By Fr. David Wooten
“To every man his little cross. (He sighs.) Till he dies. (Afterthought) And is forgotten.” – Vladimir, Waiting for Godot
I was asked often what it was that attracted me to the plays of Samuel Beckett in high school and college; Cold War classics like Waiting for Godot and Endgame seemed rather odd and dreary fare for a young man who was known to profess Christian faith. Godot’s two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, exist in a unending loop wherein they are condemned to a silence and motionlessness that they can never, ultimately, escape. Such hopelessness—expressed as it is in absurdist minimalism with frequent pauses and stream-of-consciousness dialogue—stands in stark contrast to the glorious hope of life in Christ that we experience in the Scriptures and the Divine Liturgy. What was it that kept me coming back to these trapped, tormented souls?
Beckett and his audiences were just emerging from the horrors of the World War II, and while many people were immersing themselves in family life and newfound western prosperity, many had to reflect on the trauma of the world’s citizens’ slaughter of one another. For them, the contents of daily life were only distractions from the cold reality that they saw: nothing in this world ultimately matters, and we are stuck in a nihilistic experience that can barely be called a “life”—more like mere existence with no ultimate rhyme or reason to it. They were determined to call out the absurdity, tragedy, pointlessness, and injustice in the world around them, yet concluded that there really was, as the tramps say repeatedly in Godot, “nothing to be done.” The one for whom they waited, Godot (who, we should note, was not a metaphor for God by Beckett’s own admission), never came; the utopian vision of humanity never materialized and they were left, waiting, for what would never come.
When I reflect on this dark evaluation of life, it serves as a reminder that “in the beginning, it was not so,” that man was not in such a predicament at the time of his creation. Yet man, having the opportunity to grasp and take to himself the knowledge that only God could help him control, namely that of Good and Evil, chose to try and create Paradise without God, and became the prodigal with the Father’s inheritance, foolishly squandering what the Father had wisely invested. In short, man created an unwitting parody, a cheap copy, of what the Father had originally intended. The three aspects of Godot that most completely mark the work—timelessness, silence, and stillness—are all aspects of our walk with Christ that we as Orthodox Christians are called to embrace and live. Yet, as Godot clearly shows, when this life is lived for itself instead of in function of and relation to the Kingdom of Heaven, these three qualities become parodies of themselves, cheap imitations that mock us by reminding us of what we are not experiencing.
When Godot opens its second of the two acts, Estragon has absolutely no memory of the previous act’s event (indeed, we don’t know if it was a day or an eon before Act II when Act I occurred). And because this is the case, all people are treated with the same amount of disregard for their unwilling participation in time. Thus, the one hope to which man can look forward in Godot is that of being forgotten, just as he himself forgets and thus eliminates all meaninglessness around him. What a sad thing today that so many people live what they believe to be “disposable” lives—no more important that the paper we wrap our hamburgers in—with one day following another without any kind of rhyme or reason. Our life in Christ doesn’t (usually) change what happens in the time we have, nor does it make time go faster, but it does give us a change of perspective. Instead of crying “Forget this!” or believing we would or should be forgotten, Christ is our Godot (even if he wasn’t Beckett’s) and it is to Him we cry, “Remember! Remember me, O Lord, in Your Kingdom!” The timelessness which will know no end and always have a reason can inform us now, even in absurdity.
Silence is used as an avoidance technique in Godot. One of its appearances early on in the play, however, does not take the form of a drowning of the dialogue as much as it is a tool purposefully and consciously wielded by Vladimir to silence Estragon’s dreams. However, having silenced the voices of fear and despair, they are now are left with the horrifying meaninglessness within themselves. They embody Blaise Pascal’s observation: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” Yet many Fathers of the Church teach us that when we silence our surroundings and our own thoughts, we are led to encounter, not the nothingness of a futile existence, but the God who resides in the human heart, as St. Macarius the Great told us.
Then there’s stillness. The most well-known stage direction of Godot is They do not move. The irony of this stage direction is its continual juxtaposition with an expressly stated desire to do just that. The first example of this is when Estragon and Vladimir are discussing the natures of the two thieves on either side of Christ at the Crucifixion:
Vladimir: One is supposed to have been saved and the other…(he searches for the contrary of saved)…damned.
Estragon: Saved from what?
Estragon: I’m going.
He does not move.
This double meaning is especially powerful, for Estragon’s statement of “I’m going” could have more than one meaning. Upon hearing that one would be damned to hell, Estragon possibly could have evaluated his own, already hellish existence and thought that hell would be the natural conclusion of such a trapped life. On the other hand, Estragon could have become a bit unnerved by his companion’s topic of conversation and desired to leave so as to try to flee this eternal destiny. At any rate, he is unable to move in all reality, and Estragon is either resigned to or forced into (respectively) having no power to shape his own destiny, be it eternal or temporal. The paralysis of our age is one of hopelessness, of fear, of futility. In the midst of this our God did not offer a Purpose Driven Life of motivational speeches and fairy godmother solutions. He came in and He suffered in a way that encapsulated total vulnerability and (apparent) futility perfectly. His reminder from the Cross is that the only real way to find rest is to cease from striving against the will of God and be still in His presence, not needing to run to this place or that person or that career path, but letting Him be enough for us, right where we are.
My professors always told us, “There’s no Pascha without Holy Friday; there’s no joy without sorrow; there’s no union with God (theosis) without self-emptying (kenosis) beforehand.” Sometimes, I’ve found, in order to appreciate anew what Christ has come to deliver to us, I have to look into someone’s darker point of view, someone convinced that God has forgotten, that His silence is really from a cold, barren cosmos, that we are abandoned beyond any help of deliverance. Sometimes it helps to remember when I’ve felt that—to be honest when I do feel that. Because if we can look even a moment into the abyss of the world’s cruelty and still bless the Lord for something, we’ve begun to remember the timeless One, our Godot, Who in silence and peaceful stillness speaks peace to weary prodigals and bids them trade in their struggles for their Eternal Father’s house.