Christ on Trial

How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement

by Rowan Williams

Archbishop of Canterbury

Archbishop Rowan Williams

Christ Church (Parish) Church

Westmorland Street at Charlotte, Fredericton

Facilitator: Canon Jim Irvine


“I know what you want.  You want a story that won’t surprise you.  That will confirm what you already know.  That won’t make you see higher or further or differently.  You want a flat story.  An immobile story.  You want dry, yeastless factuality.”

Pi in A Life of Pi, page 336



Mark: Voices at Midnight

Mark's account of the Trial

Master and Margarita - Bulgakov

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There is a Time for Truth


Matthew: Wisdom in Exile

Matthew's account of the Trial

Life of Pi - Yann Martel

Download PDF File 2


Luke: Knocking on the Window

Luke's account of the Trial

The Outsider - Albert Camus

Download PDF File 3


John: Home and Away

John's account of the Trial

The Trial - Franz Kafka


The Trial, by Franz Kafka • from Chapter Nine, In the Cathedral


‘Josef K!’

K. came to a halt and stared at the ground in front of him. For the moment he was still five, he could go on and make his escape through one of the three little dark wooden doors just in front of him. This would simply mean that he had not understood, or that he had understood but did not care about it. But once he turned round, he would be caught, for that would be tantamount to admitting that he had understood very well, that he really was the person who had been summoned and that he was also ready to obey. If the priest had called again, K. would certainly have gone on, but as everything remained quiet although he continued to wait, K. turned his head slightly to try to see what the priest was now doing. He was standing calmly in the pulpit as before, though it was clear he had seen K. turning his head. It would have been a childish game of hide‑and‑seek if K. had not turned round completely now. When he did so, the priest beckoned him nearer. Now that there was no need to prevaricate, K. ran – because he was curious and because he wanted to get the whole affair over – with long, flying strides towards the pulpit. He stopped at the first pews, but the priest seemed to think he was still too far away and stretched out his hand, pointing his forefinger steeply down at a spot right in front of the pulpit. K. went there, but once at that spot he had to bend his head a long way back so that he could still see the priest.

‘You are Josef K?’ the priest said, raising his hand from the balustrade in a vague movement.

‘Yes,’ K. said, and reflected how freely he always used to give his name and how for some tune it had been a burden to him. Now it was known even to people he was meeting for the first time, how nice it had been not to be known until we introduced oneself.

‘You are an accused man,’ the priest said very quietly.

‘Yes,’ said K, ‘so I’ve been informed.’

‘Then you are the man I’m looking for.’ said the priest. ‘I am the prison chaplain.’

‘Oh, are you?’ K. said.

‘I had you summoned here.’ said the priest, ‘to have a talk with you.’

‘I didn’t know that,’ said K. ‘I came here to show an Italian round the cathedral.’

‘Keep to the point.’ the priest said. ‘What’s that you have in your hand? Is it a prayer book?’

‘No,’ K. answered, ‘it’s in album of things worth seeing in the city.’

‘Put it down,’ said the priest. K. hurled it away so violently that it flew open and slid some way across the floor with the pages crumpled.

‘Do you know that your case is going badly?’ the priest asked.

‘That’s the impression I have too,’ said K. ‘I’ve taken as much trouble as I could, but so far without any success; though my petition isn’t ready yet.’

‘How do you think it’s going to end?’ asked die priest.

‘I used to think it was bound to end all right,’ said K, ‘but now I sometimes doubt it myself. I have no idea how it will end. Do you know?’

‘No,’ the priest said, ‘but I’m afraid it will end badly. You are considered to be guilty. Your case may not get beyond a lower Court at all. For the moment at least, your guilt a taken as proven.’

‘But I’m not guilty,’ said ‘It’s a mistake. How can a person be guilty at all? Surely we are all human beings here, one like the other.’

‘That is right,’ said the priest, ‘but that is the way the guilty are wont to talk.’

‘Are even you prejudiced against me?’ K. asked.

‘No. I’m not prejudiced against you,’ said the priest.

‘I’m grateful to you,’ K. said. ‘But everybody else who is concerned in these proceedings a prejudiced against me. They make even those who aren't involved prejudiced against me. My position is getting more difficult all the time.’

‘You are failing to understand the facts of the case,’ the priest said. ‘The verdict does not come all at once, the proceedings gradually merge into the verdict.’

‘So that’s how it is,’ K. said and let his head drop.

‘What do you plan to do next in your case?’ the priest asked.

‘I’m going to get some more help.’ K. said, raising his head to see what the priest thought of this. ‘There are still certain possibilities I haven’t made the most of.’

