The Way of the Pilgrim

[a talk given at the Center for Spiritual Development in Orange, California, on 18 October 2008; parts of the text are adapted from “The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life”]

by Jim Forest

Walker Percy, in his novel, The Moviegoer, made the comment, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life…. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

There is a great deal of information in those few words about being a pilgrim. Not to be on a search is not to be a pilgrim. What keeps us from living a life of pilgrimage is the problem of “everydayness” — the sense of being trapped on a mobius strip of days that seem as interchangeable as fast-food restaurants.

To be a pilgrim is who we become when we step off the mobius strip. Most of us are pilgrims at least some of the time. Thomas Merton noted about his trip to Cuba in 1940, the year before he became a monk, that he had been ninety percent tourist, ten percent pilgrim. I can identify with those numbers.

Occasionally we step off — or are pulled off — the conveyor belt of everydayness into a pilgrim state of mind. At least for a short time, we actually see what’s around us with an almost mystical intensity, or become hyper-aware of some small detail of the world that we had previously glanced at a thousand times without really seeing it, and we find ourselves amazed, as if we had been struck by lightning.

We all have these moments, and when we have them we suddenly realize they happen too rarely and wish they were not so few and far between. All too soon, we find ourselves back on the conveyor belt of everydayness — a depressing state to be in, one that can bring on despair.

To be a pilgrim, to be someone who is trying as much as possible to be onto something, is not just a good idea but is even a matter of life and death. Not to be onto something, not to be a pilgrim, means to be more than half in the tomb. It’s a problem Jesus spoke of — eyes that don’t see, ears that don’t hear.

Anyone can be a pilgrim. It’s a potentiality that goes back as far as Adam and Eve. Being a pilgrim requires no particular religious identity — it’s absolutely ecumenical. Christianity is not the only religion with a pilgrimage tradition. Thanks mainly to St. Paul, there is a Christian theology of pilgrimage.

Paul put it this way in his letters to the Hebrews:

[Our spiritual ancestors, beginning with Abraham and Sarah] 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)

St. Paul was definitely onto something. Following his encounter with Christ while on the road to Damascus, everydayness does not seem to have been a problem for Paul.

Even if we live the most stationary of lives, we can desire and actively seek what Paul calls “a better country.” This is what it means to be “in the world but not of it.” We are definitely here, living every minute of our life in this world, doing our best to make it better, but all the while attempting to make choices that are shaped not by nationalism or ideology, but by the reality of the kingdom of God, of which occasionally we get glimpses as we go about our daily lives.

These glimpses can come at the most unlikely moments. For example, consider a very important moment on the life of Thomas Merton. It happened suddenly and at a prosaic location, not at the monastery with all its reminders of the kingdom of God, but while he was on an errand that brought him to Louisville where he found himself standing at a busy intersection waiting for the light to change.

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream….

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…. It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake….

There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…. There are no strangers! … If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other….

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.

I have no program for this seeing. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.” [Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 141-142]

You don’t have to be a contemplative monk who has spent years in a monastery for something like this to happen to you. My guess is that such events are common and that each of us can look back at moments in our lives when suddenly the lights snapped on and we found ourselves in an intensely wide awake, astonished condition, a million light years from everydayness. In these moments, we are a hundred percent pilgrim.

When we hear the word pilgrimage, perhaps we think of Chaucer’s story-telling pilgrims making their unhurried way on horseback from London to Canterbury, or perhaps we think of all those people down through the centuries who have made their way, usually on foot, to places like Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela.

One of the advantages of that kind of step-by-step pilgrimage from here to a far-off place is that whoever sets off on such a journey quite literally become a stranger to those he meets along the way. Every day the pilgrim is seeing and hearing things he has never seen or heard before. This makes it more likely for the pilgrim to be in a high state of alertness. Freed from many ordinary chores and having access to many hours of quiet time while walking, meditation and contemplation come easier. Traveling an unfamiliar route is a way of living in a state of surprise and openness.

The harder challenge for anyone attempting to be a pilgrim while going nowhere special — on your way to work or to the supermarket, or stuck in traffic, or standing at a street corner waiting for the light to change — is to see and hear all that is familiar with a similar alertness.

One of the most important pilgrimage routes has nothing to with travel to distant places, but simply with seeing faces more attentively.

My wife and I know a nun who lives in Chicago, Sister Mary Evelyn Jegen. As she never got a driver’s license, she travels on public buses back and forth from her convent to the university where she teaches. City buses have become for her both a means of pilgrimage and a school of prayer. At the heart of her spiritual practice is the awareness that each person, without exception, is a bearer of the image of God and that this image is most visible in faces.

Her approach is discrete. She respects the privacy of the people she travels with. Being careful not to make anyone uncomfortable by staring, she briefly glances at a face, holding the image while trying to be sensitive to whatever that face reveals — happiness, boredom, anxiety, fear, anger, love, irritation, impatience, confusion, depression, despair — all the while praying for that person. She often uses a simple variation of the Jesus Prayer. Instead of the usual form of the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, “she says, ”“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy [on him, on her, on the woman in the blue blouse, on the man who is so upset, etc].”

“It’s amazing how much faces on buses reveal,” she says.

She calls her way of looking at others “benevolent glancing,” a phrase she first encountered in a press account of Pope John Paul’s meeting with the Buddhist Patriarch in Thailand. The first part of their encounter, it was reported, was an extended period of silence during which the two men “exchanged benevolent glances.”

One of the most challenging of pilgrimage routes is right in your own house — the pilgrimage to the front door.

I became aware of this one morning when Nancy and I were having breakfast. She asked, “What’s the most important thing in the house?” I mentioned several of our hand-painted icons, certain treasured books, and 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 its many hospices along the way, few would be able walk those paths, least of all those with little money. Hundreds of volunteers staff the hospices, providing meals, bandaging blisters, giving advice, telling stories and listening to them.

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, founders of the Catholic Worker movement, urged every Christian family to have a Christ Room — a place in the home for at least one guest. As they pointed out again and again, Christ is hidden in the stranger — don’t turn Christ away from your home. The Greeks have a word for the spiritual force behind such hospitality: xenophilia, literally love of the outsider, the foreigner, the stranger, the pilgrim.

The pilgrimage to the front door can be hard or easy. We’ve had countless guests in our home over the years. The vast majority have been people we were happy to welcome and sorry to see leave, but not all.

We’re now engaged in a different sort of hospitality, taking care of an elderly person. This can be at the tougher end of the spectrum. For the past 18 months, since the death of my brother-in-law, our principal guest has been Nancy’s mother, age 91.

Hard or easy, hospitality is at the center of life. 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 hospitality and loving care of others: parents, teachers, friends, co-workers, nuns, clergy, doctors and nurses, and also strangers?

In some countries, hospitality is a deeply embedded tradition. In a memoir of her pilgrimage from atheism to baptism, Tatiana Goricheva, a philosophy student who was then doing graduate studies in Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was called in the Soviet era, relates a story of going on pilgrimage to the village of Pechory to visit one of the very few living monasteries that still survived in the Soviet Union. “Where will I stay?” she asked friends. “There are no hotels.” “All you need to do is knock on any door and say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’.” To Tatiana’s amazement, it worked. The response of the person answering the first door she knocked on was, “Amen!” She immediately became a most welcome guest. It was a significant moment on her journey to Christian belief.

As a model of hospitality, I think of a nun who gave me a ride from Louisville to Lexington when I was in Kentucky to give a few lectures and whose attitude about being on the road was certainly that of a person on pilgrimage. I no longer remember her name, but I will never forget the spirit of welcome that she radiated or her old, battered car. It would have been worth little at a used-car lot, but in her care it had become a house of hospitality on wheels.

As we drove along the highway, the glove compartment door in front of me kept popping open. I closed it repeatedly, each time noticing a pile of maps inside and also a book. At last the text on the spine of the book caught my eye: “Guests.” I pulled it out, discovering page after page of signatures, most of them giving the impression that the person signing was barely literate. Some were in shaky block letters.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Oh that’s my guest book.”

“But why keep it in the car?”

“Well, of course, I always pick up hitchhikers, so I need a guest book.”

I was astonished. Though I had been a hitchhiker myself back in my late teens and early twenties, I knew picking up hitchhikers was not without risks, all the more so for women.

“But isn’t that dangerous?” I asked.

“Well, I’ve had many guests sitting where you are now, most of them men, and I never felt I was in danger.”

She went on to explain that when she pulled over to offer a ride, she immediately introduced herself by name, and then asked, “And what’s your name?”

The exchange of names, she explained, was a crucial first step in hospitality and one likely to make for safety. “Once two people entrust their names to each other,” she explained, “there is a personal relationship.”

Her next step was to ask the guest to put his name in writing: “I would be grateful if you would sign my guest book.”

She didn’t have to explain to me that few of the people she had given rides to had ever been regarded as anyone’s guests, and fewer still had ever been invited to sign anyone’s guest book.

“I’ve met many fine people,” she told me, “people who have been a blessing to me. I never had any troubles, though you could see that most of them had lived a hard life.”

She had come to no harm, and there was also the factor of her nun’s habit, but it need hardly be said that pilgrimage as way a life involves risks. Countless pilgrims who went for long journeys to holy places died along the way, some from illness, some from violence, some from the rigors of old age.

There is, of course, the pilgrimage of dying.

If you ever have walked any of the great pilgrimage routes, perhaps you became aware that they are very long, very thin cemeteries. Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of people have died along these paths. In earlier times when people set off on pilgrimage, the farewells didn’t hide the possibility that the pilgrim would not live to return.

On the topic of dying, I often think of a meeting in the early seventies that my friend Mel Hollander had with the Jesuit priest and poet, Dan Berrigan. In that first encounter with Mel, Dan immediately noticed Mel’s unhealthy skin color and sunken, dark-shadowed eyes. Clearly something was seriously amiss. Not bothering with the polite nothings that people so often exchange, Dan’s first words to Mel were, “What’s the matter?” Deciding to respond with the same directness, Mel said, “I’m dying of cancer.” To which Dan replied, without hesitation or embarrassment, and just as briefly, “That must be very exciting.”

Mel later told me how Dan’s few words instantly cleared the dark sky he had been living under since he had been told he had an untreatable cancer and had not more than six months to live. What had until then been a joyless journey on a short road to the grave suddenly was transformed into the most engaging pilgrimage of his life. (As it happened, against all medical expectations, Mel’s cancer went into prolonged remission. Mel lived on for some years. He did in fact die young, not of cancer but of smoke inhalation caused by fire.)

Sometimes we don’t journey to death — death journeys to us.

In my own family, my stepmother Carla made what I would call a daily pilgrimage to a center in San Francisco that was set up to help people struggling with alcoholism and other addictions. Caring and patient person that Carla was, she was just the right person for the work she was doing. Waiting for a bus to return home after work late one afternoon in 1968, someone with a gun in a passing car took aim at her and she died as a consequence. It’s a sort of crime Americans have become all too familiar with. Who shot her? Why did he do so? I have no idea. But I think of it as a pilgrim’s death. She was a pilgrim whose life centered on the works of mercy. She chose to work in a neighborhood that had more than its share of violence. She wouldn’t have given up what she was doing in order to live in greater safety.

None of us know when or where or how we are going to die, but what a sad life one would live if our choices were governed by an effort to be as safe as possible. What Walker Percy called “the search” would be out of the question. Instead we would be suffering chronic everydayness.

Being safe is impossible anyway. Assuming we find ways to avoid all the people we think might pose a danger, and assuming we manage to avoid wars, riots, fires, auto accidents, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornados, explosions, etc., we have a pretty good chance of eventually being seriously ill and at some point terminally ill.

One of the main pilgrimage routes in my life these past five years has been the pilgrimage of illness.

Back in 2003 routine blood tests that had been arranged by our family doctor revealed that my kidneys were failing. Following further tests at the local hospital, an internist, Dr. Bax, told me that I might have six months or so before needing to begin dialysis. “We will be seeing a great deal of each other,” he told me, “for the foreseeable future.”

Dialysis was a word that I knew nothing about. I quickly learned that it was an alternate method of filtering the blood when kidney function has either dropped below a minimal level or the kidneys have altogether stopped working. Without such an alternate method of getting rid of the wastes that ordinarily are filtered out by the kidneys, kidney failure is a death sentence. In every cemetery there are the tombstones of those who died because their kidneys gave out. Even since the development of dialysis in the latter half of the twentieth century, many such deaths still occur.

Things moved more slowly than the doctor had estimated — six months became a year, one year became two. During those two years there had been many prayers, from me and from others, that I might be healed. While not expecting a miracle, I was definitely not opposed to one. Meanwhile I did everything my wife and I plus our friends could think of to stave off dialysis. But at last the day came when the doctor, having reviewed the blood test of the previous day, said dialysis would have to begin tomorrow.

Ironically, while feeling sorry for myself, I was at work writing a book on pilgrimage — The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life. How funny! I had been writing about pilgrimage without being aware that the situation I so desperately wanted to avoid and whose demands on me I so deeply resented and resisted could do more for me than walking in prayer to Jerusalem.

