The Pillowman and the Passion

IMG_5547Just over a week ago I went to the Key Theatre to see Mask Theatre’s production of ‘The Pillowman’. The play is set in a totalitarian regime. The central characters are two brothers, under arrest in a police station, and their two interrogators. It mixes menacing aggression with fear and vulnerability, and there is dark humour. Katurian writes short stories with dark twists reminiscent of Roald Dahl or Grimm’s Fairy Tales. A number of them involve the murder of children. It looks as though someone has been acting out these stories and he is brought to the station because the police have decided he is guilty. In another cell his brother, Michal, is also being held. Michal suffered incredible abuse from their parents and this seems to have led to him being stuck with the emotional development of a small child. The shock dawns that Michal is the one who might have been carrying out the murders, living out his brother’s stories. It is a dark twist.

One of the stories is of The Pillowman who appears to children while they are still very young and offers them the chance to end it all before the pain and suffering of later years occurs. They can be saved from it and protected in their innocence and the untroubled peace of early years. And so he makes their deaths look like accidents and softens the blow, easing their freedom from a life of pain and suffering. Hence he is a Pillowman, made of pillows and smothering, suffocating in a soft downy dispatching. Katurian gives the same release to his brother in the cell so that he doesn’t have to face what is to come. Though after he has done this the full horror dawns that the little girl who is missing has not died but has been found playing with some green pigs, echoing another of his stories. There is no evidence against Michal after all, at least not for this one.

Katurian is shot dead by the police. But that is not the end. The final scene is a post-death conversation between the two brothers. And it is Michal, for all his simple, child-like perceptions, who delivers the killer line in the play. He tells Katurian that the Pillowman is wrong. Without the suffering he endured, his brother would not have written the stories, and he liked the stories, the wonderful stories. He would choose the pain for the stories rather than lose them. The wisest perception comes the one the world would regard as the simple, the foolish one.

This is the question of suffering and evil, which in theology goes by the name of theodicy. How and why does a loving God allow pain and suffering. Surely the loving, kind, compassionate way would be that of the Pillowman? End it all before it begins. But then there would not be the stories, there would not be the love that we have and the two go together; that is how it is.

We enter the week when the way of the Pillowman is shown not to be the way of God, of the cross. The pain and suffering, which we call his Passion, is fully embraced, and shown to be an indispensible constituent of the story. It may baffle us, and there may be times when we might prefer the pillows, but like Michal, Passion is made of both the joy and the pain, the creative bite which comes through the grit and the struggle. This is not a futile by-product or mistake. There is a deep and loving purpose at work here and we find it not in the pillows but in the Passion of Christ. And it is in the hope and love of God that the pain and suffering is given deeper purpose and meaning, and not abandoned to futility.

So journey with Christ this week and find as you go that the meaning and purpose of life is deepened in the story of his Passion. Do not jump straight to Easter next week, because that is the despair of the Pillowman. Enter deeply into this paschal mystery and be renewed in faith, in hope and the love of God in Jesus Christ.


Sermon in Peterborough Parish Church, Palm Sunday 9th April 2017


About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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