O Heavenly King: reflections on purity of heart

chapel at New Skete

(lecture given by Jim Forest at New Skete Monastery in Cambridge, NY on 4 October 2010)

What I would like to do is take a closer look at one of our most-used prayers, “O heavenly king,” giving special attention to the words, “cleanse us from all impurity.” But first please stand up for a moment and let’s say the “O heavenly king” prayer together, using the New Skete translation:

O heavenly king, consoler, spirit of truth, everywhere present and filling all things: treasury of blessings and giver of life, come dwell within us, and cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, O good one.

Not many words — less than forty. This is one of the oldest Christian prayers. It’s a prayer especially associated with Pentecost — the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, on the Apostles — when at last Christ’s followers understood what they had witnessed and what Christ had prepared for them to do. It’s a prayer most Orthodox Christians know by heart, used in the home even in the shortest offices of morning and evening prayer. It’s also placed at the beginning of the Office of Oblation that precedes the Eucharistic Liturgy. We say and sing the words so often that they recite themselves. I am guessing that all of us who use the prayer have moments when one or another phrase hits us like an arrow shot into the center of our heart. Because it’s aprayer connected with every liturgy as well as morning and evening prayer, it is a prayer of prayers, a prayer that creates community. This is a prayer that puts us all on the same page.

The prayer does two things.

First it expresses the focus of all our prayers. It names names. In addressing the Holy Trinity, we are reminded that the Holy Trinity, the community of three Persons within the One God, is the focus and center of our lives. This is what our Christian lives are all about.

Second, it’s a fervent appeal that sums up all we are seeking. We want God to come and abide in us, to cleanse us from every impurity and to save our souls. It’s a prayer for a deep healing. We cannot cleanse ourselves or save our own souls, not without God’s help.

The first part can be broken down into three points: The first phrase — “O heavenly king, consoler, spirit of truth” — answers the question: Who are we praying to? The second — “everywhere present and filling all things” — answers the question: where are you? The third — “treasury of blessings and giver of life” — answers the questions: what do you do?

The beginning of the prayer reminds us that we are not people lacking a ruler. We have a ruler — a heavenly king — to whom we are uniquely responsible and whose demands on us have absolute priority. God has given us — not laws, in the usual sense — but a few commandments.

For example there is the Sermon on the Mount. It opens with the Beatitudes, which the Russian Church refers to as “the commandments of blessedness.” The Beatitudes are in fact a very brief summary of the Gospel. Each Beatitude has to do with aspects of living a Paschal life — that is a life not shaped by death. One way of reading each Beatitude is to use the phrase “Risen from the dead” at the beginning of each verse — for example, “Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit.”

There is also the command to forgive, and not just once but seventy times seven. Even once is rarely easy.

And there are the paired commandments — to love God (not as easy as it sounds) and to love our neighbor (much harder than it sounds). The commandment to love God is welded to the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. In the Gospel it is made clear that the neighbor referred to is not only a friendly person living next door with whom we sometimes have pleasant conversations and who might even go to the same church we do. The neighbor the commandment refers to is whomever God puts in front of us. We are not talking about relationships of mutual affection but of proximity, however brief, temporary and unsought: the beggar on the street, the atheist who despises Christianity root and branch, the fellow Christian who makes us run for cover, the politician who takes stands we find appalling, the person who just stole my wallet, the wounded stranger lying at the side of the road, the person who threatens my life or the lives of people dear to me.

We have a king and, if we are serious about calling ourselves Christians, we are people attempting to live under his rule. But it’s hard. We are sailors almost always sailing against powerful winds, the winds of our own insecurity, fears and selfishness, the winds of unhealed wounds and bitter memories, the winds of disbelief, the winds of politics, of propaganda, of slogans, of national identity, the winds of what we sense we should say and think in order to get ahead with our lives.

Our king is a heavenly king — a king, that is, not of this world — and yet a king who loves this world, who gives himself for the life of the world, a king who heals the sick of soul and body, a king who feeds the hungry, a king who forgives sins and saves the lives of sinners, a king who weeps, a king who prays for the forgiveness of those who are crucifying him, a king who hides himself in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the sick and the imprisoned, a king who regards our response to the least person as the ultimate criteria of salvation. Not your usual king.

Our king is someone whom we address as “consoler.” In the original Greek text, the word is “parakletos,” which can mean strengthener, advocate, counselor, consoler, encourager, comforter, helper, defender. In fact no single English word is fully adequate. Here at New Skete “consoler” has been chosen. The English word most often used in translation is “comforter,” which comes from a Latin root, “comfortare,” meaning to strengthen. God offers us simultaneously both strength for the struggle and consolation.

On the theme of strength, I often think of a remark made by Father Sergei Ovsiannikov, the rector of my parish in Amsterdam: “It is a question whether a Christian ought to a soldier, but it is obligatory for every Christian to be a warrior.” This is what Christ our King tells us when he says “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” This is not an order for us to go out and buy a sword. He neither possessed or used deadly weapons and reprimanded Peter when he used a sword against one of the people who had come to arrest Jesus. But every word Christ spoke and every action he performed cuts like a sword. Saint Paul describes the ideal Christian as a kind of a soldier who bears only one weapon, “the sword of truth.” In western iconography you can always recognize Paul not only because he is bald but because he carries a sword, a visual metaphor of his wielding the sword of truth. To use a phrase from one of the early theologians, Clement of Alexandria, we belong “to an army that sheds no blood.” We are on a battlefield but we seek no one’s death. We seek only to further our own incomplete conversion and to be made useful to God in the conversion of others.

God’s Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of Truth,” a phrase that often reminds me of the saying, “Speak the truth and shame the devil.” And there is the Russian proverb, “Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.” What a challenge it is to know the truth, speak the truth and to live a truthful life. To speak truthfully is something much more than saying what you sincerely believe on some topic, though that can sometimes be hard enough. Just to know the truth about simple things is not easy. How many innocent people are in prison today for crimes they didn’t commit, found guilty and sentenced because a witness mistakenly identified them as the guilty party. The witness gave his or her testimony in all sincerity but was in error and the wrong person now spends long years in prison as a result. Sincerity does not equal truthfulness. One can be sincerely wrong.

How great a challenge it is to live a life shaped by truth — to long to know the truth and to struggle day after day to free oneself from errors, many of which seem to enter our lives through the air we breathe. Sometimes atheists are braver than believers in this regard. To use the word “comfort” in its modern sense, it isn’t so comfortable living in a universe that has no actual meaning, held together by no glue other than gravity, with your consciousness and being ending forever the moment you die. On the other hand, in our time atheism can also be act of conformity — it is currently fashionable to be an atheist, a way of signaling that you are one of the bright ones — just as in other times it was often nothing more than an act of conformity to be a Christian.

Answering the question “where are you, God?”, we next have the phrase “everywhere present and filling all things.” We might sometimes wish, like Jonah, for God to be anywhere but here, but God cannot be unpresent. Light cannot hide itself in darkness. Even in hell God is not absent — it’s impossible. Hell is what we experience when we attempt to be absent from God, that is not to love. As Bernanos put it, “Hell is not to love anymore.” God is everywhere present. A well-made church does everything possible help make us aware of that presence and open our hearts to it, but God is not less present in your kitchen or in a bus or in prison or in a place where people are enduring torture. And not only is God present but all creation is filled with that presence. We may use what we mine from the earth to make deadly weapons, tools that remind us of hell, but the materials weapons are made from should remind us of God. “All creation sings Your glory,” we say in one of the evening prayers. All that God creates has a sacramental potential for us. All we need to bring to the encounter is a sense of wonder.

Answering the questions “What do you do? How do we know you?”, we address God as the “treasury of blessings and the giver of life.”

Who isn’t interested in treasure? As a boy I used to make treasure maps and imagine myself a pirate. I’ve outgrown that fantasy, but who doesn’t seek a treasure of blessings? Adam may be our legendary forefather, but Aladdin is one of our most popular role models. There must be a magic lantern somewhere, if only I could find it. But the treasury of blessings referred to in this prayer does not require a magic lantern and will not lead anyone to sacks of gold. The blessing referred to here is a life in communion, first of all with God, but also with each other. Connection. What a blessing it is to become capable of seeing the image of God in another human being. The more often it happens, the happier we are. To see God in others helps us to see God. It is a foretaste of heaven. It is being able to love, to experience and share in God’s love for others. The blessing of all blessings is to be aware of God’s presence — not the idea of God being present, but being alive and awake in that presence. Being unable to see the divine presence in others is a kind of blindness, worse than simply not seeing. I remember Dorothy Day saying, “Those who cannot see God in the poor are atheists indeed.”

Only now comes what we are actually asking for in this short prayer: “come and abide in us and cleanse of every impurity and save our souls, O good one.”

One could make a list a mile long of various impurities that most of us struggle with. I want to concentrate on only three: tribalism, fear, and living in a hurry. (I limit myself to three on the advice of Metropolitan Kallistos.)