Sickness is time-consuming; it stops you in your tracks. It’s an opportunity to learn a great deal and to do a lot of growing.

The pilgrimage of illness made me more conscious than ever before of a basic reality in everyone’s life: our profound dependence on the care of others. Raised as I was in a culture which prizes individuality and independence, I was reluctant to realize just how much I relied on others, though actually there had never been a day of my life when this wasn’t the case. I started that dependence the instant I was conceived and it will continue without interruption until I draw my last breath. I depend on others for love, for encouragement, for inspiration, for food. I depend on others for the words and gestures that make communication possible. I have others to thank for all the skills I acquired while growing up. Whatever wisdom I have is largely borrowed from others. Sickness makes it all but impossible to nourish the illusion of being autonomous and a having a right to whatever good things might come my way.

There is an easily memorized short summary of the Gospel. It’s called the Beatitudes — ten short sentences placed at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. The verses form a kind of ladder. Illness almost automatically puts you on the first rung of the ladder of the Beatitudes: poverty of spirit.

When everything seems to come easily, as if by right, the phrase “thank you” may not always reflect a deeply felt attitude. Being sick changes that. Gratitude rises from the depths of the heart.

In the community of the sick, there aren’t many people unaware how much they depend on the care of others, even if we know only a few of them by name. It’s not only dependence on the doctors and nurses who directly care for us, but all those who have such unheralded tasks as doing laboratory analyses in rooms we never enter or those who quietly keep the hospital clean. I still find it cheering to recall a young Moslem woman, mop in hand, who always gave me the warmest smile when we happened to pass each other in the hallway. Such a radiant face!

Among kidney patients, I’m one of the extremely lucky ones. After two years of dialysis, last October one of my wife’s kidneys made the journey from her body to mine where it has been living happily ever since. I no longer have be at the hospital every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for three-hour sessions of dialysis. I’ll be a hospital patient for life, but my sickness currently involves a lot less of my time. I can do things I couldn’t do not so long ago. I can travel without having to work out medical care along the way. I have more energy. I don’t have to sleep so long at night. I don’t need a daily nap. I can be more productive as a writer. I can do lots of walking and biking. All this is a kind of miracle. I feel a bit like Lazarus pulled out of his tomb. Of course Lazarus will in time get sick and die once again, but he has had a preview of life after death and, as a consequence, has a different take on the gift of life.

It’s not surprising that my appreciation for all the people involved in health care has grown a great deal these last five years. Directly or indirectly, what all these people are doing day after day is trying to keep those of us in their care alive a little longer and, in the case of those we meet face to face, even trying to raise our spirits in the process.

They are professional life-savers, people doing heroic work yet do not consider themselves heroic.They do what they do with the matter-of-factness of a teacher writing 2 + 2 = 4 on a classroom blackboard or a plumber unclogging a stopped-up sink. Yes, there are those for whom health work seems to be nothing more than a job, and not one they especially like doing or have a talent for. But my experience suggests that they are the exception rather than the rule. However, much depends on the esprit de corps of the hospital or clinic in which they work.

It’s not only the professional care-givers who make a hospital holy ground, but also those who visit the sick. Though the regulations in most hospitals attempt to restrict visits to predetermined hours that pose the least inconvenience for staff, in practice visitors arrive and depart throughout the day and, in many hospitals, are only told to come back later if their timing is especially bad. Typically they arrive carrying flowers, though some bring books, magazines, chocolates, juice, balloons, music or all sorts of other things they hope will communicate their love and give the patient a little extra energy for coping with illness.

It’s holy work, and often done despite a temptation not to be there. Hospitals, after all, are places exploding with reminders about human mortality. The most death-denying person knows that every day there are people breathing their last under this very roof. Though hospitals are not the healthiest places to be, crowds of people each day manage to overcome their hesitations, even their fears, and cross the border. After all, it’s not easy to communicate the bond of love while physically avoiding the person you love. Greeting cards and phone calls aren’t bad, but they can never equal the reality of being there.

On the pilgrimage of illness, I came to appreciate better what a healing work it is to visit the sick — as crucial and powerful an action as what the doctors and nurses are doing. There is nothing more healing than love. Love can be expressed far more openly by the visitor than the health-care professional. Whether visitors sit silently or talk non-stop, they manifest how much the sick person they are visiting matters to them. Whoever visits the sick is a pilgrim, for they are meeting not only someone familiar but Christ as well. It was he who said, “I was sick and you visited me.”

Perhaps I’ve said enough. If we are tired of being in a state of everydayness, if we are drawn to the search, clearly we are on pilgrimage.

* * *
text as of October 19, 2008
* * *

The Way of the Holy Fools

St Basil the Blessed, Holy Fool of Moscow

[a talk given at the Center for Spiritual Development in Orange, California, 18 October 2008]

by Jim Forest

In the Beatitudes, Jesus blessed the pure of heart, but — let’s be frank — this is now out of date. But what can one expect of so old a book? Jesus didn’t even use e-mail. What Jesus should have said is, “Blessed are the clever of mind. Blessed are the smart.” This would suit us much better. The heart has gone down in the world while the brain has ascended.

The result of this shift is that few taunts are sharper than those which call into question someone’s intelligence and still more his sanity: “He’s crazy. He’s a fool. He’s an idiot. He’s out of touch. He’s missing a few nuts and bolts. He isn’t playing with a full deck. There are some bulbs missing in the marquee. There are bats in his belfry.”

Yet there are saints whose acts of witness to the Gospel fly in the face of what most of us regard as sanity. The Russian Church has a special word for such saints, yurodivi, meaning holy fools or, as it’s sometimes put, Fools for Christ’s sake. These are wild souls whose odd behavior many people would regard as madness.

In Leo Tolstoy’s memoir of his childhood, he fondly recalls Grisha, a holy fool who sometimes wandered about his parent’s estate and even came into the mansion itself without knocking on the door. “He gave little icons to those he took a fancy to,” Tolstoy remembered.

Among the local gentry, some regarded Grisha as a pure soul whose presence was a blessing. Others, including Tolstoy’s father, dismissed Grisha as a lazy peasant. “I will only say one thing,” Tolstoy’s mother said at table one night, opposing her husband’s view that Grisha should be put in prison. “It is hard to believe that a man, though he is sixty, goes barefoot summer and winter and always under his clothes wears chains weighing seventy pounds, and who has more than once declined a comfortable life …. It is hard to believe that such a man does all this merely because he is lazy.”

We meet two other holy fools in Dostoevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment.

First there is Lizaveta, one of the women murdered by Raskolnikov. Lizaveta is a simple-minded young woman who has an absolutely pure soul. She regards no one with enmity and is loved by many.

What a contrast she is to Raskolnikov, who kills Lizaveta simply because she has the misfortune to witness his murder of a money-lender. Raskolnikov is a bitter young scholar who has lost his Christian faith. The name Dostoevsky assigned to his anti-hero is based on the Russian verb meaning “to cut off” or “slice,” as in cutting a slice from a loaf of bread. Raskolnikov’s name suggests that he is a person cut off from the whole, a man who has broken communion with others. He has convinced himself that certain people — the clever, the brilliant, the born leaders — are not subject to the same pedestrian moral code imposed on ordinary people. For such people, for someone like himself, good can be achieved through evil means.

Dostoevsky’s other holy fool is Sonya, ultimately Raskolnikov’s rescuer, who has been pressed into prostitution for the sake of her impoverished family. Sonya is the novel’s heroine.

“Were you friends with Lizaveta?” Raskolnikov asks Sonya. “Yes,” she responds. “She and I used to read and talk. She will see God.”

Dostoevsky comments: “How strange these bookish words sounded to [Raskolnikov]; and here was another new thing: [Sonya’s] mysterious get-togethers with Lizaveta — two holy fools.”

“One might well become a holy fool oneself here,” exclaims Raskolnikov. “It’s catching!” [The translation is from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation.]

Grisha, Lizaveta and Sonya represent the rank-and-file of Russia’s yurodivi. Few such men and women are canonized, just as few of the saints we happen to meet in life are canonized, but nonetheless they inspire and even give new direction to many of those around them. In their unconventional ways of life, they are surprising reminders of God’s presence.

While there is great variety among them, holy fools in every case are ascetic Christians living well outside the borders of ordinary social behavior, including conventional religious behavior. They are people who in many countries would be locked away in asylums or simply ignored until the elements silenced them, after which they would be thrown into unmarked graves.

While this type of saint is chiefly associated with Eastern Christianity, the Western Church also has an impressive supply of holy fools, even if it rarely applies to them a label suggesting foolishness.

St Francis of Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi is chief among the holy fools of the west. Think of him stripping off his clothes and standing naked before the bishop in Assisi’s main square, or preaching to birds, or taming a wolf, or during the Crusades walking unarmed across the Egyptian desert into the Sultan’s camp where he had every reason to expect his own death. What at first may seem like charming scenes, when placed on the rough surface of actual life, become mad moments indeed.

The most famous of Russia’s holy fools was a Muscovite, St. Basil the Blessed, after whom the colorful cathedral on Red Square takes its name. In an ancient icon housed in that church, Basil is shown clothed only in a lengthy beard. In the background is the Kremlin’s Savior Tower. Basil’s hands are raised in prayer toward a small image of Jesus revealed in an opening in the sky. Basil the holy fool has a meek quality but also a single-minded, intelligent face.

It is hard to find the actual man beneath the thicket of tales and legends that grew up around his memory, but according to tradition Basil was clairvoyant from an early age. Thus, while a cobbler’s apprentice, he both laughed and wept when a certain merchant ordered a pair of boots, for Basil saw that the man would be wearing a coffin before his new boots were ready. We can imagine that the merchant was not amused at the boy’s behavior. Soon after — perhaps having been fired by the cobbler — Basil became a vagrant. Dressing as if for the Garden of Eden, Basil’s survival of many bitter Russian winters must be reckoned among the miracles associated with his life.

A man either naked, or nearly naked, wandering the streets — it isn’t surprising that he became famous in the capital city. Especially for the wealthy, Basil was not a comfort either to eye or ear. In the eyes of some, he was a trouble-maker. There are tales of him destroying the merchandise of dishonest tradesmen at the street market that used to fill Red Square. At times he hurled stones at the houses of the wealthy — yet, as if reverencing icons, he sometimes kissed the stones on the outside of houses in which evil had been committed, as if to say that no matter what happens within these walls, there is still hope of repentance and conversion.

Basil, a contemporary of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, was one of the few who dared warn the tsar that his violent deeds were dooming him to hell. According to one story, in the midst of Lent, when Russians keep a rigorous vegetarian fast, Basil presented the tsar with a slab of raw beef, telling him that there was no reason in his case not to eat meat. “Why abstain from meat,” asked Basil, “when you murder men?”

Ivan, whose irritated glance was a death sentence to others, is said to have lived in dread of Basil. He would allow no harm to be done to him and occasionally even sent gifts to the naked prophet of the streets, but Basil kept none of these for himself. Most that he received he gave to beggars, though in one surprising instance a gift of gold from the tsar was passed on to a merchant, a man others imagined was well off, but whom Basil knew had been ruined and was actually starving while maintaining a facade of wealth. Once Basil poured vodka on the street, another royal gift. He wanted, he said, to put out the fires of sin.

Basil was so revered by Muscovites that, when he died, his thin body was buried, not in a pauper’s grave on the city’s edge, but next to the newly erected Cathedral of the Protection of the Mother of God. From that time people began calling the church St. Basil’s, for to go there meant one would pause to pray at Basil’s grave. Not many years passed before Basil was formally canonized by the Russian Church. A chapel built over his grave became an integral part of the great building, adding one more onion dome to the eight already there.

Another Fool for Christ was the heir to Ivan the Terrible’s imperial throne, Tsar Theodore. Regarded by Western diplomats of the time as a weakling and idiot, Theodore was adored by the Russian people. Brought up in an environment of brutality, reviled by his father, regarded with scorn by courtiers, he became a man of simplicity, prayer, and quiet devotion to his wife. Much of his time was spent in church. It is said that throughout his fourteen years as tsar he never lost his playfulness or love of beauty. He sometimes woke the people of Moscow in the hours before dawn by sounding the great bells of the Kremlin, a summons to prayer. “He was small of stature,” according to a contemporary account, “and bore the marks of fasting. He was humble, given to the things of the soul, constant in prayer, liberal in alms. He did not care for the things of this world, only for the salvation of the soul.”

“This simpleton robed in gorgeous vestments,” Nicholas Zernov observed in The Russians and their Church, “was determined that bloodshed, cruelty and oppression must be stopped, and it was stopped as long as he occupied the throne of his ancestors.”

St Xenia of Petersburg, Holy Fool for Christ

In the summer of 1988, I was present at a Council of the Church in Russia for the canonization at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra north of Moscow of someone very like Basil and Theodore: Xenia of St. Petersburg.


