An Easter conversation: going to Heaven with Desmond Tutu

Good Friday, 2018.  Seventeen years ago, at Easter in 2001, I went to South Africa to meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  He was 69 and suffering from prostate cancer.  We talked about faith and his family.  And about death - and Heaven. 

 ‘I wonder whether they have rum and coke in Heaven?  Maybe it’s too mundane a pleasure, but I hope so – as a sundowner.  Except, of course, the sun never goes down there.   Oh, man, this Heaven is going to take some getting used to.’

Desmond Tutu suddenly slaps the table and explodes with laughter.  His tiny eyes disappear, his massive nostrils flare: he hoots, he honks, he shakes with merriment.  He cackles with delight.  Over the next two hours it happens again and again: sometimes a wild burst of merriment, at others a long, soft, giggling tee-hee.   Surprisingly, it isn’t irritating.  It’s simply Tutu.  The man is a bundle of joy.

And he has prostate cancer.  I am told that this could be his last interview, that I will find him frail and easy to tire.  In fact, as he potters round his kitchen fixing me a fruit juice, he looks remarkably robust.   He is 5’ 5” but sturdy, and clearly full of beans.  ‘I’ve been having cryosurgery to zap the cancer,’ he explains.  ‘They freeze the prostate, freeze it, and zap it.’   Another paroxysm of laughter.  ‘They don’t freeze everything around there, man.  I want to celebrate my golden wedding in style!’

Desmond Tutu will be 70 in October.  He will have been married to his wife, Leah, for fifty years in 2005.  They live, in a spacious house, airy and modern (car port at the front, small pool at the back), in a comfortable suburb of Cape Town, where Tutu was Archbishop for ten years, until 1996, and where, famously, on 9 May, 1994, on the Town Hall balcony, he ushered in the new South Africa and presented his country’s first freely elected president to a rapturous crowd: ‘This is the day of liberation.  This is the day of celebration.  We of many cultures, languages and races are become one nation.  We are the Rainbow People of God . . .  I ask you: welcome our brand-new State President, out of the box, Nelson Mandela!’

I have come to see Archbishop Tutu, Africa’s most persuasive orator, and, since 1975, when he became Dean of Johannesburg, the unquestioned moral force of the anti-apartheid movement, to talk, not of politics but of God.  It is Easter and my host – Nobel laureate, winner of every humanitarian honour imaginable, recipient of fifty-five honorary degrees – has been voted most inspiring church leader in the world.  

As we sit together at one end of his dining room table, beneath a small painting of the Last Supper, and I take out my notepad, he gently puts his hand on mind and says, almost in a whisper, ‘Let us say a prayer together.  Let us pray for God’s blessing on our conversation, and on your article, and on all the readers of the Sunday Telegraph – in Jesus’s name.  Amen.’

Our prayer done, the Archbishop – who was wearing full purple fig when I arrived, but has now changed into a loose black tee-shirt – leans towards me and chuckles, ‘If this is going to be my last interview, I am glad we are not going to talk about politics.  Let us talk about prayer and adoration, about faith – and hope – and forgiveness.’

First, however, we talk about death.  ‘When you have a potentially terminal disease,’ he says with a suitably beatific smile, ‘it concentrates the mind wonderfully.  It gives a new intensity to life.  You discover how many things you have taken for granted: the love of your spouse, the Beethoven symphony, the dew on the rose, the laughter on the face of your grandchild.’   At this exact moment, an enchanting six year-old, Naniso, the daughter of Mpoe, one of his own three daughters, skips through the room singing “Jingle Bells” and looking for an Easter egg.  She kisses her grandfather on the nose before dancing off.

‘When I die I will miss my family so much.  I will miss the rugby and the cricket and the soccer too.’

‘What will you be glad to leave behind?’

‘Personally?  Illness, exhaustion, the diminishment in one’s powers.  I will be glad too to say goodbye to hatred and war and injustice and oppression, to the long, ragged lines of refugees, to all the things that have scarred this beautiful planet.  I will be glad to be somewhere where you know accidents are not going to happen anymore.’

‘What do you think Heaven will be like?’

