Born into an aristocratic family in Imperial Russia, Iulia de Beausobre (1893-1977) was arrested during Stalin’s reign of terror and imprisoned for eight months in Moscow’s notoriously brutal Lubyanka Prison.
Under appalling conditions, she did calisthenics each morning, splashed herself with cold water, and urged her fellow inmates to pray. She refused to commit the crime of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, as she thought of it, and succumb to despair. She never broke under questioning. She was then sentenced to five years of hard labor and transferred to a lumber camp, where she sustained frostbite on both hands and feet and was invalided out after a year.
Upon release, she learned that her beloved husband, Nikolay, had been shot. She wrote a memoir of her time in the camps: “The Woman Who Could Not Die” (1938).
Less well-known is a pamphlet, based on a talk she gave in 1940 at the U.K.’s Lincoln Theological College, called “Creative Suffering.”
As an inmate she was tortured — not physically, but psychologically: woken randomly in the middle of the night and subjected to hours of interrogation. The secret police, she observed, were “bent on destroying every vestige of personality in their victims so as to reduce them to undifferentiated, smooth-running parts in the great machine of their idol-worship — the state.”
Beausobre classes bullying, of which torture is an extreme form, among the sadistic lusts. Torturers operate with diabolical cleverness and derive pleasure from eliciting a reaction from those they are tormenting.
The only solution, she maintains, is to become invulnerable: “to fail to react at all: then having ceased to be interesting, [the one being tortured] will eventually be left alone.”
This can be achieved in one of two ways. The first is to render oneself by an act of will completely unfeeling. The risk there is a loss of humanity. The inability to suffer, notes Beausobre, can become the greatest evil of all.
The second way is grounded in the Russian notion that where the greatest evil is to be found, so is the greatest good.
“Evil must not be shunned,” the thought goes, “but first participated in and understood through participation, and then through understanding transfigured.”
This second way is very hard and is pre-eminently active.
Writes Beausobre: “It exacts of the victim who undertakes it a heightening of consciousness. … It demands simultaneous participation, by an intense effort of sympathetic insight, in the particular and general context of the action … penetration, so far as possible, into the mind of the men who have staged the ‘cross-examination,’ and insight into the breadth of God’s composition for this particular event on earth.”
The effort requires intense moral and emotional strength. You must refuse to indulge in self-pity and resentment while also holding the torturer responsible for his actions.
With supreme effort, says Beausobre, you find within yourself a core, an essence, that cannot be violated or moved: “Being of eternity, the more it is laid bare the brighter it shines.”
Such an effort, she continues, can most effectively be undertaken by a member of the Church.
“The tone of the fortitude shown by the tortured is very different when they think of themselves as only poor, or brave, lonely wretches, and when they think of themselves as members of the mystical body of Christ. Only the latter are liable to come through without succumbing to hatred. Moreover it is only they who can pool their terrible experiences with the redemptive work of others.”
The psychological torture chamber is a kind of metaphor for life. Life, like the slow, steady drip of water, seems almost designed slowly to break us down. Even under the best of circumstances, things seldom go our way. People almost never act the way we want them to. Achievements and possessions for which we worked fail to satisfy.
Constantly we are tempted to take the path of least resistance. To succumb to hatred, or indifference, or self-pity. To follow along. To gather a tribe. To move with the herd.
To make the supreme effort is to achieve a kind of neutrality with respect to the people, places, and things that seem bent on breaking us down. We cease trying to manipulate the world to our will. We cease frittering away our energy on situations over which we’re powerless.
And like Beausobre’s torturers, the world in a way loses interest. When we stop reacting with impulsive rants, outbursts of anger, and the effort to demonize those with whom we disagree, we are in a strange way left alone.
We still suffer, of course, maybe more intensely than ever. The world doesn’t change; we do. But our energy is freed to do the redemptive work to which Beausobre dedicated her life.
She could have been writing a treatise on Peter’s exchange with Jesus in Matthew 18:21–22. “How many times must we forgive, Lord? Seven times?” “No. Seventy times seven.”
“Look down right into the depths of your heart,” she challenged, “and tell me — is it not right for you to be kind to [your persecutors]? Even to them? Particularly to them, perhaps? Is it not right that those men who have no kindness within them should get a surplus of it flowing towards them from without?”