Tribalism first. One aspect of our damaged human nature is a strong tribal tendency, bringing with it the illusion of separateness. While the life of anyone in this room could be saved by blood donations given by a Latin American Aztec, an Alaskan Inuit or an African Zulu, we prefer to recognize ourselves as chiefly linked with those who share our nationality, language and primary stories, or — when tribalism has a religious character — with those who share a similar ritual life, a similar religious vocabulary. Within our tribal and sub-tribal boundaries, we are willing to make notable sacrifices, even to risk and give our lives if there is no honorable alternative. Yet the tribe excludes far more than it includes. We see ourselves as radically and everlastingly separate from the vast majority, though in reality — if we mean what we’re saying when we pray the “Our Father” — they are our brothers and sisters, equally descended with us from those mysterious first humans we call Adam and Eve, and equally the object of God’s love and mercy. There is a rabbinic commentary that says the reason God made only one Adam and one Eve was that so no one could regard himself as being of higher descent, or being of separate descent.

We even have tribalism in the Orthodox Church. I’ve been in Orthodox churches where the unspoken question was, “Why are you here? Your ancestors did not come from the place where our ancestors were born. You are not welcome.” At a 19th century church council presided over by the Patriarch of Constantinople, the nationalizing or tribalizing of Christianity was called Ethnophyletism — literally “love of the tribe” — and declared a heresy, but it’s a heresy that thrives to this day.

Keeping the “other” at a distance is one of the hardest impurities for God to remove from us because we are so intensely attached to tribal identity. We are reluctant even to recognize the problem.

“The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God,” wrote Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon. “Once the affirmation of the ’self’ is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam in his freedom chose to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary precondition for reconciliation with any ‘other’.”

Who is “the Other”? Zizioulas capitalizes the word “Other” to stress its importance and mystery. The “Other” is anyone whom I am tempted to regard as better dead than alive or better far than near. In most cases it is someone outside my tribe, my ethnic, religious or national group. We tend to take a fair amount of care about intentional killing within the tribe — due process of law, etcetera — but not very much when killing outside the tribe. Americans carefully count Americans killed in war but try not to count others killed by us, though they are vastly more numerous. As a Christian, I may in theory believe that each human being — each “Other” — is a bearer of the image of God, but in practice? The truth is it rarely crosses my mind that people outside my tribe are bearers of God’s image. In fact I have a really hard time discerning that image within the tribe, indeed even within my own family.

What Metropolitan Zizioulas is saying is that, in rejecting the “Other,” I am not just rejecting a particular person but rejecting that person’s Divine parent. This is the essence of sin, the dividing of the human race into the “us” and the “non-us” — that is, assuming I have developed beyond the point of the even more primary division of “me” and “not-me.” Those who are “not-us” can be dehumanized and become targets of war without our even regarding it as a sin. Reconciliation, Zizioulas says, begins with God, but there can be no reconciliation with God if we refuse to seek reconciliation with “the Other.”

This insight is put even more simply by one of the saints of the desert, Abba Dorotheos of Gaza; “As you come closer to your neighbor, you come closer to God. As you go further from your neighbor, you go further from God.”

Then let us consider fear, fear being the primary force restraining us from acts of love.

If we would sum up the angelic message in a few words, it would be this: “Be not afraid.” But most of us are polluted by fear, and perhaps never more so than since the two towers of the World Trade Center fell. Back in 2001, many people, including to his credit President Bush, went out of their way to make clear that it wasn’t Muslims who were the enemy, only fanatics who use their religion as an excuse to commit murder. No one was talking in those days about banning Muslim cultural centers or mosques. But recently such things have become burning issues. It’s no longer just the Islamic fanatics who are the problem. For many people it’s Islam itself. For them, every Muslim is under suspicion. You even hear people say Islam is not a religion, it’s an ideology. Some say the Koran has a lot in common with than Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. While only a few upright citizens want to get rid of freedom of religion as a basic right, there are many people who make clear that it’s not a right they want practiced locally. There are devout Christians who now object to identifying Muslims as descendants of Abraham and “people of the Book,” that is a monotheistic people who have in common with Jews and Christians worship of one God, for in failing to recognize Jesus as more than a prophet, it’s argued, Muslims fail to recognize or worship the true God. One even finds Christians who have decided Islam is the Antichrist. The pope, who used to be cast for that role by generations of anti-Catholics, has now been demoted to a slightly less satanic part because we can only have one Antichrist at a time.

If you want an example of a very different way of relating to Muslims, consider Saint Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai Desert. This is one of the oldest monasteries in the world, a place of uninterrupted prayer and worship since its founding in the sixth century. If you look attentively at photos of the monastery, close to the monastery church you will notice a bright, white tower. This is the minaret of the only mosque  the world that exists inwithin a monastic enclosure. The Fatimid Mosque, still used by the monks’ Bedouin grounds-keepers and neighbors, was originally a hospice for pilgrims, but in the year 1106, more than nine hundred years ago, was converted to its present use. It must be one of the oldest mosques in the world. No doubt the monk’s hospitality to Muslims helps explain how it survived all these centuries in what became Muslim territory and became the safe harbor for a number of the oldest icons and biblical manuscripts to survive from Christianity’s first millennium. It’s a striking witness to a genuinely Christian response to conflict in a non-fear-driven manner.

Fear drives so many of our choices. In his essay “The Root of War is Fear,” written nearly half a century ago, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton noted that it is not so much the fear people have of each other “as the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves…. Only love — which means humility — can exorcize the fear that is at the root of war.” This was an essay which I mailed to my father, a Marxist, who soon after responded with appreciation but said he could not agree. “I greatly respect Thomas Merton and am amazed to see so famous a Catholic priest opposing war, but I have to disagree with his view that the root of war is fear,” he said. “In my opinion, the root of war is bad economics.” Years passed without either of us mentioning Merton’s essay. I only discovered he had continued thinking about it when, a decade later, I received a letter in which he told me, “I still think about what Father Merton said and want you to know that I have come to realize that the root of bad economics is fear.”

Not only war and social injustice but any failure in moral life, private or collective, often has its deepest roots in fear. Fear of rejection by our peers, with all its potentially dire consequences, is an extraordinarily powerful force in life, far more potent for most of us than any commandments of Christ or the witness of the saints.

The Orthodox Paschal proclamation is “Christ tramples down death by death.” Similarly the cure of fear is fear — not fear of others but fear of God. I don’t mean to suggest the two fears are the same. Fear of God is not similar to the terror someone might feel if he had to stand before Hitler or Stalin’s desk. Fear of God is something vastly different — a condition of absolute awe, astonishment and adoration which must overwhelm any person aware he stands in God’s presence. “Fear of God” is an empowering fear. It gives the strength to swim against the tides of hatred, enmity, propaganda, and socially-organized murder in which we are made complicit even if others do the actual killing.

The fear of a tyrant cannot open the gateway of love — only the fear of God does this. To love another — that is to be willing to lay down one’s life for another — is never one’s own achievement but only God’s gift, specifically a gift of the Holy Spirit who purifies the heart. Even love of one’s wife or husband, one’s children or parents, is God’s gift. It is impossible to love without God’s grace, yet only that love is perfect which sees and responds to God’s image in those whom we have no familial or social obligation to love. “The soul that has not known the Holy Spirit,” taught Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain, “does not understand how one can love one’s enemies, and does not accept it.” As a young man, this Russian monk once nearly killed a neighbor. Later in life, having become a monk, he insists, “He who does not love his enemies does not have God’s grace.”

My third and last point has to do with the problem of living in a hurry. In our society, at least for those of us living outside a monastic community, this is a major obstacle to the purification of the heart. We’re way too busy. We often feel like prisoners of rush-hour traffic. While busy-ness was sometimes a problem to our ancestors, few of them could imagine a culture living at such high speed as our own, any more than they could imagine the noise levels we take for granted.

I recall an experience I had during the late sixties when I was accompanying Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was visiting the United States. He was about to give a lecture on the war in Vietnam at the University of Michigan. Waiting for the elevator doors to open, I noticed my brown-robed companion gazing at the electric clock above the elevator doors. Pointing to the clock, he said to me, “You know, Jim, a few hundred years ago it would not have been a clock, it would have been a crucifix.” He was right. The omnipresent clock has become a religious object in our secular world, one so powerful that it could depose another.

I recall a story related in the journal of Daniel Wheeler, a Quaker engineer who had come to Russia from Britain at the time of Tsar Alexander I to take charge of draining swamp land in the Ochta region south of St. Petersburg. Several peasants had been sent to his house with an urgent message. They knocked on the door, got no response, and went inside hoping to find the engineer. First things first, however. As Orthodox Christians, they immediately looked for the icon corner in order to say a prayer. In an austere Quaker house, this proved difficult. There was no vigil lamp and nothing looked like an icon. The peasants knew things were different in other countries. What would a British icon look like? The settled on the mantelpiece clock. Standing before it, they crossed themselves, bowed, and were reciting a prayer — perhaps it was “O heavenly king” — when Daniel Wheeler walked in the door.

Were the peasants mistaken? The ticking icon on the mantle or the quartz watch on the wrist may not often be kissed but surely it is devoutly venerated by “advanced” people in our post-Christian world.

I think too of an experiment in the sixties at Princeton. A number of theological students were asked to prepare sermons on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. These were to be taped for grading by a professor of homiletics. It seemed an ordinary assignment, but those responsible for the project were not especially interested what the aspiring pastors would say about the parable. Without their knowledge, the students had been divided into three groups. Some were to be called on a certain morning and told that they could come to the taping room any time in the day; others were to be told that they had to be there within the next few hours; and the rest were to be told that an error had been made — they should have been called with their appointment time the day before and they had to come without delay.

