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Sanctuary in captivity

A journalist's 40-day journey to freedom through prayer.

From the April 2011 issue of The Christian Science Journal

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During my year of reporting for The Christian Science Monitor on the impact of the war in Vietnam at the end of the 1960s, I prayed daily to hear what the Christ—“. . . the divine message from God to men speaking to the human consciousness” (Science and Health, p. 332)—was telling me about the true nature of man in God’s peaceable kingdom. Despite the evidence of war and violence before my eyes, I refused to accept the conclusion that man is subject to some inexorable Cain-complex that compels him to kill his brother.

In May of 1970, I had the opportunity to test in my own experience the opposite, radical premise of the innate innocence of the man of God’s creating as understood in Christian Science. A week after the ground war in Vietnam spread to neighboring Cambodia, two other American journalists and I were captured by insurgents as we visited villages there. A mixed group of Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge stepped from behind trees, trained their rifles on us, and ordered us to get out of the van with our hands up. We were on the fringes of the “Parrot’s Beak” area that was quickly becoming the arena of fierce fighting.

At this stage the Khmer Rouge were new, unknown guerrillas; only later, after they had murdered more than a quarter of their fellow ethnic Cambodian population, did they get their “Killing Fields” reputation. Also, at this early stage of the Cambodian war there was as yet no established pattern of dealing with captured Western journalists.

From the first, I mentally heard the reassurance of a line from a hymn: “And o’er earth’s troubled, angry sea / I see Christ walk” (Mary Baker Eddy, Christian Science HymnalNo. 253). I felt the presence of the Christ and knew that the place where I stood was holy ground. I affirmed that man could never be agent, victim, or witness of evil.

On one level, I was terrified. But at the deepest level, I was drinking in the angel-borne truths that flooded my consciousness, with a spontaneity and consistency that was new to me. It was not a question of reasoning that I needed to pray about aggressive threats X, Y, or Z and then marshaling the spiritual counterfacts to refute them. I simply rejoiced in the ideas that flowed in of their own accord. To my surprise, my terror did not in any way incapacitate my spiritual receptivity. It was just irrelevant.

In one sense it was easy to pray, since the only alternative on offer was to get shot. But it was more than that. I actively chose life. If I have been praying to understand and trust the truths of God’s, and therefore man’s, goodness that I claim as a Christian Scientist, I thought, it’s natural for me to have the direct challenge to prove them in my own experience. If they are indeed true, they will protect all of us, at both ends of those guns. A universal Father-Mother God must protect all of His children, without exception. He preserves my life and the lives of my colleagues, our captors, and the local villagers. Equally, He shields our guards against any betrayal of their own higher nature.

And I realized further, if these premises are not true, I don’t care what happens to me personally in a world governed by violence and fate.

For the first two or three hours on the day of our capture, our regime was informal. All three of us were acutely aware of the need not to let our guards dehumanize us and took every chance we could to converse with them—I in French and one of my colleagues in Vietnamese. We were also given water when we asked for some in the heat of the day. Our treatment changed abruptly, however, when a hard-line faction took over command from our initial captors and stopped all fraternization. I thought of this promise in Isaiah (60:18): “Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders; but thou shalt call thy walls Salvation, and thy gates Praise.” Therefore, I insisted, my experience can only praise God. I cannot be deceived by the notion of any contagion of violence or mob psychology. I cannot see an enemy, nor can I be seen as an enemy.

At one point as we were walking along and getting ever deeper into insurgent territory, I felt the acute intuition to stick especially vigorously with the truth, and obeyed the prod. We found out in conversation with the guards several weeks later that just then the hostile faction had, in fact, wanted to shoot us on the spot. This nullification of the threat of instant death was the first of four specific answers to specific prayers in the forty days before our release. The second was my protection from rape and the simultaneous cessation of maltreatment of my two male colleagues. The third was my loss of fear. The fourth was our liberation, without injury to any of us.

Rather than being executed immediately, we were taken to a village and put on display in a way that seemed to be setting us up as the accused in a kangaroo court. Then that staging was interrupted, and we were placed in the back of a camouflaged truck, with guns pointed at us by tense guards, and put on exhibit in another village. There local Cambodians jumped up on the truck and shouted at us angrily. I felt great compassion for them and grasped something of what Jesus saw when he “beheld in Science the perfect man, who appeared to him where sinning mortal man appears to mortals” (Science and Health, pp. 476–477).

In the next village we were blindfolded tightly, taken off the truck, and made to walk a gauntlet. (The atmosphere was extremely hostile, but for the most part we were not kicked or slapped.) Then I could hear some men running toward us from behind, seizing my two colleagues and separating them from me, and running off into the distance with lots of angry shouting.

Next I was taken to a building where villagers came in waves and shouted at me, and one man ripped my sandals off my feet and threw them across the room. In one lull, I indicated that I would like something to drink, and this time was given water. And then I had the intuition to take my blindfold off, even though this initiative would have seemed to be foolhardy defiance under the circumstances. I did so without opposition. It was dusk. Shortly thereafter, I was alone with one guard, who came over, wrenched the rings off my fingers, and wanted to rape me. No one else was in the room.

Until then all my prayers had been silent, but now I said to him aloud, even though we had no common language, “You are my brother,” and then, “You have everything you need as the son of God.” He hesitated, repeated the word “God” aloud, put the rings gently back on my fingers, and did not rape me.

