William Shakespeare wrote the play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, around the end of the sixteenth century. The play’s central character is famous for his indecision and procrastination, which has fatal consequences for himself and all around him. Even if you have never seen the play performed, you will probably be familiar with the speech which begins, “To be or not to be…”
It is unlikely Shakespeare ever visited the city of Helsingør, (Elsinore), where the play is set. On the edge of the city, facing the sea, is Kronborg Castle, which has long claimed to be “Hamlet’s” castle. These days it is a tourist attraction, which Ruth and I visited during a vacation last week. When you enter the central courtyard of the castle, you are presented with a number of doors; each one leads to a different part of the castle. The first one leads into the royal rooms of the King and Queen, where the recreation of the ancient bedchambers relies as much on the imagination of the curators as the character of Hamlet relied on Shakespeare’s literary gifts. However, as a large school party had just gone in ahead of us, we chose instead to enter another door marked “Castle Casements”: this is the door which leads to the caves underneath the castle.
The first impression was one of darkness: there were only a few lanterns to guide us along the cobbled floors. To say that these lights were inadequate would be an understatement. It was almost impossible to see anything, except the lanterns and the low light they provided. I wondered about “health and safety” – what if I stumbled and broke my neck? The journey through the casements became a trial of concentration and trust.
However, after a while, stumbling around in the poorly lit dungeon of the castle stopped being a trial and became, in a perverse way, enjoyable. The inadequate lighting seemed to subvert the basic premise of making things easy for the tourist. Instead I became aware of the darkness, the faint light coming from a distant window, the sound of the sea outside. I imagined what it might have been like to live down there – did they put the prisoners there? The thought was chilling. It was a relief finally to emerge into the central courtyard and into daylight.
A few days later Ruth and I were in the well lit St Albans Anglican Church in Copenhagen, listening to a sermon about faith. I recalled my experience stumbling in the dark at Kronborg Castle, and how it resembled, in some ways, the walk of faith. Having faith is an experience which often draws us into darkness. Once someone may have sold you Christianity as a tourist, telling you that faith is like turning on the light, and all you have to do to be saved is to believe. But is that really true?
Faith opens to more than one definition. In chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews, faith is described as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I would add that faith also involves trust (the walk in the dark) and revelation (faith as a gift from God). Everyone’s faith journey is unique and particular: those without faith need to begin with prayer: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Those with a weak faith may benefit from letting go of the need for certainty and enter a little into the darkness. Those whose faith is strong should regularly express their gratitude to God and enter fully into the servanthood which faith requires.
Resist the attempt to become a Christian Hamlet – “to believe or not to believe” – which is a kind of vanity. Not everything can be explained – if it could, then we wouldn’t need faith! Instead, embrace the mystery of faith and don’t be afraid of the darkness. Jesus was always warning his disciples about wanting proofs of faith. Like Hamlet, they were asking the wrong questions.
With joy and the blessings of faith