Why me? by Kristen Corbert-Milward

Why me? A Lenten talk given by Kristin Corbet-Milward at St John the Baptist Church on 22 March 2015

First of all, I want to thank Peter and James for giving me this opportunity to take stock of
where I am - who I am. Of examining my interior life, I suppose. I’m the last one to speak
in these Lenten talks. I’m very conscious of my own inadequacy. I’ve been very
impressed - and moved - by everyone else...I think when it comes to faith that I’m still very
immature, still in the foothills, as it were. I’m aware that faith involves absolute trust,
something I find very difficult. I’m terrified of yielding control. And I’m not fluent in what
Tom calls the algebra of faith. And then there’s Love, the love that passes all
understanding and the courage that that Love provides. What I’m going to talk about
tonight is just a shadow of these things, just a faint sketching-in - not even a presentiment -
of what I suspect faith really is. In that sense, I’m only making feeble passes at what it
truly is. So I apologise. I”m only at the beginning of this journey.

So let me make a beginning.

I’ve used the Bible and TS Eliot to frame some of my thoughts.

“In the beginning was the Word.”

All my life I’ve responded very deeply to words. And sound. The sound of my mother’s
voice, how it changed and modulated according to her mood. I was acutely attuned to it,
because I wanted her to love me. In Norway her voice was lighter, happier, it rose up
through the scales.

I learned two languages simultaneously. I was conscious in Norway of imitating, of using
words that other - usually older - people used, without my knowing exactly what they
meant, just having a general idea. I wasn’t so aware of that in English. Maybe because I
spent more time here, so the process of acquiring language was less conscious.

Words could be caressed or sung, called, shouted or spat out. I could use my voice to do
anything with words - that’s what it felt like. I recited prayers in church, which we always
attended every Sunday. I never knew exactly what my father believed, all I knew was that
he saw it as his civic duty to go to church. He was a churchwarden at some point, until he
quarrelled, finally, with the vicar, at which point he simply moved churches. My mother had
a simpler response to God. Her faith expanded with age and was unassailable. In those
days, I went to church because I had to. I said the prayers, I pretended to pray, I was
bored, my gaze wandered. But I loved the words. It didn’t matter to me that I didn’t
understand them exactly. I responded to their mystery. I didn’t need to understand. And
that love of the Litany never left me. So I was upset when it started to be tinkered with, in
an effort to make it more ‘accessible.’ What was the point of all that pointless tinkering,
where sometimes only a word or two were altered or a phrase reversed, and when it could
no longer be recited by heart - at least by me? I loved the fact that ‘Our Father’ wasn’t a
who but a which. A who made him too much like us.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

It was the same with Shakespeare. I wanted to wrestle the meaning out of the words. I
liked having to search for understanding. I enjoyed puzzling it out. But at the heart of it
all, there was Sound. And Mystery. The words themselves were mysterious. I just
wanted to roll them around my tongue, make music with them. I knew that at any time,
just a phrase - any phrase - could reduce me to silence, to a state of wonderment or tears.

“Home is where one starts from.”

My father was in the Navy. We lived all over the place. I went to ten schools. But I
learned quite early that my world wasn’t entirely safe. First, my mother was diagnosed
with polio when I was three and two years later with MS. Then my father became very ill,
involving stays in hospital and trips abroad. These illnesses grew to define our family life.
We moved to the country, to a beautiful house, set among fields. I was bewildered initially,
craving company. By the time I went to university, I experienced my beautiful home as a
prison. I couldn’t wait to shake the dust of the place off my shoes. It was only by degrees
that I experienced a different reality: it became a haven, a refuge, a source of
immeasurable comfort. Love.

I would look out of my bedroom window onto the orchard. In the sunlight, the russet of the
apple trees was reflected in the paintwork of the outbuildings. After my father died, I
looked down from his study onto an ancient yew tree and longed myself for roots. Roots
that would keep me tethered to the place. What I had once perceived as a prison had
transformed itself over the intervening years into a place that sheltered and sustained me.
A place of safety that I now couldn’t bear to leave. And which I’d have to. I knew every
creaking floorboard, every loose tile. I could find my way blindfold through its corridors at
any time of the day or night.

When, six years after my father’s death, my mother too was dying, I closed up my flat in
Lower Addison Gardens and went home to look after her. Pope John Paul was dying. My
mother’s bed was now downstairs. She’d been in a wheelchair for years, but now was
unable to rise from her bed. The television was often on and we would see the Pope’s
face flickering towards us, in terrible, distorting close-up - the camera virtually up his nose.
I hated it, it seemed revoltingly intrusive. My mother had a pulley above her head, to help
her rise up in the bed. On the last day of her life, when she was no longer able to speak,
her hands repeatedly, convulsively reached upwards, as though she was straining with all
her strength to rise. To go where? To what purpose? I heard not long ago that there’s a
physiological reason for this. I don’t care: for me, her blindly reaching hands will always
represent her final bid for release.

That night at midnight, the last day of February, she died. I’d been sleeping in her room
and was exhausted. The kind district nurses had arranged for a nurse to spend the night.
We talked in the kitchen for a long while. I found myself asking her suddenly, “Are you
psychic?” It was something she said...