The testers had arranged that, as each student arrived at the building where the sermons were being recorded, they would find someone lying on the ground by a bench near the entrance, seemingly unconscious and in need.

What were the results? Barely a third took the time to stop and do anything for the person lying on the ground. Those who did stop, it was discovered, were mainly the ones who had been told they could come any time that day. They felt they had time, and that sense of having time gave them time to be notice and respond — time for a merciful action. They weren’t ruled by deadlines and over-crowded schedules — the constant problem of many people, not least clergy and lawyers, which perhaps is why Jesus cast a priest and Levite in those unfortunate parts in his parable.

In reality everyone has time, indeed nothing has been given us so equally, but people walking side by side on the same street can have a very different sense of time, so that one of them is so preoccupied by a demanding schedule, or worry or fear or plans for the future, that he hardly notices what is immediately at hand, while the next person, even though living a life full of obligations, is very attentive. Each person has freedom — to pause, to listen, to pray, to be late for an appointment, to change direction. The purification of the heart makes us freer, more capable of hearing and seeing those around us and responding to their needs.

How many people have been unable to follow the example of the Good Samaritan because they glanced at their watch and realized they just didn’t have time?

It can be hard work learning how to get off the speedway inside our heads. The late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who for many years headed the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain suggested as a basic exercise of spiritual life sitting down and saying to yourself,

“I am seated, I am doing nothing, I will be doing nothing for five minutes,” and then relax. One or two minutes is the most you will be able to endure to begin with. Continually throughout this time realize, “I am here in the presence of God, in my own presence and in the presence of all the furniture that is around me, just still, moving nowhere.” There is of course one more thing you must do: you must decide that within these two minutes, five minutes, which you have assigned to learning that the present exists, you will not be pulled out of it by the telephone, by a knock on the door, or by a sudden upsurge of energy that prompts you to do at once what you have left undone for the past ten years. So you settle down and say, “Here I am,” and you are. If you learn to do this at lost moments in your life when you have learned not to fidget inwardly, but to be completely calm and happy, stable and serene, then extend the few minutes to a longer time and then to a little longer still. [The Essence of Prayer; London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1989; pp 181-182. This section of the book was also published separately as School for Prayer.]

It’s a simple but not easy exercise, a kind of prayer that is both physical and spiritual, in which we ask God to assist up in the purification of our hearts.

The more engaged we are in the world, the more troubled by the destruction of the environment or the murderous violence or war, of injustice and cruelty, of abortion and other forms of killing, of the decay of civil life occurring in so many places, the more we need to take to heart this kind of subversive advice. Whatever we do that has some value stands on the foundation of prayer and stillness before God. Neglect these foundations and the most well-intentioned efforts are likely to go badly off course. Our work will be as impure as our hearts.

Then what is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart capable of mourning, a heart which thirsts for what is right, a merciful heart, a loving heart, a heart not ruled by passions, an undivided heart, a heart aware of the image of God in others, a heart aware of God’s presence in creation. In the words of Saint Isaac of Syria: “A person is truly pure of heart when he considers all human beings as good and no created thing appears impure or defiled to him.”

Purification of the heart is the lifelong struggle of seeking a more God-centered life, a heart illuminated with the presence of the Holy Trinity. Purification of the heart is the moment-to-moment prayerful discipline of seeking to be so aware of God’s presence that no space is left in the heart for fear, hatred, greed, lust or vengeance. Purification of the heart is the striving to place the mind under the rule of the heart, the mind representing the analytic and organizational aspect of consciousness. A pure heart is a heart through which the mercy of God flows toward others. A pure heart is a heart without contempt, a source of hope and patience and compassion. Those with a pure heart are a source of encouragement to others.

The more pure the heart, taught Saint Isaac, the more aware one becomes of the Creator in creation. Isaac laid great stress on ascetic struggle — prayer, fasting, voluntary poverty, generosity to the poor — as the way to purify the heart. A warrior against passions of the world, this seventh-century bishop was passionate in his love of creation, not only the human being made in God’s image but everything which God has graced with life. “What is purity?” Saint Isaac asked. “It is a heart full of compassion for the whole of created nature … And what is a compassionate heart? …. It is a heart which burns for all creation, for the birds, for the beasts, for the devils, for every creature. When he thinks about them, when he looks at them, his eyes fill with tears. So strong, so violent is his compassion … that his heart breaks when he sees the pain and suffering of the humblest creature. That is why he prays with tears at every moment … for all the enemies of truth and for all who cause him harm, that they may be protected and forgiven. He prays even for serpents in the boundless compassion that wells up in his heart after God’s likeness.”

Let’s finish where we started, by standing and saying the prayer together:

O heavenly king, consoler, spirit of truth, everywhere present and filling all things: treasury of blessings and giver of life, come dwell within us, and cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, O good one.

* * *

Remaining Christian in a Time of Conflict

St Catherine's Monastery on the Sinai. The white mineret of the mosque is next to the monastery bell tower.

(lecture given by Jim Forest 11 October 2010 at St Elizabeth Orthodox Christian Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and 16 October 2010 at St Athanasius Orthodox Church in Nicholasville, Kentucky)

The title of this talk could also be “Remaining Christian After 9-11.” Nine eleven — the only historical event I can think of that we refer to by numbers. Has there been an event since Pearl Harbor that has stalked Americans so powerfully? We are haunted by image after image, like icons from hell: the hijacked planes crashing into the two towers, the orange plumes of fire, small grey dots that we realize are men and women leaping to their deaths to escape an inferno behind them, the sudden collapse of first one tower and then the other, the stunned, bloodied survivors emerging from the clouds of ash, the “have you seen so-and-so” notices tacked to walls and fences in the surrounding area… So many such images are burned into our collective memory. Ground Zero has become a place of pilgrimage, as has the quiet field where Flight 93 crashed in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania.

When Americans think of the word “enemies” these days, the people responsible for the attacks of nine-eleven and many other acts of terrorism are at the top of the list. However much or little we know about them as individuals, however much or little we know about their religion and its many divisions and sects, we know that the people involved in these attacks were Muslims who believed what they were doing, even killing fellow Muslims, was blessed by Allah.

America’s response as a nation has been two immensely destructive and costly wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many Americans have died in combat while far more bear wounds — some physical, many in mind and soul — that they will contend with for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile we as a people are unrepentant that the war in Iraq was fought against a regime that had no connection with Al Quaida, had nothing to do with nine-eleven, and possessed no weapons of mass destruction. Nor do we seem very bothered about many noncombatant casualties our weapons have produced in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and in Pakistan as well, where our pilotless drone aircraft fire missiles that often kill the innocent — “collateral damage,” as it’s called. The mantra is, “Sad, but these things happen. We try to keep them at a minimum.”

During much of the same period there has been a major economic crisis in which the US has been hard hit. Nearly ten percent of the work force is unemployed. One in seven Americans is now living below the poverty line. Millions of people are out of work. Many thousands have lost their homes. There are tent cities all over the country. The poorer still sleep under bridges or wherever they can find some small degree of protection from the elements. The fortunate ones, the people who still have homes and jobs, feel little security. A lot of people go to sleep worrying.

A recession bordering on depression plus a war with an enemy who could be anywhere — it’s no wonder that we’re very much on edge. It’s a perfect moment for hotheads to gain an audience. Turn on the radio or TV, do a little browsing, and there the rabble-rousers are, some of them Christians, announcing their views with many exclamation marks and very few question marks. And many people are listening and nodding their heads.

Between the ranters and the grim realities of war plus economic bad news, it’s not surprising that we are suffering a pandemic of fear and anger. It’s at flood level, possibly worse now than it was nine years ago. Back in 2001, many people, including President Bush, went out of their way to make clear that Muslims weren’t the enemy, only fanatics who using their religion as an excuse to commit murder. No one was talking in those days about banning Muslim cultural centers or mosques. But in recent months such things have become burning issues. It’s no longer just the Islamic zealots who are the problem. For many people it’s now Islam itself. For them, every Muslim is under suspicion. You even hear people say Islam is not a religion, it’s an ideology. Some say the Koran has a lot in common with Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. While relatively few people want to get rid of freedom of religion as a civil right, there are many people who make it clear that it’s not a right they want practiced locally. There are devout Christians who now object to identifying Muslims as descendants of Abraham and “people of the Book,” that is a monotheistic people who have in common with Jews and Christians worship of one God, for in failing to recognize Jesus, it’s argued, Muslims fail to recognize or worship the true God. These days one finds Christians who have decided Islam is the Antichrist. The pope, who used to be cast for that role by generations of anti-Catholics, has now been demoted to a slightly less satanic part because we can only have one Antichrist at a time. Because it’s nothing less than the Antichrist we’re dealing with, you can find Christians who say this gives us time out on that problematic command of Jesus that Christians must love our enemies.

In fact many Christians would rather their pastor ignored certain parts of the the New Testament. Probably you have heard of Tony Campolo, a popular Baptist minister. I recently came upon this comment from him: “I find it strange,” he said, “that the last place I can really quote Jesus these days is in American churches. They don’t want to hear ‘overcome evil with good.’ They don’t want to hear ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword.’ They don’t want to hear ‘if your enemy hurts you, do good, feed, clothe, minister to him.’ They don’t want to hear ‘blessed are the merciful.’ They don’t want to hear ‘love your enemies’.”

We need to ask ourselves: Are the more challenging teachings of Jesus only for times when they are easy to practice? Does scripture change according the political season or the nation in which we happen to live? Can we call ourselves Christians while only following those teachings of Jesus that aren’t so difficult and won’t get us into hot water? I doubt any of us would want to be Christian only by label. Label isn’t substance. I think back to when I was a kid going to high school in Hollywood and worked one summer on the Warner Brothers movie ranch with it’s big Western town set — a complete town in which each building was all front and no back — great for gunfights but nowhere to live. Do we want our Christianity to be like that?

My assertion is that Christ’s teachings in their totality are for anyone trying to be a Christian. With that in mind, I’d like to spend a little time attempting to reflect on love of enemies in our post-nine-eleven world and the harm it does to us — and to others — when we decide, in times of conflict and war, that love of enemies is not an essential part of being a Christian. This means we need to take a close look at this particular part of the Gospel, trying to see what it actually means — and also consider at some of the obstacles that stand in our way in living it out.

In the Sermon in the Mount, there is a passage in which Christ speaks about our relationship with enemies:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

My guess is that passages like this led Mark Twain to comment, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me. It’s the parts I do understand.”

Let’s wait a moment before considering what Jesus meant by love and instead start with the word “enemy.” In commanding his followers to love our enemies, what is meant by enemy?

The Gospel text was originally written in Greek. The Greek word that we translate as “enemy” is echthros. It simply means someone we hate. The hatred may be justified — someone who is attacking us — or it may be based on our own misperceptions or fears. One way or the other, an enemy is anyone we feel threatened by. It might be your mother-in-law or it might be Osama ben Laden.

If you look at its root meaning, the English word “enemy” takes in even more people than the Greek. Enemy comes from the Latin word inamicus. Amicus means friend — stick in at the front it and you get inamicus: non-friend. It’s very digital — the world is divided into friends and enemies. An enemy is anyone we would exclude from the category of friend. That’s a lot of people.

Notice that, in his instruction to love enemies, Christ added, “and pray for then.” One good way of knowing who your enemies are is by listing all the people, or groups of people, you don’t pray for and in fact would rather not pray for or refuse to pray for — people who, in your heart of hearts, you think of mainly with anger.

The next question is even more important, perhaps the most primary of all of life’s questions: What does Jesus mean by love? It’s definitely not the love we hear about in songs. The love Christ is speaking about has nothing to do with a Romeo-and-Juliet state of passionate mutual attraction. Love, understood from a biblical point of view, is not sentimental affection. It has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day. It has very little to do with feelings and a great deal to do with what we do. It’s how we care for each other.

We see what Christ means by love in such gestures as healing the wounded ear of one of the men who was arresting him at the Garden of Gethsemani. It is also an act of love to admonish Peter, his good friend and brave disciple, with the words, “put away your sword for he who lives by the sword perishes by the sword.” A loving act for an enemy, healing a wound, and a loving word for a well-meaning but misguided friend.

We learn about love in many of the parables. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it is not his co-religionists who come to the aid of a man robbed, beaten and left to die on the side of the road, but a passing Samaritan, someone whom Jews at the time would regard with contempt. Were any of us to retell the story using contemporary categories, it would become the Parable of the Good Muslim, and we would be telling it, in part, to challenge the forces of hatred and enmity in our own world. The point would be, as it was when Jesus first told the story, that a neighbor is not identified by his degree of us-ness but by his compassion, his active love. A neighbor is a person who, putting aside his plans for the day, acts mercifully to another and does so without regard for any external factor or social or religious dividing line.

Love is caring for the needs of another person even though you wish you didn’t have to and even though you have no reason to think he would do the same for you. If a mother fails to feed a child because she is too tired or irritated but then says “I love that child,” who would believe her? Love is first of all how we care for each other, not how we feel about them at the time. Feelings are secondary. This is something Saint Paul stresses by saying, “If your enemy hungers, feed him.” Your enemy’s need is your opportunity to let him know that you want enmity to end.

Love is communicated by compassionate, merciful actions. We saw a powerful example of this a few years ago when the Greeks responded with breathtaking generosity to urgent needs in Turkey, the historic enemy of Greece, after an especially devastating earthquake. When Greece was struck by a major earthquake a year or two later, the Turks were inspired to reach out in a similar way. In the process, Greek-Turkish enmity, though certainly not ended, was significantly reduced.

We see an example of this kind of reaching out to an adversary at Saint Catherine’s Monastery, located in the Sinai Desert, an area under Muslim domination since the year 639, only a few years after the death of Muhammad. Saint Catherine’s is one of the oldest monasteries in the world, a place of uninterrupted prayer and worship since its founding in about 550 in a region already long populated by many Christian ascetics. If you look attentively at photos of the monastery, within the wall, adjacent to the monastery church, you will notice a bright, white tower. This is the minaret of the only mosque within a monastic enclosure. The Fatimid Mosque, which I’m told is still used by the monks’ Bedouin neighbors, was originally a hospice for pilgrims, but in the year 1106, more than nine hundred years ago, it was converted to its present use. It must be one of the oldest mosques in the world. No doubt the monk’s hospitality to Muslims helps explain how the monastery survived all these centuries in what became Muslim territory and also how it became the safe harbor for a number of the oldest icons and biblical manuscripts to survive from Christianity’s first millennium. The irony is, it was thanks to being in the Muslim world that the icons survived. In the Byzantine world in the iconoclastic periods, countless ions were destroyed at the emperor’s command. The monastery, with its many generations of monks, offers a continuing witness to a genuinely Christian response to conflict in a non-fear-driven manner. By their act of hospitality, the monks give us a lesson in how Christians can make enemies, or potential enemies, into friends. It’s something like the miracle at Cana at which Jesus converted water into wine.

Let me give one other example of how the walls of enmity can be pierced in unexpected ways. A few years ago my wife and I decided to celebrate Pascha in Istanbul, still the home of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople. On Friday of Bright Week, the first Friday after Easter, we took a ferry to one of the nearby islands, Buyukada, where we walked to St. George’s Monastery on the south end of the island. It wasn’t clear from the map, but this involved a long uphill climb along a cobblestone path. We were surprised by how much company we had along the way — not crowds, but we were far from alone. We were puzzled — Orthodox Christians are a rarity in modern Turkey. All along the path there were pieces of fabric and napkins tied to the branches and lots of colorful string and thread running branch to branch. We were reminded of the prayer flags in Tibet. The higher we got, the more beautiful the view. Finally we reached the top only to discover the monastery was not currently occupied and its church was locked. But the biggest surprise was that the monastery was still very much a place of prayer, not inside but outside. Candles were burning on every available ledge. Women, men and children stood around the church, often with their hands extended and palms up. It took a few minutes before it dawned on us that we were probably the only Christians present. Everyone else was Muslim. This is one of the many places in the Middle East where Muslims pilgrims worship at Christian shrines. Beyond the church, families, having completed their prayers, were picnicking. We learned that day that we had more in common with Muslims than we dared to imagine. Their prayer inspired our prayer, their devotion our devotion.

But generally speaking we mainly hear unsettling news about Muslims and they about us. “If it bleeds, it leads” was one of the first proverbs I learned as a young journalist. If you are looking for good news, skip page one. We hear about people driven to homicidal rage or despair or both who, in the name of Allah, blow themselves up while killing others, abuse of women in Muslim countries, people being stoned to death after being condemned under Sharia law, etc. In the Muslim world there is a similar concentration of news that fuels hostility — American bombs that have fallen on innocent people, people held indefinitely without charges or trial on suspicion of being terrorists, reports of torture, attacks on Muslims, the burning of Muslim schools, plans to burn Korans, etc. On both sides, events that justify enmity are well publicized. It isn’t that the reports are untrue, only that so much is left out.

What can we as Christians, as followers of Christ, do to overcome enmity?

In the passage I read from the Sermon on the Mount, Christ says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” For anyone who wishes to love his enemies, our first duty is to pray for them. Without that beginning point, it’s very difficult to go further. But if I had a dollar for every Christian who doesn’t pray for his enemies, my guess is I would be on the cover of Fortune magazine and have Bill Gates as my next-door neighbor.

Whenever you pray for someone, it creates a thread of connection. There may already be a strong connection anyway, as when you pray for a friend or family member, but when you pray for someone you fear or hate, then that thread is the only connection. Such a prayer creates connection where none existed. What do we ask of God? It’s enough to pray for the health, healing, well-being and salvation of an enemy. As for details, God doesn’t need our advice. But only we, through prayer, can connect ourselves to people who we regard as enemies. One can pray for specific people, like Osama ben Laden, or one can pray for large groups of people whose individual names we do not know. Keep a prayer list and use it daily. You will discover that once you begin praying for people you wish didn’t exist, you begin to think about them differently.

With the foundation of prayer, one can go further: learn more about Islam (which is as complex a phenomenon as Christianity), meet and talk with Muslims, even take part in events, nationally and internationally, that in various ways seek nonviolent solutions.

What are the obstacles to love of enemies? We could make a long list. I’d like to talk briefly about only three: fear, stories that undermine the Gospel, and peer group pressure.

First, let’s think about fear.

“The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God,” wrote Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon. “Once the affirmation of the ‘self’ is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam in his freedom chose to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary precondition for reconciliation with any ‘other’.”

Who is “the Other”? Zizioulas capitalizes the word “Other” to stress its importance. The “Other,” in most cases, is someone outside my tribe, my ethnic, religious or national group. We tend to take a fair amount of care about intentional killing within the tribe — due process of law, etcetera — but not very much when killing outside the tribe. We carefully count Americans killed in war and try not to count others killed by us, though they may be far more numerous. As a Christian, I may in theory believe that each human being — each “Other” — is a bearer of the image of God, but in practice? The truth is it rarely crosses my mind that people outside my tribe are bearers of God’s image. In fact I have a really hard time discerning that image within the tribe, indeed even within my own family.

What Metropolitan Zizioulas is saying is that, in rejecting the “Other,” I am not just rejecting a particular person or group of people but rejecting that person’s Divine parent. This is the essence of sin, the dividing of the human race into the “us” and the “non-us.” Those who are “not-us” can be dehumanized and become targets of war without our even regarding it as a sin. Reconciliation, Zizioulas says, begins with God, but there can be no reconciliation with God if we refuse to seek reconciliation with “the Other.”

Not only war and social injustice but any failure in moral life, private or collective, often has its deepest roots in fear. Fear drives so many of our choices. In his essay “The Root of War is Fear,” the monk Thomas Merton noted that it is not so much the fear people have of each other “as the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves…. Only love — which means humility — can exorcize the fear that is at the root of war.” This was an essay which I mailed to my father. Soon after he responded with appreciation but said he could not agree. “I greatly respect Thomas Merton, but I have to disagree with his view that the root of war is fear,” he said. “In my opinion, the root of war is bad economics.” Years passed without either of us mentioning Merton’s essay. I only discovered he had continued thinking about it when, a decade later, I received a letter in which he told me, “I still think about what Thomas Merton said and want you to know that I have come to realize that the root of bad economics is fear.”

Christ tramples down death by death. Similarly the cure of fear is fear — not fear of others but fear of God. I don’t mean to suggest the two fears are the same. Fear of God is not similar to the terror someone might feel if he had to stand before Hitler or Stalin’s desk. Fear of God is something vastly different — a condition of absolute awe, astonishment and adoration which must overwhelm any person aware he stands in God’s presence. “Fear of God” is an empowering fear. It gives the strength to swim against the tides of hatred, enmity, propaganda, and socially-organized murder in which we are made complicit even if others do the actual killing.

The fear of a tyrant cannot open the gateway of love — only the fear of God does this. To love another — that is to be willing to lay down one’s life for another — is never one’s own achievement but only God’s gift, specifically a gift of the Holy Spirit who purifies the heart. Even love of one’s wife or husband, one’s children or parents, is God’s gift. It is impossible to love without God’s grace, yet only that love is perfect which sees and responds to God’s image in those whom we have no familial or social obligation to love. “The soul that has not known the Holy Spirit,” taught Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain, “does not understand how one can love one’s enemies, and does not accept it.” As a young man, this Russian monk once nearly killed a neighbor. Later in life, having become a monk, he insists, “He who does not love his enemies does not have God’s grace.”

Another obstacle to the love of enemies is the influence in our lives of stories that undermine the Gospel:

We are very influenced by films. Cinema a powerful medium. Our primary text is what I call the “The Gospel According to John Wayne.” It’s a Gospel that preaches salvation by firepower. The basic idea in many movies is that certain people have not just taken an evil turn in life but are evil down to the marrow of their bones, evil in their DNA. The only solution is to kill them.

When I say “The Gospel According to John Wayne,” I am not talking about the actual John Wayne, only the role he played in so many movies. The classic Western is a tale about how good men with guns save the community from evil men with guns by killing them. The classic scene is the gunfight on Main Street in a newly-settled town in the wild west, though the same story can be played out in the ancient world, any modern city, or on a planet light years away that exists only in the film maker’s imagination. The Gospel According to John Wayne isn’t an ignoble story. There is true courage in it – the readiness of the hero to lay down his life to protect his community. Thus to a certain extent it’s a Christian story – a modern retelling of the legend of Saint George and the dragon, except that in the Christian legend of George, the saint only wounds the dragon. Afterward it’s cared for by the very people who formerly had sacrificed their children to it. The George legend is about risking one’s life to bring about conversion, of self, of others, of enemies. It’s exactly what Christians did in bringing about conversion in the Roman world.

The problem with the modern “The Gospel According to John Wayne” is that it hides from us the fact that there is no such thing as a completely evil person – also no such thing as a completely good person. As Solzhenitsyn, survivor of Stalin’s prison camps, wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.” (vol. 2, “The Ascent.”)

Solzhenitsyn reminds us that we don’t need to go far to meet a murderer. We only need to look in the mirror. I don’t mean that each of us has literally taken someone’s life, but at the very least we have had occasion to fantasize about killing another person or being glad someone else did the actual killing. Certainly that’s true of me. Most of us have experienced times of rage when murderous thoughts flooded our minds, or times of depression when self-murder — suicide — was a real temptation.

The missing element in our culture’s dominant story is the mystery that dominates the Bible right from the Book of Genesis: We are made in the image and likeness of God. The human “we” is all of us without exception, from Saint Francis of Assisi to Osama bin Laden, from Jack the Ripper to Mother Theresa. Even Stalin, even Hitler. The traditional Christian teaching is that the image of God exists in each person as something indestructible, still there no matter how well hidden, but that, by our fear-driven choices, the likeness can only be recovered through ascetic effort and God’s grace. “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image,” notes the writer Anne Lamott, “when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Last but not least, there is the immense power of peer group pressure.

I first became consciously aware of the peer group pressure when I was in my early twenties and belonged to a community whose main work was to provide food and other forms of assistance to people living on the streets in a derelict section of lower Manhattan. The community was also concerned with civil rights, preparations for war and various other social issues. Part of the weekly rhythm of our life was for a few of us to go uptown once a week to the headquarters of the Civil Defense Agency on Lexington 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 you would be returning to would not be friendly to the human presence. Probably we argued that our best protection was in dialogue with adversaries rather than in preparations for nuclear war.

Did many people accept the leaflet? No. It was something of a miracle to find any takers. The big discovery I made in my attempts to pass it out was that, given the fact that the red traffic 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 part of that wave to take it were hugely improved. Though few of the 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 mid-town Manhattan and had been gathered into groups by the streetlight system — 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, often with irritation on his face — 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 been convincing.

Peacemaking, then, involves becoming more aware of the myriad ways manipulation occurs, how powerfully it effects each of us, and finding ways to help ourselves and others not be so easily manipulated. It requires conscious awareness of the fears that I struggle with and seeking God’s help in overcoming them. It means living as attentively as I can with the Gospel, letting its stories rather than Hollywood movies shape my responses to God and the people around me.

The mirror over the sink can help us. I recall a small piece of paper taped next to the mirror in a friend’s bathroom. On it were written just three short lines of text: “I am no big deal. I am no big deal. I am no big deal.” The priest who heard his confessions, my friend explained when I asked him about it, had suggested he recite these words every day. We can do something similar. Look at your face in the mirror and remember that “I too am an enemy” — an enemy of certain others, and also an enemy of myself. Keep in mind the final sentence in the Prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian: “O Lord and King, grant for me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother.”

I think too of these words from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who headed the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain for many years. “To be a Christian,” he said, “is to attempt to live a Christ-centered life. We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”

The very best thing we can do for ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our nation, our world, is to follow Christ wholeheartedly. One crucial aspect of that discipleship is love of enemies. It isn’t an option. It is at the heart of the Christian calling.

* * *

Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day: a Special Friendship

Merton statue at Bellarmine University

(lecture by Jim Forest given at Bellarmine University in Louisville on 13 October 2010)

The recent donation to the Thomas Merton Center here at Bellarmine University of the papers of Joe Zarrella, a longtime collaborator of Dorothy Day, has provided us with an occasion to reflect on the special friendship that enriched the lives of two remarkable people: Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.

Because we are at Bellarmine, surely everyone present recognizes the name of Thomas Merton even if you are a little in the dark about exactly who he was or why there is a statue of him here on campus. Also here at Bellarmine is the Thomas Merton Center, in which all sorts of Merton-related items are located: the many books he wrote plus all the books that have been written about him, file-cabinets full of letters he wrote and received, handwritten manuscripts and working notebooks, photographs he took with borrowed cameras that reveal his contemplative way of looking at things, a personal gift that was sent to him by Pope John XXIII, examples of Merton’s art work, paintings of him, and a substantial part of Merton’s library.

There is also the special recognition of Merton in the heart of Louisville. Thousands of people each day cross Thomas Merton Square. Some of them pause to read the historical marker installed there in 1998 by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. This may be the only memorial plaque anywhere in the world placed at a busy urban intersection to mark the location of a mystical experience.