The Archbishop closes his eyes to ponder and spreads his palms out on the table.  ‘It will be spatially, temporally different, of course.  It is difficult for us to conceive an existence that is timeless, where you look at absolute beauty and goodness and you have no words.  It is enough just to be there.  You know how it is when you are sitting with someone you love and hours can go by in what seem like moments?   Well, in Heaven, eternity itself will pass in a flash.  In Heaven we will never tire.  We will never be bored because there will always be such new sides of God that will be revealed to us.’

‘Will there be people in heaven?’ I wonder.

He looks directly at me and grins.  ‘Oh, yes.  Heaven is community.  A solitary human being is a contradiction.  In Africa we say that a person is a person through other persons.  That’s why God gave Adam that delectable creature, Eve. ‘

‘Will we recognise them as people?’ 

He furrows his brow.  ‘I believe so, though what form or shape we’ll have in Heaven I don’t know.  Saint Paul tries explain it when he talks of “a spiritual body”.   It is a kind of oxymoron, but he is saying that in the next life we will be recognisably ourselves, but in an existence that is appropriate to Heaven.’

‘Who do you hope to see in Heaven?’ I ask.

‘I’d love to meet my parents again.  My father died in 1972 when I was teaching theology in Lesotho.  My mother died in 1984, the year we got the Nobel Peace Prize.  And then I have an older brother who died in infancy.  I’d love to meet him.  And I want to see my younger brother again.  He died as a baby, but I remember he had this engaging gurgle if you tickled him.’

‘Will he still be a baby.?’

‘I think so.  There are babies in heaven, definitely.  But no nappies.  It really is Heaven, you see.’  He is laughing again, rolling from side to side, his eyes shining, his right hand tickling the tummy of his imaginary baby brother.  ‘The little children will be very important in Heaven because they will be the ones asking those extraordinary questions that are so profound – “But, God, who made you?”’

Another explosion of wild laughter, near hysterical this time.  And then, once the wave has crashed onto the shore, a sudden calm.  ‘In Heaven,’ he whispers, ‘I would want to meet St Francis of Assisi.  And I would love to encounter Mary Magdalene because I think she is a gorgeous creature.  She was abused, you know.  I believe she was a prostitute, and yet she could love Our Lord so deeply, passionately, extravagantly.  She offered unconditional love, not for any utilitarian purpose, but for the sake of it.  Quite fantastic.

‘I’d also like to meet Origen.  He was an Alexandrian father, third century, one of the brighest minds of the early church.  I am drawn to him because he taught “universalism” which says that, ultimately, even the devil is going to be saved because no one is going to able to resist the attractions of the divine love.’

‘So Hitler and Stalin and those responsible for the Sharpeville massacre are going to find a place in Heaven?’

Archbishop Tutu narrows his eyes and smiles.  ‘The wonderful thing about God’s love is that maybe we are going to be surprised at the people we find in Heaven that we didn’t expect, and possibly we’ll be surprised at those we’d thought would be there and aren’t.   God has a particularly soft spot for sinners.  Remember, Jesus says there is greater joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine needing no repentance.  Ultimately it all hinges on one thing: our response to the divine invitation.   There is hope for us all.  God’s standards are quite low.  Think of the thief on the cross.  He has led a dissolute life.  He gets his come-uppance.  But all he has to say is “Please remember me” and that small spark of repentance is enough to get him an assurance that he will be in Heaven.’

I am thinking, ‘God can forgive, but can we honestly expect a mother to forgive the murderer of her child?’  I begin to say it, but the Archbishop – who chaired South Africa’s controversial Truth and Reconciliation Commission - is ahead of me. 

‘Forgiving is not easy.  Forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but, in my experience, it is a loss which liberates the victim.  Forgiving is not being sentimental.  And in forgiving, people are not being asked to forget.  At Dachau, the former concentration camp, they have a museum to commemorate what happened there.  Over the entrance are the words of the philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”’

‘When you get to Heaven,’ I ask, ‘ what do you think will happen when you come face to face with God?’

The Archbishop shrieks.  ‘Will I survive?  You remember Gerontius?  He longs to be in the presence of God and his guardian angel takes him to God and the moment he comes into the divine presence he cries out in anguish, “Take me away.”  In the blinding presence of holiness, who would survive?’