Early in her long life Xenia had been married to an army colonel who drank himself to death and who may have been an abusive, violent husband. Soon after his funeral, she began giving away the family fortune to the poor, a simple act of obedience to Christ’s teaching: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor … and come, follow me.” In order to prevent Xenia from impoverishing herself, relatives sought to have her declared insane. However the doctor who examined her concluded Xenia was the sanest person he had ever met.

Having given away her wealth, for some years Xenia disappeared, becoming one of Russia’s many pilgrims walking from shrine to shrine while reciting the Jesus Prayer. Somewhere along the way during those hidden years, she became a Fool for Christ. When Xenia finally returned to St. Petersburg, she was wearing the threadbare remnants of her late husband’s military uniform — often shown in icons of her — and would answer only to his name, not her own. One can only guess her motives. In taking upon herself his name and clothing, she may have been attempting to do penance for his sins. Her home became the Smolensk Cemetery on the city’s edge where she slept rough year-round and where finally she was buried.

Xenia became known for her clairvoyant gift of telling people what to expect and what they should do. She might say to a certain person she singled out, “Go home and make blini [Russian pancakes].” As blini are served after funerals, the person she addressed would understand that a member of the family would soon die.

She never begged. Money was given to her but she kept only an occasional kopek for herself; everything else was passed on to others.

When she died, age seventy-one, at the end of the 18th century, her grave became a place of pilgrimage and remained so even through the Soviet period, though for several decades the political authorities closed the chapel over her grave site. The official canonization of this Fool for Christ and the re-opening of the chapel were vivid gestures in the Gorbachev years that the war against religion was truly over in Russia.

Why does the Church occasionally canonize people whose lives are not only completely at odds with civil society but who often barely fit ecclesiastical society either?

The answer must be that holy fools dramatize something about God that most Christians find embarrassing but which we vaguely recognize is crucial information.

Perhaps there is a sense in which each and every saint, even those who were scholars and whom we might regard as paragons of sanity, would be regarded as foolish, if not insane, by many in the modern world because of their devotion to a way of life that is completely senseless if viewed apart from the Gospel. Most saints embrace poverty. None are careerists. Every saint is troubling. Every saint reveals some of our fears and makes us question our fear-driven choices.

It is the special vocation of holy fools to live out, in a rough, literal, breath-taking way, the “hard sayings” of Jesus. Like the Son of Man, they often have no place to lay their heads, and, again like him, they live with empty pockets (thus Jesus, in responding to a question about paying taxes, had no coin of his own with which to display Caesar’s image; he had to borrow a coin from the man asking the question).

While never harming anyone, many holy fools raise their voices against those who lie and cheat and do violence to others, but at the same time they are always ready to embrace these same greedy and ruthless people. They take everyone seriously. In their eyes, absolutely no one is unimportant. In fact, the only thing always important for them, apart from God, are the people around them, whoever they are, no matter how limited or damaged they may be. Their dramatic gestures, however shocking, always have to do with revealing the person of Christ and his mercy.

For most people, clothing serves as a message of how high they have risen and how secure — or insecure — they are. holy fools wear the wrong clothes, or rags, or perhaps nothing at all. This is a witness that they have nothing to lose. There is nothing to cling to and nothing for anyone to steal. The Fool for Christ, says Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, “has no possessions, no family, no position, and so can speak with a prophetic boldness. He cannot be exploited, for he has no ambition; and he fears God alone.”

The rag-dressed (or sometimes undressed) holy fool resembles Issa, the wandering Japanese poet who lived 200 years ago. Issa enjoyed possessing only what could not be taken away. In one tiny poem. He declares:

The thief left it behind
The moon in the window.

You can strip a house bare, right down to the wallpaper, even burn it to the ground, but the cosmos remains.

Inevitably, the voluntary destitution and absolute vulnerability of the holy fool challenges us with our locks and keys and schemes to outwit destitution, suffering and death.

While some holy fools may be people of lesser intelligence, this is the exception rather than the rule. Some were regarded as quite brilliant in their earlier life, but were led to wear the disguise of foolishness as a way of overcoming pride and a need for recognition of intellectual gifts or spiritual attainments.

A noted scholar of Russian spirituality, George Fedotov, pointed out that for all who seek mystical heights by following the traditional path of rigorous self-denial, there is always the problem of vainglory, “a great danger for monastic asceticism.” For such people a feigned madness, provoking from many others contempt or vilification, saves them from something worse: being honored.

One thinks of Dorothy Day’s famous comment: “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” Nothing made her more uncomfortable than recognition.

Clearly, holy fools challenge an understanding of Christianity, more typical in Western than Eastern Christianity, that gives the intellectually gifted people a head start not only in economic efforts but spiritual life. But the Gospel and sacramental life aren’t just for smart people. At the Last Judgment we will not be asked how clever we were, or how highly regarded and successful, but how merciful. Our academic ability won’t save us.

It is revealing to note that, in Western Christianity, the idea gradually took hold that participation in eucharistic life presupposed having reached “the age of reason” and the communicant had the ability to understand and explain his or her faith. I would guess this practice goes back at least to the Reformation. Thus in the West children below “the age of reason” — seven or eight years old — have long been barred from receiving communion. It is quite the opposite in the Orthodox Church, where, following baptism, the younger the child, the closer he or she is to the front of the communion line. (From an Orthodox Christian point of view, it is far from certain that anyone, even the most brilliant, ever reaches the age when the primary mysteries of existence can be understood or explained. In the Orthodox Church, the sacraments are referred to as the Mysteries.)

In their outlandish behavior, holy fools pose a question each of us needs to consider: Are we keeping heaven at a distance by clinging to the good regard of others and what those around us regard as “sanity”?

What is generally regarded as sanity may have little or nothing to do with holiness. The psychiatrists who examined Adolph Eichmann, the chief administrator of Hitler’s extermination camps, was found to be “perfectly sane.” This led Thomas Merton to write an essay in which he made this comment:

The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous. It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared…. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command.” [Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966), pp 45-53.]

Surely the same psychiatrists who interviewed Eichmann would have found St. Basil the Blessed, St. Xenia of Petersburg and St. Francis all insane. And what would they conclude about that most revered of all mad men, Jesus of Nazareth, who foolishly went to Jerusalem well aware that, as surely as apples fall to the ground, he would be led to the cross and die one of Rome’s most painful and humiliating deaths?

The holy fools shout out with their mad words and deeds that to seek God is not necessarily the same thing as to seek sanity.

We need to think more critically about sanity, a word most of us cling to with a steel grip. I am not recommending any of us should embrace madness, but I do ask the question whether fear of being regarded by others as less than sensible confines me in a cage of “responsible” behavior that limits my freedom and cripples my ability to love?

Henry David Thoreau was by no means the most conventional man of his time. There must have been those who questioned his sanity. He lost a teaching job because of his refusal to whip disobedient children. One of his gestures, an act of protest against the Mexican-American War, was to spend a night in jail for refusing to pay a tax. For two years he lived alone in a tiny cabin next to Walden Pond. How astonished Thoreau would be to discover that his face eventually landed on a U.S. postage stamp! He lamented on his death bed, “What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?”

Thoreau would have felt a bond with holy fools, those men and women who remind us of a deeper sanity that is sometimes hidden beneath apparent lunacy: the treasure of a God-centered life.

Holy fools like St. Basil, St. Xenia and St. Francis are God-obsessed people who throw into the bonfire anything that gets in the way or leads them down blind alleys.

But where does their path actually lead them? It is easier to say where they are not headed and what they are not taking with them than to describe where they are going. One can use a phrase like “the kingdom of God.” but this reveals no more about what it is to live in the Holy Spirit than a dictionary entry on oranges reveals about the taste of an orange.

Still there is the question: Were at least some of the holy fools, after all, not crazy? The answer must be maybe so. While the Fools for Christ who have been canonized are regarded by the Church as having worn madness as a mask, in fact no one knows how much a mask it really was, only that Christ shone brightly through their lives.

For most Russian people, as the scholar Fedotov pointed out, “the difficulty [confronting many others] does not exist. Sincere [lunacy] or feigned, a madman with religious charisma … is always a saint, perhaps the most beloved saint in Russia.”

As Paul wrote to the newly-founded church in Corinth: “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound those who are mighty.” (1 Cor 1:27)

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This text is an expanded version of a chapter in Jim Forest’s book, Praying with Icons (Orbis).

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands
e-mail: jhforest /at/
Jim & Nancy Forest web site:
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A Pilgrimage in Peacemaking

[draft of a lecture to be given in California in October 2008]

by Jim Forest

Having given too many sermon-like talks on peace and peacemaking, let me try something a little different. I’d like to share some stories about war and peace rooted in my particular life — my own pilgrimage of peacemaking. My purpose is not to put myself in the spotlight but to try to avoid drifting off into clouds of abstraction.

My first recollection of thinking about peace was noticing, when I was ten or eleven years old, about 1951 or ?52, the cancellation mark on one of the rare envelopes addressed to me personally. I think it contained a birthday card. Part of the cancellation mark was a three-word message: “Pray for Peace.” Roughly 57 years later, I’m trying to reconstruct why that invitation to pray for peace so arrested my attention that I still see that envelope in my hands.

No doubt one factor was my mother, a social worker employed at a nearby mental hospital. She followed the news closely and talked about it, on the assumption that kids should be aware of what’s going on in the world. As a result I was aware that something called the Cold War was going on and knew that the Cold War might very well become a hot war. Mother worried about World War III.

But even if my mother had been less informed and not so communicative, there was the fact of all the nuclear weapon tests going on in Nevada. These provided one of the great live television spectacles of the early fifties, reality TV with a vengeance. I was among the millions watching an almost featureless desert — colorless as there was no color television — and then the sudden explosion, the expanding ball of white light, then the cloud bubbling upward, rising high into the sky until the upper tier spread out in a mushroom-like shape.

One test included placing an ordinary house within a few miles of ground zero. We in the TV audience got to watch its instant demolition, wood going suddenly black and erupting with smoke before the hurricane-like blast swept it away. Yet it wasn’t intended as a doomsday program — rather a sort of “best bomb” exhibit to make Americans feel as proud of our weapons technology as of our Fords and Chevrolets.

In at least one test, Operation Bravo, hundreds if not thousands of soldiers were within miles of the explosion, an exercise to prepare the Army for battle conditions in the nuclear era. Many of those soldiers later died of cancer.

After the tests, there were interviews with generals and politicians pleased everything had gone so well. There was also the happy news that bigger and better bombs were in the works.

The Amazing Atom Bomb Show. In those days, no one seemed to be worrying about the radioactive atomic dust that was being carried wherever the winds took it, which, as any meteorologist will tell you, was more or less everywhere. Nor did anyone in those days speak of “downwind victims,” that is all the people and animals who really got fried. It’s disturbing to look at a US map that highlights where thyroid cancer was most prevalent in the fifties and sixties. Hardest-hit were Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa — the downwind states.

Yet, as the fifties began, the tests were an occasion of national pride. The big message was that the US was on top, the richest, freest, most powerful country in the world. I wasn’t immune from national pride. Though my parents were people on the left who viewed nuclear weapons with alarm, I was eager to connect with the mass culture around me rather than with my parent’s minority opinions. No doubt I was reading the times in a child’s totally non-ideological, practical way and saw how the political winds were blowing. When Eisenhower ran for president in 1952, I proudly wore an “I Like Ike” button and, once he was in the White House, sent him a snapshot of me holding a paint-by-numbers Eisenhower portrait that I had made. I was thrilled to get a thank-you letter back — the envelope once again bore the “Pray for Peace” cancellation mark — signed by Ike himself on White House stationery.

“Pray for Peace.” At that age I wasn’t praying for anything except the occasional odd prayer that went something like, “God, if you exist, could you please make yourself a little more obvious?” This may have had to do the fact that both my parents, scandalized with how house-broken and flag-adjusted Christianity had become, regarded themselves as atheists. It wasn’t a view that appealed to me, yet I couldn’t entirely shrug it off.

In 1955, when I was thirteen, Mother took my brother and me to see a major photo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was called “The Family of Man.” It was an amazing array of images. Each photo seemed a revelation of the human mystery — children, the aged, dark skinned and light, naked and clothed, joyful, in grief, praying, playing, dancing, standing still, on battlefields, in city parks, alone, in crowds, dancing, making music, making love, just out the womb, just breathing their last, in classrooms, in cemeteries. Seeing these photos was my first experience of being astonished at being a member of the human race. How pleased I was that mother gave me a book with all the exhibition’s photos. It was my first Bible. There are few books I’ve ever looked at so closely and returned to again and again. A few years ago, my original copy falling to pieces, I was relieved to find a fresh copy in a California book shop.

I could speak at length about many photos included in that exhibition, but one that burned itself into my memory was a child’s face — a boy about three years old. The caption only indicated the place it was taken and the photographer’s name: “Nagasaki, Japan. Yosuke Yamahata.”

It’s an icon-like picture, absolutely still. The boy gazes full-face toward the viewer. He stands erect. No one is holding him. What is it about his stillness? About his emotionless eyes? Only the fact that the photo was taken in Nagasaki and the child’s face has many small scratches and thin lines of dried blood gives away the event outside the image. It’s the face of a child who has survived a nuclear explosion. It is the face of a child who has witnessed a rehearsal for the end of the world. It is a photo of unspeakable desolation mirrored in a child’s eyes.

