When they told me in Italian that there was a “pechinese” to see me I thought they meant a little dog, a Pekinese.  But then she arrived, like light in the mind.  She was very human indeed, most gracefully so, and she was from Peking – or Beijing as we say now.  That was the first of many meetings with Lirong; her name means “Beautiful flower of December”.  She was to become a good friend, and she opened my heart to terror and pity – which is what we feel, the ancient philosopher said, when we witness tragedy.

She described with astonishing casualness the horrors of the Cultural Revolution in her childhood: a demonic destruction of the past with all its cultural products; the uprooting of people as if they were a crop to be dug out by machinery; the imprisonment, the torture, the death of seventy million people – all in the name of a single crackpot theory.  Lirong often spoke with warmth about a favourite cousin.  Then one day (it must have been the fourth or fifth time she had spoken of her) she mentioned casually that this cousin had spent seventeen years in prison.  One day (it was Easter) she spoke of her boyfriend, who had spent three years in prison after Tiananmen; when she met him on his release she literally did not recognise him.  All this and much more she spoke of without the slightest hint of self-pity or hatred.  As I listened to her I felt I was like an Easter egg, made of chocolate and nothing. 

She remembers paging through a prayer-book when she was a small child, and recognising just a few of the many words – or rather characters.  “When will I be able to read this?” she asked her mother.  “One day you will be able to read it all,” said her mother.  That prayer-book along with every other religious object in the house was destroyed by the Red Guard on the first of their many vicious attacks on the family.  The parents were terrified to utter a single word about the Christian faith in Lirong’s hearing, lest she repeat it to a neighbour and the Red Guard pay them a definitive visit.  So she grew into adulthood in complete ignorance of the Faith – apart from that vestigial memory.

She recalls a day in her early twenties when she visited her uncle’s house and he spoke to her in whispers about the Faith, glancing often at the door and the windows (Mao’s ideal was a spy in every home).  He locked the door, drew a parcel from under the floor-boards and unwound its many layers of wrapping.  It was a small booklet on the Stations of the Cross.  She had a sudden sense of recognition; no, of course, it was not the book she had seen in her childhood, but it had the same atmosphere about it – that was all she knew of the Faith.  She prevailed on him to lend it to her for a few days, and she remembers running home through the snow, with the booklet inside her blouse and her heart beating crazily.  Some visiting cousins were at home and she greeted them briefly before going to her room and hiding herself completely under the bedclothes.  There she drew out the booklet and began to look at it with the light of a torch.  She could read every word!  For the first time in her life she could see in black and white that Jesus died on the Cross to save us from eternal death.  From deep inside her there arose a great wave of sobbing, then wave after wave till her nose and forehead ached, and she knew that there was a power in the world greater than the power of violence.  Her mother came to ask why she was not with her cousins.  They wept together for a Faith that had been torn from them, but which was all the more theirs.  “Tell me where you have put him…Rabbuni!

Where I live, you can go into a bookshop and buy the Scriptures, or any religious book, and you can sit in the public square reading them.  No one will come and drag you to prison for it, no one will even say an unkind word.  In full freedom the western world is casting aside the Faith of the martyrs.  There will be a religious and cultural December, a harsh winter.  Pray for us, Lirong, “Beautiful flower of December.” 

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.