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Close encounters of a triune kind

01 April 2021

Sergei Ovsiannikov, a Soviet soldier, discovered Christianity in a prison cell. He was ordained priest in the Russian Orthodox Church, becoming head of the community in London and subsequently in Amsterdam. In a recently published book, he reflects on freedom and meeting God

Vibrant Pictures/Alamy

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Barbican Theatre (2015)

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Barbican Theatre (2015)

WE ARE not born free — that is the discovery I made while still in prison. But that does not mean that man’s fate is to remain in slavery, eternally licking pots that are not his. Man can enter into freedom, enter the moment of the present, where the Encounter awaits him.

Such an encounter happened to me in prison. An encounter with myself and with God. So began my questioning about life and freedom. Here is another example of the Encounter, this time from Dutch life.


ONCE there lived a simple Dutchman — Jozef van den Berg. However, he was not quite so simple, he was a rather well-known actor. He began his actor’s path simply enough, as a vagabond: he borrowed a horse from someone, fixed a broken wagon, and on it constructed everything necessary for an itinerant theatre. It was a small puppet theatre. Jozef’s path began in the 1970s. By the 1980s, he was already a very well-known actor in puppet theatre: he performed his plays in Paris, in America, in Japan. He was awarded prestigious prizes.

From 1988 to 1989, van den Berg performed his play Enough Waiting. It was his idiosyncratic response to Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot. Beckett’s play is about two friends who are waiting for Godot. The name Godot comes from God. So they are waiting for God, who must reveal the meaning of their hitherto absolutely meaningless lives.

The friends keep falling asleep as they stand or sit. They don’t know where they were yesterday, and are not sure that this “yesterday” ever existed at all. They know nothing about this Godot they are waiting for. But God-Godot doesn’t come. He will never come. There is no meaning in life. There is only the meaningless waiting.


AND SO the already well-known actor and playwright writes the play Enough Waiting. The production is a hit. It is performed with great success in various cities. On 14 September 1989, the Belgian première of the play was to take place in Antwerp. But it did not happen.

Before the beginning of the performance, Jozef van den Berg came on stage and said that he was not going to perform. He could not perform, because he had met directly with that reality, which made it simply impossible. He had heard a voice — a message — and Jozef had heard it in approximately the following way: You are seeking and waiting for Him who came long ago. And now it is He who is waiting for you, Jozef van den Berg.

His account to the audience was confused; people laughed, thinking it was yet another joke from the great humorist van den Berg. But the performance did not take place. The disappointed spectators were reimbursed.

What follows very much resembles a novel: Jozef was baptised in the Orthodox Church and became a hermit. He is, of course, a hermit in the Dutch manner — he lives in a bicycle shed and sleeps there embracing the bicycles.


This is an edited extract from Sergei Ovsiannikov’s Journey to Freedom, with an introduction by Rowan Williams, published by Bloomsbury Continuum at £14.99 (hardback) (CT Bookshop £13.50); 978-1-4729-8390-9.

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