‘You ask for too much help from other people,’ the priest said disapprovingly, ‘especially women. Don’t you see that that is not the kind of help you need?’

‘Sometimes, even frequently, I would admit you’re right.’ said K. ‘But not always. Women have great power. If I could get some of the women I know to join together in working for me, I would be bound to win through. Especially with this Court, where they’re practically all women‑chasers. You only have to show the Examining Magistrate a woman in the distance and he will knock over the table and the defendant to get to her before she disappears! The priest leant his head over the balustrade as if the canopy of the pulpit were oppressing him now for the first time. What sort of bad weather might there be outside? It wasn’t dull daylight any more, it was already pitch‑dark. Even the faintest glimmer from the stained glass in the big windows could not pierce the dark will. And the verger chose this of all moments to start putting out the candles on the high altar, one by one.

‘Are you angry with me?’ K. asked the priest. ‘Perhaps you don’t realize the kind of Court you’re serving?’ He got no answer. ‘I’m only telling you what I’ve experienced,’ K. said. There was still no answer from up above. ‘I didn’t mean to offend you,’ said K. Then the priest shrieked down at K:

‘Can’t you see what is just in front of your nose!’ It was a howl of anger, but at the same time it sounded like the cry of someone who sees another person fall and, because he is frightened himself, screams unwarily, involuntarily.

Neither said anything for a long time. It was so dark beneath the pulpit that now the priest certainly could not make K. out distinctly, whereas K. could see him clearly by the light of the little lamp. Why did the priest not come down? He had not given a sermon, of course, but had only told K. a few things that would probably do him more harm than good if he paid dose heed to them Yet it seemed to K. that the priest undoubtedly meant well; it was not outside the bounds of possibility that, if he came down, they might come to some agreement, it was not impossible that K. might get crucial and acceptable advice from him which might, for example, show him not just how to influence the course of the case, but how to break away from it, how to avoid it altogether and live beyond the reach of the Court. There must be a possibility of this, recently K. had often thought about it. And if the priest knew of such a possibility, perhaps, if one begged him, he might reveal it, though he belonged to the Court himself and though he had suppressed his gentle nature and had shouted at K. as soon as K. had attacked the Court.

‘Won’t you come down?’ said K. ‘You don’t have to preach a sermon. Join me down here.’

Now I can come down,’ the priest said, perhaps regretting that he had shouted. As he detached the lamp from its hook, he said:

‘First of all I had to speak to you from a distance. Otherwise I am too easily influenced and then I forget what I ought to be doing.’

K. waited for him at the bottom of the steps. While he was still coming down, the priest stretched out his hand towards K. from one of the topmost steps.

‘Can you spare me a little time?’ K. asked.

‘As much as you need,’ the priest said and handed him the little lamp to carry. Even now that he was dose, he did not lose a certain air of solemnity.

‘You’re being very kind to me,’ K. said as they walked side by side up and down the dark aisle. ‘You’re an exception amongst those who belong to the Court. I trust you more than any of them, though I’ve got to know a lot of them I can speak freely to you.’

‘Don’t delude yourself,’ said the priest.

‘How am I supposed to be deluding myself?’ K. asked.

‘You’re deluding yourself about the Court,’ the priest said. ‘In the writings which preface the Law it says about this delusion: before the Law stands a door‑keeper. A man from the country comes up to this door‑keeper and begs for admission to the Law. But the door‑keeper tells him that he cannot grant him admission now. The man ponders this and then asks if he will be allowed to enter later. “Possibly,” the door‑keeper says, “but not now.” Since the door leading to the Law is standing open as always and the door‑keeper steps aside, the man bends down to look inside through the door. Seeing this, the door‑keeper laughs and says: “If it attracts you so much, go on and try to get in without my permission. But you must realize that I am powerful. And I’m only the lowest door‑keeper. At every hall there is another doorkeeper, each one more powerful than the last. Even I cannot bear to look at the third one.” The man from the country had not expected difficulties like this, for, he thinks, the Law is surely supposed to be accessible to everyone always, but when he looks more closely at the door‑keeper in his fur coat, with his great sharp nose and his long, thin black Tartar beard, he decides it is better to wait until he receives permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down to one side of the door. There he sits, day after day, and year after year. Many times he tries to get in and wears the door‑keeper out with his appeals. At times the door‑keeper conducts little cross‑examinations, asking him about his home and many other things, but they are impersonal questions, the sort great men ask, and the door‑keeper always ends up by saying that he cannot let him in yet. The man from the country, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, makes use of everything he has, however valuable, to bribe the door‑keeper, who, it’s true, accepts it all, saying as he takes each thing: “I am only accepting this so that you won’t believe you have left something untried.”

‘During all these long years, the man watches the door‑keeper almost continuously. He forgets the other door‑keepers, this first one seems to be the only obstacle between him and admission to the Law. In the first years he curses this piece of ill‑luck aloud, and later when he gets old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since he has been scrutinizing the doorkeeper so closely for years that he can identify even the fleas in die door‑keeper’s fur collar, he begs these fleas to help him to change the door‑keeper’s mind. In the end his eyes grow dim and he cannot tell whether it is really getting darker around him or whether it is just his eyes deceiving him. But now he glimpses in the darkness a radiance glowing inextinguishably from the door of the Law. He is not going to live much longer now. Before he dies all his experiences during the whole period of waiting merge in his head into one single question, which he has not yet asked the door‑keeper. As he can no longer raise his stiffening body, he beckons the man over. The door‑keeper has to bend down low to him, for the difference in size between them has changed very much to the man's disadvantage.

‘“What is it you want to know now then?” asks the doorkeeper. “You're insatiable.” “All men are intent on the Law,” says the man, “but why is it that in all these many years no one other than myself has asked to enter?” The door‑keeper realizes that the man is nearing his end and that his hearing is fading, and in order to make himself heard he bellows at him: “No one else could gain admission here, because this door was intended only for you. I shall now go and close it.”’

‘Then the door‑keeper deceived the man,’ said K. immediately, very strongly attracted by the story.

‘Don’t be too hasty,’ said the priest. ‘Don’t accept someone else’s opinion without testing it. I’ve told you the story exactly as it’s written. It doesn’t say anything about deception.’

‘But it’s obvious,’ K. said, ‘and your first interpretation was quite correct. The door‑keeper did am give the message of salvation till it could no longer help the man.’

‘He wasn’t asked until then,’ said the priest. ‘And remember, he was only a door‑keeper and a such fulfilled his duty.’

‘Why do you think that he fulfilled his duty?’ K. asked. ‘He didn’t fulfil it. It might have been his duty to turn away all strangers, but the entrance was intended for this man and he should have let him in.’

‘You don’t show enough respect for what is written, and you’re changing the story,’ the priest said. ‘The story contains two important statements by the door‑keeper about admission to the Law – one at the beginning and one at the end. In one place it says that he cannot grant the man admission now, and in the other it says that this entrance was intended only for the man. If there were any contradiction between these two statements you would be right and the door‑keeper would have deceived the man. But there isn’t any contradiction. On the contrary, the first statement actually implies the second. One might almost say that the door‑keeper exceeded his duty in holding out to the man the prospect of perhaps being admitted some time in the future. The door‑keeper’s duty seems to have consisted at that time solely in turning the man away, and in fact many commentators have been surprised that the door‑keeper gave any hint at all of such a prospect, since he seems to be a stickler for precision and very jealous of his office. During all those years he never leaves his post and does not shut the door completely, until the very last moment, he is very conscious of die importance of his work, for he says, “I am powerful,” and he has respect for his superiors, for he says, “I am only the lowest door‑keeper.” He is not over‑talkative, for the story says that, throughout the many yens, he asks only “impersonal questions”. Nor can he be bribed, for when he takes a gift he says, “I am only this so that you won’t believe you have left something untried.” Where it is a question of fulfilling his duty, he can be moved neither to resentment nor pity, for the story say that the man “wears the door‑keeper out with his appeals”. And finally even his external appearance hints at a pedantic nature, the big pointed nose and the long, thin black Tartar beard. Could you have a more conscientious door‑keeper? But the door‑keeper’s character is compounded of other elements which, tend to favour considerably someone seeking admission and which nevertheless make it understandable enough that he might exceed his duty somewhat by suggesting the possibility of admission in the future. For it’s undeniable that he’s a little simple‑minded and therefore a little conceited as well. Even if his remarks about his power and the power of the other door‑keepers and about how even he can’t bear to behold them – I maintain that even if they are essentially true, the way he comes out with these remarks shows that his interpretation is clouded by both simplemindedness and arrogance. Commentators say: “The correct interpretation of a certain subject and misunderstanding of the same subject do not wholly exclude each other.” At any rate it must be assumed that that simple‑mindedness and arrogance, in whatever trivial way they may manifest themselves, are defects in the door‑keeper’s character and do indeed weaken his guardianship of the entrance. One must also add that the door‑keeper seems by nature to be friendly, and by no means always does he play the official. In the very first moments we notice that he jokingly invites the man to enter, despite the rigorously maintained prohibition on entry, and then he doesn’t, for example, send him away but gives him, we are told, a stool and lets him sit to one side of the door. The patience with which he puts up with the man’s appeals over all those years, the little cross-examinations, the acceptance of gifts, the gracious way he allows the man to curse aloud right near him the unlucky chance that has posted the door‑keeper before the door – all this implies that he feels sympathy. Not every door‑keeper would have acted like that. And in the end, when the man beckons to him, he bends down low to give him a chance to ask that one last question. And in his words “You’re insatiable” there is merely a slight hint of impatience, for the door‑keeper knows that the end a near. Many people go even further in this kind of exegesis and hold that the words “You're insatiable” imply a sort of friendly admiration tinged, though, with condescension. At any rate the door‑keeper’s character emerges differently from the way you see it!’

‘You know the story in more detail dim I do, and you’ve known it longer,’ K. said. They were both silent for a while. Then K. said:

‘So you don’t believe the man was deceived?’

‘Don’t misunderstand me,’ the priest said, ‘I’m only telling you the different opinions there are about it. You mustn’t pay too much attention to them. The scripture is unalterable and the opinions are often merely an expression of despair on the part of the commentators. In this case one opinion even has it that it is the door‑keeper himself who is deceived.’

‘That’s going a bit far, isn’t it?’ K. said. ‘What’s the evidence for that?’

The evidence for that,’ answered the priest, ‘is based on the premise of the door‑keeper’s simple‑mindednes.  It’s argued that he doesn’t know the inner world of the Law. He only knows the path to it, and the entrance to that path which he has constantly to patrol. The ideas he has of that inner world are felt to be childish. and it’s thought that he himself fears what he aim to make the man afraid of. Yes, he fears it even more dud the man. for the man wants nothing else except to enter, even when he has heard about the terrible door‑keepers inside, whereas the door‑keeper doesn’t want to enter – at least we don’t hear that he does. Other people, tea true, say that he must have already been inside. since, after all, once upon a time he was recruited to the service of the Law and that, they say, can only have happened inside. The answer to that is that he might well have been appointed to the post of door‑keeper by someone calling from inside, and that, he could not have been right inside anyway, since he could not bear the sight of even the third door‑keeper. Moreover, there is no report that in all those years he ever sod anything about the inside, except for his remark about the door‑keepers. He might have been forbidden to do so, but there is no mention of that either. All this implies. that he doesn’t know anything about the appearance or the significance of the inside, and so he is deluding himself. He is even misled, some people argue, about the man from the country, for he is subordinate to this man and does not know it. You should still be able to remember many things that show he treats the man from the country as his subordinate. But, according to this version of the story, it is perfectly clear that it is, in fact, he who is subordinate. First and foremost, a free man is superior to one who is bound. Now the man from the country is actually free, he can go wherever he wants, it is only entry to the Law that is forbidden him, and then only by one individual, the door‑keeper. If he sits on a stool beside the door and stays there for‑the rest of his life, this is a voluntary action, the story says nothing about compulsion. The door‑keeper, on the other hand, is duty‑bound to stay at his post, he may not go out into the country, nor apparently is he allowed to go into the interior of the Law, even if he wanted to. What is more, he is, it’s true, in the service of the Law, yet he serves only this entrance, and therefore only this man, for whom alone this entrance is intended. For this reason, too, he is subordinate to the man. It must be assumed that, for many years, for the length of time it takes a man to reach maturity, his duty was in a way an empty one, for it is said that a man comes, that is a fully grown man, and that therefore the door‑keeper had to wait a Iwo duo before the purpose of his service was fulfilled, and indeed he even had to wait till it pleased the man to come, for the man came of his own free will. But there is also the fact that his service ends only when the man is dead, and so the door‑keeper remains subject to him until the very end. And it is stressed all the time that the door‑keeper seems to be unaware of all this. But there’s nothing remarkable about that, for according to this interpretation the doorkeeper is labouring under a much more serious delusion concerning his own duties.

At the end, talking about the door, he says, “I shall now go and shut it,” but at the beginning we are told that the door to the Law is standing open as always, but if it’s always open, that is to say independently of the life‑span of the man for whom it is intended, then it must be impossible for the door‑keeper to close it. Opinions differ about whether the door‑keeper, in announcing that he is going to shut the door, is merely giving an answer, or is seeking to underline his official duty, or simply wants to cause the man sadness and remorse in his last moments. But many people are agreed that it will not be possible for him to close the door. They even believe that, at least at the very end, he is also subordinate to the man in the matter of knowledge, for the man from the country sees the radiance coming from die entrance to the Law, while the door‑keeper, in his official capacity, presumably has to stand with his back to the entrance and, moreover, gives no indication that he has noticed any change.’

‘That is soundly argued,’ said K, who had repeated to himself in a low voice individual parts of the priest’s explanation. ‘It is soundly argued, and I now believe too that the door‑keeper is under a delusion, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve abandoned my earlier opinion, for to some extent the two opinions overlap. It makes no difference whether the door‑keeper can see clearly or is under an illusion. I said the man was deceived. If the door-keeper sees things clearly, there might be some doubts about that, but if the door‑keeper is under an illusion, his illusion must necessarily be communicated to the man. In that case the doorkeeper is not, it is true, a deceiver, but he is so simple‑minded that he ought to be dismissed from his office immediately. You must remember that the delusion under which the door‑keeper labours doesn’t hurt him, but it does infinite damage to the man.’

‘There’s a contrary opinion to be mentioned there,’ the priest said. ‘Many people say, you see, that the story gives no one die right to pass judgement on the door‑keeper. Whatever we may think of him, he is a servant of the Law, and therefore belongs to the Law, and that places him beyond human judgement Nor should one, therefore, believe that the door‑keeper is subordinate to the man. To be bound by one’s office, even if that only means guarding the entrance to the Law, is incomparably more important than to live at liberty out in the world. The man is only coming to the Law, the door‑keeper is already there. He has been appointed by the Law, and to doubt his worthiness would be to doubt the Law.’

‘I don’t agree with that point of view,’ K. said, shaking his head, ‘for if one does subscribe to it, one has to accept everything the door‑keeper says as true. Yet that isn’t possible, as you’ve shown very clearly yourself.’

‘No,’ the priest replied, ‘one doesn’t have to accept everything as true, one only has to accept it as necessary.

‘What a gloomy point of view,’ K. said ‘The lie has become the order of the world.

K. said this definitively, but it was not his final judgement. He, was too weary to be able to grasp all the implications of the story, and he was unaccustomed to the train of thought into which it led him; they seemed unreal things which could be more appropriately discussed by a clique of Court official than by him. The basic story had become shapeless and he wanted to cut it from his mind. The priest, who now showed great tactfulness, tolerated this and accepted K’s remark in silence, though K’s opinion certainly did not agree with his own.

They walked on for a time in silence, K. kept close to the priest without knowing where they were. The torch he was holding had long since gone out. Once the silver statue of a saint shone directly in front of him, but only with the gleam of its own silver, and then immediately vanished into the darkness. In order not to be completely dependent on the priest, K. asked him:

‘Aren’t we near the main entrance now?’

‘No,’ said the priest, ‘were a long way away. Do you want to go now?’ Although at that particular moment he had not been thinking of leaving, K. said at once:

‘Yes, of course I have to go. I’m Senior Clerk at a bank and they’re expecting me there. I only came to show a business friend from abroad round the cathedral.’

‘Well,’ the priest said, and held out his hand to K, ‘then go.’

‘I don’t think I can find my way alone in the dark,’ K. said.

‘Go to the wall on your left,’ said the priest. ‘Then keep along that wall, don’t leave it, and you'll find a door.’ The priest had only taken a step or two away from him, but K. shouted very loudly:

‘Wait, please, just a moment !’

‘I'm waiting,’ said the priest.

‘Don’t you want anything more from me?’ K. asked.

‘No,’ said the priest.

‘You were being so kind to me earlier,’ K. said, ‘and you were explaining everything to me, but now you’re sending me off as if you weren’t interested in me.’

‘But you have to go,’ said the priest.

‘Well yes,’ K. said, ‘you must understand that.’

‘But you must first understand who I am,’ said the priest.

‘You’re the prison chaplain,’ K. said, moving closer to the priest. His immediate return to the bank was not as necessary as he had made out, he could perfectly well stay here a little longer.

‘Therefore I belong to the Court,’ the priest said. ‘So why should I want anything from you? The Court doesn’t want anything from you. It receives you when you come, and it dismisses you when you go.’


The Trial by Franz Kafka

Picador Translation 1977 by Douglas Scott and Chris Walker

Copyright © Pan Books Ltd 1977

ISBN 0 330 24468 X


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Our Witness: Believers on Trial

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Koelz - Thou Shalt Not Kill

Ashes to Easter

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