A Christian genius and her inspired account of the life of Pilate’s wife

A detail from The Vision of Pontius Pilate's Wife by Sister Agnes Berchmans (James D Julia)

This being Holy Week, I have been reading an extraordinary novella, The Wife of Pilate by the late, celebrated German essayist and novelist, Gertrud von le Fort, recently translated into English along with two other stories, by Ignatius Press. Best known for her Song at the Scaffold, the story of a young Carmelite nun during the French Revolution, this work is from von le Fort’s later historical fiction. I describe it as “extraordinary” for its finely wrought imaginative recreation of Pilate’s household at the time of Our Lord’s Passion and for the artistic authenticity and intensity of her handling of the ultimate spiritual drama she is describing.

Taking as her starting-point the single sentence in Matthew 27: v19, “Now as [Pilate] was seated in the chair of judgement, his wife sent him a message, ‘Have nothing to do with that man; I have been upset all day by a dream I had about him'”, the author intuits that this dream of the woman known to legend and tradition as Claudia Procula, Pilate’s wife, is a nightmarish premonition, echoing down the centuries until the end of time, of those stark words in the Apostles’ Creed, “Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.” At the time an aristocratic pagan, she is transfixed by horror at her husband’s historic role in the redemption of mankind.

Her story is told by the device of a letter, written from Rome by Claudia’s maidservant, a Greek freedwoman, Praxedis, to a correspondent in Vienna; this allows the reader to witness and follow her mistress’s life of enduring affliction that succeeds the crucifixion, then afterwards to its triumphantly appropriate conclusion. Von le Fort rightly sees the glance of Christ from the courtyard of Pilate’s residence as he is led away, as the defining moment for Pilate’s wife, who is watching from an upper room: “For a long time I did not grasp the fact that the glance of that condemned innocent man had wounded and transformed her forever”, the letter-writer relates. Von le Fort, a convert to the Church in 1926 from a cultured Prussian Protestant background, implicitly links this “glance” to all the other occasion in the Gospels when Christ looks at a person, eg. St Matthew in the counting-house or St Peter after his denial, in a way that can never be forgotten.

I hadn’t realised until I read this novella that Pilate’s wife is traditionally honoured as a saint in the Byzantine Orthodox Church. Returning to live in Rome with her husband, anonymously attending secret celebrations of the Christian liturgy, aware of the spiritual gulf between her newfound understanding – “her soul increasingly transparent through her face” – and Pilate and finally realising that her death in the arena as a martyr will be the self-sacrifice that will bring about his salvation at the hands of the God of mercy, Claudia finds the key that will release them both from their tragic destiny.

Employing a superb economy of style alongside a profound understanding of the mystery of the Cross, the author handles with great subtlety the hard questions of free will, divine mercy and human destiny involved in her interweaving of fact and fiction. This is the first of von le Fort’s writings that I have actually read rather than merely heard about and it is enough to convince me of her literary stature. One of those rare works that one would choose to read again and again, discovering new insights each time, it is both a fine work of the imagination and a stimulus to meditation. It will join Georges Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest as the one other book that I would take to a desert island. Bernanos, incidentally, was himself inspired by von le Fort’s Song at the Scaffold to write his own play on the subject. Clearly, the same creative Christian genius was at work in them both.