About the time I saw that photo, the pastor of the Methodist Church and his wife in the town where I lived — Red Bank, New Jersey — took in as long-term guests two young women who were survivors of the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki. American peace groups had brought them and others like them to the United States for plastic surgery and found them temporary homes in and near New York City. It wasn’t an easy kind of hospitality in the fifties, when the word “peace” was regarded by many as a synonym for “Communism” and when most people had no desire to think about, not to say see with their own eyes, what American nuclear bombs had done to actual people. In fact, I could only guess at the results myself, as each of the women wore a broad-brimmed hat from which was draped a veil of silk. They could see out but we couldn’t see in.

My mother, who wasn’t a full-time atheist, sometimes took us to services at the Methodist Church. We never missed Easter and Christmas. As a result I saw these two very poised, meek women sitting side-by-side in a pew near the front of the church, their faces hidden behind their silk veils. I couldn’t stop staring. They were a bridge into a nightmarish event on the other side of the world that happened when I was four. Along with the Nagasaki photo I had seen in New York, these two women helped me understand the human cost of war, the effect of nuclear weapons, and the fact that the victims of war are mainly the innocent. The designers of empire, the engineers of war and its generals usually have the privilege of dying of old-age. Some, like Napoleon, are buried in tombs that are architectural celebrations of national honor.

I began to understand that to pray for peace is to pray that such events will not happen again. But is prayer really prayer if it isn’t connected to how we live and the choices we make? Perhaps by then I was old enough to be aware that, while many people said “amen” to prayers for peace, actually to work for peace was extremely controversial. Just to open one’s door to two bomb-damaged women, as the Squire family had done, was a brave action at the time.

That wasn’t all I gained from the witness of the Squire family. Thanks to them, I began to understand that following Christ was not, as it had seemed to me in the past, for the faint-hearted. While in many cases the church in one’s neighborhood might be an association of people dedicated to respectability, there were Christians who actually did adventurous things, actions that revealed the Gospel, a major theme of which is hospitality: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was a stranger and you took me in…”

While I wasn’t drawn to Methodism as such — interest in sermons has never been my strong point — what I saw in that particular Methodist church was certainly a factor in my taking Christianity more seriously. This was true for my mother as well. Not many years later — just after reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography, as it happened — she was fully cured of her atheism and returned to the Methodist Church, becoming one of its pillars in Red Bank. For the rest of her life, she missed services only when she was sick.

Given such events in my childhood, it’s not surprising that concerns about war and peace played a major part in my thoughts as I was growing up.

When I was fourteen, I took part in the regional Science Fair, but what I brought to the exhibition had less to do with science than anxiety. Using plywood, cardboard, plaster, raw bleached cotton and ink spray, I built a foot-high model of a nuclear explosion about 30 seconds after detonation — a fiery mushroom cloud rising vertically from a plywood base on which, using a thin later of plaster, I had painted the destruction at ground level. Attached to all this was a carefully-lettered text explaining what I had learned about how nuclear weapons were made (very little) and what they did (about which I was better informed). My exhibit failed to win a prize, but it was a worthwhile experience building the model and writing the text. The finished work attracted a gratifying amount of attention when it was shown.

Two years passed. I was now living in southern California with my father, step-mother and half-sister and was a student at Hollywood High School.

A good part of my reading in my mid-teens was science fiction. Many books in that genre had to do with what the world might be like for the survivors of nuclear war. It was in some respects grim reading, but such apocalyptic books were thought-provoking. The authors took seriously where the human race was headed. It was a kind of prophetic literature whose authors were trying to bring us to our senses.

Meanwhile I had joined Hollywood High School’s debating society and as a consequence was required to deliver a lecture. The idea of standing up in front of other students plus several teachers to make a speech was daunting.

I ended up writing a lecture with the title, “A Generation in the Shadow,” the shadow being the darkness under a mushroom cloud in which kids my age were standing. I wish I still had the text — it would be interesting to read it again. It might be better than the talk I’m giving today. I’m guessing the main theme was the problem of living in a world in which it wasn’t at all obvious that any of us would die of old age. It seemed unlikely that anyone in my generation would live to be 30.

Such an expectation has consequences. Who wants to paint a house that will be burned down tomorrow? But perhaps by then I had already heard those helpful words of Martin Luther’s: “Even if I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would go out an plant apple trees today.” This was a sentence that would have been a good ending, and indeed would have reflected my view that today is the only day available to us and offers the only opportunity we have to shape what happens next.

In 1957, the Beat Generation was suddenly in the press — a generation that had abandoned the social conveyor belt. I found the Beats fascinating. I managed to buy a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, at that time banned in California, from a newsstand in west Hollywood that did a brisk business in under-the-counter items. Poetry was not its usual trade, but Howl was at the time a hot item. There’s nothing like a book being banned to perk up reader interest! If certainly perked up mine.

In a world daily preparing the means and strategies of destroying itself, Ginsberg was a writer whose howl I could identify with. In fact, as my wife pointed out to me recently while reading Howl, one line was almost prophetic in my case. It’s about a guy “who coughed on the sixth floor of Harlem crowned with flame under the tubercular sky surrounded by orange crates of theology.” While I have yet to be crowned with flame, I was part of a house of hospitality in Harlem, have done my share of coughing, and have had many orange crates of theology.

I look back on that part of my life and am a bit astonished how well I did living under the nuclear shadow, given my sense that World War III was practically inevitable and that few would survive. Russia and the US were frequently testing nuclear weapons and France and Britain had also joined “the nuclear club.”

This was part of the background for my making some unusual choices.

During the Christmas holiday in 1958, soon after my 17th birthday, I dropped out of high school.

Five months later, the spring of 1959, still trying to find out what came next and influenced by posters that read “Join the Navy and See the World,” I joined the Navy. It was not exactly a Beat choice, but the idea of going to sea made me think of books like Moby Dick. After basic training, I was sent to the Navy Weather School for training as a meteorologist. From there, having graduated first in my class, I was sent not to sea, as I had hoped, but to Washington, D.C., where I became part of a small Navy unit at the headquarters of the U.S. Weather Bureau.

Even in the weaponless Weather Bureau, it was not all isobars. World War III proved not to be so far away. In our Navy unit, one of our daily exercises was to plot the fallout pattern at 12-hour intervals for the coming three days should a 20-megaton nuclear weapon explode at noon today over the center of Washington.

But something else was now going on in my life. It had started while I was studying meteorology. It would require a separate talk for me to explain how it came about, so let me instead cut to the headline. I became a Christian. While it was not easy discovering where exactly I fit on the Christian map, a year later, in November 1960, I was received into the Catholic Church.

Being a Christian put everything I had been thinking about in a new light. The subject was no longer only war. It was also peace. Fear, though not banished, was no longer at the center of my life.

One of the big events in 1960 was the finding Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, for sale in a rack of paperback books at my parish church, St. Thomas Apostle. I read it in a day or two.

During time off from work at the Weather Bureau, for several months I spent many hours helping out at a home for children whose parents, for one reason or another, were not able to take care of them. Among my tasks was taking the Catholic kids to Mass on Sunday. The nearest parish was Blessed Sacrament. One of its attractions was the fact that it had, on the ground floor of a house next door, a substantial library. And what library it was! I used it intensively.

Among its many treasures was a stack of back issues of the paper Dorothy Day edited, The Catholic Worker, an eight-page tabloid. I didn’t bother taking one or two at a time — a took the whole pile back to my Navy base on the Potomac and read each issue cover to cover.

Reading the paper made me want to visit the New York Catholic Worker. On my next free weekend, instead of helping out at the home for children, I hitchhiked to Manhattan, sleeping at night on the floor of one of the Catholic Worker apartments while helping out during the day with the soup kitchen. Other visits followed.

Being at the house on Chrystie Street, the Catholic Worker’s New York base in the early sixties, was roughly equivalent to riding the rails as a Jack-London-ish tramp in Depression days. Here was a collection of wild souls, a far from homogeneous bunch, who managed to feed and clothe — and in some cases house — a good many street people who had few allies. The community of volunteers itself lived a kind of anarchic monastic life, sustained up by the Liturgy, daily prayer, the rosary, and a shared intellectual life. It was an extraordinary place to be.

All the while I was reading the Gospel as if it were a long letter written to me personally, plus quite a few books from the Blessed Sacrament parish library. In the background of my reading was the pressing question, “What should I do with the rest of my life?”

At the very beginning of my conversion, the Gospel sentence that had astonished me most and continued to haunt me was, “If you would be perfect, go sell what you have and give it to the poor and come follow me.” I wasn’t quite sure what this might mean in my own life, but it didn’t strike me as an invitation to a military career and the things that the armed forces exist to do. If you were following Jesus, even if you were deaf to what he had to say about love of enemies, wouldn’t the fact that he had killed no one and had nothing to do with war suggest that his followers should kill no one and have nothing to do with war?

The Gospel text that Dorothy Day referred to again and again had to do with the works of mercy and ended with the sentence, “What you did the least person you did to me.” What one would not want to do to Jesus, and therefore not to the least person, was let allow him to starve to death, die of thirst, live in rags, freeze on the streets, be sick and uncared for, or be in prison without visitors.

This took me to another level of understanding peacemaking. Peacemaking was anything you do to protect human life, no matter how young or old, no matter how sane or insane, no matter how attractive or ugly, no matter how clean or unclean.

Within half a year of reading Dorothy Day’s autobiography, and after getting into a good deal of trouble for taking part in a vigil protesting the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, the Navy granted me an early discharge as a conscientious objector. I immediately became part of the Catholic Worker community in Manhattan.

Becoming part of the Catholic Worker gradually changed my understanding of peacemaking, in large measure thanks to Dorothy Day and the example she gave.

There was first of all her amazingly disciplined spiritual life — daily Mass, frequent use of the rosary, pausing to pray monastic offices during the day, weekly confession.

I was also struck by Dorothy’s wide-ranging interests, not least opera, which she listened to on the radio on Sundays whenever possible — definitely not a good time to knock on her door.

She also had a gift for giving significant responsibilities to quite young people such as myself. Not only did Dorothy eventually appoint me as managing editor of The Catholic Worker, but she also involved me in some of her own activities.

One day she took me with her when she was visiting a priest from Moscow who was serving at the Russian Orthodox cathedral in uptown Manhattan. Along the same lines, on at least one occasion she brought me to an eastern-rite Slavonic liturgy in a small, candle-heated chapel not far from the Catholic Worker. One evening she brought me with her to a meeting of a small group she belonged to called the Third Hour, a discussion group that brought together Catholic and Orthodox Christians plus one Anglican, the poet W.H. Auden.

Such activities not only made me aware that Christianity is divided along east-west lines but also widened my understanding of peacemaking. Some of the roots of war are religious. The Great Schism not only split the Church but multiplied the flash points for war. Thus one important area of peace work is to do all one can to end the Schism, now nearly a thousand years old.

Dorothy loved books. One of the hardest things about living in community, she once told me, was that so many of her books disappeared. But her most valued books, even if no longer in her small library, never disappeared from her memory. She could recite long patches of Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. It was a book that Dorothy regarded as a kind of fifth Gospel. She very much wanted me to read it but it was only during a year in prison that I at last read it from start to finish for the first time.

Beauty was a important word for Dorothy. In the days when she was becoming Catholic while living with her common-law husband Foster Battersham, a passionate atheist, she would say to him, “How can there be no God when there is all this beauty?” I don’t think anyone could be close to Dorothy for any length of time without becoming better equipped to see beauty even in unbeautiful places. Once beauty is recognized, it becomes a sacred duty to protect it — one of the most important motives of peacemaking.

Dorothy shared her friends. One of the other extraordinary things Dorothy did was to involve me in her friendship with Thomas Merton, with whom she corresponded. One day in the late summer of 1961, she gave me a manuscript he had sent to her for possible publication in The Catholic Worker and asked me to get it ready for publication. It must have had something to do with her awareness that I liked Merton’s books. Thus I became involved in publishing Merton’s first Catholic Worker essay and also, again thanks to Dorothy’s suggestion, in writing to him. It was the beginning of a correspondence that lasted until Merton’s death seven years later. How many editors would turn over to a very junior assistant a manuscript from one of the most renowned writers of the time? Just one, in my experience.

Merton’s essay had the title “The Root of War is Fear.” It was an expanded version of a chapter for a book he was then working on, New Seeds of Contemplation. What he had to say in those six or eight pages had great impact on my understanding of peacemaking. From then on I became increasingly aware of the many ways we are shaped, or rather deformed, by fear. I became more conscious of how so many of our choices, even the work we choose to do and how we live, are driven by fear. War itself is driven by fear.