It is my turn to smile.  ‘I think you might,’ I say.

The Archbishop chuckles softly.  ‘So, God in God’s goodness tones down the wind for the shorn lamb. . .’

‘What would you ask God?’

‘A great deal,’ he says, earnestly.  ‘Why, God, did you make suffering so central to everything?  Why?  Why?  Why?’

‘Yes,’ I respond. ‘And what will his answer be?  Why does God seem to spit on Africa?’

The Archbishop sighs and takes a deep breath.  ‘God says, “I obviously had the choice of making all kinds of different worlds, but I wanted to make a world of creatures who would love me, who would choose to love me, and that would not have been the case if they had been automatons.  They had to have free will: they had to be free.  And this is how they have used their freedom . . .”’

‘Have you ever had doubts?’

‘No, not doubts, but I have been angry with God on quite a few occasions.  I remember I was chaplain at Fort Air university at a time when it was taken over by the apartheid government and the students who protested were expelled.  I went into the chapel and I wept at the altar.  I was so angry with God.  I said, “How can you sit there and do nothing in the face of such blatant injustice?”’

‘And what did God say?’

‘I’m afraid I didn’t give God the chance to reply.  I’ve had a few such moments.’  Another burst of laughter, another moment of calm.  ‘Can I say something about prayer?  Our trouble has been that we have thought of prayer as conversation, where we use words and ask God for things.  We forget that actually the heart of prayer is adoration – just being there with the beloved.  Most of us have had that experience where you sit with someone you are deeply fond of and you don’t have to use words, you seem to communicate at a level you didn’t know existed.  When you sit quietly with God, you will find the silence is a pregnant silence.  It is not the absence of noise.  It is something positive.’ 

‘Have you always been a Christian?’

‘My father was headmaster of a church primary school and my mother, although she was uneducated, was also a Christian.  I would have been about twelve when I met up with Trevor Huddleston [the English missionary, and later Bishop of Stepney, who went to South Africa in 1943] and went to live in Sophiatown in a hostel that the Community of the Resurrection was running.  I was nurtured by people like Trevor and, gradually, slowly, the flower opened up.  In 1946, when I was fourteen or fifteen, I went to hospital suffering with TB.  I got to the point where I was haemorrhaging and coughing up blood and I’d seen that most of the people who went through that stage died.  I remember going to the toilet and coughing up quite a bit of blood and – it sounds like bravado at this distance, but I said,’ – he speaks these words gently, lightly, imitating a child – ‘ “Well, God, if you mean that I’m going to die, it’s okay.  If not, it’s okay.”  I accepted God’s will.  And I really did have an extraordinary sense of peace from that moment on.’

‘What do you think now are your weaknesses, your frailties?’

The Archbishop beams at me.  ‘I have a very strong weakness for being liked.  I want to be popular.  I love to be loved.  One has enjoyed the limelight.  I am guilty of the sin of pride.  Sometimes I find it very difficult to be humble – that is why it is so good to have Leah.  She pulls me down a peg or two.  To her I’m not an archbishop with a Nobel prize: I’m just a not-very-good husband who likes gardens but won’t do any gardening.  Your family is there to do what your guardian angel is supposed to do: keep your ego manageable and remind you that you are just a man.  “Thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return”.’

Archbishop Tutu is one of the most celebrated and admired people of our time.  I ask him, ‘What has been the high point of your life on earth?’

He replies without hesitation: ‘The most gorgeous moment would be when I became a father for the first time, 14 April, 1956, when our only son, our Trevor, was born.  I was so proud and so happy.  It made me feel a little like God.’  He pauses and adds, slowly (it is the only time he is hesitant in our entire conversation), ‘And, later, with the way Trevor has lived his life, taking the wrong turns and causing pain and anguish, I have learnt something of the impotence God feels as he watches his children making the wrong choices.  Sometimes, in my own life as a father, I have felt very like God looking at us and thinking, “Whatever got me to create that lot?”’

Everywhere you look in the Archbishop’s home, in the living room, the dining room, his study, alongside the trophies, medals, certificates and awards, are framed photographs of his family, dozens of them.  ‘What is Trevor doing now?’ I ask.

