a boy is separated from his family.

Tarrou’s struggle with executions has one more crisis. After he leaves home, he is drawn into radical political associations. Not wanting to be part of a social order based on the death sentence, he becomes an agitator, active in movements which, though left unlabeled in The Plague, appear to be some form of socialism or communism. Here too he is faced with the problem of killing, for revolutionaries also pass death sentences. “But I was told,” says Tarrou, “these few deaths were inevitable for the building up of a new world in which murder would cease to be.” Tarrou attempted to embrace such sloganistic thinking but ultimately failed, in part because he was still haunted by “that miserable ‘owl’ in the dock.”

What finally exiles him from revolutionary movements is witnessing an execution.

“Have you ever seen a man shot by a firing squad?” Tarrou asks. “No, of course not. The spectators are hand-picked and it’s like a private party. You need an invitation. The result is that you’ve gleaned your ideas about it from books and pictures. A post, a blindfolded man, some soldiers in the offing. But the real thing isn’t a bit like that. Do you know that the firing squad stands only a yard and a half from the condemned man? Do you know that if the victim took two steps forward his chest would touch the rifles? Do you know that, at this short range, the soldiers concentrate their fire on the region of the heart and their big bullets make a hole into which you could thrust your fist? No, you didn’t know all that. These are things that are never spoken of.”

Camus’ description was not second hand. He had witnessed the execution of Gabriel Peri, the radical journalist, by the Germans in December 1941. The event not only hardened his anti-Nazi convictions but galvanized his horror with the intentional killing of any human being. Until his death, Camus sought a way of life in which one is neither a victim nor an executioner.

It need hardly be said that Fr Sergei Hackel had a similar sensibility. He not only opposed not only capital punishment but the use of murderous methods to advance any social goal. For him a Christian lacking this sensibility had not yet encountered Christ’s Gospel.

I have no idea if Fr Sergei would have identified himself as a pacifist — it’s a question I never asked him. Probably he saw the war against Hitler and the Third Reich as a tragic necessity, yet nonetheless a war in which not all the war crimes were committed by the Nazis. Fr Sergei was a person who could not regard war, even in situations in which it was purely defensive, as anything less than a catastrophe for all involved. It was not only his private view. One notes that the Orthodox Church has never developed a “just war” theory. Fr Sergei was a person who took Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as a baseline for daily life. He saw terms like “just war” and “good war” as oxymorons, having no place in a Christian’s vocabulary. This was part of Sergei’s otherness.

Would that such otherness were less rare. The war-resisting, life-protecting witness given by Christians in the first centuries seems today incomprehensibly remote. Among contemporary Christians, there are not many who, in those moments when one has to choose between the Gospel and what might be described as patriotic duty, will opt for the Gospel. Better to find some way to explain the Gospel in such a way that it aligns Christ’s teaching with the demands of one’s nation. Time and again the cross is made into a flag pole. In every country and culture one finds pastors and theologians who exhibit a great talent for adjusting the Bible to fit the politics and ideologies of the moment. South Africa had its theologians of Apartheid, the United States has had theologians of Manifest Destiny, Nazi Germany had theologians who were rabidly anti-Semitic, and in any country in which slavery existed or thrived as a business, there were theologians who could demonstrate that slavery was God’s will. From the fourth or fifth centuries, there has never been a shortage of bishops and theologians willing to sing the praises of whatever war was underway.

Fr Sergei always sought to align himself with the Gospel rather than to adjust the Gospel to the nearest flag, or any flag.

The person trying to live according to the unabridged Gospel is sailing by to a different compass than the great majority of his neighbors. That compass is one’s faith-shaped conscience. Under no circumstances can a Christian just “go with the flow.” One is forced to live as a stranger and an exile. As St Paul said in his letter to the Hebrews: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”

It must have been the theme of strangerhood, pilgrimage and exile which drew Sergei so intensely to Camus’ novels. It also reinforced his aversion to any form of religion which was essentially tribal or nationalistic.

Returning to Camus’ novel, The Plague, it would be a dull reader who failed to see that the plague Camus was writing about was less about an epidemic of fatal illness than a parable about life in the modern world.

Camus’ notebooks indicate that the idea for The Plague began to form in 1941, while France was under occupation. Camus spent the war as part of the French Resistance, one of the editors of the underground journal Combat. During those testing years, he witnessed the countless ways that the great majority of French people made their peace with the occupation, many actively collaborating, some reluctantly, others with enthusiasm. Through most of the war, the Resistance was small. Not until the approaching collapse of the Third Reich was obvious did the ranks of the Resistance suddenly swell — but by then such a step was less an act of courage than of prudence. It would be in one’s interest, after the war, to have been part of the Resistance.