I sent Merton’s essay to my father, who earlier in his life had been Catholic and had even considered becoming a priest. He was genuinely appreciative, amazed that a Catholic of Merton’s stature was writing for The Catholic Worker and was tackling the hot issue of preventing war. Nonetheless he had to disagree with Merton’s main thesis. “The root of war,” Dad wrote me, “is bad economics.” Much to my surprise, several years later I had a letter from my father in which he said he was still thinking about Merton’s essay and wanted me to know he had concluded “that the root of bad economics is fear.”

Part of the weekly rhythm of life at the New York Catholic Worker when I was there was going uptown once a week to the headquarters of the Civil Defense Agency on Madison Avenue. Here we stood on the four corners of the nearest intersection handing out copies of a leaflet. I can’t recall the leaflet’s text in detail, but no doubt it pointed out that going into cellars and fallout shelters, or hiding under desks, would not save you in the event of nuclear war. Even should you exit your shelter alive, the world we would be returning to would not be hospitable to the human presence. Probably it also argued that our best protection was in dialogue with adversaries rather than in preparations for a nuclear holocaust.

It was something of a miracle to find any takers for the sheet. The big discovery I made in my attempts to pass it out was that, given the fact that the red light system created waves of people instead of a steady flow, should I succeed in getting the leaflet into the hands of the first person in a group coming my way, my chance of getting others who were following to take it were hugely improved. Though few if any people following the leader knew each other — all they had in common was the fact that they were pedestrians going from one place to another in Manhattan — they tended to imitate the response of the person up front. I actually prayed for the person in front — invariably a man in a hurry — to notice my friendly face and take my very important leaflet.

It was a useful lesson for any would-be peacemaker. All of us are constantly taking cues from one another. Not many people are inclined to solitary gestures. Like many varieties of fish, we prefer to swim in schools. The result is that we are easily influenced by the society in which we happen to live, not only by nationalism, in the sense of unswerving devotion to nation, but also by the ideologies the nation promotes at a given time. Had I been a German in the Hitler years, I would have been under immense social pressure to greet my neighbor with a raised right hand and the words, “Heil Hitler!” Had I been a Russian in the Lenin and Stalin years, I might have succumbed to atheist propaganda and been someone destroying icons rather than kissing them. Had I been a white South African in the apartheid years, going along with apartheid would have been much easier than opposing it. Had I been born in a slave-owning society and been among those benefiting from such cheap labor, the arguments (some of them biblical) in favor of slavery might have seemed convincing.

Peacemaking, then, involves becoming more aware of the myriad ways manipulation occurs and finding ways to help ourselves and others not be so easily manipulated.

Having said so much about the first twenty years of my life, and wanting to have time for dialogue before we go our various ways, let me summarize what has happened to me in the years since being part of the New York Catholic Worker, then focus on one item that seems to me to have been especially significant. This requires skipping over my activities during the Vietnam War, several stays in prison for acts of civil disobedience, and much else that I wish we had time for.

My work after leaving the Catholic Worker has been a mixture of journalism, writing books and essays, occasional teaching at colleges and seminaries, and being on the staff of several peace organizations — the Catholic Peace Fellowship, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and, most recently, after joining the Orthodox Church in 1988, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

My final story has to do with what was perhaps the most important aspect of my work with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation.

It was work with the IFOR that brought me from the US to Holland in 1977, and, life being full of unplanned events, it’s Holland that has been my home ever since. For twelve years, from 1977 until 1988, I was General Secretary of IFOR.

In 1982, I was back in the US for a speaking trip. One of the stops was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, an area of the US where there were — perhaps still are — many underground silos housing nuclear-armed missiles kept in constant readiness for launching. Also nearby was the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, whose nuclear-armed B52s were in the air 24 hours a day.

On the stage with me in Sioux Falls was an interesting array of speakers, including a retired Marine Corps general and a rancher whose vast property was adjacent to the main runway of the Strategic Air Command. The well-attended event we were part of had been organized by the Nuclear Freeze movement. For the speakers present, our common cause was advocacy of freezing the development, manufacture and testing of nuclear weapons — an idea that came to win immense popular support that cut across political and ideological lines. For a time it was a proposal that seemed to have a real chance of becoming an area of agreement for the US and the USSR. But the following year, 1983, when Soviet jet fighters shot down a 747 passenger plane that had strayed over the Kamchatka Peninsula, not only did that airplane go down but the idea of a nuclear freeze with it. The temperature of the Cold War plunged.

One of my subsequent stops on that same 1982 trip was in Massachusetts where I had a lecture to give at the Harvard Divinity School. I was staying with my friend Robert Ellsberg, now editor-in-chief of Orbis Books, but at that time studying at Harvard. One evening Robert invited me out for a film. The one we happened to choose was “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears,” winner of the Academy Award for best foreign film. It’s a story set in the Brezhnev years that follows the friendship of three quite different women who originally meet by chance, having been assigned to the same room in a Moscow residence for women. It’s a great film — see it if ever you have the chance. My wife and I have it on DVD and still watch it from time to time.

What was so important to me at the time about this non-political film was the window it opened on ordinary Russian life. Walking out of the theater with Robert, I realized I had spent a large part of my life trying to prevent war between the US and the Soviet Union but had never been to Russia. The awful truth was that I knew more about American weapons than about the people at whom they were aimed — and that the same was true of everyone I knew who was involved in peace work. It was a shocking realization.

I wondered how we could regard what we were doing as peace work if it mainly had to do with informing people what nuclear war would do to the planet we live on? If Merton’s insight about fear being the root of war was true, would it not be better if we who sought peace in the world focused on building bridges rather than trying to prevent war by selling a nightmare? After all, the weapons and missiles we knew so much about were symptoms of fear.

That night at the movies in Cambridge was a major turning point for me. The following years of my life mainly had to do with trying to open east-west doors, doors that had long been locked on both sides. On the Russian side, there was a lot of worry about letting in people whom they knew opposed Russia’s war in Afghanistan, then in the middle of its decade-long run, and who were critical of the Soviet political system. No doubt they worried that we would demonstrate on Red Square.

It took more than a year of hard work to arrange a small conference (the theme was liberation theology) organized by the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. It was probably the first such event in Russia since the Bolshevik overthrow of the Russian government in 1917– an event that was religious rather than political in content, and whose agenda came from the west. All things considered, it was quite an achievement.

But its greatest value was not the conference itself but opening a door that afterward opened much more easily. Our initiative helped make east-west work a priority for others, and not only peace groups. Many organizations, academic bodies and businesses began to develop their own contacts and arrange their own events and programs in Soviet Russia. What happened in the decade that followed helped create a climate for greatly improved relations between the US and Russia, which in turn led to still more face-to-face contact. Thousands of people from the US and its western allies began to visit Russia for business, cultural and purely touristic reasons, and more and more Russians came to the west. Eventually there were inter-governmental breakthroughs that resulted in treaties that significantly reduced the number of nuclear weapons and missiles.

In 1988, while at work on a book about dramatic changes in Russian religious life in the Gorbachev period, I visited the city of Ulan Ude in the far east of Russia. I stayed in a guest house in the city center which at the time was the residence of an American couple and their children. The guest house, they told me, had been built in the thirties in the off chance that Stalin might come to visit Ulan Ude. Were that dreaded event to happen, this would have been his little palace for a few days. But Stalin never came.

The couple were both members of the staff of the US embassy in Moscow. They had been sent to this remote part of the country for an extended period in order to witness firsthand the destruction of Russian missiles and nuclear weapons under the terms of the US-Soviet treaty.

I thought back to my childhood — the blasts in Nevada I had witnessed on live television, the model of a nuclear explosion I had built, the high school lecture I had given about a generation living in the nuclear shadow, the years of my life I had spent doing all I could to prevent nuclear war, various programs I had been part of introduce Americans and Russians to each other, and here were two Americans whose job it was, on behalf of the US administration, to watch Soviet missiles and nuclear weapons being scrapped, while their Russian counterparts were in US on a parallel mission.

I had no illusions that the danger of nuclear war was over — many hundreds of nuclear bombs and an array of weapons of mass destruction remain intact in both countries, not to mention in all those countries which followed the US-Soviet example in developing their own nuclear weapons.

Yet it was something of a miracle to see that, partly thanks to the peace work of many people who had no governmental role, such a major breakthrough had occurred, and therefore could occur again.

One way of describing what happened in the eighties and nineties is to note that a lot of people learned to love their enemies — love in the biblical sense of caring about them and regarding their lives as worth preserving. Remarkably, the friendships that were formed were a factor in bring about a world that was, for a time, much safer than the world I grew up in.

Love of enemies is supposed to be one of the Christ’s all but impossible teachings, but it turns out to be quite possible. But before love of enemies can occur, it’s necessary to meet that enemy. It’s not only a work to be carried out by diplomats but by ordinary people.

Right now we’re back in a more familiar situation, lost in a labyrinth of enmity just about as bad as we faced during the Cold War, and now it involves not only the Russians, once again, but all the countries who are part of what the current administration has labeled “the empire of evil.”

Time’s up. The monologue is over. Time for conversation…

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text as of September 23, 2008
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Franz Jägerstätter: a solitary witness

[This is the introduction to Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Reflections from Prison, edited by Erna Putz and published by Orbis Books.]

By Jim Forest

Human beings have at least one trait in common with fish: we tend to move in schools. When the drums of war are beating and the latest slogan of mass destruction is announced (“for God and country,” “the war to end all wars,” “the war to make the world safe for democracy,” “the war to defeat the axis of evil,” “the war on terror”), few and far between are those who, having been summoned, refuse to take up weapons.

On every side, there are those who go willingly, convinced of the war’s rightness or at least confident their government knows what it is doing and would not spend human lives for anything less than the survival of the nation. There are still others who have their doubts but avoid knowing better — they rightly sense that it’s dangerous to look beyond the slogans. There are also those who know that the war at issue is deeply flawed or even unjustified, but who go along anyway, knowing there is always a price to pay for saying no and not wishing to pay that price.

For many the idea of disobedience simply doesn’t occur. There is the joy — at least the sense of security — of being in step with others and acting in unity, even if it turns out that such unity is being put to tragic or murderous uses. We’re human beings, after all, and thus — for worse as well as better — profoundly social. We like to bond with those around us — to cheer for the same teams, to see things in a similar way, to be “good citizens,” to do “what is expected of us.” Those of us who are Christians may well find ourselves being urged “to do our part” even by our bishops, pastors and theologians.

Franz Jägerstätter was one of the least likely persons to question the justifications for war being announced daily by those in charge or to say to no to the demands of his government. What did he know? And, for that matter, who would care about his perceptions? He was only a farmer. He had never been to a university or theological school. His formal education had occurred entirely in a one-room schoolhouse. Though active in his parish, which he served as sexton, he was not a person whose name would ring a bell for his bishop. No priest or bishop or theologian, no matter how critical of Nazi doctrine, was announcing it was a sin to obey the commands of the Hitler regime when it came to war. So far as he knew none of his fellow Catholics in Austria, even those who openly disagreed with Nazi ideology, had failed to report for military duty when the notice came.

How could so unimportant a person dare to have such important convictions? How could a humble Catholic farmer imagine he had a clearer conscience than those who led the Church in his homeland? And, in any event, didn’t his responsibility to his wife and children have priority over his views about war and government?

Indeed Franz Jägerstätter did his best, insofar as his conscience allowed, to survive the war and the Hitler years. Submitting to military training, he was in uniform for nearly a year but never took part in the actual war. For an extended period, he was allowed to return to his farm and family, but when summoned to active service, he saw no option but to refuse further compliance. He was immediately arrested and imprisoned. After just over five months in prison, on the 9th of August 1943, he was taken to a place of execution near Berlin and was beheaded by guillotine.

Franz Jägerstätter was just one more on the long list of the dead. There were so many others who perished in those years that one more fatality was not worth noticing. There were no press reports, no interviews with his grieving wife. But a significant entry was made in the register of his parish in the village of St. Radegund: “Franz Jägerstätter died on 9 August 1943 in Brandenburg [an der Havel, a town near Berlin] the death of a martyr.”

Years after the war was over, the name “Franz Jägerstätter” gradually came to light almost by chance. Gordon Zahn, an American sociologist, had written a book, German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars. In the course of his research, he had found a reference to an Austrian peasant who had paid with his life for refusing any part in Hitler’s wars. With the one book finished, he started researching what became In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter.

Zahn’s book generated a great deal of discussion, especially in the Catholic Church. How was it possible that “a man of no importance” could have possessed a moral clarity absent from those who were supposed to provide spiritual leadership to Austrian and German Catholics? Had any bishop expressed the view that Hitler’s wars were unjust? Answer: not one.

At the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Thomas Roberts, a Jesuit who had formerly been archbishop of Bombay, recounted Jägerstätter’s life, pointing out that the heroic stand taken by this remarkable Austrian could not be credited to pastoral guidance from those leading the Church in Austria or Germany or from the text of any existing Catholic catechism. In fact rulers could count on their Catholic subjects to obey them no less unquestioningly than they obeyed their Church.