I was in awe, and reveled in the presence and power of God, “The great I AM; the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-acting, all-wise, all-loving, and eternal; Principle; Mind; Soul; Spirit; Life; Truth; Love; all substance; intelligence” (Science and Health, p. 587)

After another 15 minutes or so someone else came to take me away, calmly. He retrieved my sandals, and I was led to another building, where my colleagues were sitting, still blindfolded, but uninjured. This was important, since if any of us had been seriously hurt there would have been a strong incentive to hide this by killing rather than releasing us. My friends had been tied to a motorbike and forced to run blindfolded behind it, but had managed to stay on their feet. Then one insurgent had hit the younger of the two men over the head. But at about the same time as my encounter with my guard, a new, more senior officer had come by, stopped the maltreatment, and given the order to take my companions to the building where we were reunited. After my arrival they, too, were allowed to take off their blindfolds, and we were given some food for the first time that day and allowed to wash up from a bucket of water. From then on, physically we were treated decently.

The third answer to prayer was my loss of fear, a dissolving of terror. During our first week in Cambodia an outside Vietnamese interrogator came several times by motorbike to the various village houses we were mostly confined to during daylight hours. What he said, harshly, was that if they found out we were journalists, we would be handled well, but if they found out we were spies, we would be treated as spies and, it seemed, executed. (This suggested that the decision about how to deal with us had passed from the impetuous local insurgents to the political hierarchy, which had not yet decided how to handle us and the other foreign journalists the guerrillas had captured in the week-old war in Cambodia.)

In once sense it was easy to pray, since the only alternative on offer was to get shot. But it was more than that. I actively chose life.

 Each time I heard the motorbike approaching, my heart would suddenly beat very fast. This didn’t bother me, since I had already discovered on the first day that terror was irrelevant. I had a private hour of communion with God every morning, though—after each of us had been allowed out of the house to go to the bathroom before dawn, and after my colleagues went back to sleep—and at the end of our first week in Cambodia, I asked myself in this precious hour just what I was afraid of. I can’t be afraid of losing life in matter, I reasoned, since I have no life in matter to lose. I thought further that messengers can only bring good and peaceful news: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace” (Isa. 52:7). And as a passage attributed to John says, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear” (I John 4:18).

On that day, to my surprise, I felt none of the symptoms of fear when I again heard the sound of the motorbike. This time, unusually, I was our interpreter, in French. And even when the interrogator accused us of having had special spy cameras, I felt no fear and just replied that that was nonsense. I exulted in the evaporation of fear. As it turned out, that was the last time we had a harsh interrogation. 

The fourth specific answer to prayer came after we had been held for more than four weeks. We had settled into a routine of village living that was punctuated by several daylight and nighttime flights—either on foot or by car—from imminent South Vietnamese or American attacks. We did not again come under any acute death threat, though, and as journalists we appreciated the unique chance to observe village life in an insurgent zone. 

Yet nothing was happening; our status was not being resolved. As I thought about this one morning, I realized that man is never in limbo, but is always at the standpoint of resolution and demonstration. At every stage Love not only inspires, but also “illumines, designates, and leads the way” (Science and Health, p. 454). That same day, in the first harbinger that we would be released, the guards asked us, “If we free you, where do you want to go?” 

A week later we were in fact taken on motorbikes in the middle of the night back to the main road between Saigon and Phnom Penh, where we could hitchhike back to Saigon in the morning. Our guards—concerned about the tendency of combatants on hair-trigger alert to shoot first and ask questions later—made sure we had white handkerchiefs to wave, if necessary. I rode the roughly 100 kilometers through the Parrot’s Beak that night, rejoicing in the assurance “The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for ever more” (Ps. 121:8).

We were the first foreign reporters to be freed in Cambodia; our release set the pattern for the subsequent release in that period of those captured colleagues who survived their initial encounters with insurgents. No ransom was paid. (Only in later years did ransom become a common demand in war zones.) Nor were we rescued in military action by American commandos, though we found out later that just such an operation had been planned at one point—and then aborted—as training for a later attempt to rescue some American prisoners of war. That was important to me; any freeing of us that cost lives on either side would have violated the universality of my prayers. I did not want to be liberated if the price was another’s life. 

My freedom was attested to by my total absence of trauma afterward. I never experienced nightmares or sleeplessness and never relived the threats, except to praise God for the demonstration of their impotence. 

Yes, I longed to demonstrate more. In particular, I yearned to heal all those I saw in need in the villages we stayed in, just as Paul healed on Melita after his shipwreck. Yet, I rejoice in what I did see of spiritual law demonstrated in our experience, and in the universal promise this holds for “the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2), of all mankind. I can honestly say that my experience in Cambodia was not the ordeal of a prison, but the spiritual deepening of a sanctuary. 

Through this whole experience several passages in the Bible and Science and Health became especially vivid to me, most notably: “The lonely precincts of the tomb gave Jesus a refuge from his foes, a place in which to solve the great problem of being. His three days’ work in the sepulchre set the seal of eternity on time. He proved Life to be deathless and Love to be the master of hate.” And, “The Gabriel of His presence has no contests. To infinite, ever-present Love, all is Love, and there is no error, no sin, sickness, nor death. Against Love, the dragon warreth not long, for he is killed by the divine Principle. Truth and Love prevail against the dragon because the dragon cannot war with them. Thus endeth the conflict between the flesh and Spirit” (Science and Health, pp. 44 and 567). 

As Mary Baker Eddy also once wrote, “We live in an age of Love’s divine adventure to be All-in- all” (The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany, p. 158).

Elizabeth Pond is a journalist and author in Berlin, Germany.

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