Keeping the Faith
By Leonard Gill
OCTOBER 13, 1997: From the early- to mid-1980s, Terry Waite, acting as a personal representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury, successfully negotiated the release of Western hostages in Tehran, Libya, and Beirut. But in January 1987, on a mission to win release of the remaining hostages in Lebanon, Waite was himself taken prisoner, thrown into solitary confinement for four years, and held for another year in the company of fellow hostages Terry Anderson, John McCarthy, and Tom Sutherland. Waite's captivity, all told, lasted 1,763 days, days he described in an autobiography, Taken on Trust, and that he describes for us again but from an especially important new angle, in his new release, Footfalls in Memory (Doubleday, $21.95). That new angle is summed up in the book's subtitle, Readings and Reflections from Solitude.
Taken on Trust was mentally composed in captivity for the sake of Waite's sanity. Published in 1993, it also served a public curious about who this layman was, a layman who could reach the conscience of Muammar Qadhafi and survive the forces of the Ayatollah Khomeyni. Footfalls is an autobiography of sorts as well: a collection of brief introductions to and excerpts from books Waite held dearly to in memory while prisoner; books his captors allowed him to read; and books that have since guided him in the gains that solitude, volunteered solitude this time, can bring. Books, if you will, as windows onto the soul.
The rhythm of language as an assist to what Waite calls "inner coherence," "inner balance" seems to have been with him long before his incarceration, but the surprise in Footfalls in Memory is the range of titles that fed his faith, earned his admiration, or simply won him temporary distraction from circumstances at some points dire and at every point extreme.
Footfalls opens with a passage from Black Beauty and other examples drawn from the author's childhood, but moves quickly on to the first book his captors handed him after a year of limited exercise and limitless introspection: Beyond Euphrates by travel writer Freya Stark, the very book John McCarthy was carrying at the time of his own capture and a fitting reflection for Waite's own journeyings. Selections from The Book of Common Prayer, the Bible, even the Koran, in addition to excerpts from Koestler's Darkness at Noon and Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle, are not unexpected findings here. But Hesse's Magister Ludi or Joyce's Dubliners? Styron's Set This House on Fire or Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Virgil, Herodotus, Jung, Dorothy Sayers, Marcus Aurelius? A poem by John Updike entitled "Planting A Mailbox"? Each, it can be said, taught him something of exile and life beyond exile.
Waite's guards, who had a halting, if nonexistent, understanding of English, could be both literally life-threatening and oddly solicitous as to his welfare. To secure a possible better run of titles (and to avoid receiving, as Terry Anderson did, a textbook called Diseases of the Middle Ear), Waite roughly sketched for them a penguin and motioned that they look for any title with such a picture on the spine. One result: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by a fellow Englishman, Laurie Lee, written in the 1930s. "A lovely book," Waite writes, "that enabled me to travel far and wide in imagination while trapped in a dark, damp room."
Waite's dark, damp room in Beirut was an enforced solitude. When I spoke to him recently by phone, however, it was from the elected solitude of his home in the English countryside, away from family, friends, London, and the occasional reporter. The value of solitude and his life since captivity were the proposed topics.
"I try to spend two or three days alone during the week, and when I'm writing, definitely," Waite said. "And that solitude is not a bad thing at all."
Could Waite today be replicating, in a positive way, his captivity? "Enforced solitude is very, very difficult to get into," he said with an English capacity for vast understatement, "but there is an appealing side to it. ... The solitude I have now is voluntary and is used, hopefully, creatively."
These days, the creativity Waite refers to comes in the form of his writing, which supports him, and his lecturing. But his humanitarian work -- for the homeless, for prisoners, and his chairing of an economic-development agency -- continues.
"I don't represent the Church now. I represent myself only," Waite said when asked whether he works in any official capacity for the Church of England. "And that's a deliberate choice. I deliberately wanted to take my own responsibility and not have to look to other people to make decisions."
Another possible response to his direct fate for years having been in the politico-religious hands of Islamic fundamentalists? Or is it a retreat from the unquiet politics inside the Anglican Church?