Should not the Church, asked Archbishop Roberts, speak more clearly about the responsibility for its members to say no when they were required by their rulers to commit sins or be part of a system based on lies and injustice? Should the Church not make clear that conscientious objectors to war have the support and admiration of their Church for bearing witness to the Gospel? Should the Church not rejoice that Franz Jägerstätter had given such a witness against an unjust war — a witness Roberts compared to that of another beheaded hero of the Church, St. Thomas More? Should not the Church express itself in such a way that it would be more likely that Catholics in the future would be better equipped by their Church to take a similar stand, even if, like Jägerstätter, it cost them their lives? Was not a martyr’s death far preferable to complicity in evil?

Archbishop Roberts’ intervention was not without effect. While it was simply a bishop’s reflection on the life of an as-yet uncanonized saint and the implications of that saint’s witness, it turned out to be a factor in the direction taken by the bishops in the final document issued by the Second Vatican Council, known as Gaudium et Spes (its first three Latin words) or the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, as it was called in its more lengthy English title.

The Council declared, “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” The Council also condemned other crimes against life: abortion, euthanasia, slavery and torture among them.

Emphasizing the role of conscience, the Council called on states to make legal provision for those “who, for reasons of conscience, refuse to bear arms, provided that they agree to serve the human community in some other way.” Those who renounce violence altogether, seeking a more just and compassionate society by nonviolent means, were honored: “We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or to the community itself.” Those who, in the name of obedience, obey commands which condemn the innocent and defenseless were described as “criminal,” while those who disobey such corrupt commands merit “supreme commendation.”

It was a text that would have made Franz Jägerstätter rejoice. So too all the other Christian martyrs down through the centuries who have obeyed God rather than man.

For nearly every bishop who came to Rome to attend the Council, the name of Franz Jägerstätter was unknown before Archbishop Roberts made his intervention. Today there are few if any bishops in the Catholic Church who are unaware of Jägerstätter’s name and story. On the 26th of October 2007, Franz Jägerstätter was officially beatified. His wife and descendants were among those taking part in the event. Franz Jägerstätter is now known throughout his Church as Blessed Franz. Perhaps before too many years it will be Saint Franz.

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Though Franz Jägerstätter’s life has come to be a matter of significance in the history of the 20th century, and his beatification a vivid indication that the Catholic hierarchy today is taking to heart what the bishops who took part in the Second Vatican Council had to say about war, peace and individual conscience, few people on the calendar of saints had a more unpromising beginning in life.

Franz Jägerstätter was born in on May 20, 1907 in the Austrian village of St. Radegund. His mother was an unmarried farm servant, Rosalia Huber. His father, Franz Bachmeier, was the unmarried son of a farmer from Tarsdorf in the Austrian province of Salzburg; he died in the First World War. After Franz’s birth, Rosalia’s mother, Elisabeth Huber, shoemaker’s widow, took charge of Franz’s care.

It was not uncommon for those with little money or property to conceive children outside marriage, but marriage often followed. It wasn’t so in this case, perhaps due to parental objections regarding one or the other potential partner. When Rosalia Huber at last married years later it was in 1917, a decade after Franz’s birth, and not to Franz’s father but to Heinrich Jägerstätter. He was a man of property — the owner of the Leherbauernhof farm in St. Radegund. In addition to marrying Rosalia, Heinrich Jägerstätter adopted her son, thus giving him the family name we know him by. They were to have no children of their own.

Franz’s formal education was slight and brief. From 1913 to 1921, he attended the one-room school in St. Radegund where a single teacher taught seven grades. At a given time, there were about 50 to 60 children in all. But one sees from his writing that he was a quick learner with a well-organized and independent mind.

Franz’s birthplace was as inauspicious as his education. The village of St. Radegund, on the River Salzach, is on the northwestern edge of Austria. The village, with a population of about five hundred, appears only on the most detailed maps of Austria. Mozart’s Salzburg is to the south, Linz to the east, Vienna much further east. The closest major German city is Munich. Hitler’s birthplace, the Austrian town of Braunau, isn’t far from St. Radegund. St. Radegund’s major claim to fame for many years was the four-hour Passion Plays it organized from time to time, the last one occurring in 1933. Like nearly everyone in the community, Franz had a part to play — he was one of the Roman soldiers involved in the crucifixion of Christ.

Franz grew up mainly among farmers. The Jägerstätter farm was one among many in the area. It was a region in which Catholicism was deeply embedded. The idea of not being Catholic was, for nearly everyone Franz knew, as unthinkable as moving to another planet, though he did have a cousin who became a Jehovah’s Witness.

One reads in the accounts of saints’ lives how amazingly pious some of them were from the cradle to the grave. The stories local people tell of Franz as a young man go in the opposite direction. In his teens he wasn’t hesitant to get involved in fist fights. He enjoyed all the pastimes that his friends enjoyed. Along with all his neighbors, he went to church when everyone else did, but no one would have remarked on his being a saint in the making.

In 1930, age 23, Franz worked for a time in the Austrian mining town of Eisenerz. This was his first encounter with a secularized factory culture. Here he met people who didn’t bother with church or have any good words to say about Christianity. Under their influence, in that period Franz slept in on Sunday mornings, skipping Mass.

Returning to St. Radegund, Franz surprised his family and neighbors by arriving on a motorcycle he had purchased with money he earned in the city. No one else in the area had a motorcycle.

Far more important, though the most attentive neighbor would have realized it in the early stages, was the fact that after his return to St. Radegund Franz’s religious life not only revived but gradually came into sharper focus. Unfortunately, letters that might give a clue about this period of his life either do not survive or were never written. It may be that Franz’s brief encounter with a more secular culture in his time away ultimately have the effect of bringing him closer to a faith he had previously taken for granted.

Not that anyone would have regarded Franz as notably pious or altogether converted from his former rowdy ways. In August 1933, a local farm maidservant, Theresia Auer, gave birth to a daughter, Hildegard. Franz was the child’s father. The fact that there had been no marriage before the birth, or would be afterward, was attributed locally to the determined opposition of Franz’s mother, who seemed to doubt that Franz was in fact Hildegard’s father. What is striking is that for the rest of his life, Franz not only provided material support for Hildegard, but remained very close to her, visiting her often. Just before his marriage to Franziska Schwaninger, Franz and his wife-to-be offered to adopt Hildegard, but Hildegard’s mother and grandmother (who was raising the child) declined.

According to local consensus, the most important single factor attributed to bringing about a change in Franz was his marriage to Franziska Schwaninger. Nearly everyone who lived in the area saw this as the main border-crossing event of his adult life. Franz was, neighbors said, “a different man” afterwards, a fact most of all reflected in the intensity of his religious life.

But in fact the transition was not quite as abrupt as it seemed to neighbors. Prior to marriage, Franz had thought seriously of entering a monastery. One of Franziska’s initial concerns regarding Franz, once they met, was to make sure he had a more than superficial commitment to his faith. She was relieved not only that he attended Mass regularly, but also that he was a committed and thoughtful Catholic.

Franziska Schwaninger, six years younger than Franz, had grown up on a farm in the village of Hochburg, about five miles (12 km) away from St. Radegund. She came from a deeply religious family — her father and grandmother were both members of the Marian Congregation. Her grandmother also belonged to the Third Order of St. Francis. Before Franziska’s marriage, she had considered becoming a nun.

After a short engagement, the two were married on the April 9, 1936. Franz was almost 29, Franziska 23. The honeymoon that followed startled everyone in or near St. Radegund. The couple went to none of the usual places visited by the newly married, but opted instead to go as pilgrims to Rome, at the same time ignoring deeply-embedded local tradition by declining to have a wedding feast. Married at 6 in the morning, before noon they were on their way to Rome, a city crowded with churches built over the tombs of martyrs of the early Church or the locations of their execution. To be in so many martyr-linked places of worship must have helped prepare the newly married couple for what would happen in the years to come.

The Roman pilgrimage had been Franz’s idea, but Franziska had eagerly agreed. Returning home, Franz proposed to Franziska that they go on a similar pilgrimage every ten years. It wasn’t to be.

While Franz was already a committed Catholic Christian, in the early months of their marriage it was Franziska whose spiritual life was the most developed. Franziska went to Mass on many weekdays, often received communion, and kept the Friday devotions associated with the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But Franz was quickly influenced by her example. Neighbors were surprised and in many cases critical. The general view was that it was all right for women to do these things, if they had the time, but a man must give priority to his farm and keep the Church and its services in their place. Franz, while remaining a productive and efficient farmer, increasingly put the Church first.

It was a happy marriage. Franz once told his wife, “I could never have imagined that being married could be so wonderful.” In one of his letters to Franziska during his period of army training in 1940, he mentions how “fortunate and harmonious” have been their years of marriage. “This good fortune is unforgettable, and will accompany me through time and eternity. You also know how the children bring me joy. For this reason, a feeling of good fortune often comes over me here so that tears of joy flow from my eyes when I think about our reunion.”

Years after her father’s death, the Jägerstätters’ eldest daughter, wondering aloud whether she would ever marry, recalls her mother warning her that married couples often fight. Her daughter responded, “But you and daddy didn’t fight.”

Looking back on the days when her husband was still alive, Franziska observed, “We helped one another go forward in faith.” Indeed, Franziska was not only an equal partner in their marriage, someone whose example brought Franz closer to a fearless Christian faith, but also a partner in her husband’s martyrdom, even while hoping against hope that Franz’s refusal to be a soldier would not lead to his execution.

The Jägerstätters had three children, all daughters: Rosalia (Rosi) in 1937, Maria in 1938, and Aloisia (Loisi) in 1940.

Theirs was not a marriage out of touch the world beyond their farm. Franz and Franziska were attentive to what was going on just across the river from St. Radegund in Germany where Hitler had been German chancellor since 1933. They were aware of Hitler’s pagan ideology, the brutality of his followers, and also knew of the intensive effort underway to build up Germany’s military. They also were aware of the anti-Nazi writings of the Bishop of Linz, Johannes Maria Gföllner, who in 1933 had stated in a pastoral letter read aloud in every parish of the Linz diocese: “Nazism is spiritually sick with materialistic racial delusions, un-Christian nationalism, a nationalistic view of religion, with what is quite simply sham Christianity.” The racial purity so dear to the Nazis was condemned by Bishop Gföllner as “a backsliding into an abhorrent heathenism… The Nazi standpoint on race is completely incompatible with Christianity and must therefore be resolutely rejected.” In 1937, four years later, he declared, “It is impossible to be both a good Catholic and a true Nazi.” (By 1941, Linz had a new bishop who was to speak much more cautiously.)

Meanwhile, Nazism’s dark shadow was spreading in Austria as well. There was more and more talk of Austria fully incorporating itself into Germany, though in St. Radegund, as in many places throughout Austria, the Nazis had little support.

One important factor in helping people keep their distance from Nazism was the widespread awareness that the Nazi movement was only a degree less hostile to Christianity than the Bolsheviks in Soviet Russia. Nazis regarded the values of the New Testament with contempt and saw those who attended church as stupid and weak. In Germany, they knew, Christians found themselves living in a steadily tightening noose of restrictions. The Nazis had made clear that one of their most urgent priorities was to separate children and young people from the Church and in its place make them into Hitler Youth members.

The Nazis didn’t hide their hostility to the teachings of Christ and the churches that spread his teaching. In the words of one prominent Nazi, Roland Freisler, State Secretary of the Reich Ministry of Justice: “Christianity and we are alike in only one respect: we lay claim to the whole individual. … ‘From which do you take your orders? From the hereafter or from Adolf Hitler? To whom do you pledge your loyalty and your faith?’”

On the 12th of March 1938, the 8th Army of the German Wehrmacht crossed the German-Austrian border. Assisted by the local Nazi movement and supported by the vast majority of the Austrian population, German troops quickly took control of Austria, then organized a national plebiscite on April 10 to confirm the union with Germany. With few daring to vote against what had already been imposed by military methods, the annexation (Anschluss) of Austria by Germany was even ratified by popular ballot. Austria, now an integral part of the Third Reich, ceased to exist as an independent state. What had been Austria was renamed Ostmark.

Well before the Anschluss, Franz had been an anti-Nazi, but the event that brought his aversion to a much deeper level was a remarkable dream he had in January 1938. Perhaps it was triggered by a newspaper article he had read a few days earlier reporting that 150,000 more young people had been accepted into the Hitler Youth movement.

In the dream he saw “a wonderful train” coming round a mountain. The gleaming engine and carriages seemed especially attractive to children, who “flowed to this train, and were not held back.” Then a voice said to him, “This train is going to hell.” He woke Franziska to tell her of his dream and continued to think about it long afterward. The train, he realized, symbolized the glittering Nazi regime with all its spectacles and its associated organizations, Hitler Youth being one of the most important and spiritually corrupting.

The dream seemed to Franz a clarifying message from heaven. The Nazi movement — with its racism, its cult of violence, its elimination of those members of society regarded as unfit, its efforts to suppress Christianity — was satanic. It was nothing less than a gateway to hell.

In St. Radegund it was widely known that Franz, ignoring the advice of his neighbors, had voted against the Anschluss, but, in reporting the results to the new regime in Vienna, Franz’s solitary vote was left unrecorded. It was seen as endangering the village to put on record that even one person had dared raise a discordant voice.