What initially put Merton on the world map was the publication in 1948 of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. It was an account of growing up on both sides of the Atlantic, what drew him to become a Catholic as a young adult, and finally what led him, in 1941, to become a Trappist monk at a monastery in rural Kentucky, Our Lady of Gethsemani. He was only 33 years old when the book appeared. To his publisher’s amazement, it became an instant best-seller. For many people, it was truly a life-changing book. The Merton Center has lost count of how many copies of the book have been printed in English and other languages in the past 62 years, but we’re talking about millions.

What might not be so immediately obvious is that, despite Merton’s renown and his many best-selling books, he was — and remains — a controversial figure. Though he was a member of a monastic order well known for silence and for its distance from worldly affairs, Merton was outspoken about racism, war and other hot topics that many regard as very worldly affairs. Merton disagreed. He was a critic of a Christianity in which religious identity is submerged in national identity and life is divided between religious and ordinary existence.

Merton got into hot water for his writings on war and peace as well his participation in both inter-Christian and inter-religious dialogue. In the sixties, there was a Berlin Wall running between Catholics and Protestants. To the alarm of a good many people on both sides of the divide, Merton climbed over that palisade. Even worse, he regarded conversation with people of other religious traditions — Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam — as a useful and necessary, not to say Christian, activity. Some people were scandalized — some still are — that a Trappist monk would engage in dialog with the Dalai Lama. The idea got around that, if only Merton had lived a slightly longer life, he would have waved goodbye to the Catholic Church and become a Buddhist. There is even an icon-like painting of Merton in which he is shown sitting Buddha-like on a meditation cushion. In fact Merton’s religious practice centered on Liturgy, the eucharist, the rosary, the Jesus Prayer, and daily offices of monastic prayer.

Dorothy Day portrait (by Geoffrey Gneuhs)

Now on to Dorothy Day. Who is Dorothy Day? I have heard people ask if she was the sister of the movie star, Doris Day. Dorothy Day sometimes got letters addressed to Doris Day. In fact there is a small patch of Hollywood in Dorothy’s life story. In 1929, just before the Great Depression started, she worked as a writer at a Hollywood film studio, but she had no screen credits. What made Dorothy Day famous was her effort to weave together radical convictions about the social order with the Christian faith after becoming a Catholic when she was thirty years old. Less than six years after that event, in 1933, she founded and began editing The Catholic Worker. From that eight-page journal, the Catholic Worker movement quickly emerged, a movement known for its many houses of hospitality for people who are generally unappreciated and unwelcome. If books by Merton sold millions of copies, Catholic Worker communities have served millions of meals. But the Catholic Worker is also well known for its acts of protest against war and social injustice. Many people associated with the Catholic Worker have served periods in jail for acts of civil disobedience or for refusing to take part in war. Dorothy herself was jailed at least eight times. The first time was for taking part in a Suffragist demonstration in front of the White House in 1917 when she had just turned twenty. Her last arrest and confinement was with striking farm workers in California in 1973 when she was seventy-five. If Thomas Merton was at times controversial, Dorothy Day was controversial pretty much full-time.

If you think of saints as, generally speaking, law-abiding folk, it may strike you as remarkable that the Catholic Church is currently considering a proposal from the Archdiocese of New York that Dorothy Day be officially recognized as a saint. More than ten years have passed since the late Cardinal John O’Connor launched the process. It has now reached the point of Dorothy being given the title “Servant of God Dorothy Day” by the Vatican. After that comes “Blessed Dorothy” and finally “Saint Dorothy.” It would not astonish me if there are people here today who will one day be present for her canonization.

I first met Dorothy in December 1960. I was in the U.S. Navy at the time, stationed in Washington, D.C. After reading copies of The Catholic Worker that I had found in my parish library, and then reading Dorothy’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, I decided to visit the community she had founded. Arriving in Manhattan for that first visit, I made my way to Saint Joseph’s House, the Catholic Workers’s house of hospitality on the Lower East Side. It’s now an area that has become fashionable, repackaged as the East Village. In those days it was the Bowery, an area for the desperately poor — people so down-and-out that some of them were sleeping, even in winter, on the sidewalks or in tenement hallways.

A few days into that first encounter with the Catholic Worker, I visited the community’s rural outpost on Staten Island, the Peter Maurin Farm. Crossing the New York Harbor by ferry, I made my way to an old farmhouse on a rural road near the island’s southern tip. In its large, faded dining room, I found half-a-dozen people, Dorothy among them, gathered around a pot of tea at one end of the dining room table. I gave Dorothy a bag of letters addressed to her that had been received in Manhattan. Within minutes, she was reading the letters aloud to all of us.

The only letter I still recall from that day’s reading was one from Thomas Merton. I was amazed. Having read The Seven Storey Mountain, I knew Trappist monks wrote very few letters and that generally these were limited to family members. But here was Merton writing not only to a non-relative but to someone who was as much in the world as he was out of it.

On reflection, I should have been less surprised. I had read both their autobiographies and they revealed a great deal of common ground. Both had lived fairly bohemian lives before becoming Catholics. Like Dorothy, Merton had wrestled with the issue of war, deciding that, if Christ had given an example of a nonviolent life, he would attempt to do the same. Both had thought long and hard about the sin of racism. Both were writers. Both were unburdened by any attraction to economic achievement. Merton, like any monk, had taken a vow of poverty — there were things he had use of but nothing he actually owned — while Dorothy was committed to what she called “voluntary poverty.” Though in different circumstances, they both lived very disciplined religious lives — Merton’s day beginning with Mass before dawn and ending not long after sunset with Compline, Dorothy’s including daily Mass, daily rosary, daily periods of prayer and intercession and weekly confession. Both had a marked interest in “eastern” — or Orthodox — Christianity. Both had a degree of pastoral care for others. Both were black sheep. Though their vocations were different, it wasn’t only Merton who was a contemplative.

Theirs was a friendship of letters. In their exchanges the topics included peacemaking, observations about social change, problems in the Catholic Church, obedience and disobedience, the Cold War, community life, marriage, their hopes and frustrations, their current reading, the meaning of love, and a wide range of issues for which advice was sought.

The date their correspondence got underway isn’t certain. The oldest surviving letter in their exchange, the 4th of June, 1959, is a reply to a letter from Merton. In it she apologizes for not having answered more quickly and also recalls with gratitude the copies of The Seven Storey Mountain Merton had sent to her way back in 1948. She went on to ask Merton’s prayers for a member of the Catholic Worker staff, Charles Butterworth, who was about to be sentenced for harboring a military deserter at the Catholic Worker and then, by warning him that FBI agents had arrived with an arrest warrant, playing a part in the young man’s escape. “We have done this before,” Dorothy explained, “giving [deserters] the time to make up their own minds; one returned to the army and the other took his sentence.” She mentioned to Merton another member of staff, Bob Steed, formerly a novice at Gethsemani, whom she worried might be arrested for having torn up his draft registration card. In her letter Dorothy didn’t say a word of explanation or justification for such actions — miles off the beaten track for American Catholics. Clearly, in Merton’s case, she felt this wasn’t needed.

In the same letter Dorothy thanked Merton for gifts he had sent to the Catholic Worker. I wasn’t there when that particular box arrived from Gethsemani, but two years later, when I became part of the Catholic Worker staff after being discharged from the military as a conscientious objector, such boxes were not rare. The contents varied — sometimes cast-off clothing monks had worn before taking vows, often his most recent book, and also monk-made cheese and even a fruitcake flavored with Kentucky bourbon. (For many years the monks have helped support themselves by making and selling very tempting food products. Merton didn’t quite approve of the business aspect of Trappist life, but he had no qualms about giving the results away.) I recall the gift card inside one such box was signed, in Merton’s easily recognizable handwriting, “from Uncle Louie and the Boys.” “Uncle Louie” was Merton — the name “Louis” was given him when he became a Trappist monk. Dorothy always addressed him in her letters to him as “Father Louis.” The “boys” would have been his novices — Merton was Master of Novices at the time. It’s remarkable that, in his overfull life, he occasionally found the time and motivation to fill a box to be sent off to the Catholic Worker. This says as much about his bond with Dorothy as any of his letters. He felt a deep sense of connection with what the Catholic Worker was doing — its hospitality work, its newspaper, its protest activities. His gifts communicated to all of us working at the Catholic Worker a deep sense of his of solidarity.

This sense of connection with houses of hospitality went back Merton’s days volunteering at Friendship House in Harlem, a house of hospitality whose existence was in large measure inspired by the Catholic Worker. It had been founded by a close friend of Dorothy’s, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, or the Baroness, as she was often called due to her family’s aristocratic Russian roots. In reading The Seven Storey Mountain, one sees the important role the Baroness had played in Merton’s life. “She had a strong voice, strong convictions, and strong things to say,” Merton wrote, “and she said them in the simplest, most unvarnished, bluntest possible kind of talk, and with such uncompromising directness that it stunned.” One could say the same about Dorothy Day. Few choices Merton ever made were so difficult as deciding between a Catholic Worker-like vocation at Friendship House and becoming a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani. “The way [the Baroness] said some things,” Merton wrote in his journal in August 1941, “left you ready to do some kind of action … renounce the world, live in total poverty, but also doing very definite things: ministering to the poor in a certain definite way.”

In a letter to Dorothy sent two decades later, Merton remarked that the reason he went to Friendship House rather than the Catholic Worker in lower Manhattan was because, “I was at Columbia, F[riendship] H[ouse] was just down the hill and so on. [The] C[atholic] W[orker] stands for so much that has always been meaningful to me: I associate it with similar trends of thought, like that of the English Dominicans and Eric Gill, who also were very important to me. And [Jacques] Maritain…. [The] Catholic Worker is part of my life, Dorothy. I am sure the world is full of people who would say the same…. If there were no Catholic Worker and such forms of witness, I would never have joined the Catholic Church.” [TM to DD, December 29, 1965, italics added]

In the first surviving letter from Merton to Dorothy, dated July 9, 1959, he starts out by letting her know that another gift box is on its way — some sweet-smelling toothpaste. He then goes on to tell her that he is “deeply touched” by her witness for peace, which had several times resulted in her arrest and imprisonment. He continues: “You are right going along the lines of satyagraha [Gandhi’s term for nonviolent action]. I see no other way, though of course the angles of the problem are not all clear. I am certainly with you in taking some kind of stand and acting accordingly. Nowadays it is no longer a question of who is right but who is at least not criminal, if any of us can say that anymore.”

In the same letter Merton confided to Dorothy his attraction to a vocation of greater solitude and deeper poverty, though he realizes that “the hopes of gaining such permission, humanly speaking, are very low.” Deep questions about where, as a monk, he ought to be was not a topic that Merton touched on with many of his correspondents. It’s clear that he saw in Dorothy someone capable of helping him discern God’s will.

There is not time in a single lecture to look letter by letter at the complex exchange between them between 1956 and 1968, but I would like to read some extracts and briefly comment on several of the major themes.

One of these themes was perseverance. “My constant prayer,” Dorothy confided to Merton just before Christmas in 1959, “is for final perseverance — to go on as I am trusting always the Lord Himself will take me by the hair of the head like [the prophet] Habakkuk and set me where he wants me.”

Anyone who has ever been part of any intentional community will recall how stressful it can be even when there are no dark clouds, but when it is a community that opens its doors day and night to people in urgent need, people who would not often be on anyone’s guest list, and when it is a community with very strong-willed, sometimes ideologically-driven volunteers, it can at times be like life in a hurricane. In one letter to Merton, Dorothy speaks in detail about the bitterness animating some of the criticisms directed at her by co-workers. She senses the motivation of some of those who come to help at the Catholic Worker is less love than a “spirit of rebellion.” [DD to TM, October 10, 1960] Many who knew her and were aware of the emotional and physical strains of Catholic Worker life — long-time co-workers such as Joe Zarrella — were astonished that Dorothy persevered from the founding of the Catholic Worker in 1933 until her death in 1980 — forty-seven years as part of a community of hospitality.

In his response, Merton noted that his awareness that “more and more one sees that [perseverance] is the great thing,” but he also points out that perseverance is much more than “hanging on to some course which we have set our minds to, and refusing to let go.” It can sometimes mean “not hanging on but letting go. That of course is terrible. But as you say so rightly, it is a question of [God] hanging on to us, by the hair of the head, that is from on top and beyond, where we cannot see or reach.”

This was a matter of acute importance to Merton personally, a monk with itchy feet who repeatedly was attracted to greener monastic pastures. Dorothy was all for Merton staying put. In a later letter, Dorothy remarks, “I have a few friends who are always worrying about your leaving the monastery but from the letters of yours that I read I am sure you will hold fast. I myself pray for final perseverance most fervently having seen one holy old priest suddenly elope with a parishioner. I feel that anything can happen to anybody at any time.” [DD to TM, March 17, 1963]

Both Merton and Dorothy remain remarkable models, not just for persevering — barnacles can do that — but for continually putting down deeper roots while rediscovering a sense of its being God’s will not to uproot themselves.

In one letter Merton reflects on the levels of poverty that he sees the Catholic Worker responding to. “O Dorothy,” he writes, “I think of you, and the beat people, the ones with nothing, and the poor in virtue, the very poor, the ones no one can respect. I am not worthy to say I love all of you. Intercede for me, a stuffed shirt in a place of stuffed shirts…” [TM to DD, February 4, 1960] Merton goes further with this topic in his next letter to Dorothy. “I was in Louisville at the Little Sisters of the Poor yesterday, and realized that it is in these beautiful, beat, wrecked, almost helpless old people that Christ lives and works most. And in the hurt people who are bitter and say they have lost their faith. We (society at large) have lost our sense of values and our vision. We despise everything that Christ loves, everything marked by His compassion. We love fatness health bursting smiles the radiance of satisfied bodies all properly fed and rested and sated and washed and perfumed and sexually relieved. Everything else is a scandal and a horror to us.” [TM to DD, August 17, 1960]

I can easily imagine Merton in the act of writing letters like this, some of them with an “on the road” abandon. At Merton’s invitation, I made my first visit to the abbey early in 1962, hitchhiking from the Catholic Worker in Manhattan to Gethsemani. Sitting one day in the small office Merton had next to the classroom where he gave lectures to the novices, I watched while he banged out a response to a letter I had brought him from a friend at the Catholic Worker. I have rarely if ever seen paper fly through a typewriter at such speed. When you read Merton’s letters, you have to keep in mind that he was used to making the best use possible of relatively small islands in time. If you wanted deep silence at Gethsemani, a place to avoid was the area of the monastery where Merton might be working on that large gray office typewriter that is now on display at the Merton Center.

In the Merton-Day correspondence, a theme that was occasionally mentioned, more in passing than at length, was their mutual debt to Russian literature and Orthodox Christianity. They shared their high regard for Boris Pasternak and Dostoevsky, with Dorothy mentioning that the novels of Dostoevsky are “spiritual reading for me.” [DD to TM, June 4, 1960] Merton responded by mentioning that Staretz Zosima, a saintly figure in The Brothers Karamazov, “always makes me weep.” [TM to DD, August 17, 1960] So significant was Dostoevsky’s influence on Dorothy’s basic vision of Christianity that I sometimes wonder whether Dostoevsky ought not to be listed among the co-founders of the Catholic Worker.

The fact that they both were writers may have been what drew Merton to confess to Dorothy his skepticism about the value of his own writing. “There has been some good and much bad.” He fears that his books too easily “become part of a general system of delusion,” a system that ultimately feels it is practically a religious duty to have and, if necessary, to use nuclear weapons. In the sentences that follow, Merton says that he finds himself “more and more drifting toward the derided and probably quite absurdist and defeatist position of a sort of Christian anarchist. This of course would be foolish, if I followed it to the end… But perhaps the most foolish would be to renounce all consideration of any alternative to the status quo, the giant machine.” [TM to DD, July 23, 1961]

This letter is, so far as I am aware, one of only two places in his vast body of writings in which Merton refers to anarchism. With Dorothy, it was a connecting word — for her, it meant someone like herself whose obedience was not to rulers, states, or any secular system, but to Christ. The other place is in an essay on the Desert Fathers, the fourth-century ascetics who created the monastic vocation, living in places that people generally avoided. Here Merton sees the Desert Fathers as being “in a certain sense ‘anarchists’ … They were men who did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state, and who believed that there was a way of getting along without slavish dependence on accepted, conventional values.” [introduction to The Wisdom of the Desert]

If Merton sometimes expressed to Dorothy his frustrations about his writing, wondering what good his words did, Dorothy was a source of deep gratitude for all that he published or privately circulated. In one letter she mentioned the spontaneous comment of a struggling young woman staying at the Catholic Worker who had borrowed The Thomas Merton Reader, a paperback anthology that Dorothy kept on her desk, and said in Dorothy’s hearing, “Thank God for Thomas Merton.” In a 1965 letter Dorothy said much the same: “You will never know the people you have reached, the good you have done. You certainly have used the graces and the talents God has given you.” [DD to TM, June 24, 1965]

They weren’t always in agreement. In one letter Dorothy takes note of how often Merton uses the word “beat” in his letters. For him it was a very positive word, suggesting his sense of connection with “the beat generation,” as it was called — people who had moved toward the edge of society, felt alienated from the mainstream, people who didn’t want to have “careers.” They were, Merton said, people “challenging the culture of death.” Probably he was aware that Allen Ginsberg, leading bard of the beats, had read some of his poetry at the Catholic Worker. In the sixties, Merton had some correspondence with the beat novelist, Jack Kerouac. Kerouac had coined the phrase “beat generation.” Catholic that he was, for Kerouac the word “beat” was probably clipped out of the word “beatific,” as in “beatific vision,” a very Catholic phrase.

