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.
“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.
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