After all, as Franz was painfully aware, even Austria’s Catholic hierarchy had advocated a yes vote. Afterward Cardinal Innitzer, principal hierarch of the Catholic Church in Austria, signed a declaration endorsing the Anschluss. The words “Heil Hitler!” were above his signature. Innitzer was among the first to meet Hitler following the Führer’s triumphant entry into what was now the Ostmark region of Germany. That same year, in honor of Hitler’s birthday, he ordered that all Austrian churches fly the swastika flag, ring their bells, and pray for Hitler. Presumably the cardinal hoped such an action on his part would be repaid by the Nazi regime with a more tolerant attitude toward the Church. In fact, following the Anschluss, the situation for Austrian Catholics proved to be even worse than it was for their counterparts in Germany. Many priests were jailed or sent to concentration camps, youth education by the Church was all but eliminated, church newspapers were closed, church processions were banned, and, in many parish churches, Mass on important feast days, even Christmas, was prohibited unless the feast fell on a Sunday.

If someone greeted Franz with the Nazi salute and the words “Heil Hitler,” Franz would respond, minus the salute, with the words “Pfui Hitler.” As Franz saw it, the Anschluss was similar to what had happened in Jerusalem during Passion Week: the crowd had chosen the criminal Barabas rather than their savior, Christ.

The Anschluss was only the beginning of a rapid campaign of German territorial expansion. Following the annexation of Austria, Germany occupied the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia. In March 1939, the rest of Czechoslovakia was taken over. In September 1939, Hitler began the invasion of Poland, at which point Britain and France responded with declarations of war and World War II began. In May 1940, France and the Low Countries were invaded. In June 1941, Germany launched its war on the “eastern front” with the Soviet Union, at the same creating for itself an urgent need for a much larger army.

Having become citizens of Germany, every able Austrian was subject to conscription. Franz was called up in June 1940, taking his military vow in Braunau, Hitler’s birthplace, but a few days later was allowed to return to his farm, as farmers were needed no less than soldiers. In October he was called back for training as an army driver, but in April 1941, six months later, was again allowed to return to his farm.

While in the army, Franz made a significant commitment: he joined the Third Order of St. Francis in December 1940. He may not have known that the Order’s original rule, as written by Francis, obliged those who joined not to possess or use deadly weapons, but without doubt he knew that Francis was a man who, following his conversion, never threatened or harmed anyone.

Franz’s brief period in the army, coupled with his recognition that to assist the Nazi movement in any way was to oppose Christ and his Church, made him realize that a return to the army was not possible for him. If he were summoned again, even at the cost of his life, he would have to say no.

Returning home from the army, Franz was ready for a deeper engagement in his parish. He agreed to become sexton, a responsibility that involved keeping the church and its grounds in good repair, assisting at daily Mass, and helping arrange baptisms, weddings and funerals. His priest was surprised at how quickly Franz learned all the Latin responses.

It was not possible for Franziska to offer her wholehearted endorsement — how could she sanction a course of action that would result in the death of her beloved husband? — but she was equally determined not to seek to change Franz’s mind. She knew her husband was simply following Christ in the same way as the martyrs at whose tombs in Rome they had prayed in the days following their wedding.

Franz readily talked about his views with anyone who would listen. Most often he was told that his main responsibility was to his family and that it would be better to risk death in the army on their behalf than to take steps which would almost certainly guarantee his death. While he would certainly do what he could to preserve his life for the sake of his family, Franz noted that self-preservation did not make it permissible to go and murder other people’s families. He pointed out that to accept military service also meant leaving his family without any assurance he would return alive. If he had to risk his life, was it not better to do so for Christ rather than Hitler? As for his family, surely God would not forget them. How good a husband and father would he be if he chose social conformity over obedience to Christ’s teaching? Did not Christ say, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”?

Most of all Franz sought advice from the Church’s pastors. At the time Fr. Ferdinand Fürthauer was the priest in St. Radegund, filling in for Fr. Josef Karobath, who in 1940 had been jailed for delivering an anti-Nazi sermon, then banished from the district. Far from encouraging Franz, Fr. Fürthauer — a young man who felt unprepared for such a situation — wondered if refusing military service, given that execution was the almost certain penalty, was not the same as committing the mortal sin of suicide. In later years Fr. Fürthauer wrote to Franziska, “I wanted to save his life, but he did not want any pretense and rejected all falsehood. I often pray that Franz Jägerstätter may forgive me.”

Franz turned for guidance to his former pastor, Fr. Karobath. “We met in the Bavarian town of Tittmoning,” Karobath recalls. “I wanted to talk him out of it [Franz’s decision to refuse further military service], but he defeated me again and again with words from the scriptures.”

Franz even managed to meet with the Bishop of Linz, Joseph Fliesser, successor to Bishop Gföllner. A list of questions Franz had written down in preparation for the encounter has survived. Franz asked if it was not sinful to support an ideology (Nazism) whose goals included eradicating Christianity; if “the predatory raids” which Germany was making in various countries could be regarded as acts of “a righteous and holy war”; how is it possible for the Church, in burying the remains of German soldiers killed in the war, to permit its priests to describe the fallen as heroes and even saints; would it not be truer to regard as heroes those who defended their homelands rather than those who invade other countries; could the Church regard as righteous and good whatever the crowd happens to be shouting; and, finally, can one be both a soldier of Christ and a soldier of Nazism, thus both fighting for the victory of Christ and his Church while at the same time fighting for the victory of Nazism?

While Franz met with Bishop Fliesser, Franziska was in the adjacent waiting room, no doubt praying. When Franz came out of the bishop’s consulting room, Franziska recalls that he “was very sad and said to me: “They don’t dare commit themselves or it will be their turn next.” Franz had the impression that the bishop didn’t discuss his questions because it was possible that his visitor might be a Gestapo spy.

In later years, Bishop Fliesser said, “In vain, I explained to him the basic principles of morality concerning the degree of responsibility which a private person and citizen bears for the actions of those in authority, and reminded him of his far higher responsibility for those within his private circle, particularly his family.”

It was, in fact, an answer any Catholic might have heard from any bishop in any country at the time: If not a doctrine found in any catechism, it was widely believed that any sins you commit under obedience to your government are not your personal sins but are regarded by God as the sins of those who lead the state. God would judge the leader, not those who had obeyed his orders. But for Franz it seemed obvious that, if God gives each of us free will and a conscience, each of us is responsible for what we do and fail to do, all the more so if we are consciously aware we have allowed ourselves to become servants of evil masters.

Franz later made the compassionate observation that “the bishop has not experienced the grace that has been granted to me.”

In a notebook entry Franz made early in 1942, he remarks, “They [the bishops and priests] are human beings of flesh and blood as we are, and they can be weak. Perhaps they are even more tempted by the evil foe than we are. Perhaps, too, they were too little prepared to take on this struggle and decide for themselves whether to live or to die.”

Having gone through training, nearly two years went by without Franz’s receiving a summons to return to the army. Throughout that period, each time mail was delivered to the Jägerstätter farm, both husband and wife were in dread. Finally on February 23, 1943, the fateful letter arrived. “Now I’ve signed my death sentence,” Franz remarked while putting his signature on the postal receipt. He was ordered to report to a military base in Enns, near Linz, two days later.

The same day he wrote to Fr. Karobath, whom he still regarded as his pastor even though the priest had been sent to another parish, “I must tell you that soon you may be losing one of your parishioners…. Today I received my conscription orders…. As no one can give me a dispensation for the danger to the salvation of my soul which joining this movement [the Nazis] would bring, I just can’t alter my resolve, as you know…. It’s always said that one shouldn’t do what I am doing because of the risk to one’s life, but I take the view that those others who are joining in the fighting aren’t exactly out of life-threatening danger themselves. Among those fighting in Stalingrad, so I’ve heard, are also four or five people from St. Radegund …. My family won’t forsake God and the Blessed Virgin Mary…. It will be difficult for my loved ones. This parting will surely be a hard one.”

It was indeed a hard parting. At the station in Tittmoning, Franz and Franziska could not let go of each other until the train’s movement forced them to separate. The conductor was furious.

Even as he boarded the train, Franz was already two days late for his appointment at Enns. But, after all, there was no need to arrive on time — once he reached Enns, he and Franziska had every reason to think, it might be only days or weeks before his execution. His late arrival could not make the punishment any worse.

Arriving at Enns the next morning, March 1, even then Franz took his time, attending Mass in the local church before reporting to the barracks. He also took time to send a letter to Franziska. It ended, “Should it be God’s will that I do not see you again in this world, then we hope that we shall see each other soon in heaven.” So far as Franz knew, this was his last letter.

The following day, Franz having announced his refusal to serve, he was placed under arrest and transported to the military remand prison in nearby Linz. Franz’s stay in Linz lasted three months. Though many others were tried and sentenced at Linz (a Catholic priest who visited prisoners there recalled having accompanied 38 men to their execution), Franz was not one among those tried.

Among prisoners at the Linz military prison from that period who survived, there were those who vividly recalled Franz — how often they saw him praying the rosary and his readiness to share with others his meager food ration. Giving away a piece of bread on one occasion, he claimed that a cup of coffee was enough for him.

No one knew better than Franziska how carefully thought out was the position Franz was taking and what a determined man he was in matters of faith. Even so, it was impossible for her not to encourage him occasionally to search for some alternate path that might not violate his conscience but perhaps would save his life. She wrote to him while he was in Linz, “One does God’s will even when not understanding it.” Even so, she confessed that she nurtured “the small hope that you would change your decision … because you have compassion for me, and I cannot help [being] me. I shall pray to the loving Mother of God that she will bring you back to us at home if it is God’s will.”

“I want to save my life but not through lies,” wrote Franz to his wife. “In [the army base at] Enns people wanted to trap me by means of trick questions and thus to make me once again into a soldier. It was not easy to keep my conviction. It may become even more difficult. But I trust in God to let me know if it would be better for me to do something different.”

In a letter dated March 11, he told Franziska that he was willing to serve in the army medical corps “for here a person can actually do good and exercise Christian love of neighbor in concrete ways,” but apparently such a noncombatant alternative was never opened to him by those responsible for his case.

Despite the heavy workload at the farm (in Franz’s absence, for the first time Franziska had to till the fields), on the feast of Corpus Christi she sought spiritual strength by making a pilgrimage on foot to the Bavarian town of Altötting, home of the Chapel of the Miraculous Image, one of Germany’s most visited shrines since medieval times — a place long associated with miracles.

Franz’s last Easter before execution was spent in the Linz prison. He wrote that day to Franziska: “‘Christ has risen, alleluia,’ so the Church rejoices today. When we have to endure hard times, we must and can rejoice with the Church. What is more joyful than that Christ has again risen, and gone forth as the victor over death and hell. What can give us Christians more comfort than that we no longer have to fear death.”

Without warning, on May 4 Franz was taken by train to the prison at Tegel, a suburb of Berlin. It had been decided that Franz’s was “a more serious case” requiring a Reich Court Martial in the capital rather than a provincial trial. Here Franz would spend the last three months of his life in solitary confinement. (Among Franz’s fellow prisoners at Tegel was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant theologian who was arrested in April 1943 after money was traced to him that had been used to help Jews escape to Switzerland. After eighteen months a prisoner, Bonhoeffer was executed in 1945.)

Franz says almost nothing in his letters about the conditions of life at Tegel, but a priest, Fr. Franz Reinisch, who had been in the same prison a year before Franz described it as “a foretaste of purgatory and hell: the thoughts and experiences: never a friendly face, never to feel any love, always only hard words – if this were to go on forever! And then the screaming of some prisoners who can’t bear the loneliness and the wrongful loss of their freedom, the constantly keeping silent, the small cell, etc. and also, in the case of certain men, the spiritual distress that weighs heavily on their hearts, the enchainment of those condemned to death.”

On July 6 a brief trial occurred. Franz was convicted of “undermining military morale” by “inciting the refusal to perform the required service in the German army.” This was a capital offense. Franz was sentenced to death. From this point on, he was kept in handcuffs. In a letter to Franziska, Franz notes that he is writing with his “hands in chains” (echoing the words of St. Paul when he was a prisoner in Rome).

On July 8, Franz wrote home, “It is a joy to be able to suffer for Jesus and our faith. We have the joyful hope that the few days in this life when we have been separated will be replaced by thousands of days in eternity, where we shall rejoice with God and our heavenly Mother in untroubled joy and good fortune. If we can only remain in the love of God when difficult tests of our faith come to us.” Perhaps to spare his family pain, or because the court sentence had not been confirmed, he said nothing in his letter about the trial that had just occurred.

In a final effort to save Franz’s life, his court-assigned lawyer, Friedrich Leo Feldmann, arranged a visit by Franziska and the priest of St. Radegund, Fr. Fürthauer, in the hope they could convince his client to change his mind. Were he to do so, Feldmann was confident the court would withdraw its sentence.

