THE saddest part of being old and waiting for death is the sorrow that can come with looking back. I have sat at the deathbeds of people who were consumed with regret because of the wreck they had made of their lives. And now it was too late.
T. S. Eliot captured the feeling in Little Gidding:
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm . . .
So I want to suggest a way to take the sorrow out of all that looking back, by reflecting on a great painting from the 17th century, and the story that inspired it. It is St Peter Penitent, painted in 1639 by the Italian artist Guercino, which now hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland.
It shows us Peter the Apostle, his face stricken with grief, moments after his betrayal of Jesus. It is a well-known story, but it is worth repeating for what it can teach us about human nature.
PETER was an impulsive man, who was always protesting about his devotion to Jesus. As it became obvious that Jesus’s challenge to the religious and political authorities had placed him in danger, Peter got even louder in his chest-beating.
“Everyone else may desert you, Master; I never will. I’d rather die than forsake you.” And it was not just empty boasting. Peter meant what he said, because that was the kind of man he thought he was.
The police came for Jesus in the middle of the night, the way they always do. Peter followed, hiding in the shadows.
During the hours that followed, he was challenged three times to admit that he was a disciple of Jesus. And three times he denied it, each denial louder than the one before. St Luke’s Gospel tells us that, after his third denial, Jesus turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered his proud boasts, and went out and wept bitterly. Guercino’s painting captures that moment, and it makes me cry just to look at it.
Peter did not know that he was going to betray Jesus until he did it. He loved him, and wanted to die with him. Yet when it came to the moment, he did the opposite of what he wanted to do. The fact is that he did not know who he was until the moment in the courtyard when he discovered that he was not brave and loyal. He was a weak man, as solid as water.
MOST of us go through life not knowing ourselves until the right combination of circumstances reveals our character. It is as if our part in the play has been kept from us until the moment calls it forth, and we finally discover who we are. When that moment does come, and our character is revealed to us, we must accept it, even if it makes us weep in shame.
But, once we acknowledge who we really are to ourselves, healing can follow. Our tragedy always was that, although we could not help acting as we did, our actions were irreversible. There was no delete or rewind button that could undo them, although we often wished to God that there were. That is why Jesus said that none of the actors in his Passion knew what they were doing.
The only remedy for the irreversibility of our helpless human actions is the capacity to forgive, and be forgiven. And it has to include the hardest kind of forgiveness: self-forgiveness. But it is never the act that is forgiven. It is always and only the actor.
Jesus forgave Peter because he understood him. He knew his weakness and the inevitability of his collapse. He also understood the misery that Peter felt when he discovered that he was not the man he would like to have been, but the failure that he turned out to be. But there was forgiveness in the look that Jesus gave Peter after his denials. That is what broke Peter’s heart.
ACKNOWLEDGING that you are a failure turns out to be the best kind of success. The real tragedy in life is not making mistakes: it is the refusal to recognise them. So, even if it is only on your death-bed that you see the truth about yourself, it is still worth celebrating.
Bringing all this together at the end of a long and muddled life can be painful, especially if we are trying to do it on our own. This is where religious traditions can help even those who are not religious. Making a confession or owning up can be a beautiful and releasing act, as we face the end of life.
It can be done in any number of ways. We can confess to a priest, if that is our style, but we should be careful how we do it. Traditional confession in church usually involves ticking boxes in a list of rules that we have broken; so we get the idea that the good life is keeping out of trouble, and obeying the system.
But perhaps our tragedy was that we did not break the rules and challenge the system in the way that Jesus did. So what haunts us now is not so much the wrong that we did as the good that we failed to do. And we die leaving the world’s cruelty unchanged. We didn’t make a difference.
Well, it is too late now; but at least we can admit it to ourselves if there is no priest available. Or we can confess to the dog — dogs are great forgivers — or to the flowers at the bottom of the garden. Yes, that’s who I was, we can say with a sigh. That’s what I didn’t do.
Then we should relax. The last bus will be along soon. . .
The Rt Revd Richard Holloway is a former Bishop of Edinburgh; his latest book is Leaving Alexandria (Canongate, 2013).
He has written and presents a series, Three Score Years and Ten, which is to be broadcast on Radio 4 from Monday to Friday next week at 1.45 p.m.