, July 09, 2012
In 1955, Hannah Arendt, one of the most acute and eloquent thinkers of the twentieth-century, published a reflective series of profiles under the self-explanatory title Men in Dark Times. Self-explanatory except for the fact that it was also about women in dark times. In the Preface, she asserted the hopeful conviction grounding her effort:
“That even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth--this conviction is the inarticulate background against which these profiles were drawn. Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of a blazing sun.”
The decades during which Apartheid stained South Africa, and for that matter the world, surely fit, if not defined, the meaning of “dark times.” But they were not without flickers, even bursts, of light, which served both to highlight the darkness and to hearten the souls of all those striving to survive or overthrow it. Father Michael Lapsley was and is one of those bright, enduring, and resilient sources of illumination, a fresh flame struck in South Africa but now spread to other lands, wherever there is justice to be achieved and wounds to be healed.
Father Michael’s story is well known throughout Southern Africa--how he came as a young monk and priest from New Zealand to South Africa, witnessed the atrocity that was Apartheid, and resolved to spare nothing of himself in eradicating it from a land that had adopted him and from a people that he had come to love--a story that was nearly cut short by a devastating bomb blast sent personally to him by the South African security forces who could not tolerate the existence, much less the relentless witness, of a priest who provoked the reluctant conscience of a church and a nation, joined the banned and demonized ANC, and became a fighter for freedom.
Many others have told his story or parts of it, some in print, but here we have the version that I and countless others have waited for--his own. And no one can convey the wonder, wit and the fire of this man as can and does Fr. Michael. It is no surprise that others have called him a martyr, a saint, a hero (as well as a traitor, enemy, and bloody nuisance), but the Michael Lapsley that comes through in these pages is far more accessible, bold, heartening and, yes, humorous than others’ words could ever put on a page. Here is what he was and remains, a man as well as a light in dark times.
This is not merely a history of one man or one time or one place. We all,I suspect every reader will admit, live in dark times, as does Michael Lapsley. His work, as we learn in this book, is far from over, and the light it casts has not dimmed. If he were asked he would probably call it no more than a candle, but after reading this book you would likely be inclined to call it more.
This book and the story it tells have the all-too-rare power of truth, the truth that even one life, if given over to something worthy and great, can make a real and lasting difference. The bonus is that it is told with a wit and warmth and style that make the pages turn nearly by themselves.