‘He’s some sort of consultant.  He is a very gifted person, very charming, when he is sober.  He destroys himself, or seems to want to destroy himself, when he drinks.  He has been in trouble with the police.  But there we are.’

He looks at me, and blinks away the tears, and claps his hands.  ‘You can’t be so stingy as to give me only one moment in my life to remember?  Can’t I have another?’

‘Of course,’ I say, ‘as many as you like.’  The man is irresistible.

‘The day that Nelson Mandela was released from prison, after twenty-seven years.  He came to spend the night with us.  It was like a miracle.  In all the time of the struggle, it seemed there was no light at the end of the tunnel.  It was all gloom and darkness and then, suddenly, there he was.  This guy, who a few weeks before had been a terrorist, was a free man and the calls were coming in from all over the world, from the White House, from 10 Downing Street.  It would be easy to say those twenty-seven years were a shameful waste.  I don’t think so.  Those years and all the suffering they entailed were the fires of the furnace that tempered his steel, that removed the dross.  Perhaps without that suffering he would have been less able to be as compassionate and magnanimous as he turned out to be.  And that suffering on behalf of others gave him an authority and credibility that can be provided by nothing else in quite the same way. 

‘Of course, he is only a human being.  He has his failings.  As a speaker, he can be deadly dull, but, it’s a cliché to say so, he is a truly remarkable person.  And what he does show – and Mother Teresa and others have shown it too – is that the world that is supposed to be so cynical and hard is actually extraordinarily sensitive to goodness.  Nelson Mandela was not the leader of some mighty military machine or even a country with a powerful economy.  South Africa is hardly a blip on the screen.   He is famous the world over and people warm to him because he is good.’

And, of course, I have warmed to Archbishop Tutu for just the same reason.  I remind him that the purpose of my visit has been to collect an Easter message.  He laughs.  ‘You have travelled to the Dark Continent for an Easter message for your readers.  God has a great sense of humour.  Who in their right mind would have imagined South Africa to be an example of anything but awfulness?  We were destined for perdition and were plucked out of total annihilation.  God intends that others might look at us and take courage.  At the end of their conflicts, the warring groups around the world – in the Balkans and the Middle East, in Angola and the Congos – will sit down and work out how they will be able to live together amicably.  They will, I know it.  There will be peace on earth.  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ puts the issue beyond doubt: ultimately, goodness and laughter and peace and compassion and gentleness and forgiveness will have the last word.

‘Jesus says, “And when I am lifted up from the earth I shall draw everyone to myself”, as he hangs from His cross with out-flung arms, thrown out to clasp all, everyone and everything, in a cosmic embrace, so that all, everyone, everything, belongs.’

The Archbishop has finished his homily, but somehow he can sense that I am not wholly satisfied.   He smiles.  He recognises a lapsed Anglican when he sees one.  He leans towards me one last time and, in a voice barely above a whisper, says, ‘You are like so many, my friend.  You have everything, but, inside, you feel there is something missing: deep down, somewhere, it’s not quite okay.  Do not worry, do not feel troubled, do not be perplexed.  God loves you as you are – with your doubts, with your intellectual reservations, with your inability to make the leap of faith.  God says, “I made you, actually, and I made you as you are because I love you.  Don’t try to titivate yourself.  Just be you and know that I affirm you.  You are precious.  You matter enormously to me.  You matter as if you were the only human being and, you know something,”’ - he pauses for a moment and smiles a wonderful smile – ‘”I create only masterpieces.  I have no doubt at all about your worth.  You don’t have to do anything.  Your worth for me is intrinsic.  Please believe I love you.  You are not going to find ultimate satisfaction in anything out there because I made you like me.  As St Augustine says, ‘Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.’  I made you for a worshipping creature – and you have worshipped money and fame, I know it – but, ultimately, I am the only one worth worshipping.  I won’t let you go, my child.  I won’t give up on you - ever.  I won’t.  I will sit here like the father of the prodigal son, waiting.    Come back home, come back home to me, and our celebration will be mindboggling.’

A final, explosion of laughter and the Archbishop pushes back his chair and says, ‘Come, we will go outside and watch the sun falling on Table Mountain and smell the flowers together.  God is good, man, and he is waiting for you.’

Gyles Brandreth