Plague stands for a social order based on killing. In Camus’ novel, it is Tarrou who says, “And thus I came to understand that I … had had plague” — meaning the plague of bloodshed — “through all those long years in which, paradoxically enough, I’d believed with all my soul that I was fighting it. I learned that I had had an indirect hand in the deaths of thousands of people; that I’d even brought about their deaths by approving of acts and principles which could only end that way.” [p 217]

The writings of Thomas Merton in the sixties often address the state of plague we are facing and do so in a way that reveal how much Merton, like Sergei Hackel, had in common with Camus. As Merton wrote in one essay:

The awful problem of our times is not so much the dreams, the monsters, which may take shape and consume us, but the moral paralysis in our own souls which leaves us immobile, inert, passive, tongue-tied, ready and even willing to succumb. The real tragedy is in the cold, silent waters of moral death, which climb imperceptibly within us, blinding conscience, drowning compassion, suffocating faith and extinguishing the Spirit. A progressive deadening of conscience, of judgment and of compassion is the inexorable work of the Cold War [or any social matrix driven by fear and enmity]. [Passion for Peace, p 81]

One might also describe the plague we face as the condition of individualism, separateness, isolation and loneliness that we experience in the quasi-religious, quasi-agnostic modern world.

An obvious contrast between Camus and both Sergei Hackel and Thomas Merton was that one had rejected Christianity while the latter two embraced it, but the difference is less substantial than it appears at first glance. What Camus rejected was a pseudo-Christianity that had become a mechanism for blessing the established order, a religion of accommodation that provides chaplains to witness executions without raising a word of protest. Far from blessing the guillotine or the hangman’s rope, Sergei Hackel represented the Christianity of the early centuries, when one could not be baptized without renouncing bloodshed, whether in war or as a means of punishment, a Christianity of care for the poor, a Christianity of hospitality, mercy and forgiveness. He labored for a Christianity in which sanctity is normal.

“What interests me is how to be a saint,” Tarrou said to Dr. Rieux. “But can one be a saint without God? — that’s the problem, in fact the only problem, I’m up against today.” [p 219]

In Camus’ writings, the question of the post-Christian saint is left unresolved, though we see in his notebooks and correspondence that it remained a burning question. One notes the ongoing dialogue Camus had with various Christians beginning with his encounter with a community of Dominican Friars not long after the war, in which he said “the world of today needs Christians who remain Christians.”

What Camus hoped to find in Christians was the kind of radical social witness that had been so notable in the early Church. At the very least, he hoped that Christians would, if not reduce evil, then not add to it. But he wished for more than that: “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don’t help us, who else in the world can help us do this?” [Resistance, Rebellion and Death, p.73]

It would be impossible to devote a lecture to Sergei Hackel without speaking of a woman whose life and writings he studied carefully and introduced to many others. I am referring, of course, to Mother Maria Skobtsova. We see in her an example of a heroic yet modest Christian response to a world under attack by various ideological and political plagues. She provides a vivid example of what peacemaking, reconciliation and care for the outsider look like.

Born in Russia, she had arrived in Paris as a refugee in 1923. Earlier in her life she had been deeply engaged in the left, never a Marxist, but a dedicated socialist. Regarded with hostility by both the revolutionary Bolsheviks and the counter-revolutionary Whites, she narrowly escaped execution first from one side and then from the other. She decided at last that the only hope of survival for herself and her children was to seek asylum in the west.

Once in Paris, she became active with the Russian Student Christian Movement, an Orthodox association serving Russians living in desperate poverty. Later on, following the death by influenza of one of her children, her life took a deeper turn. The experience of her daughter’s suffering made her “aware of a new and special, broad and all-embracing motherhood.” She felt it as an absolute necessity to seek “a more authentic and purified life.” She saw a “new road” before her, “a new meaning in life, to be a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection.”

She was fortunate to have a sympathetic bishop. Aware of her determination, he suggested she might become a nun who devoted herself to diaconal service among the very poor. This would be a new form of monastic life, not of seclusion but of immersion in the urban desert. Vested as a nun, Mother Maria opened a house of hospitality for the homeless. Within two years, she was forced by the scale of the need to obtain a larger building at 77 rue de Lourmel in the fifteenth arrondisement. While at the first address she could feed only 25, here she could feed a hundred.

“The way to God lies through love of people,” she wrote in a passage that sums up much of her theology. “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need…. I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”

She put her vision of the Christian vocation even more briefly in this passage: “Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world. We must venerate the image of God in each person.”

When the Nazi occupation began in June 1940, Mother Maria had no illusions about what they faced. Never a person to look at the world through rose-colored glasses, she saw the Nazi movement as a “new paganism” bringing in its wake disasters, upheavals, persecutions and wars. It was evil unveiled, the “contaminator of all springs and wells.” As for Hitler, he was “a madman who needs a straight jacket and should be placed in a cork-lined room so that his bestial wailing will not disturb the world at large.”

She and her co-workers soon found that hospitality now meant rescuing Jews. How many they saved only God knows, but it is not a small number.

Jews began to knock on the door asking Father Dimitri Klépinin, the priest who assisted Mother Maria, if he would provide them with baptismal certificates. The answer was always yes. The names of those “baptized” were also duly recorded in his parish register in case there was any cross-checking by the police or Gestapo. In March 1942, the order came from Berlin that the yellow star must be worn by Jews in all the occupied countries.

