What it is that kicks a young man or woman into the Christian ministry? What makes a doctor? Or a musician? Or an athlete? Or a good honest member of society with no specialisms other than a commitment to home and family, and those around? Probably we shall ever know and it’s different for every one. No more can we can say precisely what it was that led four fishermen to drop their nets and follow Jesus.
Somewhere in the mixture, consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously, it has something to do with ideals and our ideals are often related to a person. A role figure. An inspiration. A desire to be like someone. But if having an ideal is what gets us going, it is just as often the shattering of those ideals that brings us to despair. And then what? Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright, has a pointer in ‘The Seagull’.
The Threat to Idealism
Nina is young and full of idealism. She lives in the country, by a lake, where she potters contentedly, like the disciples by the Lake of Galilee. Tregorin is the man in her life. Old enough to be her father, Tregorin is a frequent visitor to Nina’s home. Burdened with ‘success’ as a writer, he comes down from the big city for periods of retreat. Nina thinks she is in love with him. The reality is that she is in love with his fame and success rather than with him as a person, but certainly there is a mutual attraction — Tregorin to Nina because he's forgotten what it's like to be young and therefore the girls in his stories are artificial, and Nina to Tregorin because she wants to know what it feels like to be famous.
Talking to him one day about his ‘fame’ she is shocked to discover that he rejects all claim to greatness and goes on to talk about his life. It’s not at all what Nina thought it was. Nina thinks his life is ‘beautiful’. Tregorin says it's nothing of the sort. He's just obsessed with the idea that he must write and he can't do anything else. No sooner does he finish one book and is about to relax than a new idea grips him, and every time he sees something in the street he has to make a note of it to work it into one of his stories somewhere.
'But you do have moments when you feel inspired', she says, her ideal refusing to be shattered. ‘Oh yes’, he replies. He enjoys writing. And then the public read it and they say, 'It's very good, but it's not like Tolstoy’. Still hanging on, Nina tries to tell him that he's spoiled by success — and the blow fails. 'What success?' asks Tregorin. And the rest of what he says shows that he feels a failure.
It's very hard for the Ninas of life to come to terms with the fact that what they thought was success was not success at all, that what they had always dreamed of as great seemed to be of no account. It's painful to come to terms with the fact that your ideals are questionable.
The disciples found something of the same in Jesus. Jesus was the big hero leader; he knew how to cope and was worth following. But slowly, living in close proximity, it must have dawned on them that he didn't feel the same. Like Tregorin, he probably never felt successful.
Certainly not with his own family: his mother got the cold shoulder for ‘pushy tactics’ in Cana of Galilee, and it was pretty obvious that she didn't really know what he was on about; his family came to try to bring him back home because they were embarrassed by him and thought he was insane, and James, his brother, didn't show up all that well in the early church.
Nor could he have felt much success with his disciples. They quarrelled on the road to Jerusalem, fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of them produced a sword and used it when he shouldn’t, and only one of them managed to stay anywhere near him to the end and he too blotted his copybook.
Nor could he have felt much success with the religious leaders of his day, and any success he might possibly have felt with the crowds was a pretty thin experience that very quickly evaporated when the chips were down.
Any suggestion that Jesus was successful was something attributed to him by a relatively few ‘Ninas’, certainly not something he acknowledged and almost certainly something he never felt.
Marching to a Different Drummer
Yet we know he was successful. So too was Tregorin, but neither in traditional terms. In the words of Thoreau, they ‘heard a different drummer’. For them success was not fame, recognition or bright lights; success was in not knowing where success lay. It was the capacity to live and contribute without the praise of friends and colleagues, without climbing a ladder and without always keeping an eye on the main chance. It was the ability to live without these things in the knowledge that so often our greatest achievements are the ones we never know about and occasionally most of us get at least a hint that this is true.
A priest is invited to re-visit a former parish for some significant anniversary and asked to recall the time he worked there. He recalls all the things they had achieved under his leadership. Afterwards a young woman confronts him. She was only a few years younger than he was and she reminds him of the day he officiated at her wedding. What he remembers is how shortly afterwards she spent time in a mental hospital. Faithfully he made regular routine visits with little sign of response, some of the most unproductive visits he ever made in such circumstances. He felt he could never get through. Together they rejoiced when she said she had never had a recurrence, but then like a bolt from the blue she told him how much those visits had meant to her. ‘At that time’, she said, 'you were the only person that I could talk to outside the family,‘ and in that sentence that priest knew where the true success of his ministry lay and felt embarrassed as he reflected on all the ‘successes’ he had just been recounting to the congregation.
Nina, however, will have none of it. Tregorin must have lost the plot. This will never happen to her and with her ideals unshattered and a sword unsheathed to take on all comers she goes out into the world, as on a dark night, to be the actress she has always dreamed of being. In Act 4, two years later, when things had not worked out as she had dreamed, a shattered and somewhat chastened Nina returns, and at her lowest point discovers how so often the moment of surrender is the moment of fulfilment.
She plays out a final scene with a boy called Kostia, with whom she grew up. ‘I think I know now Kostia,‘ she says, 'that what matters in our work — whether you act on the stage or write stories — what really matters is not fame or glamour, not the things I used to dream about, but knowing how to endure things. How to bear one's cross and have faith', and (if legend is to be believed,) Peter on the Appian Way had to learn similarly that what mattered was not so much being a big name for Jesus, as doing the monotonous job and sweating it out with other people in the face of persecution.
When Nina and Kostia were young and sharing their ideals together, Kostia came in one day with a seagull which he had shot and threw it at her feet. That bird for Nina became a symbol. When she was away and she wrote home, she used to sign herself, 'Seagull'. It was a reflection of how she saw herself as an idealist flying round the lake with her dreams. And when she went out to fulfil those ideals in the big world, that ‘seagull’ was riddled with lead and died. Yet, in dying, Nina lived.
All of us, like seagulls, fly contentedly round the lake with our hopes and our dreams. Out there is a man with a gun who is going to shoot at those ideals and destroy them. The pressure to resist and defeat him is powerful and many times overwhelming. Our ideals must never die, or is it only in dying to fantasy and idealism that we are able to live to reality. Nina’s message is that only in dying do we live. Kostia is the one who can't take it, and he goes out and shoots himself.
So Peter turns on his heels and goes back to Jerusalem. Judas, unable or unwilling to die, can only commit suicide. For both, Jesus is the touchstone. He is either the rock on which our life is grounded, or the rock that falls on us and grinds us to dust. Nina went one way and Kostia went the other. Peter went one way and Judas went the other. We all have our moments when we stand on the threshold.