Skip to content

Good Letters

Giotto, Kiss of Judas

“Why did you choose to write about betrayal?” my dissertation director asked.

To this question, posed on a mid-afternoon one week after defending my dissertation, I had no answers left to offer. My exhaustion was total, and at some point in the process of researching and writing about the prefiguration of Judas and Peter in English Renaissance lyric poetry, I’d forgotten that I had a reason for doing any of this at all.

If I’d been more self-aware or more honest, I might have told my advisor that betrayal has been a catalyst for my belief since childhood because it is the language that often accompanies one of the Eucharistic prayers at the Catholic Mass: “On the night he was betrayed.” As with many of the repeated words and practices of my faith, the phrase burrowed into my being and shaped part of my orientation within and toward the world.

After graduation, I pursued a full-time, tenure-track university position, applying for every job calling for a specialist in Renaissance literature. There were years I came close, and there were years of total silence. Like so many friends and colleagues, I teach as an adjunct with inadequate wages and teaching responsibilities that prevent maintaining an active research agenda. I’ve been more fortunate than others; my husband has a steady job and health insurance, and I benefit from both. Despite these undeniable advantages, though, my confidence in my mind, my thinking, and my writing—the pillars upon which I had constructed my sense of self—has eroded. Through these desert years, my advisor’s question surfaces in my mind with increasing urgency. Repeatedly failing to secure a full-time work, I think cynically to myself, “They won’t let you teach betrayal, but you can live it.”

My confidence in my mind, my thinking, and my writing—the pillars upon which I had constructed my sense of self—has eroded.

I decided to stop the pursuit of a tenure-track academic job several years ago. Around the same time I made this decision, I discovered W.H. Vanstone’s The Stature of Waiting, a reexamination of Jesus’ response to Judas’ betrayal in the context of our modern lives.

There are times when you read a book and times a book reads you, when your encounter with the text dovetails snugly with the life you are living. That was my experience of The Stature of Waiting.     

Vanstone begins with a deep dive into the Greek verbs that describe Jesus’ activity in the Gospels and Judas’ action toward Jesus. Unless you’ve already spent time with the Greek text, his findings are revelatory. Following his betrayal, Jesus nearly ceases to be the subject of verbs; he becomes the object. This passivity is a direct result of betrayal, though the word “betrayed” might better be translated as “handed-over.”

That subtle shift, from betraying to handing-over, opens a space in which we might focus more on Jesus’ response and less on Judas’ act. Jesus’ position is no longer totally degrading; he exhibits a posture toward his betrayal. And that posture is the stature of waiting. It is a paradoxical stature, passive and yet radically active in love. It is this stature that is uniquely available to us as humans so often rendered passive by being handed-over by political, technological, biological, and institutional forces that are beyond our control. From this position, we are, Vanstone writes:

“handed over to the world, to wait upon it, to receive its power of meaning: to be one upon whom the world bears in all its variety and intensity of meaning: to receive upon his [sic] transforming consciousness no mere photographic imprint of the world but its wonder and terror, its vastness and delicacy, its beauty and squalor, its good and evil.”

Reading Vanstone, I found myself crying. I had also written about betrayal as a handing-over, but I didn’t have the language or even the experience to understand why I cared about this point of language. In Vanstone’s example of a God who is handed over, I found a way to articulate my degradation and diminished sense of myself, which stemmed from my inability to articulate my own course of action and identity. Vanstone proposes that these times of imposed inaction, of waiting, are as important as the times of action.

So why write about betrayal now? Not because I want to redeem Judas or Peter. I will write about betrayal because I am trying to find myself in a church that I love but that has repeatedly betrayed its members; in academic institutions that have squandered the riches of a generation of scholars; in a cultural climate that disparages the marginalized and scapegoats the vulnerable. I’ll write while I wait, witnessing all those rendered passive and without agency on the way to resurrection.

Image depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

+ Click here to make a donation.

+ Click here to subscribe to Image.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Elise Lonich Ryan

Elise Lonich Ryan has a PhD in English Renaissance literature from Indiana University, Bloomington. She is a part-time instructor of literature at the University of Pittsburgh and is currently working on a series of essays about error, betrayal, language, and faith. She’s written for Exemplaria: Medieval, Early Modern, Theory; Ways: A Theology Zine, and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

If you like Image, you’ll love ImageUpdate.

Subscribe to our free newsletter here: