An interview: Remembering Dorothy Day (part 2)

(continuing from part one: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2007/04/21/ddremembered/)

Ro: Now, do you know Russian?

Jim: No, not at all. Just the most basic words and phrases.

Ro: How can you talk…

Jim: I’ve been very lucky. I’ve always had at least one good translator working with me, somebody who was both excellent and interesting. If it’s somebody who is on the same beam, then you can really do something.

You know, earlier this evening, we were talking about this novel, Time and Again, by Jack Finney, an American wrier. I recently read it and enjoyed it quite a bit. I thought it was a special book. One of the things that I found most interesting about it was that, having managed to get back into the 1880’s from the 1970’s, the hero becomes immediately aware there is something different about people. And it’s not just because of clothes or other superficial differences. But there is something attitudinal. Something in their eyes. Something in their manner which is different. He’s able to go back and forth from the 1970’s and 1880’s so he goes back a second time. And he is now looking more attentively, contrasting these familiar faces of the 1970’s with these newly discovered faces of the 1880’s. I don’t even want to try and paraphrase what he says, but it boils down to the idea that there’s a sense of purpose in their lives. And that’s missing in our culture. We have drifted into… we can’t even imagine what it would be like to have a sense of purpose. Our purpose… of course, we have minor purposes, but they are so minor and they are so transitory and so rootless. Those people …and a lot of their purposes were ridiculous. But there was a sense of um… deep roots and also of something bursting out of the ground from those roots. And I think… I have a feeling that that’s not nearly as common now as it was. And that one of the main purposes people like… well, people in any kind of communicating vocation, whether it be a priest or writer or homemaker or whatever, um… teacher, is to give people the courage. Because it’s there. I mean it’s not as if we have to invent anything. There is nothing we have to invent. Nothing. But to just give people that courage to not be embarrassed about this purpose being in their lives. To let it work. Not to sit on it, and not to try to destroy it.

Ro: So apply that to your writing the book, the journey you are on.

Jim: Well, of course, this book was a chance to… I mean writing the book on Dorothy Day, I was able to try to open some doors. I’m not interested in biography as an end in itself. I was interested in Dorothy’s life for the same reason Dorothy was interested in living her life. You know. And I wanted to do the book in a way that would make Dorothy accessible and make her values burning questions without pointing a finger at the reader. Just to try to create a space in which the reader could say, “Oh yes! Oh yes! That’s not just for her. That has something for me, too.”

To write a book about the Russian Orthodox Church is to be dealing also with a very interesting subject and writing a kind of biography based on people that you meet and experiences that you have.

Ro: What did the process do to you?

Jim: You know, it gave me permission to open up more spaces inside of myself that I had been embarrassed about. You know, some people talk about our coming out of the closet as gay people, but I think most of us are far more embarrassed to come out of the closet as spiritual people. As praying people. As believing people. To let that happen in our lives is far more embarrassing than anything else we can think of. It’s so out of tune with the segment of society we happen to be in … That’s what I mean when I say to experience the Catholic Worker as a commitment.

An analogy: We would go up once a week to the Civil Defense Headquarters on Lexington Avenue and hand out leaflets criticizing civil defense. This was one of the little hobbies of the Catholic Worker community for awhile. And as you know, it had quite some significance finally. We were totally unaware that it might ever have any significance at all. To us it just seemed like something that was… you know, it was like going to Mass on Sunday for a lot of Catholics. We just did it.

Ro: Now they go up to the Riverside Defense Research Center.

Jim: Yes. You do this. It’s just part of the life you lead. And that’s great. Just to have certain things you do, no matter how unpromising they may seem.

Ro: So that’s how a lot of people think of the liturgy.

Jim: Right. It’s a completely ridiculous activity. From the point of view of a lot of people, you couldn’t do anything that’s more useless than that. It’s the ultimate absurd activity.

Well, we would go up and hand out these leaflets and because we were on, let’s say, Lexington Avenue, people would come in waves because of the light system. So you wouldn’t get a constant flow of people or people that were more or less even. Anybody who hands out leaflets under those circumstances quickly notices after a while that what that particular wave now coming your way is going to do will depend almost always on what the first person in that group does. Now these are a bunch of strangers. They have absolutely no connection with each other. They are simply walking down the street, grouped together by the traffic lights. But their response will depend on whoever happens to be near the front. The response of the man in front — it’s almost always a man — becomes the response of those who happen to be following him.

Ever since that leafleting experience, I’ve been very attentive to seeing how people behave in group situations. It’s something basic in us. We are basically social beings, and there are lots of proofs of it. Some of the proofs are delightful, and some are humiliating. But we are very much connected to each other. We really are. Our behavior is connected. And what we do, even spontaneously and with complete strangers, has to do with this truth about ourselves.

To make the analogy to the spiritual life… Here we are living in a time where in front of every bunch of people we have leaders who are not getting down on their knees, in any sense of the word. To be a believing person is to be exceptional in our world.

I remember being distressed by a phrase Merton used as the title of a book of his that was never published, Peace in the Post-Christian Era. In fact it was a very realistic title. And it’s an important thing to realize. We live in a post-Christian world. That’s where we live. We might as well own up to that reality and that Christian activity and Christian belief are not normal. It’s not even normal among Christians, not to say among everybody else. And we are, in many ways, constantly trying to conform ourselves to the people at the front of the crowd — at least so that our religious activities aren’t too ridiculous and too embarrassing and too isolating.

I think the amazing thing about somebody like Dorothy Day is that she simply wasn’t impressed by that at all. She worked through that and found the place where she would be free to be a believer. And when you are with one of those people, then, you know, it kind of hits you pretty hard. You know the story about the criminal who escaped from some prison in Tennessee, and happened to make his way to this home of this elderly couple. He had a gun, and he was coming into the house and threatening this elderly couple. And the old woman, a woman in her seventies, said, “Now you put that gun right down. Take off those socks.” His feet were soaked. “And sit down, and we will have some breakfast.”

When I heard it, I thought right away, “This is a Dorothy Day type.” Dorothy would do that. And it wouldn’t be any kind of play acting. She would be free to do that. She wouldn’t be so busy being afraid that she wouldn’t be unable to receive somebody or concern herself with their hunger or their wet socks. Then , to continue the story, as breakfast is put on the table, the lady says, “Let us pray. Do you want to lead the prayer?” she says to this guy.

“I don’t know what to say, ma’am.”

“Oh,” she said, “Just say, Jesus wept.”

Afterward a reporter asked her, “Why did you say that?”

“Well,” she said, “It was a short prayer.”

You have to start somewhere.

Ro: Well, if we’re not a spiritual people and we’re lemmings, that seems to call for a leader. Dorothy was such a leader for you, and Thomas Merton, too. Do you see a leader now that could possibly make these connections? That could get the…

Jim: In a way I guess they are non-leaders or anti-leaders. They are important figures in a way partly because they don’t try to take over the direction of anybody’s life.

Now right now, because of my interest in the Russian Orthodox people and the church and it’s tradition, I’m very interested in their tradition of staretz or startsi. Staretz literally means “elder.” But it has a very special use. It mean essentially somebody who is able to give spiritual direction. Almost always, it’s some elderly man or woman. One of them was a woman who lived in Leningrad in the twenties or thirties and probably will be canonized this summer at the Church Council at Holy Trinity Monastery. The Russian Orthodox Church has it’s first council in many years this summer at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, north of Moscow.

Father Zosima in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov is modeled on a particular monk, Fr. Amvrosy, who lived in the 19th century at the Optima Pustin Monastery. We see him as a staretz. They are people who are able to give you permission to do something. To make you feel you have that capacity to do something, whatever it is. And who also are able to make you see your purpose, maybe, or to cut some knots that are holding you back. There may be something, which they can see very quickly, which you would never see or perhaps would take many years to discover.

Ro: Well, now spiritual direction used to be just sort of an “in thing.” If you were going to be advancing in your spiritual life in the fifties, that’s what you did.

Jim: Right. And it was still around when I came to the Catholic Worker.

Ro: Do you know many people that are in spiritual direction now?

Jim: Very few. I had the experience of going with Henri Nouwen one time to a little village in the southeastern part of the Netherlands. An old priest lives there who did the translation into Dutch of John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila. Henry is a great admirer of this priest. He went to him for confession. When he got back, he said, “I’m the first man who has been to him in seven years for confession.” You know, that’s where we are. It’s like you have these people who are living oases. And…and nobody’s using them. That’s sad. That’s the problem.

Ro: But you don’t see this happening in the Russian Orthodox…

Jim: No. I was staggered last week when a priest I know, Father Georgi, told me that far from being rare, these startsi are still around.

Ro: And people take advantage of them and go to them?

Jim: Yes! Oh heavens, yes.

Ro: And aren’t afraid?

Jim: Not at all. He said you can go into many parishes and ask who is the staretz and you will be told. Some are famous, and people will travel long distances to see them. I’m not saying that they are all famous. But then, who cares?

The great saints in the Russian Orthodox Church are usually local saints. I mean the saints that you will hear about, that are most interesting in a particular household.

Ro: That certainly used to be true in continental Europe.

Jim: The local feast would be very important. Well, I guess one of the things that I see happening in the spiritual life of the world is that from Vatican II we are going, as Catholics, into a new and much more profound ecumenism than we ever imagined. And it’s going to mean the discovery of Orthodoxy. We have, for a thousand years, forgotten we have brothers and sisters who are Christians in the Orthodox church. They have been taking care of something for us that we desperately need. And we have the privilege to live at that time where we can discover and bring something of it into us. It’s not a question of abandoning, but the question of rejoining something that has been a broken connection.

Ro: Rediscovering maybe?

Jim: There’s a story told about one of the senior dons a college at Oxford or Cambridge deciding that they would have to replace the oak beams in the dining hall. It’s this ancient magnificent hall with these big oak beams that go up far into the sky above their heads… gorgeous things. But they are five hundred years old, and will not last much longer. They discover, after doing some research, that the college owns a forest where there are ancient oak trees. It’s hard to find oak trees that would be tall enough to cut the beams needed. They send somebody up to talk to the warden of the forest. And he said, “Well, yes. We have been wondering. My father and my father’s father always were expecting somebody to come to ask. Because for five hundred years we’ve been taking care of certain oak trees precisely for this purpose. They’re here. And they’re ready.”

I think the Orthodox church is a bit like that. It’s been taking care of certain oak trees for two thousand years.

Ro: And yet, to throw the cold light of church history on it, obviously, the parting of the ways was very political. They didn’t just say, “Well, we’ll take care of everything for you until you decide to get back together.

Jim: Oh, no, no. But I think one just has to see something of God’s providence at work. And of course one of the great ironies of the whole thing is that the largest the Orthodox churches in the world, is the Russian Orthodox Church — which we in the West hardly know exists, and don’t even want to know exists, because it complicates our view of the Soviet Union. It gets in the way of the enmity that we are involved with — perceiving these people as fellow Christians.

Ro: The words my Dad always used were “Godless Russians.”

Jim: Right.

Ro: Well, can you relate what you’re doing in this journey with the Russian Orthodox Church and show what this means?

Jim: I think… the funny thing is that we’ve spoken for years about a peace movement but it… in many ways it wasn’t a peace movement…

To quite some extent we’re complacent. We’re not dealing very effectively with the forces in our society which push us to go forth. We don’t know what those forces are. We haven’t been contemplative enough to discover them. We know that something is rotten. We know that. We know that what our governments are doing is absolutely wretched. That’s clear enough to see. We know that selfishness is the driving force in our society. We know that we don’t want to have the live our lives that way. We’ve got plenty of things to complain about. And we’re absolutely right.

Ro: But you’re not seeing capitalism per se as the evoker?

Jim: Well, it’s certainly one of the most magnificent structures of selfishness that’s ever been created. The Pope has just published what sounds, from all reports, like a very good encyclical in which it’s hard to tell which he criticizes more, capitalism or communism. We each have systems which have for various reasons, and each of them with some good consequences, done awful things to people.

I think the communist system is by definition more idealistic, but idealism by itself can be just as dangerous as any nuclear weapon. God knows many people have died of the results of idealistic movements … more people have died in concentration camps and labor camps in the Soviet Union than ever died in a nuclear explosion. But at least communism has attempted to wrestle with selfishness. It regards selfishness as a moral problem. I think the tragedy about capitalism is it doesn’t. It considers selfishness a virtue. Capitalism becomes a glorification of one of the cardinal sins.

This is one of the reasons so many people are dying in the streets in America today. Think of all those nameless people who have been lining up at the Catholic Worker houses for decades. It gets worse and worse, and we don’t want to see it. We haven’t seen it. We still are struggling not to see it.

Ro: But now… I don’t know anything about Holland as far as their social system. I know Germany has a system that people say is taking care of a lot of the immediate social problems. In other words, they don’t have the tremendous number of destitute people that we do. They don’t have these great gaps we see in America in society.

Jim: The problems are getting worse, not better at the moment. This is true even of Holland, which has been one of the most socially responsible societies in Europe. But the pressures… I mean we’re experiencing the same cultural and psychological things. And we’ve got a lot of greedy people here, too. There are people who would much rather spend it on themselves than anybody else in the world.

Ro: Okay, so you’re saying that to be a real peace movement, instead of a complaint movement, we’ve got to do something to get rid of the selfishness?

Jim: That’s part of it. And the Catholic Worker, of course, is continuously interested because that’s very much the driving force, the center. That’s one of the main questions the Catholic Worker insists that we ask, that we have the duty to ask. But another part of the Catholic Worker movement… what gives you… I mean it’s not a job to be selfish or unselfish. It comes out of a healthy spiritual life. You just discover there are other things that are far more interesting than that. It’s not some awful burden that we are shouldering like a courageous Marine who is marching into the gun fire.

Ro: Well, almost everybody that I talk to says, you know, the reason that they are living the life is because it’s fun. Because it’s wonderful. It’s not boring. But then they don’t stay. They end up getting their VCR’s and cassette recorders… what do you call those things?

Jim: Well, you said at the beginning that Michael Harrington told you, “I’m still part of the Catholic Worker movement.”

Ro: He said, “I’ve always been a Catholic Worker, but in my own way.”

Jim: And I really think that Dorothy never was trying to mass produce a certain kind of Christian, or to give the correct list of possessions to people. “This you can have and this you shouldn’t have.” Rather, she was asking you to keep living with certain questions.

Dorothy felt that she personally had much too much. I can remember going out to a Jewish dairy restaurant with Dorothy for lunch one day and her lamenting how selfish she was, how she felt that she had much too much. And what were we doing? We were sitting there having a ten cent glass of Borscht with a little spoonful of sour cream, at the counter of a little delicatessen. But for her at that moment, thinking of people who had nothing, she felt as if she were dining at the Russian Tea Room. What was the difference? And she’s right. There is no difference. If you have that possibility to have this or that.

Ro: Well, but to be the gadfly, I think… probably the reason that Father Hugo was silenced was his tendency to scrupulosity.

Jim: Yes, there was a Jansenistic aspect to Hugo. I’m no theologian, and don’t want to pass judgement on him. I never knew him. I’ve only read him. But I think there was a tendency to idealize a certain kind of radical detachment from the material world.

Ro: If something is good, you have to give it up.

Jim: Yes.

Ro: See, you never really saw… I don’t see that in the writings of Dorothy Day. But you’re saying…

Jim: I think we don’t like to live with tensions. We want to have either the Dorothy Day that rolls up in the newspapers or Dorothy Day says it’s okay not to roll up in the newspapers. But we don’t want the Dorothy Day that has both of these messages because, rationally speaking, they cannot be simultaneously combined. In the actual experience of living, though, they have to be combined.

Ro: Well, obviously then, it forces you to make every decision.

Jim: Yes.

Ro: I used to say that mature Christianity meant being comfortable in the grey. But then I decided grey sounded pretty bad. Sounds boring and I don’t mean that. But you have to live in the tensions. It’s not grey there. It’s just flickering black and white.

Jim: None of us — certainly I would a fine example of this — are converted enough. And there’s a lot of things that I’m able to do or have done or own or plan to own that I probably shouldn’t. What would be worse would be for me to be comfortable about that.

Ro: In other words… as long as someone or you, yourself, can prick you…

Jim: Over the years I have spent a great deal of money on books. And I felt very bad about that.

I’ve often thought about the desert father who sold his one book, a Bible, because he read in it that you should sell everything and give it to the poor. I thought that was incredible. At the time a Bible was extremely valuable — a completely handwritten book. It’s a stunning story. I have felt haunted by it because I had more than the Bible. I have hundreds and hundreds of books. Though I had very little money, I spent most of it on books. I still spend a fair amount on books. But in the last two or three years I’ve spent a lot of money on music. We sold our car and got central heating. That’s fine. Everybody accepts that. We got a drying machine. It was a border line case for the Dutch. Everybody in Holland probably should have a clothes dryer, though, because of the weather. We got a transcribing machine and a tape recorder. And we have a compact disc player. That was an alarming acquisition for everybody that I know.

Ro: But that’s other people thinking of it…

Jim: But other people are also me. You know I’m watching myself and saying, “Oh my God ! I’m jumping into consumer addiction with a passion.”

Ro: The thing that I’m treasuring now is the computer, because it’s helping me as a writer. If you take this whole giving-up-your-Bible track like that monk, then I should give up that. I shouldn’t particularly give up the pair of shoes I just bought, because that’s really not what I love. I love the computer and the books.

Jim: Well, anyway, I think that all those kinds of things have a tendency to go in totally the wrong direction. Because it gets into a kind of shopping list approach to salvation.

As if Jesus on the last day is going to say, “All those who didn’t have this, you know, raise your hand. All those who didn’t have this, raise your hand. All those who didn’t have this, raise your hand. All those who didn’t have this…” after a while he’s going to find some people who didn’t have all the things that he has mentioned, and they are going to go to heaven. But that’s not the Bible. It’s not Christianity. That kind of thinking has nothing to do with Jesus. Thank God, it has nothing to do with our spiritual life. It does have to do with reducing the Gospel to a kind of fascistic system of domination where we are going to dominate ourselves, if nobody else, with a whole bunch of rules which have absolutely nothing to do with loving anybody. Nothing to do with caring.

I think, again, that’s one of the messages of the Catholic Worker. It never preached a Book of Rules version of the Gospel. It was, however, a bit vulnerable to scrupulosity because of it terrific passion for the poor. Inevitably we would attract people, and sometimes be very inspired by them, who made material dispossession their Gospel. But it’s not the Gospel. And in fact, I think one of the marvelous things about Orthodoxy and one of the reasons that Western church needs this encounter with Orthodoxy is because the connection between the spiritual and the material is so solid. So much more solid than it is in our Church, whether it be the Catholic Church or any of the other churches that have grown out of the Catholic Church. All of the Protestant churches have grown out of the Catholic Church.

Over and over again, we’ve had heresies of this kind — in fact, into modern times. It’s one of the things we’ve never sorted out. We’re still trying to figure this thing out. And I think, of course, the Orthodox are, too. But they have much less trouble with the connection between the spiritual and the material than we do.

Ro: Of course Merton figured the whole thing out by going east… even farther east than Orthodoxy. Now has that ever…

Jim: Well, that was a big thing for me, too. Buddhism. Getting to know Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk. I was very close to him.

Ro: Talk about that part. You traveled with him. This was through Thomas Merton.

Jim: Actually it was through the Fellowship of Reconciliation that Nhat Hanh came to know Merton. Both Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh were members of the FOR. And the FOR managed to introduce them to each other, and it became a very significant meeting for them, for both of them.

I traveled a great deal with Thich Nhat Hanh. He had much in common with Dorothy and Merton.

It’s an awful tyranny when other people decide who you will be. I remember Nhat Hanh giving me a question at some point, a sort of Zen question which says, “Jim Forest is a little bit like Dorothy Day. Jim Forest is a little bit like Thomas Merton. Jim Forest is not Dorothy Day. Jim Forest is not Thomas Merton.” And there were a couple of other people listed. “Jim Forest is not one of those people. Who is Jim Forest?”

It was a very important question to ask me because up to that point a lot of my life had to do with trying to adapt myself to be something like a combination of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan and several other people I admired. I came to realize that sanctity is not being somebody else. You have to pass through a lot of other people to find yourself, maybe. That’s one way of putting it. But in the end, you have to break away.

One of the saying in Buddhism that Thich Nhat Hanh emphasized was, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him” — because for you to become a Buddha, you have to kill the Buddha. I’m not going to go into a big explanation of it. It’s just… I understand now. I’ve had to, at one point or another, break with Dorothy Day, break with Dan Berrigan, break with Thomas Merton. In order to come back to me. But no longer with my tongue hanging out looking up at them, but just as people God has given me and us. Not to dominate my life but to grace it. And not to judge me but to encourage me. You know, there is an element of judgement in that encouragement, but it is first of all encouragement.

I’m not going to be saved by that. And I cannot be who God wants me to be until I can come to that. (Long pause)

Certainly Dorothy never wanted to be anybody’s cult figure. You know that. I think she nonetheless has to… just as she accepted the community of the saints, so do I. I think she has to be in that, too.

Ro: Okay, we were talking about that earlier. The icon of Dorothy. The Claretian movement.

Jim: As she said, “Don’t make a saint out of me. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

Ro: How do you feel about this whole sainthood thing?

Jim: Well, first of all I think that Dorothy felt that she was a fraud, that people admired her and saw her as a saint because she had hidden from them the truth about herself.

Ro: Okay, is that part of why you wrote the book?

Jim: No, not really. I mean, I think you can’t write a biography of somebody without writing about things that were extremely important to their life. Dorothy felt very ashamed that she had not been able in The Long Loneliness to reveal certain important moments in her life… just as Merton didn’t write about the child he fathered at Cambridge in The Seven Story Mountain. Both of them had hidden very important facts, probably both for the same reasons — out of shame, but also partly because it was clear at the time that, had they written about those things, those aspects of their past would have dominated the perceptions of others in such a way that people would have just said, “Look, this is Dorothy Day who had an abortion” — not Dorothy Day, who is involved with houses of hospitality. Whatever the reasons were, she certainly felt ashamed and guilty about that.

Perhaps she felt that she was hardly different than Madison Avenue. She had created an image of herself which was misleading. Very few people knew about her abortion. If they did know, perhaps they wouldn’t be so quick to throw a halo on her.

And also it is a way of dismissing living people to call them saints — because then I don’t have to be like them. You can go to the zoo and admire the giraffes, and you don’t have to become a giraffe.

Ro: But yet it would seem to me if we’re all to be about being saints, it’s helpful to know that Dorothy did not spring fully good into being in 1933.

Jim: Right. I don’t think the biographies of people who…

Ro: Augustine’s Confessions. That’s the best one.

Jim: So far as one can tell, Augustine doesn’t hide anything. I think it’s very helpful information to know that. It’s a pity, though, that he was so upset about his past that his sexual theology was a bit obscure.

Ro: So was Dorothy’s.

Jim: Hers was very much the same. She was very much an Augustinian in that way. I guess because both of them had gone through such a cesspool that they just…

Ro: Well, if you want to get philosophical, that’s probably why the Western world has so much trouble with materialism or with the mix of the material and spiritual.

Jim: Right. Yes, yes, yes. I think that’s right. But somehow the Eastern Orthodox tradition, which grew out of some of the same issues, didn’t quite buy that whole thing. Maybe it’s the celibate priesthood that was the problem. That in the West the holiness and celibacy have gotten mixed up in our idea of faithfulness.

Ro: Well, all the women will tell you that.

Jim: I’ve played pope so many times in my life that I hope that I can never do that again. I don’t really know what is behind our problems. I have some guesses, and I just don’t know if they are true or not. But I very much admire the married priesthood in the Orthodox church. And, as Nancy was saying recently, it’s one thing to hear the spiritual life being talked about by a married priest and another thing to hear it being talked about by somebody who is not. It’s so different from your own experience that you just don’t know. I mean, you just don’t know how many bridges there are between you and this guy. But if somebody is married and starts talking to you about fasting or talks to you about anything, somehow you know that that’s a question in his life, too. He has a wife, and he has kids. He’s dealing with the same stuff that I am. So that’s different.

I hope and pray for that the Catholic Church to recover the married priesthood. This is one of the treasures of the Orthodox Church that we desperately need. And it has a lot to do with spirituality, too.

Ro: A lot of it makes sense. You know, as a woman that really makes sense. I think that’s may be the root. But I interrupted you with that flash on Augustine. We were talking about Dorothy’s biography. Why do you think you wrote the book about her? I think you’ve explained why you wrote the book… the process of writing the book about the Russian Orthodox Church. Why did you write the book about Dorothy?

Jim: I’m reading, at the moment, a book on iconography — Doors of Perception, I think it’s called.

Ro: Doors of Perception by Huxley?

Jim: This is not Huxley’s book. It’s the same title, but it’s an entirely different book. It has nothing to do with drugs. Oh, Huxley’s book is quite an interesting one as a matter of fact. The author is John Bagley. He quotes one of the letters of St. Paul where he talks about us more and more becoming… if we live in the presence of the image of Christ and we become like that image. As we live in that presence, the image converts us.

Ro: Which is the idea behind icons…

Jim: To write a book is a kind of iconography. And the only question is, you know, to do that or not. I think Dorothy is a saint. I wouldn’t be interested in writing about her otherwise. But it’s precisely because she makes sanctity accessible to people, to me, that I wanted to contribute to changing our idea of what we understand by the word “saint.” So that we aren’t thinking about a saint as some kind of giraffe — a perfectly admirable creature but nothing that’s part of our future.

If Dorothy can be a saint, probably anybody can be a saint. You know? She wasn’t copying anybody. She just, little by little, became free to be Dorothy Day. And she did that out of a lot of wreckage. She never felt good about herself, in some ways, but she did it. And anybody who’s been part of the Catholic Worker movement and thinks of sticking with it for quite some time knows what an accomplishment that is. It’s very hard to last for more than a week in many houses. Certainly hard to last more than a year. Dorothy was in a privileged position, some would say, in that she could travel about, and she had a lot of recognition and so on and so forth. But in other ways she was in a worse position than anybody else.

Ro: Yes, because she was…

Jim: All the expectations! And she had to deal with all this chaos and hatred and dissent and so forth.

Ro: And she had to feel responsible for it, in some ways, that I don’t think other… Well, let me qualify that. I see some of the heads of houses… Jeff Dietrich, in particular, has this… this sense of responsibility. And it’s got to be hard because they do feel responsible for souls, kind of.

Jim: It’s a huge spiritual responsibility. Nancy and I saw this very often in the priests that we met last summer when we traveled together in the Soviet Union. We had never seen priests like that before. It gave Nancy a whole different idea of the word “patriarch.” Previously it had always been an extremely negative word.

Ro: Well, it’s bandied around a bit these days.

Jim: But people who are able to give leadership spiritually, and to encourage people in the spiritual life, as Dorothy did, carry an enormous responsibility. They are founts of encouragement. But really, sometimes they’re not at all impressive. Sometimes the very opposite. Sometimes there’s nothing less impressive in the whole world than this kind of patriarch or matriarch. Of course there are matriarchs, too.

Ro: There are?

Jim: Like Dorothy. Dorothy was something like the powerful abbesses of medieval times.

Nancy: There are the Matuskas.

Jim: Yes, the Matuskas. The wife of priest is a very important person in the Russian Orthodox Church. Priest and priest’s wife — it’s a dual vocation.

Ro: To get back to the book on Dorothy for one last thing. There are people that say that to use a novel, even if it’s very thinly disguised autobiography, isn’t exactly…

Jim: The best historical method? No, I wouldn’t claim that it’s a work of scholarship. I hope it’s a true book. I think it’s a true book. And everybody that has known Dorothy well, and has commented on the book in manuscript or since it’s published, has made me believe that it is actually the best introduction to her life. I say that with complete modesty because so many people were involved in the writing of the book.

Ro: Well, I use it as that because it’s accessible. I mean it’s an accessible book. Whereas most… for the Coles book, for instance, you have to know Dorothy… you have to have read everything else before you can understand him.

Jim: People who knew Dorothy much more intimately than I did have said that, really, it’s right. These things happened to her, and the balance is rightly struck. I’m amazed at that because it was written all here at this table where we’re sitting, here in Holland across the ocean.

Ro: But it isn’t terribly balanced. It’s definitely oriented towards peace. Not towards… if oh, Ed Marciniak or some of those Chicago folks or some of the people who worked so much in labor, (would have written it.) I mean, you hardly mention labor until you get up to Caesar Chavez. You have to admit your perspective.

Jim: True. I suppose…

Ro: Which happens to be mine, too, because that’s how I came to become interested in the Catholic Worker. And you did too, really. When you think of it.

Jim: The thing about any biography (and I feel it’s especially true of my attempts at biography) is… um… it’s a forest compared to the life. No matter what. I’ve just read two excellent biographies of Peter the Great (who is not one of my very favorite historical people but a fascinating character.) But you have to realize how much the biographers figure in their books. And that’s certainly true of my attempt…

Ro: I think that’s what makes a good biography. The dynamic between author and subject.

Jim: I don’t know if it does or not, but it’s certainly a true… and to the extent that the writer tries to hide that. I suppose it’s a deceptive sort of thing. I didn’t try to hide it. I simply didn’t talk about it.

Ro: I don’t think you hid it. I think you did it very well with the afterward. I just think that anyone who tries to say that a biography doesn’t have the writer in it is crazy. Just like this book is going to have a lot of me in it. Even though I’ll cut out most of my words, it’s still me.

Jim: I don’t know how much of the labor thing I should have gotten into the book, actually. One of the principals for me was that the book should be short. And that means that an enormous amount of editing is… it’s a bit like the film on Gandhi. Even if it’s a three-hour film, it’s three hours about a life that was about eighty years long. What are you going to put in those three hours that will reveal that life?

Ro: Well, aren’t you also thinking of who’s going to read book?

Jim: I’m thinking very much of students I have known.

Ro: And they think of the labor movement a whole lot differently than someone who is sixty-five years old.

Jim: Well, I grew out of the labor movement. My father was an organizer. A communist party organizer.

Ro: But that really (wasn’t brought out in the book.)

Jim: When I came to the Catholic Worker, it wasn’t much of a stress, that would have to be said. Dorothy was never talking about it.

Ro: When Ed Marciniak came to the Catholic Worker, it was the scene. In the thirties, it was the scene.

Jim: That’s true. They had the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists.

Ro: If they would write it, they would concentrate on that and not on…

Jim: And Michael Harrington and that sort of thing.

Ro: Ed Marciniak thinks the whole peace thing… he kept calling it a cult. He doesn’t see it the way we see it.

Jim: I know he doesn’t see it. And there were a whole bunch of people who broke off from the movement over that issue, but I think it was central to Dorothy Day’s thinking from the very beginning. Even in the first six months, you see it emerging as one of the principal themes in the paper.

Dorothy took a huge beating over the Spanish Civil War. If I remember what Dorothy said correctly (I’ve never had the chance to do the research on this), the Catholic Worker was expelled from the Catholic Press Association for its failure to support Franco. In fact the paper supported neither side. And Dorothy never would rejoin, according… if I remember correctly what she said. I think I one time proposed it to her and she said no. She hadn’t forgiven them. She was very… that had hurt. She had gone through a lot over that. And I’m sure that there were many people in the Catholic Worker movement who didn’t agree.

And this was before Marciniak was thinking about joining the Catholic Worker. It was the Second World War which become the big issue in Chicago. They had people like… I’m trying to think of his name. He who was a bomber during the Second World War. He later became a Trappist priest. Jack English. And the Chicago folks. They were closer to mainstream Catholic Church thinking about this than Dorothy was by ten thousand miles. Pacifism was nothing new for her. They had just never taken her views on this too seriously. And precisely because she was a matriarch, she wasn’t ashamed to be out of step with practically everybody in the Catholic Worker movement. And to fight like a mother for her kids. She did the right thing. I think everybody knows that. But it was a very peculiar idea at the time.

Again, I would just say sanctity makes it possible to be free. And that she was free to do anything, and she never felt that she was out of step with the tradition by doing it. She knew that she was out of step with most people. But she felt they were out of step with the authentic tradition. Whether they were bishops or whether they were running a Catholic Worker community.

Ro: Do you think that the Roman Catholic Church in America will ever become a peace church?

Jim: I don’t know. I just don’t know what’s going to happen in the Church, how it’s going to develop. It’s obviously going through a big change. The peace pastoral of the American Catholic Bishops is far from the perfect document, but it’s a wonderful letter. It’s a treasure of the church. There are inconsistencies in it, but it’s still a wonderful thing. I think what’s most remarkable about it is what it has to say about Jesus and the New Testament and the whole biblical tradition. This is a recovery of something that was lost and footnoted to death in the Catholic Church. And I think the Catholic Worker’s contribution to that was essential, really. I don’t think it would have happened if it hadn’t been for the Catholic Worker. And it wasn’t just an American phenomena.

Dorothy’s impact and the Catholic Worker’s impact on the church internationally has been quite significant. I think that’s growing, actually. It’s quite a remarkable thing when you think about it. That Dorothy was invited to receive communion from the Pope when she was in Rome for that big conference. I don’t think people realize how unusual it is for something like that to happen to anybody. And that she and an astronaut should be the two Americans chosen. Also that Cardinal Cooke should be asked by the Pope to bring Dorothy a birthday message when she was very ill. The Cardinal doesn’t usually deliver birthday messages from the Pope to anybody.

She touched the Church. They felt her presence. She mattered in her lifetime to people who didn’t even think they agreed with her. That they could not resist that sense of the presence of God in her life.

I can remember opening an envelope from Cardinal MacIntrye in Los Angeles with a check and a note to Dorothy: “This is to thicken the soup.” Well, we didn’t have a “thicken the soup” fund at the Catholic Worker. It was just one bank account. Everything went into it and everything we did came out of it. And he knew that. Dorothy never made any pretense to the contrary. It was all one thing. If you sent fifty dollars to the Catholic Worker, it got used. Period. The Cardinal sent the money anyway.

I remember people would be very critical of Cardinal Spellman, and I was not least among them. And Dorothy could on occasion be critical of Cardinal Spellman. But if you were critical about Cardinal Spellman, she would always speak up for him. And it wouldn’t be in generalities. She would talk about something he had done. I think it was Dorothy who told me that Spellman had priests who didn’t like to receive night calls to go down to the Bowery to administer the last rites. Spellman told the person answering the phone, “If any of those calls come through, give them to me personally”. And she knew things like that about people, and she would tell them to show their good side.

I think one of the unusual things about Dorothy was quite different than most of us. If we decided we didn’t like somebody, we’d make it a kind of hobby to collect reasons not to like that person. We could develop quite a number of reasons to justify our irritation. Dorothy had a lot of reasons to dislike Cardinal Spellman, but it was more her hobby to find out things to admire about him. That’s very unusual. And I think it’s important. Somehow it should open some doors for all of us.

Ro: Ummm hmmm… Now if the canonization, the whole process–devil’s advocate and all of that stuff. If it actually gets going, how do you think that’s going to affect the Catholic Worker movement?

Jim: Well, it seems that all the religious orders have survived the canonization of their founders. Maybe the Catholic Worker can, too. The Catholic Worker is better defended against the problems of institutionalization than most movements.

It’s important for the Catholic Worker not to treat Dorothy as private property. And that this is basically an issue here. She belongs to the human race. She is a member of the community of believers. If the community of believers has the right from time to time to recognize some people as particular models of society, then they have the right to consider her. It’s not for us to say yes or no. I think we only have to be truthful about who she was and not attached to the consequences of it, really. Not try to be the policeman of this process one way or the other. I just don’t think that is the way Dorothy would want us to do. I personally think that she should be, and probably will be, canonized.

[end]

An interview: Remembering Dorothy Day (part 1)

an interview with Jim Forest by Rosalie Riegle recorded February 22, 1988 in Alkmaar while she was preparing Voices from The Catholic Worker (Temple University Press, 1993). Reigle is also the author of Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her (Orbis, 2003)

Jim: So what should we talk about?

Ro: Well, one of the things we were talking about earlier was Dorothy’s attraction to the Orthodox Church. It seems you’ve been coming to it for a long time now, so maybe you can talk a little bit about your own attraction, too.

Jim: We’ve been in the Orthodox church in Amsterdam the last three Sunday’s in a row, which is remarkable. This particular Sunday was especially extraordinary. And every time I go, I think that I probably would not have ever found my way into this church, or even wanted to find my way into it, had it not been for Dorothy. And then I try to remember concretely what she did that ignited that interest.

I know that the first time I went to an Orthodox liturgy was with Dorothy. And I’m trying to remember where. It seems to me there were a couple of places. One was a tiny little chapel like the one we go to in Amsterdam, which actually is part of a Catholic parish and is rented out for Orthodox service. Now probably we went to a Melchite rite or some brand of Orthodoxy in communion with Rome, but it might not have been. I think once Dorothy and I went to the Russian Orthodox Church up on 94th Street. The whole thing was so out of this world. You know, I might as well have been on a rocket ship to Jupiter or something. I had never seen anything like it.

And I have the feeling that it was more than once. Yes, it must have been more than once, because I can remember…little by little, I’ve come to realize that some of the Gospodi pomiloi, for example, has been in my head and lying dormant for years and years.

Ro: What does that mean

Jim: i>Gospodi pomiloi? It means “Lord have mercy” in Church Slavonic. It is the principal prayer of Orthodox spirituality. It’s sung countless times in every Orthodox liturgy.

Ro: Always in groups of three like our Kyrie Eleison?

Jim: No. It can be. There is the prayer or litany of peace where it could just be sung once. But then it’s almost continuous, you know. The priest or the deacon will sing a line, and then we will sing “Gospodi pomiloi” and while we’re still singing the “Lord,” the other part of the prayer continues. So it’s almost like a rosary. You know, an antiphonal thing–they are singing many parts so you have this kind of curtain of “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.” And it’s impossible not to join and sing it. It just draws you in like a current of water. It just… you can’t stay on the shore of it.

Nancy: It’s a beautiful harmony, too.

Jim: There’s wonderful harmony. You can really get into the harmony.

Ro: So you first became interested in Orthodoxy, probably through Dorothy, but then did it lay dormant?

Jim: Yes. But back then, my interest in Orthodoxy didn’t go any place because it had no place to go. And also, because I was like most men who are bright, fast, and ambitious, I wasn’t interested in those things. I was interested, within the part of the world where I happened to be, in doing the things that were bright, fast, and ambitious. To rise to the top of whatever ladders happened to be close by. And that is not exactly the same thing as a spiritual life. (laughter.) The spiritual life was kind of a side line. How you decorate the ladder, you know.

Ro: So this interest is maybe a sign of your maturity?

Jim: I don’t know. I have no idea. It’s God putting up with me. I do know that Dorothy is one of those people who have seen things in me which I never have saw in myself and still find it hard to imagine. But there were people like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton who showed an interest in me and encouraged me and who, in a way, made me open myself up, sometimes long after they had died, to things which they had done and said… mostly said. Things that were just there.

And that gives me great hope for my children, for example, who show not the slightest interest in church except for the one who is too young to know that she shouldn’t be interested. That maybe someday the things which to them now are such an embarrassment and so ridiculous will have some meaning…

Ro: Well, you remember what the Jesuits always said.

Jim: What did they say?

Ro: Give me a child till he’s ten.

Jim: (laughter) Give me a child till he’s ten! Right. Well I keep thinking,… you know, I was thinking this during the holy liturgy on Sunday. I don’t need to worry about the kids because if I… I couldn’t possibly have imagined, when I was eight or ten or twelve or fourteen years old, where I would be as an adult. None of it. And there was nothing my parents could have done to do move me in this direction.

So you don’t have to try too hard, really. You don’t have to be embarrassed that your kids aren’t in church with you. You just do what you can and live the best way you can. It’s impossible to drag them to church anymore. We don’t live in a culture that supports that. It’s not normal. So you just have to live with that and hope that someday the values that are most important to you will suddenly open themselves for them.

Ro: Leave it to God.

Jim: Why should God be less generous to them?

That’s exactly what God did for me, so why shouldn’t I think that will happen for them?

But to get back to that time with Dorothy. We had Third Hour meetings, too. Oh, it was nice going with Dorothy. I don’t know if the group is still existing or not. But it… I think it may be. It certainly was around for a good long time. One of the first ecumenical groups. One of the very rare instances of a real ecumenism involving Catholics. And something that reached a deep level. I didn’t know how much it was unique at the time.

Ro: Why did they call it “Third Hour?”

Jim: It was on the third hour that the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles. So this would be the hour of the Spirit’s descent to bring the community of belief into being.

Ro: How often did you meet?

Jim: Well, I only took part in it once or twice or three times at the very most. And it seems to me it was always at Ann Marie’s apartment — an apartment on the East 70s. But I could be wrong about that. And that was probably where I first met Helene Iswolsky, or at least that’s the first time that she really registered in my radar. And I only wish that I paid lots more attention to her than I did, but I simply wasn’t able to. I wish I could have been one of her students — learned Russian from her and been in her classroom at Fordham. But at least I’m benefitting from her now.

I can remember Helene Iswolsky sitting there, looking very fierce. And I can remember W.H. Audin also there, looking like a basset hound. Also Alexander Schmemann and Alexander Kerensky. I don’t remember who else. Not many people. And I felt like… I felt awkward being there. Because I couldn’t possibly say anything or even think anything interesting in their company. It was so amazing.

I’ve often thought that everything that happens is kind of joke, that you get to be born in the first place– you of all people. Well, to be just a little kid sitting in on a meeting where they are talking about the broken churches and the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church or icons or whatever they were talking about.

They might have been talking about things that today I could listen to with comprehension and even rapture. At the time, I was simply taking in faces. I can remember the faces but I haven’t a clue what they were talking about. Maybe if I really searched my brain, I would remember something. But that was enough, actually. That was enough, just to take in the faces. I think that was probably quite a lot. Just a few faces.

Ro: And such faces.

Jim: Oh God, yes! Isn’t it amazing what faces they are? Really. Helene not least of all. Later on I got… I never got to know W.H. Auden, but I used to live very near St. Mark’s in the Bowery, the Anglican church in lower Manhattan, and he lived across the street. And I would occasionally, quite often as a matter of fact, go to Mass at St. Mark’s in the Bowery. And he often turned up there in his bedroom slippers. With pajamas under his grey coat. Coming across the street for morning prayer.

Ro: Why did it take you so long to pursue this interest in the Russian church?

Jim: There is a lot of factors that go into this. One of them is the Catholic Worker. Dorothy–the books that she got me to read, going to the Orthodox liturgy with her. I think more important, though, is my missing very much in contemporary Catholicism a sense of…. (long pause)

Ro: That holy space.

Jim: That holy space. I’m not sure just how to describe it. I mean I was initially very put off by the fact that, in many parishes in the Russian Orthodox Church, it’s an unusual event to receive Holy Communion. I thought, ” Gee whiz! Here we’re way ahead of the Russian Orthodox Church. I mean, this is at least one place where they have a lot to learn from our Church.” Well, I do think it’s too infrequent in the Russian Orthodox Church. On the other hand, the reason that it is so infrequent is because there is this sense of…incredible holiness. You prepare for several days…

Ro: But isn’t that Jansenism?

Jim: No. I don’t think so. I mean I can’t say for sure, but not my experience of it. Because people do receive communion. But they want to really… first of all, they don’t feel cut off. I don’t think people feel like the islands and peninsulas that we feel like in the Catholic Church. I know when I’m in a Russian Orthodox Church and people receive communion, I feel much more involved in that person’s reception of communion than I do in a Catholic Church. I can’t explain that, but I sense that we are all taking, receiving communion through this person.

This is true in the Catholic Church, of course, true any place people receive communion. But there isn’t that intensity. There’s a kind of routine-ness about it. You kind of feel you have to receive communion. It’s not a question of receiving communion. You’re just part of… You just get on a conveyor belt.

Ro: Now, it wasn’t that way when you first came into the church?

Jim: No, no. Heaven’s no. And I think this is a pity. I mean I hope that we will somehow be able to… we’ve gone from one extreme to the other.

In the name of liturgical reform, I think we’ve routinized the reception of communion. And that’s proved not to be absolutely terrific. I can just speak for myself, not for anybody else. This is not some big program for the world that I’m on. I think… (pause) well, let’s back up a little bit. When I was window shopping churches, en route into the Catholic Church, the one church besides the Anglican that really excited me was the Black church. Now in the end, it just didn’t open its door for me.

Ro: Do you mean Black evangelical…

Jim: Well I loved, and I’ve always loved, going into the Black church. And I grew up in a Black community. Black churches in the neighborhood. I loved the tradition of the Black church. I loved its music. I like Black people and Black culture. But it is a Black church, and it is very hard for a White person to find a place in it. I’ve known White people who have tried to be Black, and it always seemed to me a kind of face paint to me. I couldn’t do that.

Ro: But you don’t feel that way in going to this Eastern Orthodox community?

Jim: Well, here in Amsterdam, there are mostly all Dutch people. And some of the them are Americans who have lived in Russia, for example. They come from all over the world. It’s funny how people find their way. I mean Nancy and I are active in the local Catholic Church. We sing in the choir, and on the Sundays when our choir doesn’t sing, we go to the Russian Orthodox Church. So we sort of have these two traditions that… we haven’t chosen either one of them.

Ro: Okay, so you don’t feel like you’re a spectator. If I went to a Russian Orthodox Church (We only have Greek Orthodox at home)… I’d definitely feel I’m at a show.

Jim: Right. For you… And certainly that’s how I felt when I started going to Russian Orthodox Church. It was as solid as stone to feel that. It was just as real as stone. And I was fascinated. And because I’m a writer, and like all writers I simply write as a way of exploring something, a way of living out my curiosity, I cooked up the absolutely crazy idea of writing a book on the Russian Orthodox Church. I say crazy because I don’t speak Russian. Didn’t plan to learn it, haven’t learned it. Have no background in the subject. I’m not an expert on anything. I submitted a proposal to the Russian Orthodox Church which eventually they approved [in 1985, once Gorbachev headed the country].

It’s a very complicated story. Every now and then I learn more about how it happened. I learned one more bit of it last week. But it so happens that they did approve it. Part of it was because of my biography of Dorothy Day. Somebody had read my biography of Dorothy Day, and it was a factor in his recommending that this application be approved.

Ro: So she’s still sort of helping you out?

Jim: She’s still somehow in there. Yes. It’s funny.

Ro: Particularly in this function, or connection.

Jim: That’s interesting. Because they recognize her, of course. They also like Mark Twain very much. He’s one of the most popular writers in the Soviet Union. They love her because she has some of the same gutsiness. Also, because she’s a spiritually centered person. I just learned a new Russian word last week, dukhovnost, the Russian word for spirituality. But in Russia you’ll hear it from secular people as well as from religious people. You can turn on Radio Moscow and listen to their English service. Within a few days, you’ll hear somebody use this word in English. They will be talking about the spiritual life or spiritual emptiness in our society or there will be some other connection. You’re surprised at these Marxists talking about spirituality? Well, all Russians talk about spirituality. Whether they’re Marxists or Russian Orthodox or Baptists or Jews or whatever. For them it doesn’t have this “me and God significance” that it tends to have in our cultural background. You talk about spirituality, you talk about praying — the you-God relationship. It has that, but it also has a lot of other things. It has to do with how you relate not only to God but to people. One way it was described to me by a young Russian Orthodox priest who was staying with us last week is that it’s putting love in what you do.

What you do is something we’ve left out of spirituality. Our spirituality doesn’t have anything to do with what you do. Dorothy said it does, though. You see, Dorothy had dukhovnost. This integration… I mean your spiritual life should be a point of integration. Not separateness but integration.

Ro: But when people see people on their knees, they see it as separate.

Jim: Who’s the “they” and who’s on their knees?

Ro: The people that for instance… we were talking earlier about the Catholic Workers that don’t have much liturgy in their houses. That are mostly action. They see it as separate.

Jim: Oh, yes. I think they’re in the culture of separateness. Right. And some people are very suspicious of even talking about prayer and stuff like that. Right. And the reason is… I mean I can understand it. I say “rightly so” because they have seen people who have this kind of insulated prayer life. It doesn’t connect. But I think in the Catholic Worker, we can say we haven’t as many excuses for this kind of silly idea as most people have because we have plenty of people in our movement, or connected to it, who are integrated people.

Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton were two examples of this. There are many others, people who did what they did, and connected in the way they did, precisely because they had a real sense of God’s presence in the world. A sense of astonishment and continuing wonder and delight. And also awe. And sometimes terror. That it’s something that doesn’t fit into any shoe box.

Ro: I sort of interrupted your flow on this. You went to this church in Russia, and then you decided to write the book. How did writing the book change you or deepen you?

Jim: Well, it goes on. You know, it’s a continuing process and God only knows where it’s going to take us. I have no idea. I know how full of gratitude I am for this opportunity to be in so many churches in many parts of Russia, praying with so many people, and to meet them in their homes and at other places that we’ve gone together. How alive they are.

Ro: Would you say liturgy has always been important to you because you’re a convert.

Jim: Oh heavens, yes. But I don’t think you have to be a convert to love the liturgy. One of the great tragedies of modern Catholicism is the extent to which the liturgical sensibility has been lost. I hope it will be recovered. It certainly wasn’t lost in Dorothy. But I think the liturgy in the West is being destroyed by secularism.

Nancy and I visited with Archbishop Kyrill, a young bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church. He was the head of the Orthodox seminary in Leningrad and now heads the diocese in Smolensk, a very ancient Russian city. It’s been many times threatened by war because it’s right on the route to Moscow for invaders coming from the west. You can’t attack Russia and head toward Moscow without passing through Smolensk on the way.

Anyway, he was saying to us, “Don’t be so sure that the things that you find marvelous about the Russian Orthodox Church are always going to be here to admire, because soon enough we’re going to face the same problems that you’ve been facing in the past. If things continue the way they are, we’ll probably have a secular society. We don’t have one yet, but we will. That seems to be the direction that society is going.”

And whether Orthodoxy can survive secularism as easily as it survived Peter the Great, Kathryn the II, Stalin and Lenin and everybody else… you know, repression is a hell of a lot easier to survive than co-option. Secularism and the consumer society is basically a process of co-option. More than anything else, secularism is destroying the liturgically experienced religious life for the people in the West. Whether it’s the United States or Holland or Sweden. Whatever country we want to talk about.

Ro: There’s no longer a sense of difference, of mystery.

Jim: The loss of that. Yes. I don’t always agree with Cardinal Ratzinger, but he often talks about the pity that we have lost the sense of mystery. And people make fun of that, but I think he’s right. I’m sure the sense of awe in the presence of creation is the basis of the spiritual life. And the liturgical life that minimizes or tries to sweep out the sense of mystery, the sense of the miraculous, the timeless, is heading really rapidly down a dead-end street. Going out of business. Clearance sale.

Ro: But yet so many people in the States who speak of the Latin Mass with a fondness, also speak fondly of counter-reformation theology and way of looking at the world. Particularly speak fondly at that way of looking at the non-Catholic world. And would just as soon leave men in black to do everything instead of having lay people do it. How do you reconcile that?

Jim: I’m not sure where I come down. Erasmus was one of the progenitors of the Reformation, but refused to join it because he could not bear the lack of civility in the people who he sympathized with intellectually.

Ro: That’s such a snobbish…

Jim: It may sound snobbish, but I have a great deal of sympathy for it because for him the basic thing, the Christian commandment, was to love. And everything else had to be centered in that. Because otherwise there’s no center at all. Just ideas and egos. People on buses marked “career” of one sort or another. He felt if you couldn’t love each other on the way to heaven, there was hardly any point of reforming the Church.

And to call it a reformation when so much is bitterness and viciousness … I don’t know how anyone can regard that as Christianity. When we look in the letters columns of various Catholic publications we get in the mail … well, I have learned to avoid read the letter columns. It’s just too upsetting. They are so vicious. It’s not a question of whether you agree or disagree, it’s just the meanness that’s so incredible. There is nothing much you can get out of it. I get to the point of sympathizing with Thoreau, which is a hard thing for a journalist. He said, “If you’ve read one newspaper, you’ve read them all.”

Ro: Do you think perhaps that some of the divisiveness we see in the religious press isn’t, unconsciously at least, brought on by the same thing that animates a lot of journalism. You know, “good news is no news?” In other words, if you’re going to have an interesting letters column, you’re going to emphasize division. In other words, it might not be as bad as you’re seeing.

Jim: Maybe it’s not. I don’t know. I don’t have to edit the letters column for any of these papers, so I don’t know. And maybe it’s a problem of editing more than a problem of the actual contents.

Ro: But, on the other hands, the words we see in the Letters columns are there.

Jim: Right. The words are there and I find it very sad. And I think the Catholic Worker was particularly important in this respect because Dorothy’s theory and practice of journalism was quite different. After all, the movement grew out of a journalist’s head and out of her idea of how the paper should be edited. I suppose that had a lot to do with what she thought the movement should be. Even before the movement got it’s identity fairly well defined, even in the very early issues, you see that Dorothy’s slant is essentially a very positive one. She’s not trying to depress people into revolution. She’s trying to inspire people to revolution, and it’s a quite different method. She never ever used the columns of the paper to attack people, as far as I can remember. If she did, it was so unusual that it’s completely slipped my memory. And I have read practically every issue of the newspaper.

Ro: Particularly when you were doing the anthology [A Penny a Copy: Collected Essays from The Catholic Worker].

Jim: Right. Doing the collection with Tom Cornell, we read everything. And I read it pretty faithfully ever since.

Ro: You spoke of it in the past tense.

Jim: Well, for me, it’s across the ocean. And I’ve been here eleven years, and so I’m hoping that we’ll see something like it happening here. I don’t think of it in the past tense. But it is… it’s news from a distant planet. That’s why I ask you how it’s going in this house or that house. It’s been a long time, you know. I don’t get very many people here that can answer those questions.

Probably one of the good things about the Catholic Worker press is that it doesn’t try to answer those questions in the pages of the newspaper, normally. I mean that’s not what they try to… they’re not writing a self-portrait of the community. It’s not a confession of community life. That was never Dorothy’s idea. I think that’s very disturbing to some people in the Catholic Worker movement. They would like it to be. And maybe some of the Catholic Worker publications are a bit more that way than others, but most of them aren’t. It’s not the way, usually, for the Catholic Worker press, whether it comes from Los Angeles or New York or in between.

When I was editing the paper, I found that very annoying, in a way. I felt we were perhaps giving people too idealistic a view of the community. But I think Dorothy had seen so much of the other. She came from a family of journalists, grew up with this other idea of journalism and had been involved in other newspapers like The Socialist Call.

Probably the Socialist newspapers were much closer to the Catholic Worker than the mass media, but still they tended to print horror stories. You know, like Dorothy’s stories for The Call about living on two dollars a week. It was a different theory of radical journalism — a revolution inspired by fear and anger rather than a revolution through love.

Ro: Yet there are people that are saying now that the Catholic Worker is losing the stamp that Dorothy gave it, because she always did try to apply religious principles to what was happening in the world. Specifically. And the Catholic Worker is, to a large extent, ignoring both abortion and homosexuality. And those are the two issues, I think, that are causing the animosity…

Jim: I have wished that the various Catholic Worker journals were more outspoken in its opposition to abortion. I have missed that. I suppose the reason is that there is division within the communities, and so they decide that the solution is not to speak about it. It astonishes me that there is deep division over that issue, given the deep affirmation of life the Catholic Worker has.

But I’m too far away. You know, again I don’t know what I would do if I was in anybody’s shoes at one of the houses now. Or if I was managing editor of the Catholic Worker in New York. God knows what I would do! It must be hell, really. It was very, very difficult when I was there. It must be more difficult now.

Ro: Well, you weren’t exactly there in a non-dissenting period.

Jim: Oh, no! No, no, no, no. It was very, very difficult then.

Ro: But it always seemed to me that theologically the peace movement made sense, that no one at the CW disagreed much about that.

Jim: The differences we had then were not largely theological. They were different ideas of how to live out the values of the Catholic Worker. And different ideas of what those values were. And all of them seemed to be based on things that Dorothy had said at one time or another. Different groups or factions would take to this or that aspect of Dorothy. It was a bit funny, really.

Ro: Tell the story about the butter business.

Jim: Oh, yes — the great butter crisis. Dorothy, of course, was a great traveler, and was often away, or she’d be writing and be more or less hiding out on Staten Island. I’m not sure if it was because she just couldn’t bear to come into the New York House, or whether she had other things to do. It’s hard to know. A little of both, I imagine. But certainly she had a lot of other things to do besides babysit us in Manhattan.

And while she was away, all kinds of things could happen. And then she’d come back, and sort it out, probably just barely surviving these crises, and then go off for another trip, or go on retreat or something. So while she was away Stuart Sandberg and Diana Gannon, who were then in charge of the kitchen, decided that the butter should be given “to the line,” as it was referred to in the Catholic Worker community — to the anonymous people, largely, who came in just to eat and didn’t have a regular place in the community.

Sometimes eggs or butter that were given to us, or other nice things, but not enough for everybody. And the practice had been that they would go to “the family, ” which was the people who actually were part of the Catholic Worker community. I’d guess you would call most of them permanent guests. They had actually been there much longer than any of the so-called volunteers, longer than anyone else except Dorothy and one or two people like Stanley, who survived year after year.

So you had these new, very idealistic kids deciding what’s going to happen with little edible treasures that come into the community. And it was, of course, outrageous to the people in the family that they were suddenly not going to be receiving these eggs or this butter or whatever.

I steered clear of these factions. I simply didn’t know what to make of them. I didn’t know who was right. The whole thing was just awful. I tried to get along with everybody as best I could. This was before editing the paper, when I was just working there. I remember different people put quotations on the bulletin board from Dorothy Day to support their position. Which I realized at the time was really quite a joke.

One of them had Dorothy saying that we should roll up in newspapers on the floor in order to make room for people. Well, nobody rolled up in any newspapers to make room. It was a very unusual thing for somebody to even give up their bed, for Lord’s sake. And somebody else had another quotation from Dorothy about how we have to accept our limitations — that not everybody can do everything.

Now these were the polarities which Dorothy herself lived within. But you couldn’t live on just one or the other of these extremes, you had to live within that tension.

So she came back and made, of course, the decision that it was right to continue as things were — that the regular household members, the family, would get the butter and eggs. This infuriated Diana and Stuart. It would be interesting to interesting to interview them and see how they now look back on those events that at the time drove them out of the community. Diana is the daughter of a newspaper magnate and Stuart is a priest at Manhattanville College. He’s a chaplain there.

Ro: Now there was also — I don’t know who coined the word — the Big Stomp. That was slightly more serious, wasn’t it?

Jim: Actually that sounds to me like an Ed Sanders phrase. He was a graduate student at Columbia who was sometimes hanging around the Catholic Worker and was the foundering editor of the magazine that he claimed had been mimeographed at the Catholic Worker… one or two issues: “Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts.” The publication of the first issue was the occasion of the great stomp. I mean it was the real occasion. But there were a variety of things… Well, it was using the Catholic Worker in a kind of counter-cultural platform … they were people amused by the idea of a Catholic mimeograph machine being used to publish this outrageous journal. Well, today it wouldn’t be considered at all outrageous, but at the time it was pretty scandalous.

I was down at the Abbey of Gethsemani, staying with Thomas Merton. I called up the Catholic Worker. Dorothy picked up the telephone, which didn’t often happen. And she was angry. You could hear that she was mad! She said, “Did you have anything to do with this?”

I didn’t laugh.

“With what?”

“This, this, this, thing!”

Ro: Did she just walk in and find it there?

Jim: I don’t know. When she told me… it wasn’t easy for her to say the name of the publication, but she did. Then I could recall hearing people like Ed Sanders and Nelson Barr and Bob Kaye and Jean Morton and others talking about this. It was a kind of running gag, you know. Something people laughed about. How they were going to start this magazine. I never took it seriously. I never actually believed them. It was so outrageous. Just a joke. A high school joke.

But sometimes high school students actually do some of the things they joke about. And they did this. And now a copy of this magazine, I’m told, sells for a quite a bit of money if you can get a copy of it. Libraries interested in the sixties have bought it. If I had kept a copy, I could sell it for maybe five hundred or a thousand dollars. I would have enough money to visit America. (Laughs)

Ro: Well, tell me, in retrospect, when you think back to these days of the sixties — your coming out, your growing-up years. Why were people doing things… I mean how do you analyze that kind of thing?

Jim: Well, at the time, we were seeing the sixties happening right up front. People who were important figures in the sixties had some little connection with the Catholic Worker. Alan Ginsberg was reading poetry at the Catholic Worker the first night I came to visit. He read “Kaddish” there. It may have been his first public reading of the poem. And Ed Sanders was a very important figure of that period with his musical group, the Fugs. He liked doing things that were outrageous, just loved his work and was always looking for a chance to use in it in one way or another.

I think Dorothy felt furious because, in her view, they were using the poor. They were risking what the Catholic Worker was doing. They were compromising her tolerance and her hospitality of them.

But, you know, I’m not sure that magazine was even printed at the Catholic Worker. We didn’t have very much equipment. Our one mimeograph machine was a dreadful machine, but they claimed it was printed at the Catholic Worker. More likely it was printed on the War Resistors League mimeograph machine. Whenever I had to mimeograph anything, I went down there to do it. They had a much better machine. So I suspect that it was just part of the bluff of the magazine to say that it was printed at the Catholic Worker. But, if a copy had reached him, the Cardinal wouldn’t have been interested in hearing arguments about whose mimeograph machine it was.

We didn’t know. I don’t think any of us knew how nip and tuck it had been sometimes with the Chancery, and how hard it had been for Dorothy to keep the paper going as a up-front Catholic publication called The Catholic Worker. Not The Christian Worker or Jesus Says or anything but The Catholic Worker. On the one hand, she had to find ways to convince the Catholic Church that this was a sincere, deeply-rooted, obedient phenomena out of the sense of obedience, that it came out of discipleship and was an authentic phenomena that had a genuine place in the Catholic Church. Very difficult.

And on the other hand, she didn’t want to bother the volunteers with a lot of this struggle that she had. Volunteers who would come and go. It was largely carried on her shoulders. Perhaps with a few friends who we who were working there didn’t even know that much about. Her sister or people that she would spend time with and no doubt tell the awful stories of what she was having to go through.

Ro: With these kids, basically.

Jim: She was very good with the young people. She didn’t want to blow her stack at us too much. She tried to work in a very gentle story-telling, invitational way with us, by and large. But in this matter, I think she felt used. And I think she was used, actually. It was terrible, actually. What was going on. There was a kind of decadent quality about it, really. But it was what was going on in New York at the time. It was the sub-culture that was in New York at the time. And at the Catholic Worker, the door didn’t close very rapidly. Because the Catholic Worker doesn’t generally throw people out, people could find a nitch there that they wouldn’t find any place else.

Ro: When did you come to Holland? Right after you got out of jail?

Jim: No, I came here after several years of editing Fellowship magazine. And before that I was working at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine where we had a Thomas Merton Center. And before that I was with the Emmaus Community in East Harlem, which was sort of Catholic Worker offshoot. And I worked with Commonweal magazine right after I got out of jail. From 1970 to 1977, I was in or near New York City.

Ro: What made you decide to come to Holland?

Jim: I’d always wanted to live in Europe. Always — I mean for many years it had been an appealing idea. I had been over here a couple of times, well, maybe half a dozen times. In ‘64 I had an invitation to work for a peace publication in England, and I turned it down very reluctantly because I felt that the war in Viet Nam required that I stay in America.

That was long before I went to prison for the Milwaukee episode.

I’m just trying to think if the Catholic Worker had anything to do with getting interested in Europe. I knew there was a Pax movement in Europe, and I was very interested in that. I liked the Pax publication that came to the Catholic Worker from England. I think that was beautifully done and very interesting. And I liked English Catholicism a lot–Chesterton, and Ronald Knox, and Gill. It seemed to me that very inspiring things had happened in the English Catholic Church, and I wanted to know more about that.

There were also… we had links with France at the Catholic Worker. Things that had been going on in France had mattered to the Catholic Worker. Jacques Maritain had visited us and I didn’t know anything about Jacques Maritain. I really don’t, even to this day, know very much about Jacques Maritain. But I thought it was… somehow the Catholicism of the Catholic Church was made more real for me by the Catholic Worker.

Ro: But you didn’t move to Europe with any sort of… because of dissatisfaction…

Jim: I came to work for the organization that I’m working for now, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. They needed a new General Secretary. At the time it was called Coordinator. The organization was in big trouble, and I felt I might be able to help. And I was very excited about the chance to live in Europe.

I was also very concerned about how parochial the American peace movement was. Or how parochial Americans are, including people in the peace movement. How parochial people are even the Catholic Church. I mean even when you are thinking of the world, it’s always in terms of America. It’s always as victim of America, or unbenefited yet by America, or something about America. You know, America isn’t like Steinberg’s map of the world where New York City fills up 97 percent of the known world.

By working in Europe in the peace movement, and also as a journalist and writer, I could do a lot with the things that interested me. I could do it better from here. And I think that’s true, actually. I find it easier to write here than I do in the United States because it’s much less distracting environment. I can spend at least one hundred evenings a year on the writing I’m doing. I could never do that in New York City or any place that I can think of in the United States, unless maybe if I went way out to the remote countryside. And God knows how I would make a living out there!

But the demands on you, the things that are happening, the things that your friends are doing, the invitations. I don’t have that much will power. I’d get swept away by all kinds of things. And two-thirds of those evenings that I’m able to use for reading and writing here would not be available for that use.

Ro: So it wasn’t dissatisfaction with the politics as…

Jim: No. As a matter of fact I’d be happy to live there again. I wouldn’t have any problems about going back to America. There are a lot of things I’d miss. It would be like moving back to the wild West compared to Holland, but that’s not why I’m here. I came here for something, not to get away from something. Now I’m here because the kids… I mean it’s home for the kids.

Ro: Well, this is now your home.

Jim: It’s not my home, even now, but it’s my kid’s home. And I’m very reluctant about being elsewhere … especially because the three children from my previous marriage would still be here. I don’t want them to grow up without me being close by. Also I need them.

Ro: It’s really nice that you can be together.

Jim: That’s very important to me. I grew up without my father being close by. I wouldn’t want that to happen to my kids. So if I can manage to stay here, I’ll do it. And it turns out to be very nice arrangement. It’s a kind of, not exactly a contemplative life, but a more contemplative life, in this little house in this little town, than we could lead in America.

Ro: Just having a street the size of Kanisstraat. It makes a whole difference in the way you think of life. It’s not having a car.

Jim: This house stands on the ground that a monastery stood on. And I think there is something of a monastic quality here. Something. Some sacred space. You can create sacred space, but you can also build on sacred space. And that makes it a little bit easier to create it.

Ro: Tell me how you met Thomas Merton.

Jim: It was like so many of these things, through Dorothy. Dorothy was corresponding with Merton. I think he started the correspondence. They were writing letters fairly frequently. Every couple of months there might be a letter from Merton. Dorothy gave me something of his to edit, an essay called “The Root of War is Fear.” It still amazes me to think of her handing a text by Thomas Merton’s to a nineteen or twenty year old boy. Not that there was much I had to do — stick in subheads and decide whether a few paragraphs that he had written as an addendum should be at the beginning or the end of the article. I think we might have even changed the headline, a thing which editors often do — to prove that they are editors, they’ll change the title on an article.

Somehow I wrote to him. Probably Dorothy suggested I do so. Whether it was over that article or something else that came up at that time. The letters are still around. We could look them up and see. But the correspondence, at the beginning, had to do with Dorothy. It had to do with the Catholic Worker. And I think that his interest in me had a lot to do with his identifying with a young person going to the Catholic Worker. Identifying with an eager convert making those choices. A lot of Merton’s spirituality had to do with wanting to do things which he couldn’t do. And so he identified with people who were doing those things. He felt the deep connection with some of these people.

What I didn’t realize until recently was that one of the largest blocks of letter Merton wrote were those he sent to me. I had no idea. How would I know? I was quite flabbergasted when I discovered fifty pages of letters written to me in the book that Bill Shannon edited [The Hidden Ground of Love]. And it’s not all the letters, just the ones Shannon found interesting, and only one’s written by Merton, not mine to him, thank God.

Ro: How did that feel to…

Jim: I remember feeling at the time that, uh… as if I had given a piece of the true Cross or something.

We were laughing over lunch in our office today about how many pieces of the true Cross there are… there must be enough to build a major city with. But then I was thinking that this joke is, in fact, kind of cynical and off the mark because if you actually got all the pieces of the true Cross together, there probably wouldn’t be enough to make a table. Because there was such a sense of the sacred and such a sense of the history of the Cross in earlier times that it wasn’t that easy, really. There was a sense of responsibility. Today, we have a caricature of this process. Dorothy wouldn’t have laughed at a joke about the true Cross….

Ro: Of course cradle Catholics don’t think there’s anything wrong with laughing about it.

Jim: Oh no. You can laugh about it. But what I was thinking as I went away from the table where I had been chuckling over this thing and into the darkroom…. Actually you’re probably wrong. I mean the joke was funny. The reality of it is that the joke is more revealing of our idea of the past than of the past itself. We know far less about the past than we imagine. And we don’t know…

It’s only through the Orthodox church that I’ve begun to have some idea of what it is to have the sense of the holy. We are so removed from that. We are so amused. We are so cynical that we just can’t imagine what it would be like if a piece of the true Cross came into our hands. It would hardly mean anything more to us than a piece of the true toothpick. It just wouldn’t astound us. We wouldn’t get down on our knees.

Ro: Now are you seeing this as a result of just secularism in general or of the Vatican Council?

Jim: I think it’s secularism. Vatican II was a wonderful event. The Holy Spirit was very busy there. I’m not grinding my teeth over any of these things. I think Vatican II is one of the places where it happened — the desperate struggle with secularism.

I don’t know… I just don’t know what’s going to happen. Happy endings don’t always happen. Visit Russia. Visit cities like Smolensk where only one or two buildings survived the Second World War. An entire city and fewer people than buildings survived. We think about happy endings, but most people don’t have happy endings. Visit the favelas in Brazil. People that have been swept out of their homes to their deaths on the hillsides. No happy ending. And I don’t know that there is going to be a happy ending for the West. We are always building our houses on the muddy hillsides.

Dorothy, I think, had a very acute sense of that. When I think of Dorothy, I think of her first and foremost as a woman at prayer. That’s always my first image of her, even while she was alive, and certainly since she died.

I can picture Dorothy in the chapel at the Catholic Worker farm, first on Staten Island and later up at Tivoli. I would sometimes come in there, and there she would be. If she was at the farm, there was a fairly good chance you’d find her in the chapel. Either there or at the table drinking tea. If she was at the table, she’d be sitting with one or two or three or four people talking. And if she was in the chapel, she would of course be by herself. Even if there were other people, unless it was Mass, she would be by herself. You would find her on her knees praying. Those old knees and those thick, dark stockings and those bulky shoes. She would be there for a long time. And I’m sure it wasn’t that comfortable for her to be on her knees at that age.

I can remember — nosy, snooping around, person that I was and still am I suppose — going up to look into her missile or Bible or whatever she had left on the pew. And looking through and seeing all these lists of people that she was praying about. In that unmistakable handwriting.

Dorothy was a praying person. It was very much that liturgical and sacramental center of the church which so thrilled her. She never lost that. And it was heartbreaking for her, later in her life, to see that there was very little of that left in the Catholic Worker movement, or a lot of the people coming to the Catholic Worker movement couldn’t… wouldn’t open those doors for anything. They were there for… oh, God knows! Who knows what their motives were? But they thought a lot of things that were very precious to her were ridiculous.

Ro: I’m thinking that it was generational in a way, and that maybe it’s wearing itself out. I mean that the sense of the sacred, or at least the sense of some sort of liturgical prayer life, is returning.

Jim: Oh that’s good. I’m so happy to hear that.

Ro: You know in some houses… we can talk about that later.

Jim: I’d love to hear about that. My fingers are not very near the pulse of that…

Ro: I’m hearing more people talk about it. It used to be like it was just not cool.

Jim: Right. (Laughter)

Ro: It just wasn’t what you did…

Jim: Oh, I was right there. I mean…

Ro: How many draft cards did you burn?

Jim: Well, I don’t know. Files, not cards, by the way. We took out sacks and sacks of them from this Milwaukee office building, and then we burned them.

Ro: No, not draft files. I mean your own cards.

Jim: I don’t know if I ever burned my own draft card. I don’t remember. I probably… yes, I did. Yes, there was a press conference, and I burned it, and it was in the newspapers. I should remember that! It didn’t seem to me very significant at the time, and it doesn’t seem very significant to me now.

Ro: Who was the one that kept… was it Tom (Cornell) who kept asking you for other cards…

Jim: Yes, Tom Cornell would burn his, you know, routinely. It was only on one occasion that it mattered to the government, and then he went to prison for that. Most of the time, they just scoffed at it. But there was some member of Congress who was up in arms about it at one point, so he was able to make it into a national issue. And so naturally, we enthusiastically rose to the bait because we were made for each other, that Congressman and ourselves. (Loud laughter) He opened the door and we flew through.

Ro: What I’m thinking about is that maybe… there were lots of rituals during the sixties that were not liturgical. That maybe (things like burning draft cards) took the place of liturgy for the young people who couldn’t pray publicly. I don’t know.

Jim: Well, I don’t have a very romantic idea of most of the things we did. Maybe later in my life I’ll have a more positive attitude toward it. I now think there was very little positive in it. It was the action of people who were in a state of fierce alienation, and there was a kind of embolism. We weren’t interested in breaking windows or writing our names on the walls. That was not nearly interesting or important enough. We were furious at America. Rightly so. And that fury was at the center of much that we did. And if we could do something that was outrageous, great.

But I think Dorothy’s approach was always centered more constructively. When that’s gone, the Catholic Worker movement is dead. Dorothy and the Catholic Worker movement centered its radicalism in care for people. And it has constantly made everything accountable to that experience — to what is happening to people. All people. The Catholic Worker has probably been saved by that centering. And all of us who are part of the Catholic Worker, in a way, probably were saved by that.

Ro: Well, she had trouble, I think, with the Milwaukee Fourteen and…

Jim: She did. Oh yes!

Ro: But she still cared for you.

Jim: She never said, “To hell with you!” Her first thoughts were sometimes quite different from her second thoughts. Regarding draft-record burning, her first thoughts were very positive, quite uncritical. I wish she had the second thoughts much sooner than she did, because I wouldn’t have joined the Milwaukee Fourteen — it would have been the Milwaukee Thirteen.

Her first thoughts about the Catonsville Nine were very approving. She expressed then in a talk at the National Liturgical Conference in Washington in the summer or fall of 1968. I was in the audience, so I was there to hear it, and her opinion meant a great deal to me. I was connected with the people who were doing this, and I was one of the people more or less responsible for the Defense Committee of the Catonsville Nine. So I was approving of it, but it had never occurred to me to go and do anything like that. I mean these were my friends, and they were going to go to jail. We needed to do something to support them and make what they had done significant, or to make it more significant.

I was quite astounded the first time the damage occurred at the idea that there should be another similar action. I was flabbergasted. Jim Douglas and I were together at some rectory in the Bronx, visiting Dan Berrigan, and Dan expressed his keen disappointment that nothing else had happened. My jaw just about fell down twenty thousand leagues under the sea.

Ro: You thought it was to be a one time thing.

Jim: I didn’t see this as some kind of new ceremony. And I still don’t see it that way… I’m not happy with it as a ceremony. I’m a critic of the Plowshares stuff. Ro:

Ro: But yet you went to the meeting in the barn.

Jim: That’s right. I went to that. Yes. I was, of course, passionate to do something about the war in Viet Nam and not just to be encouraging people to be draft resistors or conscientious objectors. What was going on in Viet Nam was very real to me because I had a very dear friend who was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. We had traveled a lot together. So I was very open to this. But another big factor was Dorothy’s early enthusiasm. Then when she turned around and had a second thoughts, I was quite let down. But by that time I was in jail.

It has taken me quite a long time to agree with her. Her criticism was well founded and quite right. I think what we did was good — I’m not sorry I did it. But I wouldn’t build any shrines over it. It was a cry of the heart at the time. It disturbs me, though, to see it become a kind of institution.

Merton had the same feelings, a similar criticism. At the time, I was annoyed by both of them. Partly because I had my own thing to defend. You know, once you’ve done something like that, you put a lot on the line. You tend to become very annoyed with people who don’t agree, especially if you admire them.

Ro: Well, of course, now it’s sort of the pinnacle. Getting your stripes.

Jim: Right. Well that reveals precisely why I think it’s such a… (long pause)

Ro: Another thing I should have brought… I only picked up one of them because I didn’t have very much money and they were asking… but there’s a whole pamphlet now that summarizes the Plowshares actions.

Jim: I have one or two. I don’t know if I have that one. But I have…

Ro: You probably have the one Ann Montgomery edited. This is just a new little pamphlet.

Jim: No, I haven’t gotten anything new.

Ro: Anyway, but it just summarizes all of them and lists how some people…

Jim: Did this and did that. Kind of pedigrees.

Ro: Paul Kabot was in four of them. So talk a bit about why you find this…

Jim: Because I don’t think it touches the problem. One of the things that Merton said that impressed me very much, and that I have never stopped thinking about, is that the root of war is fear. That was in the first article by him published in the Catholic Worker. The thing I mentioned having to edit. I therefore had to read it. One of the nice things about being an editor is you actually read what the newspaper publishes. Maybe you’re the only who does. So I read it then, and I’ve read it since. If that is true, that the root of war is far, then peace work has to have something to do with helping people overcome that fear. If you manage actually to reinforce the fears, no matter under what banner you’re doing it, you’re contributing to the problem of war. And I think very often peace movement activities, not always and maybe not even only a small part of the time, but a significant number of peace movement activities, probably do more harm than good.

Ro: Who are they inspiring fear in? The people who are making the war decisions?

Jim: I think people who see the society collapsing, who see the structures of life collapsing around them… they’re living in a fear. They see everything coming apart at the seams. And then along come religious people, not smashing windows but attacking what they see as basic structures of society. That’s scary. One of the things that’s very often missing in a peace movement is a compassion for, a sense of sympathy for, those people who are frightened by Communism, frightened by change, frightened by AIDS, frightened by divorce rates, frightened by the possibility that their kids are gonna’ end up gay or whatever, you know, all the ten thousand things that they’re worried about… that they will be robbed, mugged, killed, raped, um… et cetera.

Ro: And you’re saying that an act of non-violent civil disobedience makes those people even more afraid.

Jim: It can. I think if there is a sympathy for people who are afraid and that you can work on that, you can do some very good things with an act of property destruction. I don’t think it’s inevitable that property destruction is bad. But when you decorate it with all kinds of slogans like “this is an act of disarmament,” I think that’s just hype, moved right out of Madison Avenue into the peace movement. For me, disarmament is when a person who has a weapon puts it away, gets rid of it, melts it down, not me taking your gun away.

If I steal your gun from you, that’s not an act of disarmament ’cause you want every bit as much to have that weapon in the future as you have it in the past. Maybe more. Maybe you get two to replaced the one that was taken.

It’s a question of how do we change? How do we become a converted people?

Ro: Okay, to get back to this fear thing. Maybe the act of the civil disobedience is, to the people doing it…. it’s a way to get rid of their fear. To mitigate their own fear. I mean, I guess I’m speaking pretty personally here. I went to the Pentagon alone, and I felt really vulnerable.

Jim: It’s a scary place.

Ro: Mrs. Middle Class. I had never even been there. God is it scary! It’s awful! But I mean part of the reason I did it… this may sound a little trite… but, for me it was meeting the beast. After I did that, I wasn’t as afraid anymore ’cause I knew I could do this alone.

Jim: Right. I think that’s a very significant thing to do.

Ro: I guess I’m thinking… I’m not sure… I talked to Jerry Ebner for hours and he never… he didn’t sound like this. But maybe the people that beat on the silos are doing it so they won’t be as afraid anymore. Like me.

Jim: Maybe. I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t want this to come across like some kind of a big attack on the people that do these things, because many of them are my friends and I admire them greatly. And I know that they are spiritually very deep in it. They are wonderful people. Dorothy felt that way about us. She didn’t agree with what we had done, but she treasured us and supported us, wrote about us, published our things in the newspaper. (Pause) But she also made it clear that this was not her idea of the best way to bring about the change that we wanted. And I think she had something there.

It was about seven years ago when I realized that the peace movement in the United States and the rest of the West was going to get nowhere unless it started thinking about the Soviet Union. That, in fact, we were thinking about weapons all the time.

That’s another criticism of the Plowshares. It’s weapon centered. It’s not relationship centered. The problem is not the weapons. The weapons are a problem, but the real problem is the relationship. And that meant that we had to be much less ignorant about the people these weapons were aimed at. We knew practically nothing about them. We knew much more about the names of missiles and the names of airplanes and numbers of megatons and all these kinds of technical military vocabulary. We were very pleased with ourselves. We could argue with anybody in the Pentagon. We learned all about the arms race — in their terms. We knew their language. But we knew just about as much as anybody in the Pentagon, maybe less, but certainly not more, about the Russians.

So in my work, of course, I had the opportunity to try to go to the Soviet Union. And eventually the opportunity came for a little conference arranged jointly by the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Christian Peace Conference and hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. It happened to be in Moscow. We were guests of the Russian Orthodox Church and were meeting in the office of one of the bishops. We were invited to go to a liturgy on one Sunday and did. And I had not since I was in the Black church experienced that kind of intensity in a worshiping community.

I had never imagined anything like that. That it would be possible for that many people, least of all in the Soviet Union, but any place in the world…forget about Moscow, forget about Soviet Union, forget about all that. I was amazed, absolutely amazed. The fact that it existed anywhere. Praying people are … you can feel them, feel their spiritual energy. You can go into a hall, and if there is somebody in there who is really a praying person, you know it. It’s a kind of smell. And when you are surrounded by thousands of them at one time, it is an experience.

Ro: What about prison? Dorothy wrote about this a lot. And I have a friend, Ardeth, who spends a lot of time in jail. To her, the jail is personally good because you’re one with the people who are really messed over in the system. And it’s a retreat. Karl Meyer used to say that he liked to go to jail to get away from the hospitality house.

Jim: There is something to be said for that. I certainly appreciated the year I spent in jail. Being part of a Catholic Worker community was good preparation for going to jail. Most people don’t have any preparation at all, don’t want to be there. But in the Catholic Worker movement, you have a lot of preparation. (Laughter) And there lots of things you can do with the time. And if you are of a mind to do so, it can be a very… I don’t want to romanticize it. It’s very difficult and lonely, but it can also be extremely significant and positive. I would say that the year I spent in jail was one of the best years of my life.

Ro: You had access to the books you wanted?

Jim: I was very lucky because we were in the Wisconsin Prison system. We went to state prison rather than federal prison because we were being brave, you know — heroic. And we had heard that state prisons were worse than the federal prisons. Usually that’s so. But it wasn’t true in the Wisconsin system. So by accident we managed to get our cake and eat it, too. The state prison system in Wisconsin has a library, a real library. Not just some old Zane Grey novels. It’s part of the university library system. So we could read our heads off if we wanted to. And I did. I read all the books Dorothy said I should read. (Laughter)

Ro: You wouldn’t have been able to do that if you had been running the (soup) line.

Jim: No. I wouldn’t… I don’t know if I ever would have read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Gorky and the others that have been so influential in my life if it hadn’t been for being in prison for a year, in a prison where I had the possibility to read those books. In some prisons, you might not have that chance. In many. But on the other hand, if I had come into prison from some other corner of the peace movement, I wouldn’t have even thought about reading those books. So that… a lot of the things that have happened in my life since then, would have to do with what Dorothy said I should read and then being in prison and being able to do it.

One of the main bridges for me in traveling in the Soviet Union has been Dostoevsky. Once you start talking about Dostoevsky, conversation takes wing. The formalities are over. You’re really talking about something important to just about everybody. Dostoevsky is a living presence in the life of anybody in Russia. Dostoevsky lives in their hearts as he did in Dorothy’s.

Dorothy is something of a Russian, in that sense. For her, books matter. Your life is not disconnected from your books. The reason books and authors have had lots of trouble in Russia is because, for as long as anybody can remember, books mattered to people in a very intimate, very deep way. I mean people will argue at length about different conversations in Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. They know them all. They have mattered to them in the way that Dostoevsky’s Karamazov mattered to Dorothy.

Ro: And they matter to you?

Jim: Maybe not as much as to Dorothy. I mean I don’t know. They sneak up on you.

* * *

to continue, go to part 2: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2007/04/23/ddremembered2/

* * *

Learning to be Peacemakers

lecture given by Jim Forest at the Catholic Peace Fellowship conference in South Bend, Indiana, on 24 March 2007

Every Christian is called to be a peacemaker. In the Beatitudes, Christ’s own brief summary of the Gospel message, he identifies peacemakers as children of God. But in fact, even after years of effort, not many of us are very good at being peacemakers. What we are good at is creating division, irritating our neighbors, ignoring and avoiding a great many people, thinking all too often how much better the world would be if only this person or that would disappear. We tend to love ideology — or theology — more than we love our enemies. We find a great many things to argue about among ourselves.

Yet, despite our many failures at being peacemakers, we keep trying and sometimes we even achieve something. Occasionally figs grow from thistles. Occasionally water turns to wine.

What I would like to talk about is some aspects of what I have learned about peacemaking over the years, and — as this is a Catholic Peace Fellowship gathering — I’ll try to connect it to the early history of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

Perhaps the first lesson is that even very small endeavors can have significant results. When we started the Catholic Peace Fellowship back in 1964, we had only the faintest idea that it might make a positive difference in the world or in the Church.

The creation of the Catholic Peace Fellowship was originally an idea that came to us from John Heidbrink, a Protestant minister on the staff members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. John was deeply impressed by Pope John XXIII and also an attentive reader of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. When John wrote to me suggesting starting the CPF, it was toward the end of 1961, only about half a year after I had left the Navy as a conscientious objector. Since my discharge, I had been a member of the Catholic Worker staff in Manhattan. I shared John’s letter with Dorothy. She was skeptical — “Those Protestants just want to use you,” she told me. But when we actually started the CPF in the Fall of 1964, she immediately joined it and became at the same time a member of CPF’s advisory board.

In fact the Catholic Peace Fellowship was nothing more than a twig on the Catholic Worker tree. Tom Cornell and I had both been part of the Catholic Worker community in New York. Everything worthwhile we have done with our lives ever since is in large measure the result of having been close to Dorothy Day. Had there been no Catholic Worker movement, there would have been no Catholic Peace Fellowship.

In starting the CPF, Tom and I, and those who were cheering us along, wanted to concentrate on one aspect of the Catholic Worker message: its insistence that people called to do the works of mercy were not called to commit acts of war. You should not feed the hungry with one hand and destroy their crops with the other. You should not clothe the naked with one hand and drop bombs on them with the other. Conscientious objection was something incidental — you couldn’t be a guardian of life and have your finger on the trigger at the same time. Since its early years, the Catholic Worker had supported conscientious objectors, even calling for the formation of “a mighty league of conscientious objectors.”

In 1964 the Vietnam War was heating up. That August US troop levels were raised to 21,000 — not even half the number of US soldiers who were to die in Vietnam before the war ended eleven years later. In 1964 no one had any idea how huge a war America was wading into, how life-consuming it would be, and how much havoc it would cause. I was a journalist at the time, working for a daily newspaper on Staten Island. One of my earliest CPF undertakings was, in my spare time, to write a short history of the war in Vietnam. I recall being surprised, as I combed the public library for information, how little there was about Vietnam.

By the start of 1965, thanks to several donors, there was enough financial support for the Catholic Peace Fellowship for me to quit my newspaper job and to work full-time for CPF. We rented an unused room from the War Resisters League down on Beekman Street, just a block from City Hall in lower Manhattan. Tom Cornell soon joined the work, giving up a teaching job to do so. Financially, we were both walking on thin ice on a salary of $65 a week.

We published a newsletter and launched occasional projects, but it soon emerged that our main work was draft counseling. It was not unusual to have fifty people a week in need of help and advice. Some of it was done by letter, some by phone, and some face-to-face.

Part of this influx of young people seeking counsel was the consequence of our having published a small booklet, “Catholics and Conscientious Objection.” We had worked hard on the text. Various scholars and writers — one of them was Thomas Merton — read the draft text and helped make it better. Finally we submitted it to the Archdiocese of New York, applying for an imprimatur — an official declaration that the text contained no theological errors. To our astonishment, the imprimatur was given. We would not have been more pleased to have received the Nobel Prize for Peace. This imprimatur made it a good deal easier for the booklet to be accepted for use in churches and parish school. By the war’s end in 1975, CPF had printed more than 200,000 copies of the booklet. Undoubtedly it was a factor in the many thousands of Catholic conscientious objectors who refused to take part in the Vietnam War.

Peter Maurin said, “If you want to talk to the man in the street, you have to be on the street.” It’s useful to publish, even essential, but words on paper aren’t enough. Tom and I did a great deal of public speaking all over the country — at churches and schools, at seminaries and universities. Events were organized by the local CPF groups that had sprung up. Doors seemed to fly open, though sometimes it was the back door. I recall being invited to meet with a group of students at the seminary of the Archdiocese of New York, but it was definitely an unpublicized, off-the-record nighttime conversation by invitation only. The seminary rector would not have been pleased.

As was clear that night at the seminary, the word “peace” is often a problematic word, a word that alarms many people. Certainly the New Testament meaning of peace was far from obvious to a great many people, including lots of Christians. Part of our work was to try and restore the word, it having been so damaged by political abuse.

In contemporary usage, the word “peace” has been used by war-applauding politicians of every party and in many countries. The result is that, for many Americans, “peace” is synonymous with “Pax Americana” — a world conformed to the will of those who shape the policies of the USA.

Half a century ago, when I was growing up in New Jersey, I recall a slogan that was then being used to cancel postage stamps: “Pray for peace.” Every envelope that came into our house bore these three-words. Meanwhile, while every citizen was being urged to pray for peace, the government was exploding nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert and the South Pacific and fighting a war in Korea. In the same period, the US Strategic Air Command, the section of the Air Force responsible for fighting nuclear war, adopted the slogan: “Peace is our profession.” I wouldn’t be surprised if they use it still.

Not long ago, when there were still two Superpowers, the Soviet Union had its own similar ideas about peace. If you had a dollar for every Soviet poster and banner that had the word “peace” on it — “Mir” in Russian — you would be nearly as rich as Bill Gates. For the leaders of the Kremlin, peace meant a world whose political and economic structures were in harmony with the USSR.

For both Superpowers, weapons of mass destruction (not only nuclear but chemical and biological) were an essential element in their strategies for peace. Peace was thus a consequence of the readiness to commit mass murder.

In nearly every context of common use, the word “peace” has to do not with what is but what could be. Peace is seen as a future consequence of right choices made in the present.

What about “peace” in the New Testament? Here it’s a word used well over a hundred times. Remove the verses in which it occurs and you no longer have the good news of the Gospel. For example consider these familiar words from Christ: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27) Or this: “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

The remarkable thing about peace, as Christ uses the word, is that it’s a condition that exists in the present tense, not something to hope for in the future once we have improved society. But from the point of view of the peaceless world in which we actually find ourselves, is such a thing possible? Does it make sense? How can one speak of being at peace when there is no peace? As the poet Bertold Brecht wrote, “A smooth brow betokens a hard heart …. He who laughs has not yet heard the terrible tidings.” In brief, a socially responsible person has no right to be at peace. How dare Christ give anyone peace in a world of daily crucifixions? What he should have done was to bless the troubled of heart.

From time to time peacemakers have to open the dictionary and do a little verbal archeology. The earliest New Testament texts are in Greek and here the word normally translated as “peace” is eirene. The noun has its root in the verb eiro: to join, to connect, to unify. It’s a verb that suggests being in communion. If you consult a biblical dictionary, eirene is defined as a state of national tranquillity, a time of exemption from the rage and havoc of war; peace, harmony and concord between individuals; a condition of security, safety, prosperity, felicity. Getting to deeper waters, it’s not something we achieve but something that is given — it is that peace which only can be given by the Messiah. Eirene sums up what it means to be in the kingdom of God and thus a person no longer paralyzed by fear of death, or, to put it positively, someone in a Paschal condition — a person who is risen from the dead.

Another word to consider is “blessed.” Christ says, “Blessed are peacemakers.” But what does “blessed” mean? The Greek word for blessed is makarios. Dig into the roots of makarios and you discover it means sharing the condition of gods, whose main attribute is immortality. We might say “Risen from the dead” in place of “blessed.” Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit. Risen from the dead are those who mourn. Risen from the dead are the meek. Risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Risen from the dead are the merciful. Risen from the dead are the pure in heart. Risen from the dead are those who make peace. Risen from the dead are they who accept persecution for Christ’s sake. All the Beatitudes — a ladder of divine ascent — have to do with how we enter the kingdom of God. It’s a project that has nothing to do with future expectations or the result of social restructuring, but simply how we are living day-to-day, here and now, in this damaged world. If we don’t know Christ’s peace today, neither will we know it tomorrow.

There is a much loved Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov, who taught this simple maxim: “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and thousands around you will be saved.” When others encounter Christ’s peace in those who follow Christ, they can see the possibility of not living a death-driven, fear-centered existence. This is why saints are so important, saints being those people in whom we see the Beatitudes being lived. You meet a holy person and your life changes.

Consider the incredible influence one modern saint, the servant of God Dorothy Day, has had on so many people, and still has many years after her death. She has given us a vivid idea of what it means to follow Christ, an impression of what it’s like living in the kingdom of heaven, living in Christ’s peace, even though we find ourselves in a world of bloodshed, of injuries and death, a world of cruelties and tragedies.

To be missionaries of Christ’s peace was what we had in mind in starting the Catholic Peace Fellowship back in 1964. It was not an ideological or political enterprise. Journalists later came to speak of something called “the Catholic left,” but in fact we had nothing to do with the left. We knew considerably more about Saint Benedict and Saint Francis of Assisi than about Marx and Lenin. Our inspiration came from the Gospels, the sacraments, the liturgical life, the witness of the saints, and the teaching of the Church.

While many people helped us, our two principal mentors were Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Dorothy was close at hand. We talked with her often and were part of the Catholic Worker’s extended community. In Merton’s case, though there were a few visits at the monastery, the contact was mainly by letter. These letters remain timely. I urge you to read them. You will find them in a book called The Hidden Ground of Love. Much that the Catholic Peace Fellowship did in those years was in large measure thanks to Merton’s guidance.

As they had so much influence on what we did, perhaps it’s helpful to consider what Merton and Dorothy had in common.

I would put at the top of the list their great gift for hospitality — their ability to make people feel welcome.

In Dorothy’s case, the greatest monument to her life are all the houses of hospitality that exist thanks to her. We even have one in Amsterdam, not far from where I live.

As a Trappist monk, Merton was part of an ancient tradition formed by the Holy Rule of St. Benedict, one of whose precepts that “each guest shall be received as Christ.” Not only was Merton part of a community of hospitality, but he managed personally to reach out, through letters and visits, to all sorts of people who in those days would not have expected a friendly dialogue with a Catholic monk.

For both Dorothy and Merton, to imitate Christ meant to welcome the other. The other is the neighbor, whether familiar or unfamiliar — including the stranger, the outsider, the afflicted, the alien, the misfit, the bum, the enemy. Hospitality was a refusal to treat anyone, even your enemy, as an enemy.

As Merton wrote in an early draft of The Seven Storey Mountain: “The ascent of the soul to personal mystical union with God is made to depend, in our life, upon our ability to love one another.” [The Thomas Merton Reader, p 146]

There is something else they had in common. Both Dorothy and Merton were people of prayer. For Merton, as for any Trappist monk, prayer was life’s main event. It was to lead a life of prayer that Merton went to the monastery.

While Dorothy was no monk, I have never known anyone with a more rigorous prayer life or a greater commitment to attending Mass than Dorothy Day. When I think of her, my primary image is on a woman on her knees at prayer — at one of the several churches near the Catholic Worker or at the chapel we had at the Catholic Worker farm. (We had permission from the archdiocese to reserve the sacrament.)

Prayer undergirds hospitality. Prayer is a pathway to meeting others no less than meeting God. For both Dorothy and Merton, it’s impressive to see their capacity to enter into dialogue with others, not only Catholics but other Christians, and not only Christians but people of other religious traditions, and not only religious people but people estranged from belief.

Anyone who was close to Dorothy and Merton learned by their example how important it is to live a deeply rooted, disciplined spiritual life. Prayer and sacramental life are not items to be worked into our agenda if we happen to have a little spare time. They are absolutely basic. Without them all sorts of worthwhile things we might wish to do are likely to go off the track, or to become extensions of our own greedy egos rather than acts of love and prayer.

Both of them made good use of confession. I think of Dorothy heading off every Saturday night to go to confession. I once asked her what she had to confess. “My bad temper, my impatience,” she said. On another occasion she told me confession gave her an opportunity to nip sins while they were in the bud.

I recall a story Dorothy told me about advice she received in confession one year before I had known her. For many years, she said, she had been a heavy smoker. Her day began with lighting up a cigarette. Her hardest voluntary sacrifice every Lent was giving up smoking, but having to get by without a cigarette made her increasingly irritable as the days passed, until the rest of the Catholic Worker community was pleading with her to light up a smoke. Stubborn lady that she was, Dorothy didn’t give in but it was a grueling act of abstinence and hardly less grueling on everyone close to her. With another Lent approaching, Dorothy was resolved to once again fast from smoking and told her confessor of her intention. He responded by urging her not to give up cigarettes that year — it was too hard on her co-workers — but instead to pray daily, “Dear God, help me stop smoking.” Dorothy told me she used that prayer for several years without it having any impact on her addiction. Then one morning she woke up, reached for a cigarette, realized she didn’t want it — and never smoked another.

Both Merton and Dorothy were ascetics. Trappists did not own anything, period. Catholic Workers didn’t own very much. Dorothy called this voluntary poverty. They set an example of not seeking happiness in possessions.

Just as challenging to me as Dorothy’s personal ascetic discipline was her attitude toward the Church. She was often criticized for being so disobedient in the political world and yet so obedient as a Catholic. It isn’t that she wasn’t aware that the Church is always urgently in need of reform — she was quite able of comparing certain priests and bishops to blowfish and sharks and on one occasion went so far as to join in picketing the New York Chancery Office in support of a strike by grave diggers. But her basic attitude toward the Church was one of obedience and gratitude. This wasn’t simply a tactic she embraced in order not to be so quickly dismissed by the hierarchy. As she once said to me: “We don’t save the Church — the Church saves us.” There were some minor church teachings that she more or less ignored — she once chastised me for putting something in the paper about a plenary indulgence that had been authorized by Pope John XXIII — but I don’t recall her ever rejecting anything that was in any Catholic catechism, including plenary indulgences. She saw herself not as a prophet whom God had commissioned to chastise the Church, but simply as a woman struggling to live the teachings that Jesus announced to his followers and grateful to be a member of the Catholic Church which, for all its human failings, preserved the Gospel message and welcomed her to sacramental life.

Another point Merton and Dorothy had in common was a commitment to nonviolence. Not once in her 47 years as editor of The Catholic Worker did she publish any words of approbation regarding violence but rather continually reaffirmed her commitment to imitate Christ, who neither killed anyone one nor blessed any killings.

Merton had made his views known early on, in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, in explaining his reasons for being a conscientious objector:

“[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, ‘Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’.” [ SSM, pp 311-2]

Years later, in the period when he was one of the main advisors to the Catholic Peace Fellowship , Merton wrote: “The Christian does not need to fight and indeed it is better that he should not fight, for insofar as he imitates his Lord and Master, he proclaims that the Messianic Kingdom has come and bears witness to the presence of the Kyrios Pantocrator [the Lord of Creation] in mystery, even in the midst of the conflicts and turmoil of the world.” [Seeds of Destruction, p 129]

Merton may have been, in the Latin sense of the word, a pacifist — a peacemaker — but he was certainly not in favor of passivity. What Merton found most valuable in the just-war tradition was its insistence that evil must be actively opposed. It was this that drew him to Gandhi, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King.

One of the most significant publications that the Catholic Peace Fellowship produced in its early years was an essay by Merton, “Blessed are the Meek.” Merton’s topic was the Christian roots of nonviolence. It was especially written for CPF. Perhaps it’s time for CPF to reissue the booklet — and also make it available on its web site.

Another area of agreement for Dorothy and Merton was their non-confrontational approach to reform and renewal in the Church.

There is no time here to go into detail, but both of them, along with the Catholic Peace Fellowship, were deeply involved in the Second Vatican Council. Especially the content of Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Council’s final document, owes a great deal to Merton and Dorothy and even to the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

Another lesson in peacemaking we drew from both Dorothy and Merton is that, difficult though it may be at times, we shouldn’t be embarrassed to speak openly about God. God is a three-letter word that many people go to great lengths to avoid. Merton and Dorothy took pains not to secularize their vocabulary. It was Dorothy who said, “If I have achieved anything in my life it was because I was not afraid to talk about God.” Merton wrote in The Sign of Jonas, “The important thing is not to live for contemplation but to live for God.” Or as he put it in a letter to me at a time when I was struggling with discouragement: “All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love.”

Let me conclude by focusing on another lesson in peacemaking that was central to the example of both Dorothy and Merton: their amazing compassion toward people with whom they were at odds, and their readiness to meet and talk with opponents.

In Dorothy’s case, I recall how surprised I was to hear her speak in positive terms about bishops, such as our own Cardinal Spellman, who were regarded with outspoken contempt by most liberal Catholics. She was very resistant to the kinds of enmities that easily take root in people at odds with the world they live in. While Dorothy could sometimes be quite abrupt and on occasion lose her temper, in fact patience and kindness were her default settings, and they extended to cardinals and politicians.

Compassion was certainly a major theme in Merton’s letters to would-be peacemakers. Again and again he urged us to have more sympathy for the people who felt threatened by protest. He tried to convince us that self-righteousness will benefit neither ourselves nor anyone else. But without compassion, Merton pointed out, the protester tends to become more and more centered in anger and — far from assisting others on the path to conversion — easily becomes an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others. As he put it in one letter to me:

“We have to have a deep patient compassion for the fears of men, for the fears and irrational mania of those who hate or condemn us. . . . [These are, after all] the ordinary people, the ones who don’t want war, the ones who get it in the neck, the ones who really want to build a decent new world in which there will not be war and starvation.”

Yet, as Merton pointed out, most people are irritated or frightened by agitation even when it protests something ? militarism, nuclear weapons, social injustice ? which objectively endangers them and those they love. As he put it in another letter, “[People] do not feel at all threatened by the bomb . . . but they feel terribly threatened by some . . . student carrying a placard.”

Without love, especially love of opponents and enemies, he insisted that neither profound personal nor social transformation can occur. The paramount importance of love was a point he dwelled on in a letter to Dorothy Day, no doubt aware she would read it to all of us on the Catholic Worker staff:

“Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action. To shut out the person and to refuse to consider him as a person, as another self, we resort to the ‘impersonal law’ and to abstract ‘nature.’ That is to say we block off the reality of the other, we cut the intercommunication of our nature and his nature, and we consider only our own nature with its rights, its claims, it demands. And we justify the evil we do to our brother because he is no longer a brother, he is merely an adversary, an accused. To restore communication, to see our oneness of nature with him, and to respect his personal rights and his integrity, his worthiness of love, we have to see ourselves as similarly accused along with him … and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved. Then, instead of pushing him down, trying to climb out by using his head as a stepping-stone for ourselves, we help ourselves to rise by helping him to rise. For when we extend our hand to the enemy who is sinking in the abyss, God reaches out to both of us, for it is He first of all who extends our hand to the enemy. It is He who ‘saves himself’ in the enemy, who makes use of us to recover the lost groat which is His image in our enemy.”[Letter to Dorothy Day, December 20, 1961; H.L., 140-43.]

Merton noticed that when compassion and love are absent, actions that are superficially nonviolent in fact mask deep hostility, contempt and the desire to defeat and humiliate an opponent. As he put it to me in a very insightful letter:

“One of the problematic questions about nonviolence is the inevitable involvement of hidden aggressions and provocations. I think this is especially true when there are … elements that are not spiritually developed. It is an enormously subtle question, but we have to consider the fact that, in its provocative aspect, nonviolence may tend to harden opposition and confirm people in their righteous blindness. It may even in some cases separate men out and drive them in the other direction, away from us and away from peace. This of course may be (as it was with the prophets) part of God’s plan. A clear separation of antagonists…. [But we must] always direct our action toward opening people’s eyes to the truth, and if they are blinded, we must try to be sure we did nothing specifically to blind them.

“Yet there is that danger: the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence…. In our acceptance of vulnerability … we play [on the guilt of the opponent]. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of our time … all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds — race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation…. We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it. In fact, we must be careful how we ‘use’ truth, for we are ideally the instruments of truth and not the other way around.” [Letter to Jim Forest, February 6, 1962; HGL, pp 263-4.]

Both Dorothy and Merton were firm believers in patient efforts simply to communicate to others what the Gospel is all about, what the Church teaches, and the value of paying attention to saints who in various ways set a timely example. This is not so much carrying out what are sometimes called “prophetic actions” as engaging in ordinary acts of communication. While being patient and even supportive of me and others who engaged in such dramatic acts of civil disobedience as breaking into draft offices and burning draft files, neither Dorothy nor Merton recommended such tactics as a method of protest.

Forgive me for speaking at such length! Though it’s nearly twenty years since I was received into the Orthodox Church and have been deeply engaged in the Orthodox Peace Fellowship ever since, I still feel a deep bond with the Catholic Church. I thank God daily for all that I have received from the Catholic Church and for having been close to such God-revealing people as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. I still feel part of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

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Text as of March 17, 2007
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Jim and Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands
phone number: 072-515-4180 (outside Holland: 00-31-72-515-4180)
Jim’s e-mail: [email protected]
Jim and Nancy Forest web site: www.jimandnancyforest.com
Forest-Flier Editorial Services: www.forestflier.com
Photo web site: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/collections/
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site: www.incommunion.org
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The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life

Lecture given by Jim Forest at Maryknoll 28 March 2007; the talk is mainly composed of passages from a forthcoming book of the same title

For a child growing up in America, the word “pilgrim” had no religious connotations. Mainly heard in the plural, “Pilgrims” referred to a community of storm-defying, black-clad English Puritans who crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower, founding the village of Plymouth on the edge of Massachusetts Bay in December 1620. It wasn’t the destination the Pilgrims intended — their goal had been in Virginia — but rather where a furious winter storm delivered them. Pilgrims that they were, they accepted this as God’s will. The following Fall, the Pilgrims, with the local Indians who had helped them survive, organized a feast to celebrate a successful harvest. It was the origin of America’s favorite annual holiday. Thanksgiving was a feast that turned “pilgrim” into a word a child could inhale, two syllables that smelled of stuffed turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, creamed onions and pumpkin pie.

It was in eighth grade that I discovered that, long before the Mayflower set sail, there was another sort of pilgrim. This news came from the World Book Encyclopedia, a handsomely-bound set of books a meter wide that some generous soul had donated to the school and which providentially had landed in my classroom. It seemed to me a gift that had fallen out of heaven. I read my way through it, beginning with the first volume on the left: Aardvark to Bermuda. In the second volume I discovered an illustration from an early copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: a medieval picture of a group of colorfully dressed men and women making their way on horseback from London to Canterbury Cathedral under a lapis lazuli sky. Inside the cathedral, the text explained, Archbishop Thomas Becket had been murdered by knights of King Henry II on December 29, 1170, the churchman’s skull split by a sword. In the same instant, Thomas Becket was made a holy martyr and blood-stained Canterbury turned into a magnet for anyone drawn to pilgrimage. It also was the beginning of an enduring delight in the writings of Chaucer, the 14th Century English poet whose unhurried pilgrims traded tales, creating a pathway of stories linking London to Canterbury.

Pilgrimage: almost the same as pilgrim, yet the added syllable created another word to ponder. It made my thoughts leap across the Atlantic to the Old World in medieval days. The idea of riding on a horse while sharing tales with fellow travelers made pilgrimage seem an appealing adventure. While I knew very little about bishops and kings and still less about King Henry’s motives in wanting an archbishop’s life cut short by the sword, it wasn’t necessary for anyone to explain to a thirteen-year-old boy why the blood-stained floor of a church might become a spot toward which people would be powerfully drawn.

My first full-scale pilgrimage book was Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s tale of a runaway boy and escaped slave traveling at night by raft down the Mississippi River. There were no holy martyr’s bones pulling them forward, just the river’s insistent flow, but these two travelers were on a kind of pilgrimage: a search for freedom. Floating on the nighttime currents of the Mississippi River, staring upward at diamond-bright stars, struck me as a much better way to begin a dialogue with the universe than in a classroom. Not that Mark Twain called their quest a pilgrimage. His book made no reference to Huck and Jim being on any sort of religious pursuit. Yet I sensed their journey, for all it hazards and despite the absence of shrines or relics, offered these two travelers occasional glimpses of heaven.

If I had been in school half a century earlier, John Bunyan’s book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, would surely have been assigned reading. In the English-speaking world, from the late seventeenth century until well into the twentieth, it was a book nearly as popular as the Bible. Indeed many homes had those two books and no others. But by the nineteen-fifties, I wonder if there was a single copy of Bunyan’s book in our school library? If there was, I never spotted it.

It wasn’t until I was taking a survey course in English Literature at Hunter College in Manhattan that I read John Bunyan’s book. The central figure, Christian, is an everyman character trying to find his way from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. It is no easy journey. The obstacles are many. He is directed to find the Wicket Gate, representing the entrance to the “narrow way” that Christ speaks of in the Gospel, but is led astray by Mr. Worldly Wiseman as well as Mr. Legality and his son Civility, inhabitants of the village of Morality. Yet at last Christian finds the Wicket Gate where he is granted a vision of Jesus himself.

Bunyan’s book helped me understand that the word “pilgrim” could be used in a metaphorical sense: every life without exception a non-stop pilgrimage from the womb to the grave, a successful pilgrimage if one made it to heaven, a tragic failure if one fell into hell.

I came to Hunter College as a part-time student in the fall of 1961, having a few months earlier been given an early discharge from the Navy on grounds of conscientious objection. At the time I was part of the Catholic Worker community on Chrystie Street in lower Manhattan, a place that gave yet another meaning to the word “pilgrimage.”

The founder of the community and its dominating presence was Dorothy Day. Her column in the monthly newspaper we published, The Catholic Worker, was called “On Pilgrimage.” This was an on-going diary — news of Dorothy’s travels but also accounts of visitors, books she was reading, talks she had attended, perhaps even the opera she had heard by radio the previous Sunday afternoon. Dorothy gave the word “pilgrimage” a meaning that was immediate rather than medieval. It was along John Bunyan lines: every day of one’s life and all that happened along the way, planned or unexpected, were segments of a heavenward pilgrimage so long as the guiding principle was to live the Gospel and to discover Christ in those whom one encountered. Pilgrimage for Dorothy was a way of life, a mode of listening, an attitude that motivated choices, a discipline of being.

I began to regard my own life in terms of pilgrimage.

One memorable experiment in pilgrimage was a late summer bicycle ride from lower Manhattan to St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery near Spencer in western Massachusetts. Traveling with less than $20 in my pocket, I slept in orchards along the way. Luckily the weather was hospitable. So were the monks. To make myself more presentable, I had first gone to a barber shop in the nearby town and gotten my first (and last) professional shave, a major but useful investment. Though I was entirely unexpected and probably the only guest in a long time to reach their monastery by bicycle, I was given use of a bed in the guest house attic, a job helping in the guest house kitchen, and was invited to attend talks being given by one of the monks to retreatants, mainly monsignors who had arrived on four wheels rather than two.

The next major pilgrimage came in the winter, this time hitch-hiking, starting from Spring Street in lower Manhattan with the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky as destination — a thousand miles of petitionary travel in weather that was not only cold but often wet and icy. I remember standing long, dark hours in sleet outside a truck stop in Pennsylvania waiting for a driver to pull over and offer a lift. Many plastic statues of Jesus and Mary sailed by in rain-spattered cars and trucks. Two and a half days later, in the late afternoon, my fellow hitch-hiker, Bob Kaye, and I stood at the monastery gate, exhausted but happy as children on Christmas morning.

This time at least I was expected. The visit had begun with an invitation from one of the monks, the writer Thomas Merton, but our date of arrival was approximate as was the length of our stay. This time I had failed to see a barber first. The abbot, Dom James, quickly passed the word via Merton that if this particular shaggy pilgrim was to stay more than one night, he must have a haircut. This occurred the next morning in a basement room where monastic haircuts were dispensed that put the recipient in a state of near baldness. Though in principal Trappist monks aim for silence and in those days did most of their communicating by sign language, the novices stood around me in a state of continuous laughter as my hair fell to the concrete floor. Merton told me I looked like a young Gandhi. All I needed was a loin cloth and walking stick.

There have been many pilgrimages since then, some on foot, some by bike, others by car and train and even airplane.

The jewel of them all was a three-month stay between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the spring of 1985. After all, for the Christian, Jerusalem — as the city of Christ’s Resurrection — will always be the center of the world. Bethlehem, the town of his birth, is nearby, less than a day’s walk away. In the course of twenty centuries, millions of Christian have made the Holy Land their goal, with Jerusalem being the most important single place to walk and pray, and Bethlehem a close second.

That spring I was teaching at the Ecumenical Institute, a graduate school with links to Notre Dame University. As we had children to care for, one still in diapers, Nancy and I generally took turns going into Jerusalem or Bethlehem for days of pilgrimage while the other stayed at Tantur taking care of the kids.

It was in the course of one of these frequent visits to Jerusalem, while standing in line to enter the tomb where Christ’s body was laid after his crucifixion and in which he rose from the dead, that Nancy found herself standing behind a couple who weren’t quite sure where they were, while behind her was a group of Greek women in black, each of the holding as many candles as their hands could grasp. The couple in front of her were trying to decide where they were.

“Is this where he was born?” the wife asked. “No,” her husband answered, “that was yesterday — Bethlehem.” They went inside the small tomb, took photos, and left, still unclear where they had been. All the while the Greek women were quietly weeping. When it was their turn, one by one they knelt by the stone stab that for them marked the center of the cosmos, the exact spot where Christ, God incarnate, had risen from death. They lit their candles and then, leaving the tomb, blew them out. Now they had a precious gift for relatives and friends at home: candles which had been burned in the place of the Resurrection.

“Today I stood on the borderline between tourism and pilgrimage,” Nancy told me that evening.

For St. Paul, being a pilgrim was the calling of every Christian. We become strangers and pilgrims the moment we realize we are seeking the Kingdom of God. As he put it in his letter to the Hebrews:

These [our spiritual ancestors, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob] all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

It’s a question each of us might ask: What does it means to be a pilgrim? In what ways am I a pilgrim?

Clearly for St. Paul, one didn’t have to be a traveler to be a pilgrim. Pilgrimage is a way of living an ordinary Christian life, no matter where you happen to be. It’s only later on that pilgrimage began to mean traveling a great distance in order to reach one of God’s “thin places,” as the Celts called destinations where ordinary matter seems especially charged with God’s presence.

No matter how short the distances and familiar the route you travel on a given day, you can do it as a pilgrim — and no matter how long the journey or how sacred its destination, it’s possible to be nothing more than a tourist. Whether the journey is within your own back yard or takes you to the other side of the world, the potential is there for the greatest of adventures: a journey not only toward Christ but with him.

One of the primary metaphors of pilgrimage is the road to Emmaus. It’s the setting of a resurrection story told by Luke. We meet the risen Christ traveling unrecognized with two disciples as they make their way to Emmaus, a village described as being seven miles — less than a two-hour walk — from Jerusalem.

The two friends are escaping from a tragedy in Jerusalem and perhaps also running from possible personal danger. It wasn’t at all clear that Jesus’ disciples weren’t next in line for punishment. The two were not only mourners, but disillusioned mourners. Jesus had failed to meet their expectations. The person they fervently believed would become the new king of Israel, heir to David’s throne, not only isn’t ruling Israel but is in his grave. The candle of their messianic hopes has been snuffed out. His closest followers were in hiding. Their homeland was still ruled by Romans, undergirded by a second tier of well-rewarded Jewish collaborators. The kingdom of God that Jesus had said was already present now seemed infinitely distant.

Conversation would not have been easy. Deep grief is rarely a talkative condition. The words they hewed out of silence were confused, bitter, angry. Their beloved teacher was dead and buried. Everything that mattered had turned to dust. The world had no center. Life’s axis had crumbled. Death once again had proven itself life’s defining event. Existence had no meaning, no pattern. People of virtue perish while their persecutors feast. How could one speak of a merciful and all powerful God? Ruthless power, corruption, betrayal and the triumph of the grave — this was Good Friday’s bitter message.

Walking side by side, breathing dust, the two friends are joined by a stranger who appears without a word of description. He doesn’t impress the two men as being somehow familiar. They fail to notice his wounds. Without apology he joins their conversation. He wonders why they are so downcast. They are amazed at the stranger’s ignorance. One of the men, Cleopas, asks the stranger how is it possible that he doesn’t know what has happened in Jerusalem in recent days. Could anyone share in this particular Passover and be unaware of what happened to Jesus of Nazareth? Only a week ago Jesus had entered the city in triumph, joyful crowds putting palms in his path and shouting hosannas. And now the man who should have redeemed Israel had been condemned by the high priests, renounced by the very crowds that had cheered him, and sentenced to public execution under the authority of Rome’s agent, Pontius Pilate. Finally he had been ritually murdered while soldiers threw dice for his clothing. Jesus’ followers had dared to hope for a miracle even when Jesus was taken away to Golgotha — after all, he had raised Lazarus from death — but the man who had been able to bring others back to life proved powerless to save himself. Yes, the two men had heard the wild tale told earlier in the day by a few grief-stricken women — angels, an empty tomb, Jesus alive again — but truly it was an unbelievably tale.

The stranger listened patiently. At last he responded, “O foolish men, so slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then, starting with Moses and going on to all the prophets, he explained all the scriptural texts concerning the Messiah.

By this time they had reached the outskirts of Emmaus, apparently the place where the two friends planned to end their journey or at least spend the night. The stranger appeared to be going further, but they were so taken with his authoritative explanations of the prophecies of scripture that they appealed to him to join them for a meal in the local inn. “Stay with us,” they said, “for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.”

Even when they sat down to eat, the stranger was still nameless and unrecognized, yet it was he who presided at the table, taking bread, blessing it, breaking it and giving it to them. It’s at this point in Luke’s Gospel that we get one of the most breathtaking sentences in the New Testament: “And their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”(Luke 24:31)

Perhaps they recognized him because, at last, they noticed his wounds as he blessed and broke the bread.

What happened on the road to Emmaus, and finally in Emmaus itself, was the first Christian pilgrimage. Every pilgrimage, whether to a local park or to some distant place at the end of a well-trodden pilgrim road thick with miracles, is in its roots a journey to Emmaus, and every pilgrimage is animated with a similar hope: to meet the risen Christ along the way.

As I said, you don’t have to travel far to walk the road to Emmaus. One of the shortest pilgrim routes is to your own front door.

Over breakfast one morning, Nancy asked me, “What is the most important thing in the house?” I thought first of our icons, then certain treasured books, then works of art that hang on our walls. “That’s not it,” Nancy said. “The most important thing is the front door. The front door is the place where whoever knocks is made welcome or kept distant. The front door is directly connected to the Last Judgment.”

There is no pilgrim who wouldn’t agree. Just as important as setting out on a journey is finding open doors and welcoming faces along the way. For the traditional hotel-avoiding pilgrim following the route to Santiago de Compostela, without the many hospices along the way, few would be able walk those paths, least of all those with little money. Thousands of people, mainly volunteers, staff the hospices, provide meals, bandage blisters, give advice, tell stories and listen to them.

But dependence on hospitality doesn’t only apply to pilgrims far from home. Each of us depends on the care of others, especially care that is given freely — care that expresses love. Where would I be in life had it not been for the care of others: parents, teachers, friends, co-workers, clergy, and strangers?

The pilgrim, in the sense of a traveler far from home, is by definition an outsider, a stranger. It is no bad thing to be an outsider. The Greek word is xenos, which is part of the Greek word for hospitality — filoxenia, literally love of the outsider.

Hospitality is not only a duty but a blessing, and a shared blessing at that. One can speak of the sacrament, or mystery (from the Greek word mysterion, the Orthodox term for a sacrament), of hospitality. For those with eyes to see, the guest is an angel in disguise, like those heaven-sent angelic guests who were welcomed by Abraham and Sarah under the oak of Mamre.

There are still societies in which one can experience filoxenia. In such cultures, there is little need for hotels.

In a memoir, Tatiana Goricheva, then a university student living in what was still called Leningrad, recalls going to the village of Pechory adjacent to one of the few monasteries still surviving in the final years of the Soviet Union. She discovered that all she needed to do to find shelter in this community without hotels was to knock on any door and say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The response from the person answering the door was, “Amen!” She was immediately a well cared for guest. [Tatiana Goricheva, Talking About God is Dangerous (New York: Crossroad, 1987), p 70.]

Not everyone can practice the same degree of hospitality. One has to know one’s limits and to practice discernment. One’s vocation, other obligations and the condition of the family are among the factors that have to be taken into account. Hospitality cannot be forced. Yet what a gift it is has been for our children, in the years they were growing up, to share our table with so many people from so many countries, from Nobel laureates to backpacking kids, from the sensitive and helpful to the socially clueless and energy-consuming.

I recall our daughter Cait being disappointed that we were without a guest that particular evening and asking, “Isn’t there anyone we could invite?”

While the children were still living with us, when there was a guest we would place a world globe on the table so the guest could point out where he or she lived. Our kids learned geography via hospitality. Just as often we would dig up an old issue of National Geographic magazine and ask the guest to tell us about photos taken in his or her homeland.

One can see practically everything that matters in life in terms of hospitality. Marriage is a pilgrimage of hospitality: a man and a woman each making space in their life for the other. It’s an ongoing crash course in self-giving love versus selfishness. Parenthood too is a journey of hospitality. It’s hard to think of a more demanding hospitality than bearing children and then, once they are born, adjusting one’s life to these amazing, unfamiliar guests with their infinity of needs. Perhaps it’s in the crucible of family life that we gradually become more capable of welcoming strangers.

When asked about my education, occasionally I say I am a graduate of “Dorothy Day University,” then correct myself to say I am still attending classes while working on a degree in hospitality. It’s a university which many attend and from which no one ever graduates. Learning hospitality is a lifetime project, an endless pilgrimage.

Despite her death in 1980, Dorothy Day is one of the people who helps my wife ane me open the front door. It’s no wonder so many places of welcome bear her name. She has inspired many to practice hospitality, was herself among the founders of several houses of hospitality, and lived in various houses of hospitality from 1933 until she died. Now she seems to be on her way to being formally recognized as a saint. Her writings continue to influence many people.

Her basic message — borrowed from the Gospel– was stunningly simple: we are called by God to love one another as God loves us.

Again and again Dorothy repeated a simple instruction from the early Church, “Every home should have a Christ room in it, so that hospitality may be practiced.” Hospitality, she explained, is simply practicing God’s mercy with those around us. Christ is in the stranger, in the person who has nowhere to go and no one to welcome him. “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed,” she often said.

Keep in mind that there is not only hospitality of the door but, even more important, hospitality of the face. Dorothy had a face of welcome.

Dorothy was one of the freest persons alive, yet also one of the most disciplined. This was most notable in her religious life. The sacraments were the bedrock of her existence. Whether traveling or home, it was a rare day when Dorothy didn’t go to Mass, while on Saturday evenings she went to confession. What could she possibly have to confess, I once asked her. “My awful temper,” she replied, “and my impatience.”

She never obliged anyone to follow her example, but God knows she gave an example. When I think of her, the first image that comes to mind is Dorothy on her knees praying before the Blessed Sacrament either in the chapel at the Catholic Worker farm or in one of several urban parish churches near the Catholic Worker. One day, looking into the Bible and Missal she had left behind when summoned for an urgent phone call, I found long lists of people, living and dead, whom she prayed for daily. There was a special list for those who had committed suicide.

Occasionally she spoke of her “prayings”: “We feed the hungry, yes,” she told her friend Bob Coles. “We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, but there is strong faith at work; we pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our prayings and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.” [Robert Coles, Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1987).]

As tends to be the case with pilgrims, she was attentive to fast days and fast seasons. It was in that connection she told me a story about prayer and fasting. For many years, she said, she had been a heavy smoker. Her day began with lighting up a cigarette. Her main sacrifice every Lent was giving up smoking, but having to get by without a cigarette made her increasingly irritable as the days passed, until the rest of the Catholic Worker was praying she would light up a smoke. One year, as Lent approached, the priest who ordinarily heard her confessions urged her not to give up cigarettes that year but instead to pray daily, “Dear God, help me stop smoking.” She used that prayer for several years without it having any impact on her addiction. Then one morning she woke up, reached for a cigarette, and realized she didn’t want it. She never smoked again.

One of the miracles of Dorothy’s life is that she remained part of a conflict-torn community for nearly half a century. Still more remarkable, she remained a person of hope and gratitude to the end. She occasionally spoke of “the duty of hope.” Even in her final years, when hardly able to leave her room, she never ceased being a pilgrim.

Even though many have come to regard her as a saint, Dorothy was and remains a controversial lady. There was hardly anything she did which didn’t attract criticism.

Even hospitality scandalizes some people. We were blamed for making people worse, not better, because we were doing nothing to “reform them.” A social worker once asked Dorothy how long the down-and-out were permitted to stay. “We let them stay forever,” Dorothy answered brusquely. “They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

What got her in the most hot water were her sharp social criticisms and her rejection of war. She pointed out that patriotism was a far more powerful force in the lives of most Christians than the Gospel. While she hated every form of tyranny and never ceased to be thankful for America having taken in so many people fleeing poverty and repression, she was fierce in her criticism of capitalism and consumerism. She said America had a tendency “to treat people like Kleenex — use them, and throw them away.”

Dorothy was sometimes criticized for being too orthodox in her religious convictions. How could she be so radical about social matters and so conservative in her theology? While she occasionally deplored statements or actions by members of the hierarchy, she was by no means an opponent of the bishops or someone furiously campaigning for structural changes in the Church. What was needed, she said, wasn’t new doctrine but our living the existing doctrine. True, some pastors seemed barely Christian, but one had to aim for their conversion, an event that would not be hastened by berating them but rather by helping them see what their vocation required. The way to do that was to set an example.

Pleased as she was when the Liturgy could be celebrated in English as well as Latin, she didn’t take kindly to smudging the border between the sacred and mundane. When a radical priest used a coffee cup for a chalice at a Mass celebrated in the Catholic Worker house on First Street in Manhattan, she afterward took the cup, kissed it, and buried it in the back yard. It was no longer suited for coffee, she said, for it had held the Blood of Christ. I learned more about the Eucharist that day than I had from any book or sermon.

I’m sometimes told, “Dorothy Day gives a fine example for people who don’t have a family to take care of and mortgages to pay, but what about the rest of us?”

The rest of us includes my wife and me. I don’t have enough fingers on one hand to count our children, and I know all about paying a mortgage. But every time we open the door to guests, it’s partly thanks to Dorothy Day. Every time I think about things in the bright light of the Gospel rather than in the grey light of money or the dim light of politics, her example has had its influence. Every time I try to overcome meanness or selfishness rising up in myself, it is partly thanks to the example of Dorothy Day. Every time I defeat the impulse to buy something I can get along without, Dorothy Day’s example of voluntary poverty has had renewed impact. Every time I try to see Christ’s presence in the face of a stranger, there again I owe a debt to Dorothy Day. No one else has made me think so much about the words we will hear at the Last Judgment: “What you did to the least person, you did to me.” What I know of Christ, the Church, sacramental life, the Bible, and truth-telling, I know in large measure thanks to her, while whatever I have done that was cowardly, opportunistic or cruel, is despite her. She has even influenced my reading life — it was Dorothy who steered me to Dostoevsky’s novels. Indeed, it was a command.

It isn’t that Dorothy Day is the point of reference. Christ is. But I can’t think of anyone I’ve known whose Christ-centered life did so much to help make me a more Christ-centered person. No one has given me a more vivid idea of what it means to be a pilgrim.

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Jim and Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands
phone number: 072-515-4180 (outside Holland: 00-31-72-515-4180)
Mobile: 06-510-11-250 (outside Holland: 00-31-6-510-11-250)
Jim’s e-mail: [email protected]
Nancy’s e-mail: [email protected]
Jim and Nancy Forest web site: www.incommunion.org/forest-flier/
Forest-Flier Editorial Services: www.incommunion.org/forest-flier/ffes/
Photo web site: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site: www.incommunion.org
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