Their 20-minute meeting was Franz and Franziska’s last. It happened on July 9 in the presence of armed guards. Not to their surprise, the visitors found that Franz saw no honorable alternative but to continue with his refusal of military service. Fr. Fürthauer later recalled his attempt to persuade Franz to accept army service for his family’s sake. “He [Franz] said to me: ‘Can you promise me that if I join that movement [the Nazi regime] that I shall not fall into mortal sin?’ ‘That I cannot do’, I answered. ‘Then I won’t enlist,’ was his reply.” (In 2006, Fr. Fürthauer was asked if he would still say the same to Franz were he able to go back in time. “Today,” he responded, “I would not try to persuade him to change his resolve, but would just give him my blessing.”)

Back in St. Radegund, Franziska wrote to Fr. Karobath to report on the meeting with Franz in Berlin, commenting with bitterness, “They [the military officials] could easily have assigned him to the medical corps, but they were naturally too proud for that, for it might have looked like a compromise on their part.”

On July 14, Franz’s death sentence was confirmed by the Reich’s War Court. On August 9, Franz was taken to Brandenburg/Havel where, at about 4 PM, he was killed by guillotine.

The priest who accompanied Franz to his execution, Fr. Albert Jochmann, standing in that day for the chaplain at Brandenberg, later told a community of Austrian nuns about Franz’s final hours. In the early 1960s, one of them, Sr. Georgia, having learned that Gordon Zahn was at work on a biography of Franz Jägerstätter, wrote to Zahn to relate what the chaplain had said. Visiting Franz shortly after midnight on August 9, he noticed on a small table in Franz’s cell a document which, should Franz sign it, would allow him to leave prison and return to the army. When Fr. Jochmann pointed it out, Franz pushed it aside, saying, “I cannot and may not take an oath in favor of a government that is fighting an unjust war.”

Sr. Georgia continued: “Later he was to witness the calm and composed manner in which he [Franz Jägerstätter] walked to the scaffold.” He told the sisters, themselves Austrian, “I can only congratulate you on this countryman of yours who lived as a saint and has now died a hero. I can say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint that I have ever met in my lifetime.”

During his time in Berlin, Franz was permitted to write only one letter to Franziska each month, plus a fourth that was written on the day of his execution. The four letters bear witness to his extraordinary calm, conviction and even happiness.

Part of the happiness he experienced was thanks to the support he found in the Catholic chaplain, Fr. Heinrich Kreutzberg. It was a great consolation for Franz to hear from him that a priest, Fr. Franz Reinisch, had, just a year earlier, been in the same prison and died a similar death for similar reasons. After Franz’s death, Fr. Kreutzberg wrote a long letter to Franziska in which he noted, “I have seen no more fortunate man in prison than your husband after my few words about Franz Reinisch.”

Franz’s final letter home was written the morning of his execution. In it he appeals for the forgiveness of anyone he may have pained and hurt. He adds: “Dearest wife and mother, it was not possible for me to free both of you from the sorrows that you have suffered for me. How hard it must have been for our dear Lord that he had given his dear mother such great sorrow through his suffering and death! And she suffered everything out of love for us sinners. I thank our Savior that I could suffer for him, and may die for him. I trust in his infinite compassion. I trust that God forgives me everything, and will not abandon me in the last hour. … And now all my loved ones, be well. And do not forget me in your prayers. Keep the Commandments, and we shall see each other again soon in heaven!”

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Franz Jägerstätter was a solitary witness. He died with no expectation that his sacrifice would make any difference to anyone. He knew that, for his neighbors, the refusal of army service was incomprehensible — an act of folly, a sin against his family, his community and even his Church, which had called on no one to refuse military service. Franz knew that, beyond his family and community, his death would go entirely unnoticed and have no impact on the Nazi movement or hasten the end of the war. He would be soon forgotten. Who would remember or care about the anti-Nazi gesture of an uneducated farmer? He would be just one more filed-away name among many thousands who were tried and executed with bureaucratic indifference during in the Nazi era.

In refusing to change his no to yes, the only thing that Franz could be sure of was that to betray his conscience would put his immortal soul at risk.

If the bishops of Austria had done nothing to sanction conscientious objection, and indeed done a great deal to discourage it, one must note that Franz did not simply invent the stand he took or did he feel abandoned by the Church. He drew strength from the sacraments and from the awareness that he was walking the same path many saints, some in the recent past, had followed — men and women who had obeyed God rather than man and paid with their lives for doing so. Before his death Franz had the profound consolation of learning that a Catholic priest, Fr. Franz Reinisch, had been held in the very same prison and executed for similar reasons.

Like all the witnesses who had gone before him, Franz was equipped with an acute sensitivity to forgotten or neglected notes of the Gospel. He had read the New Testament countless times and had thought long and hard about its stories and teachings. Given the war-related questions he was facing, no doubt it had impressed him that Jesus neither killed anyone nor called upon anyone to do so.

Aware of such basic Gospel themes and responding to them with uncompromising courage and faith, Franz in turn has made it possible for others to hear them too.

In the Franz Jägerstätter narrative, there are two conversion stories.

The first was his own. Franz had been converted from being the sort of assembly-line Catholic who does what is expected of him within his native Catholic community into a rarer sort of Catholic who actually makes a conscious effort to understand the Gospel and to follow Christ wholeheartedly despite antagonistic social structures prepared to punish severely anyone who fails to stay in line.

The other conversion occurred within his Church.

Far from being lost in the past, Franz’s witness proved to be a seed cast in the wind, carried along until a time, nearly two decades later, when it would it at last take root and find fitting soil. As a consequence, Franz Jägerstätter helped the Catholic Church change direction. How providential it was that the story of Franz’s life began to circulate during the Second Vatican Council and played a part in giving shape to what the Catholic Church today teaches about war, peace, conscience and individual responsibility — guidance in stark contrast to what was taught in Franz’s day: trust your rulers and do as you’re told — it is no sin to obey.

Nor did Franz’s influence end with a reform of Church teaching about war and individual responsibility. Half a century after Franz’s death, the Church had he loved so much, but which had deeply disappointed him, beatified him. The Church had moved from interest in Franz’s challenging life to recognizing it as a model of sanctity, a life that rendered nothing less than a modern translation of the Gospel. “Franz Jägerstätter,” said Cardinal Christoph Schönborn on the day of Franz’s beatification, “is a living page of the Gospel. The Gospel is not only an authoritative report of that which was taking place at that time in Galilee and in Jerusalem. It is a living book… Franz Jägerstätter was and is for me the most concrete and illustrative commentary on the Beatitudes that I have ever heard.”

No one would have been more astonished than Franz to hear himself, or any conscientious objector, described by the Cardinal of Vienna in such terms.

Within the cathedral there was resounding applause for Franziska Jägerstätter, who had lived to hear a solemn declaration read aloud recognizing as a model of sanctity a man who had once been dismissed as a model of insanity. Then there was the sight of so many bishops rising to their feet as a 30-foot banner with Franz’s photo was unfurled. But perhaps the high point for all present was to witness Franziska, tears streaming from her eyes, kiss a bronze urn containing some of the Franz’s ashes before presenting the reliquary to Cardinal Schönborn.

One of the persons missing in the Linz cathedral was Gordon Zahn, absent due to infirmity (Alzheimer’s disease) and close to death. It was thanks to Zahn that the name of Franz Jägerstätter had been lifted from obscurity. For someone’s life to be formally recognized as saintly by the Church, there must first be at least one person who takes special note of that life, recognizes its importance, gathers the available details, and makes it his or her business to bring that life to the attention of others. In the case of Franz Jägerstätter, Gordon Zahn was that person. Had he not written In Solitary Witness, it is far from certain that the name of Franz Jägerstätter would be remembered today.

Side by side with Gordon Zahn, we are in debt to an Austrian, Erna Putz. Building on Zahn’s research, beginning in 1979 she devoted herself to making Franz better known, obtaining important documents, writing a full-scale biography of Franz Jägerstätter, and collecting all his letters and other writings, now gathered together in the book you hold in your hands.

The impact of Franz’s life was not only on the Second Vatican Council and its final document, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The year In Solitary Witness was published, 1964, happened to coincide with the early stages of U.S. military involvement in the war in Vietnam. In Solitary Witness was widely read by the young men, potential or actual soldiers, who were struggling with the question of how to respond to that war. Having been a draft counselor during that period, I can recall how many of young people I talked with had read Zahn’s book and found themselves deeply challenged by Franz Jägerstätter’s life. It was one of the reasons that the Catholic Church in the United States produced so many thousands of conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War. While none of them faced the guillotine, many faced prison, exile or other hardships. How important it was for them to discover that they were not alone; that someone like Franz Jägerstätter, under far more difficult circumstances, had read the Gospel as they did and faced the consequences, despite the incomprehension of their contemporaries.

Franz Jägerstätter remains a challenge, and not only because of his costly refusal to surrender his conscience to the Nazis.

One aspect of that challenge is Franz’s deeply traditional faith, an example far from fashionable today even among Catholics. While certainly not unaware of the Church’s human shortcomings and the ways so many bishops compromise the Gospel in order to be on good terms with political leaders, Franz Jägerstätter was a grateful Catholic devoted to the Church and its sacramental and devotional life. It is no minor detail of his life that he and Franziska began their marriage by going as pilgrims to Rome, a journey which they could barely afford. No two people were so often seen at Mass in St. Radegund. Both husband and wife were devoted to the rosary; in prison Franz prayed the rosary much of the time. The Jägerstätter household kept all the Church-appointed fasts. Both Franz and Franziska made frequent use of the sacrament of confession. It was remembered in St. Radegund that Franz sometimes paused while at work in the fields in order to pray. He not only served his parish as sexton, a voluntary and time-consuming responsibility, but refused to accept any financial rewards offered to him by parishioners for his role in arranging baptisms, weddings and funerals. Both Franz and Franziska had a special devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with its stress on Christ’s self-giving love for each person. Franz was a member of the Third Order of St. Francis.

Without doubt the hardest part of saying no to further army service was Franz’s love of his wife and their children. Franz knew his execution would make many aspects of life harder for his family, especially for Franziska, as indeed it did.

While the widows of soldiers won the widespread sympathy of Austrians, Franziska was shunned. Not only had she lost her husband, but many of her neighbors tuned their back on her. Some blamed Franz’s death on her over-zealous religious influence.

When Gordon Zahn interviewed Franziska in 1961, she described with composure her last meeting with Franz in Berlin three weeks before his execution, but she broke down in tears while describing the subsequent behavior of her neighbors. Few offered her the help she so badly needed after Franz’s death.

In the Nazi period, subsidies and privileges were distributed to compliant farmers; poor and hard-pressed though she was, none of these came to her. An application for cement was once rejected as soon as it was noticed that her family name was Jägerstätter.

Even after the war officials penalized many of those who had opposed Hitler. In the entire period of rationing, Franziska received no coupons for clothing or shoes for herself or her children. She knitted clothes from the wool of angora rabbits.

In post-war Austria, for years she was denied the pension allocated to war widows. The authorities argued that the legislation compensating victims only applied to those who had fought for a free and democratic Austria. This did not include Franz, they argued. Franziska only won her right to a pension in 1950, after enlisting the help of a lawyer, Franz’s cousin, Franz Huber.

Yet she bore her difficulties bravely and with unwavering respect for her husband’s stand.

Throughout her life, Franziska Jägerstätter has been a person who never drew attention to herself. It is only in reading the letters the couple exchanged that the outsider begins to realize how deep the bond was between them.

Franz and Franziska loved each other passionately. It was an extraordinary love, with an all-or-nothing dimension of faithfulness that had as its foundation their shared love of God. What became clear to Franz, once he married Franziska, was that he could truly be a Christian husband and father only to the extent that following Christ stood at the center of his life. What better love could a man give to his family than, by his own example, to follow Christ without fear even to the Cross?

While her neighbors may have over-estimated Franziska’s influence, she did much to encourage the faith that finally led Franz to martyrdom, though the stand he took was not something she ever advocated. “In the beginning,” she once explained, “I really begged him not to put his life at stake, but then, when everyone was quarreling with him and scolding him, I didn’t do it any more. … If I had not stood by him, he would have had no one.”

“I have lost a dear husband and a good father to my children,” Franziska wrote soon after Franz’s death, “but I can also assure you that our marriage was one of the happiest in our parish — many people envied us. But the good Lord intended otherwise, and has loosed that loving bond. I already look forward to meeting again in heaven, where no war can ever divide us again.”

After the war Franz’s ashes where brought to St. Radegund and buried beneath a crucifix by the church wall. Little by little, his grave became a place of pilgrimage.

Franziska, still a pilgrim herself, celebrated both the 50th and 60th anniversaries of her wedding by returning to Rome, the city where she and Franz spent the first days of their marriage.

Perhaps what would have astonished Franz more than anything would have been to see, among the five thousand people packed into the Linz cathedral on the day of his beatification, that not only was Franziska (then 94) present, but their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — sixty family members in all.

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

e-mail: jhforest @

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text as of 10 September 2008
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