There were, of course, many Christians who said that such anti-Jewish laws had nothing to do with Christians and that therefore this was not a Christian problem. “There is not only a Jewish question, but a Christian question,” Mother Maria replied. “Don’t you realize that the battle is being waged against Christianity? If we were true Christians we would all wear the Star. The age of confessors has arrived.”

The house at rue de Lourmel was soon bursting with people, many of them Jews. “It is amazing,” Mother Maria remarked, “that the Germans haven’t pounced on us yet.” In the same period, she said if anyone came looking for Jews, she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.

In July 1942 came the mass arrest of 12,884 Jews in Paris. The majority were brought to a sports stadium not far from Rue de Lourmel. Mother Maria had often thought her monastic robes a God-send in aiding her work. Now her nun’s clothing opened the way for her to enter the stadium. Here she worked for three days trying to comfort the prisoners, distributing what food she could bring in, even managing to rescue some of the children by enlisting the aid of garbage collectors and smuggling them out in trash bins.

In February 1943, the long-awaited arrests occurred. Mother Maria was sent to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp. Her son, Yuri, and Father Dimitri were sent to a camp named Dora, where they died in 1944.

On the 30th of March 1945, after two years of captivity, Mother Maria was selected for the gas chambers. As it happened, it was Good Friday. She entered eternal life the following day. The shellfire of the approaching Red Army could be heard in the distance.

Controversial in life, Mother Maria remains a subject of contention to this day, a fact which may explain how slow the Orthodox Church was in adding her to the calendar of saints. While clearly she lived a life of heroic virtue and is among the martyrs of the twentieth century, her verbal assaults on nationalistic and self-satisfied forms of religious life still raise the blood pressure of many Orthodox Christians. Mother Maria remains an indictment of any form of Christianity that seeks Christ chiefly inside church buildings.

Unfortunately, Camus and Mother Maria never met, yet Sergei Hackel serves as a link between them. On the one hand Camus’ writings contributed significantly to Sergei’s spiritual and intellectual development. On the other hand, Fr Sergei was among the first in the English-speaking world to become aware of Mother Maria and to see in her one of the most significant models of sanctity to emerge not only in the Orthodox Church but in Christianity as a whole in many a year. He wrote what remains the most complete English-language biography of Mother Maria, Pearl of Great Price. Without doubt, his writings played a significant part in the process that at last resulted in her canonization in Paris in 2004. On the same day, Fr Dimitri Klépinin, Yuri Skobtsov, and another martyred co-worker, Elie Fondaminsky, were also added to the church calendar.

Several bishops and many priests were involved in the canonization service at Vespers that Saturday evening, but visually the most striking was Fr Sergei. Among all the glittering vestments, he was wearing a hand-embroidered vestment of coarse fabric. There’s a story here, I said to myself. After the Sunday morning service, when Nancy and I met him outside the church, he explained that this was a vestment Mother Maria herself had made for Father Dimitri. (Nancy recalled that Mother Maria had on occasion written with disdain about nuns who embroider vestments for the clergy. So much for saintly consistency!)

I asked Fr Sergei if I might take a picture of the vestment. He was only too happy to oblige. You see the photo — the last one I took of Fr Sergei. Then we asked if we could touch the vestment, for it had now dawned on us that this was a relic both of Mother Maria and her martyred co-worker, Fr Dimitri Klépinin.

We asked how he came to have this vestment. He told us how, in 1967, a German film crew had come to Paris to do a film based on his biography of Mother Maria. He had been asked to serve as advisor. At the house on Rue de Lourmel, in a room that once served as the chapel vestry, Fr Sergei discovered some of the vestments Mother Maria had made. Because of moth damage, they were soon to be burned. Instead, at his request, they were entrusted to his care and were subsequently repaired.

It’s a pity Mother Maria never met Camus or read his novels. Had she lived longer, she would have appreciated The Plague, recognizing that at the heart of the story are two people whose response to disaster is an act of self-giving love in which no distinction is made between the worthy and the unworthy, for each and every life is worth saving.

In the lives of Mother Maria and Fr Dimitri, we see the same — unarmed warriors who battled the plague by saving lives, leaders of a community which never locked the door to anyone.

In Fr Sergei Hackel, we find yet another plague fighter. He was a man who broke all the molds: a religious bridge-builder, a broadcaster, a pastor, a missionary, a scholar, a friend, a father, a disturber of the complacent, an ally of the poor, a journalist with an eye for plague-battling saints. He was a polymath whose interests seemed to have no border. He was a man of laughter whose heroes of comedy included Jacques Tati, otherwise known as M. Hulot. He was a linguist equally at home in several languages. A lover of music, he was especially drawn to jazz — among those represented in his musical library were Bessie Smith, Jellyroll Morton, Paul Robeson and Louis Armstrong. He possessed the ability to marry the instinctive, emotional, personal response to an icon, or a Kandinsky, with acute intellectual analysis.

In such a man, we catch a glimpse of Christ’s resurrection.

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