I went up to bed. It was perhaps not much later - but out of a deep sleep - that I heard her
knock at the door and her voice saying, “I think she’s going.” I ran downstairs. I rang my
brother who was in New Zealand at the time and held the phone to my mother’s ear. I’d
heard that hearing is the last sense to go and I wanted the last thing she heard on earth to
be his voice. After it was over, when we’d laid her out, after we’d stretched out her poor
bent legs as best we could, the nurse asked me if my father was a tall man. I said yes.
She told me that just before she came to upstairs to fetch me a shadow had passed over
the lintel of the doorway and it was that that had compelled her to go running upstairs. “I
think he’d come to fetch her,” she said.

I don’t have an answer to that. I don’t know if it’s true or not. All I know is that it was of
great comfort to me. Just as I’d begun to realise that the cameras intruding on the Pope’s
final days could only have been there expressly at his bidding - that he was trying silently ,
agonisedly, to transmit something of great importance to us all, that what we see and fear
as the end of life, is in truth only the beginning - so the nurse’s words that night suggested
to me that my mother was now embarked on another journey that would take her
somewhere I could not, as yet, follow.

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

My journey towards or into faith has been choppy. I have a lot of my father in me. My
natural position is to doubt, to question. I was awaiting miracles, declarations of proof. I
think Graham Greene coined the phrase, “the spiritual value of doubt.” I comfort myself
with that. The litany, the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, sacred music -
sometimes just being in a place where prayer has been common - can take me to places
of transcendent, overwhelming joy, and at those times I have a sense of intense spiritual
communion with everything above and around me. I also know that when I enter the dark
of depression, I am cut off from every living creature and am floundering alone in endless,
darkest night.

A friend has asked me why it is that I’m seemingly so obsessed with war. Or specifically,
the two World Wars. It’s not that I’m obsessed - or at least, I don’t think I am. What
preoccupies me is the notion of sacrifice. And redemption. What would we do to defend
what we value, how would we behave under intolerable circumstances? At what point
might we - would we - consider betraying our convictions? Those are the kind of questions
lots of us ask ourselves.

Both my parents fought in the war, my father as a Fleet Air Arm pilot in the Navy. I was
very disappointed when he told me that the bullet he got in his arm wasn’t from the
Germans but the Vichy French off Dakar. My mother was a spy in the Norwegian
Resistance, who eventually had to escape from Norway when her cover was blown.

The truth is I don’t know how I’d respond. I hope with bravery, but I don’t know.
Christianity is predicated on the sacrifice of one man, Jesus Christ, who made a living
sacrifice of himself for those he loved. For us. And rose again. Since that first great
sacrifice there have been others. I remember in Auschwitz entering a tiny freezing cell
where a priest had voluntarily taken the place of another man - where it was impossible to
stand up or to find any physical comfort whatsoever - and where he knew that he’d never
see daylight again. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German pastor and theologian, was
executed in Flossenburg Prison months after the July 44 Plot. Many others, more directly
implicated in the conspiracy, died terrible deaths. One of them, Peter Yorck von
Wartenburg, wrote in August 44: “I, too, am dying for my country, and even if it seems to all
appearances a very inglorious and disgraceful death, I shall hold up my head and I only
hope that you will not believe this to be pride or delusion. We wished to light the torch
of life and now we stand in a sea of flames.”

Maybe it’s for this reason that I’ve always gravitated towards playing people who are
sorely tried, torn by desire or ambition. For whom choice is hard. People who often
behave badly or meanly. People who glimpse a chance for redemption. People who
make demands of life and often themselves fall short. I discovered some years after I left
RADA that Harpers and Queen had written an article in which they predicted I’d be a star.
Flattering but meaningless. It didn’t happen. At least not yet...But it’s left me pondering.
I’ve often been angry because I felt I wasn’t in control of my career, didn’t get what I
thought I deserved or wanted. But what WAS it that I wanted? To be famous? To have
status? To be offered all the parts I coveted? To feel validated? To feel recognised? To
be LOVED? Is that it? But by whom? Strangers? I chose to take up a career that is built
on evanescence. Nothing lasts - except on film and even that is finite. It’s over, even as
it’s brought to life. Eve Arnold, the photographer, commented on how Marilyn Monroe
surrounded herself with photographs of herself, as if to remind herself that she did indeed
exist. I know that I’ve felt most powerfully, most intensely alive when I’ve been on stage. It
produces moments of transcendent joy - but it doesn’t last. Where do I find what does?
It’s Love. The love we feel for one another is a reflection of a more perfect Love. Brand,
in Ibsen’s great verse play, demanding greater and greater sacrifices to be made to an
unheeding, implacable God, only realises as he’s about die, how deeply he’s been wrong.
Up there, as the snowface creaks and groans, before the avalanche buries him, he hears
the voice of God through thunder. It calls out, “God is Love.”

I am forever grateful to Father Michael Fuller for the way he made me feel a part of this
church when I first stumbled in about seven years ago. I could so easily have slipped
away. I was very troubled at the time. He had the gift of making a stranger feel the most
important person in the world at that moment. Instead, I stayed and became part of the
family of this church. I grew to know and love the other congregants, to look forward to
meeting them every Sunday, to hearing Paul draw the most glorious music out of a
clapped out old organ. The service has come to be a landmark in my week and I feel
immensely privileged to belong. To belong - to have a place where you are known. It’s the
most precious word in the lexicon. And now we have James and Peter, whose humanity
and charm and goodness beam out like a light. Yes, I belong.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here now, always -
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Holland Park Benefice