"In recent years," Waite answered, "the Church has been so ransacked and ravaged by internal conflict. And though the Church is not separate from the great changes of society, it needs also to understand how to create solitude. I think on an individual level, as you begin to experience solitude in your life, you actually do become a better communicator and better builder of community. And I would say that it's the same with the corporate body of the Church as it learns that sometimes a little quiet perhaps can make more of a contribution to society. It doesn't always have to be shouting, doesn't always have to be preaching, doesn't always have to be hand-clapping.
"The Church is not as effective as it was in communicating the ideas it communicated in the past," Waite continued. "But that has to do with all institutions. I just happen to mention the Church. The institutions have become dysfunctional, the channels become blocked. And yet, at the same time, it's quite evident that there are enormously deep pools of compassion within people and somehow they've not been able to find effective institutional release. But the compassion is there."
Mention the national outpouring over the death of Princess Diana as an example, and Waite, keyed again to the word "release," finds all the expression of these "pools of compassion" one needs. The media attention that hounded her in life particularly pained him to see.
"I've been subjected to some of it myself, my wife, my family. They had it very hard ... [until] the press was pulled off by the Press Council, who saw that my captivity was going to be an ongoing thing and it seemed pretty unreasonable to keep constantly camping on the doorstep outside my house. So I'm not speaking off the top of my head. I'm speaking from personal experience."
With the room he's made for his prized solitude, and with reading, writing, and charity work his primary concerns, Terry Waite claims he isn't driven by the "old compulsions." When I ask what does drive him, a "well, I don't know what, really" is his answer, but he does seem to have made peace with his past. He's seen John McCarthy "quite a lot" and corresponds "quite regularly" with Terry Anderson.
Can he see the day when he might want to meet with the abductors who held him for five years? "Oh, I wouldn't mind. I don't bother about it much, really," he said, and then clued me to the fact that with a CIA price still on their heads, "they're not going to be anxious to jump out in the open."
As for Oliver North, Waite doesn't question his commitment to the release of the hostages for one moment, but he has publicly disagreed over North's "methods," which included an undercover arms-for-hostages deal with Iran.
"I don't believe in making that sort of deal, that bargain," Waite said. "And North knows that. I told him that. ... My decision to return to Beirut may have been politically crazy, but from a moral point of view, as far as I was concerned, it was the right thing to do. And I've never blamed North for that. He made his decisions according to the base he operated from .... After [the hostage takers] realized I was `straight up,' that I was genuinely working for humanitarian purposes, that's when their attitudes changed. If I'd been working from a political or military base, I think they would have killed me. Anyone from that sort of background didn't survive it."
Mention the prospects of peace in the Middle East and Waite still has strong words for extremists on both sides: the blindness of some Israelis to "what misery and anger they generate in Palestinians" and the blindness of some Palestinians to the "psychic damage done to Jewish people as a whole as a result of the Holocaust and their natural desire to have a place of their own."
Dialogue, Waite maintains, remains the only weapon useful against the barriers in the Middle East. But when "fundamentalism on all sides, Jewish, Islamic, or Christian for that matter" becomes the shield of choice, a situation of "great distress" in the early- to mid-1980s fills with him still-great, still-audible distress in 1997. Only now it comes from a safe distance and the solitude of home.
"I wish I could be more profound in my spiritual life," Waite wrote in Taken on Trust, out of despair. "I am still very much a child in my understanding of my faith. I have no deep thoughts, no great insights, no outstanding qualities. I am a very ordinary man chained to a wall. ..."
But, as he recalls a friend once noting, "in seeking the liberation of the hostages, I was in reality seeking my own liberation." Toward what end? "Wholeness," he concludes in Footfalls in Memory, knowing one path to it, solitude, not to be one's enemy but one's ally.
MEMPHIS IS LUCKY TO BE ONE OF only 10 stops on Terry Waite's upcoming lecture tour of U.S. cities. On Tuesday, October 14th, he will speak and sign books in Cheney Parish Hall at the Church of the Holy Communion, 4645 Walnut Grove Road. The event is scheduled for 7 p.m. and is free and open to the public. For further information or to reserve a signed copy of Footfalls in Memory (with a foreword by Memphian and Publishers Weekly religion editor Phyllis Tickle), call Burke's Book Store at 278-7484, or toll-free at 1-800-581-5156.
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