Think about conversion, a spiritual or ethical change of heart. Can real change take place without a certain unrehearsed contrition, an artlessness that throws the soul off balance as transforming grace sweeps in? Can conversion take hold without touching the sacred?
In the German political thriller The Lives of Others, one achingly poignant scene shows GDR Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler slipping into the bugged apartment of a playwright under suspicion for disloyalty to the government. For weeks, the lonely, friendless Wiesler—wedded body and soul to the brutal Socialism that was East Germany—has been listening in remotely to the most intimate details of the love affair between this writer and his lover, a talented but insecure actress. As the agent plays government-sanctioned voyeur to absorb the couple’s unfiltered life, he becomes progressively beguiled, wooed from his cold political ideology into the world of the playwright; his fine artistic mind, his political courage, and an ardent love for his beautiful, but weaker-minded companion.
In this pivotal scene, we see Wiesler wandering from room to room, coming across items that are part of the couple’s life together and now mean something to Wiesler as well; a joke gift, certain books, sheet music he’s heard Georg play while Christa-Maria listens. He pockets a volume of poems and is later seen reading Bertolt Brecht’s love poem, "Memory of Marie A," apparently moved by its beauty. He finally arrives at the bedroom, the culminating shrine of the pilgrimage. There he kneels to stroke the bed, symbol of the holiness of human connection he lives only vicariously through the romance of these others. In contrast to his usual rigid, autocratic persona, Wiesler hesitates, barely daring to run his hand along the corner of the mattress and trace the creases of the rumpled bed sheets, taking his time to touch this sacred thing. He becomes disarmingly wretched, shy, and this is as it should be. Breaking from self-delusion to embrace the highest and best within us must almost by necessity be both enthralling and frightening. Wiesler moves through the moment with the innocence of a child on his face, and is transformed. Afterward, there is no going back.
To touch the sacred isn’t usually graceful. Think of Saul of Tarsus. I think of Christ’s words that unless I become like a little child, I might never discover what the Kingdom of Heaven actually is.