But for Dorothy “beat” was not a connecting word. She felt Merton was seeing the beats through too rosy a lens. In one letter she described how unbeat several long-term members of the Catholic Worker staff were. There had only been a few people Dorothy regarded as beat-types at the Catholic Worker, she continued, and her blood pressure shot up when she thought of them. She described them as “a fly-by-night crew who despised and ignored the poor around us and scandalized them by their dress and morals. I am afraid I am uncharitable about the intellectual who shoulders his way in to eat before the men on the line who have done the hard work of the world, and who moves in on the few men in one of the apartments and tries to edge them out with their beer parties and women. They can sleep on park benches as far as I am concerned. Unfortunately we are left with the women who are pregnant for whom I beg your prayers. … As far as I am concerned, I must look on these things as a woman, and therefore much concerned with the flesh and with what goes to sustain it. Sin is sin [but] the sentimental make a mystique of it…” For all their common ground even with Merton, Dorothy could be testy. [DD to TM, June 4, 1962]

The danger of nuclear war, and the vast destruction of cities and life, was a major concern for Merton as it was for Dorothy. Much of his writing on war and peace was published in The Catholic Worker, starting in October 1961 with his essay, “The Root of War is Fear,” an expanded version of a chapter for New Seeds of Contemplation. This was not a case of worrying where no worrying was needed. A third world war fought with nuclear weapons seemed not just a possibility but, for a great many well-informed people, a probability. Open-air nuclear tests by the United States and the Soviet Union were frequent. Planning for nuclear war was built into military practice. In 1961, while I was working with a Navy unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau just outside Washington, one of our regular exercises was to plot fallout patterns over a three-day period if a nuclear explosion were to occur over the nation’s capital that day. For Merton is was clear that Catholics would be no more hesitant that other Americans to play their part in initiating a nuclear war with the Soviet Union and regard themselves as doing God’s work. It was a grim topic — Christians crediting God with willing a storm of killing that would make every other war in history look like a water-pistol fight. There is a letter in which Dorothy consoles Merton with the reminder that Dame Julian of Norwich, a medieval mystic whom they both revered, had written that “the worst has already happened and been repaired. Nothing worse can ever befall us.” [DD to TM, August 15, 1961]

Not all Trappists were pleased with Merton writing on such topics and doing so in the pages of The Catholic Worker. Everything Merton wrote had to pass his order’s censors, some of whom thought the war issue was inappropriate. There is a document in the archive of the Merton Center that may give you a sense of those times. Here we have an unnamed American Trappist monk writing to the order’s Abbot General in Rome, Dom Gabriel Sortais, warning him of the scandal being caused by Merton’s anti-war writings. Let me read a few extracts:

“There is one further matter, Reverend Father, which I hesitate to speak of but which I feel I should. We have, in the United States, a weekly paper [in fact monthly] called ‘The Catholic Worker.’ This is a very radical paper, which some Americans believe is a tool of the Communists. Fr. Louis (under the name Thomas Merton) has been writing for it frequently…. The name ‘Thomas Merton’ is almost synonymous in America with ‘Trappist.’ Thus quite a number of people believe that he is expressing the Trappist outlook…”

Later in the letter, the writer reports that a military intelligence officer had visited his monastery and had spoken with him “concerning Father Louis.” He concludes his letter by acknowledging that many have benefitted from Merton’s “spiritual works,” but “it is difficult to understand how he can express himself so strongly on questions as to whether the United States should test nuclear weapons and also the wisdom of building fallout shelters. It is hard to see how — as an enclosed religious — he has access to enough facts to pass a prudent judgement on such matters.” It is unlikely that this was the only such letter sent to the Abbot General.

During my first visit with Merton early in 1962, I recall a bizarre incident that occurred when Merton and I were walking down a corridor that connected the guest house kitchen to the basement of the main monastery building. Standing next to a garbage container was an older monk, Father Raymond Flanagan, who was not so much reading as glaring at the latest issue of The Catholic Worker, which included an article of Merton on the urgency of taking steps to prevent nuclear war. Father Raymond looked up, saw us coming his way, balled the paper up in his fist, hurled it into the garbage container, turned his back and strode away without a word, leaving a trail of smoke. Merton’s response was laughter. He told me that Father Raymond had never had a high opinion of his writings and often denounced him at the community’s chapter meetings. “In the early days Father Raymond said I was too detached from the world,” Merton said, “and now he thinks I’m not detached enough.” The tension between Merton and Father Raymond never abated. In March 1968, just ten months before Merton’s death, Merton recorded in his journal a furious verbal assault by Father Raymond, who was enraged with Merton’s opposition to the war in Vietnam. [The Other Side of the Mountain, entry of March 7, 1968, p 62]

Dorothy was one of the people to whom Merton could complain about the increasing problems he was having with censorship. The issue wasn’t that he was being charged with writing anything at odds with Catholic doctrine, but the feeling, in Merton’s words, that “a Trappist should not know about these things, or should not write about them.” He found the situation exhausting and demoralizing. “Obedience,” he wrote Dorothy, “is a most essential thing in any Christian and above all in a monk, but I sometimes wonder if, being in a situation where obedience would completely silence a person on some important moral issue … a crucial issue like nuclear war … if it were not God’s will … to change my situation.”

In the spring of 1962, Merton received an order from Dom Gabriel Sortais not to publish any more writings on war and peace. As a consequence, a book Merton has just finished writing, Peace in the Post-Christian Era, was published only a few years ago, more than four decades after it was written. Merton found the gagging order not only outrageous but at odds with the prophetic mission of the monastic vocation.

If you ever want to read a letter hot enough to roast a turkey, I recommend one he sent me at the end of April in 1962. Here’s a very brief extract: “[The Abbot General’s decision] reflects an astounding incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious aspect. It reflects an insensitivity to Christian and Ecclesiastical values, and to the real sense of the monastic vocation. The reason given is that this is not the right kind of work for a monk and that it ‘falsifies the monastic message.’ Imagine that: the thought that a monk might be deeply enough concerned with the issue of nuclear war to voice a protest against the arms race, is supposed to bring the monastic life into disrepute. Man, I would think that it might just possibly salvage a last shred of repute for an institution that many consider to be dead on its feet… That is really the most absurd aspect of the whole situation, that these people insist on digging their own grave and erecting over it the most monumental kind of tombstone.” [TM to Jim Forest, April 29, 1962]

Yet Merton obeyed. Explaining his decision to do so in the same letter, he stresses that “blowing off steam” is not what’s important. The real question is what response was most likely to bring about a change of heart among those — monks and others — who were threatened by Merton’s thoughts regarding war. “Disobedience or a public denunciation,” he said, would be seen by his fellow monks “as an excuse for dismissing a minority viewpoint and be regarded by those outside [the church] as fresh proof that the church had no love for private conscience.” Very soberly, he asked the crucial question: “Whose mind would be changed?” In his particular case, Merton concluded, public protest and disobedience “would backfire and be fruitless. It would be taken as a witness against the peace movement and would confirm these people in all the depth of their prejudices and their self complacency.”

Yet in fact Merton wasn’t quite silenced. He continued to write for The Catholic Worker but under such pseudonyms as Benedict Monk. His remained a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, often giving its staff extremely helpful guidance. His abbot, Dom James Fox, decided that what the Abbot General had banned was publication of mass market editions of Merton’s peace writings. With his abbot’s collaboration, Merton was able to bring out several mimeographed editions of Peace in the Post-Christian Era and another called Cold War Letters and many shorter papers. Via Dorothy Day, the staff of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, plus a number of other friends, these were widely distributed, including to various people in the White House as well as to bishops and theologians taking part in the Second Vatican Council. Ironically, in the end Merton’s peace writings were given a much more attentive reading by many more people than would have been the case with a commercial edition. It has often been observed that nothing makes a reader so interested in a book as its being banned.

Being a lay-edited and lay-published journal, Dorothy didn’t have to work within the censorship labyrinth that Merton did, but her views about obedience were the same as Merton’s. Again and again, in similar circumstances, Dorothy quoted from the Gospel: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” [John 12:24]

Not all enemies are across national borders. Sometimes your enemies are people who, in principle, are your friends and neighbors, even your brothers and sisters in religious life. Christ taught his followers to love their enemies and in his own life demonstrated such love. Christians in the early Church gave a similar witness, even at the cost of their lives. But in Christianity today, too often what is most striking is zealous hatred of enemies, in fact not only enemies but anyone who is seen as too different or too inconvenient. For Dorothy and Merton, the refusal to hate anyone was basic Christianity. It’s not surprising to find one of Merton’s finest meditations on enmity in one of his longer letters to Dorothy. Listen to this:

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

Here one sees in high relief what was at the root of Christian life for both Dorothy and Merton and shaped their friendship. We know each other only by love. What is most unique about Christianity is its special emphasis on the vocation to love — a love whose only real test is the love of opponents and even the love of enemies. This is not sentimental love, and certainly not romantic love, but love in the sense of recognizing our family ties with each and every human being and doing whatever is in our power to protect each life, hoping that in the process both we and those whom we regard as enemies may experience a change of heart. No one has ever been threatened or bludgeoned or terrified or bribed into conversion. Such a deep change of heart is something only love can obtain. Without love, we are inhabitants of hell long before we die. With love, we already have a foretaste of heaven. One of Dorothy’s most often-repeated quotations summarizes this basic truth. It is a sentence that comes from one of her favorite saints, Catherine of Siena. “All the way to heaven is heaven,” she said, “because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’”

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Jim Forest is the author of All is Grace: a Biography of Dorothy Day ( http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2006/03/24/all-is-grace/ ) and Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton ( http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2006/03/07/living-with